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Opening the Gold Box, Part 3: From Tabletop to Desktop

Joel Billings of SSI never had a whole lot of use for Dungeons & Dragons, TSR, or RPGs in general. In this he was hardly unique among hardcore wargamers. The newer hobby had arisen directly from the older, forcing each and every grognard to a judgement and a reckoning. Some wargamers saw in RPGs the experiential games they had really been wanting to play all along; they jumped onto the RPG bandwagon and never looked back. Others, the ones who found Montgomery and Rommel far more interesting than Frodo and Sauron, scoffed at RPGs and their silly fantasies and clung all the tighter to their Avalon Hill and SPI boxes. And of course some split the difference, playing a little of this and a little of that.

Joel counted himself among the scoffers. His one experience with playing Dungeons & Dragons hadn’t been a positive one: a sadistic Dungeon Master killed his whole party before he had even begun to figure out what was going on. “This is the stupidest game I’ve ever seen,” he concluded. He never felt seriously tempted to try it again.

By the time that SSI was off and running, Joel and other wargame stalwarts like him had more reasons than ever to dislike RPGs. The late 1970s, you’ll remember, had seen the wargame at its commercial zenith, the RPG the exciting, fast-rising upstart genre. As the 1980s dawned and Dungeons & Dragons exploded into a popularity no wargame had ever dreamed of, it was hard not to blame one genre’s rapid rise for the other’s slow decline. Already in 1982 SPI, alongside Avalon Hill one of the twin giants of wargaming, found themselves in a serious financial crisis brought on partly by the general decline of the wargame market, partly by the general recession afflicting the American economy at the time, and partly by general mismanagement all too typical of their hobbyist-driven industry. TSR, now more than ten times the size of SPI thanks to the Dungeons & Dragons fad, gave them a secured loan of $425,000 to keep their doors open a while longer.

It will likely never be known whether what happened next was the result of Machiavellian scheming or just Gary Gygax and the Blume brothers’ usual bumbling approach to running TSR. Just two weeks after giving SPI the loan, TSR inexplicably called it in again. Having already used TSR’s money to satisfy their other creditors, SPI had no possible way to pay back the loan. TSR therefore foreclosed, announcing that they were taking over SPI. Shortly thereafter, realizing that SPI was so financially upside down as to become a negative asset on their books, they announced that what they had actually meant to say was that they were assuming ownership of all of SPI’s assets but none of their debts. When SPI’s creditors balked at this brazen attempt by TSR to have their cake and eat it too, TSR negotiated to pay them off for pennies on the dollar; something was better than nothing, figured the creditors. The end result was an SPI bankruptcy filing in effect if not in fact.

But any old wargamer who thought that the TSR purchase heralded better days for the company and the hobby was quickly disabused of that notion. TSR proved a terrible steward of SPI’s legacy, alienating their entire old design team so badly that they left en masse to reform as a new Avalon Hill subsidiary called Victory Games. Worse, TSR claimed that their acquisition of SPI’s assets had not included the paid-up subscriptions to SPI’s beloved house organ Strategy & Tactics; subscriptions were not assets at all, you see, but “liabilities.” Every Strategy & Tactics subscriber, even those who had splashed out a bundle for a “lifetime” subscription, would have to re-up immediately to continue receiving the magazine. And no, there would be no compensation for missed issues from the old regime. This act of betrayal of SPI’s most loyal customers didn’t just kill the most respected wargaming magazine in the world; it also, as Greg Costikyan puts it, shot the old subculture of wargaming in general in the head.

So, if a veteran wargamer like Joel Billings needed further reason to dislike all this Dungeons & Dragons silliness, there he had it. Trip Hawkins, a member of SSI’s board from the company’s inception, claims that he started telling Joel that he should branch out into CRPGs almost immediately after SSI was founded. But, although SSI quickly began to supplement their wargames with sports titles and other sorts of strategy games, Joel resisted CRPGs, saying that he preferred to publish “the games that he enjoyed personally.” RPGs, whether played on the tabletop or the desktop, clearly weren’t in that category.

Although Joel did nothing to encourage CRPG submissions, in late 1983 a fairly decent one arrived of its own accord. Written by two teenage brothers, Charles and John Dougherty, Questron had already ping-ponged around the industry a bit before it reached SSI. When the Dougherty brothers had sent it to Origin Systems, Richard Garriott had not only rejected it but told them in no uncertain terms to expect legal trouble if they dared to release something he considered to be so obviously derivative of his own Ultima games. Word of Garriott’s displeasure may very well have made the other major publishers shy away, until it ended up with the Doughertys’ long shot, nichey little SSI. Joel decided that, with a first entry in the genre all but gift-wrapped on his desk, he might as well dip a toe into these new waters and see how it went. SSI published Questron in February of 1984, albeit only after finding a way to placate an angry Garriott, who learned of their plans to do so at the January 1984 Winter Consumer Electronics Show and pitched a royal fit. Joel gave him a small stake in Questron‘s action and a small note on its box: “Game structure and style used under license of Richard Garriott.”

Questron

Questron proved a modest start to something very significant. The game, benefiting from the lack of new Ultima or Wizardry titles during 1984, did unexpectedly well. In fact, when the Commodore 64 port of the Apple II original shipped in August, it became the fastest-selling new release SSI had ever enjoyed. The final total would hit almost 35,000 copies, pretty good numbers for a company whose average game still failed to break 10,000 copies. Some meeting notes dated December 2, 1984, make the new thinking that resulted clear: “Going into fantasy games now, could really affect sales favorably.” A little over a month later, SSI was already going through something of an identity crisis: are we a “wargame company” or a more generalized “computer-game company,” more meeting notes plaintively ask.

But SSI would have a hard time building on the momentum of Questron in the time-honored game-industry way of turning it into a franchise. In the contract the Dougherty brothers had signed with SSI, the latter was granted a right of first refusal of a potential sequel. This put the Doughertys in essentially the same situation as a restricted free agent in sports: they were free to shop a potential Questron II to other publishers if they wished, but they had to allow SSI the chance to match any publisher’s offer before signing a final contract. Not understanding or choosing to ignore this stipulation, the Doughertys allowed themselves to be poached by none other than Trip Hawkins’s Electronic Arts, who, with The Bard’s Tale series still in the offing, were eager to hedge their bets with another potential new CRPG franchise. SSI knew nothing about what was going on until the Doughertys announced that they had gone over to the slicker, better-distributed Electronic Arts — farewell and thank you very much for everything. Feeling compelled to defend his own company’s interests, Joel sued Electronic Arts and the Doughertys. A potential Questron series remained in limbo, its momentum dissipating, while the lawsuit dragged on. The situation doubtless made for some strained times back at SSI’s offices, where board-member Trip Hawkins was still coming every month for the directors meeting.

The suit wasn’t settled until April of 1987, ostensibly at least largely in SSI’s favor. The Doughertys’ long-delayed sequel was published shortly thereafter by Electronic Arts, but under the new title of Legacy of the Ancients. Meanwhile the Doughertys were obliged to design, but not to program, a Questron II for SSI; the programming of the sequel could either be done in-house by SSI or outsourced elsewhere at their discretion. It ended up going to Westwood Associates, a frequent SSI contractor on ports and other unglamorous technical tasks who would soon be making a bigger name for themselves as a developer of original games. Released at last in February of 1988, Questron II felt rather uninspired, as one might expect given the forced circumstances of its creation. It did surprisingly well, though, outselling the first Questron by some 16,000 copies. Rather than its own merits, its success was likely down to increasing enthusiasm for CRPGs in general among gamers, and to other things going on that year that were suddenly making little SSI among the biggest names in the genre.

Questron II

In the immediate wake of Questron I‘s release and success, however, those events were still well in the future. Neither Joel Billings’s troubles with his two teenage problem children nor his personal ambivalence toward CRPGs deterred him from recognizing the potential that game had highlighted. Never a publisher to shy away from releasing lots of games, SSI added CRPGs to their ongoing firehose of new wargames. To Joel Billings the businessman’s pleasure if perhaps to Joel Billings the wargamer’s chagrin, the average SSI CRPG continued to do far, far better than the average wargame. Indeed, their very next CRPG(ish) game after Questron, an unusual action hybrid called Gemstone Warrior released in December of 1984, became their first game of any type to top 50,000 copies sold. The more traditional Phantasie — names weren’t really SSI’s strong suit — in March of 1985 also topped the magic 50,000 mark. Soon the CRPGs were coming almost as quickly as the wargames: Rings of Zilfin (January 1986, 17,479 sold); Phantasie II (February 1986, 30,100 sold); Wizard’s Crown (February 1986, 47,676 sold); Shard of Spring (July 1986, 11,942 sold); Roadwar 2000 (August 1986, 44,044 sold); Gemstone Healer (September 1986, 6030 sold); Realms of Darkness (February 1987, 9022 sold); Phantasie III (March 1987, 46,113 sold); The Eternal Dagger (June 1987, 18,471 sold); Roadwar Europa (July 1987, 18,765 sold).

As the list above attests, sales figures for these games were all over place, but trended generally a bit downward over time as SSI flooded the market. Yet one thing did remain constant: the average SSI CRPG continued to outsell the average SSI wargame by a healthy margin. (The only exception to this rule was Roger Damon’s remarkable Wargame Construction Set, which after its release in October of 1986 became a surprise hit, the first SSI game to crack 60,000 copies sold.) All of these SSI CRPGs — so many coming so close together that it’s difficult even for dedicated fans of the genre’s history to keep them all straight — occupied a comfortable if less than prestigious second rung in the industry as a whole. To describe them as the games you played while you waited for the next Ultima or The Bard’s Tale may sound unkind, but it’s largely accurate. Like SSI’s other games, they tended to be a little bit uglier and a little bit clunkier than the competition.

Wizard's Crown

At their best, though, the rules behind these games felt more consciously designed than the games in the bigger, more respected series — doubtless a legacy of SSI’s wargame roots. This quality is most notable in Wizard’s Crown. The most wargamey of all SSI’s CRPGs, Wizard’s Crown was not coincidentally also the first CRPG to be designed in-house by the company’s own small staff of developers, led by Paul Murray and Keith Brors, the two most devoted tabletop Dungeons & Dragons fans in the office. Built around a combat engine of enormous tactical depth in comparison to Ultima and The Bard’s Tale, it may not be a sustainedly fun game — the sheer quantity and detail of the fights gets exhausting well before the end, and the game has little else to offer — but it’s one of real importance in the history of both SSI and the CRPG. Wizard’s Crown and its sequel The Eternal Dagger, you see, were essentially a dry run for the series of games that would remake SSI’s image.

Coming off a disappointing 1986, the first year in which SSI had failed to increase their earnings over the previous year, Joel Billings was greeted with some news that was rapidly sweeping the industry: that TSR was interested in making a Dungeons & Dragons computer game, and that they would soon be listening to pitches from interested parties. To say that Dungeons & Dragons was a desirable license hardly begins to state the case. This was the license in CRPGs, the name that inexplicably wasn’t there already, a yawning absence about to become a smothering presence at last. Everyone wanted it, and had wanted it for quite some time. That group included SSI as much as anyone; once again pushing aside any misgivings about getting into bed with the company that had shot his own favorite hobby in the head, Joel had been one of the many to contact TSR in earlier years, asking if they were interested in a licensing deal. They hadn’t been then, but now they suddenly were. Encouraged by Murray and Brors and other rabid Dungeons & Dragons fans around the office, Joel decided to put on a “full-court press,” as he describes it, to spare no effort in trying to get the deal for his own little company. Sure, it looked like one David versus a whole lot of Goliaths, but what the hell, right?

The full list of Goliaths with which SSI was competing for the license has never been published, but in interviews Joel has mentioned Origin Systems (of Ultima fame) and Electronic Arts (of The Bard’s Tale fame) as having been among them. As for the other contenders, we do know that there were at least seven more of them. One need only understand the desirability of the license to assume that the seven (or more) must have been a veritable computer-game who’s who. “We were going head to head with the best in the industry,” remembers Chuck Kroegel, a programmer and project manager on SSI’s in-house development team.

SSI was duly granted their hearing, scheduled for April 8, 1987, at TSR’s Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, headquarters. With a scant handful of weeks to prepare, they scrambled desperately to throw together some technology demos; these felt unusually important to SSI’s pitch, given that they were hardly known as a producer of slick or graphically impressive games. Those with a modicum of artistic talent digitized some monster portraits out of the Monster Manual on a Commodore Amiga, coloring them and adding some spot animation. Meanwhile the programmers put together a scrolling three-dimensional dungeon maze, reminiscent of The Bard’s Tale but better (at least by SSI’s own reckoning), on a Commodore 64.

But it was always understood that these hasty demos were only a prerequisite for making a pitch, a way to show that SSI had the minimal competency do this stuff rather a real selling point. When SSI’s five-man team — consisting of Joel Billings, Keith Brors, Chuck Kroegel, the newly hired head of internal development Victor Penman, and Vice President of Sales Randy Broweleit — boarded their plane for Lake Geneva, they were determined to really sell TSR on a vision: a vision of not just a game or two but a whole new computerized wing of Dungeons & Dragons that might someday equal or eclipse the tabletop variant. The pitch document that accompanied their presentation has been preserved in the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. I want to quote its key paragraphs, the “Overview,” in full.

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons computer game system would be provided as a series of modules built around a central character-creation, combat, and magic system. The first release would be this central system, which would include a modest dungeon adventure. It would be followed by the release of a number of adventure modules suitable for beginning-level characters. With the passage of time, higher-level adventures and more character types would be offered. Editors which would permit users to create their own dungeons, outdoors, and cities would also be provided. The timing on the introduction of these later releases would be determined by market demand.

The first release would be the central system. It would be similar to the Player’s Handbook in that it would provide for the creation of a number of character classes, combat, and spells. The players would draw on these abilities to create their characters for adventuring. Also included in this first release would be an introductory dungeon adventure in which the computer program would perform as DM.

This first release would be followed by a number of adventure games similar to TSR’s dungeon and adventure modules. The earliest of these would be aimed at beginning characters. As time passed and players had an opportunity to build up more powerful characters, more challenging modules would be released.

It is anticipated that at least three game sets will be released as a result of periodic improvements in and expansions of the game system. Each of these would be built on an improved and expanded version of the central system. The systems would be kept upwardly compatible so that characters developed on earlier versions of the system could take advantage of its improvements. Dungeon and adventure modules would be created for each of these game sets.

At some point (to be determined by marketing considerations) a number of editors would be released. These editors would enable the users to create their own computer adventures. The first of these would be a Dungeon Master’s Guide-type package, which would provide instructions and tools for setting up the adventures and a Monster Manual-type package to provide monsters for these adventures (the monster disk might be released much earlier since we can see non-DMs wanting it). Specialized packages for creating outdoor adventures, city adventures, overland adventures, seafaring adventures, underwater adventures, etc., would be added to meet market demand.

SSI's original plan for a Dungeons & Dragons "product family," as presented at their pitch. You can see traces of what would come here -- the eventual "Gold Box" line of CRPGs would be grouped into three separate series, each offering the chance to import characters from one game into the next -- the idea of a central "game disk" and add-on "adventure modules" would be thankfully abandoned.

SSI’s original plan for a Dungeons & Dragons “product family,” as presented at their pitch. You can see glimmers of what would come later here — the eventual “Gold Box” line of CRPGs would be grouped into three separate series, each offering the chance to import characters from one game into the next — but the idea of a central “game disk” and add-on “adventure modules” would be thankfully abandoned.

In some ways, what this overview offers is a terrible vision. The Wizardry series had opted for a similar overly literal translation of Dungeons & Dragons‘s core-game/adventure-module structure, requiring anyone who wanted to play any of the later games in the series to first buy and play the first in order to have characters to import. The fallout from that decision was all too easy to spot in the merest glance at the CRPG market as of 1987: the Wizardry series had long since pissed away the position of dominance it had enjoyed after its first game to become an also-ran (much like SSI’s own CRPG efforts) to Ultima and The Bard’s Tale.

On the other hand, though, this overview is a vision, which apparently stood it in marked contrast to most other pitches, focused as they were on just getting a single Dungeons & Dragons game out there as quickly as possible so everyone could start to clean up. TSR innately understood SSI’s more holistic approach. With the early 1980s Dungeons & Dragons fad now long past, their business model relied less on selling huge quantities of any one release than in leveraging — some would say “exploiting” — their remaining base of hardcore players, each of whom was willing to spend lots of money on lots of new products.

Further, the TSR people and the SSI people immediately liked and understood one another; the importance of being on the same psychological wavelength as a potential business partner should never be underestimated. Born out of wargames, TSR seemed to have that culture and its values entwined in their very DNA, even after the ugly SPI episode and all the rest of the chaos of the past decade and change. Many of the people there knew exactly where scruffy little SSI was coming from, born and still grounded in the culture of the tabletop as they were. These same folks at TSR weren’t so sure about all those bigger, slicker firms. While Joel Billings may not have had a lot of personal use for Dungeons & Dragons, that certainly wasn’t true of many of his employees. Joel claims that the “bottom line” that sold TSR on SSI was “an R&D staff that knows AD&D games, plays AD&D games, and enjoys AD&D games.” They would feel “honored to be doing computer AD&D games. If you’re doing fantasy games, the AD&D game is the one to do.” Chuck Kroegel sums up SSI’s biggest advantage over their competitors in fewer words: “We wanted this project more than the other companies.” That genuine personal interest and passion, along with SSI’s idea that this would be a big, ambitious, multi-layered, perhaps era-defining collaboration — TSR had never been known for thinking small — were the important things. The details could be worked out later.

At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June — yes, it’s that landmark CES again — SSI and TSR announced their unlikely partnership, formally signing the contract right there at the show in front of the press and SSI’s shocked rivals. The contract was for five years of Dungeons & Dragons software, with options to renew thereafter. It would officially go into effect on January 1, 1988, although development of a planned torrent of products would start immediately.

There would be three distinct Advanced Dungeons & Dragons product lines. One line, which grew out of whole cloth during the negotiations, would be a series of “multi-player action/arcade games” that used settings and characters from TSR’s various novels and supplements, but otherwise had little to do with the tabletop game: “These games will focus on special aspects of AD&D, such as swordplay, spell-casting, and dungeon and wilderness exploration.” Having no particular competence in the area of action games, SSI would sub-contract with their European publishers, U.S. Gold, to make these games, drawing from the deep well of hotshot British game programmers to which U.S. Gold had access.

