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Brian Fargo and Interplay

Interplay

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

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

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

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur.

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur, 1982.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tass Times in Tonetown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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Mike Berlyn Could Use a Little Helping Hand

Mike Berlyn

As some of you who read this blog are doubtless already aware, Mike Berlyn was diagnosed with cancer last September. Whilst undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment, he’s also been accumulating medical bills not covered by Medicare. In short, he needs at least $36,000 to put him in the clear again and let him concentrate on dealing with his illness rather than worrying about money. If one of Berlyn’s many games touched you or made you laugh at a time when you needed a little boost in your own life, or if you just feel like I do that everyone should have a right to the medical care they need regardless of money, please think about going to the donation page set up by Berlyn’s fellow Infocom alum Dan Horn and contributing whatever feels appropriate and manageable.

And please help to spread the word further via all that “social media” stuff the kids are always talking about these days!

 

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The Magnificent Penguin Hangs Up His Tuxedo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oo-Topos

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

The Coveted Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Fooblitzky

Fooblitzky

Games were everywhere at Infocom. By that I mean all sorts of games, not just interactive fiction — although even the latter existed in more varieties than you might expect, such as an interactive live-action play where the audience shouted out instructions to the actors, to be filtered through and interpreted by a “parser” played by one Dave Lebling. Readers of The New Zork Times thrilled to the exploits of Infocom’s softball team in a league that also included such software stars as Lotus and Spinnaker. There were the hermit-crab races held at “Drink’em Downs” right there at CambridgePark Drive. (I had a Lance Armstrong-like moment of disillusionment in scouring Jason Scott’s Get Lamp tapes for these articles when habitual winner Mike Dornbrook revealed the sordid secret to his success: he had in fact been juicing his crabs all along by running hot water over his little cold-blooded entrants before races.) And of course every reader of The New Zork Times was also familiar with Infocom’s collective love for puzzles — word, logic, trivia, or uncategorizable — removed from any semblance of fiction interactive or otherwise. And then there was the collective passion for traditional board and card games of all stripes, often played with a downright disconcerting intensity. Innocent office Uno matches soon turned into “bloody” tournaments. One cold Boston winter a Diplomacy campaign got so serious and sparked such discord amongst the cabin-fever-addled participants that the normally equanimous Jon Palace finally stepped in and banned the game from the premises. Perhaps the most perennial of all the games was a networked multiplayer version of Boggle that much of the office played almost every day at close of business. Steve Meretzky got so good, and could type so fast, that he could enter a word and win a round before the other players had even begun to mentally process the letters before them.

Given this love for games as well as the creativity of so many at Infocom, it was inevitable that they would also start making up their own games that had nothing to do with prose or parsers. Indeed, little home-grown ludic experiments were everywhere, appropriating whatever materials were to hand; Andrew Kaluzniacki recalls Meretzky once making up a game on the fly that used only a stack of business cards lying on the desk before him. Most of these creations lived and died inside the Infocom offices, but an interesting congruence of circumstances allowed one of them to escape to the outside world as Fooblitzky, Infocom’s one game that definitely can’t be labelled an interactive fiction or adventure game and thus (along with, if you like, Cornerstone) the great anomaly in their catalog.

We’ve already seen many times that technology often dictates design. That’s even truer in the case of Fooblitzky than in most. Its origins date back to early 1984, when Mike Berlyn, fresh off of Infidel, was put in charge of one of Infocom’s several big technology initiatives for the year: a cross-platform system for writing and delivering graphical games to stand along the one already in place for text adventures and in development for business products.

It was by far the thorniest proposition of the three, one that had already been rejected in favor of pure text adventures and an iconic anti-graphics advertising campaign more than a year earlier when Infocom had walked away from a potential partnership with Penguin Software, “The Graphics People.” As I described in an earlier article, Infocom’s development methodology, built as it was around their DEC minicomputer, was just not well suited to graphics. It’s not quite accurate to say, however, that the DEC terminals necessarily could only display text. By now DEC had begun selling terminals like the VT125 with bitmap graphics capabilities, which could be programmed using a library called ReGIS. This, it seemed, might just open a window of possibility for coding graphical games on the DEC.

