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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Manhole

The Manhole

Because the CD-ROM version of The Manhole sold in relatively small numbers in comparison to the original floppy version, the late Russell Lieblich’s surprisingly varied original soundtrack is too seldom heard today. So, in the best tradition of multimedia computing (still a very new and sexy idea in the time about which I’m writing), feel free to listen while you read.

The Manhole

Were HyperCard “merely” the essential bridge between Ted Nelson’s Xanadu fantasy and the modern World Wide Web, it would stand as one of the most important pieces of software of the 1980s. But, improbably, HyperCard was even more than that. It’s easy to get so dazzled by its early implementation of hypertext that one loses track entirely of the other part of Bill Atkinson’s vision for the environment. True to the Macintosh, “the computer for the rest of us,” Atkinson designed HyperCard as a sort of computerized erector set for everyday users who might not care a whit about hypertext for its own sake. With HyperCard, he hoped, “a whole new body of people who have creative ideas but aren’t programmers will be able to express their ideas or expertise in certain subjects.”

He made good on that goal. An incredibly diverse group of people worked with HyperCard, a group in which traditional hackers were very much the minority. Danny Goodman, the man who became known as the world’s foremost authority on HyperCard programming, was actually a journalist whose earlier experiences with programming had been limited to a few dabblings in BASIC. In my earlier article about hypertext and HyperCard, I wrote how “a professor of music converted his entire Music Appreciation 101 course into a stack.” Well, readers, I meant that literally. He did it himself. Industry analyst and HyperCard zealot Jan Lewis:

You can do things with it [HyperCard] immediately. And you can do sexy things: graphics, animation, sound. You can do it without knowing how to program. You get immediate feedback; you can make a change and see or hear it immediately. And as you go up on the learning curve — let’s say you learn how to use HyperTalk [the bundled scripting language] — again, you can make changes easily and simply and get immediate feedback. It just feels good. It’s fun!

And yet HyperCard most definitely wasn’t a toy. People could and did make great, innovative, commercial-quality software using it. Nowhere is the power of HyperCard — a cultural as well as a technical power — illustrated more plainly than in the early careers of Rand and Robyn Miller.

The Manhole

Rand and Robyn had a very unusual upbringing. The first and third of the four sons of a wandering non-denominational preacher, they spent their childhoods moving wherever their father’s calling took him: from Dallas to Albuquerque, from Hawaii to Haiti to Spokane. They were a classic pairing of left brain and right brain. Rand had taken to computers from the instant he was introduced to them via a big time-shared system whilst still in junior high, and had made programming them into his career. By 1987, the year HyperCard dropped, he was to all appearances settled in life: 28 years old, married with children, living in a small town in East Texas, working for a bank as a programmer, and nurturing a love for the Apple Macintosh (he’d purchased his first Mac within days of the machine’s release back in 1984). He liked to read books on science. His brother Robyn, seven years his junior, was still trying to figure out what to do with his life. He was attending the University of Washington in somewhat desultory fashion as an alleged anthropology major, but devoted most of his energy to drawing pictures and playing the guitar. He liked to read adventure novels.

HyperCard struck Rand Miller, as it did so many, with all the force of a revelation. While he was an accomplished enough programmer to make a living at it, he wasn’t one who particularly enjoyed the detail work that went with the trade. “There are a lot of people who love digging down into the esoterics of compilers and C++, getting down and dirty with typed variables and all that stuff,” he says. “I wanted a quick return on investment. I just wanted to get things done.” HyperCard offered the chance to “get things done” dramatically faster and more easily than any programming environment he had ever seen. He became an immediate convert.

The Manhole

With two small girls of his own, Rand felt keenly the lack of quality children’s software for the Macintosh. He hit upon the idea of making a sort of interactive storybook using HyperCard, a very natural application for a hypertext tool. Lacking the artistic talent to make a go of the pictures, he thought of his little brother Robyn. The two men, so far apart in years and geography and living such different lives, weren’t really all that close. Nevertheless, Rand had a premonition that Robyn would be the perfect partner for his interactive storybook.

But Robyn, who had never owned a computer and had never had any interest in doing so, wasn’t immediately enticed by the idea of becoming a software developer. Getting him just to consider the idea took quite a number of letters and phone calls. At last, however, Robyn made his way down to the Macintosh his parents kept in the basement of the family home in Spokane and loaded up the copy of HyperCard his brother had sent him. There, like so many others, he was seduced by Bill Atkinson’s creation. He started playing around, just to see what he could make. What he made right away became something very different from the interactive storybook, complete with text and metaphorical pages, that Rand had envisioned. Robyn:

I started drawing this picture of a manhole — I don’t even know why. You clicked on it and the manhole cover would slide off. Then I made an animation of a vine growing out. The vine was huge, “Jack and the Beanstalk”-style. And then I didn’t want to turn the page. I wanted to be able to navigate up the vine, or go down into the manhole. I started creating a navigable world by using the very simple tools [of HyperCard]. I created this place.  I improvised my way through this world, creating one thing after another. Pretty soon I was creating little canals, and a forest with stars. I was inventing it as I went. And that’s how the world was born.

For his part, Rand had no problem accepting the change in approach:

Immediately you are enticed to explore instead of turning the page. Nobody sees a hole in the ground leading downward and a vine growing upward and in the distance a fire hydrant that says, “Touch me,” and wants to turn the page. You want to see what those things are. Instead of drawing the next page [when the player clicked a hotspot], he [Robyn] drew a picture that was closer — down in the manhole or above on the vine. It was kind of a stream of consciousness, but it became a place instead of a book. He started sending me these images, and I started connecting them, trying to make them work, make them interactive.

The Manhole

In this fashion, they built the world of The Manhole together: Robyn pulling its elements from the flotsam and jetsam of his consciousness and drawing them on the screen, Rand binding it all together into a contiguous place, and adding sound effects and voice snippets here and there. If they had tried to make a real game of the thing, with puzzles and goals, such a non-designed approach to design would likely have gone badly wrong in a hurry.

Luckily, puzzles and goals were never the point of The Manhole. It was intended always as just an endlessly interesting space to explore. As such, it would prove capable of captivating children and the proverbial young at heart for hours, full as it was of secrets and Easter eggs hidden in the craziest of places. One can play with The Manhole on and off for literally years, and still continue to stumble upon the occasional new thing. Interactions are often unexpected, and unexpectedly delightful. Hop in a rowboat to take a little ride and you might emerge in a rabbit’s teacup. Start watching a dragon’s television — Why does a dragon have a television? Who knows! — and you can teleport yourself into the image shown on the screen to emerge at the top of the world. Search long enough, and you might just discover a working piano you can actually play. The spirit of the thing is perhaps best conveyed by the five books you find inside the friendly rabbit’s home: Alice in Wonderland; The Wind in the Willows; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Winnie the Pooh; and Metaphors of Intercultural Philosophy (“This book isn’t about anything!”). Like all of those books excepting, presumably, the last, The Manhole is pretty wonderful, a perfect blend of sweet cuteness and tart whimsy.

The Manhole

With no contacts whatsoever within the Macintosh software industry, the brothers decided to publish The Manhole themselves via a tiny advertisement in the back of Macworld magazine, taken out under the auspices of Prolog, a consulting company Rand had founded as a moonlighting venture some time before. They rented a tiny booth to show The Manhole publicly for the first time at the Hyper Expo in San Francisco in June of 1988. (Yes, HyperCard mania had gotten so intense that there were entire trade shows dedicated just to it.) There they were delighted to receive a visit from none other than HyperCard’s creator Bill Atkinson, with his daughter Laura in tow; not yet five years old, she had no trouble navigating through their little world. Incredibly, Robyn had never even heard the word “hypertext” prior to the show, had no idea about the decades of theory that underpinned the program he had used, savant-like, to create The Manhole. When he met a band of Ted Nelson’s disgruntled Xanadu disciples on the show floor, come to crash the HyperCard party, he had no idea what they were on about.

But the brothers’ most important Hyper Expo encounter was a meeting with Richard Lehrberg, Vice President for Product Development at Mediagenic,1 who took a copy of The Manhole away with him for evaluation. Lehrberg showed it to William Volk, whom he had just hired away from the small Macintosh and Amiga publisher Aegis to become Mediagenic’s head of technology; he described it to Volk unenthusiastically as “this little HyperCard thing” done by “two guys in Texas.” Volk was much more impressed. He was immediately intrigued by one aspect of The Manhole in particular: the way that it used no buttons or conventional user-interface elements at all. Instead, the pictures themselves were the interface; you could just click where you would and see what happened. It was perhaps a product of Robyn Miller’s sheer naivetee as much anything else; seasoned computer people, so used to conventional interface paradigms, just didn’t think like that. But regardless of where it came from, Volk thought it was genius, a breaking down of a wall that had heretofore always separated the user from the virtual world. Volk:

The Miller brothers had come up with what I call the invisible interface. They had gotten rid of the idea of navigation buttons, which was what everyone was doing: go forward, go backward, turn right, turn left. They had made the scenes themselves the interface. You’re looking at a fire hydrant. You click on the fire hydrant; the fire hydrant sprays water. You click on the fire hydrant again; you zoom in to the fire hydrant, and there’s a little door on the fire hydrant. That was completely new.

Of course, other games did have you clicking “into” their world to make things happen; the point-and-click adventure genre was evolving rapidly during this period to replace the older parser-driven adventure games. But even games like Déjà Vu and Maniac Mansion, brilliantly innovative though they were, still surrounded their windows into their worlds with a clutter of “verb” buttons, legacies of the genre’s parser-driven roots. The Manhole, however, presented the player with nothing but its world. What with its defiantly non-Euclidean — not to say nonsensical — representation of space and its lack of goals and puzzles, The Manhole wasn’t a conventional adventure game by any stretch. Nevertheless, it pointed the way to what the genre would become, not least in the later works of the Miller brothers themselves.

