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A Time of Endings, Part 2: Epyx

On a beautiful May day in 1987, Epyx held a party behind their offices to celebrate the completion of California Games, the fifth and latest in their hugely popular Games line of sports titles. To whatever extent their skills allowed, employees and their families tried to imitate the athletes portrayed in the new game, riding skateboards, throwing Frisbees, or kicking around a Hacky Sack. Meanwhile a professional BMX freestyler and a professional skateboarder did tricks to show them how it was really done. The partiers dressed in the most outrageous beachwear they could muster — typically for this hyper-competitive company, their outfits were judged for prizes — while the sound of the Beach Boys and the smell of grilling hamburgers and hotdogs filled the air. Folks from the other offices around Epyx’s came out to look on a little wistfully, doubtless wishing their company was as fun as this one. A good time was had by all, a memory made of one of those special golden days which come along from time to time to be carried along with us for the rest of our lives.

Although no one realized it at the time, that day marked the high-water point of Epyx. By 1990, their story would for all practical purposes be over, the company having gone from a leading light of its industry to a bankrupt shell at the speed of business.

In the spring of 1987, Epyx was the American games industry’s great survivor, the oldest company still standing this side of Atari and the one which had gone through the most changes over its long — by the standards of a very young industry, that is — lifespan. Epyx had been founded by John Connelly and Jon Freeman, a couple of tabletop role-players and wargaming grognards interested in computerizing their hobbies, way back in 1978 under the considerably less exciting name of Automated Simulations. They hit paydirt the following year with Temple of Apshai, the most popular CRPG of the genre’s primordial period. Automated Simulations did well for a while on the back of that game and a bevy of spinoffs and sequels created using the same engine, but after the arrival of the more advanced Wizardry and Ultima their cruder games found it difficult to compete. In 1983, a major management shakeup came to the moribund company at the behest of a consortium of investors, who put in charge the hard-driving Michael Katz, a veteran of the cutthroat business of toys. Katz acquired a company called Starpath, populated by young and highly skilled assembly-language programmers, to complete the transformation of the stodgy Automated Simulations into the commercially aggressive Epyx. In 1984, with the release of the huge hits Summer Games and Impossible Mission, the company’s new identity as purveyors of slick action-based entertainments for the Commodore 64, the most popular gaming platform of the time, was cemented. One Gilbert Freeman (no relation to Jon Freeman) replaced Katz as Epyx’s president and CEO shortly thereafter, but the successful template his predecessor had established remained unchanged right through 1987.

By 1987, however, Freeman was beginning to view his company’s future with some trepidation despite the commercial success they were still enjoying. The new California Games, destined for yet more commercial success though it was, was ironically emblematic of the long-term problems with Epyx’s current business model. California Games pushed the five-year-old Commodore 64’s audiovisual hardware farther than had any previous Epyx game — which is to say, given Epyx’s reputation as the absolute masters of Commodore 64 graphics and sound, farther than virtually any other game ever released for the platform, period. This was of course wonderful in terms of this particular game’s commercial prospects, but it carried with it the implicit question of what Epyx could do next, for even their most technically creative programmers were increasingly of the opinion that they were reaching an end point where they had used every possible trick and simply couldn’t find any new ways to dazzle. For a company so dependent on audiovisual dazzle as Epyx, this was a potentially deadly endgame.

Very much in tandem with the question of how much longer it would be possible to continue pushing the audiovisual envelope on the Commodore 64 ran concerns about the longevity of the platform in general. Jack Tramiel’s little computer for the masses had sold more and longer than anyone could ever have predicted, but the ride couldn’t go on forever. While Epyx released their games for other platforms as well, they remained as closely identified with the Commodore 64 as, say, Cinemaware was with the Commodore Amiga, with the 64 accounting for well over half of their sales most quarters. When that market finally took the dive many had been predicting for it for years now, where would that leave Epyx?

Dave Morse

It was for these big-picture reasons that Freeman brought a man with a reputation for big-picture vision onto Epyx’s board in January of 1987. All but unknown though he was to the general public, among those working in the field of home computers Dave Morse had the reputation of a veritable miracle worker. Just a few years before, he had found ways to let the brilliant engineering team at Amiga, Incorporated, create a computer as revolutionary in its way as the Apple Macintosh on a budget that would barely have paid Steve Jobs’s annual salary. And then, in a coup worthy of The Sting, he’d proceeded to fleece Atari of the prize and sail the ship of Amiga into the (comparatively) safe harbor of Commodore Business Machines. If, as Freeman was starting to suspect, it was going to become necessary to completely remake and remodel Epyx for a second time in the near future, Morse ought to be a darn good man to have on his team.

