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A Busy 1979

To say Scott Adams had a productive 1979 doesn’t begin to tell the half of it. For starters, he released a rather staggering six complete new games: Mission Impossible, Voodoo Castle, The Count, Strange Odyssey, Mystery Fun House, and Pyramid of Doom. Of these, four were the sole work of Adams himself.

Voodoo Castle and The Count advertisement

Mission Impossible advertisement

Mysert Fun House advertisement

Strange Odyssey advertisement

Pyramid of Doom advertisement

Voodo Castle was credited to Adams’s then-wife, Alexis. Still, the real situation there is muddled, as Adams has tended to downplay her contribution in recent interviews, saying that she was responsible only for the broadest strokes, leaving him to do most of the writing and all of the programming. What with the passage of years and the difficult feelings that accompany any divorce, it’s probably not possible to know anymore whether Alexis Adams deserves to be credited as the first female adventure-game designer, beating Roberta Williams to the punch by more than a year.

More definite is the contribution of Alvin Files to Pyramid of Doom. Working independently, with no access to source code or design documents, Files reverse-engineered Adams’s adventure-game engine, created a game of his own using it, and sent the result to Adams himself, who tweaked it a bit and released it as Adventure #8, which he acknowledges to be “90 percent” Files’s original work. Pyramid of Doom was released around October of 1979, but an early sign of the budding relationship can be seen in that summer’s The Count, which is “dedicated to Alvin Files.”

Alvin Files dedication in The Count

In sorting out this chronology via magazines and other primary-source documents, I was quite surprised to realize that fully two-thirds of what has come to be regarded (somewhat arbitrarily) as the canonical dozen Scott Adams adventures were created before Adams’s company, Adventure International, was even founded. Said founding occurred just before the end of the year, by which time Adams was already involved in another important step: porting his adventure engine to run on other microcomputer platforms. The logical first target for these efforts was the Apple II, the second most popular machine in 1979, but within a few years the explosion of incompatible machines and Adams’s dedication to supporting as many of them as possible would bring the games to at least a dozen different platforms. While 1979 wasn’t yet the year that adventure games broke really big, it was the year that Adams laid the groundwork for their doing so, for the changing of the calendar left him poised with a new company, a portable adventure-game engine, and a nice catalog of already extant games in a wide variety of genres. He had even created a stripped-down “sampler” version of Adventureland for those looking to test these new waters.

Even on the good old TRS-80 Adams made major technical improvements. At the apparent urging of Lance Micklus, he reimplemented his interpreter using assembly language rather than BASIC between the release of Mission Impossible in the spring of 1979 and Voodoo Castle and The Count that summer, bringing enormous speed improvements. He also implemented a new display system that would become something of a trademark, with the current room description and contents always displayed in a separate, non-scrolling “window” in the upper half of the screen. Given the TRS-80’s 64-character by 16-line display and the attendant tendency for everything of interest to scroll away in no time, this amounted to a major convenience. The new interpreter even supported lower-case output, although prose style, grammar, and even spelling remained all too obviously not a big priority. With these improvements the new system, which was quickly retrofitted back into the first three games as well, made TRS-80 adventuring a much more pleasant experience.

But what of the content of the games themselves? Well, both their limited engine and the torrid pace at which Adams cranked them out acted as a necessary limit on their scope of possibility, but there are some new developments worth talking about. Chief among them is the element of time. Both the original Adventure and Adventureland had of course required close attention to time management thanks to their expiring light sources, but Mission: Impossible introduced the element in a more plot-centric way, in the form of a ticking time-bomb that threatened to destroy a nuclear power plant. And two games on from that we have The Count, a game that is about as conceptually ambitious as Adams would ever get and a significant step forward for the text adventure as a storytelling medium. I’ll look at The Count, by far the most interesting of these six efforts, in some detail next time.

 

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Adventureland, Part 2

The idea of a computer program as a salable artifact that one purchases like one would a book or record album was still quite a new one in 1978. In the world of institutional computing, commercial software was largely confined to operating systems and the most complicated, critical applications such as compilers, and was created and sold by the same companies that produced the hardware on which it ran; TOPS-10 was a product of DEC itself, Time-Shared BASIC a product of Hewlett-Packard, etc. These programs were sold not as individual products with fixed price tags, but rather negotiated as part of complicated contracts that also involved the hardware to run them and the personnel to support them. Software created by end-users of these machines was often so specialized as to be useless outside of the site where it was created, and where this was not the case was distributed freely. Since there was no real commercial market for stand-alone software, there was no incentive to do anything else.