Another line evolved out of SSI’s original plan for a sort of “Dungeons & Dragons Construction Set.” Instead of letting Dungeon Masters make new computerized adventures — SSI and TSR, like many other companies, were worried about killing the market for future games by putting too good game-making tools in the hands of players — the Dungeon Master’s Assistant line would be designed to aid in the construction of adventures and campaigns for the tabletop game.

And finally there was the big line: a full-fledged implementation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as a series of CRPGs. The idea of a “central system” with “adventure modules” blessedly disappeared within a few months of the contract signing, replaced by a series of standalone games that would allow those who wished to do so to import the same party into each sequel; those who didn’t wish to do so, or who hadn’t played the earlier games at all, would still be able to create new characters in the later games.

The choice of a partner for this high-profile deal had been driven entirely by the creative types at TSR and the kinship they felt for SSI. That’s doubly surprising when you consider that it occurred well into the reign of Lorraine Williams, whose supposed dislike of games and gamers and constant meddling in the design process would later win her an infamous place in fan legend as the most loathed real-life villain in the history of the tabletop RPG. Whatever the veracity of the other claims made against her, in this case she ignored lots of very sensible questions to let her creative people have the partner they wanted. Could nichey little SSI improve their marketing and distribution enough to get the games in front of as many potential customers as someone like Electronic Arts? Could SSI raise the standards of their graphics and programming to make something attractive and slick enough to match the appeal of the Dungeons & Dragons trademark? In short, was SSI really up to this huge project, many times greater in scope than anything they’d done before? Lorraine Williams was betting five years of her flagship brand’s future, the most precious thing TSR owned, on the answer to all of these questions being yes. It was one hell of a roll of the dice.

SSI was more than ready to crow about their coup.

SSI was more than ready to crow about their coup from the moment the contract was signed.

If SSI was to pull it off, they would have to mortgage their hopefully bright future as the software face of Dungeons & Dragons and expand dramatically. In the months following the contract-signing ceremony, their in-house development staff expanded from 7 to 25 people. Among the new hires were SSI’s first full-time pixel artists, hired to give the new products a look worthy of the license. SSI’s games having never been the sort to wow anyone with their beauty, figuring out the graphics thing presented perhaps the greatest challenge of all, as Victor Penman recognized:

In the past, when SSI was primarily a wargames company, graphics were not as important as game play. Now the graphics will be better, making this product more of an improvement than any other. We’re committed to carrying out state-of-the-art graphics all the way down the line, so we’re dedicated to game sophistication and a new level of graphics more so than anything we’ve done to date.

With the action games outsourced to U.S. Gold and the Dungeon Master’s Assistant line being less demanding projects likely to be of only niche appeal anyway, the big push at SSI was on the first full-fledged Dungeons & Dragons CRPG. The new project used the two Wizard’s Crown games, especially those games’ intricate tactical-combat system, as a jumping-off point; most of the SSI veterans who had worked on those games were now employed on this new one. But that could only be a jumping-off point, for SSI’s plans needed to be much more ambitious now to please both TSR and the gaming public, who would expect this first real Dungeons & Dragons CRPG to be something really, truly special. As the first CRPG of a series that would come to include many more, a whole software ecosystem needed to be built from scratch to create it. A multi-platform game engine, interpreters, scripting languages, and level editors were all needed just for starters.

In a move that SSI would soon have cause to regret, the tool chain was built around the Commodore 64, then enjoying its belated final year as the American home-computer industry’s dominant platform. The choice isn’t hard to understand in the context of 1987: the 64 had been around for so long and for so strong that one could almost believe it would continue forever. SSI had sold 35 percent of all their games on the Commodore 64 during 1986, 10 percent more than it closest rival, the Apple II. If anything, these numbers were low for the industry in general, reflecting SSI’s specialization in cerebral strategy games, traditionally a bastion of the Apple II market. With this new partnership, SSI’s bid for the big time, there seemed every reason to think that the 64’s percentage of the pie would only increase. Therefore they would build and release the Dungeons & Dragons games first on the Commodore 64, ensuring that they looked and ran well on that all-important platform. Then they could adapt the same engine to run on the other, often more capable platforms.

The arrival of Dungeons & Dragons at SSI and the dramatic upending of the daily routine that it wrought created inevitable tensions at what had always been a low-key, workmanlike operation. The minority of staffers assigned to the non-Dungeons & Dragons business-as-usual — i.e., the company’s wargames and the last sprinkling of non-licensed CRPGs in the pipeline — started to feel, in the words of Chuck Kroegel, like “outcasts.” Staffers referred to themselves as either working in Disneyland (everything Dungeons & Dragons) or being exiled to Siberia (everything non-Dungeons & Dragons). Sometimes those descriptions could feel distressingly literal: desperate for space, SSI exiled the small team that tested and perfected non-Dungeons & Dragons external submissions to an unheated, cheerless nearby building. “There was a feeling on their part that we were getting all the goodies and they got all the cold Arctic air,” remembers Keith Brors.

Jim Ward, who got on fabolously with SSI, visits in 1990 to celebrate the company's tenth anniversary along with his plus-one.

Jim Ward, who got on fabulously with SSI, visits along with his plus-one in 1990 to celebrate the company’s tenth anniversary.

The folks in Disneyland got plenty of help from Lake Geneva. In the beginning the TSR/SSI partnership really was a partnership, standing it in marked contrast to most similar licensing deals. The scenario for the first Dungeons & Dragons CRPG was first written and designed as a tabletop adventure module by three of TSR’s most experienced staff designers, working under one Jim Ward, whose own history with Dungeons & Dragons went back to well before that name existed, when he had played in Gary Gygax’s earliest campaigns. The tabletop module was passed on to SSI for implementation on the computer in January of 1988. SSI had their hands plenty full before that date just getting the game engine up and running; that job was described by Victor Penman as “equivalent to producing the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual in one program.”

TSR’s close involvement ensured that the end result really did feel like tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, more so than any of the competing CRPG series — and this, of course, was exactly what its audience wanted. Ward’s team chose to set the game in TSR’s new campaign world of the Forgotten Realms, envisioned as the more generic, default alternative to the popular but quirky Dragonlance world of Krynn. The big boxed set that introduced the Forgotten Realms was published well after the contract signing with SSI, allowing TSR to carve out a space on the world’s map reserved for the computer games right from the outset. While many have grumbled that words like “generic” and “default” do all too good a job of describing the Forgotten Realms — “vanilla” is another strong candidate — Ward and company nevertheless drowned their scenario in the lore of the place, such as it is, leading to a CRPG with a sense of place comparable only to the Ultima series and its world of Britannia. To further cement the connection between Dungeons & Dragons the tabletop game and its computerized implementation, TSR prepared tie-in products of their own, including a novelization of the first CRPG written by Jim Ward with the help of Jane Cooper Hong and the original tabletop adventure module that had served as SSI’s design document.

SSI had promised TSR when making their original pitch that they could have an official Dungeons & Dragons CRPG ready to go within thirteen months at the outside of signing a deal. Joel Billings always took great pride in his company’s punctuality. Lingering, “troubled” projects of any stripe were a virtual unknown there during the 1980s; outside and in-house developers alike quickly learned to just get their games done and move on to the next if they wanted to continue to work with SSI. Dungeons & Dragons proved to be no exception. SSI would manage to meet their deadline of summer 1988.

With the big day drawing near, Joel Billings took an important step to address the still-lingering questions about whether SSI had the promotional and distributional resources to properly sell Dungeons & Dragons on the computer. It marked the next phase in SSI’s long, multi-faceted relationship with Trip Hawkins and his company Electronic Arts. Barely a year removed from settling SSI’s lawsuit and less than a year removed from losing the big TSR contract to them, Electronic Arts bought into SSI to the tune of 20 percent in May of 1988, giving the smaller company some much-needed cash to spend on a big Dungeons & Dragons promotional effort. SSI also became one of Electronic Arts’s affiliated labels, thus solving the distribution problems. As previous tales told on this blog will attest, such deals with the titans of the industry could be dangerous territory for smaller publishers like SSI. But SSI did have advantages that most of the affiliated labels didn’t: in addition to the longstanding personal relationship enjoyed by Trip Hawkins and Joel Billings, the buy-in would give Electronic Arts a real stake in SSI’s success, making them much harder to gut and cast aside if they should disappoint.

Grognards to the end, Trip Hawkins and Joel Billings dressed up as generals to celebrate their strategic alliance of May 1988.

Grognards to the end, Trip Hawkins and Joel Billings dress up as generals to celebrate their “strategic alliance” of May 1988.

SSI released the first title in all three branches of their new Dungeons & Dragons family tree in August of 1988, each on a different platform of the several each title would eventually reach. Dungeon Masters Assistant Volume 1: Encounters shipped on the Apple II. It would sell 26,212 copies across four platforms — not bad for such a specialized utility. Heroes of the Lance, an action game set in Dragonlance‘s world of Krynn that was developed and delivered as promised from Britain, shipped on the Atari ST. The first of what would come to be known as the “Silver Box” line of action-oriented Dungeons & Dragons games, it would sell an impressive 88,808 copies across four platforms, enough to easy qualify it as SSI’s all-time biggest seller.

Enough, that is, if it hadn’t been for Pool of Radiance, first of the “Gold Box” line of full-on Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs. Recognized as The Big One in the lineup right from the start, it didn’t disappoint. Beginning on the Commodore 64 and moving on to MS-DOS, the Apple II, the Macintosh, and the Amiga, its final sales total reached 264,536 copies in North America alone, thus edging out the various Ultima and Bard’s Tale games to claim the mantle of the best-selling single CRPG ever to be born on an 8-bit computer. By far the most successful release of SSI’s history as an independent company, it became exactly the transformative work that SSI (and Electronic Arts) had been banking on, a ticket to the big leagues if ever there was one. Even the Pool of Radiance clue book outsold any previous SSI game, to the tune of 68,395 copies.

Summer CES, June 1988. The big day draws near.

Summer CES, June 1988. The big day draws near.

The second serious attempt of 1988 to adapt a set of tabletop-RPG rules to the computer, Pool of Radiance makes, like its contemporary Wasteland, an enlightening study in game design for that reason and others. Happily, it’s mostly worthy of its huge success; there’s a really compelling game in here, even if you sometimes have to fight a little more than you ought to to tease it out. As a game, it’s more than worthy of an article in its own right. By way of concluding my little series on SSI and TSR and my bigger one on the landmark CRPGs of 1988, I’ll give it that article next time.

(Sources: As with all of my SSI articles, much of this one is drawn from the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Other sources include the Questbusters of March 1988, Computer Gaming World of March 1988 and July 1988, and Dragon of November 1987, May 1988, and July 1990. Also the book Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline, and Matt Barton’s video interviews with Joel Billings.)

 
 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 2: Ten Odd Years at TSR

TSR

For much of the 1980s, TSR’s tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons was both a looming presence and a baffling absence in the world of computer games. In one sense, this new thing that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had wrought early in the previous decade was absolutely everywhere, not only in the many CRPGs that paid it obvious homage but also in many other, less obvious derivatives that owed so much to its vision of interactive storytelling: Infocom’s text adventures, Sierra’s graphic adventures, even Microprose’s flight simulators with their career modes that let you play the role of a single pilot.

Yet strangely absent were computer-game boxes with the actual name of Dungeons & Dragons on them. A licensing deal for this, one of the most recognizable names in nerd culture, would be a surefire winner, as was clear to every executive and marketing MBA in the computer-game industry. But for years, while Origin Systems and Sir-Tech and Interplay built profitable businesses on what Gygax and Arneson had wrought, TSR just wasn’t interested. Aside from Intellivision cartridges and electronic toys published by Mattel that had little to do with the tabletop game beyond using the trademark, they limited their interactions with the digital-games industry to the occasional legal threat fired across the bows of anyone who got too close to one of their trademarks. The disinterest persisted even as some of their own designers, like Paul Reiche III and Lawrence Schick, were moving on to the increasingly lucrative world of computer games. And it persisted even as CRPGs were by mid-decade generating far more revenue than the tabletop game that had so directly inspired them. It wasn’t as if TSR lacked ambition; this refusal to reach up and pluck the lowest-hanging fruit in the garden was happening even as they spent money they didn’t have on elaborate schemes to crack open the Hollywood coconut. Chalk it up to strange times, strange priorities, and a company that grew up way too quickly.

From as early as 1977, the story of TSR is the story of the two conflicting identities of Dungeons & Dragons. One identity reached back to the game’s roots in hardcore miniatures wargaming, a niche hobby if ever there was one. This Dungeons & Dragons was for those special people who took their games very seriously indeed, who reveled in complicated games. The other Dungeons & Dragons was just starting to look like it may be realizable as the 1970s entered their second half and the game continued to prove more appealing to more and more diverse people than anyone at TSR had ever imagined it could be. Maybe it could become really popular, the next Monopoly or Scrabble.

So, the question was on the table. Should Dungeons & Dragons remain a hobby game? Or could and should it become a mass-market game, with all that implied? Unable to decide, TSR tried to split the difference. In the process, in a move that would make any marketer break out in hives, they confusingly bifurcated their burgeoning market, turning Dungeons & Dragons into two completely separate, incompatible games that both happened to bear the same name.

The initial drive to streamline and mainstream Dungeons & Dragons originated from a source well outside of TSR’s inner circle. J. Eric Holmes, a doctor, professor of neurology, and sometime fantasy author, contacted TSR to tell them that he loved their game, but that they really ought to make it easier for people to find, learn, and play it. At the time, the rules were scattered in multiple books, all of them sold separately. One of the books, Chainmail, didn’t even bear the Dungeons & Dragons name at all, and even after you’d bought them all you still had to find a source for all those funny dice. He suggested a “basic” edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a single port of entry that would ship in a box like other games, and that would include everything needed to get started and take a character through the first few experience levels. A boxed game, Holmes mused presciently, might even be able to find a home in mall book and toy stores, rather than relying on the scattered network of hobbyist stores that were so few and far between in many areas of the country. Further, Holmes was willing to make it himself, rewriting Gygax’s rambling, scattered prose into a clear, straightforward set of rules that read like other game rules — i.e., that explained clearly and succinctly how to actually, you know, play this new game you’d just bought.

The original 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set.

The original 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set.

First released in 1977, the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set went on to become the most successful single product in the history of the tabletop-RPG industry, seeing printings into the millions as it got steadily prettier and slicker through the rest of the 1970s, the 1980s, and into the 1990s. Popular demand led to a series of expansions — an “Expert” set, a “Companion” set, a “Master” set, and finally an “Immortal” set — that let players take their characters to ever higher levels in the same easygoing style.

Ironically, Gary Gygax, the anointed Father of Role-Playing, had very little to do with this most successful version of his game, although he did write the iconic adventure module The Keep on the Borderlands that was included with most of the Basic Sets sold. (Unsurprisingly given its inclusion in the Basic Set, The Keep on the Borderlands became the most-printed tabletop-RPG adventure module in history, reaching more than 1.5 million copies.) Even as Dungeons & Dragons was making its bid for the mainstream via the Basic Set, Gygax was digging its hardcore roots even deeper via an entirely separate line called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Where the Basic Set was streamlined and accessible, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons seemed determined to make you work for your fun. Hewing to the tradition of the original Dungeons & Dragons rules, which had appeared as an irregular stream of supplements to Gygax’s older Chainmail rules for Medieval combat, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons came out in fits and starts, beginning with a Monster Manual full of statistics for an as-yet non-existent game system, followed by the Player’s Handbook six months later, and finally the Dungeon Master’s Guide a year after that. What you were supposed to do with the earlier bits and pieces of a game while you waited for the last of the three daunting hardcover books to be released was never really explained.

The Dungeon Master's Guide's cover didn't do much to convince concerned parents that this game wasn't Satanic.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide‘s cover didn’t do much to convince concerned parents that this game wasn’t Satanic.

The three books that make up the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons are the most indelibly Gygaxian of any of TSR publications, truly their creator’s magnum opus. Never before had a set of humble game rules been so redolent of their maker’s personality. Taken as a whole, they represented easily the most complicated game of any type that anyone had dared publish to date, comprising many hundreds of thousands of words of Gygax’s tangled, less than graceful, yet often weirdly engaging prose, like a less overwrought H.P. Lovecraft. It’s great fun to open any of the books to a random page and just see what you see — even if, like me, you think that actually trying to play this thing as written sounds about as much fun as getting caught in a scything-blade trap (trust me, you don’t want that).

In fact, let’s try it now with the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Ah, here we go… on “missile discharge” into an “existing melee.” No one other than Gary Gygax could have written these paragraphs.

Likewise, discharging of missiles into an existing melee is easily handled. It is permissible, of course, and the results might not be too incompatible with the desires of the discharging party. Assign probabilities to each participant in the melee or target group according to sheer numbers. In the case of participants of varying size use half value for size “S”, normal value for size “M”, and one and one-half value for size “L” creatures which are not too much more than man-size. Total the values for each group and ratio one over the other. If side A has four man-sized participants, and side B has three smaller than man-sized participants and 1 size “L” bugbear, the ratio is 4:3. Then, according to the direction of the missile discharge, determine by using the same ratio. If 7 missiles were loosed, 4 would have a chance to hit side A, 3 side B. In cases where the ratio does not match the number of missiles, convert it to a percentage chance: 1/7 = 14% or 15%, depending on whether the missiles are coming from ahead of side A (14%) or from behind (15%). Thus 4/7 = 56% or 60% chance per missile that it will hit side A. The minor difference represents the fact that there will be considerable shifting and maneuvering during combat which will tend to expose both opponents to fire on a near equal basis. Such missiles must then be assigned (by situation or by random determination) to target creatures, a “to hit” determination made, and damage assessed for those who do hit.

If one opponent group is significantly larger than the other, accurate missiles which have a small area of effect can be directed at the larger opponent group with great hope of success. You may assign a minor chance of a missile striking a friend if you wish, but this writer, for instance, always allows archery hits to hit a giant or a similar creature engaged against a human or smaller opponent. [Quite an easygoing guy, that Gary! They’ll be dancing on the tables in Lake Geneva if this keeps up.]