Still, the DEC represented only one end of the pipeline; they also needed to deliver the finished product on microcomputers. Trying to create a graphical Z-Machine would, again, be much more complicated than its text-only equivalent. To run an Infocom text adventure, a computer needed only be capable of displaying text for output and of accepting text for input. Excepting only a few ultra-low-end models, virtually any disk-drive-equipped computer available for purchase in 1984 could do the job; some might display more text onscreen, or do it more or less attractively or quickly, but all of them could do it. Yet the same computers differed enormously in their graphics capabilities. Some, like the old TRS-80, had virtually none to speak of; some, like the IBM PC and the Apple II, were fairly rudimentary in this area; some, like the Atari 800 and the Commodore 64 and even the IBM PCjr, could do surprisingly impressive things in the hands of a skilled programmer. All of these machines ran at different screen resolutions, with different color palettes, with different sets of fiddly restrictions on what color any given pixel could be. Infocom would be forced to choose a lowest common denominator to target, then sacrifice yet more speed and capability to the need to run any would-be game through an interpreter. Suffice to say that such a system wasn’t likely to challenge, say, Epyx when it came to slick and beautiful action games. But then maybe that was just as well: even the DEC graphical terminals hadn’t been designed with videogames in mind but rather static “business graphics” — i.e., charts and graphs and the like — and weren’t likely to reveal heretofore unknown abilities for running something like Summer Games.

But in spite of it all some thought that Infocom might be able to do certain types of games tolerably well with such a system. Andrew Kaluzniacki, a major technical contributor to the cross-platform graphics project:

It was pretty obvious pretty quickly that we couldn’t do complicated real-time graphics like you might see in an arcade game. But you could do a board game. You could lay the board out in a way that would look sufficiently similar across platforms, that would look acceptable.

Thus was the multiplayer board/computer game hybrid Fooblitzky born almost as a proof of concept — or perhaps a justification for the work that had already been put into the cross-platform graphics system.

Fooblitzky and the graphics system itself, both operating as essentially a single project under Mike Berlyn, soon monopolized the time of several people amongst the minority of the staff not working on Cornerstone. Kaluzniacki, a new hire in Dan Horn’s Micro Group, wrote a graphics editor for the Apple II which was used by a pair of artists, Brian Cody and Paula Maxwell, to draw the pictures. These were then transferred to the DEC for incorporation into the game; the technology on that side was the usual joint effort by the old guard of DEC-centric Imps. The mastermind on the interpreter side was another of Horn’s stars, Poh C. Lim, almost universally known as “Magic” Lim due to his fondness for inscrutable “magic numbers” in his code marked off with a big “Don’t touch this!” Berlyn, with considerable assistance from Marc Blank, took the role of principal game designer as well as project manager.

Fooblitzky may have been born as largely “something to do with our graphics system,” but Infocom wasn’t given to doing anything halfway. Berlyn worked long and hard on the design, putting far more passion into it than he had into either of his last two interactive-fiction works. The artists also worked to make the game as pleasing and charming as it could be given the restrictions under which they labored. And finally the whole was given that most essential prerequisite to any good game of any type: seemingly endless rounds of play-testing and tweaking. Fooblitzky tournaments became a fixture of life at Infocom for a time, often pitting the divisions of the company against one another. (Business Products surprisingly proved very competitive with Consumer Products; poor Jon Palace “set the record for playing Fooblitzky more times and losing more times than anyone else in the universe.”) When the time came to create the packaging, Infocom did their usual superlative, hyper-creative job. Fooblitzky came with a set of markers and little dry-erase boards, one for each of the up to four players, for taking notes and making plans, along with not one but two manuals — the full rules and a “Bare Essentials” quick-start guide, the presence of which makes the game sound much more complicated than it actually is — and the inevitable feelie, which as in the Cornerstone package here took the form of a button.

