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Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

A Time of Endings, Part 4: Magnetic Scrolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Bishop

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

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

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

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

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

One of Wonderland‘s animations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 
 

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A Time of Endings, Part 2: Epyx

On a beautiful May day in 1987, Epyx held a party behind their offices to celebrate the completion of California Games, the fifth and latest in their hugely popular Games line of sports titles. To whatever extent their skills allowed, employees and their families tried to imitate the athletes portrayed in the new game, riding skateboards, throwing Frisbees, or kicking around a Hacky Sack. Meanwhile a professional BMX freestyler and a professional skateboarder did tricks to show them how it was really done. The partiers dressed in the most outrageous beachwear they could muster — typically for this hyper-competitive company, their outfits were judged for prizes — while the sound of the Beach Boys and the smell of grilling hamburgers and hotdogs filled the air. Folks from the other offices around Epyx’s came out to look on a little wistfully, doubtless wishing their company was as fun as this one. A good time was had by all, a memory made of one of those special golden days which come along from time to time to be carried along with us for the rest of our lives.

Although no one realized it at the time, that day marked the high-water point of Epyx. By 1990, their story would for all practical purposes be over, the company having gone from a leading light of its industry to a bankrupt shell at the speed of business.

In the spring of 1987, Epyx was the American games industry’s great survivor, the oldest company still standing this side of Atari and the one which had gone through the most changes over its long — by the standards of a very young industry, that is — lifespan. Epyx had been founded by John Connelly and Jon Freeman, a couple of tabletop role-players and wargaming grognards interested in computerizing their hobbies, way back in 1978 under the considerably less exciting name of Automated Simulations. They hit paydirt the following year with Temple of Apshai, the most popular CRPG of the genre’s primordial period. Automated Simulations did well for a while on the back of that game and a bevy of spinoffs and sequels created using the same engine, but after the arrival of the more advanced Wizardry and Ultima their cruder games found it difficult to compete. In 1983, a major management shakeup came to the moribund company at the behest of a consortium of investors, who put in charge the hard-driving Michael Katz, a veteran of the cutthroat business of toys. Katz acquired a company called Starpath, populated by young and highly skilled assembly-language programmers, to complete the transformation of the stodgy Automated Simulations into the commercially aggressive Epyx. In 1984, with the release of the huge hits Summer Games and Impossible Mission, the company’s new identity as purveyors of slick action-based entertainments for the Commodore 64, the most popular gaming platform of the time, was cemented. One Gilbert Freeman (no relation to Jon Freeman) replaced Katz as Epyx’s president and CEO shortly thereafter, but the successful template his predecessor had established remained unchanged right through 1987.

By 1987, however, Freeman was beginning to view his company’s future with some trepidation despite the commercial success they were still enjoying. The new California Games, destined for yet more commercial success though it was, was ironically emblematic of the long-term problems with Epyx’s current business model. California Games pushed the five-year-old Commodore 64’s audiovisual hardware farther than had any previous Epyx game — which is to say, given Epyx’s reputation as the absolute masters of Commodore 64 graphics and sound, farther than virtually any other game ever released for the platform, period. This was of course wonderful in terms of this particular game’s commercial prospects, but it carried with it the implicit question of what Epyx could do next, for even their most technically creative programmers were increasingly of the opinion that they were reaching an end point where they had used every possible trick and simply couldn’t find any new ways to dazzle. For a company so dependent on audiovisual dazzle as Epyx, this was a potentially deadly endgame.

Very much in tandem with the question of how much longer it would be possible to continue pushing the audiovisual envelope on the Commodore 64 ran concerns about the longevity of the platform in general. Jack Tramiel’s little computer for the masses had sold more and longer than anyone could ever have predicted, but the ride couldn’t go on forever. While Epyx released their games for other platforms as well, they remained as closely identified with the Commodore 64 as, say, Cinemaware was with the Commodore Amiga, with the 64 accounting for well over half of their sales most quarters. When that market finally took the dive many had been predicting for it for years now, where would that leave Epyx?

Dave Morse

It was for these big-picture reasons that Freeman brought a man with a reputation for big-picture vision onto Epyx’s board in January of 1987. All but unknown though he was to the general public, among those working in the field of home computers Dave Morse had the reputation of a veritable miracle worker. Just a few years before, he had found ways to let the brilliant engineering team at Amiga, Incorporated, create a computer as revolutionary in its way as the Apple Macintosh on a budget that would barely have paid Steve Jobs’s annual salary. And then, in a coup worthy of The Sting, he’d proceeded to fleece Atari of the prize and sail the ship of Amiga into the (comparatively) safe harbor of Commodore Business Machines. If, as Freeman was starting to suspect, it was going to become necessary to completely remake and remodel Epyx for a second time in the near future, Morse ought to be a darn good man to have on his team.

And indeed, Morse didn’t fail to impress at his first Epyx board meetings. In fact, he impressed so much that Freeman soon decided to cede much of his own power to him. He brought Morse on full-time as CEO to help run the company as an equal partner in May of 1987, the very month of the California Games cookout. But California Games on the Commodore 64 was the present, likely all too soon to be the past. For Freeman, Morse represented Epyx’s future.

Morse had a vision for that future that was as audacious as Freeman could possibly have wished. In the months before coming to Epyx, he had been talking a lot with RJ Mical and Dave Needle, two of his star engineers from Amiga, Incorporated, in the fields of software and hardware respectively. Specifically, they’d been discussing the prospects for a handheld videogame console. Handheld videogames of a sort had enjoyed a brief bloom of popularity in the very early 1980s, at the height of the first great videogame boom when anything that beeped or squawked was en vogue with the country’s youth. Those gadgets, however, had been single-purpose devices capable of playing only one game — and, because it was difficult to pack much oomph into such a small form factor, said game usually wasn’t all that compelling anyway. But chip design and fabrication had come a long way in the past five years or so. Mical and Needle believed that the time was ripe for a handheld device that would be a gaming platform in its own right, capable of playing many titles published on cartridges, just like the living-room-based consoles that had boomed and then busted so spectacularly in 1983. For that reason alone, Morse faced an uphill climb with the venture capitalists; this was still the pre-Nintendo era when the conventional wisdom held videogame consoles to be dead. Yet when he joined the Epyx board he found a very sympathetic ear for his scheme in none other than Epyx President Gilbert Freeman.

In fact, Freeman was so excited by the idea that he was willing to bet the company on it; thus Morse’s elevation to CEO. The plan was to continue to sell traditional computer games while Mical and Needle, both of whom Morse hired immediately after his own appointment, got down to the business of making what everybody hoped would be their second revolutionary machine of the decade. It would all happen in secret, while Morse dropped only the vaguest public hints that “it is important to be able to think in new directions.” This was by any measure a very new direction for Epyx. Unlike most game publishers, they weren’t totally inexperienced making hardware: a line of high-end joysticks, advertised as the perfect complement to their games, had done well for them. Still, it was a long way from making joysticks to making an entirely new game console in such a radically new form factor. They would have to lean very heavily on Morse’s two star engineers, who couldn’t help but notice a certain ironic convergence about their latest situation: Amiga, Incorporated, had also sold joysticks among other gaming peripherals in an effort to fund the development of the Amiga computer.

R.J. Mical and Dave Needle in a very… disturbing picture. Really, perhaps it’s best if we don’t know any more about what’s going on here.

RJ Mical and Dave Needle were a pair of willfully eccentric peas in a pod; one journalist called them the Laurel and Hardy of Silicon Valley. While they had worked together at Amiga for quite some time by June of 1984, the two dated the real genesis of their bond to that relatively late date. When Amiga was showing their Lorraine prototype that month at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, they found themselves working together really closely for the first time, doing some jerry-rigging to get everything working for the demonstrations. They discovered that they understood each other in a way that “software guys” and “hardware guys” usually do not. “He was the first software guy I ever met,” remembered Needle in a joint 1989 interview, “who had more than an inkling of the real purpose of my work, which is building hardware platforms that you can launch software from.” “I could never get hardware guys to understand what I was doing,” interrupted Mical at this point in the same interview. “Dave couldn’t get software guys to understand what the guts could handle. We found ourselves a great match.” From that point forward, they were inseparable, as noted for their practical jokes and wacky antics as for their engineering brilliance. It was a true meeting of the minds, the funny bones, and, one might even say, the hearts. As illustrated by the exchange I’ve just quoted, they became the kind of friends who freely complete each other’s thoughts without pissing each other off.

The design they sketched for what they liked to call the “Potato” — for that was envisioned as its rough size and shape — bore much the same philosophical stamp as their work with Amiga. To keep the size and power consumption down, the Potato was to be built around the aged old 8-bit 6502, the chip at the heart of the Commodore 64, rather than a newer CPU like the Amiga’s 68000. But, as in the Amiga, the chip at the Potato’s core was surrounded with custom hardware designed to alleviate as much of the processing burden as possible, including a blitter for fast animation and a four-channel sound chip that came complete with digital-to-analog converters for playing back sampled sounds and voices. (In the old Amiga tradition, the two custom chips were given the names “Suzy” and “Mikey.”) The 3.5-inch LCD display, with a palette of 4096 colors (the same as the Amiga) and a resolution of 160 X 102, was the most technologically cutting-edge and thus for many months the most problematic feature of the design; Epyx would wind up buying the technology to make it from the Japanese watchmaker Citizen, who had created it as the basis for a handheld television but had yet to use it in one of their own products. Still, perhaps the Potato’s most innovative and impressive feature of all was the port that let you link it up with your mates’ machines for multiplayer gaming. (Another visionary proposed feature was an accelerometer that would have let you play games by tilting the entire unit rather than manipulating the controls, but it would ultimately prove just too costly to include. Ditto a port to let you connect the Potato to your television.)

While few would question the raw talent of Mical and Needle and the small team they assembled to help them make the Potato, this sort of high-wire engineering is always expensive. Freeman and Morse estimated that they would need about two years and $4 million to bring the Potato from a sketch to a finished product ready to market in consumer-electronics stores. Investing this much in the project, it seemed to Freeman and Morse, should be manageable based on Epyx’s current revenue stream, and should be a very wise investment at that. Licking their chops over the anticipated worldwide mobile-gaming domination to come, they publicly declared that Epyx, whose total sales had amounted to $27 million in 1987, would be a $100 million company by 1990.

At first, everything went according to plan. Upon its release in the early summer of 1987, California Games became the hit everyone had been so confidently anticipating. Indeed, it sold more than 300,000 copies in its first nine months and then just kept on selling, becoming Epyx’s biggest hit ever. But after that nothing else ever went quite right for Epyx’s core business. Few inside or outside of the company could have guessed that California Games, Epyx’s biggest hit, would also mark the end of the company’s golden age.