Something tells me that Gary Gygax has a different definition of “easily” than I do. I’m not sure if a gift for making the simplest things sound complicated is really a desirable quality in a writer of game rules, but, whether it’s to nod your head to the occasional flashes of insight and good advice or just to make fun of stuff like the above, there’s something on every page of Gygax’s magnum opus worth reading.

Unfortunately, the era of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books also began to bring out some less charming facets of Gary Gygax. Transported in just a few years from repairing shoes in his basement for a subsistence (at best) wage to helming the fast-growing darling of the tabletop-games industry, his proprietary instincts began to come out. Dungeons & Dragons, previously a community effort in which everyone — not least Gygax and TSR — was making it up as he went along, became a brand with a definite owner. TSR now began to earn a reputation that they would never lose for the rest of their existence: a reputation as a difficult company to work for, to do business with, sometimes just to coexist in the same industry with. They were now growing rapidly indeed, adding to their ranks many energetic young Dungeons & Dragons fanatics who were bursting with enthusiasm to move to Lake Geneva and work at the epicenter of their hobby. These starry-eyed youngsters, unschooled in the ways of the world, would work for peanuts. TSR took full advantage of that. The company became a notoriously poor payer, and didn’t even offer job security in compensation; from 1980 on it would be racked by wave after wave of purges and lay-offs, followed by massive hirings of new rounds of eager youngsters. Meanwhile the executives, Gygax among them, collected cars like their employees did dice. TSR became the bully of their young industry, sending their lawyers scampering hither and yon to threaten rival game makers, makers of Dungeons & Dragons-compatible products, and even computer games that they judged to have sidled too close to one of their trademarks.

Among their ongoing legal squabbles was one with Dave Arneson, Gygax’s partner in crafting the original Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax made the unilateral decision that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was such a thorough revision and expansion that it constituted a whole new game, authored solely by him, and that TSR therefore didn’t need to acknowledge Arneson’s contributions in the new hardcovers or pay him a royalty for them. Arneson promptly sued, resulting in a long, ugly court battle and finally a March 1981 settlement in Arneson’s favor that restored his royalties. Less happily for Arneson, Gygax’s agenda of setting sole public claim to Dungeons & Dragons was largely successful. Gygax is almost universally acknowledged as the father of Dungeons & Dragons today, and by extension the father of a huge chunk of the popular culture of the last several decades. Arneson, when mentioned at all, is usually relegated to a relative footnote in the story.

Gygax’s emerging determination to assert his personal ownership of the game is all too present in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons itself. Indeed, what with the system’s desire to anticipate and codify every possibility to ensure that it’s handled in every individual campaign just as Gygax would, one might call it the system’s very raison d’être. Whereas the original Dungeons & Dragons opened with an exhortation to adventure and a statement that every rule was really a mere “guideline” (emphasis original), Gygax opens the Dungeon Master’s Guide with a series of warnings befitting a fear-mongering political reactionary. “If Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is to survive and grow,” he tells us, “it must have some degree of uniformity.” The game’s rules are no longer guidelines, but “boundaries.” In “growth and change,” he tells us, is “great danger.” “Uniformity” must be present to prevent players from “going too far in some undesirable direction.”

The tension between Dungeons & Dragons as an imaginative vehicle and Dungeons & Dragons as a complex system had been present with the game since its very inception, when broadly speaking Arneson had been the wide-angle ideas man and Gygax the more narrowly focused translator of those ideas into rules. In the years that followed, different sorts of personalities continued to find Dungeons & Dragons fascinating on one level or the other. Sometimes these twin fascinations coexisted in a single personality; even Gygax during the early years was prone to occasional Aristotelian flights of fancy, describing Dungeon Masters as playwrights and their players as their thespians. With TSR’s decision to bifurcate the game into a basic and an advanced variant, however, each point of view now had a seeming champion, and players were obliged to commit to one camp or the other. One need only contrast Gygax’s statements about rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide with what the 1981 second edition of the Basic Set had to say about them to understand why: “The purpose of these ‘rules’ is to provide guidelines that enable you to play and have fun, so don’t feel absolutely bound to them.”

Today the system that is widely considered the definitive version of old-school Dungeons & Dragons, the one most likely to be used by those who still indulge in such things, is Gygax’s Advanced version. Yet if we cast our eyes back to the game’s four-year commercial heyday, we find the situation reversed.

The beginning of said heyday can be precisely dated to August 15, 1979, the day that a psychologically disturbed Dungeons & Dragons player named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from his dorm room at Michigan State University. A private investigator hired by his parents learned of this strange game Egbert loved to play, and came up with the theory that he must have been playing “for real” with his friends in the steam tunnels underneath the university, or had a psychotic break that led him to believe he was doing so. Presumably he’d gotten lost or injured down there. The disappearance and the private investigator’s theory thereof made the national news media, giving Dungeons & Dragons both its first taste of mainstream attention and its first taste of the controversy that would dog it for years to come. But, at least now in the beginning, the old maxim that any press is good press held. By the time Egbert finally turned up working in an oil field in Louisiana, his disappearance having had nothing to do with games played in steam tunnels or anywhere else, both the Dungeons & Dragons fad and the Dungeons & Dragons controversy were solidly off and running. When Egbert shot and killed himself in August of 1980, it only added fuel to both fires.

By the 1983 third edition of the Basic Set, it had taken on a more colorful, almost cartoon-like appearance to suit the game's ever younger fanbase. It's now for ages "10 and up."

By the 1983 third edition of the Basic Set, it had taken on a more colorful, almost cartoon-like appearance to suit the game’s ever younger fanbase. It’s now for ages “10 and up.”

In a recent article, I wrote about the early 1980s as the time when “school lunch rooms across the country were dotted with Dungeons & Dragons manuals and funny dice.” Well, the manuals in questions were largely not Gygax’s weighty tomes, but rather those found in the the cheaper, friendlier Basic Set and its sequels. These were the face of Dungeons & Dragons the mainstream phenomenon. Far outselling the Advanced books, this was the version of the game found on the shelves of toy stores, waiting for confused parents toting Christmas and birthday lists to pluck it down. One can almost chart the steady downward skew of the age of the typical Dungeons & Dragons player, from middle-aged wargamer to university student to high school to junior high, by charting the changes in diction in the Basic Set manuals as they went through revision after revision. By the time of the 1983 third edition, the text had taken on much the same gee-whiz tone as that other early-1980s children’s-publishing phenomenon, the Choose Your Own Adventure books. We’re a long way from Gygax’s fussy, meticulous style.

This is a game that is fun. It helps you imagine.

“As you whirl around, your sword ready, the huge, red, fire-breathing dragon swoops toward you with a ROAR!”

See? Your imagination woke up already. Now imagine: this game may be more fun than any other game you have ever played!

The Dungeons & Dragons game is a way for us to imagine together — like watching the same movie, or reading the same book. But you can write the stories, without putting a word on paper — just by playing the D&D game.

Gary Gygax, Brian Blume, and Kevin Blume

Gary Gygax, Brian Blume, and Kevin Blume

One of the many oddities of TSR’s history is that Gary Gygax, the company’s founder and the co-creator of its flagship game, had an actual controlling interest in the firm on only two short-lived occasions. The first of these was a brief instant just after TSR’s 1975 incorporation, before one Brian Blume and his father Melvin bought in to the tune of 70 percent. The Blumes’ primary qualification was that they had ready money to invest in getting Dungeons & Dragons properly off the ground, something Gygax the nearly destitute cobbler had a conspicuous need for.

Despite his lack of a clear controlling interest, Gygax had been allowed the final word on running the company through the rest of the 1970s. He was listed on the org chart as President, Brian Blume as Vice President, and Melvin Blume played no operational role. As the 1980s dawned, however, that arrangement began to change a bit. In September of 1980, yet another member of the Blume clan, Brian’s brother Kevin, bought out their father’s share. Kevin Blume seemed more determined than the other Blumes to make his voice heard in the board room, and apparently emboldened his brother as well. Thus TSR during the next few years was steered by a rather unwieldly three-headed monster, consisting of Gygax and the two Blume brothers.

The tension between TSR the hobbyist publisher and TSR the mass-market publisher was now more palpable than ever. Given the differences between Gygax’s hardcore Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the streamlined boxed sets, it would make for a tidy narrative to cast him as the person in the triumvirate least enamored with the idea of TSR going mainstream. Certainly that’s a mantle that Gygax would be eager to claim for himself years later. Yet there is little contemporary evidence to point to any significant strife arising from the company’s trifurcated leadership during this period. On the contrary, the three men seemed largely in harmony on TSR’s future. Their vision saw TSR, once this semi-amateur plaything born of an obscure hobby — “TSR” stood for “Tactical Studies Rules”, for God’s sake — becoming a major voice in mainstream entertainment on the back of the Dungeons & Dragons fad. Thus when the Blumes proposed buying Greenfield Needlewomen, a maker of needlework products, as TSR’s first serious step beyond the tabletop-gaming ghetto, Gygax gave every indication of being fully on-board with the idea. “Crafts is a larger field than hobbies,” he explained to employees skeptical of the strange acquisition. Bigger was now automatically better. TSR’s big needlework initiative turned into a gigantic, millions-losing fiasco.

But the strangest episode to arise from this grab at the brass ring of mainstream success was undoubtedly Gary Gygax’s quixotic sojourn to Hollywood, land of a million broken dreams. The dream in this case was that of a major motion picture bearing TSR’s zealously protected Dungeons & Dragons trademark. Determined to play the part of the Tinseltown mogul to the hilt, in 1982 he pulled up stakes in family-friendly Lake Geneva and bought a bachelor pad — he had left his wife of 23 years and their five children just before the move — looking down on the Hollywood Hills. Rumors have always swirled around this period in Gygax’s life, which to all external appearances looks like as classic a mid-life crisis as this writer has ever witnessed. It’s claimed that he painted the town red with a succession of starlets, and even that he picked up a cocaine habit by way of further fitting in. I can’t speak too much to any of that, but will just say that the voyeur in me would love to have been a fly on the wall of his bachelor pad, to see how the beautiful people of Hollywood reacted to this balding, bespectacled, pot-bellied old wargamer — and how he reacted to them. He was a long way from the sand table in his Lake Geneva basement.

What I can say more definitively is that Gygax, like so many earnest amateurs before him, got fleeced by the sharks of Tinseltown. He paid James Goldman, a screenwriter whose star had fallen dramatically since authoring the award-winning play and film The Lion in Winter during the 1960s, $500,000 to write a dire script for the film. He shopped the script around the studios for many months and at yet more expense with no takers, not even after he allegedly convinced Orson Welles, who would take pretty much any gig he could get by this stage of his career, to star in it. In the end he had to settle for a deal with Marvel Comics’s film division to make a Dungeons & Dragons Saturday-morning cartoon; TSR was in the process of negotiating a license to make a Marvel Superheroes tabletop RPG at the same time, so one suspects a bit of quid pro quo. With its cheap, gaudy animation and dashed-off scripts, the cartoon wasn’t exactly a halo project, if also not notably worse than the other licensed Saturday-morning fare of the time. Debuting on September 17, 1983, it lasted for three years, during which were produced a sporadic 27 episodes.

In retrospect the problems with Dungeons & Dragons as a trans-media property are plain as day. Such properties are universally built around their characters: Luke, Han, and Darth Vader; Bilbo, Frodo, and Gollum; Batman, Robin, and the Joker. But Dungeons & Dragons had no characters, nor a ready-made plot, nor even a setting to speak of.1 What were filmmakers really supposed to do with it, and what would they get out of it other than the use of a trademark that, even setting aside the fact that some parents thought it literally the devil’s work, was more associated with nerdy kids rolling dice in basements and lunch rooms than blockbuster entertainment? The makers of the cartoon series had felt forced to come up with a tortured framing story about just such a group of kids who get sucked into a real-life version of their fantasies and have to find their way home — thus inadvertently recalling the myth of James Dallas Egbert III. In short, there was just no there there. Trying to make a movie out of Dungeons & Dragons would be like trying to make a movie out of Battleship. (Oh, wait…)

TSR’s failed bid for the silver screen is made ironic by the existence of that other non-tabletop market that was eager for Dungeons & Dragons products: the world of computer games. But the commercial potential of an officially licensed game, despite being plain to everyone inside the computer-games industry, remained a massive blind spot for the TSR triumvirate as they negotiated with Hollywood and bought needlework companies. Instead they continued to regard computer games as a whole as an enemy to be defeated en masse by their tabletop products.

By mid-1983, just in time for the debut of the cartoon series, the Dungeons & Dragons fad had clearly begun to collapse. The Blumes, having expanded TSR to an all-time peak of almost 400 employees, were caught with their pants down. With Gygax still away in Hollywood, they cut desperately back in Lake Geneva, laying off some three quarters of their workforce in the space of the next eighteen months.

In March of 1985, with TSR still in dire straits, Gygax swooped in to rescue the company — at least in his telling — from what he now considered to be the Blumes’ mismanagement. By exercising options to buy stocks and combining his new position with stocks that had been given to his son Ernie, he built a clear controlling interest in TSR — 51.1 percent — for the first time since that brief period after the incorporation ten years before. He pushed the Blumes out of their operational roles and set to work, in sole charge of the company again at last. He cut many of TSR’s slower-selling non-Dungeons & Dragons games, retrenched to focus again on the neglected hobby market rather than the mainstream, and, playing to the hardcore fans whom he knew would still buy, rushed out two new high-profit-margin if somewhat slapdash Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers, Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures. (Because apparently the game wasn’t complicated enough already…)

These measures and others undoubtedly helped TSR avoid the looming prospect of complete collapse. But it was a couple of projects begun under the Blumes that would become the biggest moneyspinners by creating exactly the trans-media appeal that TSR had heretofore so painfully failed to generate. There was, first of all, that Marvel Superheroes RPG, the most successful non-Dungeons & Dragons game TSR would ever publish. And then there was Dragonlance.

A couple of years before, the design department had come up with the idea of a series of adventure modules that would each focus on a different sort of dragon. From this “dragon of the month” concept evolved Dragonlance, the tale, told over the course of twelve adventure modules, of a war that took place in a new fantasy world called Krynn. The idea soon further expanded to include source books, miniatures, and a trilogy of fat novels telling the same story as the adventure modules, written by staffers Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The project, already mid-stream at the time of Gygax’s return, was a massive success; along with the new hardcovers, it gave the hardcore fans a reason to get excited about Advanced Dungeons & Dragons again. But the most profitable part of this very profitable project was the three novels. They at last provided appealing characters to go along with Dungeons & Dragons the abstract concept, and thereby topped their genre’s bestseller lists one after another. It may been too late to have another go at Hollywood with Dragonlance‘s Tanis Half-Elven and Tasslehoff Burrfoot in hand, but, recognizing a good thing when they saw one, TSR would publish dozens more novels in the years to come that tied in in various ways with their games. Through many of those years, Dungeons & Dragons novels continued to prove more profitable than the rules, supplements, and adventures that inspired them.

But all that was still to come. What happened next inside the down-sized, slowly recovering TSR would leave Gary Gygax deeply embittered for the rest of his life. It’s a somewhat complicated financial story. I’ll do my best to hit the high points here, and point you to another article by Jon Peterson for the financial nitty-gritty.

Wanting to ensure that no current or future partner could ever sell the company out from under him, Gygax back in 1975 had written into TSR’s articles of incorporation a stipulation that any investor who wished to divest himself of his holdings must first offer his shares to the current management of the company, giving them a chance to buy the shares back themselves if they so wished, before he could sell them to a third party. The sidelined Blumes now did indeed wish to get out of TSR entirely and move on with their lives. They repeatedly told this to Gygax, and proposed that he buy them out to the tune of $500 per share. Gygax said this was too high, as the Blumes had fully expected he would, but kept dragging his feet on opening proper negotiations. At last, judging honor and law satisfied by their having given Gygax an opportunity to buy their shares, the Blumes made the move that Gygax would forever deem the most underhanded betrayal of his life.

Brian Blume, you see, had stock options of his own similar to those that had let Gygax gain control of the company. He’d just been reluctant to exercise them, being afraid that TSR had become a sinking ship. Now, though, he did so as part of a conspiracy involving a new investor named Lorraine Williams. A wealthy heiress who had first become aware of TSR only when she met Gygax in Hollywood, Williams had come back to Lake Geneva with him to work as TSR’s Vice President of Administration. But she hadn’t been satisfied in that role, and now made a play to take over the whole company.

Brian Blume’s options exercised, the Blume brothers quietly sold the whole kit and caboodle of their holdings — amounting to a clear controlling interest — to Williams. Just like that, on October 22, 1985, Gygax was out and Williams was in. Gygax immediately filed a lawsuit, but the court ruled in favor of Williams and the Blumes, saying the latter had fulfilled their fiduciary responsibilities by first offering in good faith to sell their shares back to Gygax.

Williams claims that she never intended to force Gygax out of the company entirely, that she imagined herself running the business side of things and Gygax in charge of the creative side. Brian Blume claims that Gygax forced Williams’s hand when word leaked of his plan to fire her from her role as Vice President and replace her with one Gail Carpenter, his eventual second wife. Whatever the veracity of such claims, Gygax considered the entire episode the most inexcusable of personal betrayals. He divested himself of his stock and walked away from TSR; his active role in the development of Dungeons & Dragons ended here. “The shape and direction of the Dungeons & Dragons game system are now entirely in the hands of others,” he wrote in his farewell address in TSR’s Dragon magazine.

Lorraine Williams didn’t do much to endear herself to either Dungeons & Dragons players or TSR’s employees in the years that followed. By most accounts deeply unpleasant to deal with on a personal level, she allegedly found TSR’s games and novels and all the rest interesting only to the extent that they were profitable. A marketer and businesswoman rather than a gamer, she’s blamed today for all sorts of things, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly. Much of the popular opinion about Williams can be traced back to Gygax, who for the rest of his life continued to excoriate both the Blumes and Lorraine Williams in ways that only grew more colorful as the years went by, egged on by the grizzled tabletop veterans for whom his rants became a legendary source of entertainment.

Any criticism of Williams’s tenure, however, must also reckon with the reality that the reign of Gygax and the Blumes had been a veritable garden of forking paths of poor decisions and missed opportunities. To put it bluntly, these three men had no idea what they were doing trying to run a company, and were too stubborn, arrogant, or blinded by Dungeons & Dragons‘s brief window of mainstream success to seek out someone who did. Their naivete is made all too clear by their persistence in comparing running a business to playing Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax declared their determination to take TSR from a “low-level” company to a “really high-level game producer such as Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers,” while Kevin Blume said they were “intuitively” good businessmen because they had learned everything they needed from games.

