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The 68000 Wars, Part 4: Rock Lobster

In the years following Jack Tramiel’s departure, Commodore suffered from a severe leadership deficit. The succession of men who came and went from the company’s executive suites with dizzying regularity often meant well, were often likable enough in their way. Yet they were also weak-willed men who offered only timid, conventional ideas whilst living in perpetual terror of the real boss of the show, Commodore’s dilettantish chairman of the board and interfering largest stockholder Irving Gould.

The exception that proves the rule of atrocious management is Thomas Rattigan, the man who during his brief tenure saved Commodore and in the process the Commodore Amiga from an early death. Rattigan wasn’t, mind you, a visionary; he never got the time to demonstrate such qualities even if he did happen to possess them. His wasn’t any great technical mind, nor was he an intrinsic fan of computers as an end unto themselves; in common with a rather distressing number of industry executives of the time, Rattigan, like Apple’s John Sculley a veteran of Pepsi Cola, seemed to take a perverse pride in his computer illiteracy, saying he “never got beyond the slide rule” and not even bothering to place a computer on his desk. He may not have even been a terribly nice guy; the thousands of employees he laid off, among them virtually the entire team that had once been Amiga, Incorporated, certainly aren’t likely to invite him to dinner anytime soon. No, Rattigan was simply competent, and carried along with that competence a certain courage of his own convictions. That was more than enough to make him stand out from his immediate predecessor and his many successors like the Beatles at a battle of the bands.

Thomas Rattigan

Thomas Rattigan

Rattigan was appointed President and Chief Operating Officer of Commodore International on December 2, 1985, and Chief Executive Officer on April 1, 1986, succeeding the feckless former steel executive Marshall Smith, whose own hapless tenure would serve as a blueprint for most of the Commodore leaders not named Rattigan who would follow. After replacing Tramiel in February of 1984, Smith had fiddled while Commodore burned, going from the billion-dollar face of home computing in North America to the business pages’ favorite source of schadenfreude, hemorrhaging money and living under the shadow of a gleeful deathwatch. The stock had dropped from almost $65 per share at the peak of Tramiel’s reign to less than $5 per share at the nadir of Smith’s. It was Rattigan, in one of his last acts before assuming the mantle of CEO as well as president, who negotiated the last-ditch $135 million loan package that gave Commodore — in other words, Rattigan himself — a lease on life of about one year to turn things around.

Some of the changes that Rattigan enacted to effect that turnaround were as inevitable as they were distressing: the waves of layoffs and cutbacks that had already begun under Smith’s reign continued for some time. Unlike Smith, however, Rattigan understood that he couldn’t cost-reduce Commodore back to profitablity.

The methods that Rattigan used to implement triage on the profit side of the ledger sheet were unsexy but surprisingly effective. One was entry into the burgeoning market for commodity-priced PC clones, hardware that could be thrown together quickly using off-the-shelf components and sold at a reasonable profit. Commodore’s line of PC clones would never do much of anything in North America — the nameplate was too associated with cheap, chirpy home computers for any corporate purchasing manager to glance at it twice — but it did do quite well in Europe; in some European countries, especially West Germany, the Commodore brand remained as respectable as any other.

Rattigan’s other revenue-boosting move was even more simple and even more effective. Commodore’s engineers had been working on a new version of the 64. Dubbed internally the 64CR, for “Cost Reduced,” it was built around a redesigned circuit board that better integrated many of the chips and circuitry using the latest production processes, resulting in a substantial reduction in the cost of production. The chassis and case were also simplified — for example, to use only two instead of many different types of screws. While they were at it, Commodore dramatically changed the look of the machine and most of its common peripherals to match that of the newer Commodore 128, thus creating a uniform appearance across their 8-bit line. As Rattigan said, “I think you’ve got to give people the opportunity not to have a black monitor, a green CPU, and a red disk drive.”

Commodore 64C

Commodore 64C

All of which was very practical and commonsensical. Looking at the new machine, however, Rattigan saw an opportunity to do something Commodore had never done before: to raise its price, and thereby to recoup some desperately needed profit margin. This really was a revolutionary thought for Commodore. Ever since releasing their VIC-20 model that had created the home-computer segment in North America, Commodore had competed almost entirely on the basis of offering more machine for less money than the other folks — an approach that did much to create the low-rent image that would dog the brand for the rest of the company’s life. Commodore had always kept their profit margins razor thin in comparison to the rest of the industry, trusting that they would, as the old saying/joke goes, “make it up in volume.” Now, though, Rattigan realized that the 64 had much more than price alone going for it. Almost everyone buying a 64 in 1986 was motivated largely by the platform’s peerless selection of games. Most, he theorized, would be willing to pay a little more than what Commodore was currently charging to gain access to that library. Thus when Commodore announced the facelifted 64 — now rechristened simply the 64C for obvious reasons — they also announced a 20 percent bump in its wholesale price. To ease some of the pain, they would bundle with it something called GEOS, an independently developed graphically-oriented operating environment that claimed to turn the humble 64 into a mini-Macintosh. (It didn’t really, of course, but it was a noble, impressive effort for a machine with a 1 MHz 8-bit processor and 64 K of memory.) Anyone who’s been around manufacturing at all will understood just what a huge difference a price increase of that magnitude, combined with a substantial reduction in manufacturing cost, would mean to Commodore’s bottom line if customers did indeed prove willing to continue buying the new model in roughly the same numbers as the old. Thankfully, Rattigan’s instincts proved correct. The 64C picked up right where the older model had left off, a brisk — and vastly more profitable — seller.

Sometimes, then, the simplest fixes really are the most effective. Taken together with the cost-cutting, these two measures returned Commodore to modest profitability well before Rattigan’s one-year deadline expired. Entering 1987, the company looked to be in relatively good shape for the short term. Yet questions still swirled around its long-term future. If Commodore didn’t want to accept the depressing fate of becoming strictly a maker of PC clones for the European market, they needed a successful platform of their own that could become the successor to the 64, which was proving longer lived than anyone had ever predicted but couldn’t go on forever. That successor had to the Amiga. And therein lay problems.

The Amiga was in a sadly moribund state by the beginning of 1987. The gala Lincoln Center debut was now eighteen months in the past, but it felt like an eternity. The excitement with which the press had first greeted the new machine had long since been replaced by narratives of failure and marketing ineptitude. Commodore had stopped production of the Amiga in mid-1986 after making just 140,000 machines, yet was still able to fill the trickle of new orders from warehouse stock. Sure, some pretty good games had been made for the Amiga, at least one of which was genuinely groundbreaking, but with numbers like those how long would that continue? Already Electronic Arts had quietly sidled away from their early declarations that together they and the Amiga would “revolutionize the home-computer industry,” turning their focus back to other, more plebeian platforms where they could actually sell enough games to make it worth their while. Ditto big players in business and productivity software like Borland, Ashton-Tate, and WordPerfect. The industry at large, it seemed, was just about ready to put a fork in Commodore’s erstwhile dream machine.

The Amiga’s most obvious failing was one of marketplace positioning. Really, just who was this machine for? There were two obvious markets: homes, where it would make the best games machine the world had yet seen; and the offices of creative professionals who could make use of its unprecedented multimedia capabilities. Yet the original Amiga model had managed to miss both targets in some fairly fundamental ways. Svelte and sexy as it was, it lacked the internal expansion slots and big power supply necessary to easily outfit it with the hard drives, memory expansions, accelerator cards, and genlocks demanded by the professionals. Meanwhile its price of almost $2000 for a reasonably complete, usable system was far too high for the home market that had so embraced the Commodore 64. Throw in horrid Commodore marketing that ignored both applications in favor of positioning the Amiga as some sort of challenger to the PC-clone business standard, and it was remarkable that the Amiga had sold as well as it had.

If there was a bright spot, it was that the Amiga’s obvious failing had an equally obvious solution: not one but two new models, each perfectly suited for — and, hopefully, marketed toward — one of its two logical customer bases. Rattigan, industry neophyte though he was, saw this reasoning as clearly as anyone, and pushed his engineers to deliver both new machines as quickly as possible. They were officially announced via a low-key, closed-door presentation to select members of the press at the January 1987 Winter Consumer Electronics Show. The two new models would entirely replace the original, now retroactively dubbed the Amiga 1000. The Amiga 2000 would be the big, professional-level machine, with a full 1MB of memory standard — four times that of the 1000 — and all the slots and expansion possibilities a programmer, artist, or video-production specialist — or, for that matter, a game developer — could possibly want.

Amiga 2000

Amiga 2000

But it was the Amiga 500 that would become the most successful Amiga model ever released, as well as the heart of its legacy as a gaming platform. Designed primarily by George Robbins and Bob Welland at Commodore’s West Chester, Pennsylvania, headquarters — the slowly evaporating original Los Gatos Amiga team had little to do with either of the new models — the 500 was code-named “Rock Lobster” during development after the B-52’s song (reason enough to love it right there if you ask me). Key to the work was a re-engineering of Agnus, the most complex of the Amiga’s custom chips, to make it smaller, simpler, and cheaper to manufacture; the end result was known as “Fat Agnus.” That accomplished, Robbins and Welland managed to stuff the contents of the 1000’s case into in an all-in-one design that looked like a bulbous, overgrown Commodore 128.

Amiga 500

Amiga 500

The Amiga 500 wasn’t, especially in contrast to the 1000, going to win any beauty contests, but it got the job done. There was a disk drive built into the side of the case, a “trap door” underneath to easily increase memory from the standard 512 K to 1 MB, and an expansion port in lieu of the Amiga 2000’s slots that let the user add peripherals the old-fashioned Commodore way, by daisy-chaining them across the desktop. Best of all, a usable system could be had for around $1000, still a stratum or two above the likes of a 64 or 128 but nowhere near so out of the reach of the enthusiastic gamer or home hacker as had been the first Amiga. Compromised in some ways though it may have been from an engineering standpoint, enough to prompt a chorus of criticism from the old Los Gatos Amigans, the Amiga 500 was a brilliant little machine from a strategic standpoint, the smartest single move the post-Tramiel Commodore would ever make outside of electing to buy Amiga, Incorporated, in the first place.

But unfortunately, this was still Irving Gould’s Commodore, a company that seldom failed to follow every good decision with several bad ones. Amiga circles and the trade press at large were buzzing with anticipation for the not-yet-released new models, which were justifiably expected to change everything, when word hit the business press on April 23 that Thomas Rattigan had been unceremoniously fired. Like the firing of Jack Tramiel three years before when things were going so very well, it made and makes little sense. Gould would later say that Rattigan had been fired for “disobeying the chairman of the board” — i.e., him — and for “gross disregard of his duties,” but refused to get any more specific. Insiders muttered that Rattigan’s chief sin was that of being too good at his job, that the good press his decisions had been receiving had left Gould jealous. Just a couple of weeks before Rattigan’s firing, Commodore’s official magazine had published a lengthy interview with him, complete with his photo on the cover. To this Gould was reported to have taken grave exception. Yet Rattigan hardly comes across as a prima donna or a self-aggrandizer therein. On the contrary, he sounds serious, thoughtful, grounded, and very candid, explicitly rejecting the role of “media celebrity” enjoyed by Apple’s John Sculley, his former colleague at Pepsi: “When you have lost something in the range of $270 million in five quarters, I don’t think it’s time to be a media celebrity. I think it’s time to get back to your knitting and figure out how you’re going to get the company making money.” Nor does he overstate the extent of Commodore’s turnaround, much less take full credit for it, characterizing it as “tremendous improvement, but not an acceptable performance.” It seems hard to believe that Gould could be petty enough to object to such an interview as this one. But at least one more piece of circumstantial evidence exists that he did: Commodore Magazine‘s longtime editor Diane LeBold was forced out of the company on Rattigan’s heels, along with other real or perceived Rattigan loyalists. It made for one hell of a way to run a company.

True to form of being less of a pushover than Gould’s other executive lapdogs, Rattigan soon filed suit against Commodore for $9 million, for terminating his five-year employment contract four years early for no good reason. Commodore promptly counter-sued for $24 million, the whole ugly episode overshadowing the actual arrival of the Amiga 500 and 2000 in stores. After some five years of court battles, Rattigan would finally be awarded his $9 million — yes, every bit of it — just at a time when everything was starting to go sideways for Commodore and they could least afford to pay him.

With Rattigan now out of the picture — Gould had had him escorted off the campus by security guards, no less — Gould announced that he would be taking personal charge of day-to-day operations, a move that filled no one at the company other than his hand-picked circle of sycophants with any joy. But then, for Gould day-to-day oversight meant something different that it did for most people. He continued to live the lifestyle of the jet-setting super-rich, traveling the world — reportedly largely to dodge taxes — and conducting business, to whatever extent he did, by phone. Thus Commodore was not only under a cloud of rumor and gossip at this critical moment when these two critical new machines were being introduced, but they were also leaderless, their executive wings gutted and reeling from Gould’s purge and their ostensible new master who knew where. There was, needless to say, not much in the way of concerted promotion or messaging as the months marched on toward Christmas 1987, the big test of the Amiga 500.

While it didn’t abjectly fail that test, it didn’t really skate through with honors either. On the one hand, Amigas were selling again, and in better numbers than ever before. The narrative of the Amiga as a flop that was soon to be an orphan began to fade, and companies like Electronic Arts began to return to the platform, if not always as a target for first-run games at least as a consistent target for ports. WordPerfect even ported their industry-standard word processor to the Amiga. But on the other hand, the Amiga certainly wasn’t going to become a household name like the 64 anytime soon at this rate. In addition to the nearly complete lack of Commodore advertising, distribution remained a huge problem. Many people who might have found the Amiga very interesting literally never knew it existed, never saw an advertisement and never saw it in a store. Jack Tramiel’s decision to dump the 64 into mass-market channels like Sears and Toys “R” Us had been a breaking of his own word and a flagrant betrayal of his loyal dealers from which Commodore’s reputation had never entirely recovered. Yet it had also been key to the machine’s success; the 64 was available absolutely everywhere during its heyday, an inescapable presence to tempt plenty of people who would never think to walk into a dedicated computer store. Now, though, having laboriously and with very mixed results struggled to rebuild the dealer network that Tramiel had demolished, Commodore refused to do the same with the Amiga 500, even after some of those dealers had started to whisper through back channels that, really, it might be okay to offer some 500s through the mass market in the name of increasing brand awareness and corralling some new users who would quite likely end up coming to them for further hardware, software, and support anyway. But it didn’t happen, not in 1987, 1988, or the bulk of 1989.

The Amiga thus came to occupy an odd position on the American computing scene of the late 1980s, not quite a failure but never quite a full-fledged success either. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride; the talented actor never quite able to find her breakout role; pick your metaphor. Commodore blundered along, going through more of Irving Gould’s sock-puppet executives in the process. Max Toy, unfortunately named in light of the image that Commodore was still trying to shake, took over in October of 1987, to be replaced by Harold Copperman in July of 1989. Meanwhile the two Amiga models settled fairly comfortably into their roles.

Video production became the 2000’s particular strong suit. Amigas were soon regular workhorses on television series like Amazing Stories, Max Headroom, Lingo; on films like Prince of Darkness, Not Quite Human, Into the Homeland; on lots of commercials. If most of this stuff wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of cinematic art, it was certainly more Hollywood work than any other consumer-grade PC was getting. More important, and more inspiring, were the 2000s that found homes in small local newsrooms, on cable-access shows, and in small one- or two-person video-production studios. Just as the Macintosh had helped to democratize the means of production on paper via desktop publishing, the Amiga was now doing the same for the medium of video, complete with a new buzzword for the age: “desktop video.”

The strong suit of the Amiga 500, of course, was games. At first blush, the Amiga might seem a hard sell to game publishers. Even in 1988, after the 500 and 2000 had had some time to turn things around for the platform, a hit Amiga game might sell only 20,000 copies, a major blockbuster by the platform’s terms 50,000. The installed base still wasn’t big enough to support much bigger numbers than these. An only modestly successful MS-DOS game, by contrast, might sell 50,000 copies, while some titles had reportedly hit 500,000 copies on the Commodore 64 alone. Yet, despite the raw numbers, many publishers discovered that the Amiga carried with it a sort of halo effect. Everyone seriously into computer games knew which platform had the best graphics and sound, which platform had the best games, even if some were reluctant to admit it openly. Publishers found that an Amiga game down-ported to other platforms carried with it a certain cachet inherited from its original version. Cinemaware, the premiere Amiga game developer and later publisher in North America, used the Amiga’s halo effect to particularly good commercial effect. All of their big releases were born, bred, and released first on the Amiga. They found that it made good commercial sense to do so, even if they ultimately sold far more copies to MS-DOS and Commodore 64 owners. While it’s true that Cinemaware could never have survived if the Amiga had been the only platform for which they made games, neither could they have made a name for themselves in the first place if the Amiga versions of their games hadn’t existed. Some of the same triangulations held sway, albeit to a lesser extent, among other publishers.