From the time of their name change and associated remaking up through California Games, Epyx had been almost uniquely in touch with the teenage boys who bought the vast majority of Commodore 64 games. “We don’t simply invent games that we like and hope for the best,” said Morse, parroting Epyx’s official company line shortly after his arrival there. “Instead, we pay attention to current trends that are of interest to teenagers. It’s similar to consumer research carried out by other companies, except we’re aiming for a very specific group.” After California Games, though — in fact, even as Morse was making this statement — Epyx lost the plot of what had made the Games line so successful. Like an aging rock star grown fat and complacent, they decided to join the Establishment.

When they had come up with the idea of making Summer Games to capitalize on the 1984 Summer Olympics, Epyx had been in no position to pay for an official Olympic license, even had Atari not already scooped that up. Instead they winged it, producing what amounted to an Olympics with the serial numbers filed away. Summer Games had all the trappings — opening and closing ceremonies; torches; national anthems; medals of gold, silver, and bronze — alongside the Olympic events themselves. What very few players likely noticed, though, was that it had all these things without ever actually using the word “Olympics” or the famous (and zealously guarded) five-ring Olympic logo.

Far from being a detriment, the lack of an official license had a freeing effect on Epyx. Whilst hewing to the basic templates of the sports in question, they produced more rough-and-ready versions of same — more the way the teenage boys who dominated among their customers would have liked the events to be than the somewhat more staid Olympic realities. Even that original Summer Games, which looked itself a little staid and graphically crude in contrast to what would follow, found room for flashes of wit and whimsy. Players soon learned to delight in an athlete — hopefully not the one they were controlling — landing on her head after a gymnastics vault, or falling backward and cracking up spectacularly instead of clearing the pole vault. Atari, who had the official Olympic license, produced more respectful — read, boring — implementations of the Olympics that didn’t sell particularly well, while Summer Games blew up huge.

Seeing how postively their players responded to this sort of thing, Epyx pushed ever further into the realm of the fanciful in their later Games iterations. World Games and California Games, the fourth and fifth title in the line respectively, abandoned the Olympics conceit entirely in favor of gathering up a bunch of weird and wild sports that the designers just thought would be fun to try on a computer. In a final act of Olympics sacrilege, California Games even dropped the national anthems in favor of having you play for the likes of Ocean Pacific or Kawasaki. As California Games so amply demonstrated, the Games series as a whole had never had as much to do with the Olympics or even sports in general as it did with contemporary teenage culture.

But now Epyx saw another Olympics year fast approaching (during this period, the Winter and Summer Olympics were still held during the same year rather than being staggered two years apart as they are today) and decided to come full circle and then some, to make a pair of Games games shrouded in the legitimacy that the original Summer Games had lacked. Epyx, in other words, would become the 1988 Olympics’s version of Atari. In October of 1987, they signed a final contract of over 40 pages with the United States Olympic Committee (if ever a gold medal were to be awarded in legalese and bureaucratic nitpicking, the Olympic Games themselves would have to be prime contenders). Not only would Epyx have to pay a 10 percent royalty to the Olympic Committee for every copy of The Games: Winter Edition and The Games: Summer Edition that they sold, but the same Committee would have veto rights over every aspect of the finished product. Giving such authority to such a famously non-whimsical body inevitably spelled the death of the series’s heretofore trademark sense of whimsy. While working on the luge event a developer came up with the idea of sending the luger hurling out of the trough and into outer space after a major crash. The old Epyx would have been all over it with gusto. But no, said the stubbornly humorless Committee in their usual literal-minded fashion, lugers don’t ever exit the trough when they crash, they only spill over inside it, and that’s how the computer game has to be as well.

When The Games: Winter Edition appeared right on schedule along with the Winter Olympics themselves in February of 1988, it did very well out of the gate, just like any other Games game. Yet in time the word spread through the adolescent grapevine that this latest Games just wasn’t as much fun as the older ones. In addition to the stifling effect of the Olympic Committee’s bureaucracy, its development had been rushed; because of the need to release the Winter Edition to coincide with the real Winter Olympics, it had had to go from nothing to boxed finished product in just five months. The Summer Edition, which appeared later in the year to coincide with the Summer Olympics, was in some ways a better outing, what with Epyx having had a bit more time to work on it. But something was still missing. California Games, a title Epyx’s core teenage demographic loved for all the reasons they didn’t love the two stodgy new officially licensed Games, easily outsold both of them despite being in its second year on the market. That was, of course, good in its way. But would the same buyers turn out to buy the next big Games title in the wake of the betrayal so many of them had come to see the two most recent efforts to represent? It wasn’t clear that they would.

The disappointing reception of these latest Games, then, was a big cause of concern for Epyx as 1988 wore on. Their other major cause for worry was more generalized, more typical of their industry as a whole. As we’ve seen in an earlier article, 1988 was the year that the Nintendo Entertainment System went from being a gathering storm on the horizon to a full-blown cyclone sweeping across the American gaming landscape. Epyx was hardly alone among publishers in feeling the Nintendo’s effect, but they were all too well positioned to get the absolute worst of it. While they had, generally with mixed results, made occasional forays into other genres, the bulk of their sales since the name change had always come from their action-oriented games for the Commodore 64 — the industry’s low-end platform, one whose demographics skewed even younger than the norm. The sorts of teenage and pre-teen boys who had once played on the Commodore 64 were exactly the ones who now flocked to the Nintendo in droves. The Christmas of 1988 marked the tipping point; it was at this point that the Nintendo essentially destroyed the Commodore 64 as a viable platform. “Games can be done better on the 64 than on a Nintendo,” insisted Morse, but fewer and fewer people were buying his argument. By this point, many American publishers and developers had begun to come to Nintendo, hat in hand, asking for permission to publish on the platform, but this Epyx refused to do, being determined to hold out for their own handheld console.

It’s not as if the Commodore 64’s collapse entirely sneaked up on Epyx. As I noted earlier, Gilbert Freeman had been aware it might be in the offing even before he had hired Dave Morse as CEO. Over the course of 1987 and 1988, Epyx had set up a bulwark of sorts on the higher-end platforms with a so-called “Masters Collection” of more high-toned and cerebral titles, similar to the ones that were continuing to sell quite well for some other publishers despite the Nintendo onslaught. (The line included a submarine simulator, an elaborate CRPG, etc.) They also started a line of personal-creativity software similar to Electronic Arts’s “Deluxe” line, and began importing ever more European action games to sell as budget titles to low-end customers. All told, their total revenues for 1988 actually increased robustly over that of the year before, from $27 million to $36 million. Yet such figures can be deceiving. Because this total was generated from many more products, with all the extra expenses that implied, the ultimate arbiter of net profits on computer software plunged instead of rising commensurately. Other ventures were truly misguided by any standard. Like a number of other publishers, Epyx launched forays into the interactive VCR-based systems that were briefly all the rage as substitutes for Phillips’s long-promised but still undelivered CD-I system. They might as well have just set fire to that money. The Epyx of earlier years had had a recognizable identity, which the Epyx of 1988 had somehow lost. There was no thematic glue binding their latest products together.

R.J. Mical with a work-in-progress version of the Handy.

Meanwhile Epyx was investing hugely in games for the Potato — investing just about as much money in Potato software, in fact, as they were pouring into the hardware. Accounts of just how much the Potato’s development ended up costing Epyx vary, ranging from $4 million to $8 million and up. I suspect that, when viewed in terms of both hardware and software development, the figure quite likely skews into the double digits.

Whatever the exact numbers, as the curtain came up on 1989 Dave Morse, RJ Mical, and Dave Needle found themselves in a position all too familiar from the old days with Amiga, Incorporated. They had another nascent revolution in silicon in the form of the Potato, which had reached the prototype stage and was to be publicly known as the Epyx Handy. Yet their company’s finances were hopelessly askew. If the Handy was to become an actual product, it looked like Morse would need to pull off another miracle.

So, he did what he had done for the Amiga Lorraine. In a tiny private auditorium behind Epyx’s public booth at the January 1989 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, the inventors of the Handy showed it off to a select group of representatives from other companies, all of whom were required to sign a strict non-disclosure agreement before seeing what was still officially a top-secret project, even though rumors of the Handy’s existence had been spreading like wildfire for months now. The objective was to find a partner to help manufacture and market the Handy — or, perhaps better, a buyer for the entire troubled company. Nintendo had a look, but passed; they had a handheld console of their own in the works which would emerge later in the year as the Nintendo Game Boy. Sega also passed. In fact, just about everyone passed, as they had on the Amiga Lorraine, until Morse was left with just one suitor. And, incredibly, it was the very same suitor as last time: Atari. Déjà vu all over again.

On the positive side, this Atari was a very different company from the 800-pound gorilla that had tried to seize the Lorraine and carve it up into its component parts five years before. On the negative, this Atari was run by Jack Tramiel, Mr. “Business is War” himself, the man who had tied up Commodore in court for years after Atari’s would-be acquisition of the Amiga Lorraine had become Commodore’s. From Tramiel’s perspective, getting a stake in a potential winner like the Handy made a lot of sense; his Atari really didn’t have that much going for it at all at that point beyond a fairly robust market for their ST line in Europe and an ongoing trickle of nostalgia-fueled sales of their vintage game consoles in North America. Atari had missed out almost entirely on the great second wave of videogame consoles, losing the market they had once owned to Nintendo and Sega. If mobile gaming was destined to be the next big thing, this was the perfect way to get into that space without having to invest money Atari didn’t have into research and development.

For his part, Morse certainly knew even as he pulled the trigger on the deal that he was getting into bed with the most devious man in consumer electronics, but he didn’t see that he had much choice. He could only shoot from the hip, as he had five years before, and hope it would all work out in the end. The deal he struck from a position of extreme weakness — nobody could smell blood in the water quite like Jack Tramiel — would see the Handy become an Atari product in the eyes of the marketplace. Atari would buy the Handy hardware design from Epyx, put their logo on it, and would take over responsibility for its manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. Epyx would remain the “software partner” only, responsible for delivering an initial suite of launch titles and a steady stream of desirable games thereafter. No one at Epyx was thrilled at the prospect of giving away their baby this way, but, again, the situation was what it was.