Perhaps what TSR the business really needed after all those year of amateur (mis)management was exactly what Williams provided: a businesslike head who wasn’t too close to the products, who focused on practical expansion into friendly related areas like fantasy novels rather than chasing chimeras in Hollywood. Under Williams, TSR would enjoy some years of a commercial success that was more modest in scale than that of of the early 1980s but also more sustainable. The company’s employees may not have liked Williams all that much personally, but they certainly must have liked the relative stability she provided after the waves of layoffs and hirings that had marked the company’s earlier years.

And at least one result of the new Lorraine Williams era was welcomed by just about everyone. Once Gygax’s suit had been fended off and she was firmly in control, she let word leak out that TSR was at last seriously interested in finding a partner to make a licensed Dungeons & Dragons computer game. While she wasn’t a gamer like most of her customers, she had nevertheless spotted the blindingly obvious synergy that had somehow eluded her predecessors. We’ll see how she found her partner next time.

(Sources: In addition to the link in the article proper, Shannon Appelcline’s book Designers & Dragons Volume 1: The 1970s was invaluable, although I should note that I’m far harder on Gygax and TSR’s management in general than he is. For sheer entertainment value, the best article ever written about Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons is Paul La Farge’s “Destroy All Monsters”: “The transformation of player into character often turns out to be cosmetic: the fearless paladin and the sexy dark elf both sound and act a lot like a thirteen-year-old boy named Ted. And what Ted likes to do, mostly, is kill anything that crosses his path.” Seriously, go read it. Like, now.)


  1. TSR’s only official setting at the time was Gygax’s separately sold campaign world of Greyhawk, which was about as vanilla and abstract a place as a fantasy world could be. Handed a couple of sheets of blank mapping paper by TSR’s design department, Gygax had made up the geography in an afternoon, tailoring it to fit on those two pages. 

 
 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 1: Joel Billings and SSI

SSI

I’m a game player, mostly, that’s about it. I’m pretty dull, actually.

— Joel Billings

Joel Billings is about as close to a literal lifelong gamer as it’s possible to be. His father taught him to play the old Avalon Hill wargame classic Tactics II in 1965, when he was just 7 years old. Robert Billings, who regarded gaming only as an occasional pleasant diversion, soon had cause to wonder whether that introduction has been a wise move; young Joel got obsessed right from the first. Instead of playing with cars or model trains, Joel re-fought the major battles of World War II and the American Civil War on his bedroom floor, having simultaneous and almost equally pitched real-world battles with the family dog, who wanted to play too. While other boys played sports, or merely watched them, Joel was determined to simulate them. He tried to recreate every single game of the 1969 football season for every single team — hundreds of individual matches — using Strat-O-Matic Football, finally stopping out of sheer exhaustion with just twenty or so matches left to play. Encouraged to find a more social outlet for his “hobby,” he raided his high school’s chess club to form a wargaming club with himself as founder, president, and, it seems safe to say, most passionate member by a country mile. The same could be said of the company he would later found.

But it was awfully hard in those early days for Joel or anyone in his family to imagine how he could turn his passion into a living wage, especially given that he wasn’t and would never be so much a start-from-scratch designer as an avid, gifted player. After doing well at his suburban Los Angeles high school despite the lure of wargames — he graduated 19th in a class of 572 — he proceeded to Claremont Men’s College in 1975 to pursue a degree in Economics. There he continued with his beloved wargames, betwixt and between and every chance he got. He would sometimes enter three divisions of a wargaming tournament simultaneously, an obligation later described by Al Tommervik of Softalk magazine as “roughly akin to playing a couple of dozen simultaneous chess matches against near masters.”

The late 1970s were a good time to be a wargamer. In terms of dollars and cents, this period was the tabletop-wargame industry’s golden age. Annual sales grew at a rate of 40 percent or more for the better part of the decade, peaking in 1979 at $15.5 million. Those may sound like small numbers in comparison with many another entertainment industry, but for wargaming, always the very definition of a niche hobby, they were very good ones indeed in comparison to what had come before and, less happily, what would soon follow. Surveys reckoned over a quarter of a million Americans were active wargamers, with an average age of just 22 years. (In the years to follow, one of those numbers would plummet while the other rose precipitously.) Joel Billings — smart, from comfortable circumstances, and 21 years old in 1979 — was practically the prototypical specimen of the breed.

In those days wargaming was absolutely dominated by a Coke and a Pepsi, whose combined sales accounted for 80 percent of the industry as a whole. Wargaming’s Coke was Avalon Hill, the big, traditionalist institution whose Tactics, generally regarded as the urtext of the modern wargame, had birthed the industry back in 1954. Its Pepsi was the younger, slightly smaller, slightly hungrier, arguably more innovative Simulations Publications, Incorporated, universally known as SPI. The two companies were each regarded with great love and loyalty by their respective fans, who felt they could discern a distinct personality not only in the marketing and packaging of each company’s games but in the games’ rules as well. Plenty of wargamers were stalwart loyalists to one camp or the other, refusing to buy or play a game by the rival company. Joel wasn’t quite that extreme, but was always an Avalon Hill man when push came to shove.

Joel Billings, the man destined to bring the culture of chits and dice into collision with that of bits and bytes, had his first run-in with computers early in his time at Claremont College. He wound up, more by happenstance than desire, in a BASIC programming class conducted with the mediation of a big DEC PDP-10. This first encounter didn’t rock his world the way it did that of so many characters we’ve met on this blog — Joel had already found his lifelong passion when he had first played Tactics II all those years ago — but he did find the experience interesting, and found he had a certain aptitude for it as well. It started him to musing about the changes computers might wreak on his own favored hobby. For his final project in the class, he wrote a simple little two-player tank game. It was a wargame in only the most generous definition of the term, but it was a start. In the meantime, he parlayed that class into a six-month internship at Amdahl Corporation, a maker of mainframe computers located in Silicon Valley, during his senior year at university.

After graduating from Claremont College in May of 1979, Joel traveled up the coast again to take a summer job with Amdahl before he went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago. As he had before, he stayed in a spare apartment above the house of David Rubinfien, an uncle. Immersed in the world of big mainframe iron as he was, Joel had only recently become aware of the nascent PC revolution. But as soon as he’d seen his first TRS-80 he’d begun wondering what these new microcomputers might be able to do for his hobby. Rubinfien, as always supportive of and helpful to his nephew and possessed of some connections in the Valley to boot, encouraged him to find out.

Joel first talked to some programmers who worked for IBM, but they told him flat-out that his idea of creating a wargame reminiscent of the tabletop games he loved on the microcomputers of the day was absurd. Undaunted, Joel hung flyers in several of the local computer shops. With the moment of decision looming ever closer — did he stay here and try to make a computerized wargame or did he go off to graduate school? — he was contacted in early August by one John Lyon. Eighteen years Joel’s senior, Lyon was an experienced programmer currently working for Control Data who loved wargames almost as much as Joel. He had never programmed a microcomputer before, but he didn’t let that stop him. “This is what opportunity looks like when it knocks,” Lyon had told the sales clerk standing by the store’s bulletin board. “And I’m going to answer it.”

Pressed for time as they were, Joel and John settled on a rather blatant computerized clone of an old Avalon Hill classic called Bismarck, a simulation of the legendary German battleship‘s ill-fated attempt to break out into the Atlantic shipping lanes in 1941. In addition to offering a completed design to start from, Bismarck seemed ideal in a number of other ways. For one thing, its was a popular subject known even to many non-military-history buffs thanks to the classic war flick Sink the Bismarck!  But there were also other, less obvious considerations. Joel had long since realized that the computer had the potential to bring two hugely salable advancements to the traditional tabletop wargame, and a Bismarck game would be well-nigh ideal for demonstrating both of them.

One advancement would be true hidden movement. Implementing a proper “fog of war” presented an obvious problem for a tabletop wargame where each player was tracking moves on the same game board and needed to be able to make sure the other wasn’t cheating. The problem of fog of war was so vexing yet so essential to any realistic simulation of military conflict that some of the most elaborate wargames had taken to requiring a third participant, a referee who could serve as a neutral arbiter and keep track of each player’s units in relation to the others; you can imagine how popular that thankless role was. A computerized version of Bismarck could demonstrate to fine effect the computer’s ability to simulate the fog of war. Indeed, one might say that this entire scenario revolved around the fog of war: the really difficult part for the British side was simply finding the Bismarck. The British forces were so overwhelming in comparison to the German that, as Joel puts it, “if you find the Bismarck you’re likely to kill it.”

The other advantage computers brought to the (non-)table was of course to eliminate not only the need for a referee but also the need for another player, to provide an artificially intelligent opponent who was up for a game any time you were. Artificial intelligence was, however, a hard task to shoehorn into a microcomputer of 1979 vintage. It was here that the second big advantage of Joel and John’s choice of games came in: with a Bismarck game, they really didn’t need much of an artificial intelligence at all. The order of battle for the German side of things consisted of only the Bismarck itself and a single escorting cruiser; the tiny flotilla’s strategic and tactical options were pretty much limited to “sail as quickly as possible and hope the British forces don’t find them.” Surely the computer could manage that much. All John Lyon needed do was restrict the human player to only playing the British side.

Computer Bismark was programmed in Joel's apartment at the top of this rather hair-raising staircase. Thanks to childhood bout with polio, John Lyons had to climb it on crutches every evening.

Computer Bismarck was programmed in Joel’s apartment at the top of this rather hair-raising staircase. Thanks to an adolescent bout with polio, John Lyon had to climb it on crutches every evening.

Lyon set to work programming the game, using only text because that’s all the borrowed North Star CP/M machine he and Joel had scrounged could manage; neither of these two would-be microcomputer-software impresarios yet owned an actual microcomputer. Meanwhile his uncle set up several meetings with venture capitalists, which didn’t yield any immediately tangible results. But then the Silicon Valley grapevine reached Trip Hawkins, a young man only a few older than Joel who worked for a company Joel had barely heard of to this point: Apple Computer. A venture capitalist called Hawkins to tell him about this interesting proposal that was coming from an inexperienced youngster with questionable credentials to pull it off. If Hawkins would quit his job at Apple and become president of the new company, the venture capitalist said, he could guarantee him ample financing. Hawkins wasn’t ready to do any such thing, but he was intrigued enough by the venture capitalist’s description to meet with Joel.

The two were polar opposites in temperament, Hawkins charismatic, nakedly ambitious, and dynamic while Joel was quiet, staid, and thoughtful. Both, however, had grown up similarly steeped in the games culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Eager to foster the games industry that he hoped to enter in his own right someday soon, Hawkins offered to join the board of any prospective company, provided that Joel was willing to develop his game on the Apple II. The Apple II had been overshadowed by the likes of the TRS-80 and all those CP/M machines to date, Hawkins admitted, but it was having a very good 1979 and was poised to come on strong in the new decade — poised to be “the computer of the future.” He was, to give credit where it’s due, largely right in this. The Apple II would indeed become the premier gaming computer of the next several years, thanks not least to a standout feature that Hawkins didn’t hesitate to point out to Joel: its color bitmap graphics. If they made their Bismarck game for the Apple II, Joel and John could substitute a color picture of the North Atlantic for textual descriptions of the situation.

Hawkins’s participation should play well with the many Silicon Valley venture capitalists who already knew him as a bright young spark, and he could even get Joel access to Apple’s own distribution network and customer rolls. And, far from being a sacrifice, going with the burgeoning Apple II as the new company’s platform of choice seemed a logical course. Hawkins promised to join the board, and Apple II it was from then on.

Still, Joel remained cautious by nature. All too aware of his own lack of experience, he cast about for a bigger partner to shoulder some of the risk and some of the responsibility. He screwed up his courage to call the home of his self-described “heroes” at the wargaming Mecca of Avalon Hill, and managed to get Thomas N. Shaw — game designer, founding editor of Avalon Hill’s in-house magazine The General, and the most long-serving employee of the company — on the other end of the line. Shaw, in Joel’s words, “blew him off,” said Avalon Hill was already investigating the field of computer gaming for themselves and didn’t particularly need the help of a 21-year-old with no relevant experience, thank you very much. Joel’s next call was to Automated Simulations, a computer-games publisher founded by two veteran tabletop wargamers that struck him as the only publisher remotely close in background and spirit to what he was trying to do. But, flying high on the sales of their proto-CRPG Temple of Apshai, Automated Simulatons was more interested in adding to that line than branching out into computer wargames. And, once again, they remained distinctly unimpressed by young Joel himself. If Joel wanted to do this thing, he would have to do it alone.

He had definitively decided at last that he did want to do this thing. At the last possible instant, he obtained a one-year deferral on graduate school and an extension of his summer job at Amdahl to pay the bills while he tried to get his company off the ground. Being a methodical sort who did anything he decided to do thoroughly and conscientiously, Joel, with the assistance of a sympathetic older colleague from Amdahl named David Bowen, prepared an evolving series of business plans over the last five months of 1979, using data drawn from trade journals and a survey he passed out at a local tabletop-gaming convention. They make for fascinating reading today. For instance, one data point had ominous implications for the wargames industry, still sanguine in their expectations of double-digit annual growth in the decade to come, if only anyone there had happened to see it: Joel found from his survey that wargamers who purchased computers immediately saw their expenditures on tabletop games drop by an average of 41 percent.

In one of these documents, Joel shows a remarkable understanding of the nature of experiential gaming and what makes it different and important.

It is believed that users of these games are attempting to create a fantasy world in which they can obtain role identification with heroic figures. This is similar to reading a good book or watching TV, except that in a game it is more interactive, lively, or “hot.” Wargames provide historical realism and heroes with the basic requirements of a good game: elements of skill, strategy, and chance. Typical wargames allow role identification with heroes like General Patton, various admirals, Napoleon, and so on.

The business plans paint a picture of a busy little factory, with a large staff of programmers under Lyon beavering away to turn out games at a rapid clip. For all the plans’ diligence, they don’t evince much understanding of the nature of intellectual property. Under the heading of “Overall Product Strategy,” the final plan unabashedly states that “computerized versions of existing [tabletop] games” will be the company’s early priority, with “computerized wargames designed by a top-flight game designer with a computer in mind from the beginning” coming only later as resources permit. Ah, well… Joel’s company would hardly be the only respected publisher to have a dodgy understanding of intellectual property in the wild and woolly early days of the software industry.

The name of Joel’s venture changed several times. What started out as the placeholder “Company A” became “Computer Simulations,” and only then “Strategic Simulations.” Joel first took to abbreviating the name to “SS,” but the historical connotations of those two letters — especially to wargamers, who tended to be all too steeped in the very era of history in question — were too ugly to let them stand alone. So he settled at last on SSI, for “Strategic Simulations, Incorporated,” an abbreviation with the added bonus of harking back to the tabletop-wargaming institution of SPI. The incorporation in question occurred on December 27, 1979.

Even with Trip Hawkins’s backing, Joel still hadn’t found any venture capitalists willing to take a chance on computerized wargaming by that date. So Joel’s family finally came through to fund his dream, raising some $40,000 in seed capital among themselves. Joel’s big sister Susan quit her job as admitting-and-registration manager at a hospital to run the accounting side of the venture, to serve as office manager, and, just possibly, to keep an eye on her little brother on behalf of the family that had just entrusted him with so much of their money and faith. Susan, who had no particular interest in games or computers, took the job on as a favor and a family obligation. “For the first couple of years, I said I’d stay six months and then leave,” she remembers. “I thought it was a temporary thing.” Instead she would remain throughout SSI’s long run, becoming in her way as integral to the company as Joel himself. This even though she never did much warm to games or computers: “I never felt an affinity for the products. My feelings were for the operation and the people.”

Computer Bismark in action.

Computer Bismarck in action.

John Lyon finished SSI’s first game in late January of 1980. Still not the slightest bit interested in disguising its origins in the Avalon Hill Bismarck, Joel titled it simply Computer Bismarck. No matter. Computer Bismarck, generally regarded today as the first serious wargame to appear on a microcomputer, made for a very impressive product for those in SSI’s target demographic. Recognizing the need to present a professional appearance — especially in light of Computer Bismarck‘s $60 price tag, four or five times the price of the typical computer game at the time — Joel had taken the unusual step of hiring an artist and packaging designer for SSI right out of the gate. In an industry still dominated by Ziploc baggies stuffed with hand-scrawled photocopied title cards, Computer Bismarck shipped in an actual box sporting Louis Saekow’s ominous head-on graphic of the Bismarck itself. Inside was not only a real, professionally typeset manual but also a generous collection of player aids, including a map and counters for keeping track of those aspects of the strategic situation that the program, even with the aid of the Apple II’s bitmap graphics, couldn’t always show.

Computer Bismark

Through the auspices of the well-connected Trip Hawkins, Joel made his first significant sale in early February, 50 copies of the game to the Los Altos Computerland. A week later SSI moved out of Joel’s apartment, where by the end there he had been forced to wind his way through a hedge maze built from the first 1000 copies of Computer Bismarck just to reach his bed. After the move, the first of six to ever larger digs that SSI would make over the next decade, Joel hung a map of the United States on the wall. Every time an SSI game sold in a new city, he’d put a pin in the map. Within six weeks, the map was positively bristling with them. Its purpose served, Joel pulled the map off the wall.

They were on their way, but budgets were decidedly tight. That first office space was nothing but a big empty room. Unable to afford cubicles, they made “offices” out of walls of boxes. “When someone grumbled later about not having an office,” Susan remembers, “we’d say the president had a wall of boxes for an office, so you’re in good company.” Despite working for an alleged computer company, Susan managed all of the accounts on paper, with the aid of only “one of those out-of-the-movies adding machines that only does addition and subtraction.” At $15 at the local surplus store, the price had been right.

