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The 68000 Wars, Part 5: The Age of Multimedia

A group of engineers from Commodore dropped in unannounced on the monthly meeting of the San Diego Amiga Users Group in April of 1988. They said they were on their way to West Germany with some important new technology to share with their European colleagues. With a few hours to spare before they had to catch their flight, they’d decided to share it with the user group’s members as well.

They had with them nothing less than the machine that would soon be released as the next-generation Amiga: the Amiga 3000. From the moment they powered it up to display the familiar Workbench startup icon re-imagined as a three-dimensional ray-traced rendering, the crowd was in awe. The new model sported a 68020 processor running at more than twice the clock speed of the old 68000, with a set of custom chips redesigned to match its throughput; graphics in 2 million colors instead of 4096, shown at non-interlaced — read, non-flickering — resolutions of 640 X 400 and beyond; an AmigaOS 2.0 Workbench that looked far more professional than the garish version 1.3 that was shipping with current Amigas. The crowd was just getting warmed up when the team said they had to run. They did, after all, have a plane to catch.

Word spread like crazy over the online services. Calls poured in to Commodore’s headquarters in West Chester, Pennsylvania, but they didn’t seem to know what any of the callers were talking about. Clearly this must be a very top-secret project; the engineering team must have committed a major breach of protocol by jumping the gun as they had. Who would have dreamed that Commodore was already in the final stages of a project which the Amiga community had been begging them just to get started on?

Who indeed? The whole thing was a lie. The tip-off was right there in the April date of the San Diego Users Group Meeting. The president of the group, along with a few co-conspirators, had taken a Macintosh II motherboard and shoehorned it into an Amiga 2000 case. They’d had “Amiga 3000” labels typeset and stuck them on the case, and created some reasonable-looking renderings of Amiga applications, just enough to get them through the brief amount of time their team of “Commodore engineers” — actually people from the nearby Los Angeles Amiga Users Group — would spend presenting the package. When the truth came out, some in the Amiga community congratulated the culprits for a prank well-played, while others were predictably outraged. What hurt more than the fact that they had been fooled was the reality that a Macintosh that was available right now had been able to impersonate an Amiga that existed only in their dreams. If that wasn’t an ominous sign for their favored platform’s future, it was hard to say what would be.

Of course, this combination of counterfeit hardware and sketchy demos, no matter how masterfully acted before the audience, couldn’t have been all that convincing to a neutral observer with a modicum of skepticism. Like all great hoaxes, this one succeeded because it built upon what its audience already desperately wanted to believe. In doing so, it inadvertently provided a preview of what it would mean to be an Amiga user in the future: an ongoing triumph of hope over hard-won experience. It’s been said before that the worst thing you can do is to enter into a relationship in the hope that you will be able to change the other party. Amiga users would have reason to learn that lesson over and over again: Commodore would never change. Yet many would never take the lesson to heart. To be an Amiga user would be always to be fixated upon the next shiny object out there on the horizon, always to be sure this would be the thing that would finally turn everything around, only to be disappointed again and again.

Hoaxes aside, rumors about the Amiga 3000 had been swirling around since the introduction of the 500 and 2000 models in 1987. But for a long time a rumor was all the new machine was, even as the MS-DOS and Macintosh platforms continued to evolve apace. Commodore’s engineering team was dedicated and occasionally brilliant, but their numbers were tiny in comparison to those of comparable companies, much less bigger ones like Apple and IBM, the latter of whose annual research budget was greater than Commodore’s total sales. And Commodore’s engineers were perpetually underpaid and underappreciated by their managers to boot. The only real reason for a top-flight engineer to work at Commodore was love of the Amiga itself. In light of the conditions under which they were forced to work, what the engineering staff did manage to accomplish is remarkable.

After the crushing disappointment that had been the 1989 Christmas season, when Commodore’s last and most concerted attempt to break the Amiga 500 into the American mainstream had failed, it didn’t take hope long to flower again in the new year. “The chance for an explosive Amiga market growth is still there,” wrote Amazing Computing at that time, in a line that could have summed up the sentiment of every issue they published between 1986 and 1994.

Still, reasons for optimism seemingly did still exist. For one thing, Commodore’s American operation had another new man in charge, an event which always brought with it the hope that the new boss might not prove the same as the old boss. Replacing the unfortunately named Max Toy was Harold Copperman, a real, honest-to-goodness computer-industry veteran, coming off a twenty-year stint with IBM, followed by two years with Apple; he had almost literally stepped offstage from the New York Mac Business Expo, where he had introduced John Sculley to the speaker’s podium, and into his new office at Commodore. With the attempt to pitch the Amiga 500 to low-end users as the successor to the Commodore 64 having failed to gain any traction, the biggest current grounds for optimism was that Copperman, whose experience was in business computers, could make inroads into that market for the higher-end Amiga models. Rumor had it that the dismissal of Toy and the hiring of Copperman had occurred following a civil war that had riven the company, with one faction — Toy apparently among them — saying Commodore should de-emphasize the Amiga in favor of jumping on the MS-DOS bandwagon, while the other faction saw little future — or, perhaps better said, little profit margin — in becoming just another maker of commodity clones. If you were an Amiga fan, you could at least breathe a sigh of relief that the right side had won out in that fight.

The Amiga 3000

It was in that hopeful spring of 1990 that the real Amiga 3000, a machine custom-made for the high-end market, made its bow. It wasn’t a revolutionary update to the Amiga 2000 by any means, but it did offer some welcome enhancements. In fact, it bore some marked similarities to the hoax Amiga 3000 of 1988. For instance, replacing the old 68000 was a 32-bit 68030 processor, and replacing AmigaOS 1.3 was the new and much-improved — both practically and aesthetically — AmigaOS 2.0. The flicker of the interlaced graphics modes could finally be a thing of the past, at least if the user sprang for the right type of monitor, and a new “super-high resolution” mode of 1280 X 400 was available, albeit with only four onscreen colors. The maximum amount of “chip memory” — memory that could be addressed by the machine’s custom chips, and thus could be fully utilized for graphics and sound — had already increased from 512 K to 1 MB with the release of a “Fatter Agnus” chip, which could be retrofitted into older examples of the Amiga 500 and 2000, in 1989. Now it increased to 2 MB with the Amiga 3000.

The rather garish and toy-like AmigaOS 1.3 Workbench.

The much slicker Workbench 2.0.

So, yes, the Amiga 3000 was very welcome, as was any sign of technological progress. Yet it was also hard not to feel a little disappointed that, five years after the unveiling of the first Amiga, the platform had only advanced this far. The hard fact was that Commodore’s engineers, forced to work on a shoestring as they were, were still tinkering at the edges of the architecture that Jay Miner and his team had devised all those years before rather than truly digging into it to make the more fundamental changes that were urgently needed to keep up with the competition. The interlace flicker was eliminated, for instance, not by altering the custom chips themselves but by hanging an external “flicker fixer” onto the end of the bus to de-interlace the interlaced output they still produced before it reached the monitor. And the custom chips still ran no faster than they had in the original Amiga, meaning the hot new 68030 had to slow down to a crawl every time it needed to access the chip memory it shared with them. The color palette remained stuck at 4096 shades, and, with the exception of the new super-high resolution mode, whose weirdly stretched pixels and four colors limited its usability, the graphics modes as a whole remained unchanged. Amiga owners had spent years mocking the Apple Macintosh and the Atari ST for their allegedly unimaginative, compromised designs, contrasting them continually with Jay Miner’s elegant dream machine. Now, that argument was getting harder to make; the Amiga too was starting to look a little compromised and inelegant.

Harold Copperman personally introduced the Amiga 3000 in a lavish event — lavish at least by Commodore’s standards — held at New York City’s trendy Palladium nightclub. With CD-ROM in the offing and audiovisual standards improving rapidly across the computer industry, “multimedia” stood with the likes of “hypertext” as one of the great buzzwords of the age. Commodore was all over it, even going so far as to name the event “Multimedia Live!” From Copperman’s address:

It’s our turn. It’s our time. We had the technology four and a half years ago. In fact, we had the product ready for multimedia before multimedia was ready for a product. Today we’re improving the technology, and we’re in the catbird seat. It is our time. It is Commodore’s time.

I’m at Commodore just as multimedia becomes the most important item in the marketplace. Once again I’m with the leader. Of course, in this industry a leader doesn’t have any followers; he just has a lot of other companies trying to pass him by. But take a close look: the other companies are talking multimedia, but they’re not doing it. They’re a long way behind Commodore — not even close.

Multimedia is a first-class way for conveying a message because it takes the strength of the intellectual content and adds the verve — the emotion-grabbing, head-turning, pulse-raising impact that comes from great visuals plus a dynamic soundtrack. For everyone with a message to deliver, it unleashes extraordinary ability. For the businessman, educator, or government manager, it turns any ordinary meeting into an experience.

In a way, this speech was cut from the same cloth as the Amiga 3000 itself. It was certainly a sign of progress, but was it progress enough? Even as he sounded more engaged and more engaging than had plenty of other tepid Commodore executives, Copperman inadvertently pointed out much of what was still wrong with the organization he helmed. He was right that Commodore had had the technology to do multimedia for a long time; as I’ve argued at length elsewhere, the Amiga was in fact the world’s first multimedia personal computer, all the way back in 1985. Still, the obvious question one is left with after reading the first paragraph of the extract above is why, if Commodore had the technology to do multimedia four and a half years ago, they’ve waited until now to tell anyone about it. In short, why is the the world of 1990 “ready” for multimedia when the world of 1985 wasn’t? Contrary to Copperman’s claim about being a leader, Commodore’s own management had begun to evince an understanding of what the Amiga was and what made it special only after other companies had started building computers similar to it. Real business leaders don’t wait around for the world to decide it’s ready for their products; they make products the world doesn’t yet know it needs, then tell it why it needs them. Five years after being gifted with the Amiga, which stands alongside the Macintosh as one of the two most visionary computers of the 1980s precisely because of its embrace of multimedia, Commodore managed at this event to give every impression that they were the multimedia bandwagon jumpers.

The Amiga 3000 didn’t turn into the game changer the faithful were always dreaming of. It sold moderately, mostly to the established Amiga hardcore, but had little obvious effect on the platform’s overall marketplace position. Harold Copperman was blamed for the disappointment, and was duly fired by Irving Gould, the principal shareholder and ultimate authority at Commodore, at the beginning of 1991. The new company line became an exact inversion of that which had held sway at the time of the Amiga 3000’s introduction: Copperman’s expertise was business computing, but Commodore’s future lay in consumer computing. Jim Dionne, head of Commodore’s Canadian division and supposedly an expert consumer marketer, was brought in to replace him.

An old joke began to make the rounds of the company once again. A new executive arrives at his desk at Commodore and finds three envelopes in the drawer, each labelled “open in case of emergency” and numbered one, two, and three. When the company gets into trouble for the first time on his watch, he opens the first envelope. Inside is a note: “Blame your predecessor.” So he does, and that saves his bacon for a while, but then things go south again. He opens the second envelope: “Blame your vice-presidents.” So he does, and gets another lease on life, but of course it only lasts a little while. He opens the third envelope. “Prepare three envelopes…” he begins to read.

Yet anyone who happened to be looking closely might have observed that the firing of Copperman represented something more than the usual shuffling of the deck chairs on the S.S. Commodore. Upon his promotion, it was made clear to Jim Dionne that he was to be held on a much shorter leash than his predecessors, his authority carefully circumscribed. Filling the power vacuum was one Mehdi Ali, a lawyer and finance guy who had come to Commodore a couple of years before as a consultant and had since insinuated himself more and more with Irving Gould. Now he advanced to the title of president of Commodore International, Gould’s right-hand man in running the global organization; indeed, he seemed to be calling far more shots these days than his globe-trotting boss, who never seemed to be around when you needed him anyway. Ali’s rise would not prove a happy event for anyone who cared about the long-term health of the company.

For now, though, the full import of the changes in Commodore’s management structure was far from clear. Amiga users were on to the next Great White Hope, one that in fact had already been hinted at in the Palladium as the Amiga 3000 was being introduced. Once more “multimedia” would be the buzzword, but this time the focus would go back to the American consumer market Commodore had repeatedly failed to capture with the Amiga 500. The clue had been there in a seemingly innocuous, almost throwaway line from the speech delivered to the Palladium crowd by C. Lloyd Mahaffrey, Commodore’s director of marketing: “While professional users comprise the majority of the multimedia-related markets today, future plans call for penetration into the consumer market as home users begin to discover the benefits of multimedia.”

Commodore’s management, (proud?) owners of the world’s first multimedia personal computer, had for most of the latter 1980s been conspicuous by their complete disinterest in their industry’s initial forays into CD-ROM, the storage medium that, along with the graphics and sound hardware the Amiga already possessed, could have been the crowning piece of the platform’s multimedia edifice. The disinterest persisted in spite of the subtle and eventually blatant hints that were being dropped by people like Cinemaware’s Bob Jacob, whose pioneering “interactive movies” were screaming to be liberated from the constraints of 880 K floppy disks.

In 1989, a tiny piece of Commodore’s small engineering staff — described as “mavericks” by at least one source — resolved to take matters into their own hands, mating an Amiga with a CD-ROM drive and preparing a few demos designed to convince their managers of the potential that was being missed. Management was indeed convinced by the demo — but convinced to go in a radically different direction from that of simply making a CD-ROM drive that could be plugged into existing Amigas.

The Dutch electronics giant Philips had been struggling for what seemed like forever to finish something they envisioned as a whole new category of consumer electronics: a set-top box for the consumption of interactive multimedia content on CD. They called it CD-I, and it was already very, very late. Originally projected for release in time for the Christmas of 1987, its constant delays had left half the entertainment-software industry, who had invested heavily in the platform, in limbo on the whole subject of CD-ROM. What if Commodore could steal Phillips’s thunder by combining a CD-ROM drive with the audiovisually capable Amiga architecture not in a desktop computer but in a set-top box of their own? This could be the magic bullet they’d been looking for, the long-awaited replacement for the Commodore 64 in American living rooms.

The industry’s fixation on these CD-ROM set-top boxes — a fixation which was hardly confined to Phillips and Commodore alone — perhaps requires a bit of explanation. One thing these gadgets were not, at least if you listened to the voices promoting them, was game consoles. The set-top boxes could be used for many purposes, from displaying multimedia encyclopedias to playing music CDs. And even when they were used for pure interactive entertainment, it would be, at least potentially, adult entertainment (a term that was generally not meant in the pornographic sense, although some were already muttering about the possibilities that lurked therein as well). This was part and parcel of a vision that came to dominate much of digital entertainment between about 1989 and 1994: that of a sort of grand bargain between Northern and Southern California, a melding of the new interactive technologies coming out of Silicon Valley with the movie-making machine of Hollywood. Much of television viewing, so went the argument, would become interactive, the VCR replaced with the multimedia set-top box.