And indeed, Morse didn’t fail to impress at his first Epyx board meetings. In fact, he impressed so much that Freeman soon decided to cede much of his own power to him. He brought Morse on full-time as CEO to help run the company as an equal partner in May of 1987, the very month of the California Games cookout. But California Games on the Commodore 64 was the present, likely all too soon to be the past. For Freeman, Morse represented Epyx’s future.

Morse had a vision for that future that was as audacious as Freeman could possibly have wished. In the months before coming to Epyx, he had been talking a lot with RJ Mical and Dave Needle, two of his star engineers from Amiga, Incorporated, in the fields of software and hardware respectively. Specifically, they’d been discussing the prospects for a handheld videogame console. Handheld videogames of a sort had enjoyed a brief bloom of popularity in the very early 1980s, at the height of the first great videogame boom when anything that beeped or squawked was en vogue with the country’s youth. Those gadgets, however, had been single-purpose devices capable of playing only one game — and, because it was difficult to pack much oomph into such a small form factor, said game usually wasn’t all that compelling anyway. But chip design and fabrication had come a long way in the past five years or so. Mical and Needle believed that the time was ripe for a handheld device that would be a gaming platform in its own right, capable of playing many titles published on cartridges, just like the living-room-based consoles that had boomed and then busted so spectacularly in 1983. For that reason alone, Morse faced an uphill climb with the venture capitalists; this was still the pre-Nintendo era when the conventional wisdom held videogame consoles to be dead. Yet when he joined the Epyx board he found a very sympathetic ear for his scheme in none other than Epyx President Gilbert Freeman.

In fact, Freeman was so excited by the idea that he was willing to bet the company on it; thus Morse’s elevation to CEO. The plan was to continue to sell traditional computer games while Mical and Needle, both of whom Morse hired immediately after his own appointment, got down to the business of making what everybody hoped would be their second revolutionary machine of the decade. It would all happen in secret, while Morse dropped only the vaguest public hints that “it is important to be able to think in new directions.” This was by any measure a very new direction for Epyx. Unlike most game publishers, they weren’t totally inexperienced making hardware: a line of high-end joysticks, advertised as the perfect complement to their games, had done well for them. Still, it was a long way from making joysticks to making an entirely new game console in such a radically new form factor. They would have to lean very heavily on Morse’s two star engineers, who couldn’t help but notice a certain ironic convergence about their latest situation: Amiga, Incorporated, had also sold joysticks among other gaming peripherals in an effort to fund the development of the Amiga computer.

R.J. Mical and Dave Needle in a very… disturbing picture. Really, perhaps it’s best if we don’t know any more about what’s going on here.

RJ Mical and Dave Needle were a pair of willfully eccentric peas in a pod; one journalist called them the Laurel and Hardy of Silicon Valley. While they had worked together at Amiga for quite some time by June of 1984, the two dated the real genesis of their bond to that relatively late date. When Amiga was showing their Lorraine prototype that month at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, they found themselves working together really closely for the first time, doing some jerry-rigging to get everything working for the demonstrations. They discovered that they understood each other in a way that “software guys” and “hardware guys” usually do not. “He was the first software guy I ever met,” remembered Needle in a joint 1989 interview, “who had more than an inkling of the real purpose of my work, which is building hardware platforms that you can launch software from.” “I could never get hardware guys to understand what I was doing,” interrupted Mical at this point in the same interview. “Dave couldn’t get software guys to understand what the guts could handle. We found ourselves a great match.” From that point forward, they were inseparable, as noted for their practical jokes and wacky antics as for their engineering brilliance. It was a true meeting of the minds, the funny bones, and, one might even say, the hearts. As illustrated by the exchange I’ve just quoted, they became the kind of friends who freely complete each other’s thoughts without pissing each other off.