Computer Bismark

SSI spent all the money they weren’t spending inside their offices trying to make a good impression outside of them. Determined to advertise Computer Bismarck as something genuinely new under the sun, they came up with a catchy slogan: “The $2160 Wargame!” (The extra $2100, of course, referred to the approximate cost of the Apple II system needed to run it.) Just as Joel had hoped, Computer Bismarck attracted significant attention in traditional wargaming circles, getting big writeups in hardcore magazines like Fire and Movement. Computerized wargames were “here at last,” wrote Joel in his “Designer’s Notes” addendum to that article, “and I suggest you run out and buy a home computer as soon as you can justify it to your wife, girlfriend, or mother.” And at least to some extent his readers apparently did. SSI wound up selling almost 8000 copies of Computer Bismarck. That number may not sound spectacular today, but it wasn’t bad for a niche product in what remained a niche industry. By year’s end Lyon and his team had churned out a few more, slightly less blatantly cloned wargames. SSI’s year-end balance sheet showed a loss of $60,000, but that was hardly unexpected for the first-year startup. They believed they were well on the road to profitability. At the same time, though, Joel was well on the road to overhauling the way that SSI did business.

Joel with a single computer and a homemade sign at the June 1980 Origins gaming convention.

Joel with a single computer and a homemade sign at the June 1980 Origins gaming convention.

What caused him to rethink himself was an unsolicited and thoroughly unexpected package that arrived within months of the release of Computer Bismarck. In the package was a game from an Arkansan named Dan Bunten,1 a football simulation that used the Apple II’s optional paddle controllers to brilliant effect. Bunten wanted to know if SSI would be interested in publishing it. Hard as it may be to believe, this was a business model that had never occurred to Joel. Instead of killing themselves to design and program all these games in-house, SSI could curate games from outside developers — handle the packaging and marketing while leaving the tough, unpredictable creative effort to others. If Joel needed any further convincing, the fact that Bunten’s slick football game made SSI’s in-house games look rather workmanlike provided plenty. SSI published Computer Quarterback in September of 1980 as their first non-in-house-developed game. It promptly became by far the fastest seller in their catalog, just in case Joel needed yet further convincing.

SSI’s year-end 1980 “business plan,” really a state-of-the-business report, incorporates an important change from the original plan: “SSI is now relying on outside designers to provide roughly half of all new products.” That percentage would only increase in the years to come. Joel’s original vision of SSI as a sort of wargames factory, with a small army of programmers beavering away to churn out games, would never materialize. No big loss. This new way worked so much better.

As the existence of Computer Quarterback will attest, SSI’s games almost immediately began to depart from the most literal definition of a wargame. Within a few years they would add to their growing military-history library not only more sports games, but also economic simulations, political challenges, and science-fictional scenarios. Somewhat to the chagrin of Joel, a hardcore military wargamer first and last, the average non-military game actually sold much better than the average military; the biggest sellers of all in SSI’s first few years were Computer Quarterback and Computer Baseball.

Yet, like the games of most publishers carving out an identity in the young industry, SSI’s games did all tend to share a personality. In an earlier article, I described that personality as “almost aggressively off-putting.” While not the kindest description I’ve ever written, I think it holds true to the way the average non-wargamer perceived them. It’s right there in the name of the company that made them. These games were very eager to brand themselves as thinking people’s strategic simulations rather than mere games. Rather than minimizing complexities, they reveled in them — that’s to say, they reveled in as many complexities as it was actually possible to generate on a 48 K Apple II. Like the tabletop wargames that inspired them, mechanical elegance, interface, and aesthetics all took a back seat to the idea of recreating history. It may sound like stereotyping to say that most of SSI’s games were written by serious-minded bearded men in home offices whose walls were lined with military-history books… but, well, most of SSI’s games were written by serious-minded bearded men in home offices whose walls were lined with military-history books. Long after the rest of the industry had sworn off BASIC for high-performance machine language, SSI continued to happily accept and publish games written in pure BASIC, hundreds of lines of amateurish spaghetti code. For the SSI hardcore, who like tabletop wargamers loved to explore and tinker with rules in the name of historical accuracy or what-if scenarios, the use of easily listable and modifiable BASIC was as much plus as minus. The great Sid Meier gave us the maxim that “fun trumps realism” in game design. One might say that SSI’s games took the opposite position. But, almost paradoxically, for the niche of people on their wavelength the realism — or the abstract idea of realism, whatever the actual reality of simulation on a 48 K Apple II — was the fun.

For everyone else, the appeal of these baroque, balky, bulky creations remained a mystery. The shops often didn’t know quite what to do with them. Here’s Ed Thomas, a former manager of Software Etc.’s showcase store in Manhattan:

The boxes were half again as big as any other box on the shelf, and they were these intricate wargames with names like Beachhead: Moscow, 1944. I hated those boxes. The only way to display them was to put them on the top shelf, which messed up the order I was trying to establish. In addition, the covers weren’t very attractive, and I never had enough of any one title to face-out the boxes. These damned over-sized, ugly boxes were not at all worth the trouble they caused. I took an immediate dislike to the company that was giving me such a hard time.

That was my first encounter with Strategic Simulations, Inc., a company filled, I was sure, with people who, when not writing intricate computer code, were in a military-style war room recreating D-Day.

SSI proved uniquely impervious to the depredations of the software pirates who were causing so much outrage elsewhere in the industry. Their fool-proof method of copy protection didn’t involve mismatched sector numbers or manual-lookup schemes. It was rather the simple fact that few of the people who copied and traded games could care less about those of SSI. The piracy scene just couldn’t be bothered, unless it was to have an occasional game to mock for its ugly graphics, its slowness, and its sheer BASICness.

Joel poses in 1982 with Pursuit of the Graf Spee, the only SSI game he designed and programmed himself -- albeit by cribbing liberally from Computer Bismark. Selling just 2082, it wasn't a big success.

Joel poses in 1982 with Pursuit of the Graf Spee, the only SSI game he designed and programmed himself — albeit only by cribbing liberally from Computer Bismarck. It sold just 2082 units.

The niche audience for SSI’s games — niche even by the standards of the still tiny software industry in general — sharply limited the potential sales of each of them. As Joel himself put it in 1982, “I’m just a niche in a subset.” And then there were so many sub-niches within SSI’s niche: a dedicated sports gamer raised on Strat-O-Matic Football might not care about military titles at all, a World War II buff might not have any interest in American Civil War games. Relying on the fact that many of the dedicated hardcore would buy lots of games within the sub-niche that did appeal to them, SSI made it up in the sheer volume of titles they published. They really were astoundingly prolific. Already in that 1980 business plan they are planning to leverage all those outside designers to release a new game for every month of 1981. Shockingly, they pulled it off, and kept right on flooding the market with titles thereafter.

In the first four years of SSI’s existence, they released no fewer than 43 separate games, not counting ports and enhanced editions. Most of these never came close to cracking five digits in total unit sales. Some barely sold 2000 copies. Precisely three of them cracked 20,000 units, with the most successful of them all, Computer Baseball, a real outlier at over 45,000 copies sold. Titles like that presumably broke through to some extent beyond the SSI hardcore. But mostly SSI relied on the fanatically loyal customers who bought lots of their games and quite possibly no games at all from anyone else. With virtually none of their games selling in enough quantities to meet even the most generous definition of a hit, their ever expanding back catalog was everything. Each SSI game, even those that initially struggled to sell 1000 units, remained available for years. It would, for instance, still be possible to buy a brand new copy of good old Computer Bismarck in 1986 — and still for a full $60 at that.

It was a comfortable niche as niches go, but there was only room for one company there. About six months after Computer Bismarck, Avalon Hill, as Tom Shaw had once told Joel they would, started their own line of computerized wargames. That, combined with the existence of Computer Bismarck, was a recipe for trouble. Sure enough, Avalon Hill was soon marketing computerized versions of some of their other tabletop classics using the same prefix: Computer Diplomacy, Computer Football Strategy, Computer Circus Maximus. Just to aggravate the confusion, Avalon Hill coincidentally released a second edition of the tabletop Bismarck, which had been out of print for a number of years, the very same year as Computer Bismarck. With the two companies in direct competition, a call from the lawyers was inevitable. SSI got off relatively easy: sued for trademark and copyright infringement in 1984, they settled by agreeing to pay Avalon Hill a lump sum of $30,000 and a 5 percent royalty on future sales — which, given that Computer Bismarck was by then almost five years old and creakily archaic, were likely to be modest at best even for the back-catalog-driven SSI.

All told, Avalon Hill plugged away at the computer thing for a good five years, but despite the drawing power of their name among tabletop veterans could never quite catch up to SSI in either sales or wargamer respect, could never quite get their computer division to turn a real profit. Part of the problem was doubtless that their games, being programmed by a rather unimaginative in-house team, were “really simple,” as Joel puts it, in comparison to SSI’s — not a good thing to players that craved the validation of complexity. And part of their problem was doubtless just the disadvantages of being second. SSI already owned this market. Stymieing the giant that had once blown him off had to bring a smile of vindication even to the mild-mannered face of Joel Billings.

Less happily for SSI, other markets had owners as well. When SSI tried to branch out from their slow, cerebral signature games it just didn’t work for them. In 1982, they launched a line they called RapidFire, consisting of faster-paced, more graphically impressive games, generally programmed and released first on the more audiovisually capable Atari 8-bit line rather than the Apple II. Among the RapidFire games was Dan Bunten’s pioneering proto-real-time-strategy game Cytron Masters. But sales weren’t notably better than their typical wargame: Cytron Masters sold just 4702 units. And as competition heated up it became difficult for little SSI to retain developers who didn’t work firmly in the company’s own niche. Dan Bunten, for instance, was lured away by Trip Hawkins’s new Electronic Arts shortly after finishing Cytron Masters. SSI soon returned to focusing exclusively on the types of games with which Joel was most comfortable

They did have one valuable ally in their corner in the increasingly competitive industry. In 1981, a Baptist minister and veteran tabletop gamer named Russell Sipe contacted Joel to ask his opinion on a potential magazine that would exclusively cover computer games, focusing on those of an intellectual, wargamey bent. Recognizing a kindred spirit immediately, Joel was very supportive, even committing his own still fragile venture to buying extensive advertising in the new publication. Computer Gaming World became so associated with SSI in its early years that one might be excused if one took it for SSI’s own publication. The slim first issue, for example, includes an extended feature-length review of SSI’s new Torpedo Fire; a review of, playing tips for, and an after-action report from SSI’s President Elect; and a “greatest baseball team of all time” tournament conducted using SSI’s Computer Baseball. This de facto partnership, born like most things involving SSI of shared interests and genuine affection rather than guile, served SSI well for many years, helping to get their niche games in front of just the right niche of potential buyers. SSI grew cautiously but healthily year by year, from sales of $317,000 in 1980 to over $3 million in 1984. The employee rolls grew to match, from 11 at the end of 1980 to 32 at the end of 1984.

While the vast majority of the games were provided by outside developers (the aforementioned serious-minded bearded men), just packaging and coming up with manuals and other supporting materials for a new game every single month was a herculean task, especially given that SSI generally did a very good job with such things; these were expensive games, and they needed to look it. In lieu of the army of programmers — SSI’s in-house development group, while never entirely eliminated, remained much smaller than originally planned — an army (or at any rate a small brigade) of other personnel came on board to design the packaging, write the manuals, ship the games, and deal with all the other logistics of running a growing business. Some of these folks were, like Joel, hardcore gamers delighted to be spending their days in what Joel’s eventual wife came to call “a treehouse for wargamers.” For the rest, the folks like Susan Billings, it was just a job, but a pretty great job all the same. Joel, apart from his one eccentric habit of wearing a three-piece suit to work every day, was as easygoing, down-to-earth, and reasonable a boss as anyone could ever wish for. But it was at least as much Susan who set the tone of the workplace while Joel was hopelessly lost inside his wargames: “It was the opportunity to try to create the perfect work environment so people would want to come to work. It was the chance of a lifetime to develop a company using your style, based on your style, and doing it with someone from your family.” So, yes, SSI was a very happy place — as happy in its way as the legendarily happy Infocom, and for a much longer stretch of time.

SSI employees Tena Lawry and Connie Barron boogie down as the "Simulated Bunnies" because... well, just because.

SSI employees Tena Lawry and Connie Barron boogie down as the “Simulated Bunnies” because… well, just because.

Tena Lawry, who would later become SSI’s senior purchaser, joined in 1981 as a temporary disk copier, responsible for shoving disks into drives and then dropping them into boxes all day long. (If you could put toast in a toaster, you were qualified, says Tena wryly.) Tena:

We broke for lunch and Joel walked in with five pizzas. We all sat on the floor munching away and an announcement was made that we were going to have a rousing game of Nuclear War [a Flying Buffalo game]. Now I’m nervous. I figured we were going to play some intense videogame. I hadn’t even mastered Pac-Man yet, so this would be interesting.

Nuclear War turned out to be a card game in which you amass missiles and such and then trump your opponent in an attempt to annihilate his population. At one point, I dropped a major nuclear payload on Joel. I thought at this point that this may not have been the politically correct thing to do. After all, Joel was the president of SSI and I had just wiped out his entire population. But I soon found out that Joel always appreciates a good game strategist even if it means a pile of dead-body cards.

That night at dinner my family asked me what I had done on my first day at SSI. I said I copied disks, assembled games, and obliterated an entire population while eating pizza. Silence fell over the table. “Just kidding,” I said.

It fell to Susan Billings to address a delicate problem when SSI’s technical staff — hackers being hackers — started to spend much too long in front of their computers between hygiene breaks. She handled the situation with humor, grace, and aplomb, as she did most situations at SSI. Old timers laugh about the infamous “B.O. Memo” to this day.

SSI

At the time that Susan was writing that memo, SSI was tentatively trying to branch out again into a new genre. Thankfully, this expansion would be more successful than the RapidFire line had been. Indeed, in the fullness of time it would lead to a transformative deal with the titan of the other side of the tabletop industry, the yin to Avalon Hill’s yang. We’ll step back next time to look at what set that titan on a collision course with Joel Billing’s modest little treehouse for wargamers.

(Sources: This article is largely drawn from the collection of documents that Joel Billings donated to the Strong Museum of Play, which includes lots of internal SSI documents and some press clippings. Also, Matt Barton’s YouTube interviews with Billings.)


  1. Dan Bunten later became Danielle Bunten Berry, and lived until her death in 1998 under that name. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

 

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Wasteland

Wasteland

We can mark the formal beginning of the Wasteland project to the day in December of 1985 when Brian Fargo, head of Interplay, flew out to Arizona with his employee Alan Pavlish to meet with Michael Stackpole. If all went well at the meeting, Pavlish was to join Stackpole and Ken St. Andre as the third member of the core trio who would guide the game to release. His role, however, would be very different from that of his two colleagues.

A hotshot programmer’s programmer, Pavlish, though barely twenty years old, had been kicking around the industry for several years already. Before Interplay existed, he’d done freelance work on Commodore VIC-20 games for their earlier incarnation as Boone Corporation, and done ports of games like Murder on the Zinderneuf to the Apple II and Commodore 64 for another little company called Designer Software. When Pavlish came to work for Interplay full-time, Fargo had first assigned him to similar work: he had ported the non-Interplay game Hacker to the Apple II for Activision. (In those pre-Bard’s Tale days, Fargo was still forced to accept such unglamourous work to make ends meet.) But Fargo had huge respect for Pavlish’s abilities. When the Wasteland idea started to take off while his usual go-to programming ace Bill Heineman1 was still swamped with the Bard’s Tale games and Interplay’s line of illustrated text adventures, Fargo didn’t hesitate to throw Pavlish in at the deep end: he planned to make him responsible for bringing the huge idea that was Wasteland to life on the little 64 K 8-bit Apple II and Commodore 64.

However, when Fargo and Pavlish got out of their airplane that day it was far from certain that there would be a Wasteland project for Pavlish to work on at all. In contrast to St. Andre, Stackpole was decidedly skeptical, and for very understandable reasons. His experiences with computer-game development to date hadn’t been happy ones. Over the past several years, he’d been recruited to three different projects and put considerable work into each, only to see each come to naught in one way or another. Thanks largely to the influence of Paul Jaquays,2 another tabletop veteran who headed Coleco’s videogame-design group during the first half of the 1980s, he’d worked on two games for the Coleco Adam, a would-be challenger in the home-computer wars. The more intriguing of the two, a Tunnels & Trolls adaptation, got cancelled before release. The other, an adaptation of the film 2010: Odyssey Two, was released only after the Adam had flopped miserably and been written off by Coleco; you can imagine how well that game sold. He’d then accepted a commission from science-fiction author cum game developer Fred Saberhagen to design a computer game that took place in the world of the latter’s Book of Swords trilogy. (Stackpole had already worked with Flying Buffalo on a board game set in the world of Saberhagen’s Berserker series.) The computerized Book of Swords had gone into stasis when it became clear that Berserker Works, the development company Saberhagen had founded, just didn’t have the resources to finish it.

So, yes, Stackpole needed some convincing to jump into the breach again with tiny Interplay, a company he’d never heard of.3 Luckily for Interplay, he, Fargo, and Pavlish all got along like a house on fire on that December day. Fargo and Pavlish persuaded Stackpole that they shared — or at least were willing to accommodate — his own emerging vision for Wasteland, for a computer game that would be a game and a world first, a program second. Stackpole:

Programmers design beautiful programs, programs that work easily and simply; game designers design games that are fun to play. If a programmer has to make a choice between an elegant program and a fun game element, you’ll have an elegant program. You need a game designer there to say, “Forget how elegant the program is — we want this to make sense, we want it to be fun.”

I was at a symposium where there were about a dozen people. When asked to tell what we were doing, what I kept hearing over and over from programmer/game designers was something like “I’ve got this neat routine for packing graphics, so I’m going to do a fantasy role-playing game where I can use this routine.” Or a routine for something else, or “I’ve got a neat disk sort,” or this or that. And all of them were putting these into fantasy role-playing games. Not to denigrate their skills as programmers — but that’s sort of like saying, “Gee, I know something about petrochemicals, therefore I’m going to design a car that will run my gasoline.” Well, if you’re not a mechanical engineer, you don’t design cars. You can be the greatest chemist in the world, but you’ve got no business designing a car. I’d like to hope that Wasteland establishes that if you want a game, get game designers to work with programmers.

This vision, cutting as it does so much against the way that games were commonly made in the mid-1980s, would have much to do with both where the eventual finished Wasteland succeeds and where it falls down.

Ditto the game’s tabletop heritage. As had been Fargo’s plan from the beginning, Wasteland‘s rules would be a fairly faithful translation of Stackpole’s Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes tabletop RPG, which was in turn built on the foundation of Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls. A clear evolutionary line thus stretched from the work that St. Andre did back in 1975 to Wasteland more than a decade later. No CRPG to date had tried quite as earnestly as Wasteland would to bring the full tabletop experience to the computer.