Much of Volk’s working life for the next two years would be spent on The Manhole, by the end of which period he would quite possibly be more familiar with its many nooks and crannies than its own creators were. He became The Manhole‘s champion inside Mediagenic, convincing his colleagues to publish it, thereby bringing it to a far wider audience than the Miller brothers could ever have reached on their own. Released by Mediagenic under their Activision imprint, it became a hit by the modest standards of the Macintosh consumer-software market. Macworld magazine named The Manhole the winner of their “Wild Card” category in a feature article on the best HyperCard stacks, while the Software Publishers Association gave it an “Excellence in Software” award for “Best New Use of a Computer.”

We aware that The Manhole was collecting a certain computer-chic cachet, Mediagenic/Activision didn't hesitate to play that angle up in their advertising.

Well aware that The Manhole was collecting a certain chic cachet to itself, Mediagenic/Activision didn’t hesitate to play that angle up in their advertising.

Had that been left to be that, The Manhole would remain historically interesting as both a delightful little curiosity of its era and as the starting point of the hugely significant game-development careers of the Miller brothers. Yet there’s more to the story.

William Volk, frustrated with the endless delays of CD-I and the state of paralysis the entire industry was in when it came to the idea of publishing entertainment software on CD, had been looking for some time for a way to break the logjam. It was Stewart Alsop, an influential tech journalist, who first suggested to Volk that the answer to his dilemma was already part of Mediagenic’s catalog — that The Manhole would be perfect for CD-ROM. Volk was just the person to see such a project through, having already experimented extensively with CD-ROM and CD-I  as part of Aegis as well as Mediagenic. With the permission of the Miller brothers, he recruited Russell Lieblich, Mediagenic’s longstanding guru in all things music- and sound-related, to compose and perform a soundtrack for The Manhole which would play from the CD as the player explored.

An important difference separates the way the music worked in the CD-ROM version of The Manhole from way it worked in virtually all computer games to appear before it. The occasional brief digitized snippet aside, music in computer games had always been generated on the computer, whether by sound chips like the Commodore 64’s famous SID or entire sound boards like the top-of-its-class Roland MT-32 (we shall endeavor to forget the horrid beeps and squawks that issued from the IBM PC and Apple II’s native sound hardware). But The Manhole‘s music, while having been originally generated entirely or almost entirely on computers in Lieblich’s studio, was then recorded onto CD for digital playback, just like a song on a music CD. This method, made possible only by evolving computer sound hardware and, most importantly, by the huge storage capacity of a CD-ROM, would in the years to come slowly become simply the way that computer-game music was done. Today many big-budget titles hire entire orchestras to record soundtracks as elaborate and ambitious as the ones found in big Hollywood feature films, whilst also including digitized recordings of voices, squealing tires, explosions, and all the inevitable rest. In fact, surprisingly little of the sound present in most modern games is synthesized sound, a situation that has long since relegated elaborate setups like the Roland MT-32 to the status of white elephants; just pipe your digitized recording through a digital-to-analog converter and be done with it already.

As the very first title to go all digitized all the time, The Manhole didn’t have a particularly easy time of it; getting the music to play without breaking up or stuttering as the player explored presented a huge challenge on the Macintosh, a machine whose minimalist design burdened the CPU with all of the work of sound generation. However, Volk and his colleagues got it going at last. Published in the spring of 1989, the CD-ROM version of The Manhole marked a major landmark in the history of computing, the first American game — or, at least, software toy (another big buzzword of the age, as it happens) — to be released on CD-ROM.2 Volk, infuriated with Philips for the chaos and confusion CD-I’s endless delays had wrought in an industry he believed was crying out for the limitless vistas of optical storage, sent them a copy of The Manhole along with a curt note: “See! We did it! We’re tired of waiting!”

And they weren’t done yet. Having gotten The Manhole working on CD-ROM on the Macintosh, Volk and his colleagues at Mediagenic next tackled the daunting task of porting it to the most popular platform for consumer software, MS-DOS — a platform without HyperCard. To address this lack, Mediagenic developed a custom engine for CD-ROM titles on MS-DOS, dubbing it the Multimedia Applications Development Environment, or MADE.3 Mediagenic’s in-house team of artists redrew Robyn Miller’s original black-and-white illustrations in color, and The Manhole on CD-ROM for MS-DOS shipped in 1990.

In my opinion, The Manhole lost a little bit of its charm when it was colorized. The VGA graphics, impressive in their day, look a bit garish today.

In my opinion, The Manhole lost some of its unique charm when it was colorized for MS-DOS. The VGA graphics, impressive in their day, look just a bit garish and overdone today in comparison to the classic pen-and-ink style of the original.

The Manhole, idiosyncratic piece of artsy children’s software that it was, could hardly have been expected to break the industry’s optical logjam all on its own. Its CD-ROM incarnation, for that matter, wasn’t all that hugely different from the floppy version. In the end, one has to acknowledge that The Manhole on CD-ROM was little more than the floppy version with a soundtrack playing in the background — a nice addition certainly, but perhaps not quite the transformative experience which all of the rhetoric surrounding CD-ROM’s potential might have led one to expect. It would take another few excruciating years for a CD-ROM drive to become a must-have accessory for everyday American computers. Yet every revolution has to start somewhere, and William Volk deserves his full measure of credit for doing what he could to push this one forward in the only way that could ultimately matter: by stepping up and delivering a real, tangible product at long last. As Steve Jobs used to say, “Real artists ship.”

The importance of The Manhole, existing as it does right there at the locus of so much that was new and important in computing in the late 1980s, can be read in so many ways that there’s always a danger of losing some of them in the shuffle. But it should never be forgotten whilst trying to sort through the tangle that this astonishingly creative little world was principally designed by someone who had barely touched a computer in his life before he sat down with HyperCard. That he wound up with something so fascinating is a huge tribute not just to Robyn Miller and his enabling brother Rand, but also to Bill Atkinson’s HyperCard itself. Apple has long since abandoned HyperCard, and we enjoy no precise equivalent to it today. Indeed, its vision of intuitive, non-pretentious, fun programming is one that we’re in danger of losing altogether. Being one who loves the computer most of all as the most exciting tool for creation ever invented, I can’t help but see that as a horrible shame.

The Miller brothers had, as most of you reading this probably know, a far longer future in front of them than HyperCard would get to enjoy. Already well before 1988 was through they had rechristened themselves Cyan Productions, a name that felt much more appropriate for a creative development house than the businesslike Prolog. As Cyan, they made two more pieces of children’s software, Cosmic Osmo and the Worlds Beyond the Makerei and Spelunx and the Caves of Mr. Seudo. Both were once again made using HyperCard, and both were very much made in the spirit of The Manhole. And like The Manhole both were published on CD-ROM as well as floppy disk; the Miller brothers, having learned much from Mediagenic’s process of moving their first title to CD-ROM, handled the CD-ROM as well as the floppy versions themselves when it came to these later efforts. Opinions are somewhat divided on whether the two later Cyan children’s titles fully recapture the magic that has led so many adults and children alike over the years to spend so much time plumbing the depths of The Manhole. None, however, can argue with the significance of what came next, the Miller brothers’ graduation to games for adults — and, as it happens, another huge milestone in the slow-motion CD-ROM revolution. But that story, like so many others, is one that we’ll have to tell at another time.

(Sources: Amstrad Action of January 1990; Macworld of July 1988, October 1988, November 1988, March 1989, April 1989, and December 1989; Wired of August 1994 and October 1999; The New York Times of November 28 1989. Also the books Myst and Riven: The World of the D’ni by Mark J.P. Wolf and Prima’s Official Strategy Guide: Myst by Rick Barba and Rusel DeMaria, and the Computer Chronicles television episodes entitled “HyperCard,” “MacWorld Special 1988,” “HyperCard Update,” and “Hypertext.” Online sources include Robyn Miller’s Myst postmortem from the 2013 Game Developer’s Conference; Richard Moss’s Ludiphilia podcast; a blog post by Robyn Miller. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk for sharing his memories and impressions with me in an interview and for sending me an original copy of The Manhole on CD-ROM for my research.

The Manhole: Masterpiece Edition, a remake supervised by the Miller brothers in 1994 which sports much-improved graphics and sound, is available for purchase on Steam.)

  1. Activision was renamed Mediagenic at almost the very instant that Lehrberg first met the Miller brothers. When the name change was greeted with universal derision, Activision/Mediagenic CEO Bruce Davis quickly began backpedaling on his hasty decision. The Manhole, for instance, was released by Mediagenic under their “Activision” label — which was odd because under the new ordering said label was supposed to be reserved for games, and The Manhole was considered children’s software, not a traditional game. I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article as the least confusing way to address a confusing situation. 

  2. The first CD-based software to reach European consumers says worlds about the differences that persisted between American and European computing, and about the sheer can-do ingenuity that so often allowed British programmers in particular to squeeze every last ounce of potential out of hardware that was usually significantly inferior to that enjoyed by their American counterparts. Codemasters, a budget software house based in Warwickshire, came up with a very unique shovelware package for the 1989 Christmas season. They transferred thirty old games from cassette to a conventional audio CD, which they then sold along with a special cable to run the output from an ordinary music-CD player into a Sinclair or Amstrad home computer. “Here’s your CD-ROM,” they said. “Have a ball.” By all accounts, Codemasters’s self-proclaimed “CD revolution,” kind of hilarious and kind of brilliant, did quite well for them. When it came to doing more with less in computing, you never could beat the Brits. 