That began to change virtually from the moment that the microcomputer age began. The first piece of standalone microcomputer commercial software was created by the company that would (for better or for worse) become synonymous with the closed-source commercial model of software distribution: Microsoft. That company’s first product, created in 1975 while Bill Gates and Paul Allen were still scruffy university students, was a version of BASIC sold on paper tape for the Altair 8800 kit computer. On February 3, 1976, Gates sent an “open letter to hobbyists” that has since become famous. In it he derided the widespread copying of Microsoft’s software, noting that, while seemingly every Altair owner was using BASIC, fewer than 10% had actually bought it, and claiming that he and Allen’s financial reward for their time spent developing it amounted to less than $2.00 per hour. Hobbyists reacted to the letter with surprise and a fair amount of outrage. It’s probably fair to say that the concept of software that was not free distributable, and thus the very idea of software “piracy,” had never occurred to them, so antithetical was it to the ethos of sharing and open information exchange of places like the Homebrew Computer Club. One Jim Warren replied:

There is a valid alternative to the problems raised by Bill Gates in his irate letter to computer hobbyists concerning “ripping off” software. When software is free, or so inexpensive that it’s easier to pay for it than to duplicate it, then it won’t be “stolen.”

Note the use of quotations around “ripping off” and “stolen,” as if these concepts in relation to software are farcical. The debate touched off by Gates and Warren still rages to this day. It’s also a morass I know better than to wade into here. Suffice to say that after Altair BASIC the proverbial cat was out of the bag, and software distribution was changed forever.

As I noted in an earlier post, Radio Shack was wise enough to realize that good software support was very important to the success of its new computer (an obvious fact that Commodore, among others, never seemed to fully grasp). Since almost all TRS-80s were sold from Radio Shack stores, the company had a great opportunity to create that support by encouraging submissions from hobbyists programmers and selling the best right alongside the computers themselves. It’s therefore kind of odd that most of the best and most interesting TRS-80 programs were not published by Radio Shack. Presumably the drawbacks of dealing with a huge, faceless corporation’s acquisitions department outweighed the distribution advantages.

The main facilitator of software distribution in this era was instead rather surprising: the magazines. Creative Computing had of course been publishing program listings in BASIC for years before the arrival of the TRS-80 and its competitors, and continued to do so now. And with an October, 1978, issue SoftSide magazine, the first TRS-80-specific magazine and I believe the first platform-specific magazine of any stripe, began publication with this mission statement:

Our intention is to publish software — and lots of it, free for the transcription. Every month we will offer programs for business, games, programs with household applications, even educational programs for children that will allow your home computer to become the educational aid we always knew it could be. Our content will be as diverse and unique as our featured programs’ writers.

Of course, that “transcription” made for one hell of a pain; laboriously typing in the hundreds of lines of code for some of the surprisingly complex programs that SoftSide published was No Fun, no matter how enamored you were with your new computer — and that’s not even considering the subtle bugs that could be introduced by getting a letter or a digit wrong here or there. Therefore SoftSide also sold an optional accompanying cassette for each issue, which contained all the programs published therein.

But that was only the beginning. Even before the birth of the magazine, SoftSide‘s publishers had formed The TRS-80 Software Exchange as a distribution organ for commercial software. In fact, the cynical might say that they formed Softside largely to promote TSE; each issue devoted a considerable number of pages to catalog listings of TSE’s titles, with the most commercially promising also being accorded individual half- or full-page spreads. In a sense, TSE was one of the first software publishers — but only in a sense. Publishing with TSE carried an advantage developers would kill for today:

You retain the rights to the programs you worked so hard to write. If your programs don’t sell, you don’t make money, so why tie up your software with an exclusive contract? With SoftSide, you’re free to market through us, and still sell your programs privately or through other non-exclusive arrangements. We prefer to let our performance be the only “tie that binds.”

What a deal, eh? No wonder so many hobbyists programmers desperate to get their programs into the hands of the masses and earn a little scratch along the way rushed to send in their creations. Scott Adams was among them; even before coding Adventureland he released a “3D tic-tac-toe” and a backgammon game through TSE. And like many others, he took full advantage of TSE’s generous terms by releasing as well through Creative Computing Software, a similar organ set up by that magazine, and also by selling what he could on his own. (For some fun anecdotes about what that was like, check out Matt Barton’s interview with Adams.) All of this occurred fully a year before Adams founded Adventure International, a real software publisher of his own. Adventureland first appeared in SoftSide‘s January, 1979, issue, being sold for $24.95 in tandem with a second adventure Scott had already written by that time with his then-wife, Alexis. Called Pirate Adventure, this game is both easier and more fondly remembered by most players than Adventureland itself.