In light of all this conventional wisdom, Commodore’s determination to enter the fray — effectively to finish the job that Phillips couldn’t seem to — can all too easily be seen as just another example of the me-too-ism that had clung to their earlier multimedia pronouncements. At the time, though, the project was exciting enough that Commodore was able to lure quite a number of prominent names to work with them on it. Carl Sassenrath, who had designed the core of the original AmigaOS — including its revolutionary multitasking capability — signed on again to adapt his work to the needs of a set-top box. (“In many ways, it was what we had originally dreamed for the Amiga,” he would later say of the project, a telling quote indeed.) Jim Sachs, still the most famous of Amiga artists thanks to his work on Cinemaware’s Defender of the Crown, agreed to design the look of the user interface. Reichart von Wolfsheild and Leo Schwab, both well-known Amiga developers, also joined. And for the role of marketing evangelist Commodore hired none other than Nolan Bushnell, the founder almost two decades before of Atari, the very first company to place interactive entertainment in American living rooms. The project as a whole was placed in the capable hands of Gail Wellington, known throughout the Amiga community as the only Commodore manager with a dollop of sense. The gadget itself came to be called CDTV — an acronym, Commodore would later claim in a part of the sales pitch that fooled no one, for “Commodore Dynamic Total Vision.”

Nolan Bushnell, Mr. Atari himself, plugs CDTV at a trade show.

Commodore announced CDTV at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1990, inviting selected attendees to visit a back room and witness a small black box, looking for all the world like a VCR or a stereo component, running some simple demos. From the beginning, they worked hard to disassociate the product from the Amiga and, indeed, from computers in general. The word “Amiga” appeared nowhere on the hardware or anywhere on the packaging, and if all went according to plan CDTV would be sold next to televisions and stereos in department stores, not in computer shops. Commodore pointed out that everything from refrigerators to automobiles contained microprocessors these days, but no one called those things computers. Why should CDTV be any different? It required no monitor, instead hooking up to the family television set. It neither included nor required a keyboard — much industry research had supposedly proved that non-computer users feared keyboards more than anything else — nor even a mouse, being controlled entirely through a remote control that looked pretty much like any other specimen of same one might find between the cushions of a modern sofa. “If you know how to change TV channels,” said a spokesman, “you can take full advantage of CDTV.” It would be available, Commodore claimed, before the Christmas of 1990, which should be well before CD-I despite the latter’s monumental head start.

That timeline sounded overoptimistic even when it was first announced, and few were surprised to see the launch date slip into 1991. But the extra time did allow a surprising number of developers to jump aboard the CDTV train. Commodore had never been good at developer relations, and weren’t terribly good at it now; developers complained that the tools Commodore provided were always late and inadequate and that help with technical problems wasn’t easy to come by, while financial help was predictably nonexistent. Still, lots of CD-I projects had been left in limbo by Phillips’s dithering and were attractive targets for adaptation to CDTV, while the new platform’s Amiga underpinnings made it fairly simple to port over extant Amiga games like SimCity and Battle Chess. By early 1991, Commodore could point to about fifty officially announced CDTV titles, among them products from such heavy hitters as Grolier, Disney, Guinness (the publisher, not the beer company), Lucasfilm, and Sierra. This relatively long list of CDTV developers certainly seemed a good sign, even if not all of the products they proposed to create looked likely to be all that exciting, or perhaps even all that good. Plenty of platforms, including the original Amiga, had launched with much less.

While the world — or at least the Amiga world — held its collective breath waiting for CDTV’s debut, the charismatic Nolan Bushnell did what he had been hired to do: evangelize like crazy. “What we are really trying to do is make multimedia a reality, and I think we’ve done that,” he said. The hyperbole was flying thick and fast from all quarters. “This will change forever the way we communicate, learn, and entertain,” said Irving Gould. Not to be outdone, Bushnell noted that “books were great in their day, but books right now don’t cut it. They’re obsolete.” (Really, why was everyone so determined to declare the death of the book during this period?)

CDTV being introduced at the 1991 World of Amiga show. Doing the introducing is Gail Wellington, head of the CDTV project and one of the unsung heroes of Commodore.

The first finished CDTV units showed up at the World of Amiga show in New York City in April of 1991; Commodore sold their first 350 to the Amiga faithful there. A staggered roll-out followed: to five major American cities, Canada, and the Commodore stronghold of Britain in May; to France, Germany, and Italy in the summer; to the rest of the United States in time for Christmas. With CD-I now four years late, CDTV thus became the first CD-ROM-based set-top box you could actually go out and buy. Doing so would set you back just under $1000.

The Amiga community, despite being less than thrilled by the excision of all mention of their platform’s name from the product, greeted the launch with the same enthusiasm they had lavished on the Amiga 3000, their Great White Hope of the previous year, or for that matter the big Christmas marketing campaign of 1989. Amazing Computing spoke with bated breath of CDTV becoming the “standard for interactive multimedia consumer hardware.”

“Yes, but what is it for?” These prospective customers’ confusion is almost palpable.

Alas, there followed a movie we’ve already seen many times. Commodore’s marketing was ham-handed as usual, declaring CDTV “nothing short of revolutionary” but failing to describe in clear, comprehensible terms why anyone who was more interested in relaxing on the sofa than fomenting revolutions might actually want one. The determination to disassociate CDTV from the scary world of computers was so complete that the computer magazines weren’t even allowed advance models; Amiga Format, the biggest Amiga magazine in Britain at the time with a circulation of more than 160,000, could only manage to secure their preview unit by making a side deal with a CDTV developer. CDTV units were instead sent to stereo magazines, who shrugged their shoulders at this weird thing this weird computer company had sent them and returned to reviewing the latest conventional CD players. Nolan Bushnell, the alleged marketing genius who was supposed to be CDTV’s ace in the hole, talked a hyperbolic game at the trade shows but seemed otherwise disengaged, happy just to show up and give his speeches and pocket his fat paychecks. One could almost suspect — perish the thought! — that he had only taken this gig for the money.

In the face of all this, CDTV struggled mightily to make any headway at all. When CD-I hit the market just before Christmas, boasting more impressive hardware than CDTV for roughly the same price, it only made the hill that much steeper. Commodore now had a rival in a market category whose very existence consumers still obstinately refused to recognize. As an established maker of consumer electronics in good standing with the major retailers — something Commodore hadn’t been since the heyday of the Commodore 64 — Phillips had lots of advantages in trying to flog their particular white elephant, not to mention an advertising budget their rival could only dream of. CD-I was soon everywhere, on store shelves and in the pages of the glossy lifestyle magazines, while CDTV was almost nowhere. Commodore did what they could, cutting the list price of CDTV to less than $800 and bundling with it The New Grolier Encyclopedia and the smash Amiga game Lemmings. It didn’t help. After an ugly Christmas season, Nolan Bushnell and the other big names all deserted the sinking ship.

Even leaving aside the difficulties inherent in trying to introduce people to an entirely new category of consumer electronics — difficulties that were only magnified by Commodore’s longstanding marketing ineptitude — CDTV had always been problematic in ways that had been all too easy for the true believers to overlook. It was clunky in comparison to CD-I, with a remote control that felt awkward to use, especially for games, and a drive which required that the discs first be placed into an external holder before being loaded into the unit proper. More fundamentally, the very re-purposing of old Amiga technology that had allowed it to beat CD-I to market made it an even more limited platform than its rival for running the sophisticated adult entertainments it was supposed to have enabled. Much of the delay in getting CD-I to market had been the product of a long struggle to find a way of doing video playback with some sort of reasonable fidelity. Even the released CD-I performed far from ideally in this area, but it did better than CDTV, which at best — at best, mind you — might be able to fill about a third of the television screen with low-resolution video running at a choppy twelve frames per second. It was going to be hard to facilitate a union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood with technology like that.

None of CDTV’s problems were the fault of the people who had created it, who had, like so many Commodore engineers before and after them, been asked to pull off a miracle on a shoestring. They had managed to create, if not quite a miracle, something that worked far better than it had a right to. It just wasn’t quite good enough to overcome the marketing issues, the competition from CD-I, and the marketplace confusion engendered by an interactive set-top box that said it wasn’t a game console but definitely wasn’t a home computer either.

CDTV could be outfitted with a number of accessories that turned it into more of a “real” computer. Still, those making software for the system couldn’t count on any of these accessories being present, which served to greatly restrict their products’ scope of possibility.

Which isn’t to say that some groundbreaking work wasn’t done by the developers who took a leap of faith on Commodore — almost always a bad bet in financial terms — and produced software for the platform. CDTV’s early software catalog was actually much more impressive than that of CD-I, whose long gestation had caused so many initially enthusiastic developers to walk away in disgust. The New Grolier Encyclopedia was a true multimedia dictionary; the entry for John F. Kennedy, for example, included not only a textual biography and photos to go along with it but audio excerpts from his most famous speeches. The American Heritage Dictionary also offered images where relevant, along with an audio pronunciation of every single word. American Vista: The Multimedia U.S. Atlas boasted lots of imagery of its own to add flavor to its maps, and could plan a route between any two points in the country at the click of a button. All of these things may sound ordinary today, but in a way that very modern ordinariness is a testament to what pioneering products these really were. They did in fact present an argument that, while others merely talked about the multimedia future, Commodore through CDTV was doing it — imperfectly and clunkily, yes, but one has to start somewhere.

One of the most impressive CDTV titles of all marked the return of one of the Amiga’s most beloved icons. After designing the CDTV’s menu system, the indefatigable Jim Sachs returned to the scene of his most famous creation. Really a remake rather than a sequel, Defender of the Crown II reintroduced many of the additional graphics and additional tactical complexities that had been excised from the original in the name of saving time, pairing them with a full orchestral soundtrack, digitized sound effects, and a narrator to detail the proceedings in the appropriate dulcet English accent. It was, Sachs said, “the game the original Defender of the Crown was meant to be, both in gameplay and graphics.” He did almost all of the work on this elaborate multimedia production all by himself, farming out little more than the aforementioned narration, and Commodore themselves released the game, having acquired the right to do so from the now-defunct Cinemaware at auction. While, as with the original, its long-term play value is perhaps questionable, Defender of the Crown II even today still looks and sounds mouth-wateringly gorgeous.


If any one title on CDTV was impressive enough to sell the machine by itself, this ought to be have been it. Unfortunately, it didn’t appear until well into 1992, by which time CDTV already had the odor of death clinging to it. The very fact that Commodore allowed the game to be billed as the sequel to one so intimately connected to the Amiga’s early days speaks to a marketing change they had instituted to try to breathe some life back into the platform.

The change was born out of an insurrection staged by Commodore’s United Kingdom branch, who always seemed to be about five steps ahead of the home office in any area you cared to name. Kelly Sumner, managing director of Commodore UK:

We weren’t involved in any of the development of CDTV technology; that was all done in America. We were taking the lead from the corporate company. And there was a concrete stance of “this is how you promote it, this is the way forward, don’t do this, don’t do that.” So, that’s what we did.

But after six or eight months we basically turned around and said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. It ain’t going to go anywhere, and if it does go anywhere you’re going to have to spend so much money that it isn’t worth doing. So, we’re going to call it the Amiga CDTV, we’re going to produce a package with disk drives and such like, and we’re going to promote it like that. People can understand that, and you don’t have to spend so much money.”

True to their word, Commodore UK put together what they called “The Multimedia Home Computer Pack,” combining a CDTV unit with a keyboard, a mouse, an external disk drive, and the software necessary to use it as a conventional Amiga as well as a multimedia appliance — all for just £100 more than a CDTV unit alone. Commodore’s American operation grudgingly followed their lead, allowing the word “Amiga” to creep back into their presentations and advertising copy.

Very late in the day, Commodore finally began acknowledging and even celebrating CDTV’s Amigahood.

But it was too late — and not only for CDTV but in another sense for the Amiga platform itself. The great hidden cost of the CDTV disappointment was the damage it did to the prospects for CD-ROM on the Amiga proper. Commodore had been so determined to position CDTV as its own thing that they had rejected the possibility of equipping Amiga computers as well with CD-ROM drives, despite the pleas of software developers and everyday customers alike. A CD-ROM drive wasn’t officially mated to the world’s first multimedia personal computer until the fall of 1992, when, with CDTV now all but left for dead, Commodore finally started shipping an external drive that made it possible to run most CDTV software, as well as CD-based software designed specifically for Amiga computers, on an Amiga 500. Even then, Commodore provided no official CD-ROM solution for Amiga 2000 and 3000 owners, forcing them to cobble together third-party adapters that could interface with drives designed for the Macintosh. The people who owned the high-end Amiga models, of course, were the ones working in the very cutting-edge fields that cried out for CD-ROM.

It’s difficult to overstate the amount of damage the Amiga’s absence from the CD-ROM party, the hottest ticket in computing at the time, did to the platform’s prospects. It single-handedly gave the lie to every word in Harold Copperman’s 1990 speech about Commodore being “the leaders in multimedia.” Many of the most vibrant Amiga developers were forced to shift to the Macintosh or another platform by the lack of CD-ROM support. Of all Commodore’s failures, this one must loom among the largest. They allowed the Macintosh to become the platform most associated with the new era of CD-ROM-enabled multimedia computing without even bothering to contest the territory. The war was over before Commodore even realized a war was on.

Commodore’s feeble last gasp in terms of marketing CDTV positioned it as essentially an accessory to desktop Amigas, a “low-cost delivery system for multimedia” targeted at business and government rather than living rooms. The idea was that you could create presentations on Amiga computers, send them off to be mastered onto CD, then drag the CDTV along to board meetings or planning councils to show them off. In that spirit, a CDTV unit was reduced to a free toss-in if you bought an Amiga 3000 — two slow-selling products that deserved one another.

The final verdict on CDTV is about as ugly as they come: less than 30,000 sold worldwide in some eighteen months of trying; less than 10,000 sold in the American market Commodore so desperately wanted to break back into, and many or most of those sold at fire-sale discounts after the platform’s fate was clear. In other words, the 350 CDTV units that had been sold to the faithful at that first ebullient World of Amiga show made up an alarmingly high percentage of all the CDTV units that would ever sell. (Phillips, by contrast, would eventually manage to move about 1 million CD-I units over the course of about seven years of trying.)

The picture I’ve painted of the state of Commodore thus far is a fairly bleak one. Yet that bleakness wasn’t really reflected in the company’s bottom line during the first couple of years of the 1990s. For all the trouble Commodore had breaking new products in North America and elsewhere, their legacy products were still a force to be reckoned with outside the United States. Here the end of the Cold War and subsequent lifting of the Iron Curtain proved a boon. The newly liberated peoples of Eastern Europe were eager to get their hands on Western computers and computer games, but had little money to spend on them. The venerable old Commodore 64, pulling along behind it that rich catalog of thousands upon thousands of games of all stripes, was the perfect machine for these emerging markets. Effectively dead in North America and trending that way in Western Europe, it now enjoyed a new lease on life in the former Soviet sphere, its sales numbers suddenly climbing sharply again instead of falling. The Commodore 64 was, it seemed, the cockroach of computers; you just couldn’t kill it. Not that Commodore wanted to: they would happily bank every dollar their most famous creation could still earn them. Meanwhile the Amiga 500 was selling better than ever in Western Europe, where it was now the most popular single gaming platform of all, and Commodore happily banked those profits as well.