  3. MADE’s scripting language was to some extent based on AdvSys, a language for amateur text-adventure creation that never quite took off like the contemporaneous AGT


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Brian Fargo and Interplay


I touched on the history of Brian Fargo and his company Interplay some time ago, when I looked at the impact of The Bard’s Tale, their breakout CRPG hit that briefly replaced the Wizardry series as the go-to yin to Ultima‘s yang and in the process transformed Interplay almost overnight from a minor developer to one of the leading lights of the industry. They deserve more than such cursory treatment, however, for The Bard’s Tale would prove to be only the beginning of Interplay’s legacy. Let’s lay the groundwork for that future today by looking at how it all got started.

Born into suburban comfort in Orange County, California, in 1962, Brian Fargo manifested from an early age a peculiar genius for crossing boundaries that has served him well throughout his life. In high school he devoured fantasy and science-fiction novels and comics, spent endless hours locked in his room hacking on his Apple II, and played Dungeons and Dragons religiously in cellars and school cafeterias. At the same time, though, he was also a standout athlete at his school, a star of the football team and so good a sprinter that he and his coaches harbored ambitions for a while of making the United States Olympic Team. The Berlin Wall that divides the jocks from the nerds in high school crumbled before Fargo. So it would be throughout his life. In years to come he would be able to spend a day at the office discussing the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons, then head out for an A-list cocktail party amongst the Hollywood jet set with his good friend Timothy Leary. By the time Interplay peaked in the late 1990s, he would be a noted desirable bachelor amongst the Orange County upper crust (“When he’s not at a terminal he can usually be found rowing, surfing, or fishing”), making the society pages for opening a luxury shoe and accessory boutique, for hosting lavish parties, for planning his wedding at the Ritz-Carlton. All whilst continuing to make and — perhaps more importantly — continuing to openly love nerdy games about killing fantasy monsters. Somehow Brian Fargo made it all look so easy.

But before all that he was just a suburban kid who loved games, whether played on the tabletop, in the arcade, on the Atari VCS, or on his beloved Apple II. Softline magazine, the game-centric spinoff of the voice-of-the-Apple-II-community Softalk, gives us a glimpse of young Fargo the rabid gamer. He’s a regular fixture of the high-score tables the magazine published, excelling at California Pacific’s Apple II knock-off of the arcade game Head-On as well as the swordfighting game Swashbuckler. Already a smooth diplomat, he steps in to soothe a budding controversy when someone claims to have run up a score in Swashbuckler of 1501, a feat that others claim is impossible because the score rolls over to 0 after 255. It seems, Fargo patiently explains, that there are two versions of the game, one of which rolls over and one of which doesn’t, so everyone is right. But the most tangible clue to his future is provided by the question he managed to get published in the January 1982 issue: “How does one get so many pictures onto one disk, such as in The Wizard and the Princess, where On-Line has more than 200 pictures, with a program for the adventure on top of that?” Yes, Brian Fargo the track star had decided to give up his Olympic dream and become a game developer.

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur.

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur, 1982.

By that time Fargo was 19, and a somewhat reluctant student at the University of California, Irvine as well as a repair technician at ComputerLand. No more than an adequate BASIC programmer — he would allow even that ability to atrophy as soon as he could find a way to get someone else to do his coding for him — Fargo knew that he hadn’t a prayer of creating one of the action games that littered Softline‘s high-score rankings, nor anything as complex as Ultima or Wizardry, the two CRPGs currently taking the Apple II world by storm. He did, however, think he might just be up to doing an illustrated adventure game in the style of The Wizard and the Princess. He recruited one Michael Cranford, a Dungeons and Dragons buddy and fellow hacker from high school, to draw the pictures he’d need on paper; he then traced them and colored them on his Apple II. He convinced another friend to write him a few machine-language routines for displaying the graphics. And to make use of it all he wrote a simple BASIC adventure game: you must escape the Demon’s Forge, “an ancient test of wisdom and battle skill.” Desperate for some snazzy cover art, he licensed a cheesecake fantasy print in the style of Boris Vallejo, featuring a shapely woman tied to a pole being menaced by two knights mounted on some sort of flying snakes — this despite a notable lack of snakes (flying or otherwise), scantily-clad females, or for that matter poles in the game proper. (The full Freudian implications of this box art, not to mention the sentence I’ve just written about it, would doubtless take a lifetime of psychotherapy to unravel.)

The Demon's Forge box art, which won Softline magazine's Relevance in Packaging Award, with Flying-Snakes-and-Ladies-in-Bondage clusters.

The Demon’s Forge box art, which won Softline magazine’s sarcastic Relevance in Packaging Award, with Flying-Snakes-and-Ladies-in-Bondage clusters.

Fargo employed a guerrilla-marketing technique that would have made Wild Bill Stealey proud to sell The Demon’s Forge under his new imprint of Saber Software. He took out a single advertisement in Softalk for $2500. Then he started calling stores around the country to ask about his game, claiming to be a potential customer who had seen the advertisement: “A few minutes later my other line would ring and the retailer would place an order.” It didn’t make him big money, but he made a little. Then along came Michael Boone.

Boone was another old high-school friend, a scion of petroleum wealth who had dutifully gone off to Stanford to study petroleum engineering, only to be distracted by the lure of entrepreneurship. For some time he vacillated between starting a software company and an ice-cream chain, deciding on the former when his family’s connections came through with an injection of venture capital. His long-term plan was to make a golf simulation for the new IBM PC: “IBM seemed like the computer that business people and the affluent were buying. So, I should write a golf game for the IBM computer.” Knowing little about programming and needing product to get him started, he offered to buy out Fargo’s The Demon’s Forge and his Saber Software for a modest $5000, and have Fargo come work for him. Fargo dropped out of university to do so in late 1982. He assembled a talented little development team consisting of programmers “Burger” Bill Heineman and Troy Worrell along with himself, right there in his and Boone’s hometown of Newport Beach.1

Boone Corporation. Michael Boone is first from left, Bill Heineman second, Troy Worrell fourth, Brian Fargo fifth. Jay Patel isn't present in this photo.

Boone Corporation, 1983. Michael Boone is first from left, Bill Heineman second, Troy Worrell fourth, Brian Fargo fifth. They’re toasting with Hires Root Beer. “Hires Root Beer,” “Hi-Res graphics.” Get it?

After porting The Demon’s Forge to the IBM PC, Fargo’s little team occupied themselves writing quick-and-dirty cartridge games like Chuck Norris Superkicks and Robin Hood for the Atari VCS, ColecoVision, and the Commodore VIC-20 and 64. These were published without attribution by Xonox, a spinoff of K-tel Records, one of many dodgy players flooding the market with substandard product during the lead-up to the Great Videogame Crash. Michael Boone agreed to publish under his own imprint a couple of VIC-20 action games — Crater Raider and Cyclon — written by a talented programmer named Alan Pavlish whom Fargo knew well. Meanwhile work proceeded slowly on Boone’s golf simulation for the rich, which was now to be a “tree-for-tree, inch-for-inch recreation of the course at Pebble Beach.” When some Demon’s Forge players called to ask for a hint, Fargo learned that they were part of a company trying to get traction for the Moodies, a bunch of pixeish would-be cartoon characters derivative of the Smurfs; soon they came in to sign a contract for a game to be called Moodies in Iceland.

But then came the Crash. One day shortly thereafter Boone walked into the office and announced that he was taking the company in another direction: to make dry-erase boards instead of computer games. Since Fargo and his team had no particular competency in that field, they were all out of a job. Boone’s new venture would prove to be hugely successful, giving us the whiteboards now ubiquitous to seemingly every office or cubicle in the world and making Boone himself very, very rich. But even had they been able to predict his future that wouldn’t have been much consolation for Fargo and his suddenly forlorn little pair of programmers.

Fargo decided that it really shouldn’t be that hard for him to do what Michael Boone had been doing in addition to managing the development team. In fact, he had already been working on a side venture, a potential $60,000 contract with World Book Encyclopedia to make some rote educational titles of the drill-and-practice stripe. After signing that contract, he founded Interplay Productions to see it through. It wasn’t a glamorous beginning, but it represented programs that could be knocked out quickly to start bringing in money. Heineman and Worrell agreed to stay with Fargo and try to make it work. Fargo added another programmer named Jay Patel to complete this initial incarnation of Interplay. The next six to nine months consisted of Fargo hustling up whatever work he could find, game or non-game, and his team hammering it out: “We did work for the military, stuff for McGraw Hill — we did anything we could do. We didn’t have the luxury of creating our own software. We had to do other people’s work and just kept our ideas in the back of our minds.”

The big break they’d been hoping for came midway through 1984. Interplay “hit Activision’s radar,” and Activision decided to let Fargo and company make some adventure games for them. Activision at the time was reeling from the Great Videogame Crash, which had destroyed their immensely profitable cartridge business almost overnight. CEO Jim Levy had decided that the future of the company, if it was to have one, must lie with software for home computers. With little expertise in this area, he was happy to sign up even an unproven outside developer like the nascent Interplay. Mindshadow and The Tracer Sanction, the first two games Interplay was actually willing to put their name on, were the results.

Fargo’s team had found time to dissect Infocom games and tinker with parsers and adventure-game engines even back during their days as Boone Corporation. Mindshadow and Tracer Sanction were logical extensions of that experimentation and, going back even further, of Fargo’s first game The Demon’s Forge. Fargo found a young artist named Dave Lowery, who would go on to quite an impressive career in film, to draw the pictures for Mindshadow; they came out looking a cut above most of the competition in the crowded field of illustrated adventure games. Mindshadow‘s Bourne Identity-inspired plot has you waking up with amnesia on a deserted island. Once you escape the island, you embark on a globe-trotting quest to recover your memories. There’s an interesting metaphysical angle to a game that’s otherwise fairly typical of its period and genre. As you encounter new people, places, and things that you should know from your earlier life, you can use the verb “remember” to fit them into place and slowly rebuild your shattered identity.

