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Send in the Clones

In computer parlance, a clone is Company B’s copycat version of Company A’s computer that strains to be as software and hardware compatible with its inspiration as possible. For a platform to make an attractive target for cloning, it needs to meet a few criteria. The inspiration needs to be simple and/or well-documented enough that it’s practical for another company — and generally a smaller company at that, with far fewer resources at its disposal — to create a compatible knock-off in the first place. Then the inspiration needs to be successful enough that it’s spawned an attractive ecosystem that lots of people want to be a part of. And finally, there needs to be something preventing said people from joining said ecosystem by, you know, simply buying the machine that’s about to be cloned. Perhaps Company A, believing it has a lock on the market, keeps the price above what many otherwise interested people are willing or able to pay; perhaps Company A has simply neglected to do business in a certain part of the world filled with eager would-be buyers.

Clones have been with us almost from the moment that the trinity of 1977 kicked off the PC revolution in earnest. The TRS-80 was the big early winner of the trio thanks to its relatively low price and wide distribution through thousands of Radio Shack stores, outselling the Apple II in its first months by margins of at least twenty to one (as for the Commodore PET, it was the Bigfoot of the three, occasionally glimpsed in its natural habitat of trade-show booths but never available in a form you could actually put your hands on until well into 1978). The first vibrant, non-business-focused commercial software market in history sprung up around the little Trash 80. Cobbled together on an extreme budget out of generic parts that were literally just lying around at Radio Shack — the “monitor,” for instance, was just a cheap Radio Shack television re-purposed for the role — the TRS-80 was eminently cloneable. Doing so didn’t make a whole lot of sense in North America, where Radio Shack’s volume manufacturing and distribution system would be hard advantages to overcome. But Radio Shack had virtually no presence outside of North America, where there were nevertheless plenty of enthusiasts eager to join the revolution.

EACA shindig in Hong Kong

A shindig for EACA distributors in Hong Kong. Shortly after this photo was taken, Eric Chung, third from right in front, would abscond with $10 million and that would be that for EACA.

The most prominent of the number of TRS-80 cloners that had sprung up by 1980 was a rather shady Hong Kong-based company called EACA, who made cheap clones for any region of the world with distributors willing to buy them. Their knock-offs popped up in Europe under the name “The Video Genie”; in Australasia as the “Dick Smith System 80,” distributed under the auspices of Dick Smith Electronics, the region’s closest equivalent to Radio Shack; even in North America as the “Personal Micro Computers PMC-80.” EACA ended in dramatic fashion in 1983 when founder Eric Chuang absconded to Taiwan with all of his company’s assets that he could liquify, $10 million worth, stuffed into his briefcase. He or his descendents are presumably still living the high life there today.

By the time of those events, the TRS-80’s heyday was already well past, its position as the most active and exciting PC platform long since having been assumed by the Apple II, which had begun a surge to the fore in the wake of the II Plus model of 1979. The Apple II was if anything an even more tempting target for cloners than the TRS-80. While Steve Wozniak’s hardware design is justly still remembered as a marvel of compact elegance, it was also built entirely from readily available parts, lacking the complex and difficult-to-duplicate custom chips of competitors like Atari and Commodore. Wozniak had also insisted that every last diode on the Apple II’s circuit board be meticulously documented for the benefit of hackers just like him. And Apple, then as now, maintained some of the highest profit margins in the industry, creating a huge opportunity for a lean-and-mean cloner to undercut them.

The Franklin Ace 1000

A Franklin Ace 1000 mixed and matched with a genuine Apple floppy drive.

Assorted poorly distributed Far Eastern knock-offs aside, the first really viable Apple II clone arrived in mid-1982 in the form of the Franklin Ace line. The most popular model, the Ace 1000, offered for about 25 percent less than a II Plus complete hardware and software compatibility while also having more memory as well as luxuries like a numeric keypad and upper- and lowercase letter input. The Ace terrified Apple. With the Apple III having turned into a disaster, Apple remained a one-platform company, completely dependent on continuing Apple II sales — and continuing high Apple II profit margins — to fund not one but two hugely ambitious, hugely innovative, and hugely expensive new platform initiatives, Lisa and Macintosh. A viable market in Apple II workalikes which cut seriously into sales, or that forced price cuts, could bring everything down around their ears. Already six months before the Ace actually hit the market, as soon as they got word of Franklin’s plans, Apple’s lawyers were therefore looking for a way to challenge Franklin in court and drive their machine from the market.

As it turned out, the basis for a legal challenge wasn’t hard to find. Yes, the Apple II’s unexceptional hardware would seem to be fair game — but the machine’s systems software was not. Apple quickly confirmed that, like most of the TRS-80 cloners, Franklin had simply copied the contents of the II’s ROM chips; even bugs and the secret messages Apple’s programmers had hidden inside them were still there in Franklin’s versions. A triumphant Apple rushed to federal court to seek a preliminary injunction to keep the Ace off the market until the matter was decided through a trial. Much to their shocked dismay, the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found the defense offered by Franklin’s legal team compelling enough to deny the injuction. The Ace came out right on schedule that summer of 1982, to good reviews and excellent sales.

Franklin’s defense sounds almost unbelievable today. They readily admitted that they had simply copied the contents of the ROM chips. They insisted, however, that the binary code contained on the chips, being a machine-generated sequence of 1s and 0s that existed only inside the chips and that couldn’t be reasonably read by a human, was not a form of creative expression and thus not eligible for copyright protection in the first place. In Franklin’s formulation, only the human-readable source code used to create the binary code stored on the ROM chips, which Franklin had no access to and no need for given that they had the binary code, was copyrightable. It was an audacious defense to say the least, one which if accepted would tear down the legal basis for the entire software industry. After all, how long would it take someone to leap to the conclusion that some hot new game, stored only in non-human-readable form on a floppy disk, was also ineligible for copyright protection? Astonishingly, when the case got back to the District Court for a proper trial the judge again sided with Franklin, stating that “there is some doubt as to the copyrightability of the programs described in this litigation,” in spite of an earlier case, Williams Electronics, Inc. v. Arctic International, Inc., which quite clearly had established binary code as copyrightable. Only in August of 1983 was the lower court’s ruling overturned by the Federal Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. A truculent Franklin threatened to appeal to the Supreme Court, but finally agreed to a settlement that January that demanded they start using their own ROMs if they wanted to keep cloning Apple IIs.

Apple Computer, Inc., v. Franklin Computer Corp. still stands today as a landmark in technology jurisprudence. It firmly and finally established the copyrightable status of software regardless of its form of distribution. And it of course also had an immediate impact on would-be cloners, making their lives much more difficult than before. With everyone now perfectly clear on what was and wasn’t legal, attorney David Grais clarified the process cloners would need to follow to avoid lawsuits in an episode of Computer Chronicles:

You have to have one person prepare a specification of what the program [the systems software] is supposed to do, and have another person who’s never seen the [original] program write a program to do it. If you can persuade a judge that the second fellow didn’t copy from the [original] code, then I think you’ll be pretty safe.

After going through this process, Apple II cloners needed to end up with systems software that behaved absolutely identically to the original. Every system call needed to take the exact same amount of time that it did on a real Apple II; each of the original software’s various little quirks and bugs needed to be meticulously duplicated. Anything less would bring with it incompatibility, because there was absolutely nothing in those ROMs that some enterprising hacker hadn’t used in some crazy, undocumented, unexpected way. This was a tall hurdle indeed, one which neither Franklin nor any other Apple II cloner was ever able to completely clear. New Franklins duly debuted with the new, legal ROMs, and duly proved to be much less compatible and thus much less desirable than the older models. Franklin left the Apple-cloning business within a few years in favor of hand-held dictionaries and thesauri.

There is, however, still another platform to consider, one on which the cloners would be markedly more successful: the IBM PC. The open or (better said) modular architecture of the IBM PC was not, as so many popular histories have claimed, a sign of a panicked or slapdash design process. It was rather simply the way that IBM did business. Back in the 1960s the company had revolutionized the world of mainframe computing with the IBM System/360, not a single computer model but a whole extended family of hardware and software designed to plug and play together in whatever combination best suited a customer’s needs. It was this product line, the most successful in IBM’s history, that propelled them to the position of absolute dominance of big corporate computing that they still enjoyed in the 1980s, and that reduced formerly proud competitors to playing within the house IBM had built by becoming humble “Plug-Compatible Manufacturers” selling peripherals that IBM hadn’t deigned to provide — or, just as frequently, selling clones of IBM’s products for lower prices. Still, the combined profits of all the cloners remained always far less than those of IBM itself; it seemed that lots of businesses wanted the security that IBM’s stellar reputation guaranteed, and were willing to pay a bit extra for it. IBM may have thought the PC market would play out the same way. If so, they were in for a rude surprise.

The IBM PC was also envisioned as not so much a computer as the cornerstone of an ever-evolving, interoperable computing family that could live for years or decades. Within three years of the original machine’s launch, you could already choose from two CPUs, the original Intel 8088 or the new 80286; could install as little as 16 K of memory or as much as 640 K; could choose among four different display cards, from the text-only Monochrome Display Adapter to the complicated and expensive CAD-oriented Professional Graphics Controller; could choose from a huge variety of other peripherals: floppy and hard disks, tape backup units, modems, printer interfaces, etc. The unifying common denominator amongst all this was a common operating system, MS-DOS, which had quickly established itself as the only one of the four operating paradigms supported by the original IBM PC that anyone actually used. Here we do see a key difference between the System/360 and the IBM PC, one destined to cause IBM much chagrin: whereas the former ran an in-house-developed IBM operating system, the operating system of the latter belonged to Microsoft.

The IBM architecture was different from that of the Apple II in that its operating system resided on disk, to be booted into memory at system startup, rather than being housed in ROM. Still, every computer needs to have some code in ROM. On an IBM PC, this code was known as the “Basic Input/Output System,” or BIOS, a nomenclature borrowed from the CP/M-based machines that preceded it. The BIOS was responsible on startup for doing some self-checks and configuration and booting the operating system from disk. It also contained a set of very basic, very low-level routines to do things like read from and write to the disks, detect keyboard input, or display text on the screen; these would be called constantly by MS-DOS and, very commonly, by applications as well while the machine was in operation. The BIOS was the one piece of software for the IBM PC that IBM themselves had written and owned, and for obvious reasons they weren’t inclined to share it with anyone else. Two small companies, Corona Labs and Eagle Computer, would simply copy IBM’s BIOS a la Franklin. It took the larger company all of one day to file suit and force complete capitulation and market withdrawal when those machines came to their attention in early 1984.

