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How Jordan Mechner Made a Different Sort of Interactive Movie (or, The Virtues of Restraint)

One can learn much about the state of computer gaming in any given period by looking to the metaphors its practitioners are embracing. In the early 1980s, when interfaces were entirely textual and graphics crude or nonexistent, text adventures like those of Infocom were heralded as the vanguard of a new interactive literature destined to augment or entirely supersede non-interactive books. That idea peaked with the mid-decade bookware boom, when just about every entertainment-software publisher (and a few traditional book publishers) were rushing to sign established authors and books to interactive projects. It then proceeded to collapse just as quickly under the weight of its own self-importance when the games proved less compelling and the public less interested than anticipated.

Prompted by new machines like the Commodore Amiga with their spectacular graphics and sound, the industry reacted to that failure by turning to the movies for media mentorship. This relationship would prove more long-lasting. By the end of the 1980s, companies like Cinemaware and Sierra were looking forward confidently to a blending of Hollywood and Silicon Valley that they believed might just replace the conventional non-interactive movie, not to mention computer games as people had known them to that point. Soon most of the major publishers would be conducting casting calls and hiring sound stages, trying literally to make games out of films. It was an approach fraught with problems — problems that were only slowly and grudgingly acknowledged by these would-be unifiers of Southern and Northern Californian entertainment. Before it ran its course, it spawned lots of really terrible games (and, it must be admitted, against all the odds the occasional good one as well).

Given the game industry’s growing fixation on the movies as the clock wound down on the 1980s, Jordan Mechner would seem the perfect man for the age. Struggling with the blessing or curse of an equally abiding love for both mediums, his professional life had already been marked by constant vacillation between movies and games. Inevitably, his love of film influenced him even when he was making games. But, perhaps because that love was so deep and genuine, he accomplished the blending in a more even-handed, organic way than would most of the multi-CD, multi-gigabyte interactive movies that would soon be cluttering store shelves. Mechner’s most famous game, by contrast, filled just two Apple II disk sides — less than 300 K in total. And yet the cinematic techniques it employs have far more in common with those found in the games of today than do those of its more literal-minded rivals.


 

As a boy growing up in the wealthy hamlet of Chappaqua, New York, Jordan Mechner dreamed of becoming “a writer, animator, or filmmaker.” But those ambitions got modified if not discarded when he discovered computers at his high school. Soon after, he got his hands on his own Apple II for the first time. Honing his chops as a programmer, he started contributing occasional columns on BASIC to Creative Computing magazine at the age of just 14. Yet fun as it was to be the magazine’s youngest contributor, his real reason for learning programming was always to make games. “Games were the only kind of software I knew,” he says. “They were the only kind that I enjoyed. At that time, I didn’t really see any use for a word processor or a spreadsheet.” He fell into the throes of what he describes as an “obsession” to get a game of his own published.

Initially, he did what lots of other game programmers were doing at the time: cloning the big standup-arcade hits for fun and (hopefully) profit. He made a letter-perfect copy of Atari’s Asteroids, changed the titular space rocks to bright bouncing balls in the interest of plausible deniability, and sent the resulting Deathbounce off to Brøderbund for consideration; what with Brøderbund having been largely built on the back of Apple Galaxian, an arcade clone which made no effort whatsoever to conceal its source material, the publisher seemed a very logical choice. But Doug Carlston was now trying to distance his company from such fare for reasons of reputation as well as his fear of Atari’s increasingly aggressive legal threats. Nice guy that he was, he called Mechner personally to explain why Deathbounce wasn’t for Brøderbund. He promised to send Mechner a free copy of Brøderbund’s latest hit, Choplifter, suggesting he think about whether he might be able to apply the programming chops he had demonstrated in Deathbounce to a more original game, as Choplifter‘s creator Dan Gorlin had done. Mechner remembers the conversation as well-nigh life-changing. He had been so immersed in the programming side of making games that the idea of doing an original design had never really occurred to him before: “I didn’t have to copy someone else’s arcade game. I was allowed to design my own!”

Carlston’s phone call came in May of 1982, when Mechner was finishing up his first year at Yale University; undecided about his major as he was so much else in his life at the time, he would eventually wind up with a Bachelors in psychology. We’re granted an unusually candid and personal glimpse into into his life between 1982 and 1993 thanks to his private journals, which he published (doubtless in a somewhat expurgated form) in 2012. The early years paint a picture of a bright, sensitive young man born into a certain privilege that carries with it the luxury of putting off adulthood for quite some time. He romanticizes chance encounters (“I saw a heartbreakingly beautiful young blonde out of the corner of my eye. She was wearing a blue down vest. As she passed, our eyes met. She smiled at me. As I went out I held the door for her; her fingers grazed mine. Then she was gone.”); frets frequently about cutting classes and generally not being the man he ought to be (“I think Ben is the only person who truly comprehends the depths of how little classwork I do.”); alternates between grand plans accompanied by frenzies of activity and indecision accompanied by long days of utter sloth (“Here’s what I do do: listen to music. Browse in record stores. Read newspapers, magazines, play computer games, stare out the windows. See a lot of movies.”); muses with all the self-obliviousness of youth on whether he would prefer “writing a bestselling novel or directing a blockbusting film,” as if attaining fame and fortune was as simple as deciding on one or the other.

At Yale, film, that other constant of his creative life, came to the fore. He joined every film society he stumbled upon, signed up for every film-studies course in the catalog, and set about “trying to see in four years every film ever made”; Akira Kurosawa’s classic adventure epic Seven Samurai (a major inspiration behind Star Wars among other things) emerged as his favorite of them all. He also discovered an unexpected affinity for silent cinema, which naturally led him to compare that earliest era of film with the current state of computer games, a medium that seemed in a similar state of promising creative infancy. All of this, combined with the example of Choplifter and the karate lessons he was sporadically attending, led to Karateka, the belated fruition of his obsession with getting a game published.

To a surprising degree given his youth and naivete, Mechner consciously designed Karateka as the proverbial Next Big Thing in action games after the first wave of simple quarter munchers, whose market he watched collapse over the two-plus years he spent intermittently working on it. Plenty of fighting games had appeared on the Apple II and other platforms before, some of them very playable; Mechner wasn’t sure he could really improve on their templates when it came to pure game play. What he could do, however, was give his game some of the feel and emotional resonance of cinema. Reasoning that computer games were technically on par with the first decade or two of film in terms of the storytelling tools at his disposal, he mimicked the great silent-film directors in building his story out of the broadest archetypal elements: an unnamed hero must assault a mountain fortress to rescue an abducted princess, fighting through wave after wave of enemies, culminating in a showdown with the villain himself. He energetically cross-cut the interactive fighting sequences with non-interactive scenes of the villain issuing orders to his minions while the princess looks around nervously in her cell — a suspense-building technique from cinema dating back to The Birth of a Nation. He mimicked the horizontal wipes Kurosawa used for transitions in Seven Samurai; mimicked the scrolling textual prologue from Star Wars. When the player lost or won, he printed “THE END” on the screen in lieu of “GAME OVER.” And, indeed, he made it possible, although certainly not easy, to win Karateka and carry the princess off into the sunset. The player was, in other words, playing for bigger stakes than a new high score.

Karateka

The most technically innovative aspect of Karateka — suggested, like much in the game, by Mechner’s very supportive father — involved the actual people on the screen. To make his fighters move as realistically as possible, Mechner made use for the first time in a computer game of an old cartoon-animation technique known as rotoscoping. After shooting some film footage of his karate instructor in action, doing various kicks and punches, Mechner used an ancient Moviola editing machine that had somehow wound up in the basement of the family home to isolate and make prints out of every third frame. He imported the figure at the center of each print into his Apple II by tracing it on a contraption called the VersaWriter. Flipped through in sequence, the resulting sprites appeared to “move” in an unusually fluid and realistic fashion. “When I saw that sketchy little figure walk across the screen,” he wrote in his journal, “looking just like Dennis [his karate instructor], all I could say was ‘ALL RIGHT!’ It was a glorious moment.”

Karateka

Doug Carlston, who clearly saw something special in this earnest kid, was gently encouraging and almost infinitely patient with him. When it looked like Mechner had come up with something potentially great at last, Carlston signed him to a contract and flew him out to California in the summer of 1984 to finish it up with the help of Brøderbund’s in-house staff. Released just a little too late to fully capitalize on the 1984 Christmas rush, Karateka started slowly but gradually turned into a hit, especially once the Commodore 64 port dropped in June of 1985. Once ported to Nintendo for the domestic Japanese market, it proceeded to sell many hundreds of thousand units, making Jordan Mechner a very flush young man indeed.

So, Mechner, about to somehow manage to graduate despite all the missed assignments and cut classes spent working on Karateka, seemed poised for a fruitful career making games. Yet he continued to vacillate between his twin obsessions. Even as his game, the most significant accomplishment of his young life and one of which anyone could justly be proud, had entered the homestretch, he had written how “I definitely want my next project to be film-related. Videogames have taken up enough of my time for now.” In the wake of his game’s release, the steady stream of royalties therefrom only made it easier to dabble in film.

Mechner spent much of the year after graduating from university back at home in Chappaqua working on his first screenplay. In between writing dialog and wracking himself with doubt over whether he really wanted to do another game at all, he occasionally turned his attention to the idea of a successor to Karateka. Already during that first summer after Yale, he and Gene Portwood, a Brøderbund executive, dreamed up a scenario for just such a beast: an Arabian Nights-inspired story involving an evil sultan, a kidnapped princess, and a young man — the player, naturally — who must rescue her. Karateka in Middle Eastern clothing though it may have been in terms of plot, that was hardly considered a drawback by Brøderbund, given the success of Mechner’s first game.

Seven frames of animation ready to be photocopied and digitized.

Seven frames of animation ready to be photocopied and digitized.

Determined to improve upon the rotoscoping of Karateka, Mechner came up with a plan to film a moving figure and use a digitizer to capture the frames into the computer, rather than tracing the figure using the VersaWriter. He spent $2500 on a high-end VCR and video camera that fall, knowing he would return them before his month’s grace period was out (“I feel so dishonest,” he wrote in his journal). The technique he had in the works may have been an improvement over what he had done for Karateka, but it was still very primitive and hugely labor-intensive. After shooting his video, he would play it back on the VCR, pausing it on each frame he wanted to capture. Then he would take a picture of the screen using an ordinary still camera and get the film developed. Next step was to trace the outline of the figure in the photograph using Magic Marker and fill him in using White-Out. Then he would Xerox the doctored photograph to get a black-and-white version with a very clear silhouette of the figure. Finally, he would digitize the photocopy to import it into his Apple II, and erase everything around the figure by hand on the computer to create a single frame of sprite animation. He would then get to go through this process a few hundred more times to get the prince’s full repertoire of movements down.


On October 20, 1985, Jordan Mechner did his first concrete work on the game that would become Prince of Persia, using his ill-gotten video camera to film his 16-year-old brother David running and jumping through a local parking lot. When he finally got around to buying a primitive black-and-white image digitizer for his trusty Apple II more than six months later, he quickly determined that the footage he’d shot was useless due to poor color separation. Nevertheless, he saw potential magic.

I still think this can work. The key is not to clean up the frames too much. The figure will be tiny and messy and look like crap… but I have faith that, when the frames are run in sequence at 15 fps, it’ll create an illusion of life that’s more amazing than anything that’s ever been seen on an Apple II screen. The little guy will be wiggling and jiggling like a Ralph Bakshi rotoscope job… but he’ll be alive. He’ll be this little shimmering beacon of life in the static Apple-graphics Persian world I’ll build for him to run around in.

For months after that burst of enthusiasm, however, he did little more with the game.

At last in September of 1986, having sent his screenplay off to Hollywood and thus with nothing more to do on that front but wait, Mechner moved out to San Rafael, California, close to Brøderbund’s offices, determined to start in earnest on Prince of Persia. He spent much time over the next few months refining his animation technique, until by Christmas everyone who saw the little running and jumping figure was “bowled over” by him. Yet after that progress again slowed to a crawl, as he struggled to motivate himself to turn his animation demos into an actual game.

And then, on May 4, 1987, came the phone call that would stop the little running prince in his tracks for the better part of a year. A real Hollywood agent called to tell him she “loved” his script for Birthstone, a Spielbergian supernatural comedy/thriller along the lines of Gremlins or The Goonies. Within days of her call, the script was optioned by Larry Turman, a major producer with films like The Graduate on his resume. For months Mechner fielded phone calls from a diverse cast of characters with a diverse cast of suggestions, did endless rewrites, and tried to play the Hollywood game, schmoozing and negotiating and trying not to appear to be the awkward, unworldly kid he still largely was. Only when Birthstone seemed permanently stuck in development hell — “Hollywood’s the only town where you can die of encouragement,” he says wryly, quoting Pauline Kael —  did he give up and turn his attention back to games. Mechner notes today that just getting as far as he did with his very first script was a huge achievement and a great start in itself. After all, he was, if not quite hobnobbing with the Hollywood elite, at least getting rejection letters from such people as Michael Apted, Michael Crichton, and Henry Winkler; such people were reading his script. But he had been spoiled by the success of Karateka. If he wrote another screenplay, there was no guarantee it would get even as far as his first had. If he finished Prince of Persia, on the other hand, he knew Brøderbund would publish it.

And so, in 1988, it was back to games, back to Prince of Persia. Inspired by “puzzly” 8-bit action games like Doug Smith’s Lode Runner and Ed Hobbs’s The Castles of Dr. Creep, his second game was shaping up to be more than just a game of combat. Instead his prince would have to make his way through area after area full of tricks, traps, and perilous drops. “What I wanted to do with Prince of Persia,” Mechner says, “was a game which would have that kind of logical, head-scratching, fast-action, Lode Runner-esque puzzles in a level-based game but also have a story and a character that was trying to accomplish a recognizable human goal, like save a princess. I was trying to merge those two things.” Ideally, the game would play like the iconic first ten minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indiana Jones runs and leaps and dodges and sometimes outwits rather than merely outruns a series of traps. For a long while, Mechner planned to make the hero entirely defenseless, as a sort of commentary on the needless ultra-violence found in so many other games. In the end, he didn’t go that far — the allure of sword-fighting, not to mention commercial considerations, proved too strong — but Prince of Persia was nevertheless shaping up to be a far more ambitious, multi-faceted work than Karateka, boasting much more than just improved running and jumping animations.