All told, the last three years of the 1980s were, relatively speaking, the best the Amiga would ever enjoy in North America. By the end of that period, with the 64 at last fading into obsolescence, the Amiga could boast of being the number two platform, behind only MS-DOS, for computer games in North America — a distant second, granted, but second nevertheless — while Commodore stood as the number three maker of PCs in North America in terms of units sold, behind only IBM and Apple. And Commodore was actually making money for most of this period, which was by no means always such a sure thing in other periods. But perhaps more important than numbers and marketshare was the sense of optimism. Every month seemed to bring some breakthrough program or technology, while every Christmas brought the hope that this would be the one where the Amiga finally broke into the public consciousness in a big way. To continue to be an Amiga loyalist in later years would require one to embrace Murphy’s Law as a life’s creed if one didn’t want to be positively smothered under all of the constant disappointments and broken promises that could make the platform seem cursed by some malicious higher power. But in these early, innocent times everything still seemed so possible, if only there would come the right advertising campaign, the right change in management at Commodore, the right hardware improvements.

But, ah, Commodore’s management… there lay the rub, even during these good years. Amiga owners watched with concern and then alarm as Apple and the makers of MS-DOS machines alike steadily improved their offerings whilst Commodore did nothing. In 1987, Apple debuted the Macintosh II, their first color model, with a palette of millions of colors to the Amiga’s 4096 and a hot new 16 MHz 68020 CPU inside. Yes, it cost several times the price of even the professional-grade Amiga 2000, and yes, 68020 or no, the Amiga could still smoke it for many animation tasks thanks to its custom chips. But then, even Apple’s prices always came down over time, and everyone knew that their hardware would only continue to improve. That same year, IBM introduced their new PS/2 line, and with it the new VGA graphics standard with about 262,000 colors on offer. More caveats applied, as Amiga fans were all too quick to point out, but the fact remained that the competition was improving by leaps and bounds while Commodore remained wedded to the same core chipset that they had purchased back in 1984. The Amiga 1000 had been a generation ahead of anything else on the market at the time of its release, but, unfortunately, generations aren’t so long in the world of computers. Gould and his cronies seemed unconcerned about or, still more damningly, blissfully unaware of the competition that was beginning to match and surpass the Amiga in various ways. In 1989, IBM spent 10.9 percent of their gross revenue on R&D, Apple 6.7 percent. And Commodore? 1.7 percent. The one area where Commodore did rank among the biggest spenders in the industry was in executive compensation, particularly the salary of one Irving Gould.

For the 1989 Christmas season, Commodore launched what would prove to be their first and last major mainstream advertising campaign for the Amiga 500. The $20 million campaign featured television spots produced by no less leading lights than Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and George Lucas’s Lucasfilm. The slogan was “Amiga: The Computer for the Creative Mind.” The most lavish of the spots featured cameos by a baffling grab bag of minor celebrities, including Tommy Lasorda, Tip O’Neill, the Pointer Sisters, Burt Bacharach, Little Richard, and astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Gordon Cooper, and Scott Carpenter. Commodore’s advertising agency announced confidently that 92 percent of Americans would see an Amiga commercial an average of twenty times during November and December. Commodore would even beginning selling 500s through mass-market merchandisers at last, albeit in a limited way, going through Sears and Service Merchandise alone. The campaign was hyped in the Amiga press as a last all-out effort to make that ever-elusive big breakthrough in North America. Sure, it was something they really needed to have done back in 1987, when the 500 first debuted, but at least they were doing it now. That was something, right? Right? In the end, it proved a heartbreaker of the sort with which Amiga fans would grow all too familiar over the years to come: it had no appreciable effect whatsoever. And with that Commodore slipped out of the mainstream American consciousness along with the decade with which their computers would always be identified.

The next year the first of a new generation of unprecedentedly ambitious games arrived — games like Wing Commander, Ultima VI, Railroad Tycoon — that looked, sounded, and played better on MS-DOS machines than they did on Amigas, thanks to the ever-improving graphics cards, sound cards, and new 32-bit 80386 processors in those heretofore bland beige boxes. Cinemaware that same year released Wings, the last of their big Amiga showcases, and then quietly died. The Amiga’s halo effect was no more. Just like that, an era ended.

And yet… well, here’s where things get a little confusing. As the Amiga was drying up as a gaming platform in North America, it was in many ways just getting started in Europe, with most of the classics still to come. Let’s rewind and try to understand how this parallel history came to be.

Commodore had always been extremely strong in Europe, going all the way back to their days as a maker of calculators. Their first full-fledged computer, the PET, had been little more than a blip on the radar in North America in comparison to its competitors the Radio Shack TRS-80 and the Apple II, yet it had fostered a successful and respected line of business computers across the pond. Commodore’s most consistently strong markets then would also proof the strongest of their twilight years: Britain and, especially, West Germany. Both operations were granted much more autonomy than the North American operation, and were staffed by smart people who were much better at selling Commodore’s American computers than Commodore’s Americans were. Germans in particular developed a special affinity for the Commodore brand, one that was virtually free of the home-computer/business-computer dichotomy that Commodore twisted themselves into knots trying to navigate in the United States. In Germany a good home computer was simply a good home computer, and if the same company happened to offer a good business computer, well, that was fine too.


When Commodore’s European leadership looked to the new Amiga 500, they saw a machine sufficient to make the traditional videogame demographic of teenage boys, who were currently snatching up Commodore 64s and Sinclair Spectrums, positively salivate. They unapologetically marketed it on that basis. Knowing what their buyers really wanted the machine for, they quite early on took to bundling together special packages, usually just in time for Christmas, that combined a 500 with a few of the latest hot games. A particular home run was 1989’s so-called “Batman Pack,” which included the game based on the hit Batman movie, a fresh new arcade conversion called The New Zealand Story, the graphically stunning casual flight simulator F/A-18 Interceptor, and, since this was an Amiga after all, the platform’s signature application, Deluxe Paint II. Deluxe Paint aside, there was no talk of video production or productivity of any other stripe, no mention of the Amiga’s groundbreaking multitasking operating system, no naval-gazing discussions of the platform’s place in the multimedia zeitgeist. Teenage boys didn’t want any of that. What they wanted was great games with great graphics, and that’s exactly what Commodore’s European operations gave them. You were just buying a fun computer, a game machine, so you didn’t need to go through a dealer. From the beginning, the Amiga 500 was widely available at all of the glossy electronics stores on European High Streets. The West German operation went even further: they started selling Amigas through grocery stores. Buy an Amiga 500, hook it up to a television, pop in a disk, turn it on, and start playing.

The British and especially the Germans took to the Amiga 500 in numbers that Commodore’s North American executives could only dream of. By early 1988, Commodore could announce that they had sold 500,000 Amigas worldwide, a strong turnaround for a marquee that had been all but left for dead a year before. A rather astonishing 200,000 of those machines, 40 percent of the total, had been sold in West Germany alone; Britain accounted for another 70,000. Even now, with the Christmas season behind them, Commodore West Germany was selling a steady 4000 Amiga 500s every week. A few months later came the simultaneously impressive and depressing news that the total market for Amiga hardware and software in West Germany (population 60 million) was now worth more than that for the United States (population 240 million). And where Germany led, the rest of Europe followed. Eighteen months later, with worldwide Amiga sales closing in on 1.5 million, it was the number one gaming computer in Europe, a position it would continue to enjoy for several years to come. Just about to begin its fade from prominence as a game machine in the United States, in Europe the Amiga’s best years and best games were still in front of it, as bedroom coders learned to coax performance out of the hardware of which its designers could hardly have conceived. The old Boing demo, once so stunning that crowds of trade-show attendees had peaked suspiciously under tables looking for the workstation-class machine that was really generating that animation, already looked singularly unimpressive. The story of the Amiga 500 in Europe was, in other words, the story of the Commodore 64 happening all over again. Commodore was now making the vast majority of their money in Europe, the North American operation a perpetual weak sister.

When journalists for the Amiga trade press in North America visited Europe, they were astounded. Here was the mainstream saturation that they had only been able to fantasize about back home. A report from a correspondent visiting a typical department store in Cologne must have read to American readers like a dispatch from Wonderland.

I came across a computerized book listing that was running on an Amiga 500. As I approached the computer department, I was greeted by a stack of Amiga 500s. I could not believe the assortment of Amiga titles on the book rack (hardcover ones, too!). I found two aisles full of Amiga software, consisting mostly of games. The Amiga selection was more than that of any other computer.

In a sense, it was just a reversion to the status quo. After all, prior to the introduction of the VIC-20 in 1981, Commodore’s income had been similarly unevenly distributed between the continents. Seen in this light, it’s the high times of the 1980s that are the anomaly, when American buyers flocked to the VIC-20 and the 64 and for a time made what had always been fundamentally a European brand — although, paradoxically, a European brand engineered and steered from the United States — into an intercontinental phenomenon. Not that that was of much comfort to the succession of executives who came and went from Irving Gould’s hotseat, fired one after another for their failure to make North American sales look as good as European sales.

But I did promise you 68000 Wars in the title of this article, didn’t it? So where, you might well be wondering, was the Amiga’s arch-rival the Atari ST in all this? Well, in North America it was a fairly negligible factor, although Atari would continue to sell their machine there almost as long as Commodore would the Amiga. The hype around the ST had dissipated quickly with the revelation in late 1986 that Atari really wasn’t selling anywhere near as many of them as Jack Tramiel liked to let on, and the Amiga 500, so obviously audiovisually superior and now much closer in price, soon proved a deadly foe indeed. The ST retained its small legion of loyal users: desktop publishers unwilling to splurge on a Macintosh, who took full advantage of its rock-solid monochrome high-resolution screen and Atari’s inexpensive laser printer, thereby truly making the ST live up to its old “Jackintoch” nickname; musicians, both amateur and professional, who loved its built-in MIDI port; programmers and hardware hackers who favored its simple, straightforward design over the Amiga’s more baroque approach; people who needed lots and lots of memory for one reason for another, on which terms Atari always offered the best deal in town (they released 2 MB and 4 MB ST models as early as 1987, when figures like that were all but inconceivable); inveterate Commodore haters and/or Atari lovers who bought it for the badge on its front. Still, there was little doubt which platform had won the 68000 Wars in North America. In the wake of the Amiga 500’s release, Atari began increasingly to turn to other ways of making money: buying the Federated chain of consumer-electronics stores; capitalizing on nostalgia for the glory days of the Atari VCS by continuing to sell both the old hardware and the cartridges to run on it; wresting away from Epyx a handheld gaming machine, the first of its kind, that was ironically designed by members of the old Amiga, Incorporated, team. When all else failed, there was always Jack Tramiel’s old hobby of lawsuits, of which he launched quite a few, most notably against the former owners of Federated for overstating their company’s value and against the new kid on the block in console gaming, Nintendo, for their alleged anti-competitive practices.

In Europe, the ST also came out second best to the Amiga, but the race was a much closer one for a while. Along with their love for all things Commodore, Germans found that they could also make room in their hearts for the Atari ST. It found a home in many German markets it never came close to cracking in the United States, being regarded as a perfectly respectable business computer there for quite some time. It also continued to do fairly well with gamers, thanks to Atari’s pricing strategies that always seemed to keep its low-end model just that little bit cheaper than the Amiga 500, enough to be a difference-maker for some buyers. When the Amiga became the biggest gaming computer in Europe, it was the Atari ST that slipped into the second spot. It would take the much more expensive MS-DOS machines some years yet to overtake these two 68000-based rivals. The economic chaos brought on by the reunification of West and East Germany, which caused many consumers there to tighten their wallets, only helped their cause, as did the millions of new price-conscious buyers who were suddenly scrambling for a piece of that Western computing action following the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The story of the Amiga, and to some extent also that of the ST, is often framed as a narrative of frustration, of brilliance that never got its due. There are some good reasons for that, but it can also be a myopic, America-centric view, ignoring as it does a veritable generation of youngsters on the other side of the Atlantic who grew up knowing these two platforms very well indeed. When I was writing my book about the Amiga, I couldn’t help but note the markedly different responses I got from friends in Europe and the United States when I told them about the project. Most Americans have no idea what an Amiga is (“Omega?”); most Europeans of a certain age remember it all too well, flashing me smiles redolent of nostalgia for afternoons spent before the television with their mates, when the summer seemed endless and the possibilities limitless. Instead of lamenting might-have-beens too much more, I expect to spend quite some articles over the next few years talking about the Amiga’s innovations and successes — and, yes, I’ll also have more to say about the Amiga’s perpetually overlooked little frenemy the Atari ST as well. Whether you grew up with one of these machines or you too aren’t quite sure yet what to make of this whole “Omega” thing, I hope you’ll stick around. Some amazing stuff is in store.

(Sources: Invaluable as always for these articles was Brian Bagnall’s book On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore. I can’t wait for the better, longer version. The long-running “Roomers” column in Amazing Computing is my go-to source for a month-by-month chronology of developments on the Amiga scene, and the source of most of the nit-picky factoids in this article. The issues of Amazing used include: March 1987, June 1987, July 1987, August 1987, October 1987, November 1987, December 1987, February 1988, April 1988, May 1988, June 1988, July 1988, August 1988, September 1988, November 1988, December 1988, January 1989, February 1989, March 1989, April 1989, May 1989, June 1989, July 1989, August 1989, September 1989, October 1989, November 1989, December 1989, January 1990, April 1990, May 1990, June 1990, February 1991, March 1991, April 1991, May 1991, December 1991. Commodore Magazine‘s fateful interview with Thomas Rattigan appeared in the May 1987 issue. Other sources include Retro Gamer 39 and of course my own book The Future Was Here. Hey, it’s not every day a writer gets to cite himself…)

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Posted by on November 27, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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A New Force in Games, Part 3: SCUMM

Maniac Mansion

As part of a general rearranging of the deck chairs at Lucasfilm in late 1985, the Games Group got moved from their nondescript offices in San Rafael to nearby Skywalker Ranch, the “filmmaker’s retreat” at the very heart of George Lucas’s empire. They were housed in an ornate structure of Victorian brick called the Stable House, with crackling fireplaces in almost every room. Later, old-timers would tell newcomers stories of the Games Group’s time at Skywalker Ranch, which would last for just a few years, like legends from before the Fall: catching a sneak preview of a new David Lynch film in the company of Lynch himself in the Ranch’s beautiful 300-seat art-deco theater; hanging out on a regular basis with Steven Spielberg, who wanted to play everything the Games Group had in development every time he stopped by, sometimes for hours at a stretch; playing softball on the Ranch’s gorgeously manicured field with rock star Huey Lewis; hiking up to the observatory after a long day at the office to do another sort of stargazing; eating gourmet lunches every day at the Ranch’s restaurant for $5 a pop. They might not have been able to make Star Wars games, but they could surround themselves with its trappings: when first moving in, they were given a chance to rummage through an enormous warehouse full of old props and concept art for office decorations. It’s questionable whether any other game studio, ever, has worked in quite such a nerd Elysium.

Continuing to blow through Skywalker Ranch as they had San Rafael, however, were winds of change that had been steadily altering Lucasfilm’s expectations of their little Games Group. As the middle years of the decade wore on, the company was becoming a very different place from what it had been during the free-and-easy early 1980s, when money seemed to flow like water. Lucasfilm’s financial outlook had changed almost overnight in 1983 when, even as Return of the Jedi was doing the expected huge numbers in theaters, George Lucas announced that he and his wife Marcia were getting a divorce. An accomplished film editor in her own right, Marcia had been a huge contributor to the Star Wars movies, especially the first, for which she’d won an Oscar — something her ex-husband has never managed — for her editing work. Now her divorce settlement would cost Lucasfilm big, to the tune of $50 to $100 million (precise estimates vary). Lucasfilm’s financial advisers were able to convince her to take her settlement as a series of payments spread over years rather than the lump sum the initial agreement demanded, but those payments nevertheless put a tremendous drain on the company’s finances.

And soon the other side of the ledger, that of incoming earnings, also began to diminish. George Lucas had long since declared that Star Wars was to be but a single trilogy of films, that there would be no more after Return of the Jedi. The lack of new films inevitably meant not just the loss of box-office receipts but also diminished sales of the toys and other merchandise that had always been the franchise’s biggest cash cow. Meanwhile the Indiana Jones series, which had turned into almost as successful a franchise as Star Wars, fell into a five-year hiatus after 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Filling that gap for Lucasfilm were a series of middling disappointments — Labyrinth, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Willow, some almost perversely low-stakes Star Wars television programs featuring R2-D2 and C-3PO and, God help us, the Ewoks — and at least one outright bomb big enough to have become a punchline for the ages in Howard the Duck. It seemed that Lucas, who could do no wrong in the eleven years between American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple Doom, had suddenly seen his Midas Touch desert him.