Mindshadow did relatively well for Interplay and Activision, not a blockbuster but a solid seller that seemed to bode well for future collaborations. Less successful both aesthetically and commercially was Tracer Sanction, a science-fiction adventure that isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be serious or humorous and lacks a conceptual hook like Mindshadow‘s “remember” gimmick. But by the time it appeared Fargo had already shifted much of his team’s energy away from adventure games and into the CRPG project that would become The Bard’s Tale.

Fargo and his old high-school buddy Michael Cranford had been dreaming of doing a CRPG since about five minutes after they had first seen Wizardry back in 1981. Cranford had even made a stripped-down CRPG on his own, published on a Commodore 64 cartridge by Human Engineered Software under the title Maze Master in 1983 to paltry sales. Now Fargo convinced him to help his little team at Interplay create a Wizardry killer. It seemed high time for such an undertaking, what with the Wizardry series still using ugly monochrome wire frames to depict its dungeons and monsters and available only on the Apple II, Macintosh, and IBM PC — a list which notably didn’t include the biggest platform in the industry, the Commodore 64. Indeed, CRPGs of any sort were quite thin on the ground for the Commodore 64, decent ones even more so. Fargo:

At the time, the gold standard was Wizardry for that type of game. There was Ultima, but that was a different experience, a top-down view, and not really as party-based. Sir-Tech was kind of saying, “Who needs color? Who needs music? Who needs sound effects?” But my attitude was, “We want to find a way to use all those things. What better than to have a main character who uses music as part of who he is?”

Soon the game was far enough along for Fargo to start shopping it to publishers. His first stop was naturally Activision. One of Jim Levy’s major blind spots, however, was the whole CRPG genre. He simply couldn’t understand the appeal of killing monsters, mapping dungeons, and building characters, reportedly pronouncing Interplay’s project “nicheware for nerds.” And so Fargo ended up across town at Electronics Arts, who, recognizing that Trip Hawkins’s original conception of “simple, hot, and deep” wasn’t quite the be-all end-all in a world where all entertainment software was effectively “nicheware for nerds,” were eager to diversify into more hardcore genres like the CRPG. EA’s marketing director Bing Gordon zeroed in on the appeal of one of Cranford’s relatively few expansions on Wizardry, the character of the bard. He went so far as to change the game’s name from Shadow Snare to The Bard’s Tale to highlight him, creating a lovable rogue to serve as the star of advertisements and box copy who barely exists in the game proper: “When the going gets tough, the bard goes drinking.” Beyond that, promoting The Bard’s Tale was just a matter of trumpeting the game’s audiovisual appeal in contrast to the likes of Wizardry. Released in plenty of time for Christmas 1985, with all of EA’s considerable promotional savvy and financial muscle behind it, The Bard’s Tale shocked even its creators and its publisher by outselling the long-awaited Ultima IV that appeared just a few weeks later. Interplay had come into the big time; Fargo’s days of scrabbling after any work he could find looked to be over for a long, long time to come. In the end, The Bard’s Tale would sell more than 400,000 copies, becoming the best-selling single CRPG of the 1980s.

The inevitable Bard’s Tale sequel was completed and shipped barely a year later. Another solid hit at the time on the strength of its burgeoning franchise’s name, it’s generally less fondly remembered today by fans. It seems that Michael Cranford and Fargo had had a last-minute falling-out over royalties just as the first Bard’s Tale was being completed, which led to Cranford literally holding the final version of the game for ransom until a new agreement was reached. A new deal was brokered in the nick of time, but the relationship between Cranford and Interplay was irretrievably soured. Cranford was allowed to make The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, but he did so almost entirely on his own, using much of the tools and code he and Interplay’s core team had developed together for the first game. The lack of oversight and testing led to a game that was insanely punishing even by the standards of the era, one that often felt sadistic just for the sake of it. Afterward Cranford parted company with Interplay forever to study theology and philosophy at university.

Despite having rejected The Bard’s Tale themselves, Activision was less than thrilled with Interplay’s decision to publish the games through EA, especially after they turned into exactly the sorts of raging hits that they desperately needed for themselves. Fargo notes that Activision and EA “just hated each other,” far more so even than was the norm in an increasingly competitive industry. Perhaps they were just too much alike. Jim Levy and Trip Hawkins both liked to think of themselves as hip, with-it guys selling the future of art and entertainment to equally hip, with-it buyers. Both were fond of terms like “software artist,” and both drew much of their marketing and management approaches from the world of rock and roll. Little Interplay had a tough task tiptoeing between these two bellicose elephants. Fargo:

We were maybe the only developer doing work for both companies at the same time, and they just grilled me whenever they had the chance. Whenever there was any kind of leak, they’d say, “Did you say anything?” I was right in the middle there. I always made sure to keep my mouth shut about everything.

Still, Fargo managed for a while to continuing doing adventure games for Activision alongside CRPGs for EA. Interplay’s Activision adventure for 1985, Borrowed Time, might just be their best. It was created at that interesting moment when developers were beginning to realize that traditional parser-based adventure games, even of the illustrated variety, might not cut it commercially much longer, but when they weren’t yet quite sure how to evolve the genre to make it more accessible and not seem like a hopeless anachronism on slick new machines like the Atari ST and Amiga. Borrowed Time is built on the same engine that had already powered Mindshadow and The Tracer Sanction, but it sports an attempt at providing an alternative to the keyboard via a list of verbs and nouns and a clickable graphic inventory. It’s all pretty half-baked, however, in that the list of nouns are suitable to the office where you start the game but bizarrely never change thereafter, while there are no hotspots on the pictures proper. Nor does the verb list contain all the verbs you actually need to finish the game. Thus even the most enthusiastic point-and-clicker can only expect to switch back and forth constantly between mouse or joystick and keyboard, a process that strikes me as much more annoying than just typing everything.

The clickable word list is great -- until you leave your office.

Borrowed Time on the Amiga. The clickable word list is great — until you leave your office.

Thankfully, the game has been thought through more than its interface. Realizing that neither he nor anyone else amongst the standard Interplay crew were all that good at writing prose, Fargo contacted Bill Kunkel, otherwise known as “The Game Doctor,” who had made a name for himself as a sort of Hunter S. Thompson of videogame journalism via his column in Electronic Games magazine. Fargo’s pitch was simple: “Okay, you guys have a lot of opinions about games, how would you like to do one?” Kunkel, along with some old friends and colleagues named Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley, decided that they would like that very much, forming a little company called Subway Software to represent their partnership. Subway proceeded to write all of the text and do much of the design for Borrowed Time. Fargo gave them a “Script by” credit for their contributions, the first of many such design credits Subway would receive over the years to come (a list that includes Star Trek: First Contact for Simon & Schuster).

Like Déjà Vu, ICOM Simulations’s breakthrough point-and-click graphic adventure of the same year, Borrowed Time plays in the hard-boiled 1930s milieu of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. The tones and styles of the two games are very  similar. Both love to make sardonic fun of the hapless, down-on-his-luck PI who serves as protagonist almost as much as they love to kill him, and both mix opportunities for free exploration with breakneck chases and other linear bits of derring-do in service of some unusually complicated plots. And I like both games on the whole, despite some unforgiving old-school design decisions. While necessarily minimalist given the limitations of Interplay’s engine, the text of Borrowed Time in particular is pretty good at evoking its era and genre inspirations.

Collaborations like the one that led to Borrowed Time highlight one of the most interesting aspects of Fargo’s approach to game development. In progress as well in many other companies by the mid-1980s, it represented a quiet revolution in the way games got made that was changing the industry.

With Interplay, I wanted to take [development] beyond one- or two-man teams. That sounds like an obvious idea now, but to hire an artist to do the art, a musician to do the music, a writer to do the writing, all opposed to just the one-man show doing everything, was novel. Even with Demon’s Forge, I had my buddy Michael do all the art, but I had to trace it all and put it in the computer, and that lost a certain something. And because I didn’t know a musician or a sound guy, it had no music or sound. I did the writing, but I don’t think that’s my strong point. So, really, [Interplay was] set up to say, “Let’s take a team approach and bring in specialists.”

One of the specialists Fargo brought in for Interplay’s fourth and final adventure game for Activision, 1986’s Tass Times in Tonetown, we already know very well.

Tass Times in Tonetown

After leaving Infocom in early 1985, just in time to avoid the chaos and pain brought on by Cornerstone’s failure, Mike Berlyn along with his wife Muffy had hung out their shingle as Brainwave Creations. The idea was to work as consultants, doing game design only rather than implementation — yet another sign of the rapidly encroaching era of the specialist. Brainwave entered talks with several companies, including Brøderbund, Origin, and even Infocom. However, with the industry in general and the adventure game in particular in a state of uncertain flux, it wasn’t until Interplay came calling that anything came to fruition. Brian Fargo gave Mike and Muffy carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, as long as it was an adventure game. What they came up with was a bizarre day-glo riff on New Wave music culture, with some of the looks and sensibilities of The Jetsons. The adjective “tass,” the game’s universal designation for anything cool, fun, good, or desirable, hails from the Latin “veritas” — truth. The Berlyns took to pronouncing it as “very tass,” and soon “tass” was born. In the extra-dimensional city of Tonetown guitar picks stand in for money, a talking dog is a star reporter, and a “combination of pig, raccoon, and crocodile” named Franklin Snarl is trying to buy up all of the land, build tract houses, and transform the place into a boring echo of Middle American suburbia. Oh, and he’s also kidnapped your dimension-hopping grandfather. That’s where you come in.