The design they sketched for what they liked to call the “Potato” — for that was envisioned as its rough size and shape — bore much the same philosophical stamp as their work with Amiga. To keep the size and power consumption down, the Potato was to be built around the aged old 8-bit 6502, the chip at the heart of the Commodore 64, rather than a newer CPU like the Amiga’s 68000. But, as in the Amiga, the chip at the Potato’s core was surrounded with custom hardware designed to alleviate as much of the processing burden as possible, including a blitter for fast animation and a four-channel sound chip that came complete with digital-to-analog converters for playing back sampled sounds and voices. (In the old Amiga tradition, the two custom chips were given the names “Suzy” and “Mikey.”) The 3.5-inch LCD display, with a palette of 4096 colors (the same as the Amiga) and a resolution of 160 X 102, was the most technologically cutting-edge and thus for many months the most problematic feature of the design; Epyx would wind up buying the technology to make it from the Japanese watchmaker Citizen, who had created it as the basis for a handheld television but had yet to use it in one of their own products. Still, perhaps the Potato’s most innovative and impressive feature of all was the port that let you link it up with your mates’ machines for multiplayer gaming. (Another visionary proposed feature was an accelerometer that would have let you play games by tilting the entire unit rather than manipulating the controls, but it would ultimately prove just too costly to include. Ditto a port to let you connect the Potato to your television.)

While few would question the raw talent of Mical and Needle and the small team they assembled to help them make the Potato, this sort of high-wire engineering is always expensive. Freeman and Morse estimated that they would need about two years and $4 million to bring the Potato from a sketch to a finished product ready to market in consumer-electronics stores. Investing this much in the project, it seemed to Freeman and Morse, should be manageable based on Epyx’s current revenue stream, and should be a very wise investment at that. Licking their chops over the anticipated worldwide mobile-gaming domination to come, they publicly declared that Epyx, whose total sales had amounted to $27 million in 1987, would be a $100 million company by 1990.

At first, everything went according to plan. Upon its release in the early summer of 1987, California Games became the hit everyone had been so confidently anticipating. Indeed, it sold more than 300,000 copies in its first nine months and then just kept on selling, becoming Epyx’s biggest hit ever. But after that nothing else ever went quite right for Epyx’s core business. Few inside or outside of the company could have guessed that California Games, Epyx’s biggest hit, would also mark the end of the company’s golden age.

From the time of their name change and associated remaking up through California Games, Epyx had been almost uniquely in touch with the teenage boys who bought the vast majority of Commodore 64 games. “We don’t simply invent games that we like and hope for the best,” said Morse, parroting Epyx’s official company line shortly after his arrival there. “Instead, we pay attention to current trends that are of interest to teenagers. It’s similar to consumer research carried out by other companies, except we’re aiming for a very specific group.” After California Games, though — in fact, even as Morse was making this statement — Epyx lost the plot of what had made the Games line so successful. Like an aging rock star grown fat and complacent, they decided to join the Establishment.

When they had come up with the idea of making Summer Games to capitalize on the 1984 Summer Olympics, Epyx had been in no position to pay for an official Olympic license, even had Atari not already scooped that up. Instead they winged it, producing what amounted to an Olympics with the serial numbers filed away. Summer Games had all the trappings — opening and closing ceremonies; torches; national anthems; medals of gold, silver, and bronze — alongside the Olympic events themselves. What very few players likely noticed, though, was that it had all these things without ever actually using the word “Olympics” or the famous (and zealously guarded) five-ring Olympic logo.

Far from being a detriment, the lack of an official license had a freeing effect on Epyx. Whilst hewing to the basic templates of the sports in question, they produced more rough-and-ready versions of same — more the way the teenage boys who dominated among their customers would have liked the events to be than the somewhat more staid Olympic realities. Even that original Summer Games, which looked itself a little staid and graphically crude in contrast to what would follow, found room for flashes of wit and whimsy. Players soon learned to delight in an athlete — hopefully not the one they were controlling — landing on her head after a gymnastics vault, or falling backward and cracking up spectacularly instead of clearing the pole vault. Atari, who had the official Olympic license, produced more respectful — read, boring — implementations of the Olympics that didn’t sell particularly well, while Summer Games blew up huge.

Seeing how postively their players responded to this sort of thing, Epyx pushed ever further into the realm of the fanciful in their later Games iterations. World Games and California Games, the fourth and fifth title in the line respectively, abandoned the Olympics conceit entirely in favor of gathering up a bunch of weird and wild sports that the designers just thought would be fun to try on a computer. In a final act of Olympics sacrilege, California Games even dropped the national anthems in favor of having you play for the likes of Ocean Pacific or Kawasaki. As California Games so amply demonstrated, the Games series as a whole had never had as much to do with the Olympics or even sports in general as it did with contemporary teenage culture.