Never much of a manager and certainly not a numbers guy, Lucas hired a no-nonsense sort named Doug Norby to become Lucasfilm’s president in 1985. “Do what you have to do,” he told him, “and I’m just going to stay out of it.” Norby declared that there needed to be a culture change. Every division would now be expected to justify their existence by earning money for the company rather than costing it money. Those who couldn’t see a way to do so would get the axe. Ditto individual personnel within departments that had become too bloated; Norby orchestrated the first significant wave of layoffs ever to sweep over Lucasfilm. As the conflict-averse Lucas had likely intended, Norby was blamed for all of the pain and chaos, became for some time the most hated name at Lucasfilm, while Lucas himself was largely given a pass, as if he somehow didn’t know about the changes underway in his own namesake company.

As part of the restructuring, it was decided that Lucasfilm would now engage in only two specific lines of business: providing production services to the film industry (Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound) and making mass-market entertainments. The old Computer Graphics Group that had awkwardly spawned the Games Group still hadn’t really proved themselves to belong in the former category, while the Games Group, at least if you squinted just right, pretty much did belong in the latter. Thus, while the Games Group got to remain at Lucasfilm, the Graphics Group in February of 1986 was spun off to a collection of investors that included many of their own current personnel as well as, as ringmaster of the whole proceeding, Steve Jobs, recently exiled from Apple. The old Graphics Group was now known as Pixar, selling a $135,000 graphics workstation which they had developed during their years with Lucasfilm. Most of the rest of Lucasfilm’s computer-oriented research was either cancelled outright or similarly packaged up and sold off. (Most notably, Lucasfim’s EditDroid digital-editing project became an independent company called Droid Works).

Soon the old Games Group represented the only significant hacker presence left at Lucasfilm. It was during this period of colossal change that George Lucas took rare personal notice of Games for long enough to deliver his most oft-quoted piece of advice to Steve Arnold: “Stay small, be the best, don’t lose any money.” This commandment has often been taken to represent a sort of creative carte blanche for Arnold and his charges. Taken in the context in which it was uttered, however, it’s probably better seen as a warning. The Games Group was free to continue to trade on the Lucasfilm name and enjoy their gourmet lunches at the company cafeteria, but they’d have to start paying their own way from here on. Should they fail at that, their rope would not be a long one, for Lucas had little personal investment in their work.

Given this situation, when Lucasfilm’s brass decided to throw the Games Group a bone in the form of an actual piece of intellectual property with which to work Arnold certainly didn’t turn up his nose at the prospect. It wasn’t Star Wars or even Indiana Jones, but it was a much-anticipated film called Labyrinth, a fantasy adventure directed by Jim Henson and starring David Bowie that was to be released in the summer of 1986. Beginning in November of 1985, Arnold poured most of his resources into the project, Lucasfilm Games’s first adventure game. The Henson connection secured the involvement of Christopher Cerf, a Sesame Street stalwart and all-around Renaissance man of the arts who seemed to know everyone and be involved with everything in the world of entertainment. Cerf was a good friend of Douglas Adams, a frequent guest at his legendary gala dinner parties; it had in fact been Cerf who had largely brokered the deal with Infocom that had led to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy computer game. In January much of the Games Group flew to London for an intense week of consultation with Henson, Cerf, and their buddy Adams.


Labyrinth had been conceived from the beginning as a graphic adventure, a genre that was just beginning to emerge from the primordial muck thanks largely to the work of Sierra and ICOM Simulations. It was Adams who suggested the game’s brilliant cold open: it begins as an ordinary text adventure, and not a very good one at that, until you arrive at a cinema and get sucked into the movie playing there by a pixelated David Bowie. It’s a ludic version of that iconic moment in The Wizard of Oz when the film suddenly shifts from black and white to color. Some of his other subversive touches, playing as he loved to do with the artificiality of the medium itself, weren’t so easily implemented. The team particularly lamented that they wouldn’t be able to use Adams’s idea for a film-editing room found in the game. He suggested that you should be able to view the scraps of film to see snippets of your own previous adventures, maybe even forgotten tributaries down which you’d wandered before restoring the game to its current state. Alas, something like that just wasn’t going to happen on the likes of a Commodore 64.

Not really a bad game but also not quite a fully baked one, Labyrinth would prove to be something of a steppingstone on the way to a grand tradition of Lucasfilm adventure games still to come. Your character can be moved about using the joystick, but other commands must be constructed rather awkwardly, by using the arrow keys to cycle through two separate lists, one of available verbs and one of nouns. Notably, when a verb is selected the list of nouns is limited to only those which logically apply, thus making it at least theoretically impossible to construct a completely nonsensical “sentence.” Driving much of the design was a philosophy that adventure games should be friendlier, less tedious, and much less deadly than was the norm from competitors like Sierra. It is, for instance, almost impossible to get yourself killed in Labyrinth, and David Fox noted in contemporaneous interviews how he had strained to “eliminate the dead-end or ‘insoluble’ situation.” In years to come Lucasfilm Games would virtually define themselves in opposition to what they saw as the Bad Old Way of doing adventure games, as particularly personified by the games of Sierra. It’s an idea that would take some experience and some technology upgrades to reach complete fruition, but it’s interesting to note that it was present right from the beginning.

Note the "slot-machine" verb-noun selector at the bottom of the screen.

Labyrinth. Note the “slot-machine” verb-noun selector at the bottom of the screen.

Released in June of 1986, the movie version of Labyrinth thoroughly underwhelmed by the standards of an expensive would-be blockbuster, spending just one week inside the top ten in the United States and garnering mixed (at best) reviews. The odor of a flop inevitably clung to the game as well when it was released two months later. Despite lots of advertising and the usual free publicity garnered from journalists eager to come out to Skywalker Ranch and bask in the aura of Star Wars, it became on the whole a commercial disappointment. This was now becoming a depressingly common theme for the Games Group. They were perilously close to violating that last and most important of Lucas’s commandments.

Their savior would come from a much smaller, quieter project than the big Labyrinth tie-in — indeed, a project from which Steve Arnold seemed to have no real expectations at all. Its father had himself been heretofore one of the less noticeable employees of the Games Group, a friendly, unassuming fellow with a wry sense of humor and a great aptitude for programming. His name was Ron Gilbert, and he was motivated by that most compelling of all workplace impulses: he was just trying not to get fired.

Born in 1964 in the rural Oregon town of La Grande, Gilbert had been programming since 1977, when his father brought home the family’s first Texas Instruments programmable calculator. Soon after starting at his hometown Eastern Oregon State College in 1982, he bought his first Commodore 64, and immediately discovered one of that machine’s most conspicuous weaknesses: its BASIC interpreter had no support whatsoever for the very graphics and sound capabilities that made the 64 so special. Working with a buddy named Tom McFarlane, he developed a BASIC extension called Graphics BASIC to change all that, adding over a hundred new commands to the language. It was impressive enough that they were able to sell it to HESWare, one of the biggest publishers in software at the time. In fact, HESWare was so impressed with Gilbert personally that they offered him a full-time job as an in-house programmer. So, he dropped out of university to move to Brisbane, California.

It didn’t work out. HESWare turned out to be a flash in the pan that had made a ton of unwise financial decisions in their eagerness to rule the software roost. Within months of Gilbert’s arrival the company collapsed, well before releasing anything he had worked on. He was forced to return sheepishly to La Grande to contemplate re-enrolling at Eastern Oregon — luckily, his dad was the president there — and getting back to the real world of adult employment; maybe he could get a job as a programmer at a bank or something. Then, one day in October of 1984, the telephone rang just as he was leaving the house. Prompted by he wasn’t quite sure what, he decided to rush back inside and answer it. It was Steve Arnold from Lucasfilm Games. He and his colleagues had seen Graphics BASIC and heard about Gilbert’s talents through the grapevine, Arnold explained. They needed someone to help port their games, which had been originally developed for Atari 8-bit machines, to the Commodore 64. Would he be willing to come down to San Rafael to talk about a possible contract? Like most prospective employees Arnold spoke to, Gilbert didn’t have to think twice when the company behind Star Wars came calling. It was just an interview, and for a contract position at that, but he nevertheless packed all of his possessions into his 280Z and took off for California. He had no intention of coming back.

He didn’t need to; he got the job. Still, as a contractor rather than a regular employee he was left perpetually uncertain about how long he’d get to live the dream. His anxiety only increased after the Commodore 64 versions of the Games Group’s modest early catalog of four action games were all pretty much complete and nobody seemed to be giving him any clear information about what he was expected to do next. Working with a couple of the other guys, he came up with a fanciful game proposal for Arnold’s bulging ideas file: I Was a Teenage Lobot, a “science-fiction role-playing strategy adventure game.” (Better check again, guys; I think you may have missed a genre or two.) But then the big Labyrinth project came along, depriving him of his would-be partners. Ominously, Gilbert was one of the few people in the Games Group not earmarked to that game.

Whether Steve Arnold was really snubbing him or whether he saw something special in him and wanted to give him his own space to figure out for himself what that was is still an open question. What is clear is that Gilbert started toying with another idea to justify his existence there at Skywalker Ranch, involving a group of kids sent, Scooby-Doo-style, to explore a creepy old mansion.

Gilbert claims that he didn’t originally conceive of Maniac Mansion as an adventure game at all, perhaps because one of its central conceits had rarely been done in an adventure game before. From the beginning, he was determined that you should be able to control several kids rather than just one, each of whom would have her own personality and abilities. Much of the gameplay would hinge on coordinating the kids’ actions to achieve things none of them could manage on her own. And that was pretty much the whole idea; just about everything else about the design seemed to be up in the air. But then, visiting home for the Christmas of 1985, he saw his eight-year-old cousin obsessively playing Sierra’s King’s Quest. Gilbert loved the graphics, but didn’t care for Roberta Williams’s death-heavy philosophy of game design any more than he did for Sierra’s primitive parser, which made a particularly poor fit with a game that was otherwise so graphics-oriented. He decided that he wanted to do an adventure game “because I hate adventure games,” because he wanted to show the world how they could be so much better.

I hated that you died all the time. You’d be walking along and you would step somewhere and out of the blue you would die. That just seemed frustrating to me. I think a lot of designers must think that’s fun. But it’s not. It’s horrible.

And too often the game devolved into what Gilbert calls “second-guess the parser”:

You would see a bush on the screen, and you’d type, “Pick up bush,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘bush’ is.” Then you’d type, “Pick up plant,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘plant’ is.” Then you’d type, “Pick up shrubbery,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘shrubbery’ is.” Pretty soon you’d type, “Fuck you,” and it would say, “I don’t understand what ‘fuck’ is.”

So, I’m looking at this bush or plant or shrub and I cannot figure out the word that the game designer is using for it. That’s very frustrating because I can see it right on the screen. Why can’t I just click on it?

And the next logical step is: if I can just click on objects on the screen, why can’t I just click on verbs as well? Really, despite what the marketing departments and the backs of the boxes were telling us, these games only understood a very small number of verbs.

Beginning from textual lists of verbs and nouns much like the interface of Labyrinth, Maniac Mansion evolved into a much more intuitive experience: a clickable list of verbs at the bottom of the screen, which can be combined with hotspots in the pictures proper to build commands. In its day it was simply the best, most elegant interface for graphical adventuring yet devised. One might call it a combination of the best traits of the two most prominent systems for graphic adventuring already extant at the time: Sierra’s AGI games that debuted with King’s Quest and the ICOM Simulations line of adventures that began with Déjà Vu. Like the former, you can see your avatar (or avatars in this case) and move them about onscreen, but like the latter you don’t have to wrestle with a parser, being able instead to simply click on verbs and objects in your inventory or in the environment proper to construct commands. It’s afflicted with neither the perpetual disconnect between textual parser and graphical worldview that can make the AGI games so frustrating nor the cluttered, cramped feel of ICOM’s overly baroque interface. Maniac Mansion would prove to be by far the most graphical graphical adventure of its time, willing to do most of its storytelling through visuals and the occasional well-chosen sound effect rather than the big text dumps that mark the Sierra and ICOM games. Tellingly, it devotes exactly one line of the screen to text messages.

On the job in Maniac Mansion. Note the selectable list of verbs (including the immortal "New Kid") and the character's inventory below.

On the job in Maniac Mansion. Note the selectable list of verbs (including the immortal “New Kid”) and the character’s inventory below.

Gilbert found a great supporter of his budding adventure game in Gary Winnick, the Games Group’s indefatigable visual artist. In between contributing much of the art found in both Labyrinth and Habitat, Winnick found time to brainstorm Maniac Mansion and to create heaps of sample art. Yet progress was painfully slow. Gilbert was trying to build Maniac Mansion in the same way that Labyrinth was being built, by coding it from scratch in pure assembly language. Problem was, he was trying to do it alone. As 1986’s midpoint approached, Steve Arnold was getting noticeably annoyed at his apparent lack of productivity and Gilbert was surer than ever that he would be sent back to La Grande any day now.

It was at this juncture that Chip Morningstar made the suggestion that would change the direction of Lucasfilm Games forever. Why didn’t he devise a high-level scripting language that could be compiled on the Games Group’s big Unix workstations, then run on the Commodore 64 itself via an interpreter? Morningstar even took the time to help him design the language, a sort of cut-down version of some of the tools he and Randall Farmer were using to build the virtual world of Habitat, and to write the first compiler. SCUMM — the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion — was born.

It wasn’t precisely a new idea, but it was vastly complicated by the need a graphic adventure like Maniac Mansion had to do many things concurrently, in real time. Many different “scripts” would need to run at the same time, forcing Gilbert to code what amounted to a multitasking kernel for the whole system on the little Commodore 64. Even with Morningstar’s help, it took Gilbert a full six months to get the SCUMM system up and running. Meanwhile Gary Winnick’s art continued to pile up, looking for a home, and Gilbert continued to tremble every time Steve Arnold looked his way. At last at the end of 1986 SCUMM was complete enough that he could return to the game proper. Arnold, evidently beginning to feel that his work had real potential, allowed David Fox to join him as a SCUMM scripter. Winnick as well was now working virtually full-time on the project, contributing not only all of the art but also major swathes of design and story.

Gilbert credits SCUMM and the relative ease with which it let the programmer script interactions for making the world of the finished Maniac Mansion much more interactive and alive than it could otherwise have been. Not least amongst the little gags and Easter eggs SCUMM facilitated was a certain soon-to-be-infamous hamster-in-a-microwave bit. Gilbert insists that it was actually Fox and Winnick who came up with and implemented this particular piece of tasteless humor, so angry missives should be directed their way rather than to him.

Winnick drew the kids you control and the other characters that inhabit the mansion like bobblehead dolls, heads out of all proportion to their bodies, to make sure their personalities came across despite the low screen resolution of the Commodore 64. He had already used the same technique in both Labyrinth and Habitat and would continue to do so for some time to come; it would become the most instantly recognizable graphical trait of early Lucasfilm adventure games. Gilbert’s original plan had called for the kids to literally be kids — children. Realizing, however, that no one wanted to see children endangered and potentially dispatched in gruesome ways, Gilbert and Winnick decided to make the kids teenagers, which made a better demographic fit anyway with the teenage players who were the biggest audience for computer games. They form a group of seven broad high-school archetypes, sketched with just a hint of a satirical edge, from amongst which you choose three to see you through the game. Bernard is an electronics buff, physics champion, and all-around nerd; Wendy is a prim and proper “aspiring novelist” who seems to have been born at age 40; Michael is Yearbook Guy at the school, an ace photographer; Jeff is a surfer dude who seems to have wandered into Maniac Mansion whilst looking for California Games; and, betraying perhaps a slight flagging of the creative muscles, both Sid and Razor are would-be rock stars (Sid’s a new waver, Razor a punk, for whatever that’s worth). And finally there’s Dave, a Good Kid of the sort who runs for Class President. He’s the leader of the group and the one kid you have to play with. It’s his girlfriend Sandy — a cheerleader, naturally — who’s been kidnapped by Dr. Fred, the creepy owner of the mansion, to feed to aliens. Some real people found themselves immortalized inside these archetypical shells: Razor’s look was based on Winnick’s girlfriend, Wendy on an accountant (what else?) at the office, Dave on Ron Gilbert himself. All of the kids have unique talents, some expected, some less so; clueless Jeff’s inexplicable hidden talent for fixing telephones is actually one of the funniest gags in the game. The idea was that any combination of kids should be capable of solving the game.

The kids. From left: Dave, Sid, Michael, Wendy, Bernard, Razor, and Jeff.

The kids. From left: Dave, Sid, Michael, Wendy, Bernard, Razor, and Jeff.

It was an idea that would cause Gilbert and Winnick no small amount of angst. Neither had ever designed an adventure game before, much less a knotty tapestry like this with its combinatorial explosion of protagonists, and their design document consisted of little more than a map of the mansion and a list of objects and the puzzles to which they applied. They desperately wanted to create an adventure game that would be more friendly and forgiving than the typical Sierra effort, but, inevitably, their lack of experience and planning and time, not to mention play-testing — the Games Group’s testing department consisted of exactly one guy sitting in front of a Commodore 64 with a pad of paper — led to a game fairly riddled with potential dead ends and unwinnable situations despite its designers’ best intentions. Gilbert, a great and much-needed advocate for fairness in adventure design, still castigates himself for that to this day.