Commodore’s stock even enjoyed a brief-lived bubble of sorts. In the spring and early summer of 1991, with sales strong all over Europe and CDTV poised to hit the scene, the stock price soared past $20, stratospheric heights by Commodore’s recent standards. This being Commodore, the stock collapsed below $10 again just as quickly — but, hey, it was nice while it lasted. That same year, worldwide sales topped the magical $1 billion mark, another height that had last been seen in the heyday of the Commodore 64. Commodore was now the second most popular maker of personal computers in Europe, with a market share of 12.4 percent, just slightly behind IBM’s 12.7 percent. The Amiga was now selling at a clip of 1 million machines per year, which would bring the total installed base to 4.5 million by the end of 1992. Of that total, 3.5 million were in Europe: 1.3 million in Germany, 1.2 million in Britain, 600,000 in Italy, 250,000 in France, 80,000 in Scandinavia. (Ironically in light of the machine’s Spanish name, one of the few places in Western Europe where it never did well at all was Spain.) To celebrate their European success, Irving Gould and Mehdi Ali took home salaries in 1991 of $1.75 million and $2.4 million respectively, the latter figure $400,000 more than the chairman of IBM, a company fifty times Commodore’s size, was earning.

But it wasn’t hard to see that Commodore, in relying on all of these legacy products sold in foreign markets, was living on borrowed time. Even in Europe, MS-DOS was beginning to slowly creep up on the Amiga as a gaming platform by 1992, while Nintendo and Sega, the two big Japanese console makers, were finally starting to take notice of this virgin territory after having ignored it for so long. While Amiga sales in Europe in 1992 remained blessedly steady, sales of the Amiga in North America were down as usual, sales of the Commodore 64 in Eastern Europe fell off thanks to economic chaos in the region, and sales of Commodore’s line of commodity PC clones cratered so badly that they pulled out of that market entirely. It all added up to a bottom line of about $900 million in total earnings. The company was still profitable that year, but considerably less so than the year before. Everyone was now looking forward to 1993 with more than a little trepidation.

Even as Commodore faced an uncertain future, they could at least take comfort that their arch-enemy Atari was having a much worse time of it. In the very early 1990s, Atari enjoyed some success, if not as much as they had hoped, with their Lynx handheld game console, a more upscale rival to the Nintendo Game Boy. The Atari Portfolio, a genuinely groundbreaking palmtop computer, also did fairly well for them, if perhaps not quite as well as it deserved. But the story of their flagship computing platform, the Atari ST, was less happy. Already all but dead in the United States, the ST’s market share in Europe shrank in proportion to the Amiga’s increasing sales, such that it fell from second to third most popular gaming computer in 1991, trailing MS-DOS now as well as the Amiga.

Atari tried to remedy the slowing sales with new machines they called the STe line, which increased the color palette to 4096 shades and added a blitter chip to aid onscreen animation. (The delighted Amiga zealots at Amazing Computing wrote of these Amiga-inspired developments that they reminded them of “an Amiga 500 created by a primitive tribe that had never actually seen an Amiga, but had heard reports from missionaries of what the Amiga could do.”) But the new hardware broke compatibility with much existing software, and it only got harder to justify buying an STe instead of an Amiga 500 as the latter’s price slowly fell. Atari’s total sales in 1991 were just $285 million, down by some 30 percent from the previous year and barely a quarter of the numbers Commodore was doing. Jack Tramiel and his sons kept their heads above water only by selling off pieces of the company, such as the Taiwanese manufacturing facility that went for $40.9 million that year. You didn’t have to be an expert in the computer business to understand how unsustainable that path was. In the second quarter of 1992, Atari posted a loss of $39.8 million on sales of just $23.3 million, a rather remarkable feat in itself. Whatever else lay in store for Commodore and the Amiga, they had apparently buried old Mr. “Business is War.”

Still, this was no time to bask in the glow of sweet revenge. The question of where Commodore and the Amiga went from here was being asked with increasing urgency in 1992, and for very good reason. The answer would arrive in the latter half of the year, in the form at long last of the real, fundamental technical improvements the Amiga community had been begging for for so long. But had Commodore done enough, and had they done it in time to make a difference? Those questions loomed large as the 68000 Wars were about to enter their final phase.

(Sources: the book On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore by Brian Bagnall; Amazing Computing of August 1987, June 1988, June 1989, July 1989, May 1990, June 1990, July 1990, August 1990, September 1990, December 1990, January 1991 February 1991, March 1991, April 1991, May 1991, June 1991, August 1991, September 1991, November 1991, January 1992, February 1992, March 1992, April 1992, June 1992, July 1992, August 1992, September 1992, November 1992, and December 1992; Info of July/August 1988 and January/February 1989; Amiga Format of July 1991, July 1995, and the 1992 annual; The One of September 1990, May 1991, and December 1991; CU Amiga of June 1992, October 1992, and November 1992; Amiga Computing of April 1992; AmigaWorld of June 1991. Online sources include Matt Barton’s YouTube interview with Jim Sachs,  Sébastien Jeudy’s interview with Carl Sassenrath, Greg Donner’s Workbench Nostalgia, and Atari’s annual reports from 1989, available on archive.org. My huge thanks to reader “himitsu” for pointing me to the last and providing some other useful information on Commodore and Atari’s financials during this period in the comments to a previous article in this series. And thank you to Reichart von Wolfsheild, who took time from his busy schedule to spend a Saturday morning with me looking back on the CDTV project.)

 
 

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A Pirate’s Life for Me, Part 3: Case Studies in Copy Protection

Copy-protection schemes, whether effected through software, a combination of software and hardware, or hardware alone, can and do provide a modicum of software protection. But such schemes alone are no better forms of security than locks. One with the appropriate tools can pick any lock. Locks only project the illusion of protection, to both the owner and the prospective thief.

Our focus on copy protection is the primary reason why our industry’s software-protection effort has come under skeptical scrutiny and intense attack. Many users now consider the copy-protection scheme to be just an obstacle to be overcome en route to their Congressionally- and self-granted right to the backup copy.

Dale A. Hillman
President, XOR Software
1985

An impregnable copy-protection scheme is a fantasy. With sufficient time and effort, any form of copy protection can be broken. If game publishers didn’t understand this reality at the dawn of their industry, they were given plenty of proof of its veracity almost as soon as they began applying copy protection to their products and legions of mostly teenage crackers began to build their lives around breaking it.

Given the unattainability of the dream of absolute protection, the next best thing must be protection that is so tough that the end result of a cracked, copyable disk simply isn’t worth the tremendous effort required to get there. When even this level of security proved difficult if not impossible to achieve, some publishers — arguably the wisest — scaled back their expectations yet further, settling for fairly rudimentary schemes that would be sufficient to deter casual would-be pirates but that would hardly be noticed by the real pros. Their games, so the reasoning went, were bound to get cracked anyway, so why compound the loss by pouring money into ever more elaborate protection schemes? Couldn’t that money be better used to make the game themselves better?

Others, however, doubled down on the quixotic dream of the game that would never be cracked, escalating a war between the copy-protection designers who developed ever more devious schemes and the intrepid crackers of the scene, the elite of the elite who staked their reputations on their ability to crack any game ever made. In the long term, the crackers won every single battle of this war, as even many of the publishers who waged it realized was all but inevitable. The best the publishers could point to was a handful of successful delaying actions that bought their games a few weeks or months before they were spread all over the world for free. And even those relative successes, it must be emphasized, were extremely rare. Few schemes stood up much more than a day or two under the onslaught of the scene’s brigade of talented and highly motivated crackers.

Just as so many crackers found the copy-protection wars to be the greatest game of all, far more intriguing and addictive than the actual contents of the disks being cracked, the art of copy protection — or, as it’s more euphemistically called today, digital-rights management or DRM — remains an almost endlessly fascinating study for those of a certain turn of mind. Back in the day, as now, cracking was a black art. Both sides in the war had strong motivations to keep it so: the publishers because information on how their schemes worked meant the power to crack them, and the crackers because their individual reputations hinged on being the first and preferably the only to crack and spread that latest hot game. Thus information in print on copy protection, while not entirely unheard of, was often hard to find. It’s only long since that wild and woolly first decade of the games industry that much detailed information on how the most elaborate schemes worked has been widely available, thanks to initiatives like The Floppy Disk Preservation Project.

This article will offer just a glimpse of how copy protection began and how it evolved over its first decade, as seen through the schemes that were applied to four historically significant games that we’ve already met in other articles: Microsoft Adventure for the TRS-80, Ultima III for the Apple II, Pirates! for the Commodore 64, and Dungeon Master for the Atari ST. Sit back, then, and join me on a little tour through the dawn of DRM.

Microsoft Adventure box art

The release of Microsoft Adventure in late 1979 for the Radio Shack TRS-80 marks quite a number of interrelated firsts for the games industry. It was the first faithful port of Will Crowther and Don Wood’s perennial Adventure, itself one of the most important computer games ever written, to a home computer. It accomplished this feat by taking advantage of the capabilities of the floppy disk, becoming in the process the first major game to be released on disk only, as opposed to the cassettes that still dominated the industry. And to keep those disks from being copied, normally a trivially easy thing to do in comparison to copying a cassette, Microsoft applied one of the earliest notable instances of physical copy protection to the disk, a development novel enough to attract considerable attention in its own right in the trade press. Byte magazine, for instance, declared the game “a gold mine for the enthusiast and a nightmare for the software pirate.”

Floppy Disk

The core of a 5¼-inch floppy disk, the type used by the TRS-80 and most other early microcomputers, is a platter made of a flexible material such as Mylar — thus the “floppy” — with a magnetic coating made of ferric oxide or a similar material, capable of recording the long sequences of ones and zeroes (or ons and offs) that are used to store all computer code and data. The platter is housed within a plastic casing that exposes just enough of it to give the read/write head of the disk drive access as the platter is spun.

The floppy disk is what’s known as a random-access storage medium. Unlike a cassette drive, a floppy drive can access any of its contents at any time at a simple request from the computer to which it’s attached. To allow this random access, there needs to be an organizing scheme to the disk, a way for the drive to know what lies where and, conversely, what spaces are still free for writing new files. A program known as a “formatter,” which must be run on every new disk before it can be used, writes an initially empty framework to the disk to keep track of what it contains and where it all lives on the disk’s surface.

In the case of the TRS-80, said surface is divided into 35 concentric rings, known as “tracks,” numbered from 0 to 34, with track 0 lying at the outer margin of the disk and track 34 closet to the inner ring. Each track is subdivided along its length into 10 equal-sized sectors, each capable of storing 256 bytes of data. Thus the theoretical maximum capacity of an entire disk is about ((256 * 10 * 35) / 1024) 87 K.

Figure 1

Figure 1 (click to expand)

Figure 1 shows the general organization of the tracks on a TRS-80 disk. Much of this is specific to the TRS-80’s operating system and thus further down in the weeds than we really need to go, but a couple of details are very relevant to our purposes. Notice track 18, the “system directory.” It’s just what its name would imply. The entire track is reserved to be the disk’s directory service, a list of all the files it contains along with the track and sector numbers where each begins. The directory is placed in the middle of the disk for efficiency’s sake. Because it must be read from every time a file is requested, having it here minimizes the distance the head must travel both to read from the directory and, later, to access the file in question. For the same reason, most floppy-disk systems try to fill disks outward from the directory track, using the farthest-flung regions only if the disk is otherwise full.

The one exception to this rule in the case of the TRS-80 as well as many other computers is the “boot sector”: track 0, sector 0. It contains code, stored outside the filesystem described in the directory, which the computer will always try to access and execute on boot-up. This “bootstrap” code tells the computer how to get started loading the operating system and generally getting on with things. There isn’t much space here — only a single sector’s worth, 256 bytes — but it’s enough to set the larger process in motion.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows the layout an individual disk sector. This diagram presumes a newly formatted disk, so the “dummy data” represents the sector’s 256 bytes of available storage, waiting to be filled. Note the considerable amount of organizing and housekeeping information surrounding the actual data, used to keep the drive on track and aware at all times of just where it is. Again, there’s much more here than we need to dig into today. Relevant for our purposes are the track and sector numbers stored near the beginning of each sector. These amount to the sector’s home address, its index in the directory listing.

Microsoft Adventure introduces a seeming corruption into the disk’s scheme. Beginning with track 1 — track 0 must be left alone so the system can find the boot sector and get started — the tracks are numbered not from 1 to 34 but from 127 to 61, in downward increments of 2. The game’s bootstrap inserts a patch into the normal disk-access routines that tells them how to deal with these weirdly numbered tracks. But, absent the patch, the normal TRS-80 operating system has no idea what to make of it. Even a so-called “deep” copier, which tries to copy a disk sector by sector rather than file by file to create a truly exact mirror image of the original, fails because it can’t figure out where the sectors begin and end.

If one wants to make a copy of a protected program, whether for the legal purpose of backing it up or the illegal one of software piracy, one can take either of two approaches. The first is to find a way to exactly duplicate the disk, copy protection and all, so that there’s no way for the program it contains to know it isn’t running on an original. The other is to crack it, to strip out or ignore the protection and modify the program itself to run correctly without it.

One of the first if not the first to find a way to duplicate Microsoft Adventure and then to crack it to boot was an Australian teenager named Nick Andrew (right from the beginning, before the scene even existed, cracking already seemed an avocation for the young). After analyzing the disk to work out how it was “corrupted,” he rewrote the TRS-80’s usual disk formatter to format disks with the alternate track-numbering system. Then he rewrote the standard copier to read and write to the same system. After “about two days,” he had a working duplicate of the original disk.

But he wasn’t quite done yet. After going through all the work of duplicating the disk, the realization dawned that he could easily go one step further and crack it, turn it into just another everyday disk copyable with everyday tools. To do so, he wouldn’t need his modified disk formatter at all. He needed only make a modification to his customized copier, to read from a disk with the alternate track-numbering system but write to a normal one. Remove the custom bootstrap to make Adventure boot like any other disk, and he was done. This first “nightmare for the software pirate” was defanged.

Ultima III

Released in 1983, Ultima III was already the fourth commercial CRPG to be written by the 22-year-old Richard Garriott, but the first of them to be published by his own new company, Origin Systems. With the company’s future riding on its sales, he and his youthful colleagues put considerable effort into devising as tough a copy-protection scheme as possible. It provides a good illustration of the increasing sophistication of copy protection in general by this point, four years after Microsoft Adventure.

Apple II floppy-disk drives function much like their TRS-80 equivalents, with largely only practical variations brought on by specific engineering choices. The most obvious of the differences is the fact that the Apple II writes its data more densely to the disk, giving it 16 256-byte sectors on each of its 35 tracks rather than the 10 of the TRS-80. This change increases each disk’s capacity to ((256 * 16 * 35) / 1024) 140 K.

Ultima III shipped on two disks, one used to boot the game and the other to load in data and to save state as needed during play. The latter is a completely normal Apple II disk, allowing the player to make copies as she will in the name of being able to start a fresh game with a new character at any time. The former, however, is a different story.

The game’s first nasty trick is to make the boot disk less than half a disk. Only tracks 0 through 16 are formatted at all. Like the TRS-80, the Apple II expects the disk’s directory to reside in the middle of the disk, albeit on track 17 rather than 18. In this case, though, track 17 literally doesn’t exist.

But how, you might be wondering, can even a copy-protected disk function at all without a directory? Well, it really can’t, or at least it doesn’t in this case. Again like the TRS-80, the beginning of an Apple II disk is reserved for a boot block. The Ultima III bootstrap substitutes alternative code for a standard operating-system routine called the “Read Write Track Sector” routine, or, more commonly, the “RWTS.” It’s this routine that programs call when they need to access a disk file or to do just about any other operation to a disk. Ultima III provides an RWTS that knows to look for the directory listing not on track 17 but rather on track 7, right in the middle of its half-a-disk. Thus it knows how to find its files, but no one else does.