But now Epyx saw another Olympics year fast approaching (during this period, the Winter and Summer Olympics were still held during the same year rather than being staggered two years apart as they are today) and decided to come full circle and then some, to make a pair of Games games shrouded in the legitimacy that the original Summer Games had lacked. Epyx, in other words, would become the 1988 Olympics’s version of Atari. In October of 1987, they signed a final contract of over 40 pages with the United States Olympic Committee (if ever a gold medal were to be awarded in legalese and bureaucratic nitpicking, the Olympic Games themselves would have to be prime contenders). Not only would Epyx have to pay a 10 percent royalty to the Olympic Committee for every copy of The Games: Winter Edition and The Games: Summer Edition that they sold, but the same Committee would have veto rights over every aspect of the finished product. Giving such authority to such a famously non-whimsical body inevitably spelled the death of the series’s heretofore trademark sense of whimsy. While working on the luge event a developer came up with the idea of sending the luger hurling out of the trough and into outer space after a major crash. The old Epyx would have been all over it with gusto. But no, said the stubbornly humorless Committee in their usual literal-minded fashion, lugers don’t ever exit the trough when they crash, they only spill over inside it, and that’s how the computer game has to be as well.

When The Games: Winter Edition appeared right on schedule along with the Winter Olympics themselves in February of 1988, it did very well out of the gate, just like any other Games game. Yet in time the word spread through the adolescent grapevine that this latest Games just wasn’t as much fun as the older ones. In addition to the stifling effect of the Olympic Committee’s bureaucracy, its development had been rushed; because of the need to release the Winter Edition to coincide with the real Winter Olympics, it had had to go from nothing to boxed finished product in just five months. The Summer Edition, which appeared later in the year to coincide with the Summer Olympics, was in some ways a better outing, what with Epyx having had a bit more time to work on it. But something was still missing. California Games, a title Epyx’s core teenage demographic loved for all the reasons they didn’t love the two stodgy new officially licensed Games, easily outsold both of them despite being in its second year on the market. That was, of course, good in its way. But would the same buyers turn out to buy the next big Games title in the wake of the betrayal so many of them had come to see the two most recent efforts to represent? It wasn’t clear that they would.

The disappointing reception of these latest Games, then, was a big cause of concern for Epyx as 1988 wore on. Their other major cause for worry was more generalized, more typical of their industry as a whole. As we’ve seen in an earlier article, 1988 was the year that the Nintendo Entertainment System went from being a gathering storm on the horizon to a full-blown cyclone sweeping across the American gaming landscape. Epyx was hardly alone among publishers in feeling the Nintendo’s effect, but they were all too well positioned to get the absolute worst of it. While they had, generally with mixed results, made occasional forays into other genres, the bulk of their sales since the name change had always come from their action-oriented games for the Commodore 64 — the industry’s low-end platform, one whose demographics skewed even younger than the norm. The sorts of teenage and pre-teen boys who had once played on the Commodore 64 were exactly the ones who now flocked to the Nintendo in droves. The Christmas of 1988 marked the tipping point; it was at this point that the Nintendo essentially destroyed the Commodore 64 as a viable platform. “Games can be done better on the 64 than on a Nintendo,” insisted Morse, but fewer and fewer people were buying his argument. By this point, many American publishers and developers had begun to come to Nintendo, hat in hand, asking for permission to publish on the platform, but this Epyx refused to do, being determined to hold out for their own handheld console.

It’s not as if the Commodore 64’s collapse entirely sneaked up on Epyx. As I noted earlier, Gilbert Freeman had been aware it might be in the offing even before he had hired Dave Morse as CEO. Over the course of 1987 and 1988, Epyx had set up a bulwark of sorts on the higher-end platforms with a so-called “Masters Collection” of more high-toned and cerebral titles, similar to the ones that were continuing to sell quite well for some other publishers despite the Nintendo onslaught. (The line included a submarine simulator, an elaborate CRPG, etc.) They also started a line of personal-creativity software similar to Electronic Arts’s “Deluxe” line, and began importing ever more European action games to sell as budget titles to low-end customers. All told, their total revenues for 1988 actually increased robustly over that of the year before, from $27 million to $36 million. Yet such figures can be deceiving. Because this total was generated from many more products, with all the extra expenses that implied, the ultimate arbiter of net profits on computer software plunged instead of rising commensurately. Other ventures were truly misguided by any standard. Like a number of other publishers, Epyx launched forays into the interactive VCR-based systems that were briefly all the rage as substitutes for Phillips’s long-promised but still undelivered CD-I system. They might as well have just set fire to that money. The Epyx of earlier years had had a recognizable identity, which the Epyx of 1988 had somehow lost. There was no thematic glue binding their latest products together.