With just 128 K of memory to work with on the Apple II, Mechner was forced to make Prince of Persia a modular design, relying on a handful of elements which are repeatedly reused and recombined. Take, for instance, the case of the loose floorboards. The first time they appear, they’re a simple trap: you have to jump over a section of the floor to avoid falling into a pit. Later, they appear on the ceiling, as part of the floor above your own; caught in an apparent cul de sac, you have to jump up and bash the ceiling to open an escape route. Still later, they can be used strategically: to kill guards below you by dropping the floorboards on their heads, or to hold down a pressure plate below you that opens a door on the level on which you’re currently standing. It’s a fine example of a constraint in game design turning into a strength. “There’s a certain elegance to taking an element the player is already familiar with,” says Mechner, “and challenging him to think about it in a different way.”


On July 14, 1989, Mechner shot the final footage for Prince of Persia: the denouement, showing the prince — now played by the game’s project manager at Brøderbund, Brian Ehler — embracing the rescued princess — played by Tina LaDeau, the 18-year-old daughter of another Brøderbund employee, in her prom dress. (“Man, she is a fox,” Mechner wrote in his journal. “Brian couldn’t stop blushing when I had her embrace him.”)

The game shipped for the Apple II on October 6, 1989. And then, despite a very positive review in Computer Gaming World — Charles Ardai called it nothing less than “the Star Wars of its field,” music to the ears of a movie buff like Mechner — it proceeded to sell barely at all: perhaps 500 units a month. It was, everyone at Brøderbund agreed, at least a year too late to hope to sell significant numbers of a game like this on the Apple II, whose only remaining commercial strength was educational software, thanks to the sheer number of the things still installed in American schools. Mechner’s procrastination and vacillation had spoiled this version’s commercial prospects entirely.

Thankfully, the Apple II version wasn’t to be the only one. Brøderbund already had programmers and artists working on ports to MS-DOS and the Amiga, the last two truly viable computer-gaming platforms in North America. Mechner as well turned his attention to the versions for these more advanced machines as soon as the Apple II version was finished. And once again his father pitched in, composing a lovely score for the luxuriously sophisticated sound hardware now at the game’s disposal. “This is going to be the definitive version of Prince of Persia,” Mechner enthused over the MS-DOS version. “With VGA [graphics] and sound card, on a fast machine, it’ll blow the Apple away. It looks like a Disney film. It’s the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen.” Reworked though they were in almost all particulars, at the heart of the new versions lay the same digitized film footage that had made the 8-bit prince run and leap so fluidly.

Prince of Persia

And yet, after it shipped on April 19, 1990, the MS-DOS version also disappointed. Mechner chafed over his publisher’s disinterest in promoting the game; they seemed on the verge of writing it off, noting how the vastly superior MS-DOS version was being regarded as just another port of an old 8-bit game, and thus would likely never be given a fair shake by press or public. True as ever to the bifurcated pattern of his life, he decided to turn back to film. Having tried and failed to get into New York University film school, he resorted to working as a production assistant in movies by way of supporting himself and trying to drum up contacts in the film-making community of New York. Thus the first anniversary of Prince of Persia‘s original release on the Apple II found him schlepping crates around New York City. His career as a game developer seemed to be behind him, and truth be told his prospects as a filmmaker didn’t look a whole lot brighter.

The situation began to reverse itself only after the Amiga version was finished — programmed, as it happened, by Dan Gorlin, the very fellow whose Choplifter had first inspired Mechner to look at his own games differently. In Europe, the Amiga’s stronghold, Prince of Persia was free of the baggage which it carried in North America — few in Europe had much idea of what an Apple II even was — and doubtless benefited from a much deeper and richer tradition on European computers of action-adventures and platform puzzlers. It received ebullient reviews and turned into a big hit on European Amigas, and its reputation gradually leaked back across the pond to turn it at last into a hit in its homeland as well. Thus did Prince of Persia become a slow grower of an international sensation — a very unusual phenomenon in the hits-driven world of videogames, where shelf lives are usually short and retailer patience shorter. Soon came the console releases, along with releases for various other European and Japanese domestic computers, sending total sales soaring to over 2 million units.

By the beginning of 1992, Mechner was far removed from his plight of just eighteen months before. He was drowning in royalties, consulting intermittently with Brøderbund on a Prince of Persia 2 — it was understood that his days in the programming trenches were behind him — and living a globetrotting lifestyle, jaunting from Paris to San Rafael to Madrid to New York as whim and business took him. He was also planning his first film, a short documentary to be shot in Cuba, and already beginning to mull over what would turn into his most ambitious and fascinating game production of all, known at this point only as “the train game.”

Prince of Persia, which despite the merits of that eventual “train game” is and will likely always remain Mechner’s signature work, strikes me most of all as a triumph of presentation. The actual game play is punishingly difficult. Each of its twelve levels is essentially an elaborate puzzle that can only be worked out by dying many times when not getting trapped into one of way too many dead ends. Even once you think you have it all worked out, you still need to execute every step with perfect precision, no mean feat in itself. Messing up at any point in the process means starting that level over again from the beginning. And, because you only have one hour of real time to rescue the princess, every failure is extremely costly; a perfect playthrough, accomplished with absolute surety and no hesitations, takes about half an hour, leaving precious little margin for error. At least there is a “save” feature that will let you bookmark each level starting with the third, so you don’t have to replay the whole game every time you screw up — which, believe me, you will, hundreds if not thousands of times before you finally rescue the princess. Beating Prince of Persia fair and square is a project for a summer vacation of those long-gone adolescent days when responsibilities were few and distractions fewer. As a busy adult, I find it too repetitive and too reliant on rote patterns, as well as — let’s be honest here — just too demanding on my aging reflexes. In short, the effort-to-reward ratio strikes me as way out of whack. Of course, I’m sure that, given Prince of Persia‘s status as a beloved icon of gaming, many of you have a different opinion.

So, let’s turn back to something on which we can hopefully all agree: the brilliance of that aforementioned presentation, which brings to aesthetic maturity many of the techniques Mechner had first begun to experiment with in Karateka. Rather than using filmed footage as a tool for the achievement of fluid, lifelike motion, as Mechner did, games during the years immediately following Prince of Persia would be plastered with jarring chunks of poorly acted, poorly staged “full-motion video.” Such spectacles look far more dated today than the restrained minimalism of Prince of Persia. The industry as a whole would take years to wind up back at the place where Jordan Mechner had started: appropriating some of the language of cinema in the service of telling a story and building drama, without trying to turn games into literal interactive movies. Mechner:

Just as theater is its own thing — with its own conventions, things that it does well, things it does badly — so is film, and so [are] computer games. And there is a way to borrow from one medium to another, and in fact that’s what an all-new medium does when it’s first starting out. Film, when it was new, looked like someone set up a camera front and center and filmed a staged play. Then the things that are specific to film — like the moving camera, close-ups, reaction shots, dissolves — all these kinds of things became part of the language of cinema. It’s the same with computer games. To take a long film sequence and to play that on your TV screen is the bad way to make a game cinematic. The computer game is not a VCR. But if you can borrow from the knowledge that we all carry inside our heads of how cuts work, how reaction shots work, what a low angle means dramatically, what it means when the camera suddenly pulls back… We’ve got this whole collective unconscious of the vocabulary of film, and that’s a tremendously valuable tool to bring into computer gaming.

In a medium that has always struggled to tamp down its instinct toward aesthetic maximalism, Mechner’s games still stand out for their concern with balance and proportion. Mechner again:

Visuals are [a] component where it’s often tempting to compromise. You think, “Well, we could put a menu bar across here, we could put a number in the upper right-hand corner of the screen representing how many potions you’ve drunk,” or something. The easy solution is always to do something that as a side effect is going to make the game look ugly. So I took as one of the ground rules going in that the overall screen layout had to be pleasing, had to be strong and simple. So that somebody who was not playing the game but who walked into the room and saw someone else playing it would be struck by a pleasing composition and could stop to watch for a minute, thinking, “This looks good, this looks as if I’m watching a movie.” It really forces you as a designer to struggle to find the best solution for things like inventory. You can’t take the first solution that suggests itself, you have to try to solve it within the constraints you set yourself.

Mechner’s take on visual aesthetics can be seen as a subversion of Ken Williams’s old “ten-foot rule,” which, as you might remember, stated that every Sierra game ought to be visually arresting enough to make someone say “Wow!” when glimpsing it from ten feet away across a crowded shop. Mechner believed that game visuals ought to be more than just striking; they ought to be aesthetically good by the more refined standards of film and the other, even older visual arts. All that time Mechner spent obsessing over films and film-making, which could all could too easily be labeled a complete waste of time, actually allowed him to bring something unique to the table, something that made him different from virtually all of his many contemporaries in the interactive-movie business.

There are various ways to situate Jordan Mechner’s work in general and Prince of Persia in particular within the context of gaming history. It can be read as the last great swan song of the Apple II and, indeed, of the entire era of 8-bit computer gaming, at least in North America. It can be read as yet one more example of Brøderbund’s downright bizarre commercial Midas touch, which continued to yield a staggering number of hits from a decidedly modest roster of new releases (Brøderbund also released SimCity in 1989, thus spawning two of the most iconic franchises in gaming history within bare months of one another). It can be read as the precursor to countless cinematic action-adventures and platformers to come, many of whose designers would acknowledge it as a direct influence. In its elegant simplicity, it can even be read as a fascinating outlier from the high-concept complexity that would come to dominate American computer gaming in the very early 1990s. But the reading that makes me happiest is to simply say that Prince of Persia showed how less can be more. There’s no need to take my word for it; just have a look for yourself.


(Sources: Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; The Making of Karateka and The Making of Prince of Persia by Jordan Mechner; Creative Computing of March 1979, September 1979, and May 1980; Next Generation of May 1998; Computer Gaming World of December 1989; Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia postmortem from the 2011 Game Developers Conference; “Jordan Mechner: The Man Who Would Be Prince” from Games™; the Jordan Mechner and Brøderbund archives at the Strong Museum of Play.)

 
 

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Will Wright’s City in a Box

Will Wright, 1990

Will Wright, 1990

In “The Seventh Sally,” a story by the great Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, a god-like “constructor” named Trurl comes upon a former tyrant named Excelsius, now exiled to a lonely asteroid by the peoples of the planets he used to terrorize. Upon learning of Trurl’s powers, Excelsius demands that he restore him to his throne. Trurl, however, is wise enough to consider what suffering Excelsius’s reinstatement would bring to his subjects. So, he instead fashions an intricate simulacrum of a kingdom for Excelsius to rule over.

And all of this, connected, mounted, and ground to precision, fit into a box, and not a very large box, but just the size that could be carried about with ease. This Trurl presented to Excelsius, to rule and have dominion over forever; but first he showed him where the input and output of his brand-new kingdom were, and how to program wars, quell rebellions, exact tribute, collect taxes, and also instructed him in the critical points and transition states of that microminiaturized society — in other words the maxima and minima of palace coups and revolutions — and explained everything so well that the king, an old hand in the running of tyrannies, instantly grasped the directions and, without hesitation, while the constructor watched, issued a few trial proclamations, correctly manipulating the control knobs, which were carved with imperial eagles and regal lions. These proclamations declared a state of emergency, martial law, a curfew, and a special levy. After a year had passed in the kingdom, which amounted to hardly a minute for Trurl and the king, by an act of the greatest magnanimity — that is, by a flick of the finger at the controls — the king abolished one death penalty, lightened the levy, and deigned to annul the state of emergency, whereupon a tumultuous cry of gratitude, like the squeaking of tiny mice lifted by their tails, rose up from the box, and through its curved glass cover one could see, on the dusty highways and along the banks of lazy rivers that reflected the fluffy clouds, the people rejoicing and praising the great and unsurpassed benevolence of their sovereign lord.

And so, though at first he had felt insulted by Trurl’s gift, in that the kingdom was too small and very like a child’s toy, the monarch saw that the thick glass lid made everything inside seem large; perhaps too he dully understood that size was not what mattered here, for government is not measured in meters and kilograms, and emotions are somehow the same, whether experienced by giants or dwarfs — and so he thanked the constructor, if somewhat stiffly. Who knows, he might even have liked to order him thrown in chains and tortured to death, just to be safe — that would have been a sure way of nipping in the bud any gossip about how some common vagabond tinkerer presented a mighty monarch with a kingdom. Excelsius was sensible enough, however, to see that this was out of the question, owing to a very fundamental disproportion, for fleas could sooner take their host into captivity than the king’s army seize Trurl. So with another cold nod, he stuck his orb and scepter under his arm, lifted the box kingdom with a grunt, and took it to his humble hut of exile. And as blazing day alternated with murky night outside, according to the rhythm of the asteroid’s rotation, the king, who was acknowledged by his subjects as the greatest in the world, diligently reigned, bidding this, forbidding that, beheading, rewarding — in all these ways incessantly spurring his little ones on to perfect fealty and worship of the throne.

When first published in 1965, Lem’s tale was the most purely speculative of speculative fictions, set as it was thousands if not millions of years in the future. Yet it would take just another quarter of a century before real-world Excelsiuses got the chance to play with little boxed kingdoms of their own, nurturing their subjects and tormenting them as the mood struck. The new strain of living, dynamic worlds filled with apparently living, dynamic beings was soon given the name of “god game” to distinguish it from the more static games of war and grand strategy that had preceded it.

The first of the great god-game constructors, the one whose name would always be most associated with the genre, was a hyperactive chain-smoking, chain-talking Southerner named Will Wright. This is the story of him and his first living world — or, actually, living city — in a box.