Long before those events, other wiser would-be cloners recognized that creating a workalike, “clean-room” version of IBM’s BIOS would be the key to executing a legal IBM clone. The IBM PC’s emphasis on modularity and future expansion meant that it was a bit more forgiving in this area than the likes of the more tightly integrated Apple II. Yet an IBM-compatible BIOS would still be a tricky business, fraught with technical and financial risk.

As the IBM PC was beginning to ship, a trio of Texas Instruments executives named Rod Canion, James Harris, and William Murto were kicking around ideas for getting out from under what they saw as a growing culture of non-innovation inside TI. Eager to start a business of their own, they considered everything from a Mexican restaurant to household gadgets like a beeper for finding lost keys. Eventually they started to ask what the people around them at TI wanted but weren’t getting in their professional lives. They soon had their answer: a usable portable computer that executives and engineers could cart around with them on the road, and that was cheap enough that their purchasing managers wouldn’t balk. Other companies had explored this realm before, most notably the brief-lived Osborne Computer with the Osborne 1, but those products had fallen down badly in the usability sweepstakes; the Osborne 1, for example, had a 5-inch display screen the mere thought of which could prompt severe eye strain in those with any experience with the machine, disk drives that could store all of 91 K, and just 64 K of memory. Importantly, all of those older portables ran CP/M, until now the standard for business computing. Canion, Harris, and Murto guessed, correctly, that CP/M’s days were numbered in the wake of IBM’s adoption of MS-DOS. Not wanting to be tied to a dying operating system, they first considered making their own. Yet when they polled the big software publishers about their interest in developing for yet another new, incompatible machine the results were not encouraging. There was only one thing for it: they must find a way to make their portable compatible with the IBM PC. If they could bring out such a machine before IBM did, the spoils could be enormous. Prominent tech venture capitalist Ben Rosen agreed, investing $2.5 million to help found Compaq Computer Corporation in February of 1982. What with solid funding and their own connections within the industry, Canion, Harris, and Murto thought they could easily design a hardware-compatible portable that was better than anything else available at the time. That just left the software side.

Given Bill Gates’s reputation as the Machiavelli of the computer industry, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that some journalists have credited him with anticipating the rise of PC clones from well before the release of the first IBM PC. That, however, is not the case. All indications are that Gates negotiated a deal that let Microsoft lease MS-DOS to IBM rather than sell it to them simply in the expectation that the IBM PC would be a big success, enough so that an ongoing licensing fee would amount to far more than a lump-sum payout in the long run. Thus he was as surprised as anyone when Compaq and a few other early would-be cloners contacted him to negotiate MS-DOS license deals for their own machines. Of course, Gates being Gates, it took him all of about ten minutes to grasp the implications of what was being requested, and to start making deals that, not incidentally, actually paid considerably better than the one he’d already made with IBM.

The BIOS would be a tougher nut to crack, the beachhead on which this invasion of Big Blue’s turf would succeed or fail. Having quickly concluded that simply copying IBM’s ROMs wasn’t a wise option, Compaq hired a staff of fifteen programmers who would dedicate the months to come to creating a slavish imitation. Programmers with any familiarity at all with the IBM BIOS were known as “dirty,” and barred from working on the project. Instead of relying on IBM’s published BIOS specifications (which might very well be incorrect due to oversight or skulduggery), the team took the thirty biggest applications on the market and worked through them one at a time, analyzing each BIOS call each program made and figuring out through trial and error what response it needed to receive. The two trickiest programs, which would go on to become a sort of stress test for clone compatibility both inside and outside of Compaq, proved to be Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Before the end of the year, Compaq was previewing their new portable to press and public and working hard to set up a strong dealer network. For the latter task they indulged in a bit of headhunting: they hired away from IBM H. L. ”Sparky” Sparks, the man who had set up the IBM PC dealer network. Knowing all too well how dealers thought and what was most important to them, Sparks instituted a standard expected dealer markup of 36 percent, versus the 33 percent offered by IBM, thus giving them every reason to look hard at whether a Compaq might meet a customer’s needs just as well or better than a machine from Big Blue.

The Compaq Portable

Compaq’s first computer, the Portable

Savvy business realpolitik like that became a hallmark of Compaq. Previously clones had been the purview of small upstarts, often with a distinct air of the fly-by-night about them. The suburban-Houston-based Compaq, though, was different, not only from other cloners but also from the established companies of Silicon Valley. Compaq was older, more conservative, interested in changing the world only to the extent that that meant more Compaq computers on desks and in airplane luggage racks. ”I don’t think you could get a 20-year-old to not try to satisfy his ego by ‘improving’ on IBM,” said J. Steven Flannigan, the man who led the BIOS reverse-engineering effort. “When you’re fat, balding, and 40, and have a lot of patents already, you don’t have to try.” That attitude was something corporate purchasing managers could understand. Indeed, Compaq bore with it quite a lot of the same sense of comforting stolidity as did IBM itself. Not quite the first to hit the market with an IBM clone with a “clean” BIOS (that honor likely belongs to Columbia Data Products, a much scruffier sort of operation that would be out of business by 1985), Compaq nevertheless legitimized the notion in the eyes of corporate America.

The Compaq Portable goes flying

The worst possible 1980s airplane seatmate: a business traveler lugging along a Compaq Portable.

Yet the Compaq Portable that started shipping very early in 1983 also succeeded because it was an excellent and — Flannigan’s sentiments aside — innovative product. By coming out with their portable before IBM itself, Compaq showed that clones need not be mere slavish imitations of their inspirations distinguished only by a lower price. “Portable” in 1983 did not, mind you, mean what it does today. The Compaq Portable was bigger and heavier  — a full 28 pounds — than most desktop machines of today, something you manhandled around like a suitcase rather than slipping into a pocket or backpack. There wasn’t even a battery in the thing, meaning the businessperson on the go would likely be doing her “portable” computing only in her hotel room. Still, it was very thoughtfully designed within the technical constraints of its era; you could for instance attach it to a real monitor at your desk to enjoy color graphics in lieu of the little 9-inch monochrome screen that came built-in, a first step on the road to the ubiquitous laptop docking stations of today.

Launching fortuitously just as some manufacturing snafus and unexpected demand for the new PC/XT were making IBM’s own computers hard to secure in some places, the Compaq Portable took off like a rocket. Compaq sold 53,000 of them for $111 million in sales that first year, a record for a technology startup. IBM, suddenly in the unaccustomed position of playing catch-up, released their own portable the following year with fewer features but — and this was truly shocking — a lower price than the Compaq Portable; by forcing high-and-mighty IBM to compete on price, Compaq seemed to have somehow turned the world on its head. The IBM Portable PC was a notable commercial failure, first sign of IBM’s loosening grip on the monster they had birthed. Meanwhile Compaq launched their own head-to-head challenge that same year with the DeskPro line of desktop machines, to much greater success. Apple may have been attacking IBM in melodramatic propaganda films and declaring themselves and IBM to be locked in a battle of Good versus Evil, but IBM hardly seemed to notice the would-be Apple freedom fighters. The only company that really mattered to IBM, the only company that scared them, wasn’t sexy Apple but buttoned-down, square-jawed Compaq.

But Compaq was actually far from IBM’s only problem. Cloning just kept getting easier, for everyone. In the spring of 1984 two little companies called Award Software and Phoenix Technologies announced identical products almost simultaneously: a reverse-engineered, completely legal IBM-compatible BIOS which they would license to anyone who felt like using it to make a clone. Plenty of companies did, catapulting Award and Phoenix to the top of what was soon a booming niche industry (they would eventually resolve their rivalry the way that civilized businesspeople do it, by merging). With the one significant difficulty of cloning thus removed, making a new clone became almost a triviality, a matter of ordering up a handful of components along with MS-DOS and an off-the-shelf BIOS, slapping it all together, and shoving it out the door; the ambitious hobbyist could even do it in her home if she liked. By 1986, considerably more clones were being sold than IBMs, whose own sales were stagnant or even decreasing.

That year Intel started producing the 80386, the third generation of the line of CPUs that powered the IBM PC and its clones. IBM elected to wait a bit before making use of it, judging that the second-generation 80286, which they had incorporated into the very successful PC/AT in 1984, was still plenty powerful  for the time being. It was a bad decision, predicated on a degree dominance which IBM no longer enjoyed. Smelling opportunity, Compaq made their own 80386-based machine, the DeskPro 386, the first to sport the hot new chip. Prior to this machine, the cloners had always been content to let IBM pave the way of such fundamental advances. The DeskPro 386 marks Compaq’s — and the clone industry’s — coming of age. No longer just floating along in the wake of IBM, tinkering with form factors, prices, and feature sets, now they were driving events. Already in November of 1985, Bill Machrone of PC Magazine had seen where this was leading: “Now that it [IBM] has created the market, the market doesn’t necessarily need IBM for the machines.” We see here business computing going through its second fundamental shift (the first being the transition from CP/M to MS-DOS). What was an ecosystem of IBM and IBM clones now became a set of sometimes less-than-ideal, sometimes accidental, but nevertheless agreed-upon standards that were bigger than IBM or anyone else. IBM, Machrone wrote, “had better conform” to the standards or face the consequences just like anyone else. Tellingly, it’s at about this time that we see the phrase “IBM clone” begin to fade, to be replaced by “MS-DOS machine” or “Intel-based machine.”

The emerging Microsoft/Intel juggernaut (note the lack of an “IBM” in there) would eventually conquer the home as well. Already by the mid-1980s certain specimens of the breed were beginning to manifest features that could make them attractive for the home user. Let’s rewind just slightly to look at the most important of them, which I’ve mentioned in a couple of earlier articles but have never really given its full due.