Fooblitzky is a game of deduction, one more entry in a long and ongoing tradition in board and casual gaming. At the beginning of a game, each player secretly chooses one of a possible eighteen items. If fewer than four are playing — two to four players are possible — the computer then randomly (and secretly) picks enough items to round out the total to four. Players then take turns moving about a game board representing the town of Fooblitzky, trying to deduce what the three initially unidentified items are and gather a full set together. The first to bring all four items back to a “check point” wins.

Items start out in stores which are scattered about the board. Also present are pawn shops in which items can be sold and bought; restaurants in which you can work to earn money if you deplete your initial store; crosswalks which can randomly lead to unintended contact with traffic and an expensive stay in the hospital; phone booths for calling distant stores and checking stock; storage lockers for stashing items (you can only carry four with you, a brutal inventory limit indeed); even a subway that can whisk you around the board quickly — for, as with most things in Fooblitzky, a price. Adding a layer of chaos over the proceedings is the Chance Man, who appears randomly from time to time to do something good, like giving you a free item, or bad, like dropping a piano on your head and sending you to the hospital. By making use of all of the above and more, while also watching everything everyone else does, players try to figure out the correct items and get them collected and delivered before their rivals; thus the need for the note-taking boards.

Once you get the hang of the game, which doesn’t take long, a lot of possibilities open up for strategy and even a little devious psychology. Bluffing becomes a viable option: cast off that correct item in a pawn shop as if it’s incorrect, then watch your opponents race off down the wrong track while you do the rest of what you need to do before you buy it back, carry it to the check point, and win. If you prefer to be less passive aggressive and more, well, active aggressive, you can just run into an opponent in the street to scatter her items everywhere and try to grab what you need.

It can all be a lot of fun, although I’m not sure I can label Fooblitzky a classic. There just seems to be something missing — what, I can’t quite put my finger on — for me to go that far. One problem is that some games are much more interesting than others — granted, a complaint that could be applied to just about any game, but the variation seems much more pronounced here than it ought to. By far the best game of Fooblitzky I’ve ever played was one involving just my wife Dorte and me. By chance three of the four needed items turned out to be the same, leading to a mad, confused scramble that lasted at least twice as long as a normal game, as we each thought we’d figured out the solution several times only to get our collection rejected. (Dorte finally won in the end, as usual.) That game was really exciting. By contrast, however, the more typical game in which all four items are distinct can start to seem almost rote after just a few sessions in quick succession; even deviousness can only add so much to the equation. If Fooblitzky was a board game, I tend to think it’d be one you’d dust off once or twice a year, not a game-night perennial.

That said, Fooblitzky‘s presentation is every bit as whimsical and cute as it wants to be. Each player’s avatar is a little dog because, well, why not? My favorite bit of all is the dish-washing graphic.

Washing dishes Fooblitzky-style

Washing dishes Fooblitzky-style

On the way to the hospital after getting hit by a car

On the way to the hospital after getting hit by a car

Cute as it is, Fooblitzky and the cross-platform project which spawned it weren’t universally loved within Infocom. Far from it. Mike Berlyn characterizes the debate over just what to do with Fooblitzky as a “bitter battle.” Mike Dornbrook’s marketing department, already dealing with the confusion over just why Infocom was releasing something like Cornerstone, was deeply concerned about further “brand dilution” if this erstwhile interactive-fiction company now suddenly released something like Fooblitzky.