At this point in our history, it becomes my sad duty as your historian to acknowledge that I simply don’t know precisely what went down next between Atari and Epyx. The source I’ve been able to find that dates closest to the events in question is the “Roomers” column of the December 1989 issue of the magazine Amazing Computing. According to it, the deal was structured at Tramiel’s demand as a series of ongoing milestone payments from Atari to Epyx as the latter met their obligations to deliver to the former the finished Handy in production-ready form. Epyx, the column claims, was unable to deliver the cable used for linking two Handys together for play in the time frame specified in the contract, whereupon Atari cancelled a desperately needed $2 million payment as well as all the ones that were to follow. The Handy, Atari said, was now theirs thanks to Epyx’s breach of contract; Epyx would just have to wait for the royalties on the Handy games they were still under contract to deliver to get more money out of Atari. In no condition to engage Atari in a protracted legal battle, Epyx felt they had no choice but to concede and continue to play along with the company that had just stolen their proudest achievement from them.

Dave Needle, who admittedly had plenty of axes to grind with Atari, told a slight variation of this tale many years later, saying that the crisis hinged on Epyx’s software rather than hardware efforts. It seems that Epyx had sixty days to fix any bugs that were discovered after the initial delivery of each game to Atari. But, according to Needle, “Atari routinely waited until the end of the time period to comment on the Epyx fixes. There was then inadequate time for Epyx to make the fixes.” Within a few months of inking the deal, Atari used a petty violation like this to withhold payment from Epyx, who, of course, needed that money now. At last, Atari offered them a classic Jack Tramiel ultimatum: accept one more lump-sum payout — Needle didn’t reveal the amount — or die on the vine.

A music programmer who went by the name of “Lx Rudis” is perhaps the closest thing to an unbiased source we can hope to find; he worked for Epyx while the Handy was under development, then accepted a job with Atari, where he says he was “close” with Jack Tramiel’s sons Sam and Leonard, both of whom played important roles within their father’s company. “The terms [of the contract] were quite strict,” he says. “Epyx was unable to meet all points, and Atari was able to withhold a desperately needed milestone payment. In the chaos that ensued, everyone got laid off and I guess Atari’s lawyers and Epyx’s lawyers worked out a ‘compromise’ where Atari got the Handy.”

No smoking gun in the form of any actual paperwork has ever surfaced to my knowledge, leaving us with only anecdotal accounts like these from people who weren’t the ones signing the contracts and making the deals. What we do know is that Epyx by the end of 1989 was bankrupt, while Atari owned the Handy outright — or at least acted as if they did. Although it’s possible that Tramiel was guilty of nothing more than driving a hard bargain, his well-earned reputation as a dirty dealer does make it rather difficult to give him the benefit of too much doubt. Certainly lots of people at Epyx were left feeling very ill-served indeed. Dave Morse had tried to tweak the tiger’s tail a second time, and this time he had gotten mauled. As should have been part of the core curriculum at every business school by this point: don’t sign any deal, ever, with Jack Tramiel.

Dave Morse, RJ Mical and Dave Needle walked away from the whole affair disgusted and disillusioned, having seen their baby kidnapped by the man they had come to regard as Evil incarnated in an ill-fitting pinstriped suit. Their one bitter consolation was that the Handy development system they’d built could run only on an Amiga. Thus Atari would have to buy dozens of specimens of the arch-rival platform for internal use, and suffer the indignity of telling their development licensees that they too would need to buy Amigas to make their games. It wasn’t much, but, hey, at least it was something to hold onto.

The erstwhile Epyx Handy made its public debut at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1989 as the Atari Portable Entertainment System. But when someone pointed out that that name would inevitably get abbreviated to “APES,” Atari moved on from it, finally settling on the name of “Lynx,” a sly reference to the ability to link the machines together via cable for multiplayer action. Thus christened, the handheld console shipped on September 1, 1989. Recent unpleasantness aside, Mical and Needle had good cause to be proud of their work. One far-seeing Atari executive said that the Lynx had the potential to become a revolutionary hit on the level of the Sony Walkman of 1979, the product which largely created the idea of personal portable electronics as we think of them today. Now it was up to Atari to realize that potential.

The Nintendo Game Boy and the Atari Lynx

That part of the equation, alas, didn’t go as well as Atari had hoped. Just one month before the Lynx, Nintendo of America had released the Game Boy, their own handheld console. Purely as a piece of kit, the black-and-white-only Game Boy wasn’t a patch on the Lynx. But then, Nintendo has always thrived by transcending technical specifications, and the Game Boy proved no exception to that rule. Like all of their products, it was laser-targeted to the needs and desires of the burgeoning Generation Nintendo, with a price tag of just $90, battery life long enough to get you through an entire school week of illicit playing under the desk, a size small enough to slip into a coat pocket, and a selection of well-honed launch games designed to maximize its strengths. Best of all, every Game Boy came bundled with a copy of Tetris, an insanely addictive little puzzle game that became a veritable worldwide obsession, the urtext of casual mobile gaming as we’ve come to know it today; many a child’s shiny new Game Boy ended up being monopolized by a Tetris-addled parent.

The Lynx, by contrast, was twice as expensive as the Game Boy, ate its AA batteries at a prodigious rate, was bigger and chunkier than the Game Boy, and offered just three less-than-stellar games to buy beyond the rather brilliant Epyx port of California Games that came included in the box. Weirdly, its overall fit and finish also lagged far behind the cheap but rugged little Game Boy. Atari struggled mightily to find suppliers who could deliver the Lynx’s components on time and on budget with acceptable quality control. According to RJ Mical — again, not the most unbiased of sources — this was largely a case of Jack Tramiel’s chickens coming home to roost. “The new ownership of the Lynx had really bad reputations with hardware manufacturers in Asia and with software developers all over the world,” says Mical. “Suddenly all those sweet deals we’d made for low-cost parts for the Lynx dried up on them. They’d be like, ‘We remember you from five years ago. Guess what — the price just doubled!'” Mical claims that a “magnificent library” of Lynx games, the result of many deals Epyx had made with outside developers, fell by the wayside as soon as the developers in question learned that they’d have to deal from now on with Jack Tramiel instead of Dave Morse.

California Games on the Lynx’s (tiny) screen.

In the face of these disadvantages, the Lynx wasn’t the complete failure one could so easily imagine it becoming. It remained in production for more than five years, over the course of which it sold nearly 3 million units to buyers who wanted a little more from their mobile games than what the Game Boy could offer. By most measures, the Atari Lynx was a fairly successful product. It suffers only by comparison with the Game Boy, which spent an astonishing total of almost fifteen years in production and sold an even more astonishing 118.69 million units, becoming in the process Nintendo’s biggest single success story of all; in the end, Nintendo sold nearly twice as many Game Boys as they did of the original Nintendo Entertainment System that had done such a number on Epyx’s software business. So, a handheld game console did become worthy of mention in the same breath as the Sony Walkman, but it wasn’t the Atari Lynx; it was the Nintendo Game Boy.

Needless to say, Dave Morse’s old plan to make Epyx a $100 million company by 1990 didn’t come to fruition. In addition to all their travails with Atari, the Commodore 64 market, the old heart of their strength, had imploded like a pricked balloon. After peaking at 145 employees in 1988, when work on the Handy as well as games for it was buzzing, frantic layoffs brought Epyx’s total down to less than 20 by the end of 1989, at which point the firm, vowing to soldier on in spite of it all, went through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Just to add insult to the mortal injury Jack Tramiel had done them, they came out of the bankruptcy still under contract to deliver games for the Lynx. Indeed, doing so offered their only realistic hope of survival, slim though it was, and so they told the world they were through developing for computers and turned what meager resources they had left entirely to the Lynx. They wouldn’t even be a publisher in their own right anymore, relying instead on Atari to sell and distribute their games for them. Tramiel had, as the kids say today, thoroughly pwned them.

This zombie version of Epyx shambled on for a disconcertingly long time, plotting always for ways to become relevant to someone again without ever quite managing it. It finally lay down for the last time in 1993, when the remnants of the company were bought up by Bridgestone Media Group, a Christian advocacy organization with ties to one of Epyx’s few remaining employees. By this time, the real “end of the Epyx era,” as Computer Gaming World editor Johnny Wilson put it, had come long ago. In 1993, the name “Epyx” felt as much like an anachronism as the Commodore 64.

What, then, shall we say in closing about Epyx? If Cinemaware, the subject of my last article, was the prototypical Amiga developer, Epyx has a solid claim to the same title in the case of the Commodore 64. As with Cinemaware, manifold and multifarious mistakes were made at Epyx that led directly to the company’s death, mistakes so obvious in hindsight that there seems little point in belaboring them any further here. (Don’t try to design, manufacture, and launch an entirely new gaming platform if you don’t have deep pockets and a rock-solid revenue stream, kids!) They bit off far more than they could chew with the Handy. Combined with their failure to create a coherent identity for themselves in the post-Commodore 64 computer-games industry, it spelled their undoing.

And yet, earnest autopsying aside, when all is said and done it does feel somehow appropriate that Epyx should have for all intents and purposes died along with their favored platform. For a generation of teenage boys, the Epyx years were those between 1984 and 1988, corresponding with the four or five dominant years which the Commodore 64 enjoyed as the most popular gaming platform in North America. It seems safe to say that as long as any of that generation remain on the planet, the name of Epyx will always bring back memories of halcyon summer days of yore spent gathered with mates around the television, joysticks in hand. Summer Games indeed.

(Sources: Questbusters of November 1989; ACE of May 1990; Retro Gamer 18 and 129; Commodore Magazine of July 1988 and August 1989; Small Business Report of February 1988; San Francisco Business Times of July 25 1988; Amazing Computing of June 1988, November 1988, March 1989, April 1989, June 1989, August 1989, November 1989, December 1989, January 1990, and February 1990; Info of November/December 1989; Games Machine of March 1989 and January 1990; Compute!’s Gazette of April 1988; Compute! of November 1987 and September 1988; Computer Gaming World of November 1989, December 1989, and November 1991; Electronic Gaming Monthly of September 1989. Online sources include articles on US Gamer, Now Gamer, Wired, and The Atari Times. My huge thanks to Alex Smith, who shared his take on Epyx’s collapse with me along with some of the sources listed above.)