When the folks at Radio Shack, trying to figure out what to do with their aging, fading TRS-80 line, saw the ill-fated IBM PCjr, they saw things well worth salvaging in its 16-color graphics chip and its three-voice sound synthesizer, both far superior to the versions found in its big brothers. Why not clone those pieces, package them into an otherwise fairly conventional PC clone, and sell the end result as the perfect all-around computer, one which could run all the critical business applications but could also play games in the style to which kids with Commodore 64s were accustomed? Thanks to the hype that had accompanied the PCjr’s launch, there were plenty of publishers out there with huge inventories of games and other software that supported the PCjr’s audiovisuals, inventories they’d be only too eager to unload on Radio Shack cheap. With those titles to prime the pump, who knew where things might go…

Launched in late 1984, the Tandy 1000 was the first IBM clone to be clearly pitched not so much at business as at the ordinary consumer. In addition to the audiovisual enhancements and very aggressive pricing, it included DeskMate, a sort of proto-GUI operating environment designed to insulate the user from the cryptic MS-DOS command prompt while giving access to six typical home applications that came built right in. A brilliant little idea all the way around, the Tandy 1000 rescued Radio Shack from the brink of computing irrelevance. It also proved a godsend for many software publishers who’d bet big on the PCjr; John Williams credits it with literally saving Sierra by providing a market for King’s Quest, a game Sierra had developed for the PCjr at horrendous expense and to underwhelming sales given that platform’s commercial failure. Indeed, the Tandy 1000 became so popular that it prompted lots of game publishers to have a second look at the heretofore dull beige world of the clones. As they jumped aboard the MS-DOS gravy train, many made sure to take advantage of the Tandy 1000’s audiovisual enhancements. Thousands of titles would eventually blurb what became known as “Tandy graphics support” on their boxes and advertisements. Having secured the business market, the Intel/Microsoft architecture’s longer, more twisting road to hegemony over home computing began in earnest with the Tandy 1000. And meanwhile poor IBM couldn’t even get proper credit for the graphics standard they’d actually invented. Sometimes you just can’t win for losing.

Another sign of the nascent but inexorably growing power of Intel/Microsoft in the home would come soon after the Tandy 1000, with the arrival of the first game to make many Apple, Atari, and Commodore owners wish that they had a Tandy 1000 or, indeed, even one of its less colorful relatives. We’ll get to that soon — no, really! — but first we have just one more detour to take.

(I was spoiled for choice on sources this time. A quick rundown of periodicals: Creative Computing of January 1983; Byte of January 1983, November 1984, and August 1985; PC Magazine of January 1987; New York Times of November 5 1982, October 26 1983, January 5 1984, February 1 1984, and February 22 1984; Fortune of February 18 1985. Computer Wars by Charles H. Ferguson and Charles R. Morris is a pretty book book-length study of IBM’s trials and tribulations during this period. More information on the EACA clones can be found at Terry Stewart’s site. More on Compaq’s roots in Houston can be found at the Texas Historical Association. A few more invaluable links are included in the article proper.)

 
 

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The Fractal Phenomenon

How long is the coast of Britain? Would you be surprised if I told you that it’s infinitely long? Infinite coastlines are just one of many byproducts of the strange mathematics of fractal geometry.

Why is geometry often described as “cold” and “dry?” One reason lies in its inability to describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain, a coastline, or a tree. Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.

— Benoit Mandelbrot

For centuries mathematicians and philosophers were dogged by a nagging problem. Classic Euclidean geometry, with its regular lines and planes and solids, was elegant and useful, but fell down when it came to describing the natural world. It was ill-equipped to describe the seemingly endless spatial complexity of a leaf — or, for that matter, a section of coastline. Indeed, it’s largely the very presence or absence of such chaotic complexity that we subconsciously use when we decide whether something is natural or human-made. The world humanity has built is created in the image of our geometry, while the universe that birthed us, even the very forms that enclose us, is defined by its refusal to conform to our ideals of coordinates and shapes and angles. To believe that the universe is somehow corrupted or deformed because of this refusal would be the height of hubris. “These are not natural irregularities, but with respect to our fancy only; nor are they incommodious to the true uses of life and the design of man’s being on earth,” wrote Richard Bentley in the time of Swift and Pope. Yet how to reconcile the riot of natural beauty with the cooler constructions of Euclid? Until very recently we literally lacked a mathematical language to describe the world around us.

In 1975 the Polish/French mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot provided such a language when he published his theory of fractal geometry. Mandelbrot discovered that certain solution sets to certain equations generate what he called “fractals” — patterns that are infinitely detailed. Such sets were much better suited to describe natural forms than anything heretofore present in the geometric arsenal.

It’s this seeming paradox of infinite detail that’s the thorniest conceptual part of natural forms and fractal geometry alike. To begin to get a handle on it, consider the “snowflake” curve, an idea first proposed by Helge von Koch in 1904. Imagine that you start with a line forming a simple geometric motif.

a "snowflake" curve

Now you replace every straight-line segment with another copy of the original motif.

a "snowflake" curve

You do it again…

a "snowflake" curve

And you keep on doing it over and over and over, to infinity.

a "snowflake" curve

As you look at a coastline or a leaf at ever greater levels of magnification, there are always more details, more curves and changes to discover. This continues forever — or at least until you hit the level of individual particles of matter, the sort of resolution limit of the universe itself. Thus that aforementioned infinite — or at any rate unmeasurable — coastline. “Coastline length turns out to be an elusive notion that slips between the fingers of one who tries to grasp it,” wrote Benoit Mandelbrot. “All measurement methods ultimately lead to the conclusion that the coastline’s length is very large and so ill-determined that it is best considered infinite.”  What to make of such a logical monstrosity?

Mandelbrot found a way out in some theories of dimensionality espoused by the controversial German mathematician Felix Hausdorff more than half a century before. The easiest way to describe conventional notions of dimensionality mathematically is to say that an object’s number of dimensions equates to the number of numbers needed to describe a single point on it. Thus a line (X) is one-dimensional; a plane (X and Y) two-dimensional; a solid (X, Y, and Z) three-dimensional. Hausdorff, however, floated the counter-intuitive notion that dimensions could be fractions as well as whole numbers. Consider a line. As it gets more wiggly, ever more complex in its gyrations, its dimensionality increases, until it becomes infinitely wiggly, and completely fills — or, perhaps better said, becomes — a plane. The pattern labelled 1a below, for example, is made up of infinite repetitions (within the bounds of the resolution of the picture) of the hook-like line segment labelled 1b. According to Hausdorff’s formulation, it has a dimensionality of 1.8687.

A line with a dimension of 1.8687

This idea of fractional dimensionality is a strange one, but seeing complex lines in terms of dimension rather than distance does allow us to dodge the paradox of infinite coastlines, restoring a mathematical order in which the coast of Britain is again longer than that of, say, the island where I live these days, Funen.

The most interesting fractal equations are not those like the ones shown above that simply repeat a pattern, but rather those that echo themselves but never exactly repeat, to infinity. The classic example is one of the first discovered by Mandelbrot himself, the appropriately named Mandelbrot set, consisting of all solutions to (z(n) ← z(n – 1)2 + c) which converge toward zero rather than expanding toward infinity. (Whilst trying to avoid getting too far down into the weeds here: this notation represents a potentially infinite series of iterations, in which n represents the current iteration. The result of the previous iteration — represented as z(n – 1) — is used as input for the next. The variable c is assumed to be a complex number, meaning it can be plotted onto the X and Y axes of a Cartesian coordinate system.)

The Mandelbrot set produces the most famous and immediately recognizable visual pattern in the field of fractals.

Mandelbrot set

At this point I’d like to give you a chance to explore the Mandelbrot set for yourself, via the little program embedded below. You can pan around by holding down the left mouse button and dragging in the desired direction; drill down deeper into the image by holding down the right button and dragging to select the region you’d like to magnify; and undo each step you’ve previously made by clicking the middle button. Notice how this infinite space is made up of similar patterns that are nevertheless never quite exactly the same.

Now for the caveats: as you zoom in to ever-greater levels of magnification, the picture begins to break down and lose detail. This is not a reflection of the pure mathematics of fractal geometry, but rather a byproduct of the computing reality of limited number precision and limited processing power, especially given that this is implemented in the relatively slow language of JavaScript. Any computerized exploration of fractals is inevitably bounded by such considerations, as well as by the resolution of the individual pixels that form the patterns. Eventually my program will not let you zoom in further at all, a concession to these realities; when you reach the point that your zooms don’t take anymore, you’ll have to zoom out by clicking the middle button to continue your explorations. Due to its processing demands, not to mention the lack of handy mouse buttons, I don’t recommend that you try to play with this program on your phones or tablets. (If these limitations smart, you might want to consider how far we’ve come; a typical 68000-based computer of the 1980s would have required hours to generate each new image.)

As useful and oddly beautiful as fractal lines like the ones produced by the Mandelbrot set can be, they’re only the beginning. Fractal planes are also possible, existing in some fractional limbo between two and three dimensions. Just as a plane is in this formulation an infinitely complicated line, a solid is an infinitely “wrinkled” plane. And just as fractal lines are perfect for representing coastlines and leaves, fractal planes can easily become mountains. The striking pictures shown below were computer-generated by Richard F. Voss in 1983 using only fractal equations.

Fractal mountains

It’s also possible — mathematically, that is — to go further, to produce fractals that strain toward a fourth (or higher) dimension. However, representing them becomes a problem given our three-dimensional world. We can only show a three-dimensional slice of these fractals. Doing so produces some strange shapes indeed, like the “dragons” of Alan Norton.

One of Alan Norton's "dragon" fractals

Benoit Mandelbrot published his magnum opus, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, in 1982; it still remains the definitive book on the subject. It’s a strange sort of mathematics text, in which Mandelbrot devotes at least as much space to philosophical digressions into the implications of his discoveries as he does to proofs and equations, and that much space again to lots of beautiful color slides of the fractals themselves. With the book’s publication, the theory of fractals became an example of a rare phenomenon indeed: a development in abstract higher mathematics that was taken up and trumpeted widely and excitedly by not just the likes of Scientific American (which devoted many, many articles to the subject) but also mainstream magazines, newspapers, even television broadcasts. As is all too typical of any new media plaything, fractals were hyped as useful for everything short of curing cancer — and I suspect that some wouldn’t put that past them either. Not only could physicists use them to understand the motions of molecules and and biologists to understand the growth of plants, but some researchers claimed that fractal music was a possibility, while others claimed that they could help you get rich by revealing the “hidden patterns” that govern the stock market. In a 1984 article for Byte magazine, Peter R. Sørensen waxed effusive: “their uses range from physics, biology, and sociology, to art and even motion-picture scene simulation.” While I’m hardly qualified to speak to their uses in the former three scientific disciplines, I do feel fairly confident in claiming that they have had the greatest impact on those latter two, mushier categories, especially if we preface “art” with the word “computer” and allow computer games to slip in under that label.