The obvious riposte to such concerns would have been to make Fooblitzky so compelling, such an obvious moneyspinner, that it simply had to be released and promoted heavily. But in truth Fooblitzky was far from that. Its very description — that of a light social game — made it an horrifically hard sell in the 1980s, as evidenced by the relative commercial failure of even better games like my beloved M.U.L.E. Like much of Electronic Arts’s early catalog, it was targeted at a certain demographic of more relaxed, casual computer gaming that never quite emerged in sufficient numbers from the home-computing boom and bust. And Fooblitzky‘s graphics, while perhaps better than what anyone had any right to expect, are still slow and limited. A few luddites at Infocom may have been wedded to the notion of the company as a maker of only pure-text games, but for many more the problem was not that Fooblitzky had graphics but rather that the graphics just weren’t good enough for the Infocom stamp of quality. They would have preferred to find a way to do cross-platform graphics right, but there was no money for such a project in the wake of Cornerstone. Fooblitzky‘s graphics had been produced on a relative shoestring, and unfortunately they kind of looked it. Some naysayers pointedly suggest that if it wasn’t possible to do a computerized Fooblitzky right they should just remove the computer from the equation entirely and make a pure board game out of it (the branding confusion that would have resulted from that would have truly given Dornbrook and company nightmares!).

And so Fooblitzky languished for months even after Mike Berlyn left the company and the cross-platform-graphics project as a whole fell victim to the InfoAusterity program. Interpreters were only created for the IBM PC, Apple II, and Atari 8-bit line, notably leaving the biggest game machine in the world, the Commodore 64, unsupported. At last in September of 1985 Infocom started selling it exclusively via mail order to members of the established family — i.e., readers of The New Zork Times. Marketing finally relented and started shipping the game to stores the following spring where, what with their virtually nonexistent efforts at promotion, it sold in predictably tiny quantities: well under 10,000 copies in total.

The whole Fooblitzky saga is the story of a confused company with muddled priorities creating something that didn’t quite fit anywhere and never really had a chance. Like Cornerstone’s complicated virtual machine, the cross-platform graphics initiative ended up being technically masterful but more damaging than useful to the finished product. Infocom could have had a much slicker game for much less money had they simply written the thing on a microcomputer and then ported it to the two or three other really popular and graphically viable platforms by hand. Infocom’s old “We hate micros!” slogan, their determination to funnel everything through the big DEC, was becoming increasingly damaging to them in a rapidly changing computing world, their biggest traditional strength threatening to become a huge liability. Even by 1984 the big DECSystem-20 was starting to look a bit antiquated to those who knew where computing was going. In just a few more years, when Infocom would junk the DEC at last, it would literally be junked: the big fleet of red refrigerators, worth a cool million dollars when it came to Infocom in 1982, was effectively worthless barely five years later, a relic of a bygone era.

Because Fooblitzky is such an oddity with none of the name recognition or lingering commercial value of the more traditional Infocom games, I’m going to break my usual pattern and offer it for download here in its Atari 8-bit configuration. It’s still good for an evening or two’s scavenging fun with friends or family. Next time we’ll get back to interactive fiction proper and dig into one of the most important games Infocom ever released.

(Just the usual suspects as sources this time around: Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interviews and my collection of New Zork Times issues.)

 
 

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Cutthroats

Cutthroats

Opinions amongst the former Imps vary wildly as to just how easy or difficult it was to work with ZIL, Infocom’s in-house adventure language. Stu Galley calls it “fairly easy”; Steve Meretzky calls it “quite intuitive” and “much easier to pick up” than any other programming language he had attempted before becoming an Imp; Bob Bates calls it “not that complicated,” at least for most tasks. Brian Moriarty, on the other hand, considers it “not particularly intuitive,” something that he learned only through sheer doggedness even as an accomplished assembly-language programmer (the skill which got him a job at Infocom in the first place). Some of those with less technical backgrounds found ZIL even more daunting. In early 1984 Infocom hired a prominent pop-science writer, who shall remain nameless, to become an Imp. Several other former Imps claim that, after he had struggled some six months with ZIL, they literally found him huddled beneath his desk, victim of a complete breakdown of sorts. That, needless to say, was that for him.