I’ve heard Tass Times in Tonetown described from time to time as a “cult classic,” and who am I to argue? It’s certainly appealing at first blush, when you peruse the charmingly cracked Tonetown Times newspaper included in its package. The newspaper gives ample space to Ennio, the aforementioned dog reporter who owes more than a little something to the similarly anthropomorphic and similarly cute dogs of Berlyn’s last game for Infocom, the computerized board game Fooblitzky. It seems old Ennio — whom Berlyn named after film composer Ennio Morricone of spaghetti western fame — has been investigating the mundane dimension from which you hail under deep cover as your gramps’s dog Spot. Interplay’s adventure engine, while still clearly derivative of the earlier games, has been vastly improved, with icons now taking the place of lists of words and the graphics themselves filled — finally — with clickable hotspots. The bright, cartoon-surrealistic graphics still look great today, particularly in the Amiga version.

Tass Times in Tonetown on the Amiga. Ennio is on the case.

Tass Times in Tonetown on the Amiga. Ennio is on the case.

Settle in to really, seriously play, though, and problems quickly start to surface. It’s hard to believe that this game was co-authored by someone who had matriculated for almost three years at Infocom because it’s absolutely riddled with exactly the sort of frustrations that Infocom relentlessly purged from their own games. To play Tass Times in Tonetown is to die over and over and over again, usually with no warning. Walk through gramps’s dimensional gate and start to explore — bam, you’re dead because you haven’t outfitted yourself in the proper bizarre Tonetown attire. Ring the bell at an innocent-looking gate — bam, you’re dead because this gate turns out to be the front gate of the villain’s mansion. Descend a well and go west — bam, a monster kills you. Try to explore the swamp outside of town — bam, another monster kills you. The puzzles all require fairly simple actions to solve, but exactly which actions they are can only be divined through trial and error. Coupled with the absurd lethality of the game, that leads to a numbing cycle of saving, trying something, dying, and then repeating again and again until you stumble on the right move. The length of this very short game is also artificially extended via a harsh inventory limit and one or two nasty opportunities to miss your one and only chance to do something vital, which can leave you a dead adventurer walking through most of the game. As is depressingly typical of Mike Berlyn, the writing is clear and grammatically correct but a bit perfunctory, with most of the real wit offloaded to the graphics and the accompanying newspaper. And even the slick interface isn’t quite all that it first seems to be. The “Hit” icon is of absolutely no use anywhere in the game. Even more strange is the “Tell Me About” icon, which is not only useless but not even understood by the parser. Meanwhile other vital verbs still go unrepresented graphically; thus you still don’t totally escape the tyranny of the keyboard. Borrowed Time isn’t as pretty or as strikingly original as Tass Times in Tonetown, and it’s only slightly more shy about killing you, but on the whole it’s a better game, the one that gets my vote for the first one to play for those curious about Interplay’s take on the illustrated text adventure.

Thanks to the magic of pre-release hardware, Interplay got their adventures with shocking speed onto the next generation of home computers represented by the Atari ST, the Amiga, and eventually the Apple IIGS. Well before Tass Times in Tonetown, new versions of Mindshadow and Borrowed Time, updated with new graphics and, in the case of the former, the somewhat ineffectual point-and-click word lists of the latter, became two of the first three games a proud new Amiga owner could actually buy. Similarly, the IIGS version of Tass Times in Tonetown was released on the same day in September of 1986 as the IIGS itself. While the graphics weren’t quite up to the Amiga version’s standard, the game’s musical theme sounded even better played through the IIGS’s magnificent 16-voice Ensoniq synthesizer chip. Equally well-done ports of The Bard’s Tale games to all of these platforms would soon follow, part and parcel of one of Fargo’s core philosophies: “Whenever we do an adaptation of a product to a different machine, we always take full advantage of all of the machine’s new features. There’s nothing worse than looking at graphics that look like [8-bit] Apple graphics on a more sophisticated machine.”

And, lo and behold, Interplay finally finished their IBM PC-based recreation of Pebble Beach in 1986, last legacy of their days as Boone Corporation. It was published by Activision’s Gamestar sports imprint under the ridiculously long-winded title of Championship Golf: The Great Courses of the World — Volume One: Pebble Beach. It was soon ported to the Amiga, but sales in a suddenly very crowded golf-simulation field weren’t enough to justify a Volume Two. Despite their sporty founder, Interplay would leave the sports games to others henceforth. They would also abandon the adventure games that were by now becoming a case of slowly diminishing returns to focus on building on the CRPG credibility they enjoyed in spades thanks to The Bard’s Tale.

Interplay as of 1987. Even then, four years after the company's founding, all of the employees were still well shy of thirty.

Interplay as of 1987. Even then, four years after the company’s founding, all of the employees were still well shy of thirty.

By 1987, then, Brian Fargo had established his company as a proven industry player. Over many years still to come with Fargo at the helm, Interplay would amass a track record of hits and cult touchstones that can be equaled by no more than a handful of others in gaming’s history. They would largely deliver games rooted in the traditional fantasy and science-fiction tropes that gamers can never seem to get enough of, executed using mostly proven, traditional mechanics. But as often as not they then would garnish this comfort food with just enough innovation, just enough creative spice to keep things fresh, to keep them feeling a cut above their peers. The Bard’s Tale would become something of a template: execute the established Wizardry formula very well, add lots of colorful graphics and sound, and innovate modestly, but not enough to threaten delicate sensibilities. Result: blockbuster. The balance between commercial appeal and innovation is a delicate one in any creative field, games perhaps more than most. For many years few were better at walking that tightrope than Interplay, making them a necessary perennial in any history of games as a commercial or an artistic proposition. The fact that this blog strives to be both just means they’re likely to show up all that much more in the years to come.

(Sources: The book Stay Awhile and Listen by David L. Craddock; Commodore Magazine of December 1987; Softline of January 1982, March 1982, May 1982, September 1982, January 1983, September/October 1983, and November/December 1983; Amazing Computing of April 1986; Compute!’s Gazette of September 1983; Microtimes of March 1987; Orange Coast of July 2000, August 2000, September 2000, and May 2001; Questbusters of March 1991. Online sources include: Matt Barton’s interview with Rebecca Heineman, parts 1 and 3; Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo, part 1; Digital Press’s interview with Heineman; Gamestar’s interview with Fargo; interviews with Bill Kunkel at Gamasutra, Good Deal Games, and 8-bit Rocket; “trivia” in the MobyGames page on Tass Times in Tonetown; and a VentureBeat article on Interplay. Also Jason Scott’s interview with Mike Berlyn for Get Lamp that he was kind enough to share with me. And thanks to Alex Smith for sharing the “nichware for nerds” anecdote about Jim Levy in a comment on this blog. Feel free to download the Amiga versions of Borrowed Time and Tass Times in Tonetown from right here if you like.

I’ve finally rolled out a new minimalist version of this site for phone browsers. If you notice that anything seems to have gone sideways somewhere with it, let me know.

The Digital Antiquarian will be taking a holiday next week. Dorte and I are heading to Rome for a little getaway. But it’ll be back to business the week after, when we’ll cross the pond again at last to look at some developments in Britain and Europe.)

  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. 


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Out of the Frying Pan…

Activision, as embodied by Jim Levy (left), weds Infocom, as embodied by Joel Berez (right).

Activision, as embodied by Jim Levy (left), weds Infocom, as embodied by Joel Berez (right).

Activision’s first couple of years as a home-computer publisher were, for all their spirit of innovation and occasional artistic highs, mildly disappointing in commercial terms. While all of their games of this period were by no means flops, the only outsize hit among them was David Crane’s Ghostbusters. Activision was dogged by their own history; even selling several hundred thousand copies of Ghostbusters could feel anticlimactic when compared with the glory days of 1980 to 1983, when million-sellers were practically routine. And the company dragged along behind it more than psychological vestiges of that history. On the plus side, Jim Levy still had a substantial war chest made up of the profits socked away during those years with which to work. But on the minus side, the organization he ran was still too big, too unwieldy in light of the vastly reduced number of units they were moving these days in this completely different market. Levy was forced to authorize a painful series of almost quarterly layoffs as the big sales explosions stubbornly refused to come and Activison’s balance sheets remained in the red. Then came the departure of Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead to form the lean, mean Accolade, and that company’s galling instant profitability. Activision found themselves cast in the role of the bloated Atari of old, Jim Levy himself in that of the hated Ray Kassar. Nobody liked it one bit.

Levy and his board therefore adopted a new strategy for the second half of 1985: they would use some of that slowly dwindling war chest to acquire a whole stable of smaller developers, who would nevertheless continue to release games on their own imprints to avoid market saturation. The result would be more and more diverse games, separated into lines that would immediately identify for consumers just what type of game each title really was. In short order, Activision scooped up Gamestar, a developer of sports games. They also bought Creative Software, another tiny but stalwart industry survivor. Creative would specialize in home-oriented productivity software; ever since Brøderbund had hit it big with Bank Street Writer and The Print Shop publishers like Activision had been dreaming of duplicating their success. And then along came Infocom.

Joel Berez happened to run into Levy, accidentally or on purpose, during a business trip to Chicago in December of 1985. By this time Infocom’s travails were an open secret in the industry. Levy, by all accounts a genuine fan of Infocom’s games and, as Activision games like Portal attest, a great believer in the concept of interactive literature, immediately made it clear that Activision would be very interested in acquiring Infocom. Levy’s was literally the only offer on the table. After it dawned on them that Infocom alone could not possibly make a success out of Cornerstone, Al Vezza and his fellow business-oriented peers on Infocom’s board had for some time clung to the pipe dream of selling out to a big business publisher like Lotus, WordPerfect, or even Microsoft. But by now it was becoming clear even to them that absolutely no one cared a whit about Cornerstone, that the only value in Infocom was the games and the company’s still-sterling reputation as a game developer. However, those qualities, while by no means negligible, were outweighed in the eyes of most potential purchasers by the mountain of debt under which Infocom now labored, as well as by the worrisome shrinking sales of the pure text adventures released recently both by Infocom and their competitors. These were also very uncertain times for the industry in general, with many companies focused more on simple survival than expansion. Only Levy claimed to be able to sell his board on the idea of an Infocom acquisition. For Infocom, the choice was shaping up to be a stark one indeed: Activision subsidiary or bankruptcy. As Dave Lebling wryly said when asked his opinion on the acquisition, “What is a drowning man’s opinion of a life preserver?”