 

Will Wright has always been a constructor. As a boy in the 1960s and 1970s, he built hundreds of models of ships, cars, and planes. At age 10, he made a replica of the bridge of the Enterprise out of balsa wood and lugged it to a Star Trek convention; it won a prize there, the first of many Wright would get to enjoy during his life. When developments in electronics miniaturization made it possible, he started making his creations move, constructing primitive robots out of Lego bricks, model kits, and the contents of his local Radio Shack’s wall of hobbyist doodads. In 1980, the 20-year-old Wright and his partner Rick Doherty won the U.S. Express, an illegal coast-to-coast automobile race created by the organizer of the earlier Cannonball Run. A fighter jet’s worth of electronics allowed them to drive from New York City to Santa Monica in 33 hours and 39 minutes in a Mazda RX-7, cruising for long stretches of time at 120 miles per hour.

Wright was able to indulge these passions and others thanks to his late father, a materials engineer who invented a lucrative new process for manufacturing plastic packaging before dying of leukemia when his son was just 9 years old. His widow was very patient with her eccentric tinkerer of a son, similar in some ways to his practical-minded father but in others very different. Wright spent five years at various universities in and out of his home state of Louisiana, excelling in the subjects that caught his fancy — like architecture, economics, mechanical engineering, and military history — while ignoring entirely all the others. Through it all, his mother never put any undue pressure on him to settle on something, buckle down, and get an actual degree. When he told her in no uncertain terms that he wouldn’t be taking over the family business his father had left in trust for him, she accepted that as well. Yet even she must have struggled to accept the notion of her 22-year-old son running off to California with Joell Jones, a painter 11 years his senior; the two had bonded when Jones severed a nerve in her wrist and Wright built a gadget out of metal and rubber bands to allow her to continue to paint. The two would marry in 1984.

Given his love for electronic gadgetry, it will likely come as no surprise that Wright was snared quickly by the nascent PC revolution. Already by 1980 he had added an Apple II to his collection of toys, and with it computer programming and computer gaming to his long list of hobbies; his first computerized love was Bruce Artwick’s primitive original Flight Simulator. But it was only after moving to Oakland with Jones that he started thinking seriously about writing a game of his own. This first and arguably last entirely practical, commercial project of his life was apparently prompted by his now living permanently away from home, an adult at last. At some point even a dreamer has to do something with his life, and making computer games seemed as good a choice as any.

His first game was in some ways the antithesis of everything he would do later: a conventional experience in a proven genre, a game designed to suit the existing market rather than a game designed to create its own new market, and the only Will Wright game that can actually be won in the conventional sense. Like many games of its era, its design was inspired by a technical trick. Wright, who had moved on from his Apple II to a Commodore 64 by this time, had figured out a way to scroll smoothly over what appeared to be a single huge background image. “I knew the Apple couldn’t begin to move that much in the way of graphics around the screen that quickly,” he says. “So I designed the game around that feature.”

Raid on Bungeling Bay on the Commodore 64

Raid on Bungeling Bay on the Commodore 64

Raid on Bungeling Bay owed a lot to Choplifter and a little to Beach-Head, sending you off in a futuristic helicopter to strike at the heart of the evil Bungeling Empire, returning when necessary to your home base for repairs and more ammunition. The most impressive aspect of the game, even more so than its graphical tricks, was the sophisticated modeling of the enemy forces. The Bungeling factories would turn out more advanced hardware as time went on, while your ability and need to disrupt supply lines and to monitor and attack the enemy on multiple fronts created a craving for at least a modicum of strategy as well as reflexes.

Wright sold Raid on Bungeling Bay to Brøderbund Software, who published it in 1984, whereupon it sold a reasonable if hardly overwhelming 30,000 copies on the Commodore 64. But, in contrast to so many of its peers, that wasn’t the end of the story. Hudson Soft in Japan took note of the game, paying Brøderbund and Wright for the right to make it into a cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Wright claims it sold an astonishing 750,000 copies on the NES in Japan and later the United States, giving him a steady income while he played around with the ideas that would become his next project, the one that would really make his name.

As it happened, the first project merged into the second almost seamlessly. Wright had written a tool for his own use in creating the Bungeling Empire’s cities, a little world editor that would let him scroll around a virtual space, laying down tiles to represent land and sea, factories and gun turrets. He realized at some point — perhaps after his game had shipped and yet he was still tinkering with his world inside the editor — that he found this task of creation much more compelling than the act of destruction that was actually playing the game. Might there be others who felt like him? Based on the success of Electronic Arts’s Pinball Construction Set, a program he hugely admired, he thought there just might be.

One fateful day Wright shared his world editor and his still half-baked ideas about what to do with it with his neighbor Bruce Joffe. An established architect and urban planner, Joffe had studied under Jay Wright Forrester at MIT, generally regarded as the founder of the entire field of system dynamics — i.e., using a computer to simulate a complex, dynamic reality. When he saw Wright’s little Bungeling Empire cities, Joffe was immediately reminded of Forrester’s work. He wasted no time in telling his friend that he really needed to check this guy out.

Even though the two have never to my knowledge met, Jay Wright Forrester and Will Wright were a match made in heaven; they shared much beyond the name of “Wright.” Both, to name one example, got their start in the field of simulation with a flight simulator, Jay Wright Forrester trying to build one and Will Wright trying to figure out how Bruce Artwick’s Flight Simulator really worked.

Driven by his desire to make a flight simulator, Forrester had been instrumental in the creation of Whirlwind, the first real computer, in the sense that we understand the term today, to be built in the United States.1 The flight simulator never quite came together, but an undaunted Forrester moved on to Project SAGE, an air-defense early-warning system that became easily the most elaborate computing project of the 1950s. From there, he pioneered economic and industrial modeling on computers, and finally, in the late 1960s, arrived at what he called “urban dynamics.” Forrester’s urban modeling created a firestorm of controversy among city planners and social activists; as he put it in his dry way, it “was the first of my modeling work that produced strong, emotional reactions.” He was accused of everything from incompetence to racism when his models insisted that low-cost urban public housing, heretofore widely regarded as a potent tool for fighting poverty, was in reality “a powerful tool for creating poverty, not alleviating it.”

Of more immediate interest to us, however, is the reaction one Will Wright had to Forrester’s work many years after all the controversy had died away. The jacket copy of Forrester’s book Urban Dynamics reads like a synopsis of the simulation Wright was now about to create on a microcomputer: “a computer model describing the major internal forces controlling the balance of population, housing, and industry within an urban area,” which “simulates the life cycle of a city and predicts the impact of proposed remedies on the system.” When Wright’s neighbor Joffe had studied under Forrester in the 1970s, the latter had been constructing physical scale models of his urban subjects, updating them as time went on with the latest data extracted from his computer programs. If he could build a similar program to live behind his graphical Bungeling Empire cities, Wright would have found a much easier way to study the lives of cities. At about the same time that he had that initial conversation with Joffe, Wright happened to read the Stanislaw Lem story that opened this article. If he needed further inspiration to create his own city in a box, he found plenty of it there.

Never one to shy away from difficult or esoteric academic literature, Wright plunged into the arcane theoretical world of system dynamics. He wound up drawing almost as much from John Horton Conway’s 1970 Game of Life, another major landmark in the field, as he did from Forrester. Wright:

System dynamics is a way to look at a system and divide it into, basically, stocks and flows. Stocks are quantities, like population, and flows are rates, like the death rate, the birth rate, immigration. You can model almost anything using those two features. That was how he [Forrester] started system dynamics and that was the approach he took to his modeling. I uncovered his stuff when I started working on SimCity and started teaching myself modeling techniques. I also came across the more recent stuff with cellular automata [i.e., Conway’s Game of Life], and SimCity is really a hybrid of those two approaches. Because his [Forrester’s] approach was not spatial at all, whereas the cellular automata gives you a lot of really interesting spatial tools for propagation, network flow, proximity, and so forth. So the fact that pollution starts here, spreads over here, and slowly gets less and less, and you can actually simulate propagation waves through these spatial structures. So SimCity in some sense is like a big three-dimensional cellular automata, with each layer being some feature of the landscape like crime or pollution or land value. But the layers can interact on the third dimension. So the layers of crime and pollution can impact the land-value layer.

This description subtly reveals something about the eventual SimCity that is too often misunderstood. The model of urban planning that underpins Wright’s simulation is grossly simplified and, often, grossly biased to match its author’s own preexisting political views. SimCity is far more defensible as an abstract exploration of system dynamics than as a concrete contribution to urban planning. All this talk about “stocks” and “flows” illustrates where Wright’s passion truly lay. For him the what that was being simulated was less interesting than the way it was being simulated. Wright:

I think the primary goal of this [SimCity] is to show people how intertwined such things can get. I’m not so concerned with predicting the future accurately as I am with showing which things have influence over which other things, sort of a chaos introduction, where the system is so complex that it can get very hard to predict the future ramifications of a decision or policy.

After working on the idea for about six months, Wright brought a very primitive SimCity to Brøderbund, who were intrigued enough to sign him to a contract. But over the next year or so of work a disturbing trend manifested. Each time Wright would bring the latest version to Brøderbund, they’d nod approvingly as he showed all the latest features, only to ask, gently but persistently, a question Wright learned to loathe: when would he be making an actual game out of the simulation? You know, something with a winning state, perhaps with a computer opponent to play against?

Even as it was, SimCity was hardly without challenge. You had to plan and manage your city reasonably well or it would go bankrupt or drown in a sea of crime or other urban blights and you, the mayor, would get run out of town on a rail. Yet it was also true that there wasn’t a conventional winning screen to go along with all those potential losing ones. Wright tried to explain that the simulation was the game, that the fun would come from trying things out in this huge, wide-open possibility space and seeing what happened. He thought he had ample evidence from his friends that he wasn’t the only one who liked to play this way. They would dutifully build their cities to a point and then, just like Excelsius in the story, would have just as much fun tearing them down, just to see what happened. Indeed, they found the virtual destruction so enjoyable that Wright added disasters to the program — fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, even a rampaging Godzilla monster — that they could unleash at will. As with everything else in SimCity, the motivation for a player consciously choosing to destroy all her labor was just to see what would happen. After all, you could always save the game first. Wright:

When I first started showing the Commodore version, the only thing that was in there was a bulldozer, basically to erase mistakes. So if you accidentally built a road or a building in the wrong place you could erase it with the bulldozer. What I found was that, invariably, in the first five minutes people would discover the bulldozer, and they would blow up a building with it by accident. And then they would laugh. And then they would go and attack the city with the bulldozer. And they’d blow up all the buildings, and they’d be laughing their heads off. And it really intrigued me because it was like someone coming across an ant pile and poking it with a stick to see what happens. And they would get that out of their system in about ten minutes, and then they would realize that the hard part wasn’t destroying, but building it back up. And so people would have a great time destroying the city with a bulldozer, and then they would discover, “Wow, the power’s out. Wow, there’s a fire starting.” And that’s when they would start the rebuilding process, and that’s what would really hook them. Because they would realize that the destruction was so easy in this game, it was the creation that was the hard part. And this is back when all games were about destruction. After seeing that happen with so many people, I finally decided, “Well I might as well let them get it out of their systems. I’ll add disasters to the game.” And that’s what gave me the idea for the disasters menu.

Wright asked Brøderbund to look at his “game” not as a conventional zero-sum ludic experience, but as a doll house or a train set, an open-ended, interactive creative experience — or, to use the term the market would later choose, as a “sandbox” for the player. Wright:

I think it [sandbox gaming] attracts a different kind of player. In fact, some people play it very goal-directed. What it really does is force you to determine the goals. So when you start SimCity, one of the most interesting things that happens is that you have to decide, “What do I want to make? Do I want to make the biggest possible city, or the city with the happiest residents, or the most parks, or the lowest crime?” Every time you have to idealize in your head, “What does the ideal city mean to me?” It requires a bit more motivated player. What that buys you in a sense is more replayability because we aren’t enforcing any strict goal on you. We could have said, “Get your city to 10,000 people in ten years or you lose.” And you would always have to play that way. And there would be strategies to get there, and people would figure out the strategies, and that would be that. By leaving it more open-ended, people can play the game in a lot of different ways. And that’s where it’s becomes more like a toy.

But Brøderbund just couldn’t seem to understand what he was on about. At last, Wright and his publisher parted ways in a haze of mutual incomprehension. By the time they did so, the Commodore 64 SimCity was essentially complete; it would finally be released virtually unchanged more than two years later.

SimCity on the Commodore 64

SimCity on the Commodore 64

For the moment, though, nobody seemed interested at all. After halfheartedly shopping SimCity around to some other publishers (among them Cinemaware) without a bite, Wright largely gave up on the idea of ever getting it released. But then in early 1987, with SimCity apparently dead in the water, he was invited to a pizza party for game developers hosted by a young businessman named Jeff Braun. Braun, who envisioned himself as the next great software entrepreneur, had an ulterior motive: he was looking for the next great game idea. “Will is a very shy guy, and he was sitting by himself, and I felt sorry for him,” Braun says. In marked contrast to Brøderbund, Braun saw the appeal of SimCity before he ever even saw the program in action, as soon as a very reluctant, thoroughly dispirited Wright started to tell him about it. His interest was piqued despite Wright being far from a compelling pitchman: “Will kept saying that this won’t work, that no one likes it.”

Braun nevertheless suggested that he and Wright found their own little company to port the program from the Commodore 64 to the Apple Macintosh and Commodore Amiga, more expensive machines whose older and presumably more sophisticated buyers might be more receptive to the idea of an urban-planning simulation. Thus was Maxis Software born.

Wright ported the heart of the simulation from Commodore 64 assembler to platform-independent C while a few other programmers Braun had found developed user interfaces and graphics for the Macintosh and Amiga. The simulation grew somewhat more complex on the bigger machines, but not as much as you might think. “It got more elaborate, more layers were added, and there was higher resolution on the map,” says Wright, “but it had the same basic structure for the simulation and the same basic sets of tools.”