It’s amusing to look back today on how naive and clumsy the early commercial game market was. Adams and TSE can’t even seem to settle on a name. In addition to its (presumably) real name, Adventureland appears in TSE advertisements as simply Adventure (now that’s a recipe for confusion!) or, my favorite, the evocative and enticing Land Adventure. (Well, I guess it’s factually accurate…) The second game, meanwhile, vacillates among Pirate Adventure, Pirate’s Adventure, and Pirate’s Cove.

But none of that mattered a jot. Adams’s adventures were absolutely unique, and they were being sold into a growing market hungry for interesting and entertaining new games. Most TRS-80 owners had no access to the large institutional machines that ran the original Adventure, making Adams’s games their first exposure to the form, the bridge that brought the innovations of Crowther and Woods to the burgeoning world of home computing. Like all those PDP-10 hackers, once they had solved Adams’s games many TRS-80 programmers started thinking about how to create their own. And so a genre was well and truly born.

 
 

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Adventureland, Part 1

Scott Adams occupies an odd position in interactive fiction in that he tends to get more love from those outside the active modern community than from those within it. Every year brings one or two fawning interviews with the always obliging Mr. Adams on mainstream or retro-gaming sites. Within the IF community, however, Adams’s works are usually mentioned, if at all, only as historical curiosities, and certainly aren’t accorded even a sliver of the respect given to the Infocom canon, outside of a handful of reactionary voices who declare this lack of respect for Adams’s simplistic but fun games to be symptomatic of the general literary pretensions of the community as a whole that have made the modern text adventure a No Fun Allowed zone. (For a classic and entertaining rant in this vein, see the discussion page of the Adventureland Wikipedia entry.) Further confusing the issue is an unfortunate if blessedly only occasional tendency toward self-aggrandizement on Adams’s own part, such as the FAQ entry on his home page that states he is “credited [by whom?] with starting the entire multi billion dollar a year computer game industry.” “Helping to start” I would be fine with, but as it stands… really, Scott? You singlehandedly started the computer-game industry?

Still, Adams does deserve more credit and respect than he generally receives within community circles for bringing text adventures into homes for the first time and, not incidentally, showing that one could make a pretty good living from the things. His creation of a playable adventure game on a TRS-80 with just 16 K of RAM and a cassette drive was conceptually audacious and technically impressive, and that he did it in the slow, inefficient TRS-80 BASIC just made it even more remarkable. Adams’s greatest failing in the long run was perhaps his inability to make the transition from treasure-hunting text adventures to the more sophisticated storytelling of Infocom’s interactive fiction, as evidenced by his seeming disinterest in improving the core technology of his games beyond gilding these simplistic lillies with graphics and colors. But that’s material for later posts. Today I want to talk about Adams’s initial masterstroke, Adventureland.

Born in 1952, Adams already had extensive professional experience with computers before he created Adventureland in 1978, having majored in the field at the Florida Institute of Technology, worked with computers during a stint in the Navy, and found employment thereafter with Stromberg-Carlson, an early manufacturer of telephone PBX equipment, as a programmer. Adams had also been building and experimenting with microcomputers in his home since 1975, when he built a Sphere 1 from a kit. Beginning with a tic-tac-toe game which “could never lose,” his main activity with these machines had been writing and playing games. Like so many other hackers, he was entranced when Adventure turned up on the computer at his workplace, and, also like so many others, after completing it at last he turned his attention to writing his own. But unlike the others, who did their work on big institutional computers, Adams chose the little TRS-80 as his target platform.

Adams did not set out with grand ideas about bringing interactive narrative to the masses. In standard hacker fashion, he was drawn to the project as an interesting technical challenge in light of the constraints of the TRS-80, and as a chance to work extensively with text, something he hadn’t done previously. As an experienced programmer, Adams shared most hackers’ preference for creating robust, reusable systems and tools in lieu of one-off programs, and so began working not so much on an adventure game as on a reusable adventure implementation system. He thus divided the project into three parts: a database editor of sorts to let him input the data that would make up the virtual world of each game, an interpreter to read in that data and let the player interact with it, and finally the data that made up the game itself.