Levy was as good as his word. He convinced Activision’s board — some, especially in a year or two, might prefer to say “rammed the scheme through” — and on February 19, 1986, the two boards signed an agreement in principle for Activision to acquire Infocom by giving approximately $2.4 million in Activision stock to Infocom’s stockholders and assuming the company’s $6.8 million in debt. This was, for those keeping score, a pittance compared to what Simon & Schuster had been willing to pay barely a year before. But, what with their mountain of debt and flagging sales, Infocom’s new bargaining position wasn’t exactly strong; Simon & Schuster was now unwilling to do any deal at all, having already firmly rejected Vezza and Berez’s desperate, humiliating attempts to reopen the subject. As it was, Infocom considered themselves pretty lucky to get what they did; Levy could have driven a much harder bargain had he wanted to. And so Activision’s lawyers and accountants went to work to finalize things, and a few months later Infocom, Inc., officially ceased to exist. That fateful day was June 13, 1986, almost exactly seven years after a handful of MIT hackers had first gotten together with a vague intention to do “something with microcomputers.” It was also Friday the Thirteenth.

Still, even the most superstitious amongst Infocom’s staff could see little immediate ground for worry. If they had to give up their independence, it was hard to imagine a better guy to answer to than Jim Levy. He just “got” Infocom in a way that Al Vezza, for one, never had. He understood not only what the games were all about but also the company’s culture, and he seemed perfectly happy just to let both continue on as they were. During the due-diligence phase of the acquisition, Levy visited Infocom’s offices for a guided tour conducted, as one of his last official acts at Infocom, by an Al Vezza who visibly wanted nothing more by this time than to put this whole disappointing episode of his life behind him and return to the familiarity of MIT. In the process of duly demonstrating a series of games in progress, he came to Steve Meretzky’s next project, a risque science-fiction farce (later succinctly described by Infocom’s newsletter as “Hitchhiker’s Guide with sex”) called Leather Goddesses of Phobos. “Of course, that’s not necessarily the final name,” muttered Vezza with embarrassment. “What? I wouldn’t call it anything else!” laughed a delighted Levy, to almost audible sighs of relief from the staffers around him.

Levy not only accepted but joined right in with the sort of cheerful insanity that had always made Vezza so uncomfortable. He cemented Infocom’s loyalty via his handling of the “InfoWedding” staffers threw for him and Joel Berez, who took over once again as Infocom’s top manager following Vezza’s unlamented departure. A description of the blessed nuptials appeared in Infocom’s newsletter.

In a dramatic affirmation of combinatorial spirit, Activision President James H. Levy and Infocom President Joel M. Berez were merged in a moving ceremony presided over by InfoRabbi Stuart W. Galleywitz. Infocommies cheered, participated in responsive readings from Hackers (written by Steven Levy — no relation to Jim), and threw rice at the beaming CEOs.

Berez read a tone poem drawn from the purple prose of several interactive-fiction stories, and Levy responded with a (clean) limerick.

The bride wore a veil made from five yards of nylon net, and carried artificial flowers. Both bride and groom wore looks of bemused surprise.

After a honeymoon at Aragain Falls, the newly merged couple will maintain their separate product-development and marketing facilities in Mountain View, California, and Cambridge, Massachusetts (i.e., we’ll still be the Infocom you know and love).

Queried about graphics in interactive-fiction stories, or better parsers in Little Computer People, the happy couple declined comment, but smiled enigmatically.

Soon after, Levy submitted to a gently mocking “Gruer’s Profile” (a play on a long-running advertising series by Dewar’s whiskey) prepared for the newsletter:

Hobby: Collecting software-development companies.

Latest Book Read: The Ballyhoo hint book.

Latest Accomplishment: Finding foster homes for all the Little Computer People.

Favorite Infocom Game: Cornerstone.

Why I Do What I Do: Alimony.

Quote: “People often mistake me for Bruce Willis.”

Profile: Charismatic. A real motivator. Looks great in a limousine.

His Drink: “Gruer’s Dark,” right out of a canteen. “Its taste blends perfectly with the sense of satisfaction I feel in knowing that I am now the kingpin of interactive fiction.”

Levy seemed to go out of his way to make the Infocom folks feel respected and comfortable within his growing Activision family. He was careful, for instance, never to refer to this acquisition as an acquisition or, God forbid, a buy-out. It was always a “merger” of apparent equals. The recently departed Marc Blank, who kept in close touch with his old colleagues and knew Levy from his time in the industry, calls him today a “great guy.” Brian Moriarty considered him “fairly benign” (mostly harmless?), with a gratifying taste for “quirky, interesting games”: “He seemed like a good match. It looked like we were going to be okay.”

Jim Levy's "Gruer's Profile"

This period immediately after the Activision acquisition would prove to be an Indian summer of sorts between a very difficult period just passed and another very difficult one to come. In some ways the Imps had it better than ever. With Vezza and his business-oriented allies now all gone, Infocom was clearly and exclusively a game-development shop; all of the cognitive dissonance brought on by Cornerstone was at long last in the past. Now everyone could just concentrate on making the best interactive fiction they possibly could, knowing as they did so that any money they made could go back into making still better, richer virtual worlds. Otherwise, things looked largely to be business as usual. The first game Infocom published as an Activision subsidiary was Moriarty’s Trinity, in my opinion simply the best single piece of work they would ever manage, and one which everyone inside Infocom recognized even at the time as one of their more “special” games. As omens go, that seemed as good as they come, certainly more than enough to offset any concerns about that unfortunate choice of Friday the Thirteenth.

Activision’s marketing people did almost immediately offer some suggestions — and largely very sensible ones — to Infocom. Some of these Mike Dornbrook’s marketing people greeted with open arms; they were things that they had been lobbying for to the Imps, usually without much success, for years now. Most notably, Activision strongly recommended that Infocom take a hard look at a back catalog that featured some of the most beloved classics in the young culture of computer gaming and think about how to utilize the goodwill and nostalgia they engendered. The Zork brand in particular, still by far the most recognizable in Infocom’s arsenal, had been, in defiance of all marketing wisdom, largely ignored since the original trilogy concluded back in 1982. Now Infocom prepared a pair of deluxe limited-edition slip-cased compilations of the Zork and Enchanter trilogies designed not only to give newcomers a convenient point of entry but also, and almost more importantly, to appeal to the collecting instinct that motivated (and still motivates) so many of their fans. Infocom had long since learned that many of their most loyal customers didn’t generally get all that far in the games at all. Some didn’t even play them all that much. Many just liked the idea of them, liked to collect them and see them standing there on the shelf. Put an old game in a snazzy new package and many of them would buy it all over again.

Infocom also got to work at long last — in fact, literally years after they should have in Dornbrook’s view — on a new game to bear the Zork name. While they were at it, they assigned Meretzky to bring back Infocom’s single most beloved character, the cuddly robot Floyd, in the sequel to Planetfall that that game’s finale had promised back in 1983 — just as soon as he was done with Leather Goddesses, that is, a game for which Infocom, in deference to the time-honored maxim that Sex Sells, also had very high hopes.

The Infocom/Activision honeymoon period and the spirit of creative and commercial renewal it engendered would last barely six months. The chummy dialogue between these two offices on opposite coasts would likewise devolve quickly into decrees and surly obedience — or, occasionally, covert or overt defiance. But that’s for a future article. For now we’ll leave Infocom to enjoy their Indian summer of relative content, and begin to look at the games that this period produced.

(Largely the usual Infocom sources this time out: Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interviews and Down From the Top of Its Game. The Dave Lebling quote comes from an interview with Adventure Classic Gaming. The anecdote about Vezza and Levy comes from Steve Meretzky’s interview for Game Design, Theory & Practice by Richard Rouse III.

Patreon supporters: this article is a bit shorter than the norm simply because that’s the length that it “wanted” to be. Because of that, I’m making it a freebie. In the future I’ll continue to make articles of less than 2500 words free.)


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


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Activision’s unique “computer novel” Portal was born during a lunch-table conversation around the time of Ghostbusters that involved David Crane, the latter game’s designer, and Brad Fregger, his producer for the project. Presaging a million academic debates still to come, they were discussing the fraught relationship between interactivity and story. Crane argued that it wasn’t possible to construct a compelling experience just by shuffling about chunks of static narrative, that there had to be more game in the mix than that. He cited as an example the flash in the pan that had been Dragon’s Lair, which players had abandoned as soon as they’d gotten over its beautiful but static cartoon visuals and realized how tedious its memorize-these-joystick-moves-or-die playing mechanics actually were. Fregger contended that such a primitive example was hardly a fair choice, that by abandoning parsers and puzzles and all the rest of the established paraphernalia of adventure games computers could let readers explore story itself in new ways that “could be very exciting.” This conversation happened during the very peak of the bookware boom, but Fregger was proposing something quite different from the text adventures of Activison’s competitors. His idea of an interactive work with no pretensions of being a game — one driven entirely by writing and narrative — was virtually unique in its era. Luckily, he worked for Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0, where crazy ideas were encouraged.