R.J. Mical with a work-in-progress version of the Handy.

Meanwhile Epyx was investing hugely in games for the Potato — investing just about as much money in Potato software, in fact, as they were pouring into the hardware. Accounts of just how much the Potato’s development ended up costing Epyx vary, ranging from $4 million to $8 million and up. I suspect that, when viewed in terms of both hardware and software development, the figure quite likely skews into the double digits.

Whatever the exact numbers, as the curtain came up on 1989 Dave Morse, RJ Mical, and Dave Needle found themselves in a position all too familiar from the old days with Amiga, Incorporated. They had another nascent revolution in silicon in the form of the Potato, which had reached the prototype stage and was to be publicly known as the Epyx Handy. Yet their company’s finances were hopelessly askew. If the Handy was to become an actual product, it looked like Morse would need to pull off another miracle.

So, he did what he had done for the Amiga Lorraine. In a tiny private auditorium behind Epyx’s public booth at the January 1989 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, the inventors of the Handy showed it off to a select group of representatives from other companies, all of whom were required to sign a strict non-disclosure agreement before seeing what was still officially a top-secret project, even though rumors of the Handy’s existence had been spreading like wildfire for months now. The objective was to find a partner to help manufacture and market the Handy — or, perhaps better, a buyer for the entire troubled company. Nintendo had a look, but passed; they had a handheld console of their own in the works which would emerge later in the year as the Nintendo Game Boy. Sega also passed. In fact, just about everyone passed, as they had on the Amiga Lorraine, until Morse was left with just one suitor. And, incredibly, it was the very same suitor as last time: Atari. Déjà vu all over again.

On the positive side, this Atari was a very different company from the 800-pound gorilla that had tried to seize the Lorraine and carve it up into its component parts five years before. On the negative, this Atari was run by Jack Tramiel, Mr. “Business is War” himself, the man who had tied up Commodore in court for years after Atari’s would-be acquisition of the Amiga Lorraine had become Commodore’s. From Tramiel’s perspective, getting a stake in a potential winner like the Handy made a lot of sense; his Atari really didn’t have that much going for it at all at that point beyond a fairly robust market for their ST line in Europe and an ongoing trickle of nostalgia-fueled sales of their vintage game consoles in North America. Atari had missed out almost entirely on the great second wave of videogame consoles, losing the market they had once owned to Nintendo and Sega. If mobile gaming was destined to be the next big thing, this was the perfect way to get into that space without having to invest money Atari didn’t have into research and development.

For his part, Morse certainly knew even as he pulled the trigger on the deal that he was getting into bed with the most devious man in consumer electronics, but he didn’t see that he had much choice. He could only shoot from the hip, as he had five years before, and hope it would all work out in the end. The deal he struck from a position of extreme weakness — nobody could smell blood in the water quite like Jack Tramiel — would see the Handy become an Atari product in the eyes of the marketplace. Atari would buy the Handy hardware design from Epyx, put their logo on it, and would take over responsibility for its manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. Epyx would remain the “software partner” only, responsible for delivering an initial suite of launch titles and a steady stream of desirable games thereafter. No one at Epyx was thrilled at the prospect of giving away their baby this way, but, again, the situation was what it was.

At this point in our history, it becomes my sad duty as your historian to acknowledge that I simply don’t know precisely what went down next between Atari and Epyx. The source I’ve been able to find that dates closest to the events in question is the “Roomers” column of the December 1989 issue of the magazine Amazing Computing. According to it, the deal was structured at Tramiel’s demand as a series of ongoing milestone payments from Atari to Epyx as the latter met their obligations to deliver to the former the finished Handy in production-ready form. Epyx, the column claims, was unable to deliver the cable used for linking two Handys together for play in the time frame specified in the contract, whereupon Atari cancelled a desperately needed $2 million payment as well as all the ones that were to follow. The Handy, Atari said, was now theirs thanks to Epyx’s breach of contract; Epyx would just have to wait for the royalties on the Handy games they were still under contract to deliver to get more money out of Atari. In no condition to engage Atari in a protracted legal battle, Epyx felt they had no choice but to concede and continue to play along with the company that had just stolen their proudest achievement from them.