Both Gilbert and Winnick were fans of knowingly schlocky B-grade horror movies like the then-recent Re-AnimatorManiac Mansion was conceived very much as an homage to the genre. The actual plot, of the mad scientist who owns the mansion attempting to tap the power of a mysterious meteorite that fell on his property, was inspired by one of the vignettes in Creepshow, an anthology of short horror films. Other references, like the man-eating plant lifted whole cloth from Little Shop of Horrors, are even more obvious. Still, it was going to have to be a much more family-friendly affair if it was to bear the Lucasfilm name. When Arnold demanded that all traces of swearing be removed from the game, Gilbert and Winnick did so only under duress, and to the tune of plenty of grumbling about “artistic vision” and the like. If you can tell me exactly why Dave has to call Bernard a “shithead” at the outset of the night, said Arnold, you can keep it. No one could. Gilbert says that the lesson thus imparted about the pointlessness of gratuitous profanity has stuck with him to this day.

Maniac Mansion

Better a tuna head than a shithead…

For the mansion itself, they a found a fecund source of inspiration very close to home indeed: the big neo-Victorian “Main House” at Skywalker Ranch. The spiral staircase inside the library in Maniac Mansion is lifted straight from the “filmmaker’s research library” in the Main House. In the game, the staircase has an “out of order” sign on it and cannot be climbed under any circumstances. This was a subtle inside joke: George Lucas’s personal office was on the balcony at the top of those stairs in the real house, and nobody was allowed to go up there without an invitation.

Skywalker Ranch

Maniac Mansion

Given that it was a game inspired largely by movies that was being developed at a movie studio, Gilbert wanted to give Maniac Mansion a cinematic flavor. He imagined little episodes that would “cut away” from the player’s current actions to advance the plot and show what the captive Sally, her captor Dr. Fred, and the other creepy inhabitants of the mansion were up to. He asked Arnold if there was a filmmaking term for this technique that he could employ. Arnold said that “cut scene” sounded more than good enough to him. Thus did a new term enter the gaming lexicon. Maniac Mansion was hardly the first game to employ them — there was Jordan Mechner’s 1984 classic Karateka and Sierra adventure games like Space Quest and even the old Ms. Pac-Man game in the arcades — but it had been left to Lucasfilm to finally give them a name. The concept was baked right into the SCUMM language, with a special kind of script called simply “cut-scene” that when triggered would automatically save the player’s state, play the cut scene as a little animated movie all its own, and then restore the player to control.

One ironic consequence of the cut scenes is to make the game harder in just the ways that Gilbert would have preferred to avoid. Most of them are triggered by simple timers. While some are just there for atmosphere or to convey information, others directly affect the state of the world, such as when a postman arrives with a package. There are often things you must do to react or to prepare for these dynamic events; failing to do so can lock you out of victory. Had anyone been paying attention, Infocom’s Ballyhoo had already pioneered a better way to advance the plot inside an adventure game, by tying events to the player’s progress rather than hard-coded timers. Like many such lessons, it would be learned only slowly by game designers, and largely by a process of reinventing the wheel at that. As it is, Maniac Mansion has some of the feel of the earlier Infocom mysteries, of needing to learn how to steer events just right over the course of multiple restores.

Shortly before the release of Labyrinth, Lucasfilm Games had severed their relationship with Epyx and moved on to Activision. It was thus under that company’s banner that Maniac Mansion made its public debut at the June 1987 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, host to so much of the last great wave of Commodore 64 software. Before Maniac Mansion could actually be released, however, Arnold made the huge decision to self-publish it under Lucasfilm’s own banner. Lucasfilm Games changed from being a mere developer to being an “affiliated publisher” of Activision, a status that gave them more independence and put their own name alone on their boxes but still gave them access to the larger company’s distribution network and other logistical support. Even with Activision’s support, publishing entailed engaging with entire facets of the software industry from which they’d always been happily insulated before. They learned a harsh lesson about the sensitivities of some Americans when Toys ‘R’ Us, one of the biggest Commodore 64 game retailers in the country, abruptly pulled the game off their shelves in response to a customer complaint. It seemed some old biddy had seen the tongue-in-cheek copy on the back of the box, which declared Maniac Mansion to be (amongst other things) a story of “love, lust, and power,” and had objected in no uncertain terms. Lucasfilm was forced to hurriedly redesign the box in order not to lose Toy ‘R’ Us forever.

Lucasfilm Games's Maniac Mansion advertisements took aim at "most story game designers" who "seem to think people love to get clobbered." Here's looking at you, Sierra.

Lucasfilm Games’s advertisements took aim at “most story game designers” who “seem to think people love to get clobbered.” I wonder which designers they’re talking about…

But it all worked out in the end. Coming out as it did with the Lucasfilm Games logo — and only the Lucasfilm Games logo — all over its box, Maniac Mansion proved a pivotal release for this little concern that, despite brilliant personnel and a name to die for, had struggled for years now to come up with a definitive commercial identity. One of the huge advantages of the SCUMM system was that it made porting games to new platforms relatively easy, just a matter of writing a new interpreter. Thus by 1988 Maniac Mansion could be bought in versions for the Amiga, Atari ST, Apple II, and MS-DOS in addition to the Commodore 64 original. In time it would even make its way to the Nintendo Entertainment System. (See Doug Crockford’s “The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion to learn of the hilarious lengths the Games Group had to go through to get it accepted by Nintendo’s censorious management regime, who made the Toys “R” Us lady look like a libertine.) While it never topped many sales charts, Maniac Mansion turned into a perennial back-catalog star, selling far more units when all was said and done than any game the Games Group had released before. Its continuing popularity was such that in 1990 it spawned a successful children’s television series, a claim to fame that very few games can boast. Such success enabled Lucasfilm Games at last to firmly plant their feet and adhere to Lucas’s dictum to “not lose any money” while they built upon the reputation it engendered for them. They were now known first and foremost as a maker of graphic adventure games, the yin to Sierra’s yang. They had traveled a long and winding road to get here, but it seemed they had finally found a calling.

Maniac Mansion’s intrinsic value as a game is often dismissed today in favor of its historical role as the urtext for the many much-loved SCUMM games that followed it. That, however, is a shame, for its charms as the best graphic adventure ever made for the Commodore 64 are real, varied, and considerable. Yes, it’s a bit of shaggy beast in contrast to those later Lucasfilm classics, but it’s also in many ways the most complex and interesting game game of any of them; no other SCUMM game boasts anything like its seven different playable characters, with all of the alternate storylines and solutions they bring with them.

Yet the most winning thing about Maniac Mansion is its personality, which is in turn a tribute to the personalities who created it. Gilbert and Winnick, one senses, want you to have a good time, want you to solve the game and then come back for more, trying on new combinations of characters for size. Thanks largely to the essential good faith and sense of fair play with which its authors approached it, Maniac Mansion is a game that’s hard to dislike, despite its occasional sins in the form of a puzzle or two that could have been clued slightly better and one really egregious example of hunt-the-hotspot (hint: check the library very carefully). Its puzzles are varied, usually logical in their wacky way, and always entertaining, and are given a wonderful added dimension by the need to coordinate two or sometimes even all three kids in far-flung corners of the mansion to solve some of the more intricate problems. (Interestingly, Level 9 in Britain was doing much the same thing during the same time period in the realm of text adventures.) One other thing that helps immeasurably is that the mansion is a relatively constrained environment, limiting the scope of possibility enough to keep things manageable. And of course it also helps that the game manages to evoke the sylvan atmosphere of a long teenage summer night so beautifully using the blunt instrument of 8-bit graphics and sound. Likeability, good faith, and good intentions will get you a long way, in games as in life, and talent doesn’t hurt one bit either. Thankfully, Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick, and their colleagues were possessed of all of the above in spades.

(Sources: the book Droidmaker by Michael Rubin; The Transactor of July 1986; The LucasArts Adventurer of Spring 1991; Commodore Magazine of June 1987 and November 1988; Computer and Video Games of December 1986; Retro Gamer 94 and 116. Ron Gilbert has a wealth of material on his own history on his website and his “Making of Maniac Mansion” presentation was also invaluable.

Feel free to download the Commodore 64 version of Maniac Mansion from here.)


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A New Force in Games, Part 2: A Habitat in Cyberspace


Shortly before the departure of Peter Langston from the Lucasfilm Games Group, he and Steve Arnold hired one Chip Morningstar as a tools programmer. The latter was coming off a stint spent working for Ted Nelson, a sort of philosopher of information management who had coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia” back in the 1960s. Morningstar, who says that “few people could actually work with Ted for more than a day or two without becoming clinically insane,” was initially thrilled to just hunker down making practical tools for game development on the Games Group’s Unix workstations.

But then, on one of his final days at the office, Langston tried to interest everyone in a joint playthrough of his own old multiplayer grand-strategy classic Empire, for the purpose of, according to Morningstar, “getting us to think about alternative modalities of game design.” They all played for many hours and then, with Langston’s encouragement, picked apart what they liked and didn’t like about the experience. Morningstar found he didn’t much like the very thing that seemingly made Empire a game: the cycle of build-up, increasing conflict, and the final triumph of one player — or, more frequently, the final nuclear annihilation of all of them. He would prefer it if “the world was much bigger and the player goals more open-ended.” He wrote up a proposal for an online portal to host a “10,000-player computer game” that showed the influence of Ted Nelson’s visions of networked consciousness as well as the cyberpunk science fictions that he’d been reading a lot of lately — works like True Names by Vernor Vinge and William Gibson’s brand new, seminal Neuromancer. The poetic language he employed in his proposal rather self-consciously echoes Gibson’s own descriptions of cyberspace.

Picture, if you will, a network, an intricate web of knots and threads spanning thousands of miles. The knots are machines, made of silicon, metal, and plastic. The threads are metal wires. It is a computer network. The machines are computers, sitting in homes, schools, and offices across the continent. The wires are telephone lines, tying the hundreds upon hundreds of individual processors into a single, unified whole. At each of these machines sit people. People of all kinds and all ages… they experience the signs and sounds of that which exists only in the wholeness of the web, and in their own minds.

Steve Arnold made a habit of filing away all of the ideas that poured out of his charges, even seemingly outlandish ones like this one. After all, you never knew what might be worth considering if the right partner and/or situation came along.

We haven’t had much occasion to talk about it yet on this blog, but PCs had always been seen by hackers as, amongst other things, tools of communication. One might even say it was in the PC industry’s very DNA. Well before Apple, for instance, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had gotten their start as businessmen by selling “blue boxes” for purposes of “phone phreaking,” hacking the telephone system to make free long-distance calls. (The widespread application of telecommunications technology to illegal activities would also be an ongoing theme of the young industry.) The first modems were available almost as soon as the first PCs, using hardware designs adapted from bigger institutional computer systems.

To say that using a computer for telecommunications was challenging in the early days hardly begins to describe the situation. “Modem” stands for “modulator/demodulator.” It converts data into sound and transmits it over a phone line, the “modulating” part of the process. What sounds like an unholy racket to human ears can be converted — “demodulated” — back into data that a computer can understand by another modem at the other end of the line. A modem monopolized the phone line, meaning that unless you lived alone or could afford to spring for a second line, negotiations on its use with other householders were likely to be tense ones. Once made, modem connections were notoriously unstable. In many areas even the “call waiting” tone resulting from an incoming call would knock you off the line while simultaneously leaving you no way to answer the second call, a useless double whammy if ever there was one. And Modems were slow. A 300-baud modem, for many years the standard, could transmit or receive at about 35 characters per second, meaning a single line of text on an 80-column screen took well over two seconds to print, a full screen of 25 lines almost a full minute.

Assuming you were willing to put up with all these annoyances, whom should you actually call using your computer? The World Wide Web was still many years in the future, the Internet itself largely restricted to users at big universities and other research institutions, discussing esoteric subjects using specialized messaging software. Your realistic options could thus largely be divided into two categories: the so-called computerized bulletin-board systems, or BBSes, and, in time, bigger commercial dial-up services.

The typical BBS operator was a guy not that different from you who had elected to set up a little online presence with a spare computer — or a primary computer when he wasn’t actually using it — and a second phone line. Since these systems usually only had one modem and one phone line, only one user could actually be online at a time. Accessing a popular system was thus generally a matter of setting up a “war dialer,” a program to dial the BBS’s number again and again until the busy signal was replaced with a modem’s answering tone — all the while, of course, tying up your own phone line with the effort. Once online, you could read and post messages and upload and download software, within reason; you didn’t want to be That Guy staying online for hours and blocking everyone else out of the system. Indeed, popular systems often strictly limited your time to make sure that didn’t happen. Many of the BBSes were engines of software piracy. Thanks to phone phreaking, the necessary numbers and techniques for which were also widely distributed on pirate BBSes, pirates could call systems all over the country and the world, while more legitimate users unwilling to spend a fortune in long-distance fees were limited to those in their own hometowns. BBSes, even — especially! — the legitimate ones, were thus by their very nature very limited affairs, bound to a certain geographic area and, with only 24 hours in a day and only one phone line, sharply restricted in how many users they could realistically support. Many old-timers today will tell you that that was a big part of their charm.

Still, there was obvious potential for larger services that could bring more people together. In the late 1970s one Bill von Meister had an epiphany that would establish the model for such services for many years to come. When corporate America shut down for the evening, he realized, millions of processing hours on time-shared institutional computers went unused, as did much of the telecommunications infrastructure that linked all of those machines together. He founded an online service called The Source to take advantage of this excess capacity by essentially selling it to ordinary computer users at home, who could access his system via modem using local phone numbers that served as entrance ramps to normally business-focused packet-switched networks like Tymnet and Uninet. After The Source was announced at a gala event in June of 1979 — special guest/paid spokesman Isaac Asimov was there to declare it to represent nothing less than “the start of the information age” — similar online services began to spring up in considerable numbers, their user counts to climb steadily. CompuServe, the second entrant in the burgeoning field and always the largest and most lavishly promoted, had 5000 subscribers in 1980; 145,000 in 1984; 300,000 in 1986; 460,000 in 1988.

What people did on these services was in some senses mostly the same as what they do on the Internet today. By mid-decade CompuServe offered discussion forums and chat rooms on a huge variety of topics; an online encyclopedia; electronic editions of newspapers and magazines; online banks, stockbrokers, and other financial services; worldwide weather forecasts; online shopping malls, airplane tickets, and hotel reservations; and of course your very own private email address. Games were also popular; amongst the expected slate of traditional board and card games one could find the occasional standout, like CompuServe’s MegaWars, an elaborate and addictive multiplayer strategy game played on a universal scale, not all that far removed from Peter Langston’s Empire. The first accredited online university, called simply The Electronic University, already had 10,000 students by 1985, offering seven degrees from an Associates in the Arts to an MBA. The mainstream media began to publish the occasional skeptical report on a new phenomenon known as “online personals,” noting with shock that some people had supposedly ended up marrying others that they had first met online. Indeed, the amount of sharing that took place online was a constant source of surprise to the unwired. An apocryphal tale made the rounds, winding up eventually even on PBS’s Computer Chronicles program, of a woman who had announced on a chat room that she had had enough, that she was about to kill herself right there and then, only to be talked down from the brink by her interlocutors. Less positively but more inevitably, politicians began to fret about online pornography and child predation, making it an explicit crime to use a computer to traffic in child pornography — it was anyway, but that’s politics for you — with the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act of 1988.

It’s easy enough to see these services, described as I just have in the abstract, as essentially equivalent to the World Wide Web of today. That, however, would be a mistake. I really need to emphasize just how limited and primitive online services of the 1980s were by modern standards. Without the bandwidth to send pictures and with few computers capable of displaying them with any fidelity at all anyway, the online services were made of nothing but text, laboriously transmitted page by page at speeds of 300 or at best 1200 baud. There were no hyperlinks, no mouse support, no color, no sound, no fonts, no page layout, no windows or columns, just walls of slowly printing monospaced monochrome text separated by menu prompts in the form of blinking cursors. And each of these services was a world unto itself: if you signed up for CompuServe, you could only use those facilities that CompuServe offered, could only chat or send mail to other CompuServe subscribers. The interoperability and interconnectedness that define the World Wide Web of today didn’t exist, making your choice of which service to splurge for a fraught one indeed.