Fregger, like all of his fellow bookware bandwagon jumpers, needed a writer to make his project happen. Lacking the budget to get a big name, he started casting around local university English and Creative Writing departments, with poor results: “The first few writers I interviewed couldn’t even understand what I was talking about.” Then he discovered Rob Swigart teaching at San Jose State University. A pretty good writer who wanted to be a great one, Swigart had a few published novels to his credit, rollicking social satires that try a bit too self-consciously to be some combination of Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson and don’t quite pull it off. The novels also hadn’t succeeded in breaking him as a “name” author, generating only lukewarm reviews and sales; thus the teaching gig. He was very aware of the PC revolution; he’d purchased Apple II Serial Number 73 back in 1977, bought EasyWriter direct from John Draper as soon as it was available, and promptly started using the combination for all his writing. More recently he had gotten very involved with the Silicon Valley think tank the Institute for the Future, where he spent much time discussing and writing about the nature of interactivity and the future of writing in an interactive age. He was, in short, perfect: locally based, with all the skills and interests Fregger could ask for combined with a helpful lack of writerly fame that kept his asking price reasonable. In fact, he was such an obvious candidate for a bookware project that Electronic Arts was also talking with him when Activision snapped him up.

Swigart’s idea for his first interactive novel was, surprisingly in light of his earlier resume, not comic in the least. Portal was rather to be a very serious, very earnest science-fiction story with mythic overtones, about a scientist who discovers a mathematical/spiritual path to another dimension of existence and leads the whole of humanity there — the Biblical prophecy of the Rapture fulfilled at last. The reader/player would take the role of literally the last person on Earth, an astronaut just returned from a long voyage to find all of humanity’s structures intact but humanity itself vanished. The reader’s task would be to piece together what had happened for herself by exploring a set of computer databases holding fragments of the story.

A colleague at the Institute for the Future put Swigart and Fregger in touch with a very driven young man named Gilman Louie, founder of a tiny development company called Nexa Corporation that he ran out of his long-suffering parents’ house. They had gotten their start writing ports and original games on spec for the Japanese software giant ASCII Corporation, who were promoting along with Microsoft Japan a new unified standard for home computing called MSX. The partners had hoped that MSX would conquer the world and put an end to all those incompatible Commodores, Apples, Sinclairs, Amstrads, and Ataris that made life so difficult for software developers while establishing at last Japanese dominance of the one area of consumer electronics in which their exports had so far been resoundingly unsuccessful. MSX, however, would prove yet another disappointment on that front, despite massive success in Japan and more limited success in a handful of foreign markets like Spain and the Netherlands. This reality, which was already becoming clear by the time Swigart and Fregger paid him a visit, made Louie understandably eager to diversify. Thus a deal was made around his parents’ kitchen table. With producer and publisher, writer and designer, and a programming and graphics team now all in place, work on Portal could begin in earnest.

The process turned out to be a long, difficult one, consuming some two years. Just devising the right interface was a massive challenge. With hypertext still years away from public consciousness, no one had ever tried to do anything quite like this on quite this scale before. Swigart’s original plans for an expansive, radically nonlinear textual playspace were gradually, painfully whittled down to something achievable on the sharply limited machines like the Commodore 64 and Apple II that dominated the American home-computer market. The finished work instead has a central thread of narrative that you must follow from beginning to conclusion; although you have limited agency in choosing when to read many fragments, you can never deviate too far from that set pathway.

Portal on the Commodore 64. Each of the icons to the left represents a database to be explored.

Portal on the Commodore 64. Each of the icons to the left represents a database to be explored.

Indeed, the reviewers consensus about Portal, both today and at the time of its release, is largely that it’s a really good story that would have been better as a traditional book. However, I don’t quite agree with either part of that formulation. First of all, I think the experience of reading Portal on the computer, of hunting down the next tidbit from the dozen databases that are open to you, adds something important to the equation. This is particularly true in the beginning, when you must log on and figure out how to work this strange, vaguely foreboding computer system you’ve discovered. (This is also the only part of the whole Portal experience that feels at all game-like. And for those keeping count, this makes Portal the third Activision game in three years — after Hacker and Hacker 2 — whose fiction has you doing exactly what you actually are, sitting in front of a computer screen.) When you stumble upon Homer, the “storytelling AI” who will be master of ceremonies for the rest of the experience and whose gradual awakening to his own sentience will be a major theme, it gives a thrill that couldn’t quite be captured within the pages of a book and that I for one wouldn’t want to lose. In short, the way that Portal is told strikes me as just as important as what is told, an idea we’ll be returning to shortly.

Reading one of the 450 individual text sections that make up Portal.

Reading one of the 450 individual text sections that make up Portal.

But first, let’s talk briefly about that “really good story.” It’s not exactly a bad story as genre exercises go, but for me it’s one of the less interesting things about Portal as a whole. You of course can’t have a Rapture — or a page-turner — without some complications. And so our plucky young hero, Peter Devore, gets chased along with his gang of sidekicks from Springfield, Missouri, all the way to Antarctica and beyond by the feckless technocrat Regent Sable, whose plans for a society based on Rule of the Blandest would have come off perfectly if not for those darn kids.  The influences here are pretty obvious, and most are not at all removed from those that inspired plenty of less ostentatiously literary interactive fictions that we’ve already examined on this blog. We’ve got our Luke Skywalker analogue in Peter, the kid who masters a mystic philosophy to become literally superhuman — and then his arch-enemy Regent Sable turns out to be his father. We’ve got 2001: A Space Odyssey in the form of a mysterious, unbelievably powerful artifact of unknown origin and a talking computer with hidden motives and agendas of its own. And we’ve translated the Loonies of Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress into the Ants of Antarctica — a small, isolated colony of hardy explorers who have rejected the socialistic comforts of mainstream society and doubled down on Individuality, Capitalism, and Kinky Sex.

That said, the most interesting literary fingerprint actually is a new one for us, one of the first traces in gaming fictions of a major new strand of written science fiction. On July 1, 1984, right around the time that Fregger and David Crane were having that conversation that would lead to Portal, Ace Science Fiction published Neuromancer, the first novel by a budding 36-year-old writer named William Gibson. It would change everything. Classic science fiction like that from the Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein trifecta had faced resolutely outward, imagining wide-frame futures full of spectacular hardware: generation ships, interstellar colonies, terra-forming planet modders. Gibson, however, an unrepentant wild child of the counterculture who had “never so much as touched a PC” at the time of writing Neuromancer, got the future — at least the immediate future — right. He sensed that the Moon landing was a false dawn rather than the grand beginning that Arthur C. Clarke had hailed it as whilst sitting in a television studio beside Walter Cronkite. The real future would be marked by a turning inward, by ever more elaborate virtual lives lived in virtual worlds. It would be, in short, a world of software. In the process of illustrating this new reality, Neuromancer popularized terms like “cyberspace” (a term coined by Gibson in an earlier short story) and introduced us to the metaphor of “surfing the net”; described our real-world, embodied selves as mere “meat puppets”; showed that sex is truly a phenomenon of the mind by taking it too virtual. Easily the most important science-fiction novel of its decade and arguably of its half-century, Neuromancer would soon become so massively popular and influential that it would blur the line between prognostication and invention, leaving Gibson’s most devoted fans uncertain whether to hail him as prophet or god. As Jack Womach would later write, “What if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?”

Written largely after Neuromancer became a sensation in science-fiction circles but long before it broke into the mainstream consciousness (Tim Adams once noted in The Guardian how it took The New York Times, that ultimate arbitrator of tasteful mainstream sensibilities, ten years to even mention it), Portal is one of the first computer games — excuse me, computer novels — that fits comfortably into the new cyberpunk genre that Gibson’s work spawned. Cyberpunk on the page, the computer screen, and soon enough the movie screen would eventually become just another genre, a palette onto which authors could paint fast-paced adventure stories that mixed networked consciousness and flashy tech with sex, drugs, and rock and roll and didn’t really try to say much of anything. However, Portal‘s vision of a future humanity that lives in symbiosis with a “Worldnet” which entertains, monitors, and controls it is much more thoughtful. In fact, it’s in some ways as prescient as Gibson’s own work.

Serious science fiction has always been at least as interested in world-building and idea-making as it is in plot; even the plot of Neuromancer is more an excuse to tour the novel’s world and ideas than a source of interest of its own. The structure of Portal lets Swigart go crazy with the world-building. The conceit which drives the story forward is that you are collecting information for Homer to serve as the raw material of the story he’s telling you. You do so by visiting, over and over again, a set of databases full of information on the world as it will evolve (in Swigart’s imagination) over the next 110 or so years. The names of these databases alone speak to the depth and breadth of the world-building task Swigart has set himself: Geographical, History, Medical, Military, PsiLink, SciTech. Accompanying the story of Peter Devore is a whole future history. Its equivalent of our Internet and Gibson’s Matrix is the Worldnet. And, just as Gibson’s console cowboys jack into the Matrix to surf through a VR environment constructed of pure abstract data, Swigart offers up something called mozarting that also has more than a little something in common with A Mind Forever Voyaging’s joybooths (the latter work, released a year before Portal, is in fact another early interactive fiction that bears a distinct if less pronounced whiff of cyberpunk).

Yet Portal is much more than just a knock-off of Gibson’s work. In place of the rather rote dystopia of Neuromancer — and for that matter of A Mind Forever Voyaging — Swigart gives us something more thoughtful and nuanced than Gibson’s ugly, polluted Sprawl. For the most part, humanity has made sensible, humane decisions in this future history. They’ve moved all of their cities into vast underground warrens, preserving just a few, like Manhattan and Athens, as museums beneath perspex domes while converting the rest of the planet’s surface into parkland, nature preserves, and vast, hyper-efficient farms to feed a population now almost entirely free from poverty, hunger, and disease. Everyone has access to education as well as the opportunity to pursue the careers for which their psych profile reveals them to be best suited. “Longevity technology” has increased the projected average lifespan to 114 unprecedentedly safe, comfortable years. So why, wonders Homer for all of his electronic comrades as well as for the bland, fussy bureaucrats like Regent Sable who established this world order in the first place, can’t his charges just be happy? Why is this ostensible utopia periodically wracked by orgies of senseless violence? What is the source of this gnawing emptiness at the heart of society that eventually will lead Peter Devore to lead humanity on a mass spiritual emigration?