Ultima III‘s other trick is similar to the approach taken by Microsoft Adventure in theory, but far more gnarly in execution. To understand it, we need to have a look at the structure of an Apple II sector. As on the TRS-80, each sector is divided into an “address field,” whose purpose is to keep the drive on track and help it to locate what it’s looking for, and a “data field” containing the actual data written there. Figures 3 and 4 show the structure of each respectively.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

Don’t worry too much about the fact that our supposed 256 bytes of data have suddenly grown to 342. This transformation is down to some nitty-gritty details of the hardware that mean that 256 logical bytes can’t actually be packed into 256 bytes of physical space, that the drive needs some extra breathing room. A special encoding process, known as Group Code Recording (GCR) on the Apple II, converts the 256 bytes into 342 that are easily manipulable by the drive and back again. If we were really serious about learning to create copy protection or how to crack it, we’d need to know a lot more about this. But it’s not necessary to understand if you’re just dipping your toes into that world, as we’re doing today.

Of more immediate interest are the “prologues” and “epilogues” that precede and trail both the address and data fields. On a normal disk these are fixed runs of numbers, which you see shown in hexadecimal notation in Figures 3 and 4. (If you don’t know what that means, again, don’t worry too much about it. Just trust me that they’re fixed numbers.) Like so much else here, they serve to keep the drive on track and to reassure it that everything is kosher.

Ultima III, however, chooses other numbers to place in these spaces. Further, it doesn’t just choose a new set of fixed numbers — that would be far too easy — but rather varies the expected numbers from track to track and even sector to sector according to a table only it has access to, housed in its custom RWTS. Thus what looks like random garbage to the computer normally suddenly becomes madness with a method behind it when the computer has been booted from the Ultima III disk. If any of these fields don’t match with what they should be — i.e., if someone is trying to use an imperfect copy —  the game loads no further.

It’s a tough scheme, particularly for its relatively early date, but far from an unbreakable one. There are a couple of significant points of vulnerability. The first is the fact that Ultima III doesn’t need to read and write only protected disks. There is, you’ll remember, also that second disk in a standard format. The modified RWTS needs to be able to fall back to the standard routine when using that second disk, which is no more readable by the modified routine than the protected disk is by the standard. It relies on the disk’s volume number to decide which routine to use: volume 1 is the first, protected disk; volume 2 the second, unprotected (if the volume number is anything else, it knows somebody must be up to some sort of funny business and just stops entirely). Thus if we can just get a copy of the first disk in an everyday disk format and set its volume number to 2, Ultima III will happily accept it and read from it.

But that “just” is, of course, a tricky proposition. We would seemingly need to write a program of our own to read from a disk — or rather from half of a disk — with all those ever-changing prologue and epilogue fields. That, anyway, is one approach. But, if we’re really clever, we won’t have to. Instead of working harder, we can work smarter, using Ultima III‘s own code to crack it.

One thing that legions of hackers and crackers came to love about the Apple II was its integrated machine-language monitor, which can be used to pause and break into a running program at almost any point. We can use it now to pause Ultima III during its own boot process and look up the address of its customized RWTS in memory; because all disk operations use the RWTS, it is easily locatable via a global system pointer. Once we know where the new RWTS lives, we can save that block of memory to disk for later use.

Next we need only boot back into the normal system, load up the customized RWTS we saved to disk, and redirect the system pointer to it rather than the standard RWTS. Remember that the custom RWTS is already written to assume that disks with a volume number of 1 are in the protected format, those with a volume number of 2 in the normal format. So, if we now use an everyday copy program to copy from the original, which has a volume number of 1, to a blank disk which we’ve formatted with a volume number of 2, Ultima III essentially cracks itself. The copy operation, like all disk operations, simply follows the modified system pointer to the new RWTS, and is never any the wiser that it’s been modified. Pretty neat, no? Elegant tricks like this warm any hacker’s heart, and are much of the reason that vintage cracking remains to this day such an intriguing hobby.

Pirates!

Ultima III‘s copy protection was clever enough in its day, but trivial compared to what would start to appear just a year or so later as the art reached a certain level of maturity. As the industry itself got more and more cutthroat, many of the protection schemes also got just plain nasty. The shadowy war between publisher and pirate was getting ever more personal.

A landmark moment in the piracy wars was the 1984 founding of the Software Publishers Association. It was the brainchild of a well-connected Washington, D.C., lawyer named Ken Wasch who decided that what the industry really needed was a D.C.-based advocacy group and that he, having no previous entanglements within it, was just the neutral party to start it. The SPA had a broad agenda, from gathering data on sales trends from and for its members to presenting awards for “software excellence,” but, from the perspective of the outsider at any rate, seemed to concern itself with the piracy problem above all else. Its rhetoric was often strident to the point of shrillness, while some of its proposed remedies smacked of using a hydrogen bomb to dig a posthole. For instance, the SPA at one point protested to Commodore that multitasking shouldn’t be a feature of the revolutionary new Amiga because it would make it too easy for crackers to break into programs. And Wasch lobbied Congress to abolish the user’s right to make backup copies of their software for personal archival purposes, a key part of the 1980 Software Copyright Act that he deemed a “legal loophole” because it permitted the existence of programs capable of copying many forms of copy-protected software — a small semi-underground corner of the software industry that the SPA was absolutely desperate to eliminate rather than advocate for. The SPA also did its best to convince the FBI and other legal authorities to investigate the bulletin-board systems of the cracking scene, with mixed success at best.

Meanwhile copy protection was becoming a business in its own right, the flip side to the business of making copying programs. In place of the home-grown protection schemes of our first two case studies, which amounted to whatever the developers themselves could devise in whatever time they had available, third-party turnkey protection systems, the products of an emerging cottage industry, became increasingly common as the 1980s wore on. The tiny companies that created the systems weren’t terribly far removed demographically from the crackers that tried to break them; they were typically made up of one to three young men with an encyclopedic knowledge of their chosen platforms and no small store of swagger of their own. Their systems, sporting names like RapidLok and PirateBusters, were multifaceted and complex, full of multiple failsafes, misdirections, encryptions, and honey pots. Copy-protection authors took to sneaking taunting messages into their code, evincing a braggadocio that wouldn’t have felt out of place in the scene: “Nine out of ten pirates go blind trying to copy our software. The other gets committed!”

Protection schemes of this later era are far too complex for me to describe in any real detail in an accessible article like this one, much less explain how people went about cracking them. I would, however, like to very briefly introduce RapidLok, the most popular of the turnkey systems on the Commodore 64. It was the product of a small company called the Dane Final Agency, and was used in its various versions by quite a number of prominent publishers from early 1986 on, including MicroProse. You’ll find it on that first bona fide Sid Meier classic, the ironically-titled-for-our-purposes Pirates!, along with all of their other later Commodore 64 games.

The protection schemes we’ve already seen have modified their platforms’ standard disk formats to confuse copy programs. RapidLok goes to the next level by implementing its own custom format from scratch. A standard Commodore 64 disk has 17 to 21 sectors per track, depending on where the track is located; a RapidLok disk has 11 or 12 much larger sectors, with the details of how those sectors organize their data likewise re-imagined. Rapidlok also adds a track to the standard 35, shoved off past the part of the disk that is normally read from or written to. This 36th track serves as an encrypted checksum store for all of the other tracks. If any track fails the checksum check — indicating it’s been modified from the original — the system immediately halts.

Like any protection scheme, RapidLok must provide a gate to its walled garden, an area of the disk formatted normally so that the computer can boot the game in the first place. Further, writing to RapidLok-formatted tracks isn’t practical. The computer would need to recalculate the checksum for the track as a whole, encrypt it, and rewrite that portion to the checksum store out past the normally accessible part of the disk — a far too demanding task for a little Commodore 64. For these reasons, Rapidlok disks are hybrids, partially formatted as standard disks and partially in the protected format. Figure 5 below shows the first disk of Pirates! viewed with a contemporary copying utility.

Figure 5

Figure 5

As the existence of such a tool will attest, techniques did exist to analyze and copy RapidLok disks in their heyday. Among the crackers, Mitch of Eagle Soft was known as the RapidLok master; it’s his vintage crack of Pirates! and many other RapidLok-protected games that you’ll find floating around the disk-image archives today. Yet even those cracks, masterful as they were, were forced to strip out a real advantage that RapidLok gave to the ordinary player, that was in fact the source of the first part of its name: its custom disk format was much faster to read from than the standard, by a factor of five or six. Pirates who chose to do their plundering via Mitch’s cracked version of Pirates! would have to be very patient criminals.

But balanced against the one great advantage of RapidLok for the legitimate user was at least one major disadvantage beyond even the obvious one of not being able to make a backup copy. In manipulating the Commodore 64 disk drive in ways its designers had never intended, RapidLok put a lot of stress on the hardware. Drives that were presumably just slightly out of adjustment, but that nevertheless did everything else with aplomb, proved unable to load RapidLok disks, or, almost worse, failed intermittently in the middle of game sessions (seemingly always just after you’d scored that big Silver Train robbery in the case of Pirates!, of course). And, still worse from the standpoint of MicroProse’s customer relations, a persistent if unproven belief arose that RapidLok was actually damaging disk drives, throwing them out of alignment through its radical operations. It certainly didn’t sound good in action, producing a chattering and general caterwauling and shaking the drive so badly one wondered if it was going to walk right off the desktop one day.

The belief, quite probably unfounded though it was, that MicroProse and other publishers were casually destroying their customers’ expensive hardware in the name of protecting their own interests only fueled the flames of mistrust between publisher and consumer that so much of the SPA’s rhetoric had done so much to ignite. RapidLok undoubtedly did its job in preventing a good number of people from copying MicroProse games. A fair number of them probably even went out and bought the games for themselves as an alternative. Whether those sales were worth the damage it did to MicroProse’s relations with their loyal customers is a question with a less certain answer.

Dungeon Master

No discussion of copy protection in the 1980s could be complete without mentioning Dungeon Master. Like everything else about FTL’s landmark real-time CRPG, its copy protection was innovative and technically masterful, so much so that it became a veritable legend in its time. FTL wasn’t the sort of company to be content with any turnkey copy-protection solution, no matter how comprehensive. What they came up with instead is easily as devious as any dungeon level in the game proper. As Atari ST and Amiga crackers spent much of 1988 learning, every time you think you have it beat it turns the tables on you again. Let’s have a closer look at the protection used on the very first release of Dungeon Master, the one that shipped for the ST on December 15, 1987.

3 1/2 inch floppy disk

With the ST and its 68000-based companions, we’ve moved into the era of the 3½-inch disk, a format that can pack more data onto a smaller disk and also do so more reliably; the fragile magnetic platter is now protected beneath a rigid plastic case and a metal shield that only pulls away to expose it when the disk is actually inserted into a drive. The principles of the 3½-inch disk’s operation are, however, the same as those of the 5¼-inch, so we need not belabor the subject here.

Although most 3½-inch drives wrote to both sides of the disk, early STs used just one, in a format that consisted of 80 tracks, each with 9 512-byte sectors, for a total of ((512 * 9 * 80) / 1024) 360 K of storage capacity. The ST uses a more flexible filesystem than was the norm on the 8-bit machines we’ve discussed so far, one known as FAT, for File Allocation Table. The FAT filesystem dates back to the late 1970s, was adopted by Microsoft for MS-DOS in 1981, and is still in common use today in a form known as FAT32; the ST uses FAT12. The numerical suffix refers to the number of bits allocated to each file’s home address on the disk, which in turn dictates the maximum possible capacity of the disk itself. FAT is designed to accommodate a wide range of floppy and hard disks, and thus allows the number of tracks and sectors to be specified at the beginning of the disk itself. Thanks to FAT’s flexibility, Dungeon Master can easily bump the number of sectors per track from 9 to 10, a number still well within the capabilities of the ST’s drive. That change increases the disk’s storage capacity to ((512 * 10 * 80) / 1024) 400 K. It was only this modification, more a response to a need for just a bit more disk space than an earnest attempt at copy protection, that allowed FTL to pack the entirety of Dungeon Master onto a single disk.

Dungeon Master‘s real protection is a very subtle affair, which is one of the keys to its success. At first glance one doesn’t realize that the disk is protected at all — a far cry from the radical filesystem overhaul of RapidLok. The disk’s contents can be listed like those of any other, its individual files even read in and examined. The disk really is a completely normal one — except for track 0, sectors 7 and 8.

Let’s recall again the two basic methods of overcoming copy protection: by duplicating the protection on the copy or by cracking the original, making it so that you don’t need to duplicate the protection. Even with a scheme as advanced as RapidLok, duplication often remained an option. Increasingly by the era of Dungeon Master, though, we see the advent of schemes that are physically impossible for the disk drives on the target machines to duplicate under any circumstances, that rely on capabilities unique to industrial-scale disk duplicators. Nate Lawson, a reader of this blog who was hugely helpful to me in preparing this article, describes good copy protection as taking advantage of “asymmetry”: “the difference between the environment where the code is executed versus where it was produced.” The ultimate form of asymmetry must be a machine on the production side that can write data in a format that the machine on the execution side physically cannot.

Because FTL duplicated their own disks in-house rather than using an outside service like most publishers, they had a great deal of control over the process used to create them. They used their in-house disk duplicator to write an invalid sector number to a single sector: track 0, sector 8 is labeled sector 247. At first blush, this hardly seems special; Microsoft Adventure, that granddaddy of copy-protected games, had after all used the same technique eight years earlier. But there’s something special about this sector 247: due to limitations of the ST’s drive hardware that we won’t get into here, the machine physically can’t write that particular sector number. Any disk with a sector labeled 247 has to have come from something other than an ST disk drive.

Track 0, sector 7, relies on the same idea of hardware asymmetry, but adds another huge wrinkle sufficient to warm the heart of any quantum physicist. Remember that the data stored on a disk boils down to a series of 1s and 0s, magnetized or demagnetized areas that are definitively in one state or the other. But what if it was possible to create a “fuzzy” bit, one that capriciously varies between states on each successive read? Well, it wasn’t possible to do anything like that on an ST disk drive or even most industrial disk duplicators. But FTL, technology-driven company that they were, modified their own disk duplicator to be able to do just that. By cramming a lot of “flux reversals,” or transitions between a magnetic and demagnetized state, into a space far smaller than the read resolution of the ST disk drive, they could create bits that lived in a perpetually in-between state — bits that the drive would randomly read sometimes as on and sometimes as off.

Dungeon Master has one of these fuzzy bits on track 0, sector 7. When the disk is copied, the copy will contain not a fuzzy bit but a normal bit, on or off according to the quantum vagaries of the read process that created it.

Figure 6

Figure 6

As illustrated in Figure 6, Dungeon Master‘s copy-protection routines read the ostensible fuzzy bit over and over, waiting for a discordant result. When that comes, it can assume that it’s running from an original disk and continue. If it tries many times, always getting the same result, it assumes it’s running from a copy and behaves accordingly.