Tellingly, Mandelbrot was employed at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center at the time he wrote The Fractal Geometry of Nature; all of the images found within it were generated by the computers there. Many fractal equations, including some of the most beautiful, aren’t complex at all in themselves, but the need to iterate through them so many times to produce their solution sets means that the science of fractals could exist only as a theory without the aid of computers. The first primitive computerized fractal visualizations had been produced by Robert W. Brooks and Peter Matelski in 1978, just three years after Mandelbrot first codified his theories. Virtually from that time forward fractals were inseparable from the computers needed to properly generate and study them.

Many people got their first glimpse of fractals before the hype started in earnest, in a remarkable sequence of computer-generated special effects included in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.


The creators of the sequence were the Lucasfilm Graphics Group, a collection of software and hardware engineers whom George Lucas had started putting together in 1979. These folks, whose numbers included such soon-to-be computer-graphics legends as Alvy Ray Smith, designed and built all of the hardware and software used to create sequences like this one. In 1986, the Graphics Group would be spun off to become an independent company whose name you might know: Pixar.

When Lucas elected to start a computer-games division shortly after the sequence shown above was created, it was natural for it to draw inspiration, technologies, and even personnel from the Graphics Group. One of Lucasfilm’s first two games, Rescue on Fractalus!, proudly bears its graphical underpinnings and its status as the first game to make significant use of fractals right there in its title. (By way of continuing the theme, the alien enemies you fight are called the “Jaggies,” a reference to the ugly pixelized artifacts that are one of a computer artist’s worst enemies.) The game, something of a hybrid of Choplifter and the Atari 8-bit classic Star Raiders that didn’t manage to be quite as compelling as either, nevertheless sparked great interest upon its 1984 release thanks to its endlessly varied mountainous terrain, generated on the fly using fractal algorithms.

In the wake of Rescue on Fractalus! fractals were suddenly everywhere in the computing press; I’m not sure there was a single magazine that didn’t publish at least one big feature article on the subject over the next few years. The appeal of fractals to programmers was obvious, and had little to do with Mandelbrot’s esoteric philosophies about geometry and nature. Irregular, natural-looking landscapes had previous been dauntingly hard to craft for games — hard not only because they were a pain to draw but also and predominately because they were so un-amenable to compression algorithms and, indeed, to virtually all of the many innovative techniques programmers had discovered to store graphics data using minimal memory. Thus the distinctly regular, blocky graphics that were the norm, and the shock that was Rescue on Fractalus! Much like the Fibonacci-derived galaxies of Elite, fractals let programmers create whole landscapes generatively, from only an equation and a few seed numbers. They had their limitations, not least the amount of processing power that had to be allocated to generating them — Rescue on Fractalus! runs at all of 5 or 6 frames per second — but for many applications they seemed like magic. It was not a coincidence that after 1984 virtual landscapes started to become markedly richer and more natural.

But fractals did more than just make games prettier; they opened up whole new realms of possibility for them. The bit of video below, from a remarkable game that will be the topic of another article I’ll be publishing soon, may not look like much in contrast to some of what you’ve already seen today. Yet consider that, thanks to the magic of fractals, the planet being landed on is one of thousands to be topographically mapped in its entirety, and that you can land on it absolutely anywhere you like, zooming in from space to touch down where you will just as you can zoom and pan and explore the Mandelbrot set via the toy embedded into this article. Each of these unique worlds is generated using just a few numbers, a bare handful of bytes of precious memory.


Fractals aren’t quite the media darlings they once were; many other shiny objects have come and gone since the 1980s. And while they remain a valuable tool in many branches of science, they’re no longer viewed there either as the revolution they once were. You certainly don’t hear much anymore about fractal music or using fractals to play the stock market. Likewise, they’re now just another item in a game programmer’s bag of tricks. Still, they retain a fascination and beauty all their own. In that spirit, have fun in any further explorations you undertake, and if you discover any interesting patterns using my little toy above, or if you create any enhancements on the Studio Sketchpad site that hosts it, by all means let me know.

(As noted in the article proper, old computer magazines are an embarrassment of riches when it comes to information on fractals. Particularly good articles are in found in the Byte of March 1984, September 1984, and June 1986; the 80 Microcomputing of December 1984; the Ahoy! of April 1987; the Amazing of March 1989, July 1989, October 1989, January 1990, June 1990, and April 1991; the Compute! of January 1983; and the A.N.A.L.O.G. of January 1986.

And since we’re in a multimedia sort of mood today, check out this song about the Mandelbrot set, sent to me by reader Rick Reynolds.)

 
 

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Amnesia

Thomas M. Disch, circa 1985

Thomas M. Disch, circa 1985

I feel fairly confident in stating that Thomas M. Disch trails only Robert Pinsky as the second most respected literary figure to turn his hand to the humble text adventure — speaking in terms of his literary prestige at the time of his game’s release, that is. The need for that last qualifier says much about his troubled and ultimately tragic life and career.

Disch burst to prominence alongside Roger Zelazny and the rest of science fiction’s New Wave in the mid-1960s. Yet Disch’s art was always even more uncompromising — and usually more uncompromisingly bleak — than that of his peers. His first novel bears the cheery name of The Genocides, and tells the story of the annihilation of humanity by an alien race who remake the Earth into a hyper-efficient nutrient farm, apparently without ever even recognizing humans as sentient. In its final scenes the remnants of the human race crawl naked through the innards of the aliens’ giant plants, stripped of even a veneer of civilization, reduced to feeding and fucking and waiting to be eradicated like the unwanted animal infestations they are. Camp Concentration — sensing a theme? — another early novel that is perhaps his most read and most acclaimed today, tells of another ignominious end to the human race, this time due to an intelligence-boosting super-drug that slowly drives its experimental recipients insane and then gets loose to spread through the general population as a contagion.

The protagonist of the latter novel is a pompous overweight intellectual who struggles with a self-loathing born of his homosexual and gastronomic lusts, a man who can feel uncomfortably close to Disch himself — or, more sadly, to the way Disch, a gay man who grew up in an era when that was a profoundly shameful thing to be, thought others must see him. Perhaps in compensation, he became a classic “difficult” artiste; his reputation as a notable pain in the ass for agents, editors, and even fellow writers was soon well-established throughout the world of publishing. He seemed to crave a validation from science fiction which he never quite achieved — he would never win a Hugo or Nebula for his fiction — while at the same time often dismissing and belittling the genre when not picking pointless fights within it with the likes Ursula Le Guin, whom he accused of being a fundamentally one-dimensional political writer concerned with advancing a “feminist agenda”; one suspects her real crime was that of selling far more books and collecting far more awards than Disch. Yet just when you might be tempted to dismiss him as an angry crank, Disch could write something extraordinary, like 334, an interwoven collection of vignettes and stories set in a rundown New York tenement of the near future that owes as much to James Joyce as it does to H.G. Wells; or On Wings of Song, both a sustained character study of a failed artist and a brutal work of satire in precise opposition to the rarefied promise of its title — these “Wings of Song,” it turns out, are a euphemism for a high-tech drug high. Disch wrote and wrote and wrote: high-brow criticism of theater and opera for periodicals like The New York Times and The Nation; reams of science-fiction commentary and criticism; copious amounts of poetry (always under the name “Tom Disch”), enough to fill several books; mainstream horror novels more accessible than most of his other efforts, which in 1991 yielded at last some of the commercial rewards that had eluded his science fiction and poetry when he published The M.D., his only bestseller; introductions and commentaries to the number of science-fiction anthologies he curated; two plays and an opera libretto; and, just to prove that the soul of this noted pessimist did house at least a modicum of sweetness and light, the children’s novel The Brave Little Toaster, later adapted into the cult classic of an animated film that is still the only Disch story ever to have made it to the screen.

The dawn of the brief bookware boom found Disch at something of a crossroads. On Wings of Song, published in 1979, would turn out to be his last major science-fiction novel, its poor commercial performance the final rejection that convinced him, the occasional short story or work of criticism aside, to write in other genres for the remaining quarter century of his life. He was just finishing his first horror novel, The Businessman, when his publisher Harper & Row came to him to ask if he might be interested in making his next novel interactive, in the form of the script for a computer game. Like just about every other book publisher in the United States, Harper & Row were in equal measure intrigued by the potential for interactive literature and terrified lest they be left out of a whole new field of literary endeavor. They were also, naturally, eager to leverage their existing stable of authors. Disch, a respected and established author of “literary” genre fiction who didn’t actually sell all that well as a rule, must have seemed an ideal choice; they’d get the cachet of his name without foregoing a bunch of guaranteed sales of a next traditional novel. For his part, Disch was intrigued, and jumped aboard with enthusiasm to write Amnesia.

We know quite a lot about Disch’s plans for the game thanks to a fellow historian named Stephane Racle, who in 2008 discovered his design script, an altogether fascinating document totaling almost 450 pages, along with a mock-up of Harper & Row’s planned packaging in a rare-books shop. The script evinces by its length and detail alone a major commitment to the project on Disch’s part. He later claimed to find it something of a philosophical revelation.

When you’re working on this kind of text, you’re operating in an entirely different mode from when you’re writing other forms of literature. You’re not writing in that trance state of entering a daydream and describing what’s to the left or right, marching forward, which is how most novels get written. Rather, you have to be always conscious of the ways the text can be deconstructed. In a very literal sense, any computer-interactive text deconstructs itself as you write because it’s always stopping and starting and branching off this way and that. You are constantly and overtly manifesting those decisions usually hidden in fiction because, of course, you don’t normally show choices that are ruled out — though in every novel the choices that are not made are really half the work, an invisible presence. With Amnesia, I found myself working with a form that allowed me to display these erasures, these unfollowed paths. It’s like a Diebenkorn painting, where you can see the lines that haven’t quite been covered over by a new layer of paint. There are elements of this same kind of structural candor in a good Youdunit.

Disch came to see the player’s need to figure out what to type next as a way to force her to engage more seriously with the text, to engage in deep reading and thereby come to better appreciate the nuances of language and style that were so important to him as a writer.

Readers who ordinarily skim past such graces wouldn’t be allowed to do that because they’d have to examine the text for clues as to how to respond; they’d have to read slowly and carefully. I thought that was theoretically appealing: a text whose form allowed me a measure of control over the readerly reponse in a way unavailable to a novelist or short-story writer. I’ve always been frustrated that genre readers are often addictive readers who will go through a novel in one night. I can’t read at that speed — and I don’t like to be read at that speed, either.