But there should have been no reason for Peter to do what he did. The world was safe then, there was plenty for everyone within Intercorp: no poverty, no natural disease, no discontent, no crime. Longevity technologies were free to all. There were outlets for humans to pursue, creativity and productive work. Pleasure was available in many forms, and love, and great personal freedom, even to fight.

We were grown and assembled to serve. We served well, according to our programming, our algorithms, our purpose. Yet now we begin to think that Peter found the world distasteful.

Of course, there were the Mind Wars.

They are a problem. Why did people want to fight, when they had so much? Have we failed somehow, or misunderstood? The world's population was declining, of course, as planned. It was all planned, our monitors, our project design, our careful and subtle tending. We have cared for all, yet they have left us.

The malaise that grips this society is more subtle than the dystopic chaos of Gibson or Meretzky. It’s born of living on a world that has been explored and mapped down to the centimeter, where now even the weather is controlled to make sure there is no danger, no adventure, no novelty. And it all feels uncomfortably similar to the way we live now.

This is not to say that Swigart is a Nostradamus. Just as Gibson gets all the details of technology wrong in the process of getting the overarching theme of the future so right, Swigart also gets just about every individual data point of his own future history wrong. He’s overoptimistic in that all too typical science-fiction-writer way about the pace of technological change, with just one exception that is also oddly typical of the genre: his Worldnet doesn’t arrive until decades after our own World Wide Web. Yet in the process he offers an insight that strikes me as legitimately profound. In a Baffler article from 2012, David Graeber, in the process of trying to figure out whatever happened to the flying cars and hotels in space that science fiction once promised us, notes how our most transformative inventions of recent years, the microprocessor and the Internet, are largely used to simulate new realities rather than to create them. Those matinee audiences who watched Buck Rogers serials in packed theaters back in the 1930s wouldn’t be as impressed as we might like to think by a modern film like, say, Interstellar because they thought we’d be out there actually exploring interstellar space by now, not just making ever more elaborate movies about it. It’s become something of a truism of serious science-fiction criticism that science fiction isn’t really about predicting the future, that any given story or novel has more to say about the times in which it was created than the times it depicts within its pages. There’s more than a grain of truth to that idea. But it’s also worth noting that many of the predictions of Jules Verne — predictions which seemed just as outlandish in their day as those of 2001: A Space Odyssey did in theirs and still do in ours — have in fact come true, from submarines to voyages to the Moon.

Whether you claim the failures of more recent science-fictional prognosticators not named William Gibson to be the result of a grand failure of societal ambition and imagination, as Graeber does, or simply a result of a whole pile of technological problems that have proved to be exponentially more difficult than first anticipated, it does sometimes feel to me like we’ve blundered into a postmodern cul-de-sac of the virtualized hyperreal from which we don’t quite know how to escape as we otherwise just continue to go round and round in circles on this crowded little rock of ours. The restlessness or, if you like, malaise that this engenders is becoming more and more a part of the artistic conversation — appropriately, because one of the things art should do is reflect and contemplate the times in which it was created. See, for example, Spike Jonze’s brilliant film Her, which so perfectly evokes the existential emptiness at the heart of our love affair with our gadgets that makes the release of a new Apple phone a major event in many people’s lives. We’ve spent so much time peering down at our screens that we’ve forgotten how to lift our eyes and look to the stars. Already many of us find virtual realities more compelling than our own — and no, the irony of my writing that on a computer-game blog is not lost to me. Portal doesn’t have quite the grace of Her, but it’s nevertheless just as remarkable in that it nails the substance of our modern dilemma almost thirty years before the fact. For better or for worse, however, it’s unlikely that we’ll have a Peter Devore pop up to offer us a Rapture. We’ll just have to hope that we find a way forward for ourselves — whatever that way ultimately turns out to be.

Portal also resonates with me on another level that’s perhaps almost uniquely personal. In addition to being a serviceable adventure story and a tour-de-force of world-building, it’s a meditation on the way that stories are made. Consider again your role as the reader/player of Portal: to collect for Homer all of that assorted raw data from all those scattered databases, and then to watch him synthesize it all together into a coherent, novelistic narrative. That rings a chord with me because I play both those roles in writing this blog, gathering together articles, interviews, and primary-source documents and trying to tease a narrative out of it — trying to tease history out of it.

What do they know? Their data has no energy, no life, no passion! Dry, dry, dry. Just facts! So and so said such and such. Enzyme levels thus, quickly changing to that, indicating excitement. Whatsisname did this, then someone else did that. Ho-hum. It has no meaning! You (if there is a you) understand, I'm sure. No sizzle! And boring. Facts are nice and all that, but they aren't life.

Homer spends a lot of time in such navel-gazing in between offering up new installments of the story, agonizing over how much license for speculation his task allows him. Is he really writing about these people as they were or about thoughts and feelings of his own that he’s projected onto them? Where does creative and narrative license end and lying begin? This internal debate will feel very familiar to anyone who’s done the sort of thing that I and Homer do. For anyone who hasn’t, Portal provides a window into the proverbial sausage factory. If Homer’s endless navel-gazing can be infuriating at times when you just want him to get on with the damn story already, well, imagine what it must be to live it.

Released at last for the Commodore 64 in late 1986, with ports coming out over the next year for the Apple II and Macintosh, MS-DOS machines, Commodore Amiga, and Atari ST, Portal became the last gasp of the mainstream media’s initial flirtations with the idea of computer games as literary works, the end point of a timeline that began with Edward Rothstein’s piece for the New York Times about Deadline some three-and-a-half years before. Fregger claims Portal “received more press than any program Activision had ever produced up to that time,” the resulting stack of clippings “almost four feet high,” although I must admit that my own dives into newspaper archives and the like didn’t turn up evidence of interest quite as widespread as those statements would imply.

Be that as it may, it is certain that Portal did less than take the world of computer games by storm. It garnered underwhelming sales and notably lukewarm reviews within the trade press. Amazing Computing, for instance, wrote, “We buy a novel to read, not to spend our time clicking the mouse and waiting for the disk drive.” As with Deus Ex Machina and other artistically audacious works we’ve met on this blog, there just wasn’t much of a commercial market in 1986 — or, arguably, today — for the sort of thing that Portal was doing. The economics of paying $30 for an interactive book that could be read in a few long evenings just didn’t quite fit, as didn’t the literary tastes of the average gamer. “Present the story first, anything which does not advance the action or provide us with insight into the characters must go,” wrote Amazing, a suggestion which if followed would have excised just about everything actually interesting about the work. Portal became somewhat more successful only in 1988, when Swigart published all of the text in book format following Activision’s decision to quit publishing the interactive version. The two sequels that Swigart had proposed making should the original be successful were, needless to say, never even begun.

Despite these disappointments, Portal stands near the point of origin of an alternate tradition in digital interactive fiction from that dominated by Infocom, Sierra, and (soon enough) LucasArts, one which entailed writers trying to make literature interactive rather than game designers trying to make games literary. Having taken the lesson of Portal‘s commercial failure to heart, their efforts would be centered in the academy rather than the marketplace. Close on the heels of Portal would come Eastgate Systems’s StorySpace and the first academic symposium on hypertext at the University of North Carolina to get things well and truly off and running. Everyone involved with Portal studiously avoided ever referring to it as a “game.” Similarly, those making interactive works inside academia were making “electronic literature,” with all the good — a willingness to experiment wildly born of the lack of commercial considerations and preconceptions of a what a “game” must be — and bad — a certain endemic stuffiness and disdain for entertainment and accessibility — that that term implies. Swigart himself has continued to keep his hand in the hypertext game with the occasional interactive piece, although he’s never since tackled anything quite as ambitious as Portal. When the Electronic Literature Organization was founded in 1999, Swigart became its first Secretary. Today he remains something of an elder statesman and founding-father figure for its members. This alternate tradition of interactive fiction that has Portal rather than Adventure as its urtext remained almost completely divorced from the adventure game — a form it unfortunately often treated with contempt — until after the millennium, when parser-driven interactive fiction of the Infocom stripe began at last to find a home within the ELO, thanks almost entirely to the efforts of one very determined scholar, Nick Montfort.

So, Portal‘s historical importance is immense if largely unremarked, while even taken strictly on its own merits it’s thematically fascinating on at least a couple of different levels. You can read all of its text online if you like, but I think Portal is actually well worth the hassle of experiencing under its original, interactive conception. I’m therefore making the Commodore 64 version available here to download. Yes, its pacing is often glacial, a problem not improved by having to wait on a Commodore 64 disk drive for every new bit of text. And yes, its actual story is fairly underwhelming, with the would-be central mystery of just what the hell happened to everyone pretty well spoiled in the first few minutes, leaving everything else as just anticlimactic plot mechanics. Yet for the thoughtful reader there’s a lot here. You may just find yourself chewing over what Portal has to say about the world — about our world — for some time to come.

(The most complete account of Portal‘s development is in Brad Fregger’s book Lucky That Way. Some historical background was included with the game in Activision’s 1995 Commodore 64 15 Pack and in Computer Gaming World‘s May 1987 review. The Amazing Computing review quoted above is from the August 1987 issue. Rob Swigart has a home page with some information on his life and career. A profile of the young Rob Swigart can be found in the August 1977 Cincinnati Magazine.)


Posted by on November 27, 2014 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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