FTL’s scheme was so original that they applied for and were granted a patent on it, one that’s been cited many times in subsequent filings. It represents a milestone in the emerging art and science of DRM. Ironically, the most influential aspect of Dungeon Master, a hugely influential game on its own terms, might just be its fuzzy-bit copy protection. Various forms of optical media continue to use the same approach to this day.

With duplication a complete non-starter in the case of both this sector numbered 247 and the fuzzy bit, the only way to pirate Dungeon Master must be to crack it. Doing so must entail diving into the game’s actual code, looking for the protection check and modifying it to always return a positive response. In itself, that wasn’t usually too horrible; crackers had long ago learned to root through code to disable look-up-a-word-in-the-manual and code-wheel-based “soft” protection schemes. But FTL, as usual, had a few tricks up their sleeves to make it much harder: they made the protection checks multitudinous and their results non-obvious.

Instead of checking the copy protection just once, Dungeon Master does it over and over, from half-a-dozen or so different places in its code, turning the cracker’s job into a game of whack-a-mole. Every time he thinks he’s got it at last, up pops another check. The most devious of all the checks is the one that’s hidden inside a file called “graphics.dat,” the game’s graphics store. Who would think to look for executable code there?

Compounding the problem of finding the checks is the fact that even on failure they don’t obviously do anything. The game simply continues, only to become unstable and start spitting out error messages minutes later. For this reason, it’s extremely hard to know when and whether the game is finally fully cracked. It was the perfect trap for the young crackers of the scene, who weren’t exactly known for their patience. The pirate boards were flooded with crack after crack of Dungeon Master, all of which turned out to be broken after one had actually played a while. In a perverse way, it amounted to a masterful feat of advertising. Many an habitual pirate got so frustrated with not being able properly play this paradigm-shattering game that he made Dungeon Master the only original disk in his collection. Publishers had for years already been embedding their protection checks some distance into their games, both to make life harder for crackers and to turn the copies themselves into a sort of demo version that unwitting would-be pirates distributed for them for free. But Dungeon Master used the technique to unprecedented success in terms of pirated copies that turned into sold originals.

Dungeon Master still stands as one of copy protection’s — or, if you like, DRM’s — relatively few absolutely clear, unblemished success stories. It took crackers more than a year, an extraordinary amount of time by their usual standards, to wrap their heads around the idea of a fuzzy bit and to find all of the checks scattered willy-nilly through the code (and, in the case of “graphics.dat,” out of it). After that amount of time the sales window for any computer game, even one as extraordinary as Dungeon Master, must be closing anyway. Writing about the copy protection twenty years later, Doug Bell of FTL couldn’t resist a bit of crowing.

Dungeon Master exposed the fallacy in the claims of both the pirates and the crackers. The pirates who would never have paid for the game if they could steal it did pay for it. Despite a steadily growing bounty of fame and notoriety for cracking the game, the protection lasted more than a year. And the paying customer was rewarded with not just a minimally invasive copy-protection scheme, but, just as importantly, with the satisfaction of not feeling like a schmuck for paying for something that most people were stealing.

As the developer of both Dungeon Master and the software portion of its copy protection, I knew that eventually the copy protection would be broken, but that the longer it held out the less damage we would suffer when it was broken.

Dungeon Master had a greater than 50-percent market penetration on the Atari ST—that is, more than one copy of Dungeon Master was sold for each two Atari ST computers sold. That’s easily ten times the penetration of any other game of the time on any other platform.

So what’s the lesson? That piracy does take significant money out of the pocket of the developer and that secure anti-piracy schemes are viable.

Whether we do indeed choose to view Dungeon Master as proof of the potential effectiveness of well-crafted DRM as a whole or, as I tend to, as something of an historical aberration produced by a unique combination of personalities and circumstances, it does remain a legend among old sceners, respected as perhaps the worthiest of all the wily opponents they encountered over the years — not just technically brilliant but conceptually and even psychologically so. By its very nature, the long war between the publishers and the crackers could only be a series of delaying actions on the part of the former. For once, the delay created by Dungeon Master‘s copy protection was more than long enough.

And on that note we’ll have to conclude this modest little peek behind the curtain of 1980s copy protection. Like so many seemingly narrow and esoteric topics, it only expands and flowers the deeper you go into it. People continue to crack vintage games and other software to this day, and often document their findings in far more detail than I can here. Apple II fans may want to have a look at the work of one “a2_4am” on Twitter, while those of you who want to know more about RapidLok may want to look into the C64 Preservation Project‘s detailed RapidLok Handbook, which is several times the length of this article. And if all that’s far, far more information than you want — and no, I really don’t blame you — I hope this article, cursory as it’s been, has instilled some respect for the minds on both sides of the grand software-piracy wars of the 1980s.

(Sources: Beneath Apple DOS by Don Worth and Pieter Lechner; The Anatomy of the 1541 Disk Drive by Lothar Englisch and Norbert Szczepanowski; Inside Commodore DOS by Richard Immers and Gerald G. Newfeld; The Kracker Jax Revealed Trilogy; Commodore Power Play of August/September 1985; Kilobaud of July 1982; New Zealand Bits and Bytes of May 1984; Games Machine of June 1988; Transactor 5.3; 80 Microcomputing of November 1980; Byte of December 1980; Hardcore Computist #9 and #11; Midnite Software Gazette of April 1986. Online sources include Nick Andrew’s home page, the aforementioned C64 Preservation Project, and The Dungeon Master Encyclopedia. See also Jean Louis-Guérin’s paper “Atari Floppy Disk Copy Protection.” Information on the SPA’s activities comes from the archive of SPA-related material donated to the Strong Museum of Play by Doug Carlston, first fruit of my research here in Rochester.

My huge thanks to Nate Lawson for doing something of a peer review of this article prior to publication!)

 
 

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Dungeon Master, Part 2: The Playing of

Dungeon Master

Like any cagey revolutionary, Dungeon Master doesn’t lay all its cards on the table when we first meet it. When the curtain goes up — or, rather, when the iron gate opens — on its first level, we might think we’re just in for a Wizardry with better graphics and the luxury of a mouse-driven interface. Because this first level is entirely deserted, it’s not immediately obvious that the game is even running in real time, much less what a huge difference that quality is ultimately going to make to the experience. And because we can’t do anything at this point other than move around, it’s also not immediately obvious just what an interactive sort of dungeon we’ve just entered.

Dungeon Master

Still, there are already oddities, not least of which is the fact that we’ve been dropped into the game proper so very abruptly, without going through any of the usual rigmarole of rolling up characters or answering an old gypsy’s questions. Dungeon Master‘s fictional conceit has it that we are a sort of wandering spirit, whose first task must be to take charge of — possess? — up to 4 of the 24 characters found frozen in amber here in the first level’s so-called “Hall of Champions.” The characters in the Hall, supposedly adventurers who earlier tried to penetrate the dungeon and were rewarded with death for their efforts, provide a rare opportunity for FTL to let their hair down and toss a little pop culture into an otherwise almost aggressively austere game. In naming and drawing the characters we can choose from, FTL drew them from fictions like Dune, The Lord of the Rings, and their own previous game Sundog. They also included real-world figures like the Viking explorer Leif Eriksson and, because they were mostly young men with young men’s interests, 1975 Playboy Playmate Azizi Johari. Andy Jaros went fairly crazy with these portraits, making a whole “construction kit” for different combinations of bodies, facial features, and clothing. “Every female character,” remembers tools programmer Mike Newton wryly, “had a number of brassieres she could wear.”

Dungeon Master

The team was tempted to include Jaros’s construction kit along with a much more traditional character-creation process in the game itself. Wayne Holder remembers a “big schism” in his team between people “who just wanted to pick a character and get going” and those who wanted to laboriously roll their own, customizing every detail to their liking as in the CRPGs of yore. But, more than just being an inconvenience to new or impatient players, a character-creation process that took place outside of the dungeon would have worked against the sense of “you are there” immersion that was always the guiding philosophy of the game as a whole. Thus this casting of us as a wandering spirit in a Hall of Champions, an embodied part of the game’s world from the very first instant.

Dungeon Master

As a sop to those players that demanded more control, FTL made it possible to either “resurrect” or “reincarnate” each character. The former preserves the champion’s name and vital attributes, including a few levels in one or more of the disciplines (more on them momentarily); the latter preserves only her portrait, letting us rename her and develop her as we like from scratch. We’ll resurrect today, both because it’s easier and because it seems more in keeping with the spirit of the game, but the choice is up to each player. (Sorry, classic Playboy connoisseurs, but Azizi won’t make the cut today.)

Dungeon Master

With our party formed, the bits and pieces of the user interface get filled in. Running along the top we now see each of the members of our party along with what he’s carrying in his right and left hands, which doesn’t amount to much of anything at the moment. Three bar graphs show each character’s current hit points, stamina, and mana.

While the first of these is a very traditional metric, the second provides a good example of how Dungeon Master so often yet so subtly transcends the tabletop roots of previous CRPGs. When a character exerts himself — by fighting or by running about quickly, and especially by doing either whilst carrying a heavy load — his stamina drops, diminishing his effectiveness in combat and slowing him down. He can regain stamina only by resting or through magical means. Weaker characters naturally fatigue more quickly than stronger ones. This mechanic would be impossible to replicate on the tabletop; the amount of bookkeeping required would have defied even the most pedantic of human Dungeon Masters. On the computer, however, it works a treat.

As for the last graph, showing mana… let’s hold off on that for right now, as we will the panel of spell runes found to the right, just below the draggable icons representing the party’s current walking arrangement. Below the spell-casting panel are the buttons we press to make each character take a swing or a throw or a shot, as the case may be, at a monster, and below them the buttons we press to move about.

Now let’s right-click on one of the characters along the top of the screen to see some more of Dungeon Master‘s new ideas…

Dungeon Master

Here we see the debut of the soon-to-be ubiquitous “paper-doll” approach to character inventory in CRPGs. We can just drag what we like onto the body, into the hands, into the various packs and pockets. (Apparently old Wuuf, like Donald Duck, is a let-it-all-hang-out, pants-free kind of guy.) Once again, all of this would be a nightmare for players of a tabletop RPG to keep track of, but it’s easy, intuitive, and natural for the player of a computer game. The most literally embodying aspect of Dungeon Master the first embodied CRPG, paper-doll inventories would go on to become one of the most obvious and omnipresent of all its legacies.

Dungeon Master

Clicking on the eye — note how it shifts its gaze when we do so, one of Dungeon Master‘s many subtle graphical touches — shows us the vital statistics of this character. The designers have tinkered a bit with the traditional core ability scores, removing useless stuff like Charisma to arrive at a set that hones in with relentless precision on Dungeon Master‘s priorities of killing monsters and mapping dungeons. This is not so surprising; games like the original Wizardry, which insisted on implementing a Dungeons and Dragons-style alignment system it had no idea what to do with, were already becoming the rarity of the field by 1987.

The big surprise that is revealed here is Dungeon Master‘s approach to character class — or, rather, its rejection of the very concept. Instead of each character having a single class which he shall hold forevermore, complete with associated arbitrary restrictions of Dungeons and Dragons like a cleric’s inability to use edged weapons and a magic user’s inability to wear armor, Dungeon Master offers four skill disciplines in which any character can advance at any time: fighter, ninja, wizard, and priest. Like in the real world, he just has to practice to get better at any of them. The old Dungeons and Dragons system, absurd as it was in so many ways, had long been a comfort blanket for CRPG players. In sweeping it all away, Dungeon Master must have felt shocking, perhaps uncomfortably so. But, soon enough, it felt bracing. Why should this computer game adhere to a system set up for an old tabletop game? Dungeon Master‘s system isn’t a universal framework of rules, as Dungeons and Dragons strives to be. It’s simply the best system of rules that FTL could devise for this particular game of dungeon delving and monster slaying. Discarding so much accumulated tradition and doing what was right for their game took boldness, even bravery. It took, in short, a willingness to look at Dungeons and Dragons and ask why.

Dungeon Master

We move on to the exit from the Hall of Champions, where we see the first of many pressure plates, usually visible but occasionally hidden, that litter the levels below. Stepping forward produces a click!, and the gate goes up in front of us. This serves as our introduction to the dungeon as a real, tactile place, a far cry from the wire-frame abstractions of Wizardry or even the full-color but static mazes of The Bard’s Tale. In addition to fighting monsters, much of our time will soon be spent tripping pressure plates, flipping switches, and pushing buttons to solve puzzles, avoid traps, and make progress. While dungeon crawls had had puzzles before, they had usually come in the form of set-piece riddles or abstract mapping challenges like spinners and teleports (all of which, never fear, Dungeon Master does have as well). This level of interaction, however, was unprecedented. It was largely inspired by, of all things, the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones dashes through a subterranean complex not all that far removed from this one, complete with many of the same sorts of very physical, very mechanical traps. (We can breathe a sigh of relief that giant rolling boulders were beyond even FTL’s abilities to implement.)

Dungeon Master

A couple of steps further we learn a yet greater appreciation for this dungeon as an embodied, interactive place. There’s an apple sitting on the ground before us. We can reach right into the scene to pick it up and drag it to one of our characters’ inventory — or, if we like, right to his mouth. CRPGs like Ultima — although, interestingly, not Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale — had been requiring characters to eat for many years by 1987, but their version of food had always been an abstract quantity to be gained and lost, little different from hit points. In Dungeon Master, food is — stop me if you’ve heard this word before — an embodied resource. We carry around apples, wedges of cheese, drumsticks to feed to our characters when they get hungry. We’ll also find that some monsters are edible, leaving behind neat “screamer slices,” “worm rounds,” or “dragon steaks” after we kill them. The different foodstuffs naturally fill us differently; a drumstick fills more than an apple. The idea that our characters can kill a monster and immediately start to chow down on it doesn’t make any sense, of course (at least if the character isn’t a dog like old Wuuf). Neither does finding a perfectly preserved apple sitting incongruously in the middle of a dungeon, or for that matter the dozens of monsters populating each level below this one with no identifiable food source of their own. Realistic this game is not. But Dungeon Master is a more immersive sort of artificial experience, and that makes all the difference — the difference between a scary campfire story and a visit to a haunted house.

Dungeon Master

A few steps further we find a torch we can pull off the wall and take. We’d best do so because light, whether generated by torches or magic, is a precious resource in every level after the first. Thanks to the comparatively generous color palettes of the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga, Dungeon Master is able to dim the environment gradually and realistically as a torch begins to sputter or a spell begins to run out, rather than making vision an all-or-nothing affair as in earlier games.

There’s also a water skin lying on the floor waiting to be filled as soon as we can find a fountain; water is yet another precious resource that we need to manage carefully. And there’s something else lying on the floor in front of us: our first spell scroll.

Dungeon Master

This, then, brings us to Dungeon Master‘s hugely original and hugely influential magic system, what has come to be called “rune-based” magic. Rather than being chosen from lists or entered via code names that also serve as thinly veiled copy protection, spells in Dungeon Master are built from combinations of runes, from two to four of them depending on the spell’s complexity. The first always dictates the spell’s power; those that follow can include an “elemental influence” (like water, air, or fire); a “form” (like a spider, a wing, or a spear); and a “class” or “alignment” (like a fighter or a wizard, or good or evil). We cause our characters to cast spells by entering their runes using the panel at the right of the screen. We need the manual to figure out that the rune “FUL” described in the scroll corresponds to the one representing fire — a natural choice for a light spell. (Did someone say something about thinly veiled copy protection?)