Finally, these services were expensive, staggeringly so by modern standards. In 1985 it cost $40 just to sign up with CompuServe, then $6 per hour at 300 baud or $12.50 per hour at 1200 baud during non-business hours. As for usage during business hours, that was so expensive that you didn’t even want to think about it — which was, after all, kind of the point. The other services charged similar rates. Small wonder that avid users devised and shared a multitude of techniques, from command shortcuts for bypassing layers of menus to ways of collecting digests of messages for reading offline, to minimize their time spent connected. And small wonder as well that, despite the services’ steadily increasing user bases, for many years relatively few computer owners had the requisite combination of financial wherewithal and patience to make use of them. At mid-decade it was estimated that less than 5 percent of active home-computer users subscribed to one of the commercial online services, while less than 40 percent of them even owned modems.

Those numbers represented opportunity. That, anyway, was how they were seen by Steve Case, marketing director for a heretofore underwhelming would-be purveyor of telecommunications services called Quantum Computer Services. Case came up with a scheme that would address some if not all of the reasons that most users still stayed away from the big online services. His QuantumLink would work only on Commodore 64s. Rather than using generic text-oriented terminal software, it would be given away as a user-friendly, colorful, point-and-click-driven application that would nevertheless interface with Quantum’s online databases via modem. And, aware that the Commodore market was the most price-conscious in computing, Case made QuantumLink dramatically cheaper than any other service: a flat fee of $10 per month, plus $3.60 per hour for certain “premium services,” whether delivered at 300 or 1200 baud. The scheme did come with its drawbacks, like the fact that major additions to the service would require the mailing of a new disk to every customer, and of course the fact that it would be limited to Commodore users, but on the whole Case believed the advantages would far outweigh the disadvantages.


Critically, Case was able to convince Commodore themselves to sign on as sponsor and principal investor, making QuantumLink the “official” online service for Commodore owners. QuantumLink “telecommunications starter kits” were soon being inserted into every Commodore modem package, not to mention everywhere else Case could find to stick them. He was determined to make QuantumLink the easier, friendlier online service, suitable for the non-technical. “For the average guy,” he says, “we needed to offer the market something that was a little easier and cheaper and more useful.” Case’s “average guys” would sign up with QuantumLink to the tune of about 50,000 members one year after the service made its debut in November of 1985 — not bad numbers at all for a brand new, platform-specific online service that was starting from scratch.

QuantumLink's point-and-click main menu.

QuantumLink’s point-and-click main menu.

An online chat on QuantumLink

An online chat on QuantumLink.

QuantumLink featured a fairly typical slate of offerings, including plenty of games. The Commodore 64 was after all the premier gaming computer in the country, and the QuantumLink software had actually been built from the remnants of an earlier, failed venture called PlayNet, an attempt to create an online service revolving exclusively around games. QuantumLink’s games were largely inherited from that effort, including old standbys like backgammon, chess, checkers, hangman, and Go, as well as an online casino that dealt in perks rather than money. There were also heaps of public-domain games to download and play offline, plus demo versions of commercial games. Still, right from the outset QuantumLink and Commodore looked for an online game that was newer, bigger, and more exciting, something the likes of which had never been seen before. It was this quest that brought Clive Smith, a vice president of strategic planning at Commodore, out to Lucasfilm Games one day in the summer of 1985, well before the QuantumLink service was planned to actually go live. Smelling a chance to do something unprecedented on someone else’s dime, Steve Arnold pulled Chip Morningstar’s old proposal for a networked virtual world out of his ideas folder. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, Smith immediately loved it. He quickly secured for Arnold and Morningstar a chance to pitch it in person to Quantum at their headquarters in Vienna, Virginia.

For his presentation, Morningstar dropped all vestiges of an “outer space/conquer the galaxy” type of game like Empire, or for that matter CompuServe’s MegaWars, in favor of a game that “looked kind of funky and suburban,” a “game” in name only that would would ultimately be all about “the social dimension — people interacting with other people.” It was an idea so unprecedented that even its originator had difficulty describing or even completely envisioning it. The closest analogues would be MUDs — “multi-user dungeons,” essentially elaborate online text adventures in the spirit of Adventure and Zork that could be occupied by dozens of players at a time. Yet, while there was certainly a strong social element at play there, most MUDs also placed a heavy emphasis on dungeon-crawling, monster-killing, and leveling-up, whilst taking place in exactly the sorts of fantasy or science-fiction worlds that Morningstar had so definitively rejected. And of course MUDs consisted solely of text, while Morningstar’s world was imagined from the start as a richly graphical environment. Groping for the right vocabulary to describe his ideas, he found himself coining new jargon of his own, some of which has persisted to this day. Most notably, he borrowed the term “avatar” from Hinduism, where it represents a deity’s earthly incarnation. Morningstar used it to describe the onscreen figure that each player — the god in the machine, the deity pulling the strings — would control. That said, her avatar wouldn’t quite be her, at least not all the time, for Morningstar’s world would amongst other things be a space for role play, a space for trying new identities on for size.1 Whatever else you could say about “avatar,” it at least sounded more dignified than “puppet.”

The project, first dubbed Universe and then MicroCosm, was a hard sell. For some months Steve Case and the others at Quantum remained intrigued but uncertain. The contract wasn’t finalized and signed at last until December of 1985, after QuantumLink itself was already up and running. By this time the name had been changed yet again, this time to simply Habitat. Hoping to make a splash, the new partners rented the Palladium, the hottest new nightclub in New York City, to officially announce the project in mid-1986, despite the fact that there was still lots of work to be done before it could possibly go live. “It was quite an anomaly to have this essentially hip nightclub where people dressed in black… and then all these computer geeks showing off their multiplayer computer games,” admits Steve Arnold. “It was a little bit of a mismatch between PR positioning and target audience.”


Undaunted, Quantum continued to hype Habitat quite heavily in their advertising. It was perpetually “coming soon,” first in the summer of 1986, then in the fall, then at some undetermined point in 1987. An initial spate of intrigued articles in the Commodore trade press dissipated as the months went by and the project started to look more and more like vaporware. Through it all Chip Morningstar struggled to actually build his monster with the help of a partner, another recent Lucasfilm hire named F. Randall Farmer. Only gradually did it dawn on them just what they had gotten themselves into. Making Habitat come alive was going to be hard. Really hard. Farmer has called the Habitat project the most complicated single thing ever done with a Commodore 64. While he’s hardly unbiased, it’s also difficult to think of a more ambitious rival. To help you appreciate Habitat‘s scope, I’d like to give you a description of the experience it was meant to provide for the player.


When you signed up for Habitat, your first task must be to create your new avatar, choosing your sex, your hair color, the shape of your head and your facial features. Your avatar was then given a room of his own to live in, complete with a dresser for storing things and a cat for cuddling. (Yes, dog lovers were out of luck — and no, it wasn’t possible to kill your cat.) You commanded your avatar by moving the cursor about the screen and tapping the joystick button, which yielded a radial menu of four items: “go” (walk to where the cursor points), “do” (manipulate some object or machine to which the cursor points), “get” (pick something up), and “put” (drop something, possibly inside a container). You could, for instance, select “do” over the dresser to open a drawer and reveal its contents, which you could then manipulate via “get” and “put.” Your avatar could normally only carry one thing at a time, but you could use a container, like the handy sack seen in the screenshot above, to carry many more.

The discrete areas, called regions in Habitat terminology, were linked with one another to form a grid or map, like the individual rooms of a text adventure. This, however, was one huge adventure game. There were many thousands of public regions, plus a “Turf Sweet Turf” for every player. By “going” to the door of your home turf, you could access the grand world outside your avatar’s humble abode. It was there that you’d begin to meet others.


Due to technical constraints, only six avatars could occupy a region at the same time, but you could communicate with all of your region-mates simply by typing whatever you liked on the keyboard. The text you typed appeared as comic-style thought bubbles over your avatar’s head for all to read.

And that’s largely all you needed to know in order to interact with Habitat. Yet that’s enough to allow for a huge scope of social possibility, a fact of which Morningstar and Farmer were well aware and of which they were determined to take full advantage. Your room contained a telephone with a functioning telephone number other players could use to call you. Likewise, you could call them by looking them up in a virtual telephone book and dialing. If you preferred the dying art of letter-writing, every avatar had a mailbox before her domicile, with a functioning post system for delivering letters. There was a bank; every player got a stipend of 100 tokens every day she logged in, which she could spend as she would. There was a travel agency and resort destinations to which it could send you, stores to buy clothes and gadgets, bars and galleries and theaters. To facilitate large-scale events like plays, concerts, and poetry readings despite the six-avatars-per-region limit, Lucasfilm implemented something called “ghost mode,” which let you peer into a region without your avatar being actually embodied there — ideal for being a passive member of an audience. There was a “teleport” system for getting around the thousands of regions as quickly and easily as possible, and hotels for overnight trips to far-flung corners of the world. For those needing a definite external goal to work toward, an “Oracle” found in a park near the center of the world assigned adventure-game-like quests: “find the mystic orb of Xebop and return it to the Temple of Zak.” But even they were envisioned as social rather than solitary affairs, often requiring multiple avatars to pull off.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Habitat is that it actually worked at all on a purely technical level, on client machines that Morningstar himself describes as little more than “toys,” with 1 MHz 8-bit processors, 64 K of memory, and an unstable connection running at as slow as 300 baud. The servers that housed this virtual world and managed all of the clients did have a few more resources at their disposal: QuantumLink, and thus Habitat, ran on a cluster of Motorola 68000-based computers built by a company called Stratus. Still, managing a virtual community proved to be far more expensive in both human and computer hours than anyone had anticipated. Lucasfilm’s contract with Quantum called for an environment capable of supporting 20,000 users, with the possibility of scaling it up easily to 50,000 if necessary. By the time the active user base reached 50 employees and insiders, Morningstar admits, Lucasfilm was already starting to feel “over our heads.”

We needed things for 20,000 people to do. They needed interesting places to visit — and since they can’t all be in the same place at the same time, they needed a lot of interesting places to visit — and things to do in those places. Each of those houses, towns, roads, shops, forests, theaters, arenas, and other places is a distinct entity that someone needs to design and create. Attempting to play the role of omniscient central planners, we were swamped.

Morningstar and Farmer nevertheless continued to plug away. In the first weeks of 1988 QuantumLink finally began a public beta test consisting of about 500 players who had been lucky enough to wind up with membership packets containing a special “early-access pass” for Habitat. It’s here that the Habitat story gets really fascinating, as Morningstar and Farmer bring the world’s first massively-multiplayer virtual community fully online. Many of the questions they were soon being forced to address, the situations they confronted, will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever played in Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, or Second Life, or for that matter just read about them. Here, then, are some dispatches from the front of an 8-bit Second Life that lived for just a few months in 1988.


From the bureau of things that never change: some users promptly became addicted, which was a real problem for them given that this was a paid beta test, billed at the usual QuantumLink “premium” rate of $3.60 per hour. Some were soon racking up monthly bills of $200 or more, corresponding to well over 50 hours of play. One managed to hit $1000 in one month, despite warnings sent to his email address at $300 and $600 that he might want to “check out his usage in the billing section.” Horrifying as this was on one level, Lucasfilm and QuantumLink couldn’t help but note that in theory they would only need twenty more users just like him to cover all of their operating expenses and make Habitat profitable.

The One-Percenters

Seeking to make Habitat a believable place, Lucasfilm included richer and poorer areas, discount shops and luxury boutiques with largely the same goods but very different prices. Trouble began when a few players realized that they could actually pawn items in a rich area for more money than it cost to buy them new in a poor. They spent an entire night trekking back and forth, buying low and selling high. By morning they had effectively wrecked Habitat‘s economy, inflating the money supply by a factor of five and making themselves almost inconceivably rich in contrast to everyone else. This nouveau riche began to usurp power for themselves, getting others to do their bidding for trifling (to them) amounts of money, dispensing bread and circuses to the masses in the form of games and treasure hunts. With little outlet for their immense fortunes in spite of all their best efforts to spend them, the superrich ended up establishing a lucrative trade amongst themselves in what became Habitat‘s most ostentatious symbol of conspicuous consumption: custom heads for their avatars.

Robbery! Murder!

Weapons could be purchased in Habitat and player-versus-player conflict was allowed in the so-called “wilderness areas” outside of city limits, although the consequences of “death” were relatively mild: everything the dead avatar was carrying would be dumped onto the ground where she had been standing, and she would then be teleported back to her home turf, once again intact. Of course, it took about five minutes for someone to start randomly shooting people in order to take their stuff. This led to…

Law and Order Must Be Imposed!

The inhabitants decided that a police department must be established, and held elections for sheriff. Inevitably, the guy who won by a landslide was one of the one-percenters, who could afford a campaign on a scale of which the other candidates could only dream. Did someone say something about the role of money in politics?

Christianity Under Siege!

The first virtual church was opened by a Greek Orthodox minister. Those who wanted to join his flock were forbidden from stealing or engaging in any sort of violence. Unfortunately, whenever the minister and his flock weren’t around other players would march in, strip the church bare, and pawn the lot. The minister finally had to appeal directly to Lucasfilm for a special dispensation: a lock for his church.

Family Values

While there is no record of any relationships formed inside Habitat escaping into the real world, there were at least three virtual-world weddings, all taking place in that aforementioned church. Lucasfilm helpfully joined the newlyweds’ turfs together for cohabitation. The first virtual divorce followed the first virtual marriage by just two weeks.

Dangerous Bedfellows

It was possible for players to “sleep over” in other players’ turfs rather than their own, if invited inside. Soon con artists started finagling such invitations from naive players, then logging in while the victim still slept blissfully and absconding with everything in the room.

It’s About Ethics in In-Game Journalism!

A couple of enterprising players founded a newspaper, The Weekly Rant, consisting of as many as fifty pages full of news, fiction, classified advertisements, and announcements (including news of weddings and divorces). Absolutely everyone in Habitat was soon using it as an essential resource until, after a dispute about editorial content — the publisher wanted a shorter newspaper with less fiction — the editor abruptly quit. Habitat felt the loss keenly for all of its remaining days.

Arms Negotiations

For a special area they were creating called “The Dungeon of Death,” two players convinced Lucasfilm to build them special “elephant guns” that could kill another avatar in one shot instead of the usual twelve or so, on the condition that they would use them only in the person of their alter egos “Death” and “The Shadow” who lurked within the dungeon. Embarrassingly, one day while playing Death on loan Randall Farmer himself managed to get himself killed by another player, who promptly scooped up the gun. An ordinary player, unbound by any strictures whatsoever, now had this massively destabilizing weapon in her hot little hands. After threats and negotiations, a deal was struck: 10,000 tokens to buy the gun back. Echoing a thousand Hollywood thrillers, the two parties met on the grounds of Habitat‘s largest public park to make a tense exchange through a neutral intermediary; one can’t help but imagine their respective posses lurking tensely in the bushes all around in case trouble started.

The immediate transplantation of real-world societal structures and, one might say, societal woes into Habitat might be read as depressing. On another level, though, it was a sign that Habitat worked, that it had become a real community. “In a real system that is going to be used by real people,” wrote Morningstar and Farmer later, “it is a mistake to assume that the users will all undertake the sorts of noble and sublime activities which you created the system to enable. Most of them will not. Cyberspace may indeed change humanity, but only if it begins with humanity as it really is.”

In time, Morningstar and Farmer came to categorize the inhabitants of Habitat into five categories that perhaps apply almost equally well to the real world.

The Passive: Easily 50 percent of the number of users fall into this category, but they probably use only 20 percent of the connect time (rough estimates). They tend to show up for events ad-hoc and when the mood strikes. This group must be led by the hand to participate. They tend to want to “be entertained” with no effort, like watching TV.

The Active: This group is the next largest, and made up the bulk of the paying user-hours. The Active user participates in two to five hours of activities a week. They ALWAYS have a copy of the latest paper (and gripe if it comes out late).

The Motivators: The real heroes of Habitat. The Motivators understand that Habitat is what they make of it. They set out to change it. They throw parties, start institutions, open businesses, run for office, start moral debates, become outlaws, win contests.

The Caretakers: The Caretakers are “mature” Motivators. They tend to help the new users, control personal conflicts, record bugs, suggest improvements, run their own contests, officiate at functions, and in general keep things running smoothly.

The Geek Gods: The operator’s job is most important. It really is like being a Greek God from the ancient writings. The Oracle grants wishes and introduces new items/rules into the world. With one bold stroke of the keyboard, the operator can create/eliminate bank accounts, entire city blocks, or the family business. This is a difficult task as one must consider the repercussions of any “external” events to the world. Think about this: would you be mad at “God” if one day suddenly electricity didn’t work anymore? Habitat IS a world. As such, someone should run it that has experience in that area. A Geek God must understand both consistency in fictional worlds and the people who inhabit it.

