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Category Archives: Modern Times

Thaumistry: In Charm’s Way

I’d like to bring some exciting news to your attention today. Bob Bates, author of classic games for Infocom and Legend Entertainment and a great friend of this blog, is Kickstarting a new text adventure.

I played the game last year in its alpha state. Bob is very much aware of the ways which text adventures have evolved since the days of Infocom and Legend, and has come up with a great blending of modern and classic here. It’s funny, fun, and occasionally challenging, but always in the right ways. And it’s written with TADS 3, so it’s as technically sophisticated as one could ask for.

I hope some of you will want to join me in helping him to get it polished up and out the door for a variety of platforms. You can learn more on the game’s Kickstarter page or on its home page. Welcome back, Bob!

 

Memos from Digital Antiquarian Corporate Headquarters

From the Publications Department:

I’m pleased to say that the latest edition of the ebook series collecting the articles published here is now available. Volume 11 centers roughly on the year 1989. (Yes, this means we are now moving into the 1990s, which is quite a milestone. Little did I imagine this blog would turn into what it has when I started it five and a half years ago.) As always, we owe big thanks to Richard Lindner for putting these together.

From the Quality Control Department:

As anyone who’s delved seriously into the history of computer games and videogames will attest, concrete sales numbers were closely-held secrets back in the day and can still be damnably difficult to dig up today. Given that, I’m sometimes forced to make surmises based on the preponderance of the evidence. And, inevitably, sometimes those surmises turn out to be wrong.

Some time ago, I credited SSI’s Pool of Radiance, which I know sold precisely 264,536 copies thanks to internal sales figures found in the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play, as the best-selling single CRPG of the 1980s. Well, I recently found — in the March 1991 issue of Questbusters of all places — some official Electronic Arts figures for the first Bard’s Tale game: a very impressive 407,000 copies sold. This of course means that it easily eclipses Pool of Radiance for the title of best-selling (Western) CRPG of the 1980s. I’ve changed my articles dealing with Pool of Radiance and the Bard’s Tale series to reflect this, as credit is certainly owed where it’s due; Volume 8 (1986) and Volume 10 (1988) of the ebooks have also been updated. My thanks to my fellow historian Alex Smith, who tried to get me to look at this question again back when I first made the claim in my Pool of Radiance article. You were right to be skeptical, Alex.

From the Referrals Department:

As long as we’re on the subject of CRPGs, I’d like to pass along a recommendation for a tool that I’ve really come to love. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past searching for an alternative to graph paper and a pencil when it comes to mapping old-school dungeons. Everything I came across was either too sketchy or way too over-the-top, designed for making elaborate decorative maps for tabletop RPGs rather than mapping as you go from a computer game. But at last some months ago I found just what I was looking for: Grid Cartographer by David Walters. It’s not often I see such a polished and usable application in such a niche area as this. You do have to pay for the full version, but I’ve found it to be well worth it. I have no affiliation with David and have never even corresponded with him; I’m just a happy customer passing along a recommendation. I’ve long since come to suspect that many of you love old-school CRPGs much more than I do (it tends to be a genre, as many of you know, that tries my patience pretty quickly these days). You will doubtless be able to get even more use out of Grid Cartographer than I have.

And for text-adventure mapping, of course, there’s Trizbort, which is totally free and open source. I can hardly express how much more playable both tools make the moldy oldies in their respective genres.

From the Planning Department:

To wet your whistle, here’s a quick look at what you can expect in the months to come; those of you who prefer to be totally surprised by each new article will want to jump down to the next heading now. In other words, spoiler alert!