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A Time of Endings, Part 1: Cinemaware

The computer-game industry, like most young industries, was marked by ebbs and flows. Periodically, new advances in technology, new economic circumstances, and new consumer expectations led to the mass extinction of companies that had once seemed impregnable, even as new companies swept onto the scene to replace them. We’ve already seen one of these periods of transition: the home-computer bust of the mid-1980s that followed the first home-computer boom. Now, just five years later in historical time, we’re about to see another as the 1980s become the 1990s. Under the pressure of Nintendo, the American computer-game industry in particular was redefining itself yet again in terms of platforms, technologies, and modes of play. Inevitably, the disruption brought with it its share of casualties, including among them a number of companies we’ve come to know well in earlier articles. I’ve recently told the story of how the text-adventure specialists Infocom and (in Britain) Level 9 met their end when people largely stopped buying text adventures. Over the course of the next few articles, I’ll be writing about some other endings. Lest that sound horribly depressing, do know that the stories of these failures are not so much stories of companies that did too little as of companies that tried to do too much. For, as Neil Young told us, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”


 

Amidst the litany of mistakes Commodore made with their brilliantly innovative Amiga computer, it’s hard to choose just one as the most deadly to the platform’s long-term future. Certainly, however, their failure to push early and aggressively into CD-ROM must place near the top of any such list. With its 4096-color graphics and its stereo digital sound, the Amiga upon its release in 1985 already offered two-thirds of the equation that would lead to the so-called “multimedia-computing” boom of more than five years later. The only thing it lacked was a storage device capable of holding sufficient quantities of all those colorful graphics and sampled sound. The Amiga relied on 3.5-inch floppy disks that could hold just under 1 MB apiece, a generous number in terms of conventional programs and data but a pittance in terms of multimedia. Thus when Microsoft hosted the CD-ROM’s coming-out party in the form of the first CD-ROM Conference in March of 1986, few people were more excited by the new storage format’s potential than the nascent Amiga user base. “If you are wondering where [CD-ROM] leaves Amiga users,” wrote the Amiga magazine Amazing Computing in just their fourth issue, “it can be said in just three words: ‘in the pink!'” With its 650 MB of storage space, the CD-ROM seemed poised to unleash the Amiga’s true potential.

But, in what was already becoming a pattern, Commodore seemed blissfully unaware of any of it, playing no part in those early industry conferences and revealing no plans to capitalize on the new storage medium. Instead it was left to Microsoft with CD-ROM and Philips with their competing proprietary CD-I technology to be the chief impetus behind optical storage. The earliest CD-ROM products, designed as they were for the audiovisually hidebound IBM clones, filled their discs with huge amounts of text in the form of dictionaries, (text-only) encyclopedias, spelling checkers, thesauri, etc., all of which were important and innovative in their own ways. Yet, as everyone at the early CD-ROM conferences recognized, the really exciting potential of the medium lay in the emerging, as-yet unlabelled realm of multimedia computing that was the Amiga’s specialty. And yet Commodore did nothing. Even when both Apple and Atari released CD-ROM drives for the Amiga’s two most obvious direct competitors, the Macintosh and ST lines, they still did nothing. While Commodore fiddled, an incredible opportunity, born of Philips’s endless delays in getting a CD-based set-top box to market and the fact that no one other than Commodore had a reasonably priced computer with the audiovisual potential to do justice to CD-ROM-fueled multimedia computing, passed them by. When they finally did wake up in the new decade, it would largely be too late; they were now one of many in a market they could have owned.

Of all the Amiga game developers, the one that had the most cause of all to be frustrated by Commodore’s disinterest in CD-ROM was Bob Jacob’s Cinemaware, who throughout their existence would remain both the developer most closely identified with the platform and, not coincidentally, the one that pushed most aggressively to turn their games into true interactive multimedia experiences. Cinemaware’s “interactive movies” made a name for themselves by surrounding their fairly simplistic core game play with animated cut scenes, sampled sounds, and cinematic scores. Unfortunately, the amount and fidelity of all of this that Cinemaware could include was sharply limited by the floppy disks on which they had to distribute their games. With hard drives far from commonplace peripherals on the Amiga, especially in Europe — another situation that was largely thanks to a complete lack of initiative from Commodore — Jacob felt compelled to design his games with a floppy-drive-only Amiga system in mind. In an effort to minimize the disk swapping that could all too quickly get completely out of control with such a setup, he set an upper limit of two disks for each interactive movie. (He would bend from that standard only once, for It Came from the Desert, the 1989 production which was by many measures Cinemaware’s most ambitious completed game ever, and which was therefore allowed to spill onto a third disk.) Even with Cinemaware’s compression technology, with which they tinkered endlessly to try to get a few more pictures or sounds on each disk, only so much content could be fit onto two floppies. And almost worse for Cinemaware than the disks’ limited capacity was the speed, or rather lack thereof, of the Amiga’s floppy drives. The need to constantly shovel all that data in and out of memory from floppy disk played havoc with the sense of cinematic flow which Cinemaware worked so hard to achieve. One spent almost as much time staring at a blank screen as one spent actually playing or watching a Cinemaware game, waiting always for that next sequence to load from the chunka-chunking disk drives.

For these reasons, already by 1988 Jacob was actively looking beyond an Amiga platform that was left stuck in a veritable technological stasis by Commodore’s inaction, looking toward the platforms of the future that would allow his vision of multimedia gaming to truly come to life. It was during that year that a company called the Ideal Group came to his attention with a gadget called the View-Master Interactive Vision.

Interactive Vision was one of many attempts during this period, all of them highly problematic in hindsight, to turn the VCR, which had exploded into ubiquity over the course of the 1980s in exactly the way that the home computer so conspicuously hadn’t, into a device capable of hosting interactive content. Like most such schemes, Ideal’s plan leveraged the so-called “vertical-blank interval.” Sixty times per second, the electron gun which painted the images unspooling from the videotape onto the television screen had to make its way from the bottom right corner of the screen, where each painting cycle wound up, back to the top left to begin painting a new frame. The section of the tape which passed beneath the read head of the VCR during this interval was normally simply dead space. Ideal, however, realized that they could place computer code into these gaps. The Interactive Vision unit itself, a very basic 8-bit computer, was connected between the VCR and the television to read and process this code, which could tell it to overlay simple graphics onto the conventional video unspooling from the videotape, letting the user play videogames superimposed over this video background. It was, in other words, essentially the same concept that lay behind many of the laser-disc-driven standup-arcade games that followed the huge success of Dragon’s Lair.1

The View-Master Interactive Vision system in a nutshell.

For all its similarity to the spawn of Dragon’s Lair, Interactive Vision was extremely limited in comparison to laser-disc-driven applications of the same concept, being bound to the absolute linearity of the videotape format. Recognizing its limitations, Ideal planned to market it as a children’s product, selling for no more than $120, rather than as a game console or a more generalized home-entertainment product like the Philips CD-I. Still, within that space they’d managed to negotiate a bevy of licenses to die for, including Sesame Street, the Muppets, and the classic Disney characters. Bob Jacob and Cinemaware also jumped aboard with enthusiasm when they were approached about making a showpiece game for the system. It was at this point that Jacob hired David Riordan, the former rock musician and current interactive-video pioneer whom we met in an earlier article, in the context of his later work on It Came from the Desert. He also contracted with another old friend of ours: filmmaker, animator, and puzzle-game auteur Cliff Johnson of Fool’s Errand fame.

Riordan, Johnson, and the rest of Cinemaware’s new “Interactive Entertainment Group” were assigned to work on a Disney game which was to be packaged with every Interactive Vision system. After much experimentation, they settled on a thirty-minute videotape featuring ten very simple mini-games, glued together and overlaid onto old Disney cartoon clips. Although its aesthetic goals and its target market could hardly have been more different, the end result wound up resembling nothing so much as Mel Croucher’s earlier Sinclair Spectrum-based multimedia art project Deus Ex Machina in terms of structure: that of a relentlessly unfolding linear program, the interactive elements formed to the constraints of the linear media that grounded them. Cinemaware called their take on the concept Disney’s Cartoon Arcade.

Disney’s Cartoon Arcade in action on the View-Master Interactive Vision system. The player is trying to solve a simple jigsaw puzzle to the right of the screen while cartoon clips play in the background.

Like all of the other efforts along these lines, Interactive Vision flopped, vanishing into the marketplace without a trace. For his part, Dave Riordan judged that “the trouble with the View-Master system was that it was sold as a toy. It got lost on the shelves among the racing cars and the dolls.” Whether that was indeed the problem or whether the system was, as I rather suspect, simply too obviously jerry-rigged a system to have any consumer appeal, the work Cinemaware did with Interactive Vision set a pattern for the second half of the company’s existence. Widely perceived though his company continued to be as the premier Amiga developer, Jacob continued to look beyond that platform in the service of his larger vision of interactive movies as the future of mainstream entertainment. Simply put, if Commodore wasn’t interested in forwarding that vision, he would find partners that would. Riordan’s Interactive Entertainment Group, not disbanded but rather expanded in the wake of Interactive Vision’s failure, would drive these expensive and uncertain forays into emerging technologies, while the rest of the company paid the bills by continuing to make and market games on floppy disk for the Amiga and other traditional home computers.

Working now without Cliff Johnson, who had signed onto the Interactive Vision project only as an outside contractor, Riordan’s future projects would replace VCRs with optical media. Like so much of the American games industry, Cinemaware had first latched onto Phillips CD-I as the optical-storage format of the future. “When CD-I is a reality,” Riordan said, “I think Cinemaware will have a field day with the technology and bring our dream to life with real people, soundtracks, and dialog.” But, again like the rest of the industry, Cinemaware eventually found Philips’s endless delays, along with their platform’s technical limitations in the all-important realm of video playback, to rather take the bloom off the rose. “I’m no longer as high on CD-I as I once was,” Jacob was saying already well before the end of 1988. “You can design around [the limitations], but it’s not really enough.”

With talk of new optical formats everywhere, Cinemaware had no more of a clue than anyone else as to which one(s) would win out. So, they decided to try to support them all, by developing a process within the Interactive Entertainment Group to release new products on a whole range of formats as they appeared. “Someday, somewhere, people are going to invent a very compelling interactive technology, a mass-market entertainment medium that will bring parents and children into a mass-market application,” Jacob said. “I don’t know which hardware system is going to win, but once we’ve developed an interactive design methodology we can shoot material and use it across all formats.” He envisioned Riordan’s group as “a training ground where the methodology of interactive games can be developed and refined, ready for the arrival of the appropriate technology.”


Going back to Cinemaware’s roots, Riordan’s group made a CD-ROM version of Defender of the Crown, still by far the company’s biggest hit ever, for MS-DOS machines. Almost entirely forgotten today, this first CD-ROM version of Cinemaware’s most iconic title marked just the second game ever released on the medium, trailing Mediagenic’s CD-ROM version of The Manhole for the Macintosh onto store shelves by mere days. In many ways, the CD-ROM Defender of the Crown was a more complete demonstration of the future of computer gaming than that other optical landmark. While the graphics and game play remained largely the same as the Amiga original, Riordan’s team added a soundtrack performed by an actual orchestra recorded in an actual studio  — a first for the games industry — along with voice actors playing the narrator and many of the characters. Riordan:

It’s the audio that’s the key. Take someone talking, for example, the intonation in their voice is what really gives the words meaning. Reading text is nothing — but you can say, “I hate you,” in so many different ways, and even make it sound like “I love you.” Or, to take another example, imagine watching a scary movie without music. The music tells you so much about what’s going on. Without it, it’s just not scary at all — and when it comes to games I want people to really back off from the screen!