In the beginning, Morningstar and Farmer tried to micromanage the world, but it quickly became clear that this would be impossible, even with just 500 players. Designing a massively-multiplayer game is a fundamentally different discipline than designing for a single player. A player in a single-player game expects and deserves to have the world revolve around her; a player in a massively-multiplayer game is but one among many would-be heroes. The reality of this difference, a difference which Morningstar and Farmer were amongst the first people in the world to confront, became clear with their first attempt at a large-scale community treasure hunt, the so-called “D’nalsi Island Adventure.” Farmer spent weeks designing and building the quest and the 100-region island that would house its goal, the lost “Amulet of Salesh,” hidden away in a remote, seldom-visited corner of the world. After announcing the quest at a special community meeting held in the county courthouse, Farmer and Morningstar sat back to watch the players go to work, anticipating it would take them some days to return with the amulet. As it turned out, someone found the island within fifteen minutes, then recovered the amulet therein within eight hours. Most players were never even aware that the quest was happening before it was all over.

Clearly, Habitat could not depend on such externally imposed quests, quests which the most knowledgeable and the most powerful were always destined to win. What happened inside Habitat would instead have to be driven by the players themselves. By the time the beta ended, Morningstar and Farmer had shifted their thinking entirely, realizing that the success of this virtual world would depend on them being able to move enough users along each step of the continuum outlined above, from curious but Passive non-participants to Geek Gods who had the competency and the interest to start to play a major role in the underlying workings of the world itself. (One might also say that this is the main goal a real-world society has for each succeeding generation.) From the standpoint of game design, this would prove to be the number-one lesson of Habitat — a sort of transcendence of game design. Morningstar and Farmer made a conscious effort to begin to think more like facilitators than game designers. When players came to them asking for an elephant gun or a church, they asked them what they planned to use it for and, if all seemed kosher, did their best to provide.

And then, just like that, it was suddenly all over. The beta ended and Habitat went dark forever, leaving a million might-have-beens in its wake.  Steve Arnold:

We found that we had pushed the C-64 to its limits, and, if we had to do it all over again — and I’m not trying to insult C-64 owners — we really would have developed the Habitat program on a different system. Once we finished Habitat and really sat down and looked at it, we realized there was a lot more technology needed to do multiplayer gaming — a lot more than we could do effectively on the C-64.

Habitat just didn’t scale well, wasn’t going to work with 20,000 or 50,000 players. In addition to the problems on the client side, Quantum noted that Habitat, even with just 500 players, had already consumed an inordinate amount of processing power on their servers during the beta period. They claimed that trying to deliver a full-scale Habitat would require a massive investment in infrastructure that they just weren’t in a position to pay for.

That said, there were doubtless other factors at play in the mutual reluctance of both Quantum and Lucasfilm to commit yet more resources to making Habitat live for real. They were now well into 1988, and it was becoming clear that the Commodore 64, a computing evergreen for so long, was beginning to fade at last. This reality left neither partner eager to commit more resources to expensive long-range projects for the platform. Lucasfilm was shifting to MS-DOS as their front-line development platform, while Quantum was now pouring most of the revenue they were earning from QuantumLink into new online services targeting other platforms rather than continuing to make major improvements to the old service.

Lucasfilm washed their hands of Habitat in mid-1988 by selling the whole technology package to Fujitsu, who used it to create Club Caribe, a stripped-down environment of a relatively compact 500 regions, on QuantumLink in 1989. It essentially functioned as an amusing chat interface, with most of the elements that made Habitat a real, functioning community stripped away. “Don’t get the idea that Club Caribe is a half-baked attempt to implement a vision that was too far ahead of its time,” wrote one magazine reviewer eager not to lose QuantumLink’s advertising dollars but also not quite willing to completely avoid the truth. That, of course, was exactly what it was, although even as Club Caribe the technology was still more than able to impress those who weren’t aware of the full scope of Chip Morningstar’s original dream. Habitat‘s technology continued to live on to one degree or another in other Fujitsu projects spanning much of the next decade, such as the Habitat Japan that was launched in 1990 and another virtual world called WorldsAway that was launched on CompuServe during that service’s twilight years of the mid-1990s. Yet it wouldn’t be until Ultima Online in 1997 that an online virtual world of quite the same scope and complexity as the original Habitat would be attempted again, and not until Second Life in 2003 that a functioning virtual community of quite the same player-driven character would be dared again. (Second Life also has a more direct connection to Habitat: F. Randall Farmer was a consultant on the later venture.) Such spans are practically millennia in the fast-paced world of computers. Habitat was perhaps doomed to fail from the beginning, but if you’re going to fail you might as well make it a failure for the ages.

QuantumLink, and the Club Caribe to be found within it, persisted as what might be most charitably described as a “legacy service” for a surprisingly long time, not finally going dark until November 1, 1994, just a few days shy of its ninth birthday and after the death of Commodore itself. By that time, however, it was little more than an afterthought for its parent company, now one of the biggest success stories of the nascent Internet boom. After some hiccups in the form of failed AppleLink and PCLink services, you see, Steve Case had finally hit paydirt with America Online, which became the new name of Quantum Computer Services itself in 1991. I’m going to guess that you might have heard of them. If not… well, stick around. We’ll get there.

(Sources: the book Droidmaker by Michael Rubin; Compute!’s Gazette of January 1985, May 1985, March 1986, January 1987, December 1987, and January 1989; Run of August 1986 and November 1989; Commodore Microcomputers of November/December 1986; Computer and Video Games of May 1987. Two episodes of the television show Computer Chronicles, “Modems and Bulletin Boards” from 1985 and “Online Services Part One” from 1987, are pertinent. The Internet Archive gives access to a now-defunct site created by Keith Elkin that was devoted to Habitat. The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment’s site hosts a Lucasfilm-to-Fujitsu technology-transfer document dating from the summer of 1988 that’s full of fascinating information and insights. Finally, Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer have a website full of still more invaluable information and insights.)

  1. Richard Garriott applied the same term to a game even earlier than Morningstar, during the development of Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, but his usage applies specifically to the ethical quest that forms the plot of that game: the player’s goal is to become an “avatar of virtue.” The more generalized use of the term in videogames is better attributed to Morningstar, even if Garriott’s usage probably better reflects its real implications in Hinduism. 


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Shortly after designing and programming F-15 Strike Eagle and Silent Service, the two huge hits that made MicroProse’s reputation as the world’s premier maker of military simulations, Sid Meier took a rare vacation to the Caribbean. Accompanying him was his new girlfriend, whom he had met after his business partner Wild Bill Stealey hired her as one of MicroProse’s first employees. A few days after they left, she called Stealey in a panic: “I can’t find Sid!” It eventually transpired that, rather than being drowned or abducted by drug smugglers as she had suspected, he had gotten so fascinated with the many relics and museums chronicling the era of Caribbean buccaneering that he’d lost all track of time, not to mention the obligations of a boyfriend taking his girlfriend on a romantic getaway. She would just have to get used to Sid being a bit different from the norm if she hoped to stay together, Stealey explained after Meier finally resurfaced with visions of cutlasses and doubloons in his eyes. Meier had had a not-so-secret agenda in choosing this particular spot in the world for a romantic getaway. He was, you see, already working on his next game, a game about Caribbean piracy. The end result would be a dizzying leap away from military simulations into a purer form of game design — a leap that would provide the blueprint for his brilliant future career. If there’s something that we can legitimately label as a Sid Meier school of game design, it was for the game called simply Pirates! that it was first invented. As for the girlfriend, she apparently decided that she could indeed accept the vagaries of life with a game-design genius: she became his first wife.

Pirates! was first conceived by another Microprose designer, Arnold Hendrick, as a fairly rigorous simulation of ship-to-ship combat in the Age of Sail, heavily inspired by the old Avalon Hill naval board game Wooden Ships and Iron Men. Such a game would have marked a bit of a departure for MicroProse, whose military simulations and strategy games had to date reached no further back into history than World War II, but would still broadly speaking fit in with their logo’s claim that they were makers of “Simulation Software.” Problem was, there were already computer games out there that claimed to scratch that itch, like SSI’s Broadsides and Avalon Hill’s own Clear for Action. While few outside the ultra-hardcore grognard set had found either of those games all that satisfying, Hendrick couldn’t seem to figure out how to do any better. And so Pirates! found itself on the back burner, and Hendrick moved on to do Gunship instead.

Greg Tavares's windowing engine in action.

Gregg Tavares’s windowing engine in action.

Sid Meier was inspired to pick up Hendrick’s idea of a pirate game by a seemingly innocuous bit of technological plumbing developed by Gregg Tavares, a MicroProse programmer who specialized in user interfaces and the decorative graphics and menus that went around the heart of their simulations. Like programmers at many other companies around this time, Tavares had developed what amounted to a very simplistic windowing engine for the Commodore 64, allowing one to wrap text messages or menus or graphics into windows and place them in arbitrary spots on the screen quickly and easily. “We had this way of bringing the game to life in a series of pictures and text, almost like a literary-ish — for the time — approach,” Meier says. It started him thinking in terms for which MicroProse was not exactly renowned: in terms of storytelling, in terms of adventure.

With the idea starting to come together at last, Meier soon declared Pirates! to be his official next project. In contrast to the large (by 1986 standards) team that was still busy with Gunship, the original Commodore 64 Pirates! would be created by a team of just 2.5: Meier as designer and sole programmer and Michael Haire as artist, with Arnold Hendrink coming aboard a bit later to do a lot of historical research and help with other design aspects of the game (thus returning a number of huge favors that Meier had done his own Gunship project). Meier, never a fan of design documents or elaborate project planning, worked as he still largely works to this day, by programming iteration after iteration, keeping what worked and cutting what didn’t to make room for other ideas. By project’s end, he would estimate that he had cut as much code from the game as was still present in the finished version.

Stealey was, to say the least, ambivalent about the project. “I said to Bill, ‘I’m going to work on this game about pirates,'” says Meier. “And he said, ‘Pirates? Wait a minute, there are no airplanes in pirates. Wait a minute, you can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think it’s going to be a cool game.'” Stealey’s disapproval was an obvious result of his personal fixation on all things modern military, but there were also legitimate reasons to be concerned from the standpoint of image and marketing. He had worked long and hard to establish MicroProse as the leader in military simulations, and now Meier wanted to peel away, using time and resources on this entirely new thing that risked diluting his brand. Even a less gung-ho character might have balked. But, as Stealey had had ample opportunity to learn by now, the shy, mild-mannered Meier could be astonishingly stubborn when it came to his work. If he said he was doing a pirates game next, then, well, he was going to do a pirates game. Stealey could only relish the small victories — he had only recently convinced Meier at last to give up his beloved but commercially moribund Atari 8-bit machines and start developing on the Commodore 64 — and hope for the best.

Pirates! represented more than just a shift in subject matter. It introduced an entirely new approach to game design on Meier’s part, amounting to a radical rejection of the status quo at MicroProse. Fred Schmidt, MicroProse’s director of marketing at the time, described the company’s standard research-first approach to design thus in a 1987 interview:

We do nothing but research on a subject before we begin a project. We spend time in the library, with military personnel, with Major Stealey (U.S.A.F. Reserve) and his contacts to really find out what a subject is all about. We try to take all that information and digest it before we begin to design a game.

But Pirates! would be a very, very different sort of proposition. As Meier has often admitted in the years since, its design is based largely on his memories of the old Errol Flynn pirate movies he’d loved as a kid, refreshed by — and this must have really horrified Stealey — children’s picture books. Those, says Meier today with a sheepish look, “would really highlight the common currency” of the topic: “What are the cool things? That would give us some visual ideas, but also tell us what to highlight in the game.” “The player shouldn’t have to read the same books the designer has read in order to play,” he notes in another interview. Indeed, piracy is a classic Sid Meier topic in that everyone has some conception of the subject, some knowledge that they bring with them to the game. Far from undercutting swashbuckling fantasies with the grim realities of scurvy and the horrors of rape and pillage, Pirates! revels in a romanticized past that never actually existed. Most of its elements could be the result of a game of free-association played with the word itself in the broadest of pop-culture strokes: “There’s gotta be swordfighting, there’s gotta be ship battles, there’s gotta be traveling around the Caribbean, and the evil Spaniard guy.”

Errol Flynn duels Basil Rathbone in 1935's Captain Blood.

Errol Flynn duels Basil Rathbone in 1935’s Captain Blood.

Dueling in Pirates!.

Dueling in Pirates!.

Meier and his colleagues at MicroProse derisively referred to adventure games — a term which in the mid-1980s still largely meant parser-driven text adventures — as “pick up the stick” games, noting that for all their promises of fantastic adventure they were awfully fixated on the fiddly mundanities of what the player was carrying, where she was standing, and how much fuel was left in her lantern. Theirs wasn’t perhaps an entirely fair characterization of the state of the art in interactive fiction by 1985 or 1986, but it was true that even most of the much-vaunted works of Infocom didn’t ultimately offer all that much real story in comparison to a novel or a film. If Meier was going to do an adventure game, he wanted to do something much more wide-angle, something with the feel of the pirate movies he’d watched as a kid. In fact, the idea of Pirates! as an “interactive movie” became something of a bedrock for the whole project, odd as that sounds today after the term has been hopelessly debased by the many minimally interactive productions to bear the label during the 1990s. At the time, it was a handy shorthand for the way that Meier wanted Pirates! to be more dramatic than other adventure games. Instead of keeping track of your inventory and mapping a grid of rooms on graph paper he wanted you to be romancing governors’ daughters and plotting which Spanish town to raid next. You would, as he later put it, be allowed to focus on the “interesting things.” You’d go “from one scene to the next quickly, and you didn’t have to walk through the maze and pick up every stick along the way.”

Allowing the player to only worry about the “interesting things” meant that the decisions the player would be making would necessarily be plot-altering ones. Therefore a typical fixed adventure-game narrative just wouldn’t do. What Meier was envisioning was nothing less than a complete inversion of a typical adventure game’s narrative structure. In an Infocom interactive fiction, the author has made the big decisions, mapping out the necessary beginning and end of the story and the high points in between, leaving the player to make the small decisions, to deal with the logistics, if you will, of navigating the pre-set plot. As the previous contents of this blog amply illustrate, I think the latter approach can be much more compelling than it sounds from the description I’ve just given it. I think the interactivity adds an experiential quality to the narrative that can makes this type of approach, done right, a far more immersive and potentially affecting experience than a traditional static narrative. However, I also think there’s something to be said for the approach that Meier opted for in Pirates!: to have the player make the big decisions about the direction the story goes, and let the game make — or abstract away — all of the small decisions. Put another way, Pirates! should let you write your own story, a story you would own after it was complete. To return to the movie metaphor, you should indeed be the star. “You could go wherever you wanted to and you were clearly the central character in the story and you could take it wherever you wanted to go,” says Meier.

What would a pirate game be without a treasure map? "X" -- or in this case a chest icon -- marks the spot!

What would a pirate story be without a treasure map? “X” — or in this case a chest icon — marks the spot!

But how to offer that freedom? One key was, paradoxically, to limit the player’s options. When one is not in one of its action-oriented sub-games, Pirates! is entirely menu-driven, resulting in an experience simultaneously more accessible and more limiting than the parser’s cryptically blinking cursor with its admittedly unfulfillable promise of limitless interactive possibility. With his menus filled only with appropriately piratey choices, Meier could fill his game, not with stories per se, but with story possibilities drawn from the rich heritage of romanticized maritime adventure. Dodgy characters who hang out in the bars will occasionally offer to sell you pieces of treasure maps; evil Spaniards have enslaved four of your family members, and it’s up to you to track them down by following a trail of clues; the Spanish Silver Train and Treasure Fleet move across the map each year carrying fortunes in gold and silver, just waiting to be pounced on and captured. There are obvious limits to Pirates!‘s approach — you certainly aren’t going to get a narrative of any real complexity or depth out of this engine — but having the freedom to write your own story, even a shallow one, can nevertheless feel exhilarating. With no deterministic victory conditions, you can become just what you like in Pirates! within the bounds of its piratey world: loyal privateer aiding your nation in its wars, bloodthirsty equal-opportunity scoundrel, peaceful trader just trying to get by and stay alive (granted, this option can be a bit boring).

Which isn’t to say that there’s no real history in Pirates!. Once the design was far along, Arnold Hendrick came aboard to become a sort of research assistant and, one senses, an advocate for including as much of reality as possible in the game. It was Hendrick who convinced Meier to go against the grain of basing his game on the legends of piracy rather than the realities in at least a few respects. For instance, Pirates! takes place in the Caribbean between, depending on the historical period chosen, 1560 and 1680, thus forgoing the possibility of meeting some of the most famous names associated with piracy in the popular imagination: names like Edward Teach (the infamous Blackbeard), William Kidd, Jean Lafitte. The eventual 80-page manual, largely the work of Hendrick and itself something of a classic of the golden age of game manuals with its extensive and fascinating descriptions of the history of Caribbean piracy, dismisses pirates like Teach as unworthy of attention.

Those men were psychotic remnants of a great age, criminals who wouldn’t give up. They were killed in battle or hung for evils no European nation condoned. There was no political intrigue or golden future to their lives, just a bullet or a short rope. We found them unattractive and uninteresting compared to the famous sea hawks and buccaneers that preceded them.