At the beginning of the game we don’t know a single spell, but as we work our way through the dungeon our repertoire will steadily increase as we find scrolls like this one. We can play through the entire game quite successfully just using the spells that we find on scrolls. Yet the real genius of the system is that it also lets us experiment on our own to find new spells before we find their scrolls — possibly even to find spells that are never described via scrolls. It’s a great example of one of Dungeon Master‘s more underrated qualities: its combination of mercy and possibility. It will give us all the spells we really need, but at the same time it doesn’t keep us from experimenting on our own.

Casting each rune demands mana, which increases as our characters gain levels. Each new spell also demands practice. When we first learn a new spell, we should expect each character to be able to cast it only at the lowest power levels, and even then we’re often told that a character “needs more practice.” Work with it a while, let our character get comfortable with it, and he can start to cast it in more potent forms.

Now we start down the stairs to Level 2 — the first “real” level with real monsters, where things really start to get interesting…

Dungeon Master

Down here, where we are no longer alone, Dungeon Master‘s innovative use of sound becomes clear for the first time. We can hear through walls and doors the other creatures that populate the level moving about. If we’re playing on an Amiga, the sounds they make are positioned in a realistic stereo soundscape. It’s as creepily unnerving as it is, we’ll soon learn, tactically useful. But it’s also a sign of hidden depths to Dungeon Master that set it apart from the dungeon crawls that came before in ways that may not be so immediately obvious. As Wayne Holder puts it, “Everything, everywhere, was being simulated all the time.” (“Because we weren’t smart enough to figure out how to do it any other way!” deadpans Doug Bell in response.) That level-encompassing simulation is the source of the sounds. Contrast this with the approach of Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. Their dungeons are static places consisting of perhaps a few set encounters that are activated when the party steps on the right square, and lots and lots of random encounters that occur according to the old “wandering monster” rules of tabletop Dungeon and Dragons: each step brings a percentage chance of encountering a randomized group of monsters, leading to such twistings of the fabric of space as a fight with 396 berserkers in The Bard’s Tale in a room the size of a closet. Dungeon Master, a computer game that respects its computerness, doesn’t need to fall back on old tabletop techniques.

Reinforcing the strange disconnect in games like Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale between the mazes you map and the monsters you fight is the fact that these are heavily modal programs: there’s a travel mode where you explore and map the mazes, a combat mode where you fight monsters, other modes for resting and training and shopping. One could describe these games as not holistic programs at all, but rather a collection of specialized applications glued together, passing data back and forth to one another as needed. Modal software was explicitly rejected by the new paradigm of computing that was ushered in at Xerox PARC and later embraced so wholeheartedly by the Apple Macintosh and its 68000-based rivals the ST and Amiga. Separate modes, so the thinking went, were distancing and confusing, making it too easy to get “lost” inside a program. Better to have one consistent window on an application, with everything available all the time and all commands always working the same: one program, one user, one unified experience.

Dungeon Master shows what that kind of thinking can mean when applied to a game. There is no separation between walking around in the dungeon and fighting monsters; it all takes place there in the same view, through the same interface. Not only does this closing of the software’s seams add more immediacy, it also adds oceans more tactical depth to the whole experience. Groups of monsters can sneak up behind us, can trap us, can be cut off using doors or pits while we rest our characters and let their precious mana recharge. And thanks to the fact that “everything, everywhere, is being simulated,” we can actually clear a level of all monsters (if it doesn’t contain a magical portal that spawns them infinitely, that is) and know that it’s a safe haven to return to forevermore. In their ways these innovations represent as big a leap over what had come before as does Dungeon Master‘s more celebrated real-time nature. Because of them, and despite the artificiality of so many of the game’s mechanics, every level feels like a real space.

Dungeon Master

So, we turn right after coming down the stairs and open the gate there to meet and fight our first monster at last — a mummy. It always comes as a moment of revelation to the new Dungeon Master player when she realizes, whether here or later on, that she can use the dungeon itself to aid her cause by slamming a gate down on a monster’s head even as her characters bash away at it. If you’ve been playing lots of older CRPGs — or, for that matter, plenty of newer ones — it requires a real adjustment in thinking to understand that this dungeon is a thoroughly interactive, manipulable place, and that that reality places countless new tools at your disposal.

Dungeon Master

Combat in Dungeon Master is nerve-wracking in a way that it had never really been before, right from the moment that that first mummy unexpectedly screams at you. In addition to fighting whatever is in front of you, you’re constantly worried about what might be sneaking up behind, trying to avoid getting crushed between two groups of monsters, looking always to spot tactical deathtraps and safe havens alike. The first time you take refuge in a closed room only to be surprised by a monster that can open doors for itself is a terrifying experience in its own right. Just the scurrying noises coming through the walls are enough to fill you with dread when your party is weak and cut off from safety.

Monsters have a variety of strengths and weaknesses, move at different speeds, pursue different tactics. While you can go toe to toe with some, others can only be bested by striking quickly and backing away, again and again — just don’t back into a dead-end corridor! Or you can dispatch them by luring them over trap doors and pulling the rug out from under them by means of a nearby switch, or by using other tricks; the possibilities offered by this mechanistic dungeon can seem almost endless.

There’s much more to be said about combat in Dungeon Master and its many tactical possibilities, but there are plenty of other places on the Internet to learn those things. Even better, you could play for yourself with no more preconceptions, and in the process develop your own techniques.

I do, however, want to say something more about the flip side to Dungeon Master‘s countless formal and technical innovations: its superb level design. I’m tempted to label this as the most remarkable single aspect of the game, simply because it never needed to be anything like this good for Dungeon Master to become a massive hit. Yet it’s key to the continued fascination the game still holds for so many today, long after all of the shiny innovations have become commonplace or been superseded entirely. If you were thinking that that mummy that’s positioned just inside a door that’s just waiting to come down on its head looks like more than coincidence, looks almost like the designers are consciously trying to teach you, organically and wordlessly… well, you’d be right. A couple more examples from the second level, the game’s training ground…

Dungeon Master

We come to lock a with the key lying just below, our introduction to the idea of finding keys and the locks in which they fit in order to open up ever more areas of the dungeon.

Dungeon Master

And above is our introduction to the idea of pressure-plate puzzles. Right now we’re standing on one that just opened the gate ahead; stepping on the one just in front of us will close it again. We obviously need to make a little detour to the right to avoid closing the door. These sorts of puzzles will get much, much more complicated as we work our way downward, but Dungeon Master makes sure we understand the general idea before it hits us with the rough stuff.

And so it goes as we explore the second level. Dungeon Master patiently and enjoyably teaches us the mechanics that will serve as the raw materials for all of the puzzles and challenges to come: buttons, levers, secret doors, teleports, pits. There’s even a door with no key that we need to physically bash through to remind us again that this dungeon is a tactile, embodied, interactive place. In a game of today, this would be smart, progressive design. In a game of 1987… well, this is amazing. Nobody was designing games like this at that time. Visionary as Dungeon Master is in so many ways, it was the enlightened, player-focused level design that stunned me most when I recently played it again, more than 25 years removed from my first encounter.

But if you think that means that Dungeon Master is an easy or trivial game, think again. The difficulty ramps up steadily, level by level. I’ve often heard Dungeon Master characterized as a two-part experience, the first half gradually teaching you the survival skills you’ll need by the time you get to the hardcore later levels.

Still, all of the levels remain masterfully designed in their own ways. Most of them have a theme or a personality all their own. Few Dungeon Master veterans ever forget the theme-park level with its six mockingly titled subsections; the level full of re-spawning giant worms; the level you have to backtrack through half the dungeon to actually enter; the level that’s largely a single huge cavern full of wandering ghosts. The contrast with The Bard’s Tale, whose dungeons felt not so much designed as thrown together by some automated algorithm, could hardly be more stark. The early games of the Wizardry series generally did better in this department, but Dungeon Master nevertheless offers the best level design yet seen in a CRPG. As hardcore as it can get, it continues at the same time to stay away from the really petty stuff that sinks so many old-school games. There are usually more of those precious keys than you actually need, meaning it’s possible to miss a few and still finish the game. And, while there are plenty of secret areas, those that you’re least likely to find are also those least likely to be essential. A commenter to my earlier article about The Faery Tale Adventure, responding to my criticism that it’s too hard to find your way around and know what to do in that game, noted — and rightly so — how rewarding the secret areas feel when you do find them, simply because they are so secret. Dungeon Master understands this, and fills its levels with Easter eggs for the lucky and the methodical. But, unlike The Faery Tale Adventure, it also understands the danger of making its pathways to victory too obscure. Let people win, then let them play again if they like and see what new things they can discover.

Indeed, Dungeon Master must be one of the most replayable CRPGs ever that’s not a roguelike, with a thriving cult of players who even today play again and again, setting new challenges for themselves: play with only one character; play with the weakest characters in the Hall of Champions; advance each character in only one discipline; use only spells in combat; use no spells in combat. There’s no story to be impatiently clicked through, no cut scenes to wait for, just the game. Long after they know all of the levels by heart, many continue to find them almost infinitely rewarding to revisit. Dungeon Master remains one of the most-played games of its vintage, thanks not least to lots of loving ports and remakes that make it widely and easily accessible to anyone with access to a computer.

That said, by far its most off-putting aspect for the modern player must be the need to map. This area is one where Dungeon Master is notably not so merciful. Most of its levels are huge, rambling places, especially by contrast with the compact layouts of blessedly regular size that characterized Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. They present a huge challenge for the would-be pencil-and-graph-paper mapper; you never know where you begin a level or how far it’s likely to run in any given direction, meaning you find your map constantly running off one side or another of the paper and yourself starting all over again. Drawing and redrawing maps doubtless consumed a big chunk of the tens or even hundreds of hours so many people spent on Dungeon Master back in the day. A complete collection, a fully mapped 14-level dungeon, represented a major achievement in itself, a prize to be treasured — and sometimes to be sold as part of the rich cottage industry that sprang up around the game. Nowadays, of course, you can find maps of all the levels all over the Internet. I recommend that those of you not ready to devote hours to mapping by hand download a set — preferably without any other hints — and use them rather than foregoing Dungeon Master entirely. It’s an anachronistic way to play, one that unavoidably diminishes some of the mystery and thus some of the experience, but the game is rich enough that it still has plenty to offer.

Others, both now and even back then, will likely be put off by the aesthetic minimalism that is such a defining trait of Dungeon Master. It’s a game that focuses all its energy relentlessly toward its one goal of being the best, most immersive tactical dungeon crawl possible, and excises absolutely everything else. That can, even for a fan like me, make it feel a little sterile. Tellingly, most of Dungeon Master‘s successors chose to build on it not by improving on any of its own priorities, but by adding layers of lore and story. Something like Eye of the Beholder, which clutters up the template with the same awkward Dungeons and Dragons mechanics that Dungeon Master so proudly rejects, could never be called a better pure game design than its predecessor. But, depending on your own priorities, such a lovably shaggy shamble, bursting at the seams with the lore of the Forgotten Realms, might very well offer a better game experience. For my own part, I must confess that the tactical dungeon crawl itself isn’t really my favorite cuppa, which may do much to explain why Dungeon Master is pretty much the only game of its type I’ve ever felt the need of.

While everyone must decide for herself whether she loves it, Dungeon Master can only be respected as one of the most innovative and influential CRPGs of all time. Real-time play; mode-less play; the paper-doll inventory system; rune-based magic; granular lighting; the replacement of character class by disciplines… the list just goes on. Every CRPG of today has a little Dungeon Master in it. And, outside its own genre’s ghetto, Dungeon Master‘s influence on gaming at large has also been enormous. We’ll be continuing to chart that influence, and thus to pay this progenitor of so much its due homage, as we continue to work our way through history.


 

(If you’re interested in experiencing this blend of shocking innovation and shockingly good design today, you need only visit the home page of the game’s still-thriving fan community. There you can download something called CSBwin, a cycle-perfect port of Dungeon Master and its less welcoming sequel Chaos Strikes Back to Windows, OS X, and Linux. The only problem with this version is that bugaboo of so much retro-gaming, the aspect ratio. CSBwin maps the oblong pixels of the ST and Amiga directly onto the square pixels of modern machines, meaning the display appears horizontally stretched in comparison with the original. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but something to be aware of.

You can also experience the game via emulator. I recommend the Amiga version 3.6 of the game, a later re-release that stripped away the legendarily gnarly copy protection that continues to be a problem to this day; there are still lots of incomplete cracks floating around out there. You can download a whole swathe of Amiga versions and versions for other platforms as well from the same site.

And, regardless of how you play, you’ll need the manual.)

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Dungeon Master, Part 1: The Making of

FTL

After the first Ultima and Wizardry games debuted within months of one another in 1981, dizzying formal or technical leaps were few and far between in the realm of the CRPG for the next half-decade. Richard Garriott steadily expanded on Ultima I‘s decidedly limited scope of possibility with each new iteration of his series, but never came close to abandoning the basic structure that made an Ultima an Ultima. In terms of technology and interface — theme and content were a different matter — the Ultima series was all evolution, not revolution; anyone who’s played any of Ultima II through Ultima V will immediately recognize Ultima I as an earlier, rougher swathe cut from the same cloth. Sir-Tech, meanwhile, did far less work than Garriott on their own defining classic Wizardry, content to simply pump out iteration after iteration of the same game.

If Sir-Tech’s particular brand of sloth was almost incomprehensible, in the broader strokes the Ultima and Wizardry developers’ decision to stick with their provably enjoyable, commercially successful approaches is hardly surprising. What’s much more so is how slavishly most other CRPGs chose to model themselves after one or the other. One only had to glance at mid-1980s hits like Questron or The Bard’s Tale to know where their ideas were coming from (for the record, Ultima and Wizardry respectively). Those games that did try to go their own way, like Shadowkeep with its unholy union of Wizardry-style dungeon delving to a Zork-style parser interface, made you wonder why they bothered, served only to make you appreciate the two proven CRPG templates all the more. It was as if those two pivotal early efforts had gotten so much right that there just wasn’t much innovation left to be done beyond tinkering at the margins. Questron and The Bard’s Tale were better games in some ways than their inspirations, offering better graphics and more to see and do, but they were, once again, evolutions, not revolutions. Where were the really bold and exciting new ideas?

They began to arrive only in the latter half of the decade, firstly in the form of The Faery Tale Adventure, the game I wrote about in my last article, and shortly thereafter in that of Dungeon Master, the one I want to write about today. Even in them, one can still see the old templates in the broad strokes. The Faery Tale Adventure, a free-roaming game of open-world exploration, quite clearly draws from the Ultima games with its selection of magical gems and totems, its overhead perspective, and its system of magical gates for traveling around its sprawling world. But just as much about it is entirely new: its day-to-night cycles (a year before Garriott nicked the idea for his own Ultima V); its free-scrolling movement; its action-based combat. Likewise, Dungeon Master is very much a tactical dungeon crawl in the best tradition of Wizardry.

But what a dungeon crawl it is! Having agreed to work from that very traditional premise, its developers gave themselves permission to innovate wildly within it and to question every assumption of its forefather. The result is as dramatic a leap beyond Wizardry as that game had been beyond the earliest proto-CRPGs like Temple of Apshai. Wizardry had brought with it a feeling that its developers had finally figured something out that the rest of the software world had been groping toward for some time — had gotten something fundamentally right at last. More than six years later, Dungeon Master arrived carrying much the same aura.