For Amiga stalwarts, seeing Jim Sachs’s classic graphics, now made possible in full fidelity on MS-DOS by the emerging VGA graphics standard, up there on the screen alongside all the impressive new audio marked a bitter moment indeed, about as clear a measure as could be imagined of just how far their chosen platform had already fallen behind the cutting edge. Granted, with CD-ROM drives still vanishingly rare on everyday machines, this first-ever CD-ROM-based game for MS-DOS was almost more a demonstration of intent than a serious commercial product for Cinemaware — a situation which doubtless does much to explain its obscurity today. It did, however, become the basis for ports to some of the other CD-based platforms that began to appear over the next couple of years, while the techniques that went into making it became the basis of the BOLT unified development environment that was used to make Cinemaware’s arguable best game for the Amiga, It Came from the Desert.

By far the biggest project Cinemaware was ever able to bring to any sort of fruition, It Came from the Desert was also unusual in being the only one to unify the two halves of the company’s latter-day identity. Riordan’s team first produced the floppy-disk-based Amiga version, doing an unusually good job of working within that setup’s limitations to make a really interesting, playable game of it. After completing that version, they moved on to a CD-ROM version that for the first time would feature video clips with real actors — thus beginning to dig the “full-motion-video” rabbit hole down which much of the industry would scurry for the next half-decade or so. Always the optimist, Riordan claimed that many name actors were interested in starring in interactive productions, if Cinemaware could just prove to them the form’s commercial potential. “They saw what happened with VCRs,” he said, drawing an appealing but perhaps flawed comparison, “and how they made more money from the video releases than they did from the original movies. Now they’re watching out closely to see what happens with computer games. We may get big names very soon for games.” In the meantime, Riordan used his connections in Hollywood to recruit a troupe of unknowns, who played their roles in front of green screens that would later be turned into computer-generated backgrounds. And, turning the process on its head, Riordan’s team also experimented with overlaying their graphics of giant ants onto filmed backgrounds.

Shooting It Came from the Desert on a soundstage. Such scenes would become very familiar ones within the games industry in the several years to come; this was ground zero of the whole full-motion-video craze.

A closeup of the actors in front of the “green screen.” They were filmed using a Betacam — the world was still a long way from going all-digital — with a filter that blocked the green. The result, as long as no one wore green, was a set of disembodied figures ready to be digitized with a frame grabber and superimposed over a computer-generated background. Call it a very, very primitive form of CGI.

The end result. Unfortunately, because of the limitations of the NEC TurboGrafx-16’s display hardware, the only released version didn’t look anywhere near even this good.

It was also possible to go the other way, superimposing computer graphics onto video backgrounds.

By 1990, when the Interactive Entertainment Group was in full flight with the full-motion-video It Came from the Desert, the Amiga market in North America was going soft. Thankfully, though, the platform’s continued vitality in Europe more than made up for it; thus Cinemaware’s bread-and-butter interactive movies continued to do quite well on the whole. Meanwhile the company continued to branch out into other areas within the realm of traditional computer games, roaming increasingly far afield from their alleged specialty. Already in 1988 they had embarked on their hugely influential TV Sports line of games that simulated the broadcast of professional sports like football and basketball rather than the experience of the athletes themselves. Around the same time, Jacob had leveraged his strong relationship with his European publisher Mirrorsoft to begin importing popular European action-oriented Amiga titles into North America. He was soon signing deals to publish original games that had even less to do with his company’s usual focus. For instance, having made Cliff Johnson’s acquaintance through the Interactive Vision project, he published 3 in Three, the follow-up to The Fool’s Errand, under the Cinemaware label after Miles Computing, Johnson’s prior publisher, went bust. (Abandoning the storybook aesthetic of The Fool’s Errand for an approach derived from the avant-garde animated films Johnson loved dearly, 3 in Three just doesn’t work for me like its predecessor does; it has some brilliant moments, but has too many repetitive puzzles of the least interesting types, lacks an equally compelling thoroughgoing meta-puzzle, and generally frustrates more than it delights.) Departing even further from what people had come to expect from Cinemaware were the two Star Saga games partially designed by Andrew Greenberg of Wizardry fame. These were elaborate and demanding multiplayer hybrids of tabletop RPGs and computer-based entertainments built around “paragraph books” with hundreds of pages of text — this from a publisher founded on the philosophy of “no typing, get you right into the game, no manual.” Unsurprisingly, the Star Saga games flopped resoundingly for Cinemaware, as they had for Masterplay, the tiny publishing venture Greenberg had originally set up to market them.

Whether one considers all these side ventures a dilution of Jacob’s vision or simply smart diversification, Cinemaware’s traditional computer games, while certainly not all hits (witness: Star Saga), were profitable in the aggregate. They just weren’t anywhere near profitable enough to pay for Cinemaware’s ambitious cutting-edge experiments. Projects like the full-motion-video It Came from the Desert were horrendously expensive in comparison to virtually anything the games industry had ever tackled before. Scoring a soundtrack and recording a real orchestra performing it, for instance, must cost at least $10,000 per track when all was said and done. Even the unknown actors employed by Cinemaware for It Came from the Desert cost about $500 per day per actor, far more than the salary of the best programmers or graphic artists. And then there were the costs of film crews, soundstage rentals, etc. Cinemaware’s debt began to mount alarmingly as they outspent the profits from their traditional games by huge margins. Bob Jacob and Dave Riordan had their hearts in the right place, but the reality remained that they had pushed the company into a dangerous position, well ahead of even the bleeding edge of the consumer marketplace. They were investing money they didn’t have in games that almost no one had the equipment to actually play.

For understandable reasons, then, Cinemaware looked with more and more wistfulness toward Japan, a nation that seemed by many metrics to be doing a much better job turning the ideal of multimedia computing into practical consumer products than any Western nation. On March 14, 1990, Jacob announced that the Japanese firm NEC, maker of computers and game consoles, had purchased approximately a 20 percent share of Cinemaware and with it a seat on the company’s board of directors. NEC had recently begun importing their very successful domestic game console, the PC Engine, into North America as the TurboGrafx-16. While it wasn’t actually doing all that well there at the moment in the face of stiff competition from Nintendo and Sega, NEC believed they had an ace up their sleeve that would make the partnership with Cinemaware a natural fit: a CD add-on, the first of its kind for a console, that NEC was planning to bring Stateside that summer. The CD-equipped TurboGrafx-16, they confidently expected, would be the realization at last of everyone’s old dreams for Phillips CD-I. And when it dropped and took the market by storm, Cinemaware would be there to reap the rewards alongside NEC. In tandem with the stock purchase, Cinemaware and NEC signed an agreement to make Riordan’s in-progress full-motion-video version of It Came from the Desert, previously envisioned as a platform-agnostic product, a TurboGrafx-16 CD exclusive.

The TurboGrafx-16 with CD add-on.

It all went horribly wrong. The first problem was the console itself, which was built around an 8-bit CPU derived from the venerable old MOS 6502, a chip with the merest fraction of the computing power Cinemaware had expected to have at their disposal for the full-motion-video It Came from the Desert. The puny CPU meant that Cinemaware had to simplify the game play dramatically over the floppy-based Amiga version, while a display capable of only 512 colors meant they had to degrade the graphics into a clashing melange of vague outlines. And then the TurboGrafx-16 CD add-on hit the market and proceeded, like the console before it, to sell hardly at all in a market that already had Nintendo as the dominant force and Sega playing the role of the plucky upstart. Cinemaware had spent at least $700,000 on a game they couldn’t sell, whether on the moribund TurboGrafx-16 or, thanks to the exclusive deal they’d signed, on any other platform. Expensive TurboGrafx-16 ports of TV Sports: Football and TV Sports: Basketball and another fruitless exclusive in the form of TV Sports: Hockey were almost as damaging, leaving Cinemaware drowning under the debt they’d run up in making them. Nor was NEC all that supportive of their partner. Jacob claims that the entire American management team that had handled the disastrous introduction of the TurboGrafx-16 and its CD add-on, as well as negotiated the deal with Cinemaware, was “summarily fired” in the aftermath of the console’s failure. With no prospect of a bailout from NEC, “all of a sudden we were in very bad straits.”

Indeed, Jacob describes his decision to do the deal with NEC as nothing less than Cinemaware’s “downfall.” Distracted and financially pinched by the TurboGrafx-16 projects, Cinemaware released only one of their Amiga interactive movies in 1990. Wings, the ninth and, as it would transpire, the last of the line, did well enough in the Amiga’s stronghold of Europe, but neither it nor the rest of Cinemaware’s catalog could sustain a company so intent on throwing good money after the bad of the TurboGrafx-16.

As 1990 came to a close, Jacob had no choice but to search for a buyer to rescue Cinemaware. He spent some time in talks with Columbia Pictures, trying to convince this storied cinematic giant of the bright future of interactive cinema, but ultimately without success. He then danced for a while with Electronic Arts, already Cinemaware’s North American distributor. That looked more promising; Trip Hawkins and most of his senior staff were supposedly in favor of the deal, but a newly empowered board of directors — Electronic Arts had gone public in October of 1989 — nixed it. Cinemaware entered 1991 with debts in excess of $1 million, a huge burden for a company that employed less than forty people. Although Cinemaware needed more, not less staff to bring his vision of CD-ROM-based interactive movies to fruition, Jacob had no choice but to begin laying people off. The death spiral had begun; Cinemaware now lacked the manpower to complete any of the games that might otherwise have saved them.

Jacob dissolved Cinemaware that summer, auctioning off its technologies and licenses to the highest bidders. Among the late projects that would never come to fruition was the dubious proposition of a TV Sports game called Rollerbabes, tackling the thriving — or rather not — sport of roller derby. There was also a cowboy western, envisioned as another big interactive-movie production. The inevitable TV Sports: Football II fell by the wayside as well, while perhaps the most ambitious of all the axed projects was a spy caper called The Enemy Within that Jacob still insists would have “redefined gaming as we know it.” “The game was so far advanced in concept,” he claims, “that its basic creative core still has not been achieved” — whatever that means.