It’s a remarkable system, but it also should be understood that Adams did not create a full-fledged virtual machine in the sense of Infocom’s later Z-Machine. While the interpreter does indeed read in the details of rooms, objects, etc., much functionality is hard-coded into the BASIC interpreter. The engine, for instance, assumes that gameplay will revolve around gathering a collection of objects (treasures) and dropping them back in a certain location. Any but the most basic modifications to the Adventureland game will also require modifying the code of the interpreter, if only because the name of the game itself and instructions for play are hard-coded there.

It’s really a hybrid system, surprisingly similar in its construction to Adventure itself, which also divided its functionality between the program code and a data file.

In fact, having just played through the original Adventureland I’m struck by how many similarities it bears to its predecessor. Like Adventure, Adventureland is a plot-less treasure hunt that begins above-ground in a forest.

Adventureland‘s wilderness area is actually larger and more interesting than Adventure‘s, containing a number of puzzles in its own right beyond the obvious one of finding one’s way underground. Its underground complex is, however, vastly smaller, as one would expect given the constraints Adams was working under. This is not entirely to the game’s disadvantage, as Adams’s inability to indulge himself with dozens of empty locations keeps things much more tightly focused and manageable for the player; the obligatory maze, for example, consists of a modest six rooms, a marked and welcome contrast to Adventure‘s monstrosities.

Which is not to say that Adventureland is exactly playable, at least by modern standards. The above-ground areas are filled with the usual non-reversable room connections that make mapping and navigation a non-intuitive pain, redeemed (once again) only by the fact that there are so few locations in all. The logistics of light sources and inventory management are once again a big part of the challenge, and there are heaps of ways to screw up and make the game unwinnable, many unhinted at before they happen. To understand the full cruelty of this, you have to put yourself in the shoes of someone playing the game on an actual TRS-80, where it is only possible to restore a saved position by restarting the game entirely from cassette, a process that takes about 25 minutes. Saving a game, meanwhile, takes over 4 minutes. No wonder Adams could advertise that Adventureland would take weeks or months to complete! What he didn’t mention was that in addition to a TRS-80 it would require the patience of Job…

I notice the same dichotomy in Adventureland‘s puzzles that I wrote about with respect to Adventure‘s: most are either very straightforward and commonsensical or unfair to the point of absurdity, with only a few occupying a satisfying middle ground. Also like Adventure, Adventureland is surprisingly progressive in some ways, managing to shoehorn a fair number of hints into its 16 K, but also leaves some of its worst offending puzzles totally unclued. An example is the bear puzzle (a character whose presence is yet another echo of Adventure). He is blocking your way, and can be moved only by the completely unmotivated action of YELLing. Later versions did allow the player to SCREAM at the bear (see Grunion Guy’s review for an hilarious anecdote related to that), but in this original version it was YELLing or nothing.

To make this puzzle even worse, the bear is described as “looking hungry.” This naturally leads the player to want to feed him the honey which she can find elsewhere in the game, which in fact works — except that said honey is also a treasure (?!) she needs to collect to finish the game. Not only is all this supremely cruel, but, just to make it all worse, the false solution actually makes for a much fairer and more satisfying puzzle than the correct one.

Granted, Adventureland‘s extremely primitive parser and world model do once again perhaps make it difficult to build really challenging puzzles that don’t spill over into unfairness. Its implementation of the THROW verb is quite interesting, as it already shows Adams struggling with the limitations of his two-word parser.

It’s not really fair to judge Adventureland‘s text by literary standards, since every “the” and “a” use precious memory (and thus were often dropped entirely). Still, Adams does at times achieve a sort of minimalist poetry.

He does have some issues with spelling…

…but there’s a sort of goofy charm about the whole experience…

…which finally comes down to this.

And that’s about all there is to say about it, really. There are no advances over the treasure-hunt template laid down by Adventure, but Adventureland is an impressive achievement merely for existing, and even today is still kind of fun in its simple way.

If you’d like to play it for yourself, there are plenty of ways to do so, the most accessible of which is a browser-based Java version at FreeArcade. Scott Adams himself hosts downloadable versions on his website. Or, if you want the most authentic experience possible, I have a MESS TRS-80 saved state that will let you play the original BASIC version on its original (virtual) hardware. (See my notes on MESS TRS-80 emulation to get started.)

Next time I’ll talk about Adventureland‘s marketing and reception and the TRS-80 adventure-game craze it started.

 

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