That’s perhaps laying it on a bit thick — those getting raped and pillaged by the “sea hawks” might beg to differ with the characterization of their era as a “great age” — but the historical texture Hendrick brought added much to the game. Amongst other things, Hendrick researched the six different starting years available for free-form play, each with their own personality; designed six shorter historical scenarios based on famous expeditions and battles; researched the characteristics of the nine different vessels available to fight and sail, including the dramatic differences in the sailing characteristics of square-rigged versus fore-and-aft-rigged ships. And then there was the appropriately weathered-looking cloth map of the Caribbean that shipped in the game’s box and that was faithfully recreated in the game proper. MicroProse would hear from many a schoolchild in the years to come who had amazed her teacher with her knowledge of Caribbean geography thanks to Pirates!.

A battle at sea.

A battle at sea.

At the same time, though, Meier held Hendrick’s appetite for historical reality on a tight leash, and therein lies much of the finished game’s timeless appeal. We can see his prioritization of fun above all other considerations, a touchstone of his long career still to come, in full flower for the first time in Pirates!. Over the years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve described a number of examples of systems that ended up being more interesting and more fun for their programmers to tinker with than for their players: think for instance of the overextended dynamic simulationism of The Hobbit or the Magnetic Scrolls text adventures. Pirates!, whose open dynamic world made for a fascinating plaything in its own right for any programmer, could easily have gone down the same path, but Meier had the discipline to always choose player fun over realism. “We could totally overwhelm the player if we tossed everything into the game, so it’s a question of selecting,” he says. “What are the most fun aspects of this topic? How can we present it in a way that the player feels that they’re in control, they understand what’s happening?”

In a 2010 speech, Meier made a compelling argument that early flight simulators such as the ones from MicroProse on which he’d cut his teeth managed to be as relatively straightforward and entertaining as they were as an ironic byproduct of the sharply limited hardware on which they had to run. When more powerful machines started allowing designers to layer on more complexity, everything started to go awry.

One of the things we pretend as designers is that the player is good. You’re really good! That’s kind of a mantra from us. We want the player to feel good about the play experience and themselves as they’re playing.

One example of where this perhaps went off the tracks is the history of flight simulators, going back a number of years. Early on they were easy to play, very accessible. You’d shoot down a lot of planes, have a lot of fun. But then we got to where every succeeding iteration of flight simulators became a little more realistic, a little more complex, a little more of a “simulation.” Pretty soon the player went from “I’m good!” to “I’m not good! I’m confused! My plane is on fire! I’m falling out of the sky!” The fun went out of them.

We have to be aware that it’s all about the player. The player is the star of the game. Their experience is what’s key. Keeping them feeling good about themselves is an important part of the experience we provide.

Notably, Meier abandoned flight simulators just as vastly more powerful MS-DOS-based machines began to replace the humble Commodore 64 as the premier gaming computers in North America. Still more notably for our purposes, Pirates! is an astonishingly forgiving game by the standards of its time. It’s impossible to really lose at Pirates!. If you’re defeated in battle, for instance, you’re merely captured and eventually ransomed and returned to your pirating career. This, suffice to say, is one of the most ahistorical of all its aspects; historical pirates weren’t exactly known for their long life expectancies. Pirates!‘s approach of using the stuff of history to inform but not to dictate its rules, of capturing the spirit of a popular historical milieu rather than obsessing over its every detail, wasn’t precisely new even at the time of its development. There are particular parallels to be drawn with Canadian developer Artech’s work for Accolade on what designer Michael Bate called “aesthetic simulations”: games like Ace of Aces, Apollo 18, and The Train. Still, Pirates! did it ridiculously well, serving in this sense as in so many others as a template for Meier’s future career.

Sailing the Caribbean, the wind at my back. If only it was possible to sail west all the time...

Sailing the Caribbean, the wind at my back. If only it was possible to sail west all the time…

Pirates! in general so successfully implements Meier’s player-centric, fun-centric philosophy that the few places where it breaks down a bit can serve as the exceptions that prove the rule. He admits today that its relatively strict simulation of the prevailing air currents in the region that can often make sailing east an exercise in frustration, especially at the higher of the game’s four difficulty levels, is arguably going somewhat too far out on the limb of realism. But most disappointing is the game’s handling of women, who exist in its world as nothing more than chattel; collecting more treasure and honors gives you better chances with better looking chicks, and marrying a hotter chick gives you more points when the final tally of your career is taken at game’s end. It would have been damnably difficult given the hardware constraints of the Commodore 64, but one could still wish that Meier had seen fit to let you play a swashbuckling female pirate; it’s not as if the game doesn’t already depart from historical reality in a thousand ways. As it stands, it’s yet one more way in which the games industry of the 1980s subtly but emphatically told women that games were not for them. (Much less forgivable from this perspective is Meier’s 2004 remake, which still persists in seeing women only as potential mates and dancing partners.) Despite it all, MicroProse claimed after Pirates!‘s release that it was by far the game of theirs with the most appeal to female purchasers — not really a surprise, I suppose, given the hardcore military simulations that were their usual bread and butter.

This governor's daughter is at least liberated enough to spy for me...

This governor’s daughter is at least liberated enough to spy for me…

Pirates! is a famously difficult game to pigeonhole. There’s a fair amount of high-level strategic decision-making involved in managing your fleet and your alliances, choosing your next targets and objectives, planning your journeys, keeping your crew fed and happy. When the rubber meets the road, however, you’re cast into simple but entertaining action games: one-on-one fencing, ship-against-ship or ship-against-shore battling, a more infrequent — thankfully, as it’s not all that satisfying — proto-real-time-strategy game of land combat. And yet the whole experience is bound together with the first-person perspective and the you-are-there, embodied approach of an adventure game. Small wonder that MicroProse, who weren’t quite sure what to do with the game in marketing terms anyway, gave it on the back of the box the mouthful of a label of “action-adventure simulation.” It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

The adventure elements in particular can make Pirates! seem like something of an anomaly in the catalog of Sid Meier, generally regarded as he is as the king of turn-based grand-strategy gaming. In reality, though, he’s much less a slave to that genre than is generally acknowledged. Pirates!‘s genre-blending is very much consistent with another design philosophy he has hewed to to this day, that of prioritizing topic over genre.

I find it dangerous to think in terms of genre first and then topic. Like, say, “I want to do a real-time-strategy game. Okay. What’s a cool topic?'” I think, for me at least, it’s more interesting to say, “I want to do a game about railroads. Okay, now what’s the most interesting way to bring that to life? Is it in real-time, or turn-based, or is it first-person…” To first figure out what your topic is and then find interesting ways and an appropriate genre to bring it to life as opposed to coming the other way around and saying, “Okay, I want to do a first-person shooter; what hasn’t been done yet?” If you approach it from a genre point of view, you’re basically saying, “I’m trying to fit into a mold.” And I think most of the really great games have not started from that point of view. They first started with the idea that “Here’s a really cool topic. And by the way it would probably work really well as a real-time strategy game with a little bit of this in it.”

I think a good example of this is Pirates!. The idea was to do a pirate game, and then it was “Okay, there’s not really a genre out there that fits what I think is cool about pirates. The pirate movie, with the sailing, the sword fighting, the stopping in different towns, and all that kind of stuff, really doesn’t fit into a genre.” So we picked and chose different pieces of different things like a sailing sequence in real-time and a menu-based adventuring system for going into town, and then a sword fight in an action sequence. So we picked different styles for the different parts of the game as we thought were appropriate, as opposed to saying, “We’re going to do a game that’s real-time, or turn-based, or first-person, or whatever,” and then make the pirates idea fit into that.

This approach to design was actually quite common in the 1980s. See for example the games of Cinemaware, who consistently used radically different formal approaches from game to game, choosing whatever seemed most appropriate for evoking the desired cinematic experience. As game genres and player expectations of same have calcified over the years since, this topic-first — or, perhaps better said, experience-first — approach to design has fallen sadly out of fashion, at least in the world of big-budget AAA productions. Mainstream games today are better in many ways than they were in the 1980s, but this is not one of them. Certainly it would be very difficult to get an ambitious cross-genre experience like Pirates! funded by a publisher today. Even Meier himself today seems a bit shocked at his “fearlessness” in conjuring up such a unique, uncategorizable game. In addition to sheer youthful chutzpah, he points to the limitations of the Commodore 64 as a counter-intuitive enabler of his design imagination. Because its graphics and sound were so limited in contrast to the platforms of today, it was easier to prototype ideas and then throw them away if they didn’t work, easier in general to concentrate on the game underneath the surface presentation. This is something of a wistfully recurring theme amongst working designers today who got their start in the old days.

Pirates! was not, of course, immaculately conceived from whole cloth. Its most obvious gaming influence, oft-cited by Meier himself, is Danielle Bunten Berry’s Seven Cities of Gold, a design and a designer whom he greatly admired. There’s much of Seven Cities of Gold in Pirates!, at both the conceptual level of its being an accessible, not-too-taxing take on real history and the nuts and bolts of many of its mechanical choices, like its menu-driven controls and its interface for moving around its map of the Caribbean both on ship and on foot. Perhaps the most important similarity of all is the way that both games create believable living worlds that can be altered by your own actions as well as by vagaries of politics and economy over which you have no control: territories change hands, prices fluctuate, empires wax and wane. I would argue, though, that in giving you more concrete goals to strive for and a much greater variety of experiences Pirates! manages to be a much better game than its inspiration; Seven Cities of Gold often feels to me like a great game engine looking for something to really do. Both games are all about the journey — there’s no explicitly defined way to win or lose either of them, another significant similarity — but in Pirates! that journey is somehow much more satisfying. The extra layers of story and characterization it provides, relatively minimal though they still are, make a huge difference, at least for this player.

After you retire, you're ranked based on your accomplishments and the amount of wealth you've accrued. This is as close as you can come to winning or losing at Pirates!.

After you retire, you’re ranked based on your accomplishments and the amount of wealth you’ve accrued. This is as close as you can come to winning or losing at Pirates!.

Just about all of the other elements in Pirates!, from the trading economy to the sword-fighting, had also been seen in other games before. What was unusual was to build so many of them into one game and, most importantly, to have them all somehow harmonize rather than clash with one another. Meier himself is somewhat at pains to explain exactly why Pirates! just seemed to work so well. A few years after Pirates! he attempted a similar cross-genre exercise, a spy game that combined action and strategy called Covert Action. He himself judged the end result of that effort to have been much less successful. It seemed that, while the various elements played well enough on their own, they felt disconnected in the context of the whole, like two or more games rudely crammed together: “You would have this mystery you were trying to solve, then you would be facing this action sequence, and you’d do this cool action thing, and you’d get out of the building, and you’d say, ‘What was the mystery I was trying to solve?'” Pirates! was charmed in contrast; it’s various elements seem to fortuitously just work together. Meier has since theorized that this may be because all of its individual elements, taken in isolation, are quite simple — one might even say simplistic. But when blended together they turn out to be a perfect mixture of easily digestible experiences that never last long enough to lose the overall plot, a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

I’d be remiss not to also briefly mention just what a little technical marvel Pirates! is in its original Commodore 64 incarnation. It’s all too easy to overlook Sid Meier the brilliant programmer when thinking about Sid Meier the brilliant game designer. Yet it’s as much a credit to the former as the latter that the Commodore 64 Pirates! remains amazingly playable to this day. The disk loads are snappy enough to barely be noticeable; the fonts and graphics are bright and atmospheric; the occasional music stings are well-chosen; the various action games play fast and clean; the windowing system that got this whole ball rolling in the first place does its job perfectly, conveying lots of information elegantly on what is by modern standards an absurdly low-resolution display. And of course behind it all is that living world that, if not quite complex by the standards of today, certainly is by the standards of a 64 K 8-bit computer. While I’ve placed a lot of emphasis in my other recent articles on how far Commodore 64 graphics and sound had come by 1987, Pirates! is a far better work of pure game design than any I’ve talked about so far in this little series, worthy of attention for far more than its polished appearance or its important place in history, even if it is well-possessed of both. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it the greatest game ever born on the little breadbox, the peak title of the Commodore 64’s peak year.

Once Pirates! was ready in the spring of 1987 there was still the matter of trying to sell it. Director of marketing Schmidt was clearly uncertain about the game when Commodore Magazine interviewed him just before its release. Indeed, he was almost dismissive. “It takes us into territory MicroProse has never gone before,” he declared, accurately enough. “It is a combination text, graphic, simulation, action game.” (More of those pesky genre difficulties!) But then he was eager to move on to the firmer ground of Meier’s next project of Red Storm Rising, a modern-day submarine simulation based on Tom Clancy’s bestselling technothriller that was about as firmly in MicroProse’s traditional wheelhouse as it was possible for a game to be. As that project would indicate, Meier didn’t immediately abandon his old role of Wild Bill’s simulation genius to fully embrace the purer approach to game design that had marked the Pirates! project, not even after Pirates! defied all of Stealey and Schmidt’s misgivings to become MicroProse’s blockbuster of 1987, joining 1984’s F-15 Strike Eagle, 1985’s Silent Service, and 1986’s Gunship in a lineup that now constituted one of the most reliable moneyspinners in computer gaming; all four titles would continue to sell at a healthy clip for years to come. One suspects that Meier, still feeling his way a bit as a designer in spite of his successes, did Red Storm Rising and the game that would follow it, another flight simulator called F-19 Stealth Fighter, almost as comfort food, and perhaps as a thank you to Stealey for ultimately if begrudgingly supporting his vision for Pirates!. That, however, would be that for Sid Meier the military-simulation designer; too many other, bolder ideas were brewing inside that head of his.

There’s just one more part of the Pirates! story to tell, maybe the strangest part of all: the story of how the introverted, unassuming Sid Meier became a brand name, the most recognizable game designer on the planet. Ironically, it all stemmed from Stealey’s uncertainty about how to sell Pirates!. The seed of the idea was planted in Stealey by someone who had a little experience with star power himself: comedian, actor, and noted computer-game obsessive Robin Williams. Stealey was sitting at the same table as Williams at a Software Publishers Association dinner when the latter mused that it was strange that the world was full of athletic stars and movie stars and rock stars but had no software stars. A light bulb went on for Stealey: “We’ll make Sid a famous software star.” It wasn’t exactly a new idea — Trip Hawkins, for one, had been plugging his “electronic artists” for years by that point with somewhat mixed results — but by happenstance or aptitude or sheer right-place/right-time Stealey would pull it off with more success than just about anyone before or since. When the shy Meier was dubious, Stealey allegedly gave him a live demonstration of the power of stardom:

I had my wife, he had his girlfriend, and we’re sitting at dinner at a little restaurant. I said, “Sid, watch this. I’ll show you what marketing can do for you.” I went over to the maître d’ and I said, “Sir, my client doesn’t want to be disturbed.” He said, “Your client, who’s that?” I said, “It’s the famous Sid Meier. He’s a famous author. Please don’t let anybody bother us at dinner.” Before we got out of there, he had given 20 autographs. You know, we were a small company. You do whatever you can do to get a little attention, right?

As with many of Stealey’s more colorful anecdotes, I’m not sure whether we can take that story completely at face value. We are, however, on firmer ground in noting that when Pirates! made its public debut shortly thereafter it bore that little prefix that in later years would come to mark a veritable genre onto itself in many people’s eyes: the game’s full name was Sid Meier’s Pirates!. Gaming has generally been anything but a star-driven industry, but for some reason, just this one time, this bit of inspired star-making actually worked. Today Sid Meier’s name can be found tacked onto the beginning of a truly bewildering number of titles, including quite a few with which he had virtually nothing to do. The supreme irony is that this should have happened to one of the nicest, most unassuming, most humble souls in an industry replete with plenty of big egos that would kill for the sort of fame that just kind of walked up to Meier one day and sat down beside him while he hacked away obliviously in front of his computer. Not that it’s undeserved; if we’re to have a cult of personality, we might as well put a genius at its center.

Like Meier’s new approach to design, it wasn’t initially clear whether the “Sid Meier’s” prefix was destined to really become a long-term thing at all; Stealey judged the names and topics of Red Storm Rising and F-19 Stealth Fighter strong enough stand on their own. But then old Sid went off the military-simulation reservation and started to get crazy innovative again, and Stealey faced the same old questions about how to sell his stuff, and… but now we’re getting ahead of the story, aren’t we?

(Paper Sources: Gamers at Work by Morgan Ramsay; Game Design: Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Computer Gaming World of November 1987; Commodore Magazine of September 1987; Retro Gamer 38, 57, and 82; Game Developer of February 2002, October 2007, January 2009, November 2010, and February 2013.

Online sources: Metro’s interview with Meier; Adam Sessler’s interview with Meier; Meier playing the 2004 Pirates! on IGN; Meier’s 2010 GDC keynote; Matt Chat 78.