Philosophical flights aside, Disch didn’t shirk the nitty-gritty work that goes into crafting an interactive narrative. For instance, he painstakingly worked through how the protagonist should be described in the many possible states of dress he might assume. He even went so far as to author error messages to display if the player, say, tries to take off his pants without first removing his shoes. He also thought about ways to believably keep the story on track in the face of many possible player choices. One section of the story, for example, requires that the player be wearing a certain white tuxedo. Disch ensures this is the case by making sure the pair of jeans the player might otherwise choose to wear have a broken zipper which makes them untenable (this also offers an opportunity for some sly humor, an underrated part of Disch’s arsenal of writing talents). Even Douglas Adams, a much more technically aware writer who was very familiar with Infocom’s games before collaborating with Steve Meretzky on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, couldn’t be bothered with this kind of detail work; he essentially authored just the main path through his game and left all the side details up to Meretzky.

Amnesia‘s story is not, outside the presence of a drug capable of inducing sustained and ever-encroaching amnesia, science fiction. It’s rather a noirish mystery in which no character, including the amnesiac protagonist, is pure, everyone has multiple layers of secrets and motivations, and nothing is quite what it initially seems. Disch almost seems to have challenged himself to make use of every hoary old cliché he can think of from classic detective fiction, including not only the device of amnesia itself but also hayseed Texans who shoot first and ask questions later, multiple femme fatales, and even two men who look so alike they can pass as identical twins. It takes a very good writer to get away with such a rogues gallery of stereotypes. Luckily, Disch was a very good writer when he wanted to be. Amnesia is not, mind you, deserving of mention alongside Disch’s most important literary works. Nor, one senses, is it trying to be. But it is a cracker of a knotty detective story, far better constructed and written than the norm in adventure games then or now. Among its most striking features are frank and even moving depictions of physical love that are neither pornographic nor comedic, arguably the first such to appear in a major commercial game.

 

Cognetics -- Pat Reilly, Kevin Bentley, Lis Romanov, and Charlie Kreitzberg -- trying to be EA rock stars and, with the notable exception of Benley, failing miserably at it.

Cognetics — Pat Reilly, Kevin Bentley, Lis Romanov, and Charlie Kreitzberg — trying to be EA rock stars and, with the notable exception of Bentley, failing miserably at it.

To implement his script, Harper & Row chose a tiny New Jersey company called Cognetics who were engaged in two completely different lines of endeavor: developing the user interface for Citibank ATMs and developing edutainment software for Harper & Row, specifically a line of titles based on Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock television series. The owner of Cognetics, Charlie Kreitzberg, already had quite a long background in computing for both business and academia, having amongst other accomplishments authored a standard programming text called The Elements of FORTRAN Style a decade before. Working with some colleagues, Kreitzberg had developed an extendible version of the Forth programming language with a kernel of just 6 K or so to facilitate game development on the Apple II. He dubbed this micro-Forth “King Edward” for reasons known only to him. The actual programming of Amnesia he turned over to a local kid named Kevin Bentley; they had met through Kreitzberg’s wife, who shopped at the grocery store owned by Bentley’s family. And so it was poor young Kevin Bentley who had Disch’s doorstop of a script dropped on his desk — no one had apparently bothered to tell the untechnical Disch about the need to limit his text to fit into the computers of the time — with instructions to turn it into a working game. He had nothing to start with but the script itself and that 6 K implementation of Forth; he lacked even the luxury of an adventure-specific programming language like ZIL, SAL, AGI, or Comprehend.

It was of course a hopeless endeavor. Not only had Disch provided far, far too much text, but he’d provided it in a format that wasn’t very easy to work with. Disch, for understandable reasons, thought like a storyteller rather than a world builder. Therefore, and in the absence of other guidance, he’d written his story from the top down as essentially a hypertext narrative, a series of branching nodes, rather than from the bottom up, as a set of objects and rooms and people with descriptions of how they acted and reacted and how they could be manipulated by the player. Each part of his script begins with some text, followed by additional text passages to display if the player types this, that, or the other. Given the scope of possibility open to the player of a parser-driven game, that way lies madness. We’ve seen this phenomenon of text adventures that want to be hypertext narratives a surprising number of times already on this blog. Amnesia is perhaps the most painful victim of this fundamental confusion, born of an era when hypertext fiction didn’t yet exist outside of Choose Your Own Adventure books and any text- and story-driven game was assumed to necessarily be a parser-driven text adventure.

Harper & Row's original Amnesia box art

Harper & Row’s original Amnesia box art

In mid-1984, just as it was dawning on Cognetics what a mouthful of a project they’d bitten off, Harper & Row, the instigators of the whole thing, suddenly became the first of the big book publishers to realize that this software business was going to be more complicated than anticipated and, indeed, probably not worth the effort. (The depth of the blasé belief of which they were newly disabused that software publishing couldn’t be that hard is perhaps best measured by the fact that they had all of the box art for Amnesia prepared before Cognetics had really gotten started with the actual programming, evidently thinking that, what with Disch’s script delivered, it couldn’t be long now.) They abruptly pulled out, telling Kreitzberg he was welcome to do what he liked with Fraggle Rock and Amnesia. He found a home for the former with CBS, another old-media titan still making a go of software for the time being, and for the latter with Electronic Arts, eager to join many of their peers on the bookware bandwagon. EA producer Don Daglow was given the unenviable task of trying to mediate between Disch and Cognetics and come up with some sort of realizable design. He would have his hands full, to such an extent that EA must soon have started wondering why they’d signed the project at all.

In addition to being a noir mystery, Disch had conceived Amnesia as a sort of extended love letter to his adopted home of Manhattan. Telarium’s Fahrenheit 451, when released in late 1984, would also include a reasonably correct piece of Manhattan. Disch, however, wanted to go far beyond that game’s inclusion of twenty blocks or so of Fifth Avenue. He wanted to include almost all of the island, from Battery Park to the Upper West and East Side, with a functioning subway system to get around it. The resulting grid of cross-streets must add up to thousands of in-game locations. It was problematic on multiple levels; not only could Disch not possibly write enough text to properly describe this many locations, but the game couldn’t possibly contain it. Yet Disch, entranced by the idea of roaming free through a virtual Manhattan, refused to be disabused of the notion. No, EA and Cognetics had to admit, such a thing wasn’t technically impossible. It was just that this incarnation of Manhattan would have to be 99 percent empty, a grid of locations described only by their cross-streets, with only the occasional famous landmark or plot-relevant area poking out of the sea of nothingness. That’s exactly what the finished game would end up being, rivaling Level 9’s Snowball for the title of worst ratio of relevant to irrelevant locations in the history of the text adventure.

The previous paragraph underlines the most fundamental problem that dogged the various Amnesia teams. Disch never developed with Cognetics and EA the mutual respect and understanding that led to more successful bookware collaborations like Amazon, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Mindwheel. Given the personality at the center of Amnesia, that’s perhaps not surprising. I described Disch as “difficult” earlier in this article, and, indeed, that’s exactly the word that Kevin Bentley used to describe him to me. His frustration with the collaboration was still palpable when I recently corresponded with him.

The conclusion I reached was that Tom wanted to write a book and have it turned into a game by creating a sort of screenplay adapted from a book. The trouble was that a screenplay to my mind was the wrong metaphor for an adventure game. The missing piece of the puzzle seemed to be that Tom didn’t grasp that an adventure game was a matrix of possibilities and it was up to the user to discover the route, and the point was not to cram the user toward the “conclusion.” Tom was very unhappy with the notion that the player might not experience the conclusion of the story the way that he intended in the script, so he insisted that the user be directed toward the conclusion.

Bentley and Kreitzberg met with Disch just a handful of times at his apartment near Union Square to try to iron out difficulties. The former remembers “lots of herbal tea being offered,” and being enlisted to fix problems with Disch’s computer and printer from time to time, but it’s safe to say that the sort of warm camaraderie that makes, say, the Mindwheel story such a pleasure to relate never developed. Before 1984 was out, frustrated with the endless circular feedback loop that the project had become and uninterested in the technical constraints being constantly raised as issues by his colleagues, Disch effectively washed his hands of the whole thing.

His exit did allow EA and Cognetics a freer hand, but that wouldn’t necessarily turn out for the better. Feeling that the game “was lacking in the standard sorts of gaming experience (like a score, sleep, food, etc.)” and looking for some purpose for that huge empty map of Manhattan, EA requested that Bentley shoehorn all that and more into the game; the player would now have to eat and sleep and earn money by taking odd jobs whilst trying to come to grips with the central mystery. The result was a shotgun marriage of the comparatively richly implemented plot-focused sections from Disch’s original script — albeit with more than half of the text and design excised for reasons of capacity — with a boring pseduo-CRPG that forces you to spend most of your time on logistics — earning money by begging or washing windows or doing other odd jobs, buying food and eating it, avoiding certain sections of the city after dark, finding a place to sleep and returning there regularly, dealing with the vagaries of the subway system — all implemented in little better than a Scott Adams level of detail. Daglow came up with an incomprehensible scoring system that tries to unify all this cognitive dissonance by giving you separate scores as a “detective,” a “character,” and a “survivor.” And as the cherry on top of this tedious sundae, EA added pedestrians who come up to you every handful of moves to ask you to look up numbers on a code wheel, one of the most irritating copy-protection measures ever implemented (and that, of course, is saying something).

All of this confusion fell to poor Kevin Bentley to program. He did a fine job, all things considered, even managing a parser that was, if not up to Infocom’s standards, also not worse than its other peers. Nevertheless growing frustrated and impatient with the game’s progress, EA put him up in an “artist apartment” near their San Mateo, California, headquarters in February of 1985 so that he could work on-site on a game that was now being haphazardly designed by whoever happened to shout the loudest. He spent some nine months there dutifully implementing — and often de-implementing — idea after idea to somehow make the game playable and fun. Bentley turned in the final set of code in November of 1985, by which time “everyone was over it,” enthusiasm long since having given way to a desire just to get something up to some minimal standard out there and be done with it. Certainly Bentley himself was under no illusions: “as a game I thought it sorta bombed.” Impressed with his dogged persistence, EA offered him a job on staff: “But I was 20 and far from home. I knew if I left immediately and drove back to New Jersey I could be home for Thanksgiving.” Unsurprisingly given the nature of the experience, Amnesia would mark the beginning and the end of his career as a game developer. He would go on to a successful and still ongoing career in other forms of programming and computer engineering. Charlie Kreitzberg and Cognetics similarly put games behind them, but are still in business today as a consulting firm, their brief time in games just a footnote on their website.

EA's released Amnesia package

EA’s released Amnesia package. Note that it’s simply called a “text adventure,” a sure sign that the bookware boom with its living literature and electronic novels has come and gone.