SimCity on the Macintosh

SimCity on the Macintosh

While Wright and the other programmers were finishing up the new versions of SimCity, Braun scared up a very surprising partner for their tiny company. He visited Brøderbund again with the latest versions, and found them much more receptive to Wright’s project this time around, a switch that Wright attributes to the generally “more impressive” new versions and the fact that by this point “the market was getting into much more interesting games.” Still somewhat concerned about how gamers would perceive Wright’s non-game, Brøderbund did convince Maxis to add a set of optional “scenarios” to the sandbox simulation, time-limited challenges the player could either meet or fail to meet, thus definitively winning or losing. The eight scenarios, some historical (the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the fire-bombing of Hamburg in 1944), some hypothetical (a nuclear meltdown in Boston in 2010, the flooding of Rio de Janeiro in 2047 thanks to global warming), and some unabashedly fanciful (a monster attack on Tokyo in 1957), were all ultimately less compelling than they initially sounded, being all too clearly shoehorned into an engine that had never been designed for this mode of play. Still, Brøderbund’s perceived need to be able to honestly call SimCity a game was met, and that was the most important thing. Brøderbund happily agreed to become little Maxis’s distributor, a desperately needed big brother to look after them in a cutthroat industry.

SimCity

SimCity shipped for the Macintosh in February of 1989, for the Commodore 64 in April, and for the Amiga in May. Some people immediately sat up to take notice of this clearly new thing; sales were, all things considered, quite strong right out of the gate. In an online conference hosted on June 19, 1989, Wright said that they had already sold 11,000 copies of the Macintosh version and 8000 of the Amiga, big numbers in a short span of time for those relatively small American gaming markets. Presaging the real explosion of interest still to come, he noted that Maxis had had “many inquiries from universities and planning departments.” And indeed, already in August of 1989 the first academic paper on SimCity would be presented at an urban-planning conference. Realizing all too well himself how non-rigorous an exercise in urban planning SimCity really was, Wright sounded almost sheepish in contemplating “a more serious version” for the future.

SimCity for MS-DOS

SimCity for MS-DOS

SimCity would begin to sell in really big numbers that September, when the all-important MS-DOS version appeared. Ports to virtually every commercially viable or semi-viable computer in the world appeared over the next couple of years, culminating in a version for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in August of 1991.

SimCity for Super Nintendo

SimCity for Super Nintendo

It’s at this point that our history of SimCity the private passion project must inevitably become the history of SimCity the public sensation. For, make no mistake, a public sensation SimCity most definitely became. It sold and sold and sold, and then sold some more, for years on end. In 1991, the year it celebrated its second anniversary on the market, it still managed to top the charts as the annum’s best-selling single computer game. Even five years after its release, with Wright’s belated “more serious” — or at least more complicated — version about to ship as SimCity 2000, the original was still selling so well that Maxis decided to rename it SimCity Classic and to continue to offer it alongside its more advanced variant. In that form it continued to sell for yet several more years. Shelf lives like this were all but unheard of in the fickle world of entertainment software.

In all, the original SimCity sold at least 500,000 copies on personal computers, while the Super Nintendo version alone sold another 500,000 to console gamers. Spin-offs, sequels, and derivatives added millions and millions more to those numbers in the years that followed the original’s long heyday; at no point between 1989 and today has there not been at least one SimCity title available for purchase. And, believe me, people have continued to purchase. SimCity 2000 (1994) and SimCity 3000 (1999) both became the best-selling single computer games of their respective release years, while post-millennial iterations have sold in the millions as a matter of routine.

But almost more important than the quantities in which the original SimCity sold and the veritable cottage industry it spawned are the people to whom it was selling. By the time they signed Maxis to a distribution contract, Brøderbund had long since demonstrated their knack for getting past the nerdy hardcore of computer users, for bypassing Dungeons & Dragons and military simulations and all the rest to reach the great unwashed masses of Middle America. Brøderbund’s The Print Shop and their Carmen Sandiego series in particular remain icons of ordinary American life during the 1980s. SimCity must be added to that list for the 1990s. Beginning with a June 15, 1989, piece in no less august a journal than The New York Times, seemingly every newspaper and news magazine in the country wrote about SimCity. For a mainstream media that has never known quite what to make of computer games, this was the rare game that, like Carmen Sandiego, was clearly good for you and your kids.

SimCity even penetrated into the political sphere. With a mayoral election pending in 1990, The Providence Journal set up a contest for the five candidates for the post, letting each have his way with a simulated version of Providence, Rhode Island. The winner of that contest also wound up winning the election. More amusing was the experiment conducted by Detroit News columnist Chuck Moss. He sent Godzilla rampaging through a simulated Detroit, then compared the result with the carnage wrought by Coleman Young during his two-decade real-world reign as mayor. His conclusion? Godzilla had nothing on Mayor Young.

If the interest SimCity prompted in the mainstream media wasn’t unusual enough, academia’s eagerness to jump on the bandwagon in these years long before “game studies” became an accepted area of interest is even more astonishing. Articles and anecdotes about Will Wright’s creation were almost as prevalent in the pages of psychology and urban-planning journals as they were in newspapers. Plenty of the papers in the latter journals, written though they were by professionals in their field who really should have known better, credited Wright’s experiment with an authority out of all proportion to the fairly simplistic reality of the simulation, in spite of candid admissions of its limitations from the people who knew the program best. “I wouldn’t want to predict a real city with it,” Wright said. Bruce Joffe, the urban planner who had set Wright down the road to SimCity, responded with one word when asked if he would use the program to simulate any aspect of a city he was designing in the real world: “No.” And yet SimCity came to offer perhaps the most compelling demonstration of the Eliza Effect since Joseph Weizenbaum’s simple chatbot that had given the phenomenon its name. The world, SimCity proved once again, is full of Fox Mulders. We all want to believe.

In that spirit, SimCity also found a home in a reported 10,000 elementary-, middle-, and high-school classrooms across the country, prompting Maxis to offer a new pedagogical version of the manual, focused on techniques for using the simulation as a teaching tool. And SimCity started showing up on university syllabi as well; the construction of your own simulated city became a requirement in many sociology and economics classes.

Back in May of 1989, Computer Gaming World had concluded their superlative review of SimCity — one of the first to appear anywhere in print — by asking their readers to “buy this game. We want them to make lots of money so they’ll develop SimCounty, SimState, SimNation, SimPlanet, SimUniverse… billions and billions of games!” The hyperbole proved prescient; Maxis spent the 1990s flooding the market with new Sim titles.

SimEarth on MS-DOS

SimEarth on MS-DOS

Jay Wright Forrester’s follow-up to his book Urban Dynamics had been Global Dynamics, an inquiry into the possibility of simulating the entire world as a dynamic system. Wright’s own next game, then, was 1990’s SimEarth, which attempted to do just that, putting you in charge of a planet through 10 billion years of geological and biological evolution. SimEarth became a huge success in its day, one almost comparable to SimCity. The same year-end chart that shows SimCity as the best-selling single title of 1991 has SimEarth at number two — quite a coup for Maxis. Yet, like virtually all of the later Sim efforts, SimEarth is far less fondly remembered today than is its predecessor. The ambitious planet simulator just wasn’t all that much fun to play, as even Wright himself admits today.

But then, one could make the same complaint about many of Maxis’s later efforts, which simulated everything from ant colonies to office towers, healthcare systems (!) to rain forests. New Sim games began to feel not just like failed experiments but downright uninspired, iterating and reiterating endlessly over the same concept of the open-ended “software toy” even as other designers found ways to build SimCity‘s innovations into warmer and more compelling game designs. Relying heavily as always on his readings of the latest scientific literature, Wright could perhaps have stood to put away the academic journals from time to time and crack open a good novel; he struggled to find the human dimension in his simulations. The result was a slow but steady decline in commercial returns as the decade wore on, a trend from which only the evergreen SimCity and its sequels were excepted. Not until 2000 would Maxis finally enjoy a new breakthrough title, one that would dwarf even the success of SimCity… but that is most definitely a story for another time.

Given its storied history and the passion it once inspired in so many players, playing the original SimCity as well for the first time today is all but guaranteed to be a somewhat underwhelming experience. Even allowing for what now feels like a crude, slow user interface and absurdly low-resolution graphics, everything just feels so needlessly obscure, leaving you with the supreme frustration of losing again and again without being able to figure out why you’re losing. Not for nothing was this game among the first to spawn a book-length strategy guide — in fact, two of them. You need inside information just to understand what’s going on much of the time. There are games that are of their time and games that are for all time. In my perhaps controversial opinion, the original SimCity largely falls into the former category.

But, far from negating SimCity‘s claim to our attention, this judgment only means that we, as dutiful students of history, need to try even harder to understand what it was that so many people first saw in what may strike us today as a perversely frustrating simulation. Those who played the original SimCity for the first time, like those who played the original AdventureDefender of the Crown, and a bare handful of other landmark games in the history of the hobby, felt the full shock of a genuinely new experience that was destined to change the very nature of gaming. It’s a shock we can try to appreciate today but can never fully replicate.

You can see traces of SimCity in many if not most of the games we play today, from casual social games to hardcore CRPG and strategy titles. Sid Meier, when asked in 2008 to name the three most important innovations in the history of electronic gaming, listed the invention of the IBM PC, the Nintendo Seal of Quality… and, yes, SimCity. “SimCity was a revelation to most of us game designers,” says Meier. “The idea that players enjoyed a game that was open-ended, non-combative, and emphasized construction over destruction opened up many new avenues and possibilities for game concepts.” Many years before Meier’s statement, Russell Sipe, the respected founder of Computer Gaming World, said simply that “SimCity has changed the face of computer-entertainment software.” He was and is absolutely correct. Its influence really has been that immense.

(Sources: Magazines include Amazing Computing of October 1989; Game Developer from April 2006; MacWorld from April 1990; Computer Gaming World from May 1989; Compute! from January 1992; The New Yorker from November 6 2006. Newspapers include The San Francisco Chronicle from November 3 2003; The New York Times from June 15 1989; The Los Angeles Times from October 2 1992. Books include The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem; The SimCity Planning Commission Handbook by Johnny L. Wilson; Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning by Le Corbusier; The Second Self by Sherry Turkle. Current and archived online sources include John Cutter’s blog; Game Research; articles about Will Wright and Sid Meier on Wired; The Next American City; Reform; GameSpot; a 1989 talk given by Jay Wright Forrester, which is hosted at MIT; First Monday; Taylor Francis Online. And finally, there’s the collection of Brøderbund archives I went through during my visit to the Strong Museum of Play.

Beginning with SimCity 2000, the more playable later iterations of the franchise are all available for purchase in various places online. For those of an historical bent who’d like to experience the original, I offer a zip that includes the first three versions — for the Macintosh, Commodore 64, and Amiga.)


  1. The more canonical example in American textbooks, the ENIAC, could only be “programmed” by physically rewiring its internals. It’s probably better understood as an elaborate calculating machine than a true computer; its original purpose was to calculate static artillery firing tables. As in so many things, politics plays a role in ENIAC’s anointment. The first computer programmable entirely in software, pre-dating even Whirlwind, was EDSAC-1, built at Cambridge University in Britain. That such a feat was first managed abroad seems to be just a bit more than some Americans in Silicon Valley and elsewhere can bring themselves to accept. 

 

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Apple, Carmen Sandiego, and the Rise of Edutainment

If there was any one application that was the favorite amongst early boosters of personal computing, it was education. Indeed, it could sometimes be difficult to find one of those digital utopianists who was willing to prioritize anything else — unsurprisingly, given that so much early PC culture grew out of places like The People’s Computer Company, who made “knowledge is power” their de facto mantra and talked of teaching people about computers and using computers to teach with equal countercultural fervor. Creative Computing, the first monthly magazine dedicated to personal computing, grew out of that idealistic milieu, founded by an educational consultant who filled a big chunk of its pages with plans, schemes, and dreams for computers as tools for democratizing, improving, and just making schooling more fun. A few years later, when Apple started selling the II, they pushed it hard as the learning computer, making deals with the influential likes of the Minnesota Educational Consortium (MECC) of Oregon Trail fame that gave the machine a luster none of its competitors could touch. For much of the adult public, who may have had their first exposure to a PC when they visited a child’s classroom, the Apple II became synonymous with the PC, which was in turn almost synonymous with education in the days before IBM turned it into a business machine. We can still see the effect today: when journalists and advertisers look for an easy story of innovation to which to compare some new gadget, it’s always the Apple II they choose, not the TRS-80 or Commodore PET. And the iconic image of an Apple II in the public’s imagination remains a group of children gathered around it in a classroom.

For all that, though, most of the early educational software really wasn’t so compelling. The works of Edu-Ware, the first publisher to make education their main focus, were fairly typical. Most were created or co-created by Edu-Ware co-founder Sherwin Steffin, who brought with him a professional background of more than twenty years in education and education theory. He carefully outlined his philosophy of computerized instruction, backed as it was by all the latest research into the psychology of learning, in long-winded, somewhat pedantic essays for Softalk and Softline magazines, standard bearers of the burgeoning Apple II community. Steffin’s software may or may not have correctly applied the latest pedagogical research, but it mostly failed at making children want to learn with it. The programs were generally pretty boring exercises in drill and practice, lacking even proper titles. Fractions, Arithmetic Skills, or Compu-Read they said on their boxes, and fractions, arithmetic, or (compu-)reading was what you got, a series of dry drills to work through without a trace of wit, whimsy, or fun.

The other notable strand of early PC-based education was the incestuous practice of using the computer to teach kids about computers. The belief that being able to harness the power of the computer through BASIC would somehow become a force for social democratization and liberation is an old one, dating back to even before the first issues of Creative Computing — to the People’s Computer Club and, indeed, to the very researchers at Dartmouth University who created BASIC in the 1960s. As BASIC’s shortcomings became more and more evident, other instructional languages and courses based on them kept popping up in the early 1980s: PILOT, Logo, COMAL, etc. This craze for “computer literacy,” which all but insisted that every kid who didn’t learn to program was going to end up washing dishes or mowing lawns for a living, peaked along with the would-be home-computer revolution in about 1983. Advocating for programming as a universal life skill was like suggesting in 1908 that everyone needed to learn to take a car apart and put it back together to prepare for the new world that was about to arrive with the Model T — which, in an example of how some things never really change, was exactly what many people in 1908 were in fact suggesting. Joseph Weizenbaum of Eliza fame, always good for a sober corrective to the more ebullient dreams of his colleagues, offered a take on the real computerized future that was shockingly prescient by comparing the computer to the electric motor.