Mirrorsoft, Cinemaware’s longstanding European partner and publisher, wound up acquiring most of the company’s assets, including the name itself. In this state of affairs, Jacob saw opportunity. He moved to Britain and tried to restart Cinemaware, after a fashion, under the name of Acme Interactive, using many of the old Cinemaware properties and licenses, leased back to him by Mirrorsoft. But within a year or so, Acme was acquired by the comic-book publisher Malibu Graphics, where Jacob’s people were combined with new hires to form Malibu Interactive. After a couple of years of modest success on consoles like the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, Malibu Interactive in turn was shut down after their parent company was acquired by Marvel Comics. None of the games that arose out of Jacob’s post-Cinemaware operations were as ambitious or innovative as the games he had made before, and following the Malibu shutdown he went back to his pre-Cinemaware role as a talent agent for the games industry.

What, then, shall we say in closing about Cinemaware? From a business standpoint, Bob Jacob obviously pushed his small company too far too soon, and paid the price for it. Rather than rake him further over the coals, it should suffice on that score to simply acknowledge that mistakes were made. A more interesting question is that of Cinemaware’s creative legacy. Jacob cites modern games like the Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed franchises as being heirs to the work done at Cinemaware in that they are “movie-like experiences.” “At the time, if people asked if Cinemaware was a genre,” he says, “I would say, ‘No, Cinemaware is the future. Cinemaware is where games are going.’ And ultimately, I was right.”

But was he really? To some extent perhaps, but far from entirely. Cinemaware was the first and for some time the most aggressive proponent of one view of the future of interactive entertainment, a view which by the early 1990s — ironically just as Cinemaware was dying — had become that of the American computer-games industry as a whole. It’s a view that we’ve already seen from various angles, and one that we’ll continue to see again and again as we move through this period of gaming history. The future, it claimed, would see conventional computer graphics take a backseat to a rich multimedia environment, a blending of digitized pictures, digitized video, digitized sound, and digitized music sourced from the real analog world that surrounds us. Although Cinemaware’s best-remembered games, their Amiga interactive movies, used decidedly limited amounts of all three, it was always understood within the company that this was due only to technical limitations. Dave Riordan actually labelled computer graphics as the primary thing limiting the mainstream appeal of games, drawing a comparison to cartoons, which, while popular then as they are now in their sphere, were nowhere near as popular as live-action film and video. Graphics, he said, could only “approximate reality”; “regardless of how interesting, they are not actual life.” Jacob said that “you’ve got to have a video look if there’s going to be a mass market. Computer graphics will not be acceptable to a market that’s been weaned on television. If you make it look like television and make it interactive, it’s going to work.”

Well, it largely didn’t work, although it would take the industry until some years beyond the death of Cinemaware to fully realize that. Full-motion video brings with it heaps of limitations in the types of interactivity games can support. We’ll have plenty of opportunities to delve into what those limitations are and the effects they had on games of this period in future articles, as we continue to explore this fraught but fascinating period in gaming history. For now, though, suffice to say that the limitations existed in spades, and that the optimism of proponents like Jacob and Riordan depended on minimizing or dismissing them to an unsustainable degree. Even during their day, Cinemaware became a poster child in some circles for what happens when presentation is emphasized over game play. And in the years since the company’s passing, the genre of full-motion-video games for which they paved the way have gone on to become perhaps the most critically reviled lineage in all of gaming history.

Jacob’s vision of the future of games as a business proposition, being predicated on his flawed vision of their aesthetic future, proved equally flawed. “There will be a new industry,” he said, that would combine “the music, movie, and software industries.” While intersections have certainly abounded, in the big picture this too just hasn’t happened.

Still, Bob Jacob, Dave Riordan, and Cinemaware weren’t by any means entirely wrong about the future. Their sense of cinematic flair did have a major influence on games that came well after the full-motion-video era, while digitized sound and music, not being subject to the same crippling limitations as digitized video, has long since all but completely superseded synthesized sound in games. Ironically for such a determinedly visionary company, their greatest failure might have been a failure of vision: a failure to realize that the public would willingly accept videogames as their own thing, entirely separate from film or television, if they were presented in an appealing, accessible way as their own thing. When it comes to the question of computer graphics versus full-motion video… well, the best graphics have gotten so good by now that it’s hard to tell the difference, isn’t it? Today Cinemaware’s interactive movies, like so many of the productions from other developers that would immediately follow them, read like dispatches from the past to a future that never arrived, as incongruous as the Jetsons-like automotive stylings of the 1950s. So, Bob Jacob was right even as he was wrong; games would go on to become both less and more than he ever imagined.

(Sources: Commodore Magazine of November 1988; Questbusters of October 1989, June 1990, March 1991, and July 1991; Computer Gaming World of March 1990 and May 1990; The One of October 1988 and November 1988; ACE of November 1989, April 1990, and May 1990; New Scientist of July 1989; PC Magazine of July 1989; CU Amiga of March 1990, August 1991, and May 1992; Raze of January 1991; The Games Machine of March 1990; The One of August 1991; Zero of April 1991 and July 1991; Amazing Computing of May 1986; the 1990 episode of Computer Chronicles entitled “Video Game Consoles.” Online sources include interviews with Bob Jacob by Matt Barton, Tristan Donovan, and Zach Meston. Finally, there’s my own interview with Cliff Johnson. Thanks again, Cliff!)


  1. As a further method of fostering interactivity, the audio channel of an Interactive Vision videotape could contain two separate audio tracks blended together into one using multiplexing techniques. The Interactive Vision unit could then filter out one track or the other at the time of playback, giving designers a way to choose between two soundtracks, depending on the user’s input. Indeed, most of the very few Interactive Vision tapes released apparently relied almost entirely on this simple feature rather than embracing the technology’s full range of possibility, as Cinemaware’s Interactive Vision product did. 

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A Working-Class Hero, Part 4: A Hero’s Legacy

London Royal Air Force memorial

At the crack of dawn on July 26, 1918, two S.E.5a scout planes of 85 Squadron took off from Saint-Omer aerodrome and flew east over the trenches. The pilots of the two aircraft could hardly have been more dissimilar in terms of experience. Donald Inglis, a stocky Kiwi, was a nervous newcomer with just a few prior sorties under his belt and as yet no victories to his credit. His flight leader and squadron commander, meanwhile, had recently claimed the title of Britain’s ace of aces, with 60 victories to show for many months of combat duty. He, of course, was Major Edward “Mick” Mannock.

Had he not been such a mess of frayed nerve endings, Mannock would have found 85 Squadron, a well-respected veteran unit, almost uniquely congenial to a man of his background and political disposition. It was an unusually egalitarian, even multicultural outfit, including in its ranks Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Afrikaners, and even three American volunteers, all from many different social strata. The squadron’s composition was a sign of one of the too-few positive attributes of war, its tendency to show up fine distinctions of class and culture for the artificialities they really are. Few to none of Mannock’s charges could be bothered to worry overmuch about the circumstances of their new leader’s birth or the implications of his Irish accent. He was now simply their own Major Mannock, one of the most respected fighting airmen at the front.

Yet even as they respected him, they also found plenty of cause to worry about him — and thus, he being after all their leader, plenty of cause to worry about themselves. While Mannock had arrived in their mess hall on July 5 preaching the same gospel he had preached to 74 Squadron — about the importance of teamwork, discipline, and sound tactics as opposed to individual heroism — his conduct in the air had almost immediately begun to violate his own rules. He threw flights he was leading into battle when the odds or the positioning of his planes relative to the enemy’s called for making discretion the better part of valor, and he evinced an alarming new tendency to follow his kills all the way down to ground level in order to watch them crash, thereby giving up the precious advantage of height and leaving himself vulnerable to other enemy planes that might be lurking in the clouds above as well as small-arms fire coming up from below.

Most of his new squadron mates came to attribute his increasing foolhardiness, which was almost starting to look like a death wish, in one way or another to the death of his friend and rival ace James McCudden on July 9. Some said that Mannock’s frenzy to kill as many Germans as possible was an expression of his grief and anger at the loss. Others of a more cynical bent said that the death of McCudden with 57 victories to his credit gave Mannock a concrete, static goal to strive for in running up his own total. His eagerness to follow each kill down to its bloody end, they claimed, reflected his desire to fix an exact position of the crash so that he would stand the best possible chance of seeing the victory confirmed and thus added to his personal tally. But whatever his motivations or the needless dangers to which he exposed himself and others, he continued the torrid pace of his previous tour of duty. He matched and then surpassed McCudden’s total on the banner day of July 20, when he racked up his 57th, 58th, and 59th victories.

By this morning in question of July 26, the attempted German breakout of the previous spring had exhausted itself without achieving its objective, and now the inevitable Allied counteroffensive was beginning, aided by the hundreds of thousands of fresh-faced American soldiers now pouring into France. The activities of the Allied air forces were, as always, closely tied to the efforts of the armies on the ground. In support of the counteroffensive, they prowled the front in the ever larger formations allowed by the buzzing home-front factories and air schools, looking to down the outnumbered and exhausted remnants of Germany’s air force.

Unusually, however, Mannock and Inglis were flying all alone on this particular morning. As was his wont with new pilots, Mannock had promised Inglis that he would help him “break his duck” — i.e., help him score his first kill. The two of them were thus doing a bit of freelancing to the side of their squadron’s normal responsibilities, looking for a stray German plane or observation balloon that would serve their purpose while the rest of 85 Squadron slept in.

Most of the flight was uneventful. They explored as far into German airspace as they dared — their planes carried only enough fuel for about two and a half hours of flight — and then turned for home without having found any victims. But then, coming back toward the line of the front, Mannock shocked Inglis with a sudden turn and a dive to swoop down upon a two-man German observation craft that his companion had yet to even spot when Mannock’s guns began to bark. Mannock took out the German gunner with cold surgical precision, then banked away, signaling his companion to finish off their now-helpless quarry. A nervous Inglis waited too long to open fire and then waited too long to cut away, very nearly ramming the German plane from behind even as its fuel tank exploded. Still, he got the job done in the end; the hapless observation plane turned into a “flamer” for which the two pilots would share credit, marking Mannock’s 61st victory and Inglis’s very first.

Inglis thought that ought to be that, but, as usual these days, Mannock had other ideas. He followed their burning victim down through its death spiral of many thousands of feet, until it smashed into the ground just on the German side of the front. Not knowing what else to do, Inglis followed his leader down to a height of less than 100 feet, whereupon a hail of fire erupted from the ground, arcing up toward the two vulnerable planes. Dodging frantically and trying to regain some altitude, Inglis saw a tiny flicker of orange flame erupt from the fuselage of Mannock’s S.E.5a, turning into a bright contrail trailing out behind it as Mannock, still apparently alive and in control, managed to steady his plane and tear toward the Allied side of the front, evidently hoping to manage a crash landing over friendly territory.