ZIL very nearly drove Mike Berlyn to the same state; he still considers actually becoming proficient with the language the biggest single accomplishment of his three years with Infocom. When he first came to the company, he regarded ZIL almost as a betrayal, the antithesis of what Marc Blank had promised him that working with their technology would be:

It was presented to me as, “We have this development system. Anybody can use it, and it’s just crying out for a writer. Why don’t you have a whack at it?”

That was not the case; it was not the truth. It wasn’t anywhere near reality. What they had was a high-level object-oriented language and a series of compilers, run-time interpreters, and virtual machines that were infinitely complex, and very little of it was hidden from the Implementer.

I was a self-taught programmer. I knew BASIC and some 6502 assembler. They sat me down in front of a terminal and said, “Here’s Emacs” — an editor I’d never used. I had no idea. To open a file took like fifteen keystrokes; I developed this claw from trying to press five keys at once. There was no language manual which I could sit down and go through, no tutorials or anything. And this was for any writer off the street? “Here you go, sit down at the terminal and write yourself a game!”

Even after becoming proficient at last, an endeavor he estimates to have required about six months, Berlyn continued to hate programming in the language. That loathing may be key to understanding something that must have driven his colleagues at least a little bit crazy about Mike Berlyn: hired on the basis of his novelist’s pedigree to be Infocom’s first “real writer” of interactive fiction, he always wanted to do anything but write interactive fiction. Of the three adventure games he wrote for Infocom, the only one he could be said to have tackled voluntarily and enthusiastically was the first, Suspended, a game which was arguably the least novel-like work Infocom would ever brand “interactive fiction,” being almost more a strategy game in text or a computerized board game. He had to be cajoled into doing Infidel, with his dissatisfaction showing up in the rather sour atmosphere of the final product. By 1984 he’d gotten involved with the research-and-development side of the company, working on a cross-platform graphics system and brainstorming with Marc Blank new-and-improved versions of Infocom’s core technologies of ZIL and the Z-Machine. He had also begun to design what would become the company’s first non-adventure game and first to use graphics, a multi-player computerized board game called Fooblitzky which would appear in 1985. (In light of Suspended and Fooblitzky, perhaps Berlyn was really a frustrated board-game designer slumming it as a writer?)

When a certain bestselling author by the name of Douglas Adams came to Infocom to propose a collaboration, he asked to work with Mike Berlyn by name. Berlyn turned the proposal down flat, saying he wasn’t interested in sharing power with another designer. With the highest-profile project Infocom would ever have hanging in the balance, Mike Dornbrook was left scrambling to enlist the ever-reliable Steve Meretzky for the project and to convince Adams that he could do just as good a job as the guy who wrote Adams’s favorite Suspended. I want to emphasize here that everyone liked Mike Berlyn, what with his big booming laugh and his knack for taking the piss out of everything in a good-natured way that kept everyone grounded: Suspended became Suspenders; Cornerstone became, prophetically as it would turn out, Tombstone; Choose Your Own Adventure books became What the Fuck Do I Do Now? books. But man, could it be hard to get and keep him on any given task.

Getting Berlyn to do another adventure game for 1984, even sans-Adams, was a challenge. A compromise was eventually reached: he would design the game and write the text, but would not be forced to program it. That should give him enough time to also continue with his other projects. For the actual programming, Infocom turned to one Jerry Wolper, an MIT computer-science graduate who had been doing various jobs for the company since 1982. This sort of development partnership was something that Infocom was grudgingly coming to accept as the only viable way of using writers-turned-Imps, as opposed to programmers-turned-Imps, to create interactive fiction; the science-writer fiasco would mark the last time they would just plant an outside writer in front of a terminal and hope for the best. Partnerships were in fact responsible for three of their five games of 1984, Berlyn’s among them.