We’re entering another of those periods of transition where many publishers and developers fall by the wayside. So, after we finish the series we started on Friday, we’ll start a new series writing the last word about some companies who have been with us for quite a while, but who, alas, won’t be with us any longer. Lest that sound too depressing, know that the stories of these deaths manage to cover a huge amount of interesting ground, including patents from hell, the first color handheld videogame console, more early experiment with CD-ROM and full-motion video, and even more nefarious deeds by our favorite villain around these parts, Jack Tramiel. Death, so the philosophers tell us, begets life, so after that we’ll look at the birth of Legend Entertainment, the heir to Infocom (another recently deceased company of the 1980s, come to think of it). Speaking of which: we’ll stop by the amateur text-adventure scene to cover the early history of TADS, the first freely distributed development system capable of making adventure games as polished and complex as those of Infocom. Then an examination of early academic experiments with hypertext fiction, especially Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story. Next we turn to Lucasfilm Games (soon to become LucasArts), who truly came into their own as adventure developers in 1990 with not one but two of the genre’s stone-cold classics. We’ll check in with Sid Meier, who also published two games in 1990, one an immensely influential strategy classic, the other… well, not so much. But both are very instructional. Then more on SSI and their coveted Dungeons & Dragons license, an interesting experiment in accessible family-oriented multi-player gaming from Sierra, and a visit to Origin for Ultima VI and another era-defining game that, improbably, actually became even more popular than that latest installment in Richard Garriott’s seminal CRPG series. Somewhere in there we’ll also take time out for a technical article on the much-ridiculed 640 K limitation of MS-DOS and how developers finally got around it. (Did Bill Gates really say, “640 K should be enough for anyone?” Stay tuned to find out!)

Whew! I know I’m excited, and I hope you are too. Which brings mean to…

From the Accounting Department:

No one has ever tried to write a history of these topics of the scope and depth of the one I’m attempting. To continue to do so, I continue to need your support. To keep this site clean and fast-loading and to protect my neutrality and your privacy, I keep it ad-free. But that does mean that you’re all I’ve got when it comes to financial support. If you’re already a supporter, my heartfelt thanks. If not, and if you’re a regular reader who’s come to value what I do here, please do think about pitching in with a one-time donation (see the button to the right) or, even better, by becoming a Patreon patron at whatever level you can easily afford and that feels right to you. As I’ve said before, for the cost of a good cup of coffee each month you can make a material difference to the cause of serious gaming history, and ensure that you have an entertaining, interesting new article to read (almost) every Friday as well for years to come.

Speaking of which: see you this Friday with the next installment in the ongoing saga of Mick Mannock. Thanks for being the best readers anywhere!

(UPDATE, November 28 2016: As Leigh points out in the comments below, I accidentally left an article out of the new ebook. This has now been corrected, so you’ll likely want to download that volume again if you want to read about Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur offline.)

 

Manhole, Anyone?

As part of my research for an upcoming article, I would really like to beg, borrow, or buy a copy of the 1989 CD-ROM version of The Manhole for the black-and-white Macintosh. Note that this means neither the 1988 floppy-disk release nor the 1994 Masterpiece edition or any other re-release. If you happen to have a line on this rarity, I’d hugely appreciate it if you could contact me and let me know. I’d be equally happy with a digital or physical copy, and am willing to pay for the latter.

Thanks a million, and see you in a few days with my next proper article!

Update: Reader Casey Muratori knows the folks at Cyan, and put me in touch with them. They’re going to send me a copy, so problem solved. My huge thanks go to Cyan and to Casey, who has just provided yet more proof that I have the best readers in the world.

 

One is Enough For SimCity

It’s been a mixed week here in the man cave. On the one hand, last week’s article on SimCity blew up pretty big in social media, attracting lots of positive comments in the process; believe me, a writer can never tire of adjectives like “wonderful,” “fantastic,” and “hugely interesting.” But on the other, I made one of the more embarrassing errors in this blog’s history with the video clip I embedded into the same article; I attributed the speaker in that video to be Will Wright instead of his racing partner Rick Doherty. Then, just to compound the error, I decided to get all cute about it: “Wright shows off some of the RX-7’s gadgetry using the same rapid-fire, jargon-laden diction that journalists and tech-conference attendees would later come to know if not always love.” Ouch. Teach me not to try to be too clever.

But most of all this week, I’ve been struggling with my planned second article about SimCity. Actually, I’ve been struggling with my coverage of the game in general on and off for months now. My original plan was to do a deep dive, to try to draw a lot of connections to the history of urban planning and the lives of cities in general. I never could quite figure out how to do that in an interesting way, however, especially as I spent more time with the simulation itself and had to face how limited it ultimately is. My big plans got pared down to a couple of articles, one more factual and historical, one more critical and philosophical.