There are undoubtedly many more electric motors in the United States than there are people, and almost everybody owns a lot of electric motors without thinking about it. They are everywhere, in automobiles, food mixers, vacuum cleaners, even watches and pencil sharpeners. Yet, it doesn’t require any sort of electric-motor literacy to get on with the world, or, more importantly, to be able to use these gadgets.

Another important point about electric motors is that they’re invisible. If you question someone using a vacuum cleaner, of course they know that there is an electric motor inside. But nobody says, “Well, I think I’ll use an electric motor programmed to be a vacuum cleaner to vacuum the floor.”

The computer will also become largely invisible, as it already is to a large extent in the consumer market. I believe that the more pervasive the computer becomes, the more invisible it will become. We talk about it a lot now because it is new, but as we get used to the computer it will retreat into the background. How much hands-on computer experience will students need? The answer, of course, is not very much. The student and the practicing professional will operate special-purpose instruments that happen to have computers as components.

The pressure to make of every kid a programmer gradually faded as the 1980s wore on, leaving programming to those of us who found it genuinely fascinating. Today even the term “computer literacy,” always a strange linguistic choice anyway, feels more and more like a relic of history as this once-disruptive and scary new force has become as everyday as, well, the electric motor.

As for those other educational programs, they — at least some of them — got better by mid-decade. Programs like Number Munchers, Math Blaster, and Reader Rabbit added a bit more audiovisual sugar to their educational vegetables along with a more gamelike framework to their repetitive drills, and proved better able to hold children’s interest. For all the early rhetoric about computers and education, one could argue that the real golden age of the Apple II as an educational computer didn’t begin until about 1983 or 1984.

By that time a new category of educational software, partly a marketing construct but partly a genuinely new thing, was becoming more and more prominent: edutainment. Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, has often claimed to have invented the portmanteau for EA’s 1984 title Seven Cities of Gold, but this is incorrect; a company called Milliken Publishing was already using the label for their programs for the Atari 8-bit line in late 1982, and it was already passing into common usage by the end of 1983. Edutainment dispensed with the old drill-and-practice model in preference to more open, playful forms of interactions that nevertheless promised, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, to teach. The skills they taught, meanwhile, were generally not the rigid, disembodied stuff of standardized tests but rather embedded organically into living virtual worlds. It’s all but impossible to name any particular game as the definitive first example of such a nebulous genre, but a good starting point might be Tom Snyder and Spinnaker Software.

Tom Snyder, 1984

Tom Snyder, 1984

Snyder had himself barely made it through high school. He came to blame his own failings as a student on his inability to relate to exactly the notions of arbitrary, contextless education that marked the early era of PC educational software: “Here, learn this set of facts. Write this paper. This is what you must know. This is what’s important.” When he became a fifth-grade teacher years later, he made it a point to ground his lessons always in the real world, to tell his students why it was useful to know the things he taught them and how it all related to the world around them. He often used self-designed games, first done with pencil and paper and cardboard and later done on computers, to let his students explore knowledge and its ramifications. In 1980 he founded a groundbreaking development company, Tom Snyder Productions, to commercialize some of those efforts. One of them became Snooper Troops, published as one of Spinnaker’s first titles in 1982; it had kids wandering around a small town trying to solve a mystery by compiling clues and using their powers of deduction. The next year’s In Search of the Most Amazing Thing, still a beloved memory of many of those who played it, combined clue-gathering with elements of economics and even diplomacy in a vast open world. Unlike so much other children’s software, Snyder’s games never talked down to their audience; children are after all just as capable of sensing when they’re being condescended to as anyone else. They differed most dramatically from the drill-and-practice software that preceded them in always making the educational elements an organic part of their worlds. One of Snyder’s favorite mantras applies to educational software as much as it does to any other creative endeavor and, indeed, to life: “Don’t be boring.” The many games of Tom Snyder Productions, most of which were not actually designed by Snyder himself, were often crude and slow, written as often as not in BASIC. But, at least at the conceptual level, they were seldom boring.

It’s of course true that a plain old game that requires a degree of thoughtfulness and a full-on work of edutainment can be very hard to disentangle from one another. Like so much else in life, the boundaries here can be nebulous at best, and often had as much to do with marketing, with the way a title was positioned by its owner, as with any intrinsic qualities of the title itself. When we go looking for those intrinsics, we can come up with only a grab bag of qualities of which any given edutainment title was likely to share a subset: being based on real history or being a simulation of some real aspect of science or technology; being relatively nonviolent; emphasizing thinking and logical problem-solving rather than fast reflexes. Like pornography, edutainment is something that many people seemed to just know when they saw it.

That said, there were plenty of titles that straddled the border between entertainment and edutainment. Spinnaker’s Telarium line of adventure games is a good example. Text-based games that were themselves based on books, published by a company that had heretofore specialized in education and edutainment… it wasn’t hard to grasp why parents might be expected to find them appealing, even if they were never explicitly marketed as anything other than games. Spinnaker’s other line of adventures, Windham Classics, blurred the lines even more by being based on acknowledged literary classics of the sort kids might be assigned to read in school rather than popular science fiction and fantasy, and by being directly pitched at adolescents of about ten to fourteen years of age. Tellingly, Tom Synder Productions wrote one of the Windham Classics games; Dale Disharoon, previously a developer of Spinnaker educational software like Alphabet Zoo, wrote two more.

A certain amount of edutational luster clung to the text adventure in general, was implicit in much of the talk about interactive fiction as a new form of literature that was so prevalent during the brief bookware boom. One could even say it clung to the home computer itself, in the form of notions about “good screens” and “bad screens.” The family television was the bad screen, locus of those passive and mindless broadcasts that have set parents and educators fretting almost from the moment the medium was invented, and now the home of videogames, the popularity of which caused a reactionary near-hysteria in some circles; they would inure children to violence (if they thought Space Invaders was bad, imagine what they’d say about the games of today!) and almost literally rot their brains, making of them mindless slack-jawed zombies. The computer monitor, on the other hand, was the good screen, home of more thoughtful and creative forms of interaction and entertainment. What parent wouldn’t prefer to see her kid playing, say, Project: Space Station rather than Space Invaders? Home-computer makers and software publishers — at least the ones who weren’t making Space Invaders clones — caught on to this dynamic early and rode it hard.

As toy manufacturers had realized decades before, there are essentially two ways to market children’s entertainment. One way is to appeal to the children themselves, to make them want your product and nag Mom and Dad until they relent. The other is to appeal directly to Mom and Dad, to convince them that what you’re offering will be an improving experience for their child, perhaps with a few well-placed innuendoes if you can manage them about how said child will be left behind if she doesn’t have your product. With that in mind, it can be an interesting experiment to look at the box copy from software of the early home-computer era whilst asking yourself whether it’s written for the kids who were most likely to play it or the parents who were most likely to pay for it — or whether it hedges its bets by offering a little for both. Whatever else it was, emphasizing the educational qualities of your game was just good marketing; a 1984 survey found that 46 percent of computers in homes had been purchased by parents with the primary goal of improving their children’s education. It was the perfect market for the title that would come to stand alongside The Oregon Trail as one of the two classic examples of 1980s edutainment software.

Doug, Cathy, and Gary Carlston, 1983

Doug, Cathy, and Gary Carlston, 1983

The origins of the game that would become known as Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? are confused, with lots of oft-contradictory memories and claims flying around. However, the most consistent story has it beginning with an idea by Gary Carlston of Brøderbund Software in 1983. He and his brother Doug had been fascinated by their family’s almanac as children: “We used to lie there and ask each other questions out of the almanac.” This evolved into impromptu quiz games in bed after the lights went out. Gary now proposed a game or, better yet, a series of games which would have players running down a series of clues about geography and history, answerable via a trusty almanac or other reference work to be included along with the game disk right there in the box.

Brøderbund didn’t actually develop much software in-house, preferring to publish the work of outside developers on a contract basis. While they did have a small staff of programmers and even artists, they were there mainly to assist outside developers by helping with difficult technical problems, porting code to other machines, and polishing in-game art rather than working up projects from scratch. But this idea just seemed to have too much potential to ignore or outsource. Gary was therefore soon installed in Brøderbund’s “rubber room” — so-called because it was the place where people went to bounce ideas off one another — along with Lauren Elliott, the company’s only salaried game designer; Gene Portwood, Elliott’s best friend, manager of Brøderbund’s programming team, and a pretty good artist; Ed Bernstein, head of Brøderbund’s art department; and programmer Dane Bigham, who would be expected to write not so much a game as a cross-platform database-driven engine that could power many ports and sequels beyond the Apple II original.

Gary’s first idea was to name the game Six Crowns of Henry VIII, and to make it a scavenger hunt for the eponymous crowns through Britain. However, the team soon turned that into something wider-scoped and more appealing to the emerging American edutainment market. You would be chasing an international criminal ring through cities located all over the world, trying to recover a series of stolen cultural artifacts, like a jade goddess from Singapore, an Inca mask from Peru, or a gargoyle from Notre Dame Cathedral (wonder how the thieves managed that one). It’s not entirely clear who came up with the idea for making the leader of the ring, whose capture would become the game’s ultimate goal, a woman named Carmen Sandiego, but Elliott believes the credit most likely belongs to Portwood. Regardless, everyone immediately liked the idea. “There were enough male bad guys,” said Elliott later, and “girls [could] be just as bad.” (Later, when the character became famous, Brøderbund would take some heat from Hispanic groups who claimed that the game associated a Hispanic surname with criminality. Gary replied with a tongue-in-cheek letter explaining that “Sandiego” was actually Carmen’s married name, that her maiden name was “Sondberg” and she was actually Swedish.) When development started in earnest, the Carmen team was pared down to a core trio of Eliott, who broadly speaking put together the game’s database of clues and cities; Portwood, who drew the graphics; and Bigham, who wrote the code. But, as Eliott later said, “A lot of what we did just happened. We didn’t think much about it.”

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

To play that first Carmen Sandiego game today can be just a bit of an underwhelming experience; there’s just not that much really to it. Each of a series of crimes and the clues that lead you to the perpetrator are randomly generated from the game’s database of 10 possible suspects, 30 cities, and 1000 or so clues. Starting in the home city of the stolen treasure in question, you have about five days to track down each suspect. Assuming you’re on the right track, you’ll get clues in each city as to the suspect’s next destination among the several possibilities represented by the airline connections from that city: perhaps he “wanted to know the price of tweed” or “wanted to sail on the Severn.” (Both of these clues would point you to Britain, more specifically to London.) If you make the right deductions each step of the way you’ll apprehend the suspect in plenty of time. You’ll know you’ve made the wrong choice if you wind up at a dead-end city with no further clues on offer. Your only choice then is to backtrack, wasting precious time in the process. The tenth and final suspect to track down is always Carmen Sandiego herself, who for all of her subsequent fame is barely characterized at all in this first installment. Capture her, and you retire to the “Detective Hall of Fame.” There’s a little bit more to it, like the way that you must also compile details of the suspect’s appearance as you travel so you can eventually fill out an arrest warrant, but not a whole lot. Any modern player with Wikipedia open in an adjacent window can easily finish all ten cases and win the game in a matter of a few hours at most. By the time you do, the game’s sharply limited arsenal of clues, cities, and stolen treasures is already starting to feel repetitive.

Which is not to say that Carmen Sandiego is entirely bereft of modern appeal. When my wife and I played it over the course of a few evenings recently, we learned a few interesting things we hadn’t known before and even discovered a new country that I at least had never realized existed: the microstate of San Marino, beloved by stamp and coin collectors and both the oldest and the smallest constitutional republic in the world. My wife is now determined that we should make a holiday there.

Still, properly appreciating Carmen Sandiego‘s contemporary appeal requires of us a little more work. The logical place to start is with that huge World Almanac and Books of Facts that made the game’s box the heaviest on the shelves. It can be a bit hard even for those of us old enough to have grown up before the World Wide Web to recover the mindset of an era before we had the world in our living rooms — or, better said in this age of mobile computing, in our pockets. Back in those days when you had to go to a library to do research, when your choices of recreation of an evening were between whatever shows the dozen or so television stations were showing and whatever books you had in the house, an almanac was magic to any kid with a healthy curiosity about the world and a little imagination, what with its thousand or more pages filled with exotic lands along with records of deeds, buildings, cities, people, animals, and geography whose very lack of context only made them more alluring. The whole world — and then some; there were star charts and the like for budding astronomers — seemed to have been stuffed within its covers.

In that spirit, one could almost call the Carmen Sandiego game disk ancillary to the almanac rather than the other way around. Who knew what delights you might stumble over while you tried to figure out, say, in which country the python made its home? The World Almanac continues to come out every year, and seems to have done surprisingly well, all things considered, surviving the forces that have killed dead typical companions on reference shelves like the encyclopedia. But of course it’s lost much of its old magic in these days of information glut. While we can still recapture a little of the old feeling by playing Carmen Sandiego with a web browser open, our search engines have just gotten too good; it’s harder to stumble across the same sorts of crazy facts and alluring diversions.