Dave Needle, who admittedly had plenty of axes to grind with Atari, told a slight variation of this tale many years later, saying that the crisis hinged on Epyx’s software rather than hardware efforts. It seems that Epyx had sixty days to fix any bugs that were discovered after the initial delivery of each game to Atari. But, according to Needle, “Atari routinely waited until the end of the time period to comment on the Epyx fixes. There was then inadequate time for Epyx to make the fixes.” Within a few months of inking the deal, Atari used a petty violation like this to withhold payment from Epyx, who, of course, needed that money now. At last, Atari offered them a classic Jack Tramiel ultimatum: accept one more lump-sum payout — Needle didn’t reveal the amount — or die on the vine.

A music programmer who went by the name of “Lx Rudis” is perhaps the closest thing to an unbiased source we can hope to find; he worked for Epyx while the Handy was under development, then accepted a job with Atari, where he says he was “close” with Jack Tramiel’s sons Sam and Leonard, both of whom played important roles within their father’s company. “The terms [of the contract] were quite strict,” he says. “Epyx was unable to meet all points, and Atari was able to withhold a desperately needed milestone payment. In the chaos that ensued, everyone got laid off and I guess Atari’s lawyers and Epyx’s lawyers worked out a ‘compromise’ where Atari got the Handy.”

No smoking gun in the form of any actual paperwork has ever surfaced to my knowledge, leaving us with only anecdotal accounts like these from people who weren’t the ones signing the contracts and making the deals. What we do know is that Epyx by the end of 1989 was bankrupt, while Atari owned the Handy outright — or at least acted as if they did. Although it’s possible that Tramiel was guilty of nothing more than driving a hard bargain, his well-earned reputation as a dirty dealer does make it rather difficult to give him the benefit of too much doubt. Certainly lots of people at Epyx were left feeling very ill-served indeed. Dave Morse had tried to tweak the tiger’s tail a second time, and this time he had gotten mauled. As should have been part of the core curriculum at every business school by this point: don’t sign any deal, ever, with Jack Tramiel.

Dave Morse, RJ Mical and Dave Needle walked away from the whole affair disgusted and disillusioned, having seen their baby kidnapped by the man they had come to regard as Evil incarnated in an ill-fitting pinstriped suit. Their one bitter consolation was that the Handy development system they’d built could run only on an Amiga. Thus Atari would have to buy dozens of specimens of the arch-rival platform for internal use, and suffer the indignity of telling their development licensees that they too would need to buy Amigas to make their games. It wasn’t much, but, hey, at least it was something to hold onto.

The erstwhile Epyx Handy made its public debut at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1989 as the Atari Portable Entertainment System. But when someone pointed out that that name would inevitably get abbreviated to “APES,” Atari moved on from it, finally settling on the name of “Lynx,” a sly reference to the ability to link the machines together via cable for multiplayer action. Thus christened, the handheld console shipped on September 1, 1989. Recent unpleasantness aside, Mical and Needle had good cause to be proud of their work. One far-seeing Atari executive said that the Lynx had the potential to become a revolutionary hit on the level of the Sony Walkman of 1979, the product which largely created the idea of personal portable electronics as we think of them today. Now it was up to Atari to realize that potential.

The Nintendo Game Boy and the Atari Lynx

That part of the equation, alas, didn’t go as well as Atari had hoped. Just one month before the Lynx, Nintendo of America had released the Game Boy, their own handheld console. Purely as a piece of kit, the black-and-white-only Game Boy wasn’t a patch on the Lynx. But then, Nintendo has always thrived by transcending technical specifications, and the Game Boy proved no exception to that rule. Like all of their products, it was laser-targeted to the needs and desires of the burgeoning Generation Nintendo, with a price tag of just $90, battery life long enough to get you through an entire school week of illicit playing under the desk, a size small enough to slip into a coat pocket, and a selection of well-honed launch games designed to maximize its strengths. Best of all, every Game Boy came bundled with a copy of Tetris, an insanely addictive little puzzle game that became a veritable worldwide obsession, the urtext of casual mobile gaming as we’ve come to know it today; many a child’s shiny new Game Boy ended up being monopolized by a Tetris-addled parent.