The game in question is called Cutthroats. In an odd coincidence that probably wouldn’t have happened if the matrix had come into force a few months earlier, it was not only Infocom’s second “Tale of Adventure” in a row but also has a nautical theme superficially similar to that of the preceding game, Seastalker. You play a down-on-the-luck treasure diver living on Hardscrabble Island. It’s a place of indeterminate actual location — the latitude and longitude shown on a sea chart that is one of the game’s feelies would seem to place it smack in the middle of Africa — but pretty plainly modeled on Florida’s Treasure Coast. Things are kicked off via the lengthiest in-game introduction yet seen from Infocom:

Nights on Hardscrabble Island are lonely and cold when the lighthouse barely pierces the gloom. You sit on your bed, thinking of better times and far-off places. A knock on your door stirs you, and Hevlin, a shipmate you haven't seen for years, staggers in.

"I'm in trouble," he says. "I had a few too many at The Shanty. I was looking for Red, but he wasn't around, and I started talking about ... here," he says, handing you a slim volume that you recognize as a shipwreck book written years ago by the Historical Society.

You smile. Every diver on the island has looked for those wrecks, without even an old boot to show for it. You open the door, hoping the drunken fool will leave. "I know what you're thinkin'," Hevlin scowls, "but look!" He points to the familiar map, and you see new locations marked for two of the wrecks.

"Keep it for me," he says. "Just for tonight. It'll be safe here with you. Don't let -- " He stops and broods for a moment. "I've got to go find Red!" And with that, Hevlin leaves.

You put the book in your dresser and think about following Hevlin. Then you hear a scuffle outside. You look through your window and see two men struggling. One falls to the ground in a heap. The other man bends down beside him, then turns as if startled and runs away. Another man then approaches the wounded figure. He kneels beside him for a long moment, then takes off after the other man.

It isn't long before the police arrive to tell you that Hevlin's been murdered. You don't mention the book, and hours later, as you lie awake in your bed, you wonder if the book could really be what it seems.

You soon fall in with a group of three other treasure hunters. You must assemble supplies and otherwise prepare an expedition to a heretofore undiscovered shipwreck, whilst dodging and thwarting the other ruthless treasure seekers who have already done in your old buddy Hevlin. At last you put out to sea for the actual dive, which, if a certain betrayer amongst your crew doesn’t kill you, could make you rich beyond your wildest dreams.

Cutthroats is perhaps of greatest interest as Infocom’s first experiment with formal structure outside of the radical departure that was Suspended. There are two possible wrecks which might be the target of your treasure hunt: the São Vera, a Portuguese cargo ship loaded with gold that sunk in 1698, or the Leviathan, a sort of fictional hybrid of the Titanic and Lusitania which was sunk by a U-boat in 1916. The game randomly chooses at the appropriate point which one you get.

Like some later Infocom formal experiments, the results here are mixed at best. You can exercise control over which shipwreck you receive only by saving the game shortly before the point where the game announces its decision, then restoring until you get the one you want. Luckily, the dice are thrown, so to speak, only just before the announcement instead of the very beginning of the game, making this process — what with there being only two possibilities — clumsy but not horribly annoying. More problematic is that there is still a whole lot of game to play between the point where you learn which shipwreck you’ve gotten and the beginning of the actual dive. This section plays almost exactly the same for both shipwrecks, making it a somewhat tedious exercise the second time around. It’s hard to determine what purpose Berlyn thought he was serving with this branching structure, other than to experiment just for the sake of it. There are signs that the original plan may have called for four possible shipwrecks; the feelies chart and describe four shipwrecks, and the manual says you will “try to salvage a sunken treasure from one of four shipwrecks.” It’s even possible to visit the other two shipwrecks in the game, although you can’t get inside them. The number may very well have been cut in half due to space and/or time restrictions. In some ways four shipwrecks would of course have been even more problematic — you’d now need to replay a big chunk of the game not once but three times to see it all — but would perhaps have been more justifiable as an experiment in branching narrative.