Indeed, Dungeon Master would prove to be almost too good at what it did, would have the same almost stultifying effect as earlier had Wizardry on the dungeon crawls that followed. It would seldom if ever be even equaled in the years immediately following its release, and wouldn’t be clearly bettered until something called Ultima Underworld dropped five long years further on. The dungeon crawl, it seemed, was just a quantum sort of genre.

Dungeon Master is such an important game that I feel I need two articles to do it justice. This first one will tell the story of its long gestation and birth and the huge rewards its parents finally reaped for their efforts. The second will delve into the game itself, to properly explain why it’s such an important entry in its field and why I consider it one of the most remarkable feats of its era.


 

The road to Dungeon Master begins more than six years before its eventual release, with, appropriately enough, those original Ultima and Wizardry games. Doug Bell and Andy Jaros were already good friends as well as undergraduates in chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, when Jaros was given an Apple II by his parents just in time for those seminal releases. The pair played them obsessively, and soon decided, much like thousands of others, that they could create a dungeon crawl just as good as Wizardry for themselves. They decided to call it Crystal Dragon; in a move that must have seemed hilariously clever to a couple of young chemists, they named the company they would form “PVC Dragon” to match. Bell would be the programmer, Jaros the artist, and they would share the role of designer.

The pair had big ambitions, incorporating themselves from the beginning and even managing to attract some investors. Emulating their hero, Wizardry programmer Robert Woodhead, they programmed their would-be Wizardry killer in Apple Pascal. They worked doggedly on it through their mutual graduation in 1983 and beyond. But, as Jaros puts it, “the money was always running out.” The pair had to accept that they couldn’t make the game all by themselves. “We sent six letters out to some software companies in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas,” remembers Jaros. “One of them got us in touch with Wayne Holder at FTL Games. The rest, as they say, is history.” In short, Bell and Jaros found themselves in Software Heaven.

Software Heaven was the name of the little company of several years standing that was owned and operated by Holder, a programmer a generation removed from the PVC Dragon boys. Holder and his company, known in its earliest years as Oasis Systems, had made their first money in the young software industry in 1981 through a program he called simply The Word, a spellchecker he had first developed to help his wife Nancy, an author of romantic fantasy and horror novels and an ever-helpful supporter of his own projects, in her work. Oasis/Software Heaven made quite a number of similar tools for writers in the years that followed. But already in 1982 conversations with an old college buddy named Bruce Webster, a dedicated player and amateur designer of games of both the analog and digital varieties, led Holder to diversify, to start a new division of his company to make games under Webster’s guidance. He named it “FTL Games” — FTL for “Faster Than Light.” It would, as we’ll soon see, prove to be a very ironic title.

The first and, as it would transpire, last game that Webster wrote for the new FTL has become something of a cult classic in its own right. Inspired by Webster’s Mormon faith, Sundog: Frozen Legacy is the story of a small group of space colonists adrift on the galactic frontier, whom you, a pilot with a little star freighter, must succor by trading for the goods they need to survive and expand. It was released in March of 1984 on the Apple II, whereupon its mixture of trading, space combat, and CRPG-type character mechanics yielded stellar reviews and respectable sales. Webster, however, had found the process of coding 80 to 90 percent of such a complex game all by himself unbelievably draining. Unable to face the prospect of another such project, he left FTL that fall, shortly after completing a version 2.0 of Sundog that fixed some bugs and added some new features.

Webster’s abrupt departure left Holder high and dry, with a successful game but no programmers to make a follow-up. Meanwhile the writing seemed to be on the wall for the other part of his business. His writing aids had done very well for him for a couple of years, but the serious productivity market was getting to be a tougher and tougher one for a small company, dominated as it now was by big names like Microsoft, Ashton-Tate, and Lotus, with big marketing budgets to match. While he would keep his hand in as a spellchecking expert for several years to come, often by writing pieces of the firmware for dedicated hardware word processors from companies like Magnavox, he was already coming to see his company’s long-term future as necessarily a games-oriented one if it was to have a long-term future at all. It was for this reason that he found these two bright young sparks Doug Bell and Andy Jaros, along with their CRPG in progress, so appealing. Their game was even coded in Pascal, the same language as Sundog. He signed PVC Dragon to not so much a development as a devouring deal, bringing Bell and Jaros in-house to become the nucleus of a new version of FTL. The initial plan was to finish up Crystal Dragon and get it out as quickly as possible, then move on to the next game. But very, very few things at FTL ever happened in quite such a tidy — or timely — way as that.

Crystal Dragon almost immediately proved a more complicated proposition than Holder had anticipated. Bell and Jaros had lots of ideas, but not all of them were practical on the little Apple II. For all the cockiness with which they had embarked on their Wizardry killer, they found themselves facing a problem well known to all too many other 8-bit CRPG developers: it just wasn’t clear how to dramatically improve on the Wizardry formula on such limited hardware.

When Jack Tramiel, newly installed owner of the post-videogame-crash Atari Computer, announced the 68000-based Atari ST line in dramatic fashion at the January 1985 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, Holder decided that they might just be able to dispense with said limited hardware. Like plenty of other pundits and industry figures, he felt sure that the ST, which in the terms of 1985 offered a staggering amount of computing power for the price, must become the mass-market successor to Tramiel’s earlier masterstroke the Commodore 64. Sundog had done quite well in the crowded, uncertain Apple II market. How well might the same game, with improved graphics and sound and a mousefied interface, do in the virgin territory of the ST? Determined to find out, Holder pulled Bell and Jaros off of their game and set them to work porting Sundog to the ST just as soon as he could get his hands on actual ST hardware.

Released in time for Christmas 1985 thanks to herculean efforts on everyone’s part, the re-imagined Sundog arrived to a still tiny base of ST users, but one that was absolutely starving for quality games for their new toys. It did very well, even better than the Apple II version despite the tiny fraction of potential customers the ST offered in comparison. The small-pond theory had worked brilliantly, cementing a loyalty to the ST that would lead them to create this oft-overlooked platform’s best-selling game of all time.

FTL turned back to Crystal Dragon, which they soon renamed to Dungeon Master — a name so obvious it was amazing that no one had yet claimed it. Now, however, it was to be rewritten from scratch on the ST. Thanks to the power of the ST, FTL should at last be able to explode the old Wizardry template without being slowly pulled back to the status quo by the limitations of the hardware. Key to the re-imagined Crystal Dragon from the beginning was that it should be a real-time experience, giving it a very different personality from the cool tactical challenge that is Wizardry. “The games at that point had all been turn-based and you could take as long as you wanted to think about what you were going to do next,” says Bell. “We knew we wanted to put the player under the pressure of time.” Wizardry‘s tiny window on its dungeons would be blown up to a view that filled at least half the screen. The player would no longer be isolated from the environment; she would be able to click directly on the world view to interact with the things — and creatures — in it. These new ideas, and the many more that would continue to spiral out from them for months to come, were part of an overarching determination to create an embodied CRPG experience. “How do you go from being a player to being ‘in’ a game?” asked Nancy Holder. Almost every new aspect of Dungeon Master exists as an answer to that question.

Dungeon Master the embodied experience: I've just reached directly into the world to hit the button and lower the door, which is no crushing the Blue Meanies beneath it.

Dungeon Master the embodied experience: I’ve just reached directly into the world to hit the button and lower the door, which is now crushing the Blue Meanies beneath it as it tries to close.

Dungeon Master on the ST first came to life before the ST Sundog had even made it into shops, as a proof of concept created by Bell to see whether the large pseudo-3D, first-person view would be possible. Bell used what’s known in graphics theory as a “painter’s algorithm” to draw each screen. The background was first pieced together jigsaw-style from separate sprites depicting walls, floor, ceiling, doors, etc. Objects and monsters that should appear over it were then sorted in order from farthest to nearest, and finally drawn in one by one, thus ensuring that those closer obscured those farther away. It worked, but the performance of the demo, which was still coded in Pascal, left something to be desired, even on the mighty ST. Bell therefore “spent three weeks learning C,” the native language of the ST’s operating system. The performance of the re-coded demo proved “better than expected.” Dungeon Master was a go.

Most of the FTL crew. The men are, from left: Mike Newton,

Some of the FTL crew. From left: Joe Holt, Deirdre Poelter, Mike Newton, Russ Boelhauf, Wayne Holder, and Andy Jaros. The woman at far right is unidentified.

With its founder and head himself a fine programmer, FTL was nothing if not a classic example of a purely technology-driven company. That can create a danger in the form of a tendency to continue iterating endlessly over the same project instead of just getting things finished and out the door. FTL would hardly be immune to that danger — in some fourteen years of existence they would manage to release exactly three original games and two sequels — but their obsessive perfectionism in executing all of their bold new ideas would nevertheless come to define Dungeon Master almost as much as the ideas themselves. Bell had chafed at the way that Sundog had been coded on the Apple II, and the form in which, pressed for time, he’d had to recreate it on the ST: as a big pile of hand-crafted, machine-specific code. Resources at FTL being limited, this approach would prevent them from ever porting it beyond those two platforms, despite the success it enjoyed there. Better, thought Bell and Wayne Holder alike, to first write a set of tools for writing Dungeon Master, along with an engine that could run the tools’ output on both current computers and those still to come. They could be loyal to the ST, but not to the point of stupidity. And the same tools could later, of course, be used to make more games as well as ports. “We knew,” says Wayne Holder, “that there was absolutely no chance of getting our money back with just one version of Dungeon Master. We had to set up a system that would serve as a foundation for later games.”

It was far from a new idea in game development, but few others of FTL’s era would take it quite as far as they did. A new programmer, Mike Newton, was hired just to work on the design tools. Applications like the Dungeon Construction Set, which let one design and populate an entire dungeon level from a unified GUI interface, grew into impressive feats in their own right. Equally impressive was the compression technology that FTL developed from scratch, which allowed them not only to run the game on Atari’s low-end 512 K 520 ST model but to ship it on a single single-sided disk; the entire game, code and graphics included, consumed less than 400 K on disk. Helping the cause greatly was the fact that the game, being virtually story-less until you arrive at the final showdown, needed contain very little text, a greedy eater of disk space.

The Dungeon Editor

The Dungeon Construction Set

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may have already remarked certain parallels between the approach of Infocom and that of FTL — namely, the idea that the best tools are necessary to craft the best games. The comparison was not at all lost on Wayne Holder, who set out with the explicit goal of making his company the Infocom of the CRPG world, a comparison that also extended to heavily emphasizing testing and player feedback.

We set a high goal. We want to become in the field of role-playing games the counterpart to what Infocom has achieved in the field of text adventures: the best technically, who also have the best game designs and — contrary to Infocom — also the best graphics. Therefore we spent several months just working on polishing and improving/detailing the interaction for Dungeon Master. We let dozens of folks playtest, from complete pros to people who had never seen a computer nor dungeon before. We listened to every proposal and modified the user interface several times. We did think about things that do not appear in Dungeon Master at all, which we however will need in other RPGs, and have programmed them along the line, too. Now we have a complex development system that enables us to program relatively quickly RPGs with a user interface similar to Dungeon Master’s. And it won’t stop at fantasy titles alone. We are thinking about science-fiction games, detective stories, and about a couple of new things nobody has yet done.

The tricky, performance-sensitive code of the engine itself was created by Bell and another new hire, Dennis Walker, while Jaros continued in the role of artist, drawing his images on the ST using Activision’s Paintworks. Rounding out the little team was Wayne Holder, who oversaw the whole thing and also served as the de facto sound programmer, coaxing out of the machine’s limited sound chip some of the first examples of sampled audio to appear in an ST game. Far from a typical executive, he remained always intimately involved with the process of creation. “I think some of the biggest conceptual contributions were made by Wayne,” notes Bell, “particularly with regard to the user interface.” Nancy Holder was also on-hand to offer occasional insight and to write the accompanying fiction, something about a Grey Lord and a Firestaff that can be safely ignored until the climax, when you suddenly have to ask yourself what the hell just happened. To offer more story would have been to go against one of the guiding philosophies of the game. “I wanted people to have a lot of tall tales to tell when they’d finished the game,” says Wayne Holder. “And I wanted those tales to be unique. We are working toward the point where the story is scripted entirely by the player. We take you to the starting point, but from then on it’s up to you.” Perhaps more valuable than Nancy Holder’s story-making were her insights into the psychology of horror that lent the game tension and texture: “We tried to make it scary so that the player could feel engaged. We tried with background noises and all kinds of other things to make it creepy.”

FTL's greatest trade secret: Dungeon Master's C source code

FTL’s greatest trade secret: Dungeon Master‘s C source code.

The further the design progressed, the further it moved away from the structure of Wizardry, and with it from Wizardry‘s own inspiration of tabletop Dungeons and Dragons. Instead of having a set class, characters can advance simultaneously in all four disciplines of fighter, wizard, ninja, and priest. Experience is earned not through killing monsters or accomplishing goals, but simply by practicing the skills in each discipline and thus getting better at them. Combat, taking place now in real time, is a much more frenzied, hectic affair, dependent as much on the player’s reflexes as the characters’ skills. I’ll have much more to say about these new ideas and many others in my next article, but suffice for now to say that, if Wizardry is Dungeons and Dragons adapted to the computer, Dungeon Master is a clean-slate re-imagining that takes only a handful of fundamental concepts — a dungeon to be delved, monsters to be fought, treasure to be collected, characters to be improved — as sacrosanct. Everything else is up for renegotiation. Bell sets great store by the fact that, while he and Jaros were hardcore aficionados of Dungeons and Dragons and previous CRPGs, the others at FTL had little to no experience with the genre. They continually asked why their game needed to abide by this or that more or less arbitrary tradition; such constant questioning “saved the game from being an extension of what had already been done.” Dungeon Master is a computer game through and through, its tabletop roots left far behind. Tellingly, it’s just as obviously a progenitor of Doom as it is a successor to Wizardry.


Of course, innovation on such a scale would take time even without FTL’s perfectionist tendencies. Dungeon Master was first discussed publicly at the Summer CES in June of 1986, to which FTL brought a very limited, non-interactive demo that’s mostly devoted to a lengthy text scroll full of purple prose. The brief glimpse we get of the game itself in action shows that, while the basic concept is in place, much of what’s been done needs further refinement. And there’s still more that would be seen in the finished game that’s yet to be even begun. The interface, for instance, is more cluttered than what we’d seen in the final game, the mouse pointer that in the shape of a disembodied hand would be your means of poking and prodding at the environment not there at all. And there’s not a single actual monster to be seen.

FTL’s original plan to make the game available in time for Christmas 1986 slipped and slipped. To keep the buzz alive, they regularly demonstrated the work in progress for ST user groups. “That was my method of knowing we were on the right track,” says Wayne Holder. “When we started showing the game, it was always invariably quiet, then the users would ask a ton of questions.” Dungeon Master was the most hotly anticipated piece of vaporware in ST circles for months on end.

Andy Jaros at his drafting table making art for Dungeon Master.

Andy Jaros at his drafting table making art for Dungeon Master.