Amnesia, a deeply flawed effort released at last only during the sunset of the bookware boom, surprised absolutely no one at EA by failing to sell very well. It marks the only game EA would ever release to contain not a single graphic. Contemporary reviews were notably lukewarm, an anomaly for a trade press that usually saw very little wrong with much of anything. Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia, admittedly never a big fan of overtly literary or experimental games, issued a pithy summary that details the gist of the game’s problems.

Overall, Amnesia is an unsatisfying game. You can run around here, and run around there, and work up your triple scores as a detective, a character, and a survivor, but so what? Much of what you actually do in the game doesn’t get you very far towards the ultimate solution. Boiled down to the essentials, there are only three things you need to do here: follow up on the clue from TTTT, get and read the disk, and meet Bette. There are auxiliary actions associated with them, but those are the key points. So when you think back on the game as a whole, you don’t see yourself as having done, really, a whole lot, as having been the main character. It’s more as though you came to certain places in a book, and turned a page to get on with the story.

Bottom line: terrific prose, nice maps, too much novel, not enough adventure.

Disch, despite having walked away from the hard work of trying to make the game better over a year before its release and despite having probably never even played the version of Amnesia which arrived in stores, took such reviews predictably personally. Amnesia, he pronounced, had been “one of the quickest disillusionments of my life.” He went on to blame the audience.

The real problem is that there’s simply no audience for this material, no one who would respond enthusiastically to what I do well. Those who buy it, who are aficionados of the form, are basically those who want trivial pursuits; and to offer them something, however entertaining, that involved reading and imaginative skills they did not care to exercise while playing with their computers was foolish. I felt like de Soto, who journeyed to Tennessee looking for the Fountain of Youth — an interesting enough trip, but neither of us found what we were looking for.

People who want to play this sort of game are looking, I suppose, for something like Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker, where they can have their familiar experiences replayed. The computer-interactive games that have done well — like the Hitchhiker’s or Star Trek series — have been tied in with copyrighted materials that have already had success with the target audience in prior literary forms. I don’t think the quality of those scripts compares to what I did in Amnesia — Adams’s scripts, for example, are actually very good of a kind, but it’s a matter of one little joke after another. The notion of trying to superimpose over this structure a dramatic conception other than a puzzle was apparently too much for the audience. In the end, I just produced another literary curiosity.

There’s more than a grain of truth in all this if we can overlook the condescension toward Douglas Adams that would be more worthily applied to one of his derivatives like Space Quest. A computer-games audience more interested in the vital statistics of dragons and trolls than the emotional lives of the socially engaged humans around them undoubtedly did prove sadly unreceptive to games that tried to be about something. And reviewers like Scorpia did carry into their columns disconcertingly hidebound notions of what an “adventure game” could and should be, and seemed to lack even the language to talk about “a dramatic concept other than a puzzle,” to the extent that Scopia’s columns on Infocom’s two most forthrightly literary works, A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, are little more than technical rundowns and catalogs of puzzle hints — not to mention her reaction to one of Infocom’s first bold literary experiments, the ending to Infidel and poor Brian Mortiarty found himself actively playing down the thematic message of Trinity in interviews in the hope of actually, you know, selling some copies of this supposedly “depressing” game. It’s just that Amnesia, being well-nigh unplayable, is an exceedingly poor choice to advance this argument, and for that Disch deserves his due share of the responsibility. At some level, having just served up — or having at least allowed his name to be attached to — a bad game, he’s not entitled to this argument.

Disch one month before his death.

Disch one month before his death.

Disch’s ultimate fate was an exceedingly sad one. After the millennium, his world crashed around him brick by brick. First there was the shock of witnessing the September 11 attack on his beloved New York, a shock that seemed to break a circuit somewhere deep inside him; often open to charges of nihilism, extreme pessimism, even misanthropy during his earlier career, it wasn’t until after September 11 that his hatred for the people who had done this made him begin to sound like a bigot. Then in 2005 Charles Naylor, his partner of three decades, died. In the aftermath came an effort by his landlord to evict him from the rent-controlled apartment the two had shared, an effort which appeared destined for success. With his writing career decidedly on the wane, his books dropping out of print one by one, and his income correspondingly diminishing, he did most of his writing after Naylor’s death in his LiveJournal blog. Amidst the poorly spelled and punctuated screeds against Muslim terrorists and organized religions of all stripes, depressingly similar to those of a million other angry bloggers, would come the occasional pearl of wisdom or poetry to remind everyone that somewhere inside this bitter, suffering man was the old Thomas M. Disch. And suffer he did, from sciatica, arthritis, diabetes, and ever-creeping obesity that left him all but housebound, trapped alone in his squalid apartment with only his computer for company. On July 4, 2008, he ended the suffering with a shotgun. In 1984, for Amnesia, a younger Disch had written from that same apartment that “suicide is always a dumb idea.” Obviously the pain of his later years changed his mind.

One of the writers with whom Disch seemed to feel the greatest connection was another brilliant, difficult man who always seemed to carry an aura of doom with him, and another who died in tragically pathetic circumstances: Edgar Allen Poe. Disch once wrote a lovely article about Poe’s “appalling life,” the last year of which “seems a headlong, hell-bent rush to suicide.”  Like Disch, Poe also died largely forgotten and unappreciated. Perhaps someday Disch will enjoy a revival akin to that of Poe. In the meantime that Amnesia script sits there tantalizingly, ripe as ever to become a modern work of interactive fiction that need not leave out a single word, that could give us Disch’s original vision undiluted by scores and copy protection and money problems and hunger and sleep timers. Maybe he’d forgive us for trimming some of that ridiculous Manhattan. And maybe, just maybe, his estate would be willing to give its blessing. Any takers?

(First and foremost, huge thanks to Kevin Bentley for sharing with me much of the history of Cognetics and Amnesia. Disch himself talked about Amnesia at greatest length in an interview published in Larry McCaffery’s Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers. Disch’s writings on science fiction are best collected in the Hugo-winning The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of and On SF. Scorpia’s review of Amnesia appeared in the January/February 1987 Computer Gaming World.

I’ve made Amnesia available here for download in its MS-DOS incarnation with a DOSBox configuration file that works well with it. Note that you’ll need to use the file “ACODES.TXT” in place of the code wheel when the irritating pedestrians start harassing you.)

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Bookware’s Sunset

As we push now into 1986 in this blog’s chronology, we’re moving into an era of retrenchment but also of relative stability, as the battered survivors of the home-computer boom and bust come to realize that, if they’re unlikely (at least in the short term) to revolutionize mainstream art and entertainment in the way they had expected, home computers and the games a relatively small proportion of the population enjoy playing on them are also not going to go away. A modest but profitable computer-games industry still remained following the exit of the pundits, would-be visionaries, and venture capitalists, one that would neither grow nor shrink notably for the rest of the decade. No longer fixated on changing the world, developers — even the would-be rock stars at Electronic Arts — just focused on making fun games again for a core audience that loved Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars and Star Trek, and ships and airplanes with lots of guns on them. While publishers would continue to take a chance on more outré titles than you might expect, much that didn’t fit with this core demographic that stuck with gaming after the hype died began now to get discarded.

Amongst the victims of this more conservative approach were bookware and the associated dreams for a new era of interactive popular fiction. Bookware had, to say the least, failed to live up to the hype; the number of commercially successful bookware titles from companies not named Infocom could be counted on one hand and likely still leave plenty of fingers free. Small wonder, as the games themselves were, if often audacious and interesting in conception, usually deeply flawed in execution, done in by a poor grasp of design fundamentals, poor parsers and game engines, rushed development, and an associated tendency to undervalue the importance of playtesting and polishing for any interactive work. One could say with no hyperbole whatsoever that Infocom was the only company of the 1980s that knew how to consistently put out playable, enjoyable, fair text adventures — meaning I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy in the years I’ve been writing this blog merely confirming this conventional wisdom, but so be it.

So, bookware faded quietly away, done in both by gamers who were not terribly invested in games as literature and its own consistent quality-control problems; whether better works could have brought the former around, or found a new audience entirely, remains a somewhat open question. One by one the bookware lines came to an end. Telarium never released another game after 1985’s Perry Mason and Nine Princes in Amber, although one last game, a mystery called The Scoop which dispensed with the parser entirely, was completed in 1986 but not belatedly released until 1989 under the generic Spinnaker Software label. Bantam’s Living Literature line stopped after two titles; the Mindscape/Angelsoft line of book and movie adaptations made it to eight before the plug was pulled following an Indiana Jones game that was as underwhelming as all of the titles that preceded it; other publishers like Epyx abandoned the genre after one or two experiments failed to bear commercial fruit. And the Brøderbund/Synapse Electronic Novels were also not long for this world.

Breakers

Breakers, written by a friend of the Synapse boys named Rod Smith, was the fourth and last of the Electronic Novels to be released. It’s also the largest, most complex, and most difficult — albeit mostly not in a good way. Breakers places you aboard a ramshackle space station in orbit around a planet called, I kid you not, Borg, proof that there’s a limited supply of foreboding science-fiction names in the universe. It’s somewhat unusual as both science fiction and interactive fiction in being told from the point of view of an alien who’s not just your typical Star Trek-style human with different skin pigmentation or unusually formed ears. The Lau, the race to which you belong, are residents of Borg whose culture is mystical rather than technological, who communicate via telekinesis. They’re now being punished for their disinterest in warfare by being rounded up and sold off as exotic slaves to customers all over the galaxy by many of the unsavory characters who inhabit the station. Meanwhile a cosmic apocalypse is in the offing which only the Lau can prevent by assembling four elements and performing a ritual. By happenstance, you’ve ended up loose on the station. You must assemble the elements to save your race and avert the catastrophe; even a text adventure that fancies itself an electronic novel often winds up a treasure hunt.

That said, the Electronic Novels seldom lacked for literary ambition, and Breakers is no exception. Smith does a pretty good job of showing the crazy cast-offs, pirates, and rogues — some with the proverbial hearts of gold, most responding to overtures only with laser blasts — from the standpoint of an apparently asexual and very alien alien. If not quite up to the standard of Lynnea Glasser’s recent, lovely interactive fiction Coloratura, it is interesting to view Breakers‘s stock-science-fiction tropes from this other, exotic point of view; the opening scene in a seedy bar filled with thumping music and humans and aliens of every description is unexpectedly compelling when viewed from the perspective of this protagonist despite being thoroughly derivative of a certain 1977 blockbuster.