He didn’t make it. His plane’s nose dipped and it veered into a slow right turn, making two lazy circles before it smashed into the ground. A line of flame arced along the ground, digging a new furrow into the scarred landscape. Inglis was so fixated on the sight that he very nearly suffered the same fate; he came to himself to realize that his plane was still being riddled by gunfire from somewhere below him, and that raw fuel was pouring into his lap out of a hole in the tank. He dashed for home, landing safely back at Saint-Omer, where he leaped out of his plane, covered in fuel and with tears streaming down his face, shouting incoherently, “They’ve shot him down!” Only gradually did the others make sense of what he was trying to tell them: Mick Mannock, their squadron commander of all of three weeks, was dead at the grand old age (for a World War I fighter pilot) of 31.

The aftermath of Mannock’s death was marked by none of the ceremony that had accompanied the death of the Red Baron. Unlike Manfred von Richthofen’s plane, Mannock’s scout bore no distinguishing marks, looking for all the world like just another anonymous S.E.5a. It had come to rest behind the German lines, and the soldiers who buried whatever remained of Mannock’s body in an unmarked grave never had an inkling that they were burying one of the greatest aces of the war. Because the location where they buried him was never recorded and his body was thus never recovered, we don’t know whether he made good on his promise to shoot himself at the last instant rather than allow himself to be burned alive, or whether he did indeed end up suffering the fate about which he’d had so many nightmares.

Even the British side paid surprisingly little attention to Mannock’s death. This was partly due to an official policy, noble in its way, that had been instituted after the press had elevated Albert Ball into one of the foremost heroes of the war. The war in the air, went the official line, was a team effort, and it wouldn’t do to unduly celebrate any of the individuals who fought it. While an exception had been allowed for the morale-boosting Canadian ace Billy Bishop, the British command otherwise hewed to this rule quite seriously.

And so the various squadrons posted up and down the Allied side of the front toasted him one last time with more or less feeling, and that was that. The war went on in the form of the great Allied offensive that finally succeeded in breaking through the German lines, sending the German armies into full-blown retreat and ending hostilities well before Christmas. Mannock would have needed to survive just a few more months of combat — and with the odds increasingly in his favor at that — to have become one of the war’s relatively few surviving aces. And yet one senses, given the condition he was in by the time of his death, that it might just as well have been a few more years.

Only after the war was over did Mannock begin to get some of the public acclamation that was his due. Ira Jones, still his greatest fan, lobbied relentlessly that his idol, the top-scoring British ace of the war, ought to be awarded Britain’s highest military honor, the Victoria Cross. It seemed to him the only fair thing to do; after all, the same honor had already been given to Billy Bishop, James McCudden, and Albert Ball. But if further impetus was needed to pressure the bureaucracy into action, Jones wasn’t above doing a little fudging. By being extremely generous in awarding “possible” kills, he was able to elevate Mannock’s victory count to a “probable” 73 — not coincidentally exactly one more than Billy Bishop, whose own total Jones, like so many others, regarded as highly questionable. Jones managed to find an ally for his cause in none other than Winston Churchill, and Mannock was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross on July 18, 1919. Mannock’s entire family, including his loathed father, now living in a bigamous relationship with a new wife and all too eager to claim kinship with the son he had physically abused and then abandoned, came to the ceremony. But thankfully, Mannock’s big brother Patrick was the one to take actual possession of the medal.

In the years that followed, the story of Mick Mannock, fighter ace, was elevated by hagiographers into a tale of duty, honor, and plucky English courage perfect for a generation of schoolboys raised on Biggles. While Mannock’s story may have lacked some of the flash and color that clung to that of the steely Red Baron or the tender boy ace Albert Ball, as the acknowledged British ace of aces he certainly had the numbers to support his claim to a place in the pantheon of British military heroism. In an effort to give his story that little something extra, the hagiographers invented the legend of “the ace with one eye.” Mannock, they decided on the basis of scant evidence, had accomplished all he had in the air while being blind in one eye, thanks to the amoebic infection he had contracted during his boyhood in India. Such was his burning desire to fight for the British crown in the air, the place where he felt he could do the most good, that he had kept the condition hidden from virtually everyone. Inevitably, it was Ira Jones who laid it on thickest of all in his popular 1934 biography King of Airfighters, inventing treacly speeches for his idealized Mannock that would never have passed the lips of the rough-hewn working-class man of reality. (“Don’t forget that when you see that tiny spark come out of my S.E.,” Mannock supposedly told him near the end, “it will kindle a flame which will act as a torch to guide the future air defenders of the Empire along the path of duty.”)

All of which is at one level fair enough. We need our heroes; we even need our myths. At another level, though, the real world is not a Biggles novel, and shrouding Mick Mannock so relentlessly in Union Jacks and Rule Britannias can only serve to diminish the real man behind the myth. At bottom, his story is inspiring because it is so messy, not in spite of it. The darker, more disturbing aspects of it — his oft-expressed hatred of the entire German race, his struggles to reconcile personal glory with the demands of the war effort as a whole — are the shades and nuances that identify him as a real human being rather than a walking, talking Royal Air Force recruitment poster. Like all of us, he had his demons. The fact that he accomplished so much in spite of them only serves to amplify those achievements, not to diminish them.

Through all their cheap patriotic sentiment, the Ira Joneses of the world avoid asking the really hard questions about the social inequalities against which Mannock struggled for much longer than he fought the Germans, the inequalities which to the very end of his life conspired to deny him much of the credit that was his due. And then, of course, there are the hard questions about the war that killed him. In that war’s aftermath, some — most notably his old friend and fellow socialist Jim Eyles — speculated about what Mannock, a man of so much complexity and capability, might have gone on to had he lived. Would he have, as Eyles liked to believe, taken a more active role in politics than ever, possibly entering the fray himself as a candidate for office? What might he have accomplished for the working classes had he done so? Because of the war — because of a senseless, useless war that, unlike its sequel, in no way needed to be fought — we’ll never know. Multiply Mannock’s wasted potential by the millions of others whose lives were similarly ended too soon, and you begin to gain an appreciation for the real tragedy of war.

Mannock’s fame, such as it was, peaked in the 1930s following the publication of Jones’s book. With the onset of the Second World War and Winston Churchill’s “few” of Battle of Britain fame, British schoolboys found themselves new aviator heroes to admire, even though no British ace of that or any subsequent war would ever equal Mannock’s victory tally. By the 1950s Mannock was already fading into obscurity, a name known only to aviation buffs and military-history fans. Today very few people indeed would recognize his name.

Still, in the interregnum between then and now there was one other tribute — a tribute that was never explicitly labeled as such, yet one that got in its own flawed way to some of the nuance of Mannock’s story that Ira Jones and his flag-waving contemporaries had missed…



In 1989, more than seventy years after Mick Mannock’s S.E.5a went down in flames, Bob Jacob, head of the American computer-game developer Cinemaware, called John Cutter, one of his most reliable designers and producers, into his office to assign him his next project. Jacob, who almost always personally chose the topics of his company’s trademark “interactive movies,” had decided that Cinemaware ought to make a sort of cinematic flight simulator set during World War I. As usual, he had drawn his inspiration from an old movie, but this time he had in lieu of his usual beloved B-movie fare fixated on a big-budget blockbuster of bygone years: William Wellman’s 1927 silent classic Wings, the first movie to win the newly minted Academy Award for Best Picture. Many actual veterans of the First World War had been recruited for the film, to perform the flying sequences in the actual aircraft they had flown into battle; the aerial footage that resulted remains some of the most incredible ever filmed. Because Wings, like many movies of its era, had a somewhat doubtful copyright status, it should be safe to crib from it even more than was Cinemaware’s usual wont, to the extent of blatantly appropriating its title alongside its spirit of aerial derring-do. Beyond that, Jacob, who was always more interested in the big picture than the details of Cinemaware’s productions, would leave it up to Cutter.

For his part, Cutter was rather taken aback by this turn of events, wondering just how many times he would be expected to channel Jacob’s personal passions instead of his own. He had just finished bringing another of Jacob’s ideas to fruition, a game starring the old vaudeville comedy troupe The Three Stooges. Now he was being asked to make a game based on yet another subject he knew nothing about and frankly wasn’t all that interested in. But needs must. So, figuring he had to start somewhere, he made his way down to the local library to do some reading on World War I in the air. “What incredible stories I read that afternoon!” he later remembered. “They were personal accounts of unbelievable courage and dedication — reflections of man’s indomitable spirit struggling valiantly against his enemies, the elements, and the dangers of an infant technology.” In the space of those few hours in the reading stacks, he went from a man with a job to do and little more to a man on a mission. The cinematic take on the air war of Wings the movie, sometimes spectacular though it was, faded into the background in favor of the real stories of the men who had flown and fought all those years ago. The end result would be unique in the Cinemaware catalog, otherwise made up of blatantly artificial third-hand pastiches of history filtered through this or that cinematic inspiration. Cutter’s Wings, by contrast, would demonstrate a willingness to engage with the real stuff of history.

Cutter found the real-world document that came to hover over the project, giving it much of its form and tone, when he visited the archives of the San Diego Aerospace Museum to further his research. Said document was a slim volume, published briefly in facsimile form by a small British press in 1966, called The Personal Diary of “Mick” Mannock. It was exactly what the title said it was: a diary kept by Mannock between April 1, 1917, the date he arrived in France as a shaky greenhorn pilot, and September 5, 1917, by which time he had found ways to cope with the terrors of airborne warfare and was beginning to make his name as an up-and-coming ace to be reckoned with.

The diary is, it must be said, a rather underwhelming document at first glance. Those who hope for exciting accounts of aerial jousts must be as disappointed as those who hope for rigorous psychological self-analysis. Mannock was no poet, and certainly not conscious of writing for any posterity other than himself. His diary is just that, a personal diary, filled with terse reminders of what happened on this or that day. And even on those terms, it covers the barest fraction of Mannock’s combat career, ending when he had scored just 11 of his eventual 61 victories and before he had really begun to implement the policies of aerial teamwork and unit discipline that would, over and above his personal victory tally, be his most important contribution to the British war effort. Yet when you spend more time with the diary your interest only grows, despite or perhaps because of its sketchy, underwritten prose. You begin to pick up on the rhythms of this strange life, with its horrors always lurking suppressed just below the surface. In bare sentences here and there, you learn about champagne blowouts, brawls in the mess hall, accidents and mishaps in the air and on the ground, alongside the relentless litany of fallen comrades. (“Poor old Pendor is missing since Wednesday, as also is Cullen. I hope both are alright. Poor old Bond is gone and I see that they have awarded him a posthumous D.S.O. Cold comfort!”)