You explore the world of Wasteland from a top-down perspective rather than the first-person view of The Bard's Tale. This screenshot and the ones that follow come from the slightly later MS-DOS port rather than the 8-bit original.

You explore the world of Wasteland from a top-down perspective instead of the first-person view of The Bard’s Tale. Note that this screenshot and the ones that follow come from the slightly later (and vastly more pleasant to play) MS-DOS port rather than the 8-bit original.

Early in the new year, Stackpole and St. Andre visited Interplay’s California offices for a week to get the process of making Wasteland rolling. St. Andre arrived with a plot already dreamed up. Drawing heavily from the recent ultra-violent action flick Red Dawn, it posited a world where mutually-assured destruction hadn’t proved so mutual after all: the Soviet Union had won the war, and was now occupying the United States. The player would control a group of American freedom fighters skulking around the farmlands of Iowa, trying to build a resistance network. St. Andre and Stackpole spent a month or more after their visit to California drawing maps of cornfields and trying to find ways to make an awful lot of farmers seem different from one another. (Some of this work can be seen in the Agricultural Center in the finished Wasteland.) But finally the pair had to accept the painful truth: the game they were designing was boring. “I said it will be the dullest game you ever saw,” remembers St. Andre, “because the Russians would be there in strength, and your characters start weak and can’t do anything but skulk and hide and slowly, slowly build up.”

St. Andre suggested moving the setting to the desert of the American Southwest, an area with which he, being born and raised in Arizona, was all too familiar. The region also had a certain thematic resonance, being intimately connected with the history of the atomic bomb. The player’s party might even visit Las Vegas, where folks had once sat on their balconies and watched the mushroom clouds bloom. St. Andre suggested nixing the Soviets as well, replacing them with “ravening monsters stalking through a radioactive wasteland, a few tattered humans struggling to survive against an overwhelming threat.” It meant chucking a fair amount of work, but Fargo agreed that it sounded too good to pass up. They might as well all get used to these sorts of false starts. Little would go smoothly or according to plan on this project.

After that first week at Interplay, St. Andre and Stackpole worked from home strictly in a design role, coming up with the plans for the game that were then left to Pavlish in California to implement in code — still an unusual way of working in the mid-1980s, when even many of the great designers, like Dan Bunten4 and Sid Meier, tended to also be great programmers. But St. Andre and Stackpole used their computers — a Commodore 64 in the case of the former, a battered old Osborne luggable in that of the latter — to do nothing more complex than run a word processor. Bundle after bundle of paper was shipped from Arizona to California, in the form of both computer printouts and reams of hand-drawn maps. St. Andre and Stackpole worked, in other words, largely the same way they would have had Wasteland been planned as a new tabletop adventure module.

Wasteland must be, however, one hell of a big adventure module. It soon became clear that the map-design process, entailing as it did the plotting of every single square with detailed descriptions of what it contained and what the party should be able to do there, was overwhelming the two. St. Andre:

I hadn’t thought a great deal about what was going to be in any of these places. I just had this nebulous story in my mind: our heroes will start in A, they’ll visit every worthwhile place on the map and eventually wind up in Z — and if they’re good enough, they’ll win the game. Certain things will be happening in different locations — monsters of different types, people who are hard to get along with, lots of comic references to life before the war. I figured that when the time came for me to design an area, the Indian Village, for example, I would sit down and figure out what would be in it and that would be it. Except that it started taking a long time. Every map had 1024 squares on it, and each one could do something. Even if I just drew all the buildings, I had to go back and say, “These are all square nine: wall, wall, wall, wall, wall. And if you bump into a wall you’ll get this message: ‘The Indians are laughing at you for walking into a wall.'” Whatever — a map that I thought I could toss off in one or two days was taking two weeks, and the project was falling further and further behind.

Fargo agreed to let St. Andre and Stackpole bring in their old Flying Buffalo buddies Liz Danforth and Dan Carver to do maps as well, and the design team just continued to grow from there. “The guys who were helping code the maps, correcting what we sent in, wanted to do some maps,” remembers Stackpole. “Everyone wanted to have his own map, his own thumbprint on the game.”

Even Fargo himself, who could never quite resist the urge to get his own hands dirty with the creations of this company he was supposed to be running from on high, begged for a map. “I want to do a map. Let me have Needles,” St. Andre remembers him saying. “So I said, ‘You’re the boss, Brian, you’ve got Needles.'” But eventually Fargo had to accept that he simply didn’t have the time to design a game and run a company, and the city of Needles fell to another Interplay employee named Bruce Balfour. In all, the Wasteland manual credits no fewer than eight people other than St. Andre and Stackpole with “scenario design.” Even Pavlish, in between trying to turn this deluge of paper into code, managed to make a map or two of his own.

Wasteland is one of the few computer games in history in which those who worked on the softer arts of writing and design outnumbered those who wrote the code and drew the pictures. The ratio isn’t even close: the Wasteland team included exactly one programmer (Pavlish) and one artist (Todd J. Camasta) to go with ten people who only contributed to the writing and design. One overlooked figure in the design process, who goes wholly uncredited in the game’s manual, was Joe Ybarra, Interplay’s liaison with their publisher Electronic Arts. As he did with so many other classic games, Ybarra offered tactful advice and generally did his gentle best to keep the game on course, even going so far as to fly out to Arizona to meet personally with St. Andre and Stackpole.

Those two found themselves spending as much time coordinating their small army of map designers as they did doing maps of their own. Stackpole:

Work fell into a normal pattern. Alan and I would work details out, I’d pass it down the line to the folks designing maps. If they had problems, they’d tell me, Alan and I would discuss things, and they’d get an answer. In this way the practical problems of scenario design directly influenced the game system and vice versa. Map designers even talked amongst themselves, sharing strategies and some of these became standard routines we all later used.

Stackpole wound up taking personal responsibility for the last third or so of the maps, where the open world begins funneling down toward the climax. St. Andre:

I’m fairly strong at making up stories, but not at inventing intricate puzzles. In the last analysis, I’m a hack-and-slash gamer with only a little thought and strategy thrown in. Interplay and Electronic Arts wanted lots of puzzles in the game. Mike, on the other hand, is much more devious, so I gave him the maps with difficult puzzles and I did the ones that involved walking around, talking to people, and shooting things.

The relationship between these two veteran tabletop designers and Pavlish, the man responsible for actually implementing all of their schemes, wasn’t always smooth. “We’d write up a map with all the things on it and then Alan would say, ‘I can’t do that,'” says St. Andre. There would then follow some fraught discussions, doubtless made still more fraught by amateur programmer St. Andre’s habit of declaring that he could easily implement what was being asked in BASIC on his Commodore 64. (Stackpole: “It’s like a duffer coming up to Arnold Palmer at an average golf course and saying, ‘What do you mean you can’t make that 20-foot putt? I can make a 20-foot putt on a miniature golf course.'”) One extended battle was over the question of grenades and other “area-effect” weapons: St. Andre and Stackpole wanted them, Pavlish said they were just too difficult to code and unnecessary anyway. Unsung hero Joe Ybarra solved that one by quietly lobbying Fargo to make sure they went in.

One aspect of Wasteland that really demonstrates St. Andre and Stackpole’s determination to divorce the design from the technology is the general absence of the usual numbers that programmers favor — i.e., the powers of two that fit so neatly into the limited memories of the Apple II and Commodore 64. Pavlish instinctively wanted to make the two types of pistols capable of holding 16 or 32 bullets. But St. Andre and Stackpole insisted that they hold 7 or 18, just like their real-world inspirations. As demonstrated by the 1024-square maps, the two did occasionally let Pavlish get away with the numbers he favored, but they mostly stuck to their guns (ha!). “It’s going to be inelegant in terms of space,” admits Stackpole, “but that’s reality.”

Logic like this drove Pavlish crazy, striving as he was to stuff an unprecedentedly complex world into an absurdly tiny space. Small wonder that there were occasional blowups. Slowly he learned to give every idea that came from the designers his very best try, and the designers learned to accept that not everything was possible. With that tacit agreement in place, the relationship improved. In the latter stages of the project, St. Andre and Stackpole came to understand the technology well enough to start providing their design specifications in code rather than text. “Then we could put in the multiple saving throws, the skill and attribute checks,” says St. Andre. “Everything we do in a [Tunnels & Trolls] solitaire dungeon suddenly pops up in the last few maps we did for Wasteland because Mike and I were doing the actual coding.”

When not working on the maps, St. Andre and Stackpole — especially the latter, who came more and more to the fore as time went on — were working on the paragraph book that would contain much of Wasteland‘s story and flavor text. The paragraph book wasn’t so much a new idea as a revival of a very old one. Back in 1979, Jon Freeman’s Temple of Apshai, one of the first CRPGs to arrive on microcomputers, had included a booklet of “room descriptions” laid out much like a Dungeons & Dragons adventure module. This approach was necessitated by the almost unbelievably constrained system for which Temple of Apshai was written: a Radio Shack TRS-80 with just 16 K of memory and cassette-based storage. Moving into the late 1980s, the twilight years of the 8-bit CRPG, designers were finding the likes of the Apple II and Commodore 64 as restrictive as Freeman had the TRS-80 for the simple reason that, while the former platforms may have had four times as much memory as the latter, CRPG design ambitions had grown by at least the same multiple. Moving text, a hugely expensive commodity in terms of 8-bit storage, back into an accompanying booklet was a natural remedy. Think of it as one final measure to wring just a little bit more out of the Apple II and Commodore 64, those two stalwart old warhorses that had already survived far longer than anyone had ever expected. And it didn’t hurt, of course, that a paragraph book made for great copy protection.

While the existence of a Wasteland paragraph book in itself doesn’t make the game unique, St. Andre and Stackpole were almost uniquely prepared to use theirs well, for both had lots of experience crafting Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures. They knew how to construct an interactive story out of little snippets of static text as well as just about anyone, and how to scramble it in such a way as to stymie the cheater who just starts reading straight through. Stackpole, following a tradition that began at Flying Buffalo, constructed for the booklet one of the more elaborate red herrings in gaming history, a whole alternate plot easily as convoluted as that in the game proper involving, of all things, a Martian invasion. All told, the Wasteland paragraph book would appear to have easily as many fake entries as real ones.

You fight some strange foes in Wasteland. Combat shifts back to something very reminiescent of The Bard's Tale, with the added tactical dimension of a map showing everyone's location that you can access by tapping the space bar.

For combat, the display shifts back to something very reminiscent of The Bard’s Tale, with the added tactical dimension of a map showing everyone’s location that you can access by tapping the space bar. And yes, you fight some strange foes in Wasteland

Wasteland‘s screen layout often resembles that of The Bard’s Tale, and one suspects that there has to be at least a little of the same code hidden under its hood. In the end, though, the resemblance is largely superficial. There’s just no comparison in terms of sophistication. While it’s not quite a game I can love — I’ll try to explain why momentarily — Wasteland does unquestionably represent the bleeding edge of CRPG design as of its 1988 release date. CRPGs on the Apple II and Commodore 64 in particular wouldn’t ever get more sophisticated than this. Given the constraints of those platforms, it’s honestly hard to imagine how they could.

Key to Wasteland‘s unprecedented sophistication is its menu of skills. Just like in Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, you can tailor each of the up to four characters in your party as you will, free from the restrictive class archetypes of Dungeons & Dragons (or for that matter Tunnels & Trolls). Skills range from the obviously useful (Clip Pistol, Pick Lock, Medic) to the downright esoteric (Metallurgy, Bureaucracy, Sleight of Hand). And of course career librarian St. Andre made sure that a Librarian skill was included, and of course made it vital to winning the game.

Also as in Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, a character’s chance of succeeding at just about anything is determined by adding her level in a relevant skill, if any, to a relevant core attribute. For example, to determine a character’s chance of climbing something using her Climb skill the game will also look to her Agility. The system allows a range of solutions to most of the problems you encounter. Say you come to a locked door. You might have a character with the Pick Lock skill try getting in that way. Failing that, a character with the Demolition skill and a little handy plastic explosives could try blasting her way in. Or a strong character might dispense with skills altogether and just try to bash the door down using her Strength attribute. Although a leveling mechanism does exist that lets you assign points to characters’ skills and attributes, skills also improve naturally with use, a mechanism not seen in any previous CRPG other than Dungeon Master (a game that’s otherwise about as different from Wasteland as a game can be and still be called a CRPG).

The skills system makes Wasteland a very different gameplay experience from Ultima V, its only real rival in terms of 8-bit CRPG sophistication at the time of its release. For all its impressive world-building, Ultima V remains bound to Richard Garriott’s standard breadcrumb-trail philosophy of design; beating it depends on ferreting out a long string of clues telling you exactly where to go and exactly what to do. Wasteland, by contrast, can be beaten many ways. If you can’t find the password the guard wants to let you past that locked gate, you can try an entirely different approach: shoot your way in, blow the gate open, pick the lock on the back door and sneak in. It’s perhaps the first CRPG ever that’s really willing to let you develop your own playing personality. You can approach it as essentially a post-apocalyptic Bard’s Tale, making a frontal assault on every map and trying to blow away every living creature you find there, without concerning yourself overmuch about whether it be good or evil, friend or foe. Or you can play it — relatively speaking — cerebrally, trying to use negotiations, stealth, and perhaps a little swindling to get what you need. Or you can be like most players and do a bit of both, as the mood and opportunity strikes you. It’s very difficult if not impossible to get yourself irretrievably stuck in Wasteland. There are always options, always possibilities. While it’s far less thematically ambitious than Ultima V —  unlike the Ultima games, Wasteland was never intended to be anything more or less than pure escapist entertainment — Wasteland‘s more flexible, player-friendly design pointed the way forward while Ultima V was still glancing back.

Indeed, a big part of the enduring appeal of Wasteland to those who love it is the sheer number of different ways to play it. Interplay picked up on this early, and built an unusual feature into the game: it’s possible to reset the entire world to its beginning state while keeping the same group of lovingly developed characters. Characters can advance to ridiculous heights if you do this enough, taking on some equally ridiculous “ranks”: “1st Class Fargo,” “Photon Stud,” etc., culminating in the ultimate achievement of the level 183 “Supreme Jerk.” This feature lets veteran players challenge themselves by, say, trying to complete the game with just one character, and gives an out to anyone who screws up her initial character creation too badly and finds herself overmatched; she can just start over again and replay the easy bits with the same party to hopefully gain enough experience to correct their failings. It takes some of the edge off one of the game’s most obvious design flaws: it’s all but impossible to know which skills are actually useful until you’ve made your way fairly deep into the game.

The very fact that re-playing Wasteland requires you to reset its world at all points to what a huge advance it represents over the likes of The Bard’s Tale. The first CRPG I know of that has a truly, comprehensively persistent world, one in which the state of absolutely everything is saved, is 1986’s Starflight (a game that admittedly is arguably not even a CRPG at all). But that game runs on a “big” machine in 1980s terms, an IBM PC or clone with at least 256 K of memory. Wasteland does it in 64 K, rewriting every single map on the fly as you play to reflect what you’ve done there. Level half of the town of Needles with explosives early in the game, and it will still be leveled when you return many days later. Contrast with The Bard’s Tale, which remembers nothing but the state of your characters when you exit one of its dungeon levels, which lets you fight the same big boss battles over and over and over again if you like. The persistence allows you the player to really affect the world of Wasteland in big-picture ways that were well-nigh unheard-of at the time of its release, as Brian Fargo notes:

Wasteland let you do anything you wanted in any order you wanted, and you could get ripple effects that might happen one minute later or thirty minutes later, a lot like [the much later] Grand Theft Auto series. The Ultima games were open, but things tended to be very compartmentalized, they didn’t ripple out like in Wasteland.

Wasteland is a stunning piece of programming, a resounding justification for all of the faith Fargo placed in the young Alan Pavlish. Immersed in the design rather than the technical end of things as they were — which is itself a tribute to Pavlish, whose own work allowed them to be — St. Andre and Stackpole may still not fully appreciate how amazing it is that Wasteland does what it does on the hardware it does it on.

All of which rather raises the question of why I don’t enjoy actually playing Wasteland a little more then I do. I do want to be careful here in trying to separate what feel like more objective faults from my personal issues with the game. In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, let me put the latter right out there first.

Put simply, the writing of Wasteland just isn’t to my taste. I get the tone that St. Andre and Stackpole are trying to achieve: one of over-the-top comic ultra-violence, like such contemporary teenage-boy cinematic favorites as the Evil Dead films. And they do a pretty good job of hitting that mark. Your characters don’t just hit their enemies in Wasteland, they “brutalize” them. When they die, enemies “explode like a blood sausage,” are “reduced to a thin red paste,” are “spun into a dance of death,” or are “reduced to ground round.” And then there’s some of the imagery, like the blood-splattered doctor in the infirmary.

Wasteland

The personal appeal you find in those quotes and that image, some of the most beloved among Wasteland‘s loyal fandom, says much about whether you’ll enjoy Wasteland as a whole. In his video review of the game, Matt Barton says that “you will be disgusted or find it hilarious.” Well, I must say that my own feelings rather contradict that dichotomy. I can’t quite manage to feel disgusted or outraged at this kind of stuff, especially since, in blessed contrast to so many later games, it’s almost all described rather than illustrated. I do, however, find the entire aesthetic unfunny and boring, whether it’s found in Wasteland or Duke Nukem. In general, I just don’t find humor that’s based on transgression rather than wit to be all that humorous.

I am me, you are you, and mileages certainly vary. Still, even if we take it on its own terms it seems to me that there are other problems with the writing. As CRPG Addict Chester Bolingbroke has noted, Wasteland can’t be much bothered with consistency or coherency. The nuclear apocalypse that led to the situation your characters find themselves in is described as having taken place in 1998, only ten years on from the date of Wasteland‘s release. Yet when the writers find it convenient they litter the game with absurdly advanced technology, from human clones to telepathic mind links. And the tone of the writing veers about as well, perhaps as a result of the sheer number of designers who contributed to the game. Most of the time Wasteland is content with the comic ultra-violence of The Evil Dead, but occasionally it suddenly reaches toward a jarring epic profundity it hasn’t earned. The main storyline, which doesn’t kick in in earnest until about halfway through the game, is so silly and nonsensical that few of even the most hardcore Wasteland fans remember much about it, no matter how many times they’ve played through it.