Carmen Sandiego captured so many kids because it tempted them to discover knowledge for themselves rather than attempting to drill it into them, and all whilst never talking down to them. Gary Carlston said of Brøderbund’s edutainment philosophy, “If we would’ve enjoyed it at age 12, and if we still enjoy it now, then it’s what we want. Whether it’s pedagogically correct is not relevant.” Carmen Sandiego did indeed attract criticism from earnest educational theorists armed with studies showing how it failed to live up to the latest research on learning; this low-level drumbeat of criticism continues to this day. Some of it may very well be correct and relevant; I’m hardly qualified to judge. What I do see, though, is that Carmen Sandiego offers a remarkably progressive view of knowledge and education for its time. At a time when schools were still teaching many subjects through rote memorization of facts and dates, when math courses were largely “take this set of numbers and manipulate them to become this other set of numbers” without ever explaining why, Carmen Sandiego grasped that success in the coming world of cheap and ubiquitous data would require not a head stuffed with facts but the ability to extract relevant information from the flood of information that surrounds us, to synthesize it into conclusions, and to apply it to a problem at hand. While drill-and-practice software taught kids to perform specific tasks, Carmen Sandiego, like all the best edutainment software, taught them how to think. Just as importantly, it taught them how much fun doing so could be.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego

Brøderbund may not have been all that concerned about making Carmen Sandiego “pedagogically correct,” but they were hardly blind to the game’s educational value, nor to the marketing potential therein. The back cover alone of Carmen Sandiego is a classic example of edutainment marketing, emphasizing the adventure aspects for the kids while also giving parents a picture of children beaming over an almanac and telling how they will be “introduced to world geography” — and all whilst carefully avoiding the E-word; telling any kid that something is “educational” was and is all but guaranteed to turn her off it completely.

For all that, though, the game proved to be a slow burner rather than an out-of-the-gates hit upon its release in late 1985. It was hardly a flop; sales were strong enough that Brøderbund released the first of many sequels, Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego?, the following year. Yet year by year the game just got more popular, especially when Brøderbund started to reach out more seriously to educators, releasing special editions for schools and sending lots of free swag to those who agreed to host “Carmen Days,” for which students and teachers dressed up as Carmen or her henchmen or the detectives on their trail, and could call in to the “Acme Detective Agency” at Brøderbund itself to talk with Portwood or Elliott playing the role of “the Chief.” The combination of official school approval, the game’s natural appeal to both parents and children, and lots of savvy marketing proved to be a potent symbiosis indeed. Total sales of Carmen Sandiego games passed 1 million in 1989, 2 million in 1991, by which time the series included not only Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego? but also Where in Europe is Carmen Sandiego?, Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?, Where in America’s Past is Carmen Sandiego?, and the strangely specific Where in North Dakota is Carmen Sandiego?, prototype for a proposed series of state-level games that never got any further; Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego? would soon go in the opposite direction, rounding out the original series of reference-work-based titles on a cosmic scale. In 1991 Carmen also became a full-fledged media star, the first to be spawned by a computer game, when Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? debuted as a children’s game show on PBS.

A Print Shop banner: an artifact as redolent of its era as Hula Hoops or bellbottoms are of theirs.

A Print Shop banner: an artifact as redolent of its era as Hula Hoops or bellbottoms are of theirs.

Through the early 1980s, Brøderbund had been a successful software publisher, but not outrageously so in comparison to their peers. At mid-decade, though, the company’s fortunes suddenly began to soar just as many of those peers were, shall we say, trending in the opposite direction. Brøderbund’s success was largely down to two breakout products which each succeeded in identifying a real, compelling use for home computers at a time when that was proving far more difficult than the boosters and venture capitalists had predicted. One was of course the Carmen Sandiego line. The other was a little something called The Print Shop, which let users design and print out signs and banners using a variety of fonts and clip art. How such a simple, straightforward application could become so beloved may seem hard to understand today, but beloved The Print Shop most definitely became. For the rest of the decade and beyond its distinctive banners, enabled by the fan-fold paper used by the dot-matrix printers of the day, could be seen everywhere that people without a budget for professional signage gathered: at church socials, at amateur sporting events, inside school hallways and classrooms. Like the first desktop-publishing programs that were appearing on the Macintosh contemporaneously, The Print Shop was one more way in which computers were beginning to democratize creative production, a process, as disruptive and fraught as it is inspiring, that’s still ongoing today.

In having struck two such chords with the public in the form of The Print Shop and Carmen Sandiego, Brøderbund was far ahead of virtually all of their competitors who failed to find even one. Brøderbund lived something of a charmed existence for years, defying most of the hard-won conventional wisdom about consumer software being a niche product at best and the real money being in business software. If the Carlstons hadn’t been so gosh-darn nice, one might be tempted to begrudge them their success. (Once when the Carlstons briefly considered a merger with Electronic Arts, whose internal culture was much more ruthless and competitive, a writer said it would be a case of the Walton family moving in with the Manson family.) One could almost say that for Brøderbund alone the promises of the home-computer revolution really did materialize, with consumers rushing to buy from them not just games but practical software as well. Tellingly — and assuming we agree to label Carmen Sandiego as an educational product rather than a game — Brøderbund’s top-selling title was never a game during any given year between 1985 and the arrival of the company’s juggernaut of an adventure game Myst in 1993, despite their publication of hits like the Jordan Mechner games Karateka and Prince of Persia. Carmen Sandiego averaged 25 to 30 percent of Brøderbund’s sales during those years, behind only The Print Shop. The two lines together accounted for well over half of yearly revenues that were pushing past $50 million by decade’s end — still puny by the standards of business software but very impressive indeed by that of consumer software.

For the larger software market, Carmen Sandiego — and, for that matter, The Print Shop — were signs that, if the home computer hadn’t quite taken off as expected, it also wasn’t going to disappear or be relegated strictly to the role of niche game machine either, a clear sign that there were or at least with a bit more technological ripening could be good reasons to own one. The same year that Brøderbund pushed into edutainment with Carmen Sandiego, MECC, who had reconstituted themselves as the for-profit (albeit still state-owned) publisher Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation in 1984, released the definitive, graphically enhanced version of that old chestnut The Oregon Trail, a title which shared with Carmen Sandiego an easygoing, progressive, experiential approach to learning. Together Oregon and Carmen became the twin icons of 1980s edutainment, still today an inescapable shared memory for virtually everyone who darkened a grade or middle school door in the United States between about 1985 and 1995.

The consequences of Carmen and Oregon and the many other programs they pulled along in their wake were particularly pronounced for the one remaining viable member of the old trinity of 1977: the Apple II. Lots of people both outside and inside Apple had been expecting the II market to finally collapse for several years already, but so far that had refused to happen. Apple, whose official corporate attitude toward the II had for some time now been vacillating between benevolent condescension and enlightened disinterest, did grant II loyalists some huge final favors now. One was the late 1986 release of the Apple IIGS, a radically updated version produced on a comparative shoestring by the company’s dwindling II engineering team with assistance from Steve Wozniak himself. The IIGS used a 16-bit Western Design Center 65C816 CPU that was capable of emulating the old 8-bit 6502 when necessary but was several times as powerful. Just as significantly, the older IIs’ antiquated graphics and sound were finally given a major overhaul that now made them amongst the best in the industry, just a tier or two below those of the current gold standard, Commodore’s new 68000-based Amiga. The IIGS turned out to be a significant if fairly brief-lived hit, outselling the Macintosh and all other II models by a considerable margin in its first year.

But arguably much more important for the Apple II’s long-term future was a series of special educational offers Apple made during 1986 and 1987. In January of the former year, they announced a rebate program wherein schools could send them old computers made by Apple or any of their competitors in return for substantial rebates on new Apple IIs. In April of that year, they announced major rebates for educators wishing to purchase Apple IIs for home use. Finally, in March of 1987, Apple created two somethings called the Apple Unified School System and the Apple Education Purchase Program, which together represented a major, institutionalized outreach and support effort designed to get even more Apple IIs into schools (and, not incidentally, more Macs into universities). The Apple II had been the school computer of choice virtually from the moment that schools started buying PCs at all, but these steps along with software like Carmen Sandiego and The Oregon Trail cemented and further extended its dominance, to an extent that many schools and families simply refused to let go. The bread-and-butter Apple II model, the IIe, remained in production until November of 1993, by which time this sturdy old machine, thoroughly obsolete already by 1985, was selling almost exclusively to educators and Apple regarded its continued presence in their product catalogs like that of the faintly embarrassing old uncle who just keeps showing up for every Thanksgiving dinner.

Even after the inevitable if long-delayed passing of the Apple II as a fixture in schools, Carmen and Oregon lived on. Both received the requisite CD-ROM upgrades, although it’s perhaps debatable in both instances how much the new multimedia flash really added to the experience. The television Carmen Sandiego game shows also continued to air in various incarnations through the end of the decade. Carmen Choose Your Own Adventure-style gamebooks, conventional young-adult novels, comic books, and a board game were also soon on offer, along with yet more computerized creations like Carmen Sandiego Word Detective. Only with the millennium did Carmen — always a bit milquetoast as a character and hardly the real source of the original games’ appeal — along with The Oregon Trail see their stars finally start to fade. Both retain a certain commercial viability today, but more as kitschy artifacts and nostalgia magnets than serious endeavors in either learning or entertainment. Educational software has finally moved on.

Perhaps not enough, though: it remains about 10 percent inspired, 10 percent acceptable in a workmanlike way, and 80 percent boredom stemming sometimes from well-meaning cluelessness and sometimes from a cynical desire to exploit parents, teachers, and children. Those looking to enter this notoriously underachieving field today could do worse than to hearken back to the simple charms of Carmen Sandiego, created as it was without guile and without reams of pedagogical research to back it up, out of the simple conviction that geography could actually be fun. All learning can be fun. You just have to do it right.

(See Engineering Play by Mizuko Ito for a fairly thorough survey of educational and edutational software from an academic perspective. Gamers at Work by Morgan Ramsay has an interview with Doug and Gary Carlston which dwells on Carmen Sandiego at some length. Matt Waddell wrote a superb history of Carmen Sandiego for a class at Stanford University in 2001. A piece on Brøderbund on the eve of the first Carmen Sandiego game’s release was published in the September 1985 issue of MicroTimes. A summary of the state of Brøderbund circa mid-1991 appeared in the July 9, 1991, New York Times. Joseph Weizenbaum’s comments appeared in the July 1984 issue of Byte. The first use of the term “edutainment” that I could locate appeared in a Milliken Publishing advertisement in the January 1983 issue of Creative Computing. Articles involving Spinnaker and Tom Snyder appeared in the June 1984 Ahoy! and the October 1984 and December 1985 Compute!’s Gazette. And if you got through all that and would like to experience the original Apple II Carmen Sandiego for yourself, feel free to download the disk images and manual — but no almanac I’m afraid — from right here.)

 
 

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Choplifter

Dan Gorlin was 27 years old in early 1981, and already possessed of the sort of multifarious resume that’s typical of so many we’ve met on this blog. He was just coming off a three-year stint with Rand Corporation, doing artificial-intelligence research, but before that he’d studied piano at the California Institute of the Arts, and also studied and taught African dance, music, and culture. Now the Rand gig was over, and he suddenly found himself with time on his hands and no great urgency to find another job right away; his wife was earning very well as an oil-industry executive. While staying home to show prospective buyers the Los Angeles house he and his wife had put up for sale, Gorlin started tinkering for the first time with a microcomputer, an Apple II Plus that belonged to his grandfather. Said grandfather, a hopeless gadget freak, loved the idea of a PC, but in actuality hardly knew how to turn the Apple II on; he called floppy disks “sloppy disks” out of genuine confusion. So, Gorlin had no difficulty keeping the machine at his house for weeks or months at a stretch.

He wasn’t using the Apple II to play games. Indeed, as he has repeatedly stated in interviews, Gorlin has never been much of a gamer. He was rather intrigued by what he might do with the Apple II as a programmer, what he might create on it. He started learning the vagaries of the Apple II’s hi-res graphics, the bitmapped display mode that many computers in 1981 still lacked. Amongst his other passions, Gorlin was fascinated by helicopters, so he started developing a program that would let a player fly a little helicopter around the screen using the joystick. At first he attempted to implement a pilot’s-eye view, showing the view from the cockpit in three dimensions, Flight Simulator-style, but eventually gave up on this as too taxing, settling for a third-person view of his little helicopter. Still, he tried, to the extent possible on a 48 K 8-bit computer, to make his program an accurate simulation of the rather odd and counter-intuitive physics of helicopter flight. Eventually he had a very acceptable little helicopter simulator running, if also one that was very tricky to fly.

He may have had the physics of flight in place, but Gorlin, who couldn’t help but notice by this point that others were making serious money selling Apple II games, needed a hook, a reason for flying the helicopter that could turn his simulator project into a real game with challenges and a goal. He tried adding some enemy tanks and planes to shoot at and be shot at by in standard arcade fashion, but it somehow still didn’t feel right. Then one fateful afternoon a local kid whom Gorlin had hired to do some repairs on his car was playing around with the program. “You should have some men to pick up,” the kid said — like in one of his favorite arcade games, the mega-popular Defender. Gorlin, non-gamer that he was, knew nothing about Defender, so he walked over to the local laundromat to have a look.

Defender is in many ways a typical creation of its time, with the player tasked with shooting down wave after wave of enemy ships to increase her score and earn extra lives. It does, however, have one unique element, from whence derives its name. Little “astronauts” wander the planet’s surface at the bottom of the screen. In an unexpected injection of Close Encounters into Star Wars, certain enemy ships attempt to abduct these fellows. If they succeed in carrying one off, the player has one last chance to effect a rescue: she can shoot down the offending ship, scoop up the falling astronaut, and set him down safely back on the planet’s surface. If enough astronauts get abducted (or killed falling from their destroyed abductors), the planet explodes and an onslaught of particularly deadly enemies begins, until the player either dies (most likely) or manages to revert everything back to normal by killing them all.

Defender‘s astronauts function more as a mechanical gimmick to differentiate the game from its peers than an earnest attempt at ludic worldbuilding, but they were enough to get Gorlin thinking about a new and unique goal for his own game. What if, instead of making the goal to shoot down enemies for points, he instead made it to rescue unarmed hostages for, well, the sake of doing good? It was a scenario very much in step with the times. In April of 1980, President Jimmy Carter had authorized sending six helicopters to attempt to rescue the 52 Americans being held hostage in Tehran following the Iranian Revolution of the previous year. The mission turned into an infamous fiasco which cost eight Americans on the mission their lives without ever even making contact with a single hostage — or Iranian for that matter — and arguably cost Carter any hope he might have still held for reelection later that year. Oddly, Gorlin says that he never made the obvious connection between his developing idea and the recent event in Iran until he started showing his game in public and heard people talking about it. Still, it’s hard not to feel that the influence must have been at least subconsciously present from long before that point. It’s certainly safe to say that most of the people who eventually made Choplifter one of the biggest Apple II hits of 1982 saw it as a direct response to an humiliation that still smarted with patriotic souls two years later, a chance to re-stage the mission and this time get it right.