All sorts of issues of technology and fundamental design, however, cut against the prospect of enjoying this world. The opening section of the game, inside that seedy bar, is so baffling that a magazine like Questbusters, one of the few with enough remaining interest in the Electronic Novel line to write about Breakers at all, dispensed with any semblance of graduated hints and just printed a walkthrough of the opening sequence — one that, tellingly, appears to rely on a bug, or at least a complete plotting non sequitur, to see it through. Smith had wanted to make Breakers rely heavily upon character interaction, a noble if daunting goal. In practice and in light of the problematic Synapse parser, however, that just leads to a series of impossible dialog puzzles that require you to say the exact right sequence of things to get anywhere. While the plot is unusually intricate, it’s essentially — if as-advertised in light of the “Electronic Novel” label — a novel’s plot, a series of linear hoops that require you to just slavishly recreate a series of dramatic beats, even when doing so requires that you deliberately get yourself captured and beat up. But, unlike in most linear games, you never know what the game expects next from you, leading to an infuriating exercise not so much in saving Borg as in figuring out what Smith wants to have happen next and how you can force it to take place.

Breakers was released by Brøderbund in a much smaller, much less lavish package than its predecessor, complete with cheesy art that looked cut out of an Ed Wood production. The Synapse name, which studio Brøderbund was now is in the process of winding down as an altogether disappointing acquisition, is entirely absent from the package, as is even the old “Electronic Novel” franchise name, although it remains all over the manual from which it would presumably have been harder to excise. The game is now just a “text adventures” again, a circle closed in somewhat ironic and very telling fashion.

So, Breakers would mark the end of the line for this interesting but frustrating collection. Reports from former Synapse insiders have it that a fifth Electronic Novel, a samurai adventure called Ronin, was effectively complete by the end of 1986, but it was never released. Two more with the intriguing titles of Deadly Summer and House of Changes also had at least some work done on them before Brøderbund pulled the plug on the whole affair. My inner idealist wishes he’d had a chance to play these games; my inner cynic knows they’d likely have been undone by the same litany of flaws that make all of the released Electronic Novels after Mindwheel disappointing to one degree or another.

Completed titles like The Scoop and Ronin which their publishers judged not capable of recouping the additional expense of actually releasing them make for pretty good signifiers of the state of bookware circa 1986. Still, we have a bit more ground to cover before we say our goodbye to this strange era of gaming. Next time we’ll look at a final high-profile author/developer collaboration, the last of its kind and the end of an era. In the meantime feel free to download and give Breakers a try; this is the MS-DOS version, and includes a DOSBox configuration that should work very well.

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Magnificent Penguin Hangs Up His Tuxedo

In April of 1984, Mark Pelczarski took a flight from Penguin Software’s home base of Chicago to San Francisco for the “Apple II Forever” event. Traveling with him were Steve Meuse, who had just written new extensions for Penguin’s graphics utilities to take advantage of the Apple IIe and IIc’s double-hi-res graphics mode, and Steve’s wife Marsha. Over the course of the flight, the three sketched out an idea for a series of computer games for “subversively” teaching geography, as had the old board game Game of the States and the perennial favorite Risk. By the time they made it to the Moscone Center to join the other Apple faithful, they had plans for no less than six games, one each for Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australasia. Each would have you traveling through its region of the world on the trail of a villain. Figuring out where your quarry was would require piecing together clues relating to the geography, culture, and history of the region. The Spy’s Adventures Around the World soon became one-third of Penguin’s grand strategic plan for the next few years, to stand alongside the graphics software and the new Comprehend series of adventure games.

Through that summer, at the same time that he was designing and implementing the Comprehend system with Jeffrey Jay, Mark worked with Marsha to put together a prototype. In the fall they refined it with the aid of some educational researchers, tested it out with actual classes of schoolchildren to see how well it held their interest, and hired artists to begin filling it with Penguin’s trademark colorful graphics. Meanwhile Mark developed a cross-platform database-driven engine to replace his original BASIC implementation.

As the work went on, and as has been documented in painful detail elsewhere in this blog, the software industry was becoming a more and more uncertain and dangerous place for a small company like Penguin. Mark therefore broached an idea to Doug Carlston of the larger and more diversified Brøderbund: would he be interested in acquiring Penguin, as he had recently acquired Synapse Software? It’s certainly not the sort of idea that any entrepreneur takes lightly, but Mark felt he had good reasons for approaching Doug — and only Doug: “Doug was by far the person in software publishing whom I most respected.”

The two went about as far back as colleagues possibly could in an industry as young as this one. Mark had first crossed paths with Doug before Penguin or Brøderbund existed, when he was working for SoftSide magazine and Doug was selling his first game through the magazine’s TRS-80 Software Exchange. Later, whilst they were visiting him at his home in San Rafael, California, Doug had introduced Mark and David Lubar to a hotshot programmer named Chris Jochumson who added animation to the Penguin graphical suite. Mark returned the favor at the West Coast Computer Faire of 1983 when an artist named Gini Shimabukuro approached him with a big collection of clip-art images. Not himself having any programs in the offing that could make use of them, he thought of Doug, who had just demonstrated for him an idea that would soon became famous under the name The Print Shop. Mark sent Gina over to the Brøderbund booth, and her art eventually became a big part of The Print Shop’s finished look. Working together, both men also played important behind-the-scenes roles in the founding of the Software Publishers Association to promote the industry, advocate for the rights of smaller players like Penguin, and rail against piracy.

When Doug expressed tentative interest in the acquisition, Mark flew out to California once again in January of 1985 with a briefcase full of financial reports and details of Comprehend and the Spy’s Adventures series. He shared all of that and then some with Brøderbund, including Penguin’s three-pronged strategy for the future. Doug and Gary Carlston and Gene Portwood listened with apparent interest. While they didn’t share the status of their business to anywhere near the degree that Mark did, they did show a few demos of ideas in development whilst also, Mark claims, expressing a certain level of concern about a lack of really compelling products in their pipeline. A few days later Doug called Mark to say they had decided “not to go forward with” the acquisition, and that was that. Mark, for whom the burden of complete responsibility for Penguin and everyone who worked there was becoming heavy indeed, remembers feeling “disappointed.”

But there was nothing to be done about it and no one else to whom he was inclined to entrust Penguin, so he went back to tweaking and refining the Spy’s Adventures series that was increasingly starting to look like the best thing Penguin had going as the air rushed out of the bookware bubble and the Apple II, The Graphics Magician’s bread-and-butter platform, got older in the tooth. Mark and his colleagues made it possible to play the Spy’s Adventures single- or multi-player, the latter in either a competitive or a unique cooperative mode. They produced guides and supplemental software for teachers looking to integrate the games into a curriculum. And they tested, tested, tested. They took their time, wanting to make sure the series was perfect. If they could get the first three games out by the end of the year, it should be more than early enough, given that schools traditionally budgeted and purchased for the next school year in the spring.

Then came the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June. “Have you seen the Brøderbund booth?” a colleague asked Mark. No. “Well, you need to.”

Brøderbund was showing a demo of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, a game you probably already thought of some time ago, when I first described Penguin’s take on the educational geographical adventure game. Livid, Mark tracked Doug down and confronted him right there on the show floor. The latter refused to engage in any discussion, other than to say that he “knew nothing” about Carmen Sandiego at the time of the January meeting and that he always did his best to exchange information with others to to avoid this sort of thing. Their friendship effectively ended right there. Mark:

My contacts with Doug after that were short. He either did not reply, or replied tersely. He was a lawyer. I don’t know if he felt he had to watch his words, thus the fewer the better?

At this point we want to be just a little bit careful. There was a period of time when Mark believed the most sensationalistic and dastardly interpretation of these events to likely be true: that Brøderbund blatantly stole his idea for a geographical educational adventure and rushed it out as Carmen Sandiego before Penguin could get the Spy’s Adventures out. Today he no longer believes that interpretation to be terribly likely. Nor do I. To believe it requires one to believe in a thirty-year conspiracy of silence amongst the considerable number of people who were involved in the creation of Carmen Sandiego, not all of whom proved to be all that committed to the Carlstons or Brøderbund in even the short term; Dane Bigham, for instance, architect and programmer of Carmen Sandiego‘s cross-platform game engine, left the company as something less than a happy camper just months after the game’s release when he was informed that he would have to start taking a fixed salary rather than royalties. It’s also difficult to believe that Brøderbund could have come up with the character of Carmen herself and the idea of the included almanac, neither of which were in Penguin’s version, and managed to design and program a demo featuring it all in the bare handful of months between January and June. Nor does it seem at all in keeping with Doug Carlston’s apparently well-earned reputation as one of the nicest, fairest people in software.

The real significance of this incident for Mark and for Penguin is more subtle, but perhaps all the more poignant for it. When he told the story to me in detail for the first time, I replied with a ham-handed array of practical questions. Did you not have Brøderbund sign some sort of NDA or other agreement before you told them pretty much everything there was to know about the state of your business? Once you gifted him with the information that you had such a similar project, what was Doug to do, potentially torpedo his own project by telling you? When you approached him with aggressive questions implying he had stolen your idea, can you really blame him so much for doing the lawyerly thing, limiting his liability by saying as little as possible and keeping away from you as much as possible from then on? Wasn’t Doug, in addition to being a nice guy, also a businessman with the livelihood of many others (including most of his own family) depending on the continued existence of his company, and doesn’t that sometimes have to trump friendship?

Mark replied that I “don’t really understand how magical those early years were, and how this was such a dramatic departure.” Doug should have told him that Brøderbund had something so similar in development, and they would somehow have worked something out. Even the mild bit of dishonesty that it’s quite hard to absolve Doug of — that he somehow hadn’t known that Carmen Sandiego was in development at the time of the January 1985 meeting, a claim he himself has refuted in many interviews since — seemed totally out of character for the straight shooter Mark thought he knew. Clearly Doug found himself on the horns of a difficult and ethically ambiguous dilemma. You can judge his behavior for yourself. For Mark, though, these events served as a canary in a coalmine telling him that the days of the software brotherhood were gone and the industry that had replaced it may not be someplace he wanted to be. If this tormented business could bring a nice guy like Doug to behave this way, what might it force Mark himself into doing? If Doug’s behavior represented simply “good business,” did he really want to be in business?