Wasteland‘s ropey plotting may be ironic in light of Stackpole’s later career as a novelist, but it isn’t a fatal flaw in itself. Games are not the sum of their stories; many a great game has a poor or nonexistent story to tell. To whatever extent it’s a triumph, Wasteland must be a triumph of game design rather than writing, one last hurrah for Michael Stackpole the designer before Michael Stackpole the novelist took over. The story, like the stories in many or most allegedly story-driven games, is just an excuse to explore Wasteland‘s possibility space.

And that possibility space is a very impressive one, for reasons I’ve tried to explain already. Yet it’s also undone, at least a bit, by some practical implementation issues. St. Andre and Stackpole’s determination to make an elegant game design rather than an elegant program comes back to bite them here. The things going on behind the scenes in Wasteland are often kind of miraculous in the context of their time, but those things are hidden behind a clunky and inelegant interface. In my book, a truly great game should feel almost effortless to control, but Wasteland feels anything but. Virtually every task requires multiple keystrokes and the navigation of a labyrinth of menus. It’s a far cry from even the old-school simplicity of Ultima‘s alphabet soup of single-keystroke commands, much less the intuitive ease of Dungeon Master‘s mouse-driven interface.

Some of Wasteland‘s more pernicious playability issues feel like they stem from an overly literal translation of the tabletop experience to the computer.  The magnificent simplicity of the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes system feels much more clunky and frustrating on the computer. As you explore the maps, you’re expected to guess where a skill and/or attribute might be of use, then to try manually invoking it. If you’re not constantly thinking on this level, and always aware of just what skills every member of your party has that might apply, it’s very easy to miss things. For example, the very first map you’re likely to visit contains a mysterious machine. You’re expected to not just dismiss that as scenery, or to assume it’s something you’ll learn more about later, but rather to use someone’s Intelligence to learn that it’s a water purifier you might be able to fix. Meanwhile other squares on other maps contain similar descriptions that are just scenery. In a tabletop game, where there is a constant active repartee between referee and players, where everything in the world can be fully “implemented” thanks to the referee’s imagination, and where every player controls just one character whom she knows intimately instead of a whole party of four, the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes system works a treat. In Wasteland, it can feel like a tedious, mechanistic process of trial and error.

Other parts of Wasteland feel like equally heroic but perhaps misguided attempts to translate things that are simple and intuitive on the tabletop but extremely difficult on the computer to the digital realm at all costs, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. There is, for instance, a convoluted and confusing process for splitting your party into separate groups that can be on entirely separate maps at the same time. It’s impressive in its way, and gives Wasteland claim to yet another first in CRPG history to boot, but one has to question whether the time and effort put into it might have been better spent making a cleaner, more playable computer game. Ditto the parser-based conversation engine that occasionally pops up. An obvious attempt to bring the sort of free-form conversations that are possible with a human referee to the computer, in practice it’s just a tedious game of guess-the-word that makes it far too easy to miss stuff. While I applaud the effort St. Andre and Stackpole and their colleagues at Interplay made to bring more complexity to the CRPG, the fact remains that computer games are not tabletop games, and vice versa.

And then there’s the combat. The Bard’s Tale is still lurking down at the foundation of Wasteland‘s combat engine, but Interplay did take some steps to make it more interesting. Unlike in The Bard’s Tale, the position of your party and their enemies are tracked on a graphical map during combat. In addition to the old Bard’s Tale menu of actions — “attack,” “defend,” etc. — you can move around to find cover, or for that matter charge up to some baddies and stave their heads in with your crowbars in lieu of guns.

Yet somehow combat still isn’t much fun. This groundbreaking and much beloved post-apocalyptic CRPG also serves as an ironic argument for why the vast majority of CRPG designers and players still favor fantasy settings. Something that feels important, maybe even essential, feels lost without the ability to cast spells. Not only do you lose the thrill of seeing a magic-using character level up and trying out a new slate of spells, but you also lose the strategic dimension of managing your mana reserves, a huge part of the challenge of the likes of Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. In theory, the acquiring of ever more powerful guns and the need to manage your ammunition stores in Wasteland ought to take the place of spells and the mana reserves needed to cast them, but in practice it doesn’t quite work out like that. New guns just aren’t as interesting as new spells, especially considering that there really aren’t all that many of the former to be found in Wasteland. And you’re never very far from a store selling bullets, and you can carry so many with you anyway that it’s almost a moot point.

Most of all, there’s just too much fighting. One place where St. Andre and Stackpole regrettably didn’t depart from CRPG tradition was in their fondness for the wandering monster. Much of Wasteland is a dull slog through endless low-stakes battles with “leather jerks” and “ozoners,” an experience sadly divorced from the game’s more interesting and innovative aspects but one that ends up being at least as time-consuming.

For all these reasons, then, I’m a bit less high on Wasteland than many others. It strikes me as more historically important than a timeless classic, more interesting than playable. There’s of course no shame in that. We need games that push the envelope, and that’s something that Wasteland most assuredly did. The immense nostalgic regard in which it’s still held today says much about how amazing its innovations really were back in 1988.

As the gap between that year of Wasteland‘s release and Fargo, Pavlish, and Stackpole’s December 1985 meeting will attest, this was a game that was in development an insanely long time by the standards of the 1980s. And as you have probably guessed, it was never intended to take anything like this long. Interplay first talked publicly about the Wasteland project as early as the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1986, giving the impression it might be available as early as that Christmas. Instead it took fully two more years.

Thanks to Wasteland‘s long gestation, 1987 proved a very quiet year for the usually prolific Interplay. While ports of older titles continued to appear, the company released not a single original new game that year. The Bard’s Tale III, turned over to Bill Heineman following Michael Cranford’s decision to return to university, went into development early in 1987, but like Wasteland its gestation would stretch well into 1988. (Stackpole, who was apparently starting to like this computer-game development stuff, wrote the storyline and the text for The Bard’s Tale III to accompany Heineman’s design.) Thankfully, the first two Bard’s Tale games were continuing to sell very well, making Interplay’s momentary lack of productivity less of a problem than it might otherwise have been.

Shortly before Wasteland‘s belated release, St. Andre, Stackpole, and Pavlish, along with a grab bag of the others who had worked with them, headed out to the Sonoran Desert for a photo shoot. Everyone scoured the oddities in the backs of their closets and the local leather shops for their costumes, and a professional makeup team was recruited to help turn them all into warriors straight out of Mad Max. Bill Heineman, an avid gun collector, provided much of the weaponry they carried. The final picture, featured on the inside cover of Wasteland‘s package, has since become far more iconic than the art that appeared on its front, a fitting tribute to this unique team and their unique vision.

Some of the Wasteland team. Ken St. Andre, Michael A. Stackpole, Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

Some of the Wasteland team. From left: Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

Both Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III were finished almost simultaneously after many months of separate labor. When Fargo informed Electronic Arts of the good news, they insisted on shipping the two overdue games within two months of each other — May of 1988 in the case of Wasteland, July in that of The Bard’s Tale III — over his strident objections. He had good grounds for concern: these two big new CRPGs were bound to appeal largely to the same group of players, and could hardly help but cannibalize one another’s sales. To Interplay, this small company that had gone so long without any new product at all, the decision felt not just unwise but downright dangerous to their future.

Fargo had been growing increasingly unhappy with Electronic Arts, feeling Interplay just wasn’t earning enough from their development contracts for the hit games they had made for their publisher. Now this move was the last straw. Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III would be the last games Interplay would publish through Electronic Arts, as Fargo decided to carry out an idea he’d been mulling over for some time: to turn Interplay into a full-fledged publisher as well as developer, with their own name — and only their own name — on their game boxes.

Following a pattern that was already all too typical, The Bard’s Tale III — the more traditional game, the less innovative, and the sequel — became by far the better selling of the pairing. Wasteland didn’t flop, but it didn’t become an out-and-out hit either. Doubtless for this reason, neither Interplay nor Electronic Arts were willing to invest in the extensive porting to other platforms that marked the Bard’s Tale games. After the original Apple II and Commodore 64 releases, the only Wasteland port was an MS-DOS version that appeared nine months later, in March of 1989. Programmed by Interplay’s Michael Quarles, it sports modestly improved graphics and an interface that makes halfhearted use of a mouse. While most original players of Wasteland knew it in its 8-bit incarnations, it’s this version that almost everyone who has played it in the years since knows, and for good reason: it’s a far less painful experience than the vintage 8-bit one of juggling disks and waiting, waiting, waiting for all of those painstakingly detailed maps to load and save.

Wasteland‘s place in history, and in the mind of Brian Fargo, would always loom larger than its sales figures might suggest. Unfortunately, his ability to build on its legacy was immediately hampered by the split with Electronic Arts: the terms of the two companies’ contract signed all rights to the  Wasteland name as well as The Bard’s Tale over to Interplay’s publisher. Thus both series, one potential and one very much ongoing, were abruptly stopped in their tracks. Electronic Arts toyed with making a Bard’s Tale IV on their own from time to time without ever seeing the idea all the way through. Oddly given the relative sales numbers, Electronic Arts did bring a sequel of sorts to Wasteland to fruition, although they didn’t go so far as to dare to put the Wasteland name on the box. Given the contents of said box, it’s not hard to guess why. Fountain of Dreams (1990) uses Michael Quarles’s MS-DOS Wasteland engine, but it’s a far less audacious affair. Slipped out with little fanfare — Electronic Arts could spot a turkey as well as anyone — it garnered poor reviews, sold poorly, and is unloved and largely forgotten today.

In the absence of rights to the Wasteland name, Fargo initially planned to leverage his development team and the tools and game engine they had spent so long creating to make more games in other settings that would play much like Wasteland but wouldn’t be actual sequels. The first of these was to have been called Meantime, and was to have been written and designed by Stackpole with the help of many of the usual Wasteland suspects. Its premise was at least as intriguing as Wasteland‘s: a game of time travel in which you’d get to meet (and sometimes battle) historical figures from Cyrano de Bergerac to P.T. Barnum, Albert Einstein to Amelia Earhart. At the Winter CES in January of 1989, Fargo said that Meantime would be out that summer: “I am personally testing the maps right now.” But it never appeared, thanks to a lot of design questions that were never quite solved and, most of all, thanks to the relentless march of technology. All of the Wasteland development tools ran on the Apple II and Commodore 64, platforms whose sales finally collapsed in 1989. Interplay tinkered with trying to move the tool chain to MS-DOS for several years, but the project finally expired from neglect. There just always seemed to be something more pressing to do.

Somewhat surprisingly given the enthusiasm with which they’d worked on Wasteland, neither St. Andre nor Stackpole remained for very long in the field of computer-game design. St. Andre returned to his librarian gig and his occasional sideline as a tabletop-RPG designer, not working on another computer game until recruited for Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2 project many years later. Stackpole continued to take work from Interplay for the next few years, on Meantime and other projects, often working with his old Flying Buffalo and Wasteland colleague Liz Danforth. But his name too gradually disappeared from game credits in direct proportion to its appearance on the covers of more and more franchise novels. (His first such book, set in the universe of FASA’s BattleTech game, was published almost simultaneously with Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III.)

Fargo himself never forgot the game that had always been first foremost his own passion project. He would eventually revive it, first via the “spiritual sequels” Fallout (1997) and Fallout 2 (1998), then with the belated Kickstarter-funded sequel-in-name-as-well-as-spirit Wasteland 2 (2014).

But those are stories for much later times. Wasteland was destined to stand alone for many years. And yet it wouldn’t be the only lesson 1988 brought in the perils and possibilities of bringing tabletop rules to the computer. Another, much higher profile tabletop adaptation, the result of a blockbuster licensing deal given to the most unexpected of developers, was still to come before the year was out. Next time we’ll begin to trace the story behind this third and final landmark CRPG of 1988, the biggest selling of the whole lot.

(Sources: PC Player of August 1989; Questbusters of Juy 1986, March 1988, April 1988, May 1988, July 1988, August 1988, October 1988, November 1988, January 1989, March 1989. On YouTube, Rebecca Heineman and Jennell Jaquays at the 2013 Portland Retro Gaming Expo; Matt Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo; Brian Fargo at Unity 2012. Other online sources include a Michael Stackpole article on RockPaperShotgun; Matt Barton’s interview with Rebecca Heineman on Gamasutra; GTW64’s page on Meantime.

Wasteland is available for purchase from GOG.com.)


  1. Bill Heineman now lives as Rebecca Heineman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

  2. Paul Jaquays now lives as Jennell Jaquays. 

  3. Interestingly, Stackpole did have one connection to Interplay, through Bard’s Tale designer Michael Cranford. Cranford sent Flying Buffalo a Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure of his own devising around 1983. Stackpole thought it showed promise, but that it wasn’t quite there yet, so he sent it back with some suggestions for improvement and a promise to look at it again if Cranford followed through on them. But he never heard another word from him; presumably it was right about this time that Cranford got busy making The Bard’s Tale

  4. In what must be a record for footnotes of this type, I have to also note that Dan Bunten later became Danielle Bunten Berry, and lived until her death in 1998 under that name. 

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Friends of the Wasteland: The Legacy of Flying Buffalo

Flying Buffalo

Two advances, one technical and one conceptual, led to computerized adventure and RPG games as we came to know them in the 1980s. The technical advance was of course the PC revolution, dating from, depending on how you prefer to look at these things, either the arrival of the first Altair kit computers in 1975 or that of the first pre-assembled consumer-grade computers, the legendary Trinity of 1977. The conceptual advance was a slightly older, subtler development, but hardly of less importance. It dates to 1974, the year that Dungeons & Dragons was published. Shortly after beginning this blog, I wrote of Dungeons & Dragons that “its impact on the culture at large has been, for better or for worse, greater than that of any single novel, film, or piece of music to appear during its lifetime.” Much as that claim may cause many cultural gatekeepers to slam down their portcullises in horror, I stand by it more than ever today.

When it comes to computer games in particular, the noise that a bunch of tabletop gamers struck up in the 1970s just keeps on echoing. Whether you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG or not, if you play computer games today you are heir to what those folks first wrought all those decades ago. Sometimes the influence is so strong that I feel compelled to take an extended look back.

Well, readers, what can I say? We’re coming to another of those times. In the course of the next handful of articles I’ll find myself again needing to look back to the tabletop games of the 1970s to understand the computer games of the 1980s. We’ll start that journey today with a loose-knit group of friends and colleagues who quietly changed the face not only of games but also of books. And it all started because one of them arrived late to a game night.

Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, and programmer Alan Pavlish dressed up as Wasteland Warriors, 1988.

Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, and programmer Alan Pavlish dressed up as Wasteland Warriors, 1988.

The game night in question took place in April of 1975 in Scottsdale, Arizona. The individual in question was a shy 28-year-old librarian with the incongruously Arthurian name of Ken St. Andre. In deference to his chivalrous moniker, St. Andre had always loved adventure and fantasy fiction, right from the day he first discovered the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard as a young boy. His motivation for reading, then as always, was unabashed escapism:

I have never been particularly strong, athletic, heroic, good-looking, or successful with women. I’m the kind of guy who would like to live a life of high adventure, but am either too smart or too chicken to really pursue such a life. Tarzan and Conan—those guys are my ideals—physically superhuman, handsome, courageous, and irresistible.

He dreamed of becoming a professional writer of similar stories, but, not being a terribly outgoing or self-confident sort, had found it easier to take a graduate degree in library science and settle into a quiet nine-to-five routine.

St. Andre’s social calendar, such as it was, was dominated by his other great love: that of games. He had learned chess at his father’s knee at the age of 6, and gone on to become president of his high school’s chess club. But as of the spring of 1975 his biggest ludic obsession was Diplomacy. Having discovered the game only a year or so before, he now played every chance he got, and was already crafting variants of his own that moved the setting from pre-World War I Europe to worlds of fantasy drawn from his imagination and the paperbacks on his bursting bookshelves. He thus had cause to be particularly disappointed tonight to find that his friends had already started playing without him: the game they were playing was Diplomacy.

Bored and made restless by the fun his friends were having without him, St. Andre started poking through the other games lying about the place. One of them couldn’t help but catch his eye, a wood-grained box lying amid the sea of cardboard with the name Dungeons & Dragons stamped on its front. Released more than a year before by a tiny garage-run company called Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), Dungeons & Dragons was prompting considerable discussion in gaming circles. But, with TSR’s distribution reaching little beyond the Midwest, the game was hard to come by in other parts of the country. St. Andre had heard of it, but had never seen it in the flesh. Now, thanks to a member of his gaming group who’d scored a copy somewhere and brought it along as a curiosity to show to the group, he had his chance. He opened the box to discover four rulebooks and a pile of reference cards.

St. Andre loved what he read on the first pages of the first of the rulebooks. Promising as he did to let him play the role of Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars or Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, Gary Gygax could hardly have done a better job of appealing to St. Andre’s instinct for escapist adventure had he written the introduction just for him. As he read further, however, St. Andre grew more and more nonplussed. This game was complicated. When he turned to the combat rules, which were grouped together in a rulebook inexplicably titled Chainmail instead of Dungeons & Dragons, he gave up, baffled by rules that demanded miniatures and a referee willing to literally build the battlefield on a tabletop (“construct terrain on 2′ X 2′ pieces of masonite or similar material, sculpting hills, gullies, ridges, rivers, and so on with plaster and/or paper mache”). That sort of arts-and-crafts project might have sounded appealing to some, but St. Andre wasn’t among them.

It was a classic clash of expectations. Gary Gygax and TSR were steeped in the culture of hardcore miniatures wargaming, where no rule was too complicated, where physically making from scratch the battlefield and the combatants that roamed across it was half the fun. Dungeons & Dragons itself had been created not as a standalone game but as a fantasy storytelling “supplement” to TSR’s Medieval wargame Chainmail.

St. Andre, for all his love for games in general, had no particular truck with minutiae-obsessed wargames. He preferred more easygoing, social games like Diplomacy or even Monopoly. His reaction to Dungeons & Dragons was thus: “What a great concept! What a terrible execution!” He would later sum up his differences with Gygax by saying that he was interested in taking the stories he loved and turning them into games, while Gygax wanted to take his hardcore wargames and add a bit of story.