By late 1981 all of the basic concepts of Choplifter had been implemented. While the enemy tanks and planes remained, they were now mere hindrances to be destroyed or — often preferably, because it wasted less time — avoided. The real goal was to rescue as many of the 64 hostages wandering the surface below as possible. You did this by landing the chopper next to them — but not directly on them, lest you crush them — and letting them climb aboard before an enemy tank could kill them. Once you had a pretty good load of hostages (your helicopter could hold up to 16), you needed to drop them off safely back at your base. The only score was the number of hostages you could manage to rescue before you lost the last of your three lives, or ran out of living hostages to carry away. If a new player could end up with more living than dead she was doing pretty well, and rescuing all 64 remains to this day one of the truly herculean feats of gaming lore.

Convinced that he “could make some money” with the game, Gorlin sent his prototype to Brøderbund, who had followed Apple Galaxian/Alien Rain with a wave of other, thankfully mostly more original titles that had garnered them a reputation as a premier publisher of Apple II action games. They loved Choplifter from the moment they booted it, and immediately flew Gorlin out to their new San Rafael headquarters to help him to polish it and to talk contract. Like so many others, Gorlin expresses nothing but warmth for Brøderbund and the Carlston siblings: “So the way they did it was, they’d see something that was like, it’d have promise, and they’d sort of engulf you with family love. It was a very nurturing environment.”

Brøderbund’s enthusiasm proved to be justified. When they started showing Choplifter at AppleFest and other trade shows that spring, people lined up “around the block” to play it. And when released in May of 1982, the game sold 9000 copies in its first month on the market, excellent numbers in those times. But that was only the beginning. Over the months and years that followed Brøderbund funded ports to virtually every viable platform that came along. And, in a move that must have made people wonder whether the earth was about to start orbiting the moon, Sega even bought a license to make a standup-arcade incarnation in 1986, a reversal of the normal practice of bringing arcade games to home platforms.

Gorlin worked on and off in the games industry over the years that followed, but often with the lack of enthusiasm we might expect from such a defiant non-gamer. He never had another high-profile success to match Choplifter, and his most abiding passion remains African dance. Still, with Choplifter‘s huge sales and Brøderbund’s very generous royalty rates even for ports and translations with which he had no direct involvement, he did very well for many years off his one big moment of glory. Even today when his name is mentioned it tickles at the back of many a long-time gamer’s mind, where it’s been rattling around for years after appearing on all those Choplifter title screens and boxes.

But what was it that made Choplifter so compelling to so many people? And, you might be wondering as a corollary, why am I devoting time to it on a blog that’s usually all about games with strong narrative elements? One immediate answer, at least to the former question, is that Gorlin was fortunate enough to create something perfectly in step with the zeitgeist of the early 1980s, when helicopter-based rescue missions and hostages were so much on people’s minds. Indeed, Gorlin himself has always mentioned this good fortune as a key to the game’s success. But in addition, and more importantly for our purposes, Choplifter is not just another action game. It’s doing something different from most of its peers, something that makes it worth talking about here in the same sense that Castle Wolfenstein was. It marks a step toward story, or at least real, lived experience, in a game that is not an adventure or CRPG.

Mind you, you won’t find a compelling story in the conventional sense attached to Choplifter. The manual justifies the action by explaining that the Bungeling Empire, a group of generically evil baddies invented by the Carlston brothers who appear in many early Brøderbund games, have kidnapped the 64 delegates to the United Nations Conference on Peace and Child Rearing they were hosting. (What could be more evil than to use violence against that conference?) Luckily, the United States has for some reason been allowed to build a post office(!) within Bungeling territory, into which they’ve smuggled “an entire helicopter disguised as a mail sorting machine.” You can use the reassembled helicopter to rescue the hostages and return them to the post office. It’s a typically silly action-game premise, obviously not meant to be taken too seriously.

No, it’s other aspects of Choplifter that make it interesting for my purposes, that make it feel like it wants to be an experiential game in a way that its peers don’t. One immediately noticeable difference is the aforementioned rejection of a scoring mechanic or a leaderboard. Your success or failure are measured not by some abstract, extra-diegetic numbers, but rather by two figures that have heaps of meaning within the world of the game: how many hostages you rescued and how many you allowed to be killed. Further, there is a definite end-point to Choplifter that involves more than the three avatar lives you have at your disposal. In addition to (naturally) ending when these are exhausted, the game ends when the supply of hostages is exhausted — when all have been killed or rescued. Complete failures, disappointments, tragedies, mixed outcomes, relative successes — and, for the holy grail, the complete victory of rescuing all 64 innocents — are possible. Contrast that with the kamikaze run that was the standard arcade game of the time, where you simply played until you ran out of lives.

For the first run you make to rescue hostages, you don’t have to contend with any enemy aircraft, only some ground-bound tanks. Next time, the enemy jets start to show up. In one sense this is a standard arcade mechanic, of offering up tougher and tougher challenges as the player stays alive longer. In another, though, it’s a realistic simulation of the situation. The first time you fly out with your smuggled-in helicopter, you catch the Bungelings by surprise, and thus have a fairly easy time of it. Afterward, however, they know what you’re about, and are marshaling their forces to stop you. As you fly back again and again into ever-increasing danger, there’s a sense of a plot building to its climax.

The in-game presentation consistently enforces this sense of inhabiting a real storyworld. The graphics obviously cannot look too spectacular, given the limitations of their platform, but the behavior of the hostages in particular has a verisimilitude that can actually be kind of touching. When you first fly over a group, they stand and wave, desperately trying to attract your attention. When you fly closer, and it becomes clear that you’re trying to pick them up, they all rush frantically toward you. Should enemies get in the way, their behavior is almost as unpredictable as would be that of real civilians who suddenly find themselves on a battlefield. Some run away, figuring that remaining captive beats dying, while others dash madly toward the helicopter, and are often killed for their rashness. It takes those that do reach the helicopter a nail-biting moment to scramble inside. Hover just overhead and they jump frantically underneath you, trying to get aboard. Later, when you fly them back to the post office, they pile out of the helicopter and rush for the sanctuary of the building — but a few, just a few, pause for a moment to turn and wave back in thanks.

Other arcade games, like Donkey Kong, had brought a similar sense of characterization to their actors, but the emergent qualities and realistic strictures of Choplifter nevertheless make it feel real in a way that those games don’t. There’s the fact that you can, for example, only pack 16 hostages at a time into your helicopter. And of course there’s the already-mentioned gruesome possibility of crushing hostages if you land on top of them. Elements like this can make Choplifter feel off-putting at first if you approach as just another classic arcade game. We don’t expect real-world logic to mix with game logic in quite that way, even though it would make perfect sense not to, you know, land on people’s heads if we were actually in that situation.

Another critical element is the behavior of the helicopter itself. Gorlin had originally envisioned Choplifter as a realistic simulation of actual helicopter flight, but a helicopter is about the most notoriously difficult type of aircraft there is to fly. Brøderbund convinced him that hewing too stubbornly to real helicopter physics would limit the appeal of the game far too much. Gorlin:

They taught me about playability. They helped me with control of the joystick.

The first Choplifter I showed Brøderbund was too realistic, too much of a helicopter simulation. De-emphasizing the weight of the calculations that simulated the vertical force control of the rotors made the chopper more flyable to the average player. I hated to see the realism go, but it did improve the game. In a lot of ways, Brøderbund helped me fine-tune and polish the presentation.

It’s important to note, however, that Brøderbund did not have Gorlin remove all of the realism. They just had him scale it back to a manageable level. What they achieved was — and this is important enough that I’m almost temped to call it visionary — a sort of videogame hyper-realism. The helicopter’s motions are sloppy and unstable enough that you still feel like you’re really flying. It’s a very different experience from the clipped, precise controls of other arcade games, like Choplifter‘s partial inspiration Defender. Choplifter achieves the neat trick of making you feel like a real pilot without demanding that you acquire the skills of a real pilot first. That alone makes it an important step on the road to truly experiential action games. Choplifter consistently invites us to enter a storyworld, to play with our imaginations as well as our reflexes.

When a game of Choplifter is, one way or another, over, two simple, classic words appear on the screen: “The End,” reinforcing yet once more this sense of the game as a lived story. In a fascinating article in the July 1982 Softline, Jim Salmons heavily emphasized this and the other cinematic qualities of the game, marking it as an early case study in the long, fraught relationship between videogames and movies. Some of his conclusions do rather stretch the point, but the fact that Choplifter was inspiring people to see it in such a way is significant in itself. Salmons describes the game in a way that make it sound at home with the ludic rhetoric of modern “serious games,” or for that matter some of the contemporary Edu-Ware simulations. On the player’s power to choose to what extent she goes after the enemy tanks and planes in lieu of simply trying to rescue the hostages:

Your temperament and values determine whether aggressive behavior is warranted. Sometimes, you can’t avoid it. On other occasions, it’s righteous reflex, as in retaliation for an enemy tank having just obliterated a huddled mass of frightened hostages.

No matter what heroics were involved, when all hostages are accounted for or all choppers lost, a transformation occurs. The eyes of the hero turn into the eyes of a general reading the dead and rescued statistics. What is the measure of success? Were three helicopters lost worth the return of six hostages? Though sixty returned, did four have to die?

Is Salmons going too far in turning Choplifter into a soul-searching exercise about the wages of war? Perhaps, at least a bit. But isn’t it interesting that the game managed to encourage such flights of fancy?

With its focus on rescue rather than destruction and its do-gooder plot, Choplifter today feels like a perfect symbol for Brøderbund themselves, about the nicest bunch who ever got filthy rich in business. We’ll hear more from them later, but next, as always, it’s on to something else. If you’d like to try Choplifter for yourself in the meantime, here’s the Apple II disk image for you.

 
 

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Brøderbund

I’ve already introduced some hackers on this blog who defied pop-culture stereotypes of blinkered nerddom with a remarkable range of interests and activities outside of computers. Marc Blank, for example, managed to finish medical school while moonlighting with MIT’s Dynamic Modeling Group, where he learned enough to become the most important technical architect behind Infocom’s technology. Andrew Greenberg of Wizardry fame went on to become a lawyer, and now “hacks the law with glee.” In its essence the attraction of hacking is the joy of coming to understand a complex, dynamic, semi-autonomous system, and then bending it to your will. Plenty else in the modern world beyond computers offers some of the same experience, medicine and law perhaps not least among them. Not to mention, to choose an obvious parallel for this blog, games.

The fellow I want to introduce you to today, Doug Carlston, had a background at least as eclectic as anyone I’ve mentioned earlier. Born in 1947 as the son of a Harvard-educated theologian, Doug by the time he was 30 already had a dizzying resume to his name: a Bachelor’s in social psychology from Harvard, studies in international economics at Johns Hopkins, and a law degree from Harvard Law School. In addition to his studies, he had also run a business designing and building houses; spent a year teaching in Botswana; written an introductory textbook on Swahili; written other language guides for American Express. But by 1977 Doug, two years out of law school, was bored, stuck with an uninteresting job with a huge law firm on the 82nd floor of Chicago’s Sears Tower. As a junior lawyer, he got “the kind of work nobody else wants to do,” like conducting client surveys and doing wills and trusts. Feeling “fat and slow” in addition to bored, he packed up and moved to a small town in Maine with a view to getting back to nature. There he set up an independent law practice serving the locals. That proved to chiefly mean defending clients who ran afoul of the stiff local hunting ordinances. Trouble was, virtually all of his clients were clearly guilty, and many never bothered to pay him for his services, making the practice both uninteresting and not terribly lucrative. To help with the latter problem, Doug began to dabble once again in housebuilding in addition to the law. Helping with the former was the TRS-80 he’d bought, ostensibly to help with bookkeeping at the office. Now, however, he just couldn’t stop playing with it.

The TRS-80 was far from Doug’s first exposure to computing. In fact, computing was yet another of those myriad of interests and activities that had marked his life to that point. He had been introduced to computers as early as 1964, when he attended a sort of summer camp for gifted teenagers who might be interested in becoming engineers. There he first dabbled in FORTRAN programming, finding it fascinating. When he went off to Harvard, he found a job there as a “programming assistant,” basically a tutor to help other students bend the machines to their will. When the time came to lock up the computer lab for the day, Doug and his buddies would stuff chewing gum into the locks so that they could sneak back in in the middle of the night and hack. Still, by the time he bought his TRS-80 in 1978 those days were many years in the past.

The TRS-80 served to reignite the old passion. Doug did use it to code programs useful to his practice, but he also embarked on an ambitious game, which he called Galactic Empire. It’s a work of considerable historical importance in its own right, quite apart from its place in Doug’s career. It was, you see, the first recognizable example of a “4X” (“explore, expand, exploit, exterminate”) grand strategy game to appear on a PC, the ancestor of such seminal later titles as Civilization and Master of Orion. The player begins Galactic Empire with a single medium-sized planet and a fleet of 200 ships. From this starting point she is expected to conquer the 19 other worlds of the game’s galaxy. Along the way she must manage each conquered planet’s economy, juggling taxes and population, in order to build more ships for her fleet. As you would expect of a game written in BASIC on a 16 K TRS-80, Galactic Empire is absurdly stripped down and primitive in comparison to its successors. Yet the core attributes — and the vision — are there.

What happened next will be familiar to anyone who read my earlier articles about other pioneers of the early software industry. Doug came up with some packaging and began selling his game directly to local computer stores, as well as through outlets for semi-professional software like SoftSide magazine’s TRS-80 Software Exchange and a similar organ run by Creative Computing. When Scott Adams started Adventure International, he signed up there as well. (Occupying a weird ground somewhere between software publisher and catalog merchant, AI did not demand an exclusive license to the software they “published.”) Meanwhile he made a second game, Galactic Trader, which replaced military with economic conquest. By the end of 1979, the two games together were bringing in about $1000 per month.