Like Seastalker, Cutthroats evidences Infocom’s new emphasis on creating interactive fictions as opposed to traditional text adventures. There’s a constant forward plot momentum right from the beginning of the game, when a character knocks on your door to invite you to a meeting of would-be treasure hunters, to the climax, the dive on the shipwreck itself. Characters move about the island and, later, the boat on their own schedules, and you must keep to a timetable and be where you’re expected to be to keep the plot moving forward. It gives a feel very different from the static environs of Zork or even the deserted complex of Planetfall.

Less defensibly, especially to modern sensibilities, Cutthroats is not so forgiving in its dynamism as Seastalker. In fact, it’s similar to the mysteries that preceded it in that solving the game requires a certain amount of learning by death, of plotting out the workings of the story through replays, figuring out what you need to do to avert each new disaster only after you’ve seen it once or twice. That said, it’s a much more forgiving exercise than even The Witness on the whole; you usually only need to go back a handful of turns at the most. There’s only one really tricky element that’s likely to send you back almost to square one, a crucial piece of evidence you need to collect on Hardscrabble Island to prevent disaster once you get out to sea. Even with that, Cutthroats is a very playable, solvable game.

Still, I’m not sure I can call all that satisfying of a game. The other characters remain the crudest sort of archetypes, as you might guess from reading the names of your fellow treasure hunters: Johnny Red, the Weasel, Pete the Rat. (Guess which one sold you out to your rivals…) A winning ending does indeed make you rich, but does nothing to bring the killer of Hevlin to justice:

Johnny slaps you on the back. "Good job, matey!" As you return to the island over the calm, dazzling blue sea, you contemplate your wealth with a touch of sadness. You think of Hevlin and hope his soul is resting a little easier now.

One would presume that Hevlin would really “rest easier” not if you became rich but if you, you know, made some effort to catch the guy that knifed him. Berlyn has apparently learned his lesson from the furor provoked by the comeuppance he delivered to the greedy treasure hunter in Infidel. Rather than challenge our expectations again, he’s back to the adventure-game norm of Greed Is Good. Your character comes across much like the protagonist of Infidel — he’s all about the gold, baby — albeit without that game’s element of subversion and self-awareness.

The best adjective I can think of to describe Cutthroats is “workmanlike.” It’s a thoroughly professional effort — Infocom wasn’t likely to produce anything else by this stage in their evolution — but it’s missing a certain spark, a certain passion. That’s a shame not least because the setting has such potential. You should be able to smell the salt air blowing through this faded community of which not much is left but the old-timers who spend their days drinking at The Shanty, but the text never gets much more evocative than the magnificent name “Hardscrabble Island” itself. Similarly, the shipwrecks are described precisely and grammatically, but little effort is made to convey the atmosphere, which I can only imagine must be mystical and kind of terrifying, of penetrating these watery graves. Much as I appreciate the audacity of Suspended and the Infidel ending, I’m left feeling rather happy that Mike Berlyn would soon step out of the way and let other, more passionate Imps have a crack at things.

As I’ve researched and written these articles I’ve been constantly surprised by how out of line the sales of many Infocom games were with the reputations they hold today. That’s especially true of Cutthroats. Widely regarded as a middling, rather forgettable game today, Cutthroats was quite a big seller in its day: over 50,000 copies in the last few months of 1984 alone, enough to make it the second most successful of Infocom’s five games of that year, behind only the juggernaut The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s hard to know to just what to attribute the success, unless it be an alternative choice for customers who’d have preferred to get their hands on Hitchhiker’s, the hottest game in the industry that Christmas. The attention-grabbing cover art, one of the few photographs standing out in a sea of painted dragons and spaceships on store shelves, also may have played its part. (The packaging in general, with some great feelies that are integrated into the game even more than usual and a True Tales of Adventure magazine full of in-jokes for players of Infidel, is a superb first born-in-a-gray-box effort from Infocom and G/R Copy.) Lifetimes sales approached 80,000, placing it amongst the more successful of Infocom’s corpus as a whole. Mediocrity, it seems, does have its rewards.

 
 

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