Still, the fire had been lit. Over three feverish days and nights, St. Andre laid out the basis for a new game, which he then tested and refined with his friends for the next couple of months. For most of this period they continued to call the game they were playing Dungeons & Dragons, an anecdote that provides as good a marker as any of the endeavor’s fundamental innocence as well as its sheer derivativeness. But when he started thinking about actually publishing the game, St. Andre knew that he need to give it a name of its own. He came up with Tunnels & Troglodytes, whereupon a member of his group named Dan Carver promptly shortened it to Tunnels & Trolls. Pithy, catchy, and cheeky in its willingness to riff off of its inspiration, it suited the game’s personality perfectly. A kind critic of Tunnels & Trolls might note how much faster and simpler it was to play than Dungeons & Dragons. A less kind critic might note that those qualities were not down to any unique mechanical elegance so much as a willingness to leave just about everything to the Dungeon Master — yes, Tunnels & Trolls retained the name for its own referee — to make up as the game went along. Whether you find that notion appealing says much about what sort of player you are.

St. Andre paid the print shop at Arizona State University $60 to run off the first 100 copies of his game, which now filled about 40 typewritten pages — or roughly the size of one of those four Dungeons & Dragons books. He struggled to sell more than a handful of his modest print run; he was anything but a natural salesman.

Luckily, he had among his gaming acquaintances a fellow named Rick Loomis, owner of a tiny company called Flying Buffalo that was based right there in Scottsdale. We’ve met Flying Buffalo before in the context of their main business as of 1975: a play-by-mail grand-strategy game called Starweb that was moderated by a big Raytheon 704 minicomputer. Starweb, which incredibly is still ongoing today, would become an influence on later PC games, particularly on those of the British designer Mike Singleton, creator of the 1984 classic The Lords of Midnight. Indeed, after a start like Starweb one can imagine Flying Buffalo doubling down on gaming’s digital frontier, perhaps becoming an early publisher of PC games. But instead Loomis made his big play on the tabletop, a decision that was all but foreordained by what transpired between him and Ken St. Andre in 1975.

St. Andre asked Loomis in his shy way if the latter might be able to take his remaining copies of Tunnels & Trolls with him to the first ever Origins Game Fair at Johns Hopkins University that July. Loomis agreed to do so as a favor without much enthusiasm. Once at the Fair, he stuck the plain, hand-stapled booklets on a corner of Flying Buffalo’s table, sure no one would glance at them twice. He sold every single copy.

Legend says that he did so under the evil eye of Gary Gygax, selling his Dungeons & Dragons sets for several times the cost of Tunnels & Trolls and staring daggers at Loomis all the while from TSR’s booth on the other side of the hall. Never the cuddliest of personalities, Gygax was outraged by Tunnels & Trolls, considering it nothing more than a cheap, inferior knockoff of his idea. (The name didn’t do much to help Flying Buffalo’s case…) Several times over the years TSR, which grew to be a very litigious firm under Gygax’s watch, would rattle their legal sabres at Flying Buffalo, thankfully without ever quite following through on the big lawsuit that might have buried the smaller company under lawyers’ fees.

The first RPG to be published by a company other than TSR, Tunnels & Trolls established the dynamic that has continued to rule the tabletop-RPG industry to this day. Unusually in this world of ours where pioneers so often go unrewarded, Dungeons & Dragons, the first tabletop RPG, has remained the most popular by a veritable order of magnitude. All other games have been forced to define themselves in relation to — and frequently in opposition to — Gygax’s vision. Of no game was this more true than Tunnels & Trolls. After all, Tunnels & Trolls prompted the comparisons before you even opened its rulebook, just as soon as you read its title. As he’s always at pains to emphasize, St. Andre may very well have had only the vaguest understanding of Dungeons & Dragons at the time he wrote Tunnels & Trolls, but his game was comprehensively a reaction to it nevertheless: “deliberately designed to be simpler in its mechanics, less expensive, faster to play, and more whimsical.”

The things that had baffled St.Andre about Dungeons & Dragons were largely the same things that would continue to baffle new players for decades to come. Why did armor make characters more difficult to hit instead of absorbing damage when they were hit? (St. Andre opted for the latter approach in his game.) What the hell was the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom? (Reasoning that anyone truly wise wouldn’t be spending her days chasing monsters and looting dungeons, St. Andre ditched the latter statistic, replacing it with Luck.) Was it really necessary to use a pile of weird polyhedral dice, especially given that such dice didn’t come included with Dungeons & Dragons and weren’t terribly easy to find in the mid-1970s? (St. Andre made sure that his game needed only a couple of standard six-sided dice, of the sort anyone could find by raiding that old Monopoly game in the closet.) In what kind of society did people walk around advertising that they were “lawful,” “neutral,” or “chaotic?” (St. Andre ditched the concept of alignment entirely.) Did there really need to be two entirely separate schools of magic, each with its own fiddly rules? (St. Andre ditched clerics as well, a decision that had the added upside of keeping his game from being “dominated by some pseudo-Christian religion.”) Even if a foolish consistency really was the hobgoblin of little minds, was it necessary for Dungeons & Dragons to be so consistently inconsistent, for every rule to read like it had been created in a vacuum, with no reference to or knowledge of any of the others?

Tunnels & Trolls can almost be read as a satire of Dungeons & Dragons, if it’s possible to satirize something that was itself so new and nascent. St. Andre reworked Gygax’s sturdily descriptive but humorless spell names to bring a dash of joy to their casting: “Lightning Bolt” became “Take That You Fiend!,” “Neutralize Poison” became “Too Bad Toxin.” He once aptly described Tunnels & Trolls as The Lord of the Rings filtered through the sensibility of Marvel Comics. One of the most iconic pieces of Tunnels & Trolls art is one of the earliest, a troll — who, I must say, actually looks rather like a gorilla — with an arrow through his head and a caption below saying, “HA-HA! Yah missed all my vital spots!!” It stems from one of St. Andre’s early game sessions, during which the character being run by Rob (brother of Dan) Carver shot a giant lion at point-blank range with an arbalest, only to see the beast keep right on coming and maul him. St. Andre’s response to Carver’s loudly expressed outrage was immortalized by Carver himself the following day. Crudely drawn yet easygoing and funny where Dungeons & Dragons was pedantic and serious, it captures the anarchic spirit of Tunnels & Trolls beautifully. Come to think of it, “crudely drawn yet easygoing and funny” sums up Tunnels & Trolls itself pretty well.

Tunnels & TrollsHad Tunnels & Trolls been merely the first non-TSR RPG or “merely” the progenitor of the countless rules-light, storytelling-heavy games of today, its place in history would be secure. Yet its influence has been still more marked than those descriptions would imply, thanks to a conversation the Flying Buffalo friends had one night after attending a Phoenix science-fiction convention.

The topic was that perennial problem of so many RPG players, then and now: the need to reconcile busy lives with getting together on a regular basis with friends to play. What if there was a way to play a solo game of Tunnels of Trolls? A fellow named Steve MacAllister suggested that it might be possible to create a sort of interactive, programmed book. The player could read a paragraph setting up the scene, then, depending on the circumstances, either choose an option from a multiple-choice list or roll dice according to the standard Tunnels & Trolls rules, then turn to the next appropriate numbered paragraph to continue the story. And so on, and so on, until the adventure ended in victory or death or some state in between. It might not capture the full flavor or offer the full freedom of a multi-player Tunnels & Trolls session with a good Dungeon Master, but for plenty of players it might just be better than nothing. Loomis himself ran with the idea, and Flying Buffalo published his Buffalo Castle, Tunnels & Trolls Solo Adventure #1, in May of 1976.

Coming three years before Bantam Books kicked off the gamebook craze of the 1980s with the first book of their Choose Your Own Adventure line, the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures were perhaps the most prescient idea of all to come out of Flying Buffalo.1 They were quite successful by the company’s modest standards, selling so much better than conventional multi-player adventures and supplements that at times Flying Buffalo seemed to publish little else. But, as would prove typical for Flying Buffalo in general and Tunnels & Trolls in particular, their influence far outstripped their sales. In the early 1980s, Steve Jackson of the British company Games Workshop had the idea of combining the programmed paragraphs and light RPG mechanics of the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures with the everyday paperback-book form factor of Choose Your Own Adventure. The result was the Fighting Fantasy line, a bestselling juggernaut on both sides of the Atlantic. Sales of the first book in the line alone, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982), bettered those of every Tunnels & Trolls product ever made by many multiples. Estimates are that well over 15 million Fighting Fantasy books have been sold in total.

About 1977, a newcomer named Liz Danforth arrived on the scene at Flying Buffalo as a telephone-support operator for Starweb and staff illustrator among other odd jobs. After proving herself as good with words as she was with pictures, she was given the job of editing Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Flying Buffalo’s equivalent to TSR’s Dragon magazine. (As ever, Flying Buffalo was still defining itself in reaction to TSR and what St. Andre liked to call That Other Game. “Sorcerer’s Apprentice will attempt to carry the T&T philosophy of FRP gaming to a wider audience,” he wrote for the first issue. “Namely that role-playing is fun. Dungeons & Dragons, despite its inherent silliness, has somehow taken on the quasi-serious aspects of a religion.”) In later years, Danforth would achieve considerable fame fame as a freelance illustrator of countless games and book jackets. For now, though, she applied a much-needed sheen of professionalism to the output of Flying Buffalo, whose publications at the time she arrived still looked and read like fanzines. Notably, she all but completely rewrote St. Andre’s rambling prose for a slicker, tighter new edition of Tunnels & Trolls that appeared in 1979.

In 1978, another newcomer named Michael Stackpole arrived. An avid player of Starweb who struck up an acquaintance with Loomis through that game, Stackpole first sold him a new Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure and then parlayed that into a full-time job at Flying Buffalo, something even St. Andre himself — he was, you’ll remember, not much for “high adventure” in real life — never quite dared give up his stable librarian gig to accept. Once again, had Flying Buffalo’s only claim to fame been to serve as the incubator of Michael Stackpole’s talent it would be worthy of at least a substantial footnote in the history of gaming and science-fiction fandom. Stackpole would go on to become a prolific science-fiction novelist, frequently writing books set in the universes of big ludic and cinematic properties like BattleTech, World of Warcraft, and, perhaps most notably, Star Wars. Not being terribly interested in such things, I can’t speak to his qualities as a writer, but he’s certainly been successful at it.

With the help of Danforth and Stackpole, Flying Buffalo slicked-up and professionalized just in time for the wave of success that rolled across the world of tabletop RPGs in general during the next few years. These were the years when school lunch rooms across the country were dotted with Dungeons & Dragons manuals and funny dice, when TSR’s annual revenues topped $20 million, and when a young Tom Hanks was starring in a terrible movie about the dangers of the craze. (The name of that movie and its titular game, Mazes and Monsters, could easily have been that of Tunnels & Trolls had St. Andre and his friends chosen another letter to alliterate on.) TSR, the flagship of the industry, pulled along a whole convoy of smaller vessels, among them Flying Buffalo, in their wake. It was a prosperity and level of mainstream attention — admittedly not always positive mainstream attention — the likes of which the tabletop-RPG industry had never known before nor would ever know again. Flying Buffalo expanded quickly, increasing both the quality and quantity of their output of both Tunnels & Trolls and other products. They were now big enough to attract names like Dave Arneson, Gygax’s less pedantic partner in crafting the original vision for Dungeons & Dragons, and Charles de Lint, another soon to be prominent novelist, to write for them.

Perhaps their most fondly remembered product of this brief halcyon period, as indelibly Flying Buffalo as any Tunnels & Trolls publication, is Grimtooth’s Traps (1981), a system-agnostic collection of hilariously lethal party killers, as introduced and annotated by the titular troll himself. Deeply unfair by any conventional standard, the traps in all their Rube Goldberg complexity are so much fun that you’d almost be willing to forgive any sadistic Dungeon Master who sprung any of them on your party. But then St. Andre has always scoffed at conventional notions of game balance, saying that if the odds were truly even then the heroes wouldn’t be heroes, now would they? Anyway, in his world the Dungeon Master is the absolute final arbiter of everything, free to fudge or ignore dice rolls and deus ex machina the players out of a jam whenever she feels it necessary to advance the real goal of entertaining, exciting cooperative storytelling.

For our purposes, Flying Buffalo’s most significant non-Tunnels & Trolls product must be an entirely new 1983 game called Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes — a game of twentieth-century adventure of all stripes, from John Rambo (mercenary) to James Bond (spy) to Sam Spade (private eye). Michael Stackpole, still a few years removed from beginning his career as a novelist, took it as an opportunity to graduate from writing adventures and supplements to crafting a whole new game system of his own — albeit a game system that owed more than a little to the mechanics of Tunnels & Trolls. His most significant addition to those mechanics was an à la carte menu of skills that took the place of Tunnels & Trolls‘s rigid character classes. Stackpole devised an ingenious and quietly influential system wherein skills could be added to a character’s core abilities to determine her chance of succeeding at something. For instance, she might use Dexterity plus her Pistol skill to shoot at something, Intelligence plus Pistol to figure out what type of pistol a given specimen is, or even Charisma plus Pistol to impress someone else with her shooting skills.

Unfortunately, the year of Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes‘s publication was also the year that the bloom began to come off the tabletop rose, not least because the sorts of kids who had flocked to Dungeons & Dragons and its competitors began to discover the adventurous computer games the tabletop industry had done so much to influence. Thanks to declining sales and some unwise financial decisions of the sort that are endemic to a young industry enjoying a sudden spurt of growth — in this case the particular culprit was a too-good-to-be-true financing deal with a local printer — Flying Buffalo very nearly went under. Loomis suddenly didn’t have the resources to properly promote or support Stackpole’s game, nor to do much of anything else for that matter. Sorcerer’s Apprentice ceased publication as part of a series of heartbreaking cost-cutting measures, and Liz Danforth moved on. Michael Stackpole stuck around longer, but would eventually go freelance as well as his career as a novelist began to take off. Flying Buffalo flies on to this day, but, like Chaosium, that other tabletop survivor we met earlier, has never since enjoyed anything like the success of their brief early-1980s heyday.

And that is largely that for Flying Buffalo’s most influential period. But what an influence it was! There’s the proto-4X game and proto-MMORPG all rolled into one that was Starweb. There’s Tunnels & Trolls, the game that proved that Dungeon and Dragons need not be the be-all end-all when it comes to fantasy RPGs, and that showed in the process how much rollicking fun could be had with a rules-light, story-oriented system. There’s the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures and the millions of dog-eared, pencil-smeared paperbacks they spawned. There’s the later careers of Liz Danforth and Michael Stackpole. One could doubtless write several substantial articles of any of these legacies. The legacy on which I’d like to concentrate, however, is yet another one, albeit one related to all of these things.

Even as Flying Buffalo was frantically downsizing, a youthful computer-game executive was fingering his copy of Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes and musing. Brian Fargo, founder and head of a little Orange County developer called Interplay, was in the process of finishing his company’s first CRPG, a Wizardry-like dungeon delver called The Bard’s Tale that had been written primarily by his old high-school buddy Michael Cranford and would soon be published by Electronic Arts. But Fargo already had grander ambitions. He loved pulpy post-apocalyptic fictions: the movies The Omega Man and Mad Max, the comic book Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. The post-apocalyptic CRPG he was dreaming of would be the first of its type, and must entail more than mapping endless mazes and slaughtering endless hordes of monsters — not that a little slaughtering would be amiss, mind you. Looking at Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, a game he liked very much, he started thinking about another first: working with experienced tabletop designers to translate a set of tabletop mechanics, which even in the rule-lights form favored by Flying Buffalo were far more complex than those of the typical CRPG, to the computer.

Fargo’s first call was to Ken St. Andre, who was very receptive. (“Cross my palm with silver and I’ll be happy to work on games for any company out there,” he jokes today.) St. Andre almost immediately came up with the perfect name, one that would remain unquestioned henceforward: Wasteland. But Fargo would, St. Andre said, need to get Michael Stackpole on board if he wanted to adapt the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes rules; it was Stackpole’s game, after all.

When Fargo duly called him up, Stackpole was initially skeptical; plenty of similar feelers had never turned into anything. But when Fargo asked whether he, Fargo, could fly out to Arizona and talk to him about it in person, Stackpole started to take the idea more seriously. Soon he had officially signed on as well.

Fargo’s choice of partners proved a good one in more ways than one. St. Andre and Stackpole were both very well-acquainted with computer games and didn’t look down on them, a quality that stood them in marked contrast to many of their peers from the tabletop world. Both had become active electronic as well as tabletop gamers in recent years, and both had parlayed this new hobby, as they had their earlier, into paying gigs by writing articles, reviews, and columns for magazines like Computer Gaming World and Questbusters. St. Andre had developed a special enthusiasm for Electronic Arts’s Adventure Construction Set, a system for making simple CRPGs without programming that wasn’t all that far removed in its do-it-yourself spirit from Tunnels & Trolls. He served as head of an officially recognized Adventure Construction Set fan club.

Fiercely loyal to their old friends, St. Andre and Stackpole convinced Fargo to widen the circle yet further, first to include Liz Danforth and then Dan Carver, the very man who had given Tunnels & Trolls its name all those years ago. The new computer project missed only one key figure from the creative core of the old Flying Buffalo. Rick Loomis, busy trying to save his company, had no time for side projects.

This little group of tabletop alumni was embarking on an unprecedented project. While plenty of veterans of the tabletop had flitted over to the more lucrative world of computer games already, no single project had ever employed so many, and never with such a clear goal of bringing the vintage tabletop-RPG experience to a computer game. Whatever his little band of refugees came up with, Fargo knew as he looked on with excitement and no small trepidation, it was bound to be interesting.

(Sources: Matt Chat 90 with Brian Fargo; Brian Fargo’s speech at the 2012 Unity conference; recent interviews with Ken St. Andre at Grognardia, Poplitko, Obskures, and the Tunnels & Trolls home page; a vintage St. Andre interview with Demon magazine; RPG.Net’s review of Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes. Most of all, Shannon Appelcline’s superb book Designers & Dragons: The 1970s and Jon Peterson’s positively magisterial Playing at the World. The latter book does a far better job making the case for Dungeons & Dragons‘s importance than I have on this blog.)


  1. There were other experiments with interactive books going at the same as and even before the first Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures. For instance, author Edward Packard of eventual Choose Your Own Adventure fame published Sugarcane Island, a sort of prototype of the concept, through the tiny Vermont Crossroads Press the same year as Buffalo Castle. There is, however, nothing to indicate that anyone at Flying Buffalo has any awareness of this or other developments prior to Choose Your Own Adventure

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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