That $1000 was very welcome, because otherwise the bottom was falling out for Doug financially. The second oil crisis precipitated by the Iranian Revolution had seriously damaged the economy, and Doug could no longer sell his houses. Meanwhile it was becoming increasingly clear that his country law practice was not sustainable on its own, at least not in this economy. Barely two years after coming to Maine, he decided to cut his losses and move on, yet again, to something else. With no clear plan as yet what that something would be, he piled into his old Chevy Impala along with his 220-pound mastiff (in the front seat) and his computer (in the back) to visit his little brother in Eugene, Oregon. The car started to die in eastern Oregon. Doug:

Something went out with the transmission. It started throwing out smoke. Fortunately, by the time I got into western Oregon it was mostly downhill to Eugene because I had the windows rolled down so we could breathe because the smoke was coming up through the transmission. I couldn’t go more than 15 miles an hour and the windshield wipers wouldn’t work and it was a blizzard outside. I was out there kind of working the wipers by hand going downhill. Finally, we got down into Pendleton, which was just a lot lower than Walla Walla, and we could see again. We made it to about five miles from Eugene when the car finally gave up and my brother came and got me.

Said brother, Gary Carlston, had also made an interesting life of it so far. Like Doug, Gary had gone to Harvard, where he had planned, largely on a whim, to major in Celtic Studies. However, that program was full. On the same floor were the offices for Scandinavian Studies. He knew that the Carlston family had originally come to the United States from Sweden, and like his brother he was fascinated by languages, so what the hell… six years later, he had a Master’s in Scandinavian Languages and Literature. In the midst of that, Gary decided to spend one summer holiday in, appropriately enough, Sweden. An accomplished basketball player and coach, he got into a pick-up game with some locals there. One thing led to another, and Gary found himself returning the following year for a gig that was, in Steven Levy’s words, “so desirable that grown men gasped when he mentioned it”: coaching a Swedish women’s basketball team. Gary himself would later say, “Most girls in Sweden don’t look like the tall model type you’d expect.” Pause… wait for it. “This team did, though.” Whatever its perks, he proved to be good at the fundamentals of his job, leading the team to three championships and two runners-up in five years.

With Harvard and basketball behind him, Gary was faced with making a living in the real world. He briefly taught Swedish in a summer program, but the language was hardly in huge demand in the United States. He worked for a year as a director of the March of Dimes charity in Eugene, but he hated it, and finally quit. That was in the summer of 1979. When brother Doug arrived for his visit, Gary had already spent six months fruitlessly looking for another permanent job while trying to bring in a little something selling reflectors to the parents of schoolchildren.

So, the two brothers, both completely broke, compared and contrasted their misfortune and wondered what the hell to do next. Then Doug, remembering the one thing that had been going pretty well for him lately, suggested that they start a real software publisher to sell his games instead of relying on the semi-professional distribution networks. The very non-computer-literate Gary allegedly replied, “What’s software?” He took some convincing, but, with no other prospects on the horizon, finally agreed. Brøderbund Software was officially founded on February 25, 1980, with $7000 the brothers were able to scrounge from their last savings and their family. As Doug later told Forbes magazine, the company was born at that place and moment only “because I was stuck without a car and didn’t have the money to buy a new one.”

The name “Brøderbund” itself is of course an odd one that would never pass muster with a corporate public-relations department today. It actually first appears in Doug’s very first game, Galactic Empire, where it’s the name of one of the warring factions. “Brøderbund” is a compound noun that is vaguely recognizable to speakers of a number of languages, but isn’t quite correct in any of them. In Danish and Norwegian, the word “brødre” is the plural of “bror,” which means “brother.” (The “ø” is a special vowel found only in Danish and Norwegian; it’s pronounced like the German “ö,” and, also like “ö,” is often used in plural forms of nouns.) It’s probably acceptable to change it to “brøder” in a compound word, to make pronunciation easier. However, the second part of the name, “bund,” is in no sense correct. The intended meaning is obviously the German “Bund,” meaning a bond or union. Yet in Danish or Norwegian the correct word would be “forbund”; “bund” alone means a ground or base, obviously not the intended meaning. So, what we have here is a mash-up of Danish and German — or an example of a sort of pidgin Danish, if you prefer.

Which is not to say that the Carlston brothers didn’t know exactly what they were doing in creating the name. Both were fascinated by languages, and enjoyed this sort of linguistic play. They chose to use the Danish and Norwegian word for “brother” in place of Gary’s more familiar Swedish because Swedish uses German-style umlauts; thus the word would have become “bröder.” The problem with “bröder” was that the “ö” would be impossible to represent on computer screens of the time. The “ø,” however, could be represented by simply typing a zero; then as (sometimes) now, computer displays used the slash to easily distinguish “0” from “o.” This also made the name a clever play on computer technology itself. Even in their professional copy, where the proper character would presumably have been available, the company would often write “Brøderbund” as “Br0derbund” to reinforce the computer connection. As for pronunciation… let’s not even get into that. Suffice to say that everyone just said the name as “Broderbund,” although that’s not correct if we insist on reading it as a Scandinavian word.

Linguistic issues aside, Brøderbund was not a stunning success in its early months. They did have three games to sell, in the form of Doug’s Galactic trilogy. (He had recently completed a third and final game in the series.) Yet, with Softsel yet to be founded, software distribution to retail was in a confused and uncertain state, and neither brother was naturally suited to cold-calling stores to try to sell them on their products. May of 1980 was the low point; it seems incredible, but Doug claims that sales for that entire month were exactly $0.00. Then two things happened that would begin to turn the company around.

At the very first trade show at which they exhibited, the West Coast Computer Faire of March 1980, the Carlstons had made the acquantence of the Japanese software company Starcraft. In June, they got a call from them. As I mentioned in a recent post, Starcraft would later make a big name for itself within Japan by porting and translating Western games for the domestic market. At this point, however, they were reaching out to the West with a view to moving software in the other direction. They had coded several solid action games for the Apple II. Now they were looking for an American partner to sell them for them. This was a huge break, not only because the flashier Starcraft titles diversified Brøderbund’s portfolio greatly when contrasted with Doug’s more cerebral text-oriented strategy games, but also because these games ran on the Apple II, already a much more vibrant and healthy software platform than the Radio Shack-strangled TRS-80. From this point forward, Brøderbund would also switch their emphasis to the Apple II, porting the Galactic trilogy over and developing most of their new software for that platform first.

Shortly after the Starcraft deal was made, Gary got a call from his beloved old basketball colleagues from Sweden, saying they were coming to San Francisco and wanted to meet him there. When he told them that he didn’t have the money to come, they said they could pay for half of the trip — for a one-way ticket from Eugene to San Francisco. The brothers hatched a plan: Gary would fill his suitcase with software, then visit every computer store he could find in the Bay area, attempting to sell the stuff to them personally and hopefully earn enough to get home again. It worked beautifully; he sold almost $2000 worth of software. In the absence of a proper distribution network, the way forward was now clear: they must visit stores personally to sell the owners on their games. At the end of July, Doug took off on a zigzagging road trip to Boston and back, and sold some $15,000 worth of games on the way.

Still, it was a fairly time-consuming and expensive way of moving product, and times remained tight. Doug:

We were going weeks where we only ate on three days; things were that tight. We had used up all my savings from being an attorney and were maxed out on my credit card. My parents didn’t have any money. [In] October my mother lent us $2000 that she had inherited and her sister also lent us $2000.

Then, near the end of the year, Starcraft gave them a goldmine in the form of Apple Galaxian, a perfect clone of a new hit arcade game from another Japanese company, Namco. Soon enough people would be getting sued over far less blatant copying, but it was, ironically given the company’s later reputation for integrity and innovation, this unabashed arcade ripoff that really established Brøderbund as a major player in the software industry. Doug claims today to have not even been aware at first that it was a facsimile of someone else’s game, as the game had just recently been introduced to North American arcades.

Critically, it was at just this point that Softsel, the first proper software distributor, arrived on the scene, making it much easier for Brøderbund and other companies to get their products into stores around the country without the necessity for personal meet-and-greets. Bob Leff of Softsel played a key, and very personal, role in Apple Galaxian‘s success. Doug:

When I sent him a copy of this new game, he said, “We love it, and I want 5000 copies right away.” And I told him, “I’d love to do it, but I don’t have 5000 disks, and I don’t have enough money to buy 5000 disks.” He said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll lend you the money. You buy the disks and I’ll lend you the money as long as you send them all to me.” I said okay. And he sold everything within a month.

Brøderbund’s sales went from $10,000 in November of 1980 to $55,000 in December, all on the strength of Apple Galaxian. In fact, their sales for December amounted to more than those for the entire rest of the year. Apple Galaxian topped the Softalk magazine chart as the bestselling Apple II program in the country for three months. (Yes, it even outsold VisiCalc during that period.) With both Namco and, oddly, Apple themselves beginning to make legal rumbles, Brøderbund changed the name to Alien Rain in the spring of 1981, and it continued a bestseller for quite some months under its new moniker.

On the back of Apple Galaxian/Alien Rain, the Carlstons could begin to hire some employees and make bigger, more ambitious deals with a growing stable of outside developers. They brought in their younger sister Cathy, who had been unhappy in her job as a retail buyer for Lord and Taylor, to take the role of office manager. And they branched out into productivity software, for which they would soon become more famous than they were for their games. Bank Street Writer, an innovative word processor, was a particular hit, as was the first really complete payroll package to be released for PCs. In the summer of 1981, they left Eugene, which they felt was just too isolated and small to be conducive to their business and which had a horrible problem with fog that sometimes shut down the airport for a week or more at a time, for San Rafael, California, a town in the vicinity of San Francisco that was most famous for being the home of George Lucas and his production company Lucasfilm. In typically unpretentious fashion, they effected the move by renting three U-Haul trucks, packing everything up, and driving the lot down themselves.

You’ll have a hard time finding anyone who knew or worked with the Carlstons with much bad to say about them. For years the siblings each took a regular shift on Brøderbund’s production line, by all indications not as a gimmick but out of a real, heartfelt desire to demonstrate “the dignity in all of the work” at the company, and to have a chance to bond and really talk with their employees. Indeed, they found themselves caring more for their employees than any business guide would recommend, sometimes giving them a second chance even after they were caught stealing. Doug: “It turns out that Gary was the only person who could fire people — which is a valuable skill. He didn’t like it but he was able to do it.” Doug also demonstrated what would seem a hopelessly naive attitude toward his direct competitors. He called them all the “brotherhood,” and even wrote a book in 1985 (the long out-of-print Software People) to sing their praises. Somehow he and his siblings got rich in the cutthroat world of capitalism in the most subversive way imaginable: by just being really nice and fair to everyone, and never losing their idealism about the software they produced. Or anyway, that was most of it. As a story I’m about to retell will illustrate, there was a certain competitive edge to be found under their more cuddly qualities.

Everyone liked the Carlstons, but Brøderbund forged a special bond with On-Line Systems. Although the religious Carlston clan did not share the Williams’ taste for partying, the two companies were otherwise remarkably similar. Both were founded at almost the same time; both focused their early efforts on the Apple II; both enjoyed a relaxed internal culture unconcerned with rank or title; both published a diverse array of software, mostly from outside programmers, rather than specializing like, say, Infocom; both were headed by erstwhile hackers who found less and less time to write code as their businesses grew; both shared the conviction that they were doing something that really mattered for the future; both would ultimately prove to be long-term survivors and winners in a brutal industry, outliving virtually all of their other peers. Especially after making the move to San Rafael, the Williams and the Carlstons saw quite a lot of one another, and shared more trade secrets than any MBA would recommend.

The Carlstons were naturally all invited on that On-Line-sponsered, era-defining whitewater-rafting trip in the summer of 1981. One evening on that trip Doug and Ken Williams seriously discussed merging their two companies, but ultimately decided that it wouldn’t make sense. Normally a company merges with another to get something it lacks, but their two companies were so similar that it was hard to see what that something could be, in the case of either — not to mention the stress of sorting out locations, products lines, management structures, etc. Most of all, it became pretty clear that neither Ken nor Doug was very interested in giving up any control of the company he had founded. Instead they would continue as unusually friendly competitors for more than 15 years.

Another incident from the trip shows why that may have been for the best. While drifting down the river, the group came to a spot where “the water was deep and smooth, and cliffs rose up above the river banks.” Ken shouted to stop the boats, so he and whoever else wanted to could climb up to the cliffs and dive off. Quite a large number, including Roberta and Doug and his sister Cathy, who had swum competitively, decided to join him. At the top, however, Ken got cold feet, even as others were taking the plunge. He begged Doug to go back down with him and Roberta, so they wouldn’t have to be the only chickens in the group. Doug said no, and, to encourage him, suggested that they all four hold hands and jump off together. Ken agreed, they joined hands and ran toward the edge — but Ken balked again. In the end he and Roberta climbed back down in shame, while Doug and Cathy made the leap. “I pushed myself a little further than I was ready to handle,” Ken said. They were all friends, Doug later wrote, “but we all like to win, and if the other falters, we aren’t likely to wait too long for him to catch up.” In his own quiet way Doug was as driven to win as the blustery Ken — or, as demonstrated by that moment on the top of the cliff, perhaps more so.

Brøderbund may have been having more and more success with their productivity software, but they were hardly ready to abandon games. Indeed, their action games were amongst the most popular and highly regarded on the Apple II. We’ll look at a particularly important title in their stable, released just about a year after the rafting adventure, next time.

(The early history of Brøderbund has been very well documented. The most useful sources for this article were: Steven Levy’s Hackers; Doug Carlston’s own Software People (out of print); the lengthy interview Doug Carlston conducted with The Computer History Museum in 2004; and a profile of the company in the September 1984 Creative Computing.)

 
 

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