Wings

Mannock’s diary, at first so underwhelming but then so fascinating, inspired the unique structure of Cutter’s game: a sort of epistolary novel in interactive form. Through hundreds of diary entries of its own, written by a screenwriter named Ken Goldstein, Wings tells the story of the air war on the Western Front, spanning from March 2, 1916, the dawn of the classic era of World War I dogfighting, through November 10, 1918, the very end of the war. In between the diary entries, you fly missions which reflect, as well as possible within the boundaries of the game’s very limited scope of interactive possibility, the events swirling around the squadron to which you belong. You strafe enemy ground emplacements and convoys; you bomb enemy camps and aerodromes; you go after enemy observation balloons. But most of all, you dogfight — you dogfight a lot, hundreds of times as you work your way through those hundreds of diary entries. The pilot whose actions you guide climbs the rungs of the ace leader board as together you shoot down enemy planes. He also collects medals and promotions, and his skills in the disciplines of “flying,” “mechanics,” “shooting,” and “stamina” improve, CRPG-fashion, as he practices them.

I have to acknowledge right now that Wings is by many standards not a very good game at all. Optimistically labelled a flight simulator by Cinemaware, it’s far from worthy of that label by most people’s standards. Instead it’s a collection of fairly simplistic action games whose appeal isn’t helped all that much by the fact that you have to play them so many times; no prior Cinemaware game took anywhere near as long to play through as this one, and few had a bag of tricks quite so limited. The dogfighting game, the one you’ll spend by far the most time with, might just be the least compelling of all; it feels too slow running on a stock 68000-based Commodore Amiga (the only platform for which the game was released), yet seems to run too fast on an upgraded 68020-based machine.

Strafing a German train...

Strafing a German train…

Even the case for the diary’s literary worth can be all too easily overstated. There’s enough empty rah!-rah! sentiment therein to make Ira Jones proud, alongside the occasional factual howler, like the mechanic with your British squadron who dreams of opening an auto-repair shop back home in Vermont after the war (in the meantime, he goes to bed each night dreaming about driving his father’s Model T Ford). Yet redeeming the whole are a succession of interesting characters and touching vignettes, many of them transplanted, with names changed and situations altered to a greater or lesser degree, out of the diary of the game’s patron saint Mick Mannock. For instance, B.W. Keymer, 40 Squadron’s earthy chaplain who did so much to help Mannock overcome his rocky start in the mess hall, takes the form in the game of a chaplain named “Holy Joe” who is likewise more concerned with helping his charges make it through another day of war than he is with standing on conventional religious ceremony.

Very early on, a captured German says that his comrades’ intention is to “bleed France white,” a disturbingly evocative phrase that was actually uttered by German General Erich von Falkenhayn as a justification for the carnage of the Battle of Verdun. Already here the horror of war is beginning to sneak in around all the exhortations to martial glory. Disillusion soon begins to affect our pilot and scribe as well.

July 13, 1916:

Patrolling Verdun this morning. I’m starting to realize how much the trenches are haunting me. I’ve got friends out there rotting in the musty earth, and the war is still no closer to ending than the day I volunteered. With all the military brilliance on our payroll, someone must know how to break the stalemate.

The diary reaches a fever pitch during the most desperate month of the war for the Royal Flying Corps: that Bloody April of 1917, the month of Mick Mannock’s baptism by fire. During this period in particular, Wings is willing to depict a side of war that we too seldom see in videogames.

April 12, 1917:

Farrah’s mole reports that the Germans have indeed changed their fighting strategy. Richthofen’s Jagdstaffel 11 has been expanded into what’s being called a “Jagdgeschwader,” a fighter wing. Three separate Jagdstaffeln of murderous planes are now at his beck and call.

Farrah says we should ignore this and fly today’s patrol as if nothing has changed. That would require a blindfold.

April 14, 1917:

No one here wants to fly. The Richthofen Geschwader is at peak performance. They’re pummeling us even worse than in the days of the Fokker Scourge. While Holy Joe is trying desperately to hold morale together, Farrah is stone cold and has ordered me and three others to patrol Arras at dawn. I think our C.O. is losing perspective. At the very least, he is losing the respect of his men.

April 16, 1917:

In all the mayhem our dog Barkley cowers at night alone. Each day, he loses another friendly hand to pat his head, to scratch behind his ears, to slip him tidbits under the table. Poor Barkley. Poor us.

April 24, 1917:

Some good news. Due to the valiant efforts of the Canadian troops, the British have taken Vimy Ridge! I wish I could report similar victory in the skies. It seems this bloody month will never end, that Richthofen has gained the edge in air superiority. Pilots across the front are weary and losing faith in Wing HQ. We need success on today’s patrol over Douai or our nerve may be forever shattered.

April 27, 1917:

Blood! Blood everywhere! The men are begging not to go up. Each time a sortie is dispatched someone returns grumbling, “That dirty butcher Farrah!” Just as French soldiers have begun to mutiny, we’ve considered rising up against our C.O. When he assigned four of us to patrol Arras after breakfast, I heard someone grumble, “Why doesn’t he just carve us up with a meat cleaver?”

April 29, 1917:

As our troops reclaim territory vacated by the enemy for the Hindenburg Line, we have little to celebrate. Before the Huns left, they leveled buildings, blocked roads, and contaminated water bins. General Ludendorff has served his nation well. He makes me sick.

Those of us at Amiens still willing to fly will patrol Ostend this afternoon. We can only hope the Flying Circus is on a coffee break.

April 30, 1917:

Responding to threats of mutiny, Farrah took heart and told us last night how much he hates to send young pilots like us to our deaths.

May 2, 1917:

Holy Joe has been doing all he can to get more wheelchairs here. With a shortage of hospital beds throughout the Allied camps, Amiens has been turned into an emergency treatment center. All around us there are countless soldiers with hideous stumps in place of their limbs. I’m left feeling queasy, jittery, ever the more wary of today’s patrol to Cambrai.

May 7, 1917:

Strange murmurings around camp. For the first time, pilots are quietly admitting they’re afraid. With Bloody April fresh in our minds, it’s suddenly become very realistic that we could die up there. We see death every day, but now we believe it can really happen to us. With five of us off to patrol Lille this afternoon, we all know it’s unlikely that we’ll all come back.

May 11, 1917:

Tremendous sorrow in writing tonight’s entry. The great British pilot Albert Ball is reported to be dead. Some say he was shot down by the Baron’s brother, Lothar. Others allege that he just disappeared into a cloud after being hit by gunfire from a church tower. I will think of him as I fly tomorrow’s patrol over Douai, praying I won’t die in a similar shroud of mystery.

One of Wings‘s most brilliant rhetorical devices is also its most chilling. When your pilot gets shot down and killed, the game doesn’t end. You rather simply create a new pilot to plunge back into the fray right where you left off — another replacement greenhorn dispatched to the front to plug the hole of another man’s death. Only when it’s all over, when you’ve played through the entire two and a half years of the diary with however many pilots that’s taken, do you see a final scroll of honor, listing each pilot along with his dates of birth and death. It looks, I presume by intention, like one of the many plaintive memorials to the war dead found in towns and villages throughout Britain.

One other way that Wings shows the toll of war is via your squadron's role call of casualties and new arrivals.

One other way that Wings shows the toll of war is via your squadron’s relentless roll call of casualties and new arrivals. Unless you’re ridiculously good, your own pilots will show up here on more than one occasion before you make it through the entire two and a half years of war which the game portrays.

With its interactive parts being so simplistic and repetitive, Wings must rise or fall in you the player’s estimation entirely on the basis of whether and to what extent the diary passages and the other background rhetorical flourishes manage to move you. In a sense, this was an old story for Cinemaware by the time of Wings, one reaching all the way back to the company’s breakthrough interactive movie Defender of the Crown. In Wings, however, the gilding on the lily of game play evinces a degree of humanity — a degree of soul — to which no other alleged “flight simulator” has ever even aspired.

Those other flight simulators define realism as getting all the knobs and switches right, making sure all the engines and airfoils and weaponry are in place and accounted for. Spectrum Holobyte’s Falcon, the king of the hardcore military flight simulators at the time that Cinemaware was working on Wings, came with a manual of more than 150 pages which read like a university engineering text (by the time of Falcon 3.0 in 1991, it would reach a downright Gygaxian 250 pages). Wings was a reaction against that aesthetic. Instead of building a game out of exhaustive technical detail, with no thought whatsoever given to the fragile human being ensconced there in the cockpit in the midst of it all, John Cutter asked what it was like to really be there as a pilot on the Western Front during World War I — asked what, speaking more generally, it really means to be a soldier at war. Michael Bate, a game designer for Accolade during the 1980s, called this approach “aesthetic simulation” — i.e., historical realism achieved not through technical minutiae but through texture and verisimilitude. The aesthetic simulation of Wings is a very different sort of simulation than the technical simulation of Falcon, but is, I would argue, no less worthy of the label for all that. At the end of his manual, Cutter wrote that “I can only pray that Wings will be remembered for its ability to educate and entertain, and not as a glorification of war.” In a medium that so often seems to do little but glorify war and others forms of violence, that stands out as a noble sentiment indeed. War, Wings tells us, has consequences. If the game never achieves more than a fraction of what it aspires to accomplish, that fact at least justifies a certain admiration.

And Wings also is well worth admiring as a loving final memorial to our old friend Major Edward “Eddie/Paddy/Pat/Jerry/Murphy/Mickey/Mick” Carringham Mannock, who is in turn a man worth admiring not because the things he did were easy for him but because they were hard, not because he was an unalloyed good person but because he aspired to be that person. Unlike Albert Ball, Mannock goes unmentioned in Wings‘s diary; this makes a degree of sense if one considers you the player to be to some extent playing the role of Britain’s diary-keeping ace of aces. On the date of his death, however, the game does see fit to give us an unusually lyrical diary passage. I like to believe that this isn’t a coincidence, that it’s intended as a final subtle tribute.

July 26, 1918:

Yesterday I was reminded of what a magical experience it is to fly. As I practiced turning through the soft white clouds, I experienced the sheer joy of defying gravity. The tapering horizon, the mountainous landscape, even patches of the shell-weary fields held fragments of beauty. I dreamed of flying endless hours in peaceful skies.

May all our own skies evermore be peaceful.

(Sources: In addition to those listed in the first article in this series, The One of March 1990, Matt Barton’s interviews with John Cutter and Bob Jacob, and “…and a Prayer: The Making of Wings” on Kaiju Pop!

Wings is available for purchase today in two forms. You can buy the original version shown in the movie and screenshots above in a package with most of Cinemaware’s other games, or you can buy a recent quite impressive remastered version. The remaster is likely to strike modern buyers as far more playable than the original, and is probably the version of choice for all but hardcore historians like yours truly.)

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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