The Lynx, by contrast, was twice as expensive as the Game Boy, ate its AA batteries at a prodigious rate, was bigger and chunkier than the Game Boy, and offered just three less-than-stellar games to buy beyond the rather brilliant Epyx port of California Games that came included in the box. Weirdly, its overall fit and finish also lagged far behind the cheap but rugged little Game Boy. Atari struggled mightily to find suppliers who could deliver the Lynx’s components on time and on budget with acceptable quality control. According to RJ Mical — again, not the most unbiased of sources — this was largely a case of Jack Tramiel’s chickens coming home to roost. “The new ownership of the Lynx had really bad reputations with hardware manufacturers in Asia and with software developers all over the world,” says Mical. “Suddenly all those sweet deals we’d made for low-cost parts for the Lynx dried up on them. They’d be like, ‘We remember you from five years ago. Guess what — the price just doubled!'” Mical claims that a “magnificent library” of Lynx games, the result of many deals Epyx had made with outside developers, fell by the wayside as soon as the developers in question learned that they’d have to deal from now on with Jack Tramiel instead of Dave Morse.

California Games on the Lynx’s (tiny) screen.

In the face of these disadvantages, the Lynx wasn’t the complete failure one could so easily imagine it becoming. It remained in production for more than five years, over the course of which it sold nearly 3 million units to buyers who wanted a little more from their mobile games than what the Game Boy could offer. By most measures, the Atari Lynx was a fairly successful product. It suffers only by comparison with the Game Boy, which spent an astonishing total of almost fifteen years in production and sold an even more astonishing 118.69 million units, becoming in the process Nintendo’s biggest single success story of all; in the end, Nintendo sold nearly twice as many Game Boys as they did of the original Nintendo Entertainment System that had done such a number on Epyx’s software business. So, a handheld game console did become worthy of mention in the same breath as the Sony Walkman, but it wasn’t the Atari Lynx; it was the Nintendo Game Boy.

Needless to say, Dave Morse’s old plan to make Epyx a $100 million company by 1990 didn’t come to fruition. In addition to all their travails with Atari, the Commodore 64 market, the old heart of their strength, had imploded like a pricked balloon. After peaking at 145 employees in 1988, when work on the Handy as well as games for it was buzzing, frantic layoffs brought Epyx’s total down to less than 20 by the end of 1989, at which point the firm, vowing to soldier on in spite of it all, went through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Just to add insult to the mortal injury Jack Tramiel had done them, they came out of the bankruptcy still under contract to deliver games for the Lynx. Indeed, doing so offered their only realistic hope of survival, slim though it was, and so they told the world they were through developing for computers and turned what meager resources they had left entirely to the Lynx. They wouldn’t even be a publisher in their own right anymore, relying instead on Atari to sell and distribute their games for them. Tramiel had, as the kids say today, thoroughly pwned them.

This zombie version of Epyx shambled on for a disconcertingly long time, plotting always for ways to become relevant to someone again without ever quite managing it. It finally lay down for the last time in 1993, when the remnants of the company were bought up by Bridgestone Media Group, a Christian advocacy organization with ties to one of Epyx’s few remaining employees. By this time, the real “end of the Epyx era,” as Computer Gaming World editor Johnny Wilson put it, had come long ago. In 1993, the name “Epyx” felt as much like an anachronism as the Commodore 64.

What, then, shall we say in closing about Epyx? If Cinemaware, the subject of my last article, was the prototypical Amiga developer, Epyx has a solid claim to the same title in the case of the Commodore 64. As with Cinemaware, manifold and multifarious mistakes were made at Epyx that led directly to the company’s death, mistakes so obvious in hindsight that there seems little point in belaboring them any further here. (Don’t try to design, manufacture, and launch an entirely new gaming platform if you don’t have deep pockets and a rock-solid revenue stream, kids!) They bit off far more than they could chew with the Handy. Combined with their failure to create a coherent identity for themselves in the post-Commodore 64 computer-games industry, it spelled their undoing.

And yet, earnest autopsying aside, when all is said and done it does feel somehow appropriate that Epyx should have for all intents and purposes died along with their favored platform. For a generation of teenage boys, the Epyx years were those between 1984 and 1988, corresponding with the four or five dominant years which the Commodore 64 enjoyed as the most popular gaming platform in North America. It seems safe to say that as long as any of that generation remain on the planet, the name of Epyx will always bring back memories of halcyon summer days of yore spent gathered with mates around the television, joysticks in hand. Summer Games indeed.

(Sources: Questbusters of November 1989; ACE of May 1990; Retro Gamer 18 and 129; Commodore Magazine of July 1988 and August 1989; Small Business Report of February 1988; San Francisco Business Times of July 25 1988; Amazing Computing of June 1988, November 1988, March 1989, April 1989, June 1989, August 1989, November 1989, December 1989, January 1990, and February 1990; Info of November/December 1989; Games Machine of March 1989 and January 1990; Compute!’s Gazette of April 1988; Compute! of November 1987 and September 1988; Computer Gaming World of November 1989, December 1989, and November 1991; Electronic Gaming Monthly of September 1989. Online sources include articles on US Gamer, Now Gamer, Wired, and The Atari Times. My huge thanks to Alex Smith, who shared his take on Epyx’s collapse with me along with some of the sources listed above.)