In the end, Dungeon Master spent more than two years in active development. All that time was spent doing many of the things you might expect, adding features and puzzles and new types of monsters, but much was also spent paring back the design, honing in on what really mattered. Like most elegant designs, Dungeon Master is marked as much or more by the surface complexities it lacks as those it contains. For good reason has it long been a truism in software design that the best programs are usually those that appear the simplest on the surface. Wayne Holder proved to be the group’s Steve Jobs, with a knack for slicing through the cruft to arrive at what mattered. He demanded a game as easy and instinctive to use as a “screwdriver.” Doug Bell:

I was working on this complex system where you could look down at the floor and you could pick up things around you, and Wayne says, “Well, it’s right there, why can’t I just reach in and pick it up?” That was sort of a “well, yeah” moment. And Wayne was actually responsible for a lot of those moments. He would just come in and say, “Why don’t you do it that way?”

With Sundog out and doing well, FTL had a sustaining source of income through all the experimentation and refinement. The fourteen dungeon levels that make up the game, whose design was a joint effort on the part of the entire team, were refined just as obsessively as the technology and user interface. Dungeon Master got played constantly for months, first by the team themselves and their close friends, and then, near the end of the process, through a serious outside beta test, all in the name of getting that elusive balance between fun and frustration just right. (That said, you can never please everybody: one tester reportedly sent back a broken disk accompanied by the message, “Take this aggravating piece of shit and shove it up your ass.”)

The work paid off. As impressive as Dungeon Master is for its technical and formal innovations, it’s at least as impressive as a piece of pure design craft. It is, simply put, one superbly crafted CRPG, rivaled only by the first couple of Wizardry games among its predecessors in its sheer attention to detail. I will, once again, have much more to say on this front in my next article, but it’s important to note even here how rare it is to see such attention to design in a technical game-changer like Dungeon Master. Normally bold new gaming concepts are attached to somewhat wonky designs, to be shaped and refined by succeeding efforts; even Infocom’s early games had their share of lousy puzzles. But FTL, like Sir-Tech before them, hit a home run in their first at-bat.

David Darrow's Dungeon Master cover art became one of the most iconic of the 1980s. It was painted from photographics he took in his studio, with his wife playing the candelabra-holding spellcaster, Andy Jaros the thiefy character pulling on the torch, and a "really huge guy" from a local gym the barbarian fighter. It wasn't necessary to find a model for the fourth member of this party, whose bones lie neatly stacked at front left.

David Darrow’s Dungeon Master cover art has become some of the most iconic of its era. It was painted from photographs he took in his studio, with his wife playing the candelabra-holding spellcaster, Andy Jaros the squirrely fellow pulling on the torch, and a “really huge guy” from a local gym the barbarian fighter.

Dungeon Master slipped quietly into American stores on December 15, 1987, far too late to take advantage of the Christmas rush. Nor was it all that lavishly advertised. FTL seemed to have a certain sense of austerity baked into their very DNA, reflected equally by the modest advertising campaign as it was by the aesthetic minimalism of the game itself, which offered no music or other extraneous flashiness, just those things that really needed to be there.

But it didn’t matter. If ever a game was sellable by word of mouth, it was this one. Already in the February 1988 issue, the Michigan Atari Magazine was noting that “messages asking question and giving playing hints are appearing in unprecedented numbers on CompuServe and other information services, as well as local BBS systems.” Dungeon Master did staggeringly well right out of the gate, especially considering how small the installed based of STs really was. That same magazine noted that “Dungeon Master has become so popular, it took me several weeks to locate it in stock anywhere” — and this just two months after a very quiet release. FTL was positively overwhelmed by the demand, fighting for months a losing battle to ship games fast enough. They printed a sign to send to software dealers, saying “Yes! We have Dungeon Master!,” which they could hang in the window during those usually brief periods when that was indeed the case.

Wayne Holder personally copies Dungeon Master disks. FTL's state-of-the-art disk duplicator was key to their state-of-the-art copy protection...

Wayne Holder personally copies Dungeon Master disks. FTL’s state-of-the-art in-house disk duplicator, capable of copying 100 disks at a time, was key to their state-of-the-art copy protection.

Yes, the ST community went crazy for Dungeon Master, first in North America, soon enough in Europe, where it was packaged and distributed by the big British publisher Mirrorsoft. With the ST itself so much more popular overseas, more than two-thirds of Dungeon Master‘s eventual sales would be made through Mirrorsoft. To help them along, FTL funded full translations into German and French, still a relatively rarity in the industry at that time. Doug Bell would have it that Dungeon Master sales at at least one point reached more than 50 percent of the total installed base of Atari STs — in other words, that more than one out of every two people with an ST had purchased Dungeon Master to play on it. While that seems a little unbelievable — especially given that, thanks to Jack Tramiels’s tight-lipped business practices, no one was ever quite sure how many STs were actually out there anyway — it’s a marker of Dungeon Master‘s insane popularity that it is indeed only a little unbelievable. During 1988 it really did seem that everyone who owned or had access to an ST was playing Dungeon Master. Its effect on their ranks can perhaps be compared only to the original Adventure, the game that famously stopped the institutional world of the PDP-10 dead for two weeks while everyone tried to solve it.

Helping Dungeon Master‘s commercial cause greatly was the game’s copy protection, which like just about everything else about it was innovative and technically state of the art, such that it would take months rather than the usual hours for a completely cracked version to emerge — an eternity on the calendar of the most notorious piracy demographic, the adolescent boy. Throughout those long months, the only way to play Dungeon Master was to buy a copy. A Dungeon Master original therefore became the only original game in quite a number of otherwise ill-gotten collections. The release of Dungeon Master marks one of the few occasions in the history of the software industry when copy protection clearly and incontrovertibly did do its job, generating tens if not hundreds of thousands of sales that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

The 68000 Wars hadn’t been going all that well for the ST following the release of the Commodore Amiga 500, superior in most technical respects to a similarly low-end ST and for the first time much too close for comfort in price. Amiga owners loved to taunt ST owners about the latter platform’s inferior graphics and sound and lack of multitasking and, now, its inferior sales as well. Hard as it may seem to believe that a single game could serve as a viable riposte to such comprehensive taunts, this one was so impressive that it made exactly that: “Yes, well, we have Dungeon Master!” There wasn’t much to be said by Amiga owners in response; everyone knew they wanted it, lusted after it, were jealous as hell.

But, soon enough, they got it, and ST owners lost their bragging rights again. FTL had designed their game engine to be portable from the beginning, and the Amiga, by far the computer most technically similar to the ST, was the obvious first target. The biggest stumbling block proved to be memory. The vast majority of Amigas out there at the time still had only 512 K, the same as the low-end ST for which Dungeon Master had originally been designed, but thanks to a more memory-hungry operating system FTL just couldn’t find a way to get the game running in that space. They made the painful decision to require a full 1 MB of memory, becoming the first prominent Amiga game to do so. The decision doubtless hurt sales to some extent, but such was Dungeon Master‘s burgeoning cult that it likely did just as much to drive sales of Amiga memory expansions. Just as Commodore’s own European subsidiaries had taken to packaging Amiga 500s with the latest hit games, at least one maker of RAM expansions, Tecno, acknowledged why their customers were really interested in their product by selling a sort of Dungeon Master playing kit that included the game in the same box as the memory expansion needed to play it. Many more games began to follow Dungeon Master‘s lead in demanding 1 MB, and by 1990 it had become the effective standard minimum.

Tecno AmiRAM

In return for their patience and their indulgence in expanded memory, Amiga owners were rewarded with bragging rights of their own over their ST rivals. While the graphics in the Amiga Dungeon Master remained unchanged, FTL had taken advantage of the Amiga’s superior sound hardware to enhance the experience: monsters moving about the rooms and corridors near your party were now heard in realistic stereo. Far from just a gimmick, the subtle stereo soundscape was a real boon to situational awareness, making Dungeon Master the first of the great headphone games.

Additional ports to the Apple IIGS and MS-DOS followed. Ever the tech-driven company, FTL designed their own “sound adapter” to package with Dungeon Master on the latter platform; it replaced the beeps and squeaks that were the only noises that PC clones could normally make with sampled digital sound effects, just like all the other platforms got to enjoy.

Dungeon Master

An entire cottage industry sprang up around this single game and its single fourteen-level dungeon that’s perhaps comparable only to the one that came to surround the original Wizardry. Companies sprouted like weeds out of garages and back offices to offer character editors, map editors, and, most of all, information: tactical hints on how best to combat the various monsters, maps of the dungeon levels and solutions to the many puzzles and traps found therein. At one time there were a dozen or so alternative hint books and hint disks duking it out with FTL’s own official volume. FTL themselves released the ultimate Dungeon Master lifestyle accessory, a CD — Dungeon Master: The Album — containing tunes inspired by the game, with tracks bearing titles like “Hall of Champions,” “The Adventure Begins,” and “Riddle Room.” The music had originated as embellishments to yet more ports, this time to various Japanese consoles and computers. Dungeon Master soon became a big hit in the Land of the Rising Sun as well, making it as close to a truly global phenomenon as it was realistically possible for a computer game to be in those days.

All this success prompted the inevitable legion of copycats hoping to get a piece of the same action. Some of them, like Westwood Associates’s Eye of the Beholder and Lands of Lore series, did indeed do very well for themselves, and are still remembered with considerable fondness today. To my mind, though, none ever quite matched the taut, minimalist elegance of the original. The first game of its kind, Dungeon Master is also probably the last that a student of gaming history really needs to play, until we get to Ultima Underworld, which replaces Dungeon Master‘s step-wise movement and pseudo-3D with a smoothly scrolling truly three-dimensional view and thereby revolutionizes the genre yet again. As Wayne Holder said a few years after Dungeon Master‘s release:

I haven’t really seen anything where they have done much more than follow in our footsteps. We expected to be imitated, and we figured that people would advance the state of the art, but it was amazing how many of the things we did got completely borrowed. The movement arrows on the screen, for example. We must have experimented with dozens of different combinations before arranging them the way we did. That’s really where your investment of time is, working out what works and what doesn’t. It’s amazing how many games I look at and see those same movement arrows.

Unfortunately, FTL proved to be like their competitors in that their own later efforts also pale in comparison to the first Dungeon Master. Making the game had been an exhilarating experience, but as draining as any other difficult artistic birthing. Comparisons to the world of film abound among the FTL alumni. Nancy Holder learned a new sympathy for movie directors, who, after finishing a movie, “sometimes take years before they direct another,” while Wayne Holder recalls “Robert Rodriguez’s comment that all he wanted to do when he made El Mariachi was to make enough money to make another film. He was not prepared for it to be successful, and I felt exactly like that.” Given FTL’s focus on technology almost for its own sake, and given that they already had a proven, hugely successful design on their hands, it was easy — perhaps a little too easy — to just focus on making all of the ports as good as they could be, on engineering gadgety distractions like that MS-DOS sound adapter. Wayne Holder’s claim in 1988 that the technology they’d developed for Dungeon Master would soon allow FTL to pump out four to six games every year sounded hugely overoptimistic even then, but FTL’s failure to serve up anything new at all for long, long stretches of time is nevertheless a little shocking. He often claimed that FTL had “several” titles in development using the Dungeon Master technology, among them an intriguing-sounding horror game that comes up in a number of interviews; it might just have marked the beginning of the survival-horror genre several years before Alone in the Dark. We also heard regularly of a science-fiction scenario, possibly a sequel to Sundog. Neither ever materialized; it appears there was quite a lot of wheel-spinning going on at FTL. Wayne Holder’s dream of making FTL the Infocom of CRPGs petered out in the face of their failure to actually, you know, make games. FTL became an Infocom that could never quite get past Zork.

Doug Bell notes the failure to build on Dungeon Master in a timely way as his greatest regret from his days with FTL: “We got so busy doing ports of the game that we didn’t end up creating enough scenarios.” Wayne Holder believes FTL’s single biggest mistake to have been not to have sold their in-house Dungeon Construction Set, quite a polished creation in its own right, and “let people create their own stuff. I was afraid it would dilute the whole cachet, and people would come up with tacky stuff, but people like to author stuff.” One can imagine an alternate timeline where FTL did what they so obviously most loved to do — work on technology — and let others make games with it. Ironically, some of the more ambitious Dungeon Master obsessives reverse engineered the data format and essentially did just that; as already mentioned, a number of dungeon editors of various degrees of utility were among the products of the third-party cottage industry spawned by Dungeon Master. None, however, had anything like the polish or clout to create a community for entirely new games running in the Dungeon Master engine. An official FTL Dungeon Construction Set might just have had both.

When it did arrive on the Atari ST two years after the original, the first semi-sequel felt a little anticlimactic and a little disappointing. Originally planned as a mere expansion pack and turned into a standalone game only at the last minute, Chaos Strikes Back ran under almost exactly the same engine as its predecessor, yet was considerably smaller. Even its box art featured the same picture as the original, cementing a difficult-to-avoid impression that FTL hadn’t exactly gone all-out to make it everything it could be. Perhaps worse, Chaos Strikes Back catered strictly to hardcore Dungeon Master veterans. It implemented nothing like the masterful learning curve of its predecessor, and stands today alongside Wizardry IV as one of the toughest, most nasty-for-the-sake-of-it CRPGs of its era. There are hardcore players that love it; I’ve seen the original Dungeon Master gleefully described as nothing more than an extended training ground for the real fun of Chaos Strikes Back. But, while making a hard-as-nails game may not be an illegitimate design choice on its own terms, it was a commercially problematic one. In being so off-putting to newcomers who might wish to jump aboard midstream, Dungeon Master was all but ensuring that every successive title in the series would sell worse than its predecessors. This marks the one unfortunate place where FTL blindly followed the lead of Sir-Tech and Wizardry instead of blazing their own trail.

What FTL themselves came to consider the first proper sequel, Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skullkeep, arrived only in 1994, almost seven years after the original. By now the Dungeon Master mania had long since died away, and FTL, for all those years a one-product company, was in increasingly dire straits as a result. The situation gave this belated release something of the feel of a final Hail Mary. And like most such, it didn’t work out. Rather astonishingly for a company that had built its reputation around technical innovation, Dungeon Master II was painfully outdated, still wedded to the old step-wise movement long after everyone else had gone to smooth-scrolling 3D environments in the wake of Ultima Underworld and Doom, the very titles the original Dungeon Master had done so much to inspire. It garnered lukewarm reviews and worse sales, and FTL went out of business in 1996.

The sun sets on FTL...

The sun sets on Software Heaven…

That, then, is that for the commercial history of FTL and Dungeon Master. Yet it doesn’t begin to do justice to the game itself as a work of enormous technical innovation, and as a great piece of game design on anyone’s terms. We’ll try to correct that failing next time, when we’ll do a little real-time dungeon delving together to hopefully see why everyone was making such a fuss back in 1988 — and, for that matter, why I’m continuing to do so today.

(Sources: Michigan Atari Magazine of February 1988;  Retro Gamer 10, 34, and 105; Power Play of April 1988 and March 1990; St Action of November 1989 and June 1990; ACE of April 1990; Byte of November 1981 and July 1982; interview with Wayne Holder in Dungeon Master II: The Official Strategy Guide by Zach Meston and J. Douglas Arnold. The go-to place on the Internet for all things Dungeon Master is The Dungeon Master Encyclopedia, a rather staggering assemblage of technical and historical information, while Maury Markowitz’s interview with Bruce Webster fills in the story of FTL before Dungeon Master.)

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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