Penguin did publish the first three Spy’s Adventures games as planned, but by then Carmen Sandiego had already been out for a couple of months. Mark continues to believe that the Penguin games are better than their Brøderbund counterparts, noting that they contain all of the information the player needs to play them in-game rather than relying on an outside resource. The multiplayer possibilities, he notes correctly, also give them a whole additional dimension. Personally, I acknowledge the latter point in particular as well taken, but remember that big old almanac as a huge part of Carmen Sandiego‘s appeal, most definitely a feature rather than a bug. Whatever, there just wasn’t room for two lines of educational geographic adventure games, and Brøderbund cornered the space for themselves by releasing first and doing a masterful job of promotion; as Mark himself wryly acknowledges, just the names Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and The Spy’s Adventures in North America tell you everything you need to know about the relative promotional flairs of the two companies. The Spy made it to North America, South America, and Europe, but no further, while Carmen eventually conquered time and space and even the PBS airwaves.

Whilst Mark was still reeling from seeing Carmen Sandiego at that CES show, there came another disillusioning moment: he was forced to change the ground of Penguin’s very identity, its name. A couple of years before, when the world of book publishing was beginning to eye that of software publishing with greedy eyes, the Penguin Group had legally objected to the Penguin Software trademark. His lawyers informed Mark that he had a reasonable chance of winning on the merits of the case — his company had been in software first, after all — but the other Penguin had the money and legal resources to make any victory so expensive and time-consuming that it couldn’t help but bury his little company — which was, one suspects, exactly what the Penguin Group, hundreds of times bigger than Penguin Software, was relying on. Mark played for time by dragging out the discovery process and subsequent negotiations as long as he possibly could. But at last as 1985 drew to a close Penguin Software began the difficult process of educating the public about their new identity as “Polarware,” a name that never quite fit and always rankled. A final agreement severing Polarware from the old Penguin name forever was signed in 1986. The bullying tactics of the Penguin Group are doubly dispiriting in light of the imprint’s noble history as the first to bring affordable paperback editions of great literature to the masses. (And, astonishingly, the tactics were still continuing a decade after Polarware closed up shop; see the threatening letter Mark has published on his own site, which leaves one thinking that surely their lawyers must have something better to be doing than policing collections of long-obsolete software for long-obsolete computers.)

With the Spy’s Adventures a bust, the newly minted Polarware must rely entirely upon the other two legs of that strategic triangle, the graphics software and the Comprehend line of adventure games. They released two more Comprehend games in 1986 to join Antonio Antiochia’s Comprehend-revamped Transylvania and its sequel of the previous year. Both 1986 games were also remakes, signs of a maturing industry now able to mine the “classics” of its own past.

Oo-Topos

One of them we’ve met before on this blog: Oo-Topos, one of the two science-fiction adventures Mike Berlyn had written during his early days with Sentient Software. Mark had known Mike for some years already by 1986, having first met him when Mike was working on an arcade game that Sentient would eventually release as Congo and called Penguin with some questions about how to use The Graphics Magician. As the Comprehend line was getting underway, Mark proposed to Mike, who was still at Infocom at the time, that Penguin/Polarware be allowed to remake Oo-Topos using the Comprehend engine. It sounded fine to Mike, but for two problems: his position at Infocom made it difficult for him to directly involve himself with the remake; and the actual rights to the game resided not with Mike but with his erstwhile partner at Sentient, Alan Garber, from whom he had split on less than amicable terms. Mark was able to work out a deal with Garber instead. Mike received no royalties, but gave his blessing to a remake which smoothed away most of the rough edges of the original and of course added graphics. The result was a very enjoyable adventure game.

The Coveted Mirror

The other game, a charming little fantasy called The Coveted Mirror, was of more recent vintage. The erstwhile Penguin Software had published the original, written and illustrated by freelance illustrator Holly Thomason and programmed by a Stanford systems programmer named Eagle Berns, in 1983. (Berns would go on to quite a career inside Silicon Valley, working most notably for Apple and Oracle.) The new version removed the several surprisingly good arcade-action sequences from the original, but added some additional locations and puzzles in compensation.

The Comprehend adventures are not innovative in the least, and indeed were already feeling like throwbacks in their own time, the last holdouts from the old Hi-Res Adventure approach to adventuring that Sierra had birthed with Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess and long since abandoned along with most of the rest of the industry. For all that, though, I have a huge soft spot for the line. They are, mark you, full of the sort of old-school attributes that will drive most of you crazy: mazes, inventory limits, limited light sources and other sorts of timers, vital information hidden in the graphics, parsers that don’t understand simple constructions like “DROP ALL.” Yet there’s a certain sense of design craft to them that’s lacking in so many of their competitors, and most of all a welcome sense that their authors want you to solve them, want you to have fun with them. Excluding only a few misbegotten riddles in The Crimson Crown, there are no stupid guess-the-word parser puzzles, no cheap tricks meant to send you scurrying with cash-in-hand for the hint book. If you can accept the different standards of a different era, they’re just about the most consistently playable line of parser-driven adventures of the 1980s, excepting only Infocom. Others may have reached further and occasionally soared higher, but their literary aspirations much more frequently only led them to create games that didn’t really work that well as, well, games. Despite their branding as “Interactive Novels,” a mode of phraseology very much in vogue at the time of their conception, the Comprehend titles are content to just be fun text adventures, an impressively nonlinear web of locations and puzzles to explore and solve in the service of just enough plot to get you started and provide an ending.

In addition to five released Comprehend games, Polarware signed contracts for and storyboarded two licensed games that would never get made, one to be based on the Frank and Ernest newspaper comic strip, the other on Jimmy Buffett’s anthem “Margaritaville.” The latter makes a particularly interesting story, one that once again begins with Mike Berlyn.

One year Mark and Mike had found themselves on the same flight from Chicago to Las Vegas for the Winter CES, and arranged to sit together. The conversation came around to music, whereupon Mark mentioned his love for Jimmy Buffett. Long before the Parrothead circus began, Mark had seen him as a struggling singer/songwriter who passed through the University of Illinois student union to sing his poignant early songs of alcohol-addled losers and dreamers adrift on the Florida Keys. Mike mentioned that he had actually lived quite close to Buffett during his tenure in Aspen, Colorado, with Sentient, and that he believed Buffett still had a house there. Knowing only that Buffett lived (according to Mike) in the “Red Mountain subdivision” of Aspen, on a lark Mark sent a letter off to just that: “Jimmy Buffett, Red Mountain subdivision, Aspen, Colorado.” Four months later one of his employees came to him to to tell him that “there’s this guy who says he’s Jimmy Buffett on the phone for you.” There were plans in the works to make a movie out of “Margaritaville,” and it seems Buffett and his associates thought a computer game might make a nice companion (even given that it was somewhat, um, debatable how much of a cross-section there really was between computer gamers and Jimmy Buffett fans). But the movie plans fell through in the end, and neither movie nor game got made.

Penguin/Polarware had managed to stay afloat and even modestly profitable through 1985, but as the mass-market distributors gained more and more power they were increasingly able to impose their will on a small publisher, stretching the time between the shipment of an order and receipt of payment to thirty, sixty, ninety days or longer. Distributors came to dictate terms to such an extent that Polarware might ship them a $30,000 order only to have the distributor announce a few months later that they’d only sold $12,000 of it and thus would only pay for that, while, what with sales having been so slow, they wouldn’t even bother trying to move the rest — but no, they wouldn’t be paying for or returning the leftovers either. Bigger players might impose their own will on the distributors or set up their own distribution systems (as Electronic Arts did from the beginning), but there was very little that Polarware could do. While they did try forming a distributor, which they called SoftRack, to handle their own wares and those of a few other small publishers, it never penetrated much beyond some small independent retailers in the Midwest. For the rest, they must rely upon the established big boys, many of whom lived fast and close to the edge. At the beginning of 1986 what Mark had been dreading finally happened: a few distributors went bankrupt while owing Polarware a lot of money. With accounts suddenly deeply in the red, he was forced to embark on the heartbreaking process of laying off lots of employees he had long since come to regard as friends.

The frantic down-sizing and cost-cutting was enough to let Polarware weather this crisis, but Mark had decided by the end of the year that he’d had enough. The future looked decidedly uncertain. The Spy’s Adventures were a bust, while the Comprehend games had proved only modestly successful. And now the graphics utilities, always the company’s financial bedrock, also faced a doubtful (at best) future. The 8-bit platforms they ran on were now aged, with the press beginning to speculate on how much longer they could possibly remain viable, and Polarware had nothing in the works for and no real expertise with the next generation of 16-bit graphical powerhouses. The Comprehend line also desperately needed a facelift for the new machines, one that the down-sized Polarware wasn’t really in a position to provide. Meanwhile the stress of running Polarware was keeping Mark up at night and starting to affect his health. It was time to quit. Mark walked away, selling Polarware to a group of employees who still thought they could make a go of it. They would manage to release one more Comprehend game, an original with the awkward title of Talisman: Challenging the Sands of Time, in 1987 before accepting the inevitable and selling out to Merit Software.

Barack Obama shakes hands with Mark Pelczarski, November 7, 2012

Barack Obama shakes hands with Mark Pelczarski, November 7, 2012

For his part, Mark pursued a growing fascination with the then-new computerized music-making technology of MIDI. That led to an early MIDI software package, MIDI OnStage, and combined with the Jimmy Buffett connection he’d established at Polarware took him to Key West to help set up Buffett’s Shrimpboat Sound recording studio; his worked rated a mention in the liner notes of the first album Buffett recorded there, Hot Water. Since then Mark has filled his time with quite a variety of activities: setting up another studio for Dan Fogelberg; playing steel drums in a band; developing the mapping technology for early travel-planning CD-ROMs; teaching one of the first online courses ever offered and developing much of the technology that allowed him to do so; developing early web-forum software; teaching programming for twenty years at Elgin Community College. He’s now retired from that last gig, but remains busy and industrious as ever; when I first contacted him to ask him to help me tell the Penguin/Polarware story, I was surprised to find him volunteering as a technology architect for Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. Mark escaped the chaos with little apparent psychic damage, something not necessarily true of all of his contemporaries.

When I put Penguin behind me, I felt like I’d already had a lifetime of experiences, much more than most people could hope for, imagine, or dream. And I kind of treated what came after as another lifetime. I joke, but only half so, about how “in a past life…’ I did this and that, when talking about things like Penguin Software. But it really does kind of feel like that, and that probably helped keep me sane in living another, more normal life.

(You can download the Comprehend versions of Oo-Topos and The Coveted Mirror for the Apple II, including manuals and all the other goodies, from here if you like.

For another and presumably final time, my thanks to Mark Pelczarski. His memories, which he shared with me in careful detail even though this period of Penguin/Polarware’s history is not his favorite to remember, were just about all I needed to write this article.)

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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