And then this week I couldn’t seem to get even the second of those articles to come together. My work kept devolving into a nitpicky poking of holes in the simulation, which isn’t really fair given the constraints under which it was produced. Or it became an extended critique of Will Wright for failing to make the sorts of games I personally most enjoy playing, which is still less fair, especially given that his work on SimCity cracked open the door for so many later games I do unabashedly love.

At some point in all of this, I realized something: that the first article stood alone just fine. It says everything I want and need to say about SimCity‘s history and its importance to gaming. Should there be any doubt, the latter will inevitably be continually reemphasized in future articles, as I write about some of the countless games that bear the stamp of Will Wright’s original innovation — not least many of the games designed by my personal hero Sid Meier. So, I’ve decided largely to leave well enough alone. I’ve tinkered a bit with the first — now only — article to highlight a few points, but rereading it is probably only for the extremely dedicated among you.

I feel very good about the decision, but all of this wheel-spinning does mean that I can’t give you a new article this week, for which my apologies. As the writers among you can doubtless attest, sometimes you don’t really know what you already have until you try to add to it. What can I say? It’s a process.

Next week we’ll be continuing with our previously planned programming, returning to the British scene for a few more articles after our brief sojourn back to the United States for SimCity. I’ve got some very interesting material in the oven — and material which I thankfully know exactly what to do with. So, catch you then.

In the meantime, thanks a million as always for reading and supporting this work!

 

1988 Ebook Now Available

The tenth and latest of the ebooks compiling my articles for this site is now freely available from the ebook download page, thanks as always to the beneficence of Richard Lindner. Please note that the division of the ebooks into historical years is necessarily only very rough, with many articles and themes crisscrossing backward and forward through time. So, if your favorite game from 1988 hasn’t yet appeared, don’t entirely despair.

That said… enjoy!

If you recently discovered this site, perhaps via one of the recent articles that blew up a bit in places like Hacker News and Twitter, and you’ve since become a regular reader, I’d firstly like to welcome you to this little journey I and some of my most longtime readers have been on for over five years now. (But don’t worry about having missed out on too much; we’re just getting started.) Secondly — you knew it couldn’t be that easy, right? — please do think about clicking one of the buttons over to the right to add your support via Patreon or PayPal. I can’t continue to do this work — and hopefully find ways to do it even better — without people just like you.

A recent survey that Patreon did with my backers revealed that you’d most like to know more about what’s coming up in the near future on the blog. I have indeed not done a great job with that, partly because I know there are some of you who like to be completely surprised by each new article. So, if you’re in that group, please take this as a spoiler warning and don’t read the next paragraph.

Our next big theme will be the advent of the so-called “god game” and the two designers who are still regarded today as perhaps the genre’s most dedicated practitioners. Interspersed between the two will be a long-delayed history of British computing after everything went sideways for Acorn and Sinclair in the mid-1980s. Then we’ll be following Infocom to the bitter end, finishing their story at last — but I’m personally more excited about digging into the pre-IF Renaissance American amateur scene that was springing up on the online services at the same time that Infocom was dying. The AGT era of text adventuring is little studied and little understood today, and I’m hugely looking forward to trying to correct that; there’s gold in them there hills. After that, we’ll be chronicling the history of the Macintosh after Steve Jobs left Apple. In the late 1980s, the Mac brought us a whole series of hugely important innovations, including HyperCard, Storyspace, and the first consumer-grade CD-ROMs, all of which we’ll be covering. But never fear, we’ll give equal time to the IBM clones as well — with the PS/2, OS/2, VGA graphics, and the first sound cards, there’s plenty to talk about there. We’ll stop in again at Sierra, always a bellwether for the PC-gaming industry as a whole; while there, I’ll get to write about a Sierra adventure game I actually like. (Doesn’t happen often enough, I know.) Throw in another visit with Cinemaware, who began doing some fascinating experiments of their own with CD-ROM during this period, and that about sums about the next few months. It should be a fun ride.

Thanks so much to all of you who help me to do this important work, whether through public comments, private help with my writing and research, or financial support. You all are, to use the single most overused word in the English language appropriately for once, awesome.