You can download from this site disk images of the Commodore 64 Pirates! that Meier himself still considers the “definitive” version of the original game. Note, however, that this zip doesn’t include the essential manual and map. You can get them by buying Pirates! Gold Plus from Trust me, it’s worth it.)


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Accolade Gets Distinctive

Only a few publishers managed to build a reputation to rival that of Epyx as masters of Commodore 64 graphics and sound. Foremost amongst this select group by 1987 was Accolade, riding high on hits like Dam Busters and Ace of Aces. Both of those games were created by Canadian developers Artech, who in 1987 would deliver to Accolade two more of their appealing “aesthetic simulations” of history. Chosen this time were the glory days of NASA for Apollo 18 and of the French Resistance for The Train. Yet Accolade’s big hit of the year would come not from Artech but from another group of Canadians who called themselves Distinctive Software.

Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember, the founders of Distinctive, were barely into their twenties in 1987, but were already has-beens in a sense, veterans of the peculiar form of celebrity the home-computer boom had briefly engendered for a lucky few. The two first met in their high school in late 1981 in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, bonding quickly over the Apple II computers that both had at home. During their summer break, Mattrick suggested to Sember that they should design their own game and try to sell it. Thus, while Mattrick worked at a local computer store to raise money for the endeavor, Sember wrote a simple little collection of action games called Evolution in all of three weeks. Its theme was an oddly popular one in 1980s gaming, a chronicle of the evolution of life through six rather arbitrary phases: amoeba, tadpole, rodent, beaver (a tribute to the duo’s home country), gorilla, and human. They took the game to the Vancouver-based Sydney Development Corporation, a finger-in-every-pie would-be mainstay of Canadian computing whom we’ve met before in connection with Artech. Sydney liked Evolution enough to buy it, giving it its public debut in October of 1982 at a Vancouver trade show. With this software thing taking off so nicely, Mattrick and Sember soon incorporated themselves under the name Distinctive Software.

A very young Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember on CBC's Front Page Challenge, March 20, 1983.

A very young Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember on CBC’s Front Page Challenge, March 20, 1983.

They had arrived on the scene at the perfect zeitgeist moment, just as Canada was waking up to the supposed home-computer revolution burgeoning to its south and was beginning to ask where Canadians were to be found amongst all the excitement. These two young Vancouverites, personable, good-looking, and, according at least to Sydney, the first Canadians ever to write a popular computer game that was sold in the United States as well as its home country, were the perfect answer. They became modest media celebrities over the months that followed, working their way up from the human-interest sections of newspapers to glossy lifestyle magazines and finally to television, where they appeared before a panel of tedious old fuddy-duddies on CBC television’s game-show/journalism hybrid Front Page Challenge. The comparisons here come easily, perhaps almost too easily when we think back to the other software partnerships I’ve already chronicled. It’s particularly hard not to think of David Braben and Ian Bell, who would soon be receiving mainstream coverage of much the same character in Britain. Mattrick was the Braben of this pair, personable, ambitious, and focused on the bottom line; it was he who had gotten the ball rolling in the first place and who would largely continue to drive their business. Sember was the Bell, two years younger, quieter, more technically proficient, and more idealistic about games as a creative medium.

It’s not clear to what extent all of the hype around Mattrick and Sember translated into sales of Evolution. On the one hand, it apparently did well enough on the Apple II for Sydney to fund ports to a number of other platforms and to advertise them fairly heavily across Canada and the United States. And most of the big trade magazines, prompted to some extent no doubt by Sydney’s advertising dollars, saw it as a big enough deal to be worthy of a review. On the other hand, most of those reviews were fairly lukewarm. Typical of them was Electronic Games‘s conclusion that it was okay, but “not really one of the world’s great games.” Nor is it all that well-remembered — whether fondly or otherwise — amongst gaming nostalgics today. Certainly it’s hard to credit claims that this eminently forgettable game sold “over 400,000 copies.”

Regardless, after the hype died down Sydney ran into huge problems as the home-computer market in general took a dive. Looking to simplify things and reduce their overhead in response, they elected to get out of the notoriously volatile games-publishing business. Thus the follow-up to Evolution, promised by Mattrick and Sember in many an interview during 1983, never arrived. Their fifteen minutes now apparently passed, it seemed that they would become just one more amongst many historical footnotes to the abortive home-computer revolution.

But then in 1985 Distinctive unexpectedly resurfaced. Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead, having recently founded Accolade, released their own first in-house-developed games, and begun a fruitful developer/publisher partnership with Artech, were looking for more outside developers. They were very receptive to the idea of continuing to work with Canadian developers, believing that they had begun to tap into a well of talent heretofore ignored by the other big publishers. Not the least of their considerations was the Canadian dollar, which was now reaching historic lows in comparison to the American; this meant that that talent came very cheap. When Distinctive’s old connections with Sydney and by extension Artech brought them to Accolade’s attention, they soon had a contract as well.

That said, in the beginning Distinctive was clearly the second-string team in comparison to the more established Artech, hired not to make original games but rather to port Accolade’s established catalog to new platforms. But after some months of doing good work in that capacity, Mattrick, whose sales skills had been evident even in that first summer job working at the computer store — his first boss once declared that he could “sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo” — convinced Miller and Whitehead to let his company tackle an original project of their own.

Over the course of a long career still to come in games, Mattrick would earn himself a reputation as a very mainstream sort of fellow, a fan of the proven bet who would be one of the architects of Electronic Arts’s transformation following Trip Hawkins’s departure in 1991 from a literal band of “electronic artists” to the risk-averse corporate behemoth we know today. Seen in that light, this first game for Accolade, as ambitious as it is boldly innovative, seems doubly anomalous. Given what I know of the two, I suspect that it represents more of Sember’s design sensibility than Mattrick’s, although both are co-credited as its designers and I have no hard facts to back up my suspicion. The game in question is called simply Comics — or, to make it sound a bit less generic, Accolade’s Comics. It is, the box proclaims, the “first living comic book.” “First” anything is often a problematic claim, particularly when it appears in promotional copy, but in this case the claim was justified. While a few earlier games like the licensed Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future had dabbled in a comic-book-style presentation, none had tried to actually be an interactive comic book like this one.

Accolade's Comics. Notice the arrow sticking out of Steve Keene in the top left panel. If you think that's so stupid it's funny, you'll probably enjoy this game. If you think it's just stupid, probably not.

Accolade’s Comics. Notice the arrow sticking out of Steve Keene in the top left panel (“I got your message…”). If you think that’s so stupid it’s funny, you’ll probably enjoy this game. If you think it’s just stupid, probably not. In the same spirit: your boss runs a “Pet Alterations” shop, which is the reason for the poster of the fish with legs at top right.

At its heart, then, Comics is a choice-based narrative which is presented not in text but in comic form, an under- if not completely unexplored approach even today. You make choices every few panels for Steve Keene, a likable but not entirely competent secret-agent sort of fellow who trots the globe on the trail of a kidnapped cable-television inventor or reproducing fire hydrants — no, this isn’t a very serious game. Every once in a while the story will dump you into a little action game which you must get through successfully — you have five lives in total, which you expend by failing at the action games or making choices that result in death — to continue. Like the rest of Comics, these are fun but not too taxing. The look was retro even in its time, drawn to evoke Archie Comics during their 1960s heyday; the price of 20 cents on the virtual front cover that opens the story is a dead giveaway. There’s even a gag based on those perennial old back-of-the-comic-book advertisements for remedies for bullies kicking sand in one’s face and making off with one’s girl. Indeed, there are lots and lots of gags here, most really stupid but in a really clever sort of way. Mileages are notoriously variable when it comes to humor, but personally I find it charming as hell.

It’s very difficult to convey the real spirit of the game through words or even through still screenshots, so here’s a movie clip that shows it off to better effect. Old Steve Keene looks a bit like an orangutan in the beginning because I’ve just completed an action game that had him swinging across bars above a pool of water containing something best described as a sharktopus (don’t ask!).


There are a couple of things I’d like you to pay attention to in the clip above, starting with the high production values of the thing (by which I mean the game, sadly not the clip). Note that the music plays while the disk drive loads the next panel, a tricky feat that you simply wouldn’t have seen in an earlier Commodore 64 game. Note how the art, despite the low resolution and the limitation of 16 colors, manages to ooze personality; you’ll never mistake this game for any other. Note the aesthetic professionalism of the whole, as seen in the the way each new panel is drawn in with a transition effect rather than just popping into place, the page-flipping animation that introduces a new chapter of the story in lieu of a jarringly abrupt screen-blanking, and the way the music themes also fade out and in during transitions rather than cutting out abruptly.

And then there’s another great gag in the sequence above, one of my favorites in the game. The portrayal of the all too typical American abroad displays a lot more cultural knowingness than one might expect from a couple of sheltered Canadian kids barely out of their teens — as does, for that matter, the decision to reach back so far into comics heritage for inspiration. Comics is filled with dumb jokes, but they don’t really feel like dumb teenage jokes. As someone who’s been exposed to all too much in-game teenage humor in researching this blog over the past years, that may just be the best compliment I can give it.

By the standards of a Commodore 64 game, Comics is an absolutely massive production, spilling across six disk sides and containing almost 400 unique panel illustrations (many with spot animations), a couple of dozen different musical themes, and eight arcade games that each had to be coded from scratch. The team that made it was correspondingly huge for the times, including five artists, a composer, and four programmers in addition to Sember — quite a logistical and financial achievement for a still tiny company run by a 22- and a 20-year-old. For all that, though, Comics hardly feels epic when you play it. It is by design a casual trifle to be enjoyed over the course of just a couple of evenings — one for each of its two completely separate stories that branch off from the very first decision point in the game. That’s fair enough from the perspective of today, but, not for the first time, it was almost untenable in light of the way that commercial software was actually distributed in the 1980s. Upon its release in February of 1987, reviewers noted that Comics had lots of charm, but also noted, reasonably enough, that its price of $35 or more was awfully steep for a couple of evenings’ light entertainment. Many adventure-game purists, not always the most tolerant bunch, complained as well about the action games and the casual nature of the whole endeavor. Shay Addams of the respected Questbusters newsletter, for instance, pronounced that what it really needed was fewer action games and “more puzzles,” proof of the way that genres were already beginning to calcify to a rather depressing degree. Comics had been built with a view to turning it into a series, but, especially in light of how expensive it had been to make, it proved to be a commercial disappointment and thus a one-off in a market that just didn’t quite have a place for it. It nevertheless remains one of my favorite forgotten Commodore 64 gems, and, despite all of its silliness, an interesting experiment in interactive narrative in its own right.

With Comics having failed to set the world alight, the indefatigable Don Mattrick buckled down to try to deliver to Accolade a guaranteed, can’t-miss hit that would establish the Distinctive brand once and for all. At the same time, he began the process of easing Sember out of the company; the latter’s name begins to disappear from Distinctive’s credits at this time, and Mattrick would soon buy him out entirely to take complete control. For his part, Sember would continue to work independently for more than a decade with Accolade as a designer and programmer, most notably of their long-running Hardball series of baseball simulations, before dropping out of the industry around the millennium. As for Mattrick, his first game as a solo designer would be a blueprint for his long future career, evolutionary rather than revolutionary, extrapolating on known trends rather than leaping into the blue. While perhaps not as interesting to revisit via emulator today as its predecessor, it would prove to be much more important in the context of the commercial history of the games industry and, indeed, of Distinctive and Mattrick’s own futures. It would be called Test Drive.

On the road in Test Drive. Note the police in my rear-view mirror.

On the road in Test Drive. Note the police in my rear-view mirror.

Commercially calculated as it was, Test Drive was also an oddly personal game for Mattrick, very much inspired by his own obsessions. It becomes almost uncomfortably clear on the first page of the manual that you’re living his own personal fantasy: “Your lifelong quest has been to drive one of the world’s most exotic sports cars. Now’s your chance. You just made your first million going public with your software company.”

Don Mattrick has always loved fast cars. One can practically chart the progress of his career merely by looking to what he had in his garage during any given year. He used his first royalty check from Evolution for the down payment on a Toyota Supra; the scenario of Test Drive, of driving as quickly as possible up a twisty mountain road whilst avoiding or outrunning the fuzz, was inspired by his own early adventures therein. By 1987 Distinctive’s success as an Accolade porting house had enabled him to step up to a Porsche 944. But already, as Test Drive‘s manual attests, he was dreaming of an IPO and of leaving his poor man’s Porsche behind to get behind the wheel of a real supercar. I hope I’m not spoiling the story if I reveal that he would indeed soon have a Ferrari in his garage. Decades later, when he was head of Microsoft’s Xbox division and thus one of the most powerful and well-compensated people in gaming, he would reportedly have a ten-car garage stuffed with exotic European metal. If Test Drive represents the dream of every young man, Mattrick would be one of the few to get to actually live it.

Yes, the genius of Test Drive — or, if you like, the luck of the thing — was that Don Mattrick’s personal fantasy was also an almost universal one of young men all over the world. In retrospect, perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that no one had done it before. Driving games of various stripes had been a staple of the arcades for years; Outrun, for instance, arguably the biggest arcade hit of the year prior to Test Drive, had prominently featured a Ferrari Testarossa. Yet virtually no one had created even an alleged simulation of driving, a state of affairs that seems doubly odd when one considers how crazily popular aircraft simulations were, with two of them of 1980s vintage, SubLogic’s Flight Simulator and MicroProse’s F-15 Strike Eagle, eventually exceeding one-million copies in sales in an era when such numbers were all but unimaginable. A car simulation was low-hanging fruit by comparison. As Mattrick himself once said, “A car still has more controls that you’ll find on a joystick, but the components of movement and your choices are fewer.” And yet it just never seemed to occur to anyone to make one.

Test Drive

Test Drive would correct that oversight, resoundingly and for all time. At the same time, however, Mattrick and his small team at Distinctive lavished at least as much attention on the lifestyle fantasy as they did on the mechanics of the game. Each of the five featured supercars — the Porsche 911 Turbo, Ferrari Testarossa, Lotus Esprit Turbo, Lamborghini Countach, and Chevrolet Corvette — gets its own loving literal and statistical portrait like the one above, while the dash and interior layouts in the game proper also change to reflect the model you’ve chosen to drive. Test Drive is pure, unabashed car porn. As such, it was tremendously appealing to the demographic that tended to buy computer games.

Still, some reviewers couldn’t help but notice that there just wasn’t really that much to the game. Despite the aspirations to simulationism, it’s hard not to notice that, say, the heavy Corvette with its big, torquey American iron in the front doesn’t drive quite as differently as one might expect from the lighter, notoriously spin-prone Porsche 911 with its buzzy little high-revving engine in the rear. In fact, all of the cars handle rather disconcertingly like they’re on rails, until they suddenly derail and you fall off the side of the mountain. And then there’s the fact that there’s just not that much to really do in Test Drive; you just get to drive up the same mountain over and over again, avoiding the same cops and presumably trying to improve your personal time, with no multiplayer options and no other challenges to add interest. And yet for hundreds of thousands of car-mad kids it just didn’t matter. Test Drive in its day was peculiarly immune to such practical complaints, proof just as much as the works of Cinemaware of just how much the experiential side of a game — the fantasy — can trump the nuts and bolts of gameplay.

Previewed at that same 1987 Summer Consumer Electronics Show to which we’ve been paying so much attention lately and released in plenty of time for Christmas, Test Drive became a hit. More than a hit, it spawned a franchise that is still at least ostensibly alive to this day (the last game to bear the title was released in 2012). More than a franchise, it became the urtext of an entire genre, the automotive-simulation equivalent to Adventure. After going public, buying that first Ferrari, and making his own personal Test Drive fantasy come true, Mattrick sold out to Electronic Arts in 1991, where he morphed Test Drive, whose intellectual property he had left behind with Accolade, into the even more successful Need for Speed series, another franchise that seems destined to continue eternally. At the core of Need for Speed and the several showrooms’ worth of contenders and pretenders that have joined it over the years is that same lifestyle fantasy that Test Drive first tapped into, of having access to a garage full of really sexy cars to inspect and drool over and drive really, really fast. As long as there are young and not-so-young people whose dreams are redolent of well-weathered leather, hot metal and oil, and sunlight on chrome, their continuing popularity seems assured.

(Sources: Questbusters of June 1987; Retro Gamer 59; Computer Gaming World of March 1987, June/July 1987, and February 1988; Compute!’s Gazette of October 1983 and March 1989; Electronic Games of December 1983; Kilobaud of June 1983; The Montreal Gazette of December 15 1982. See also The Escapist’s online article on Mattrick and Distinctive.

Most of the copies of Comics floating around the Internet have one or more muddy disk images. I’ve assembled a set that seems to be 100 percent correct; you’re welcome to download it. It still makes for a very unique and enjoyable experience if you can see fit to install a Commodore 64 emulator to run it. Test Drive, on the other hand, is probably best left to history. Given that, and given that it’s an entry in a still-active franchise, I’m going to leave you on your own to find that one if you want it.)



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