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Will Wright’s City in a Box

Will Wright, 1990

Will Wright, 1990

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

Raid on Bungeling Bay on the Commodore 64

Raid on Bungeling Bay on the Commodore 64

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SimCity on the Commodore 64

SimCity on the Commodore 64

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

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

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

SimCity on the Macintosh

SimCity on the Macintosh

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

SimCity

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

SimCity for MS-DOS

SimCity for MS-DOS

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

SimCity for Super Nintendo

SimCity for Super Nintendo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SimEarth on MS-DOS

SimEarth on MS-DOS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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Generation Nintendo

Nintendo

In the final months of World War II, when the United States was trying to burn out the will of a starving Japan via the most sustained campaign of aerial incendiary bombardment in history, a handful of obvious targets remained strangely untouched. Among those targets was Kyoto: population 1 million plus, founded in the year 793, capital of the nation and home of the Emperor for most of the intervening centuries, home to more national shrines and other historic sites than any other city in Japan, world famous for its silk and cloisonné. If a single city can be said to embody the very soul of the Japanese people, it must be this one.

If the citizens of Kyoto believed that their city was being left untouched by the bombs raining down on the rest of the country out of respect for the special place it occupied in the Japanese psyche, they were partially correct. Yet the motivation behind their seeming good fortune was cold-blooded rather than humanitarian. American Air Force planners were indeed aware of Kyoto’s symbolic importance, but they hardly saw that importance as grounds for sparing the city. Far from it. Kyoto was being reserved as a target for a special new weapon, one which was referred to only obliquely in Air Force internal memoranda as “the gadget.” Today we know the gadget as the atomic bomb. Entirely destroying Kyoto with one bomb would deliver a shock to the rest of Japan unequaled by the destruction of any other possible target: “From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon as the gadget.” Kyoto must be left untouched while the gadget was made ready for service so that mission planners and scientists could properly evaluate the bomb’s effect on an undamaged clean slate of a target.

Hundreds of thousands of Kyoto residents would wind up owing their lives to Henry L. Stimson, a humane man tortured daily by the orders he had to issue as the American Secretary of War; never was there a Secretary of War who hated war more. In response to Stimson’s demand after the successful first test of the gadget in New Mexico, General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, reluctantly presented the Air Force’s list of planned targets to him, with Kyoto at the top. Stimson was horrified. Citing the proposed destruction of Kyoto as an unforgivable act from which Japan would never recover, Stimson, 77 years old and in poor health, faced down virtually the entire entrenched bureaucracy of the American military to demand that the first atomic bomb to be used in anger be dropped somewhere, anywhere else: “This is one time I’m going to be the final deciding authority. Nobody’s going to tell me what to do on this.” His stubborn stance resulted at last in Kyoto being stricken from the list by grumbling generals who would have been perfectly happy if its destruction really had been a death blow to the culture it symbolized, thank you very much. Of course, in saving hundreds of thousands of Kyoto residents Stimson was also consigning to death hundreds of thousands of others in Hiroshima. Such are the wages of war.

The decision to spare Kyoto had another unintended consequence, one which may seem trivial — even disrespectful — to mention in parallel with such immense tolls in human lives saved and lost, but one which in its own way illustrates the interconnectness of all things. Hidden away within Kyoto’s blissfully undamaged warren of ancient streets was a little family-owned company called Nintendo, maker of ornate playing cards and other games and collectibles. Absolutely dedicated to the war effort, as all good Japanese were expected to be at the time, they had lately taken to giving their products jingoist themes, such as a backgammon board illustrated by cartoon animals dressed up as soldiers, with Japanese flags flying proudly above them and British and American flags lying crumpled in the dust at their feet.

More than four decades later, Stimson’s determination to spare Kyoto and with it Nintendo boomeranged back on his country in a way that no one could have seen coming. Many contemporary commentators, conditioned by the Reagan Revolution to cast all things in terms of nationalism and patriotism, saw in the arrival of Nintendo on American shores the opening of the latest front in a new war, economic rather than military this time, between the United States and Japan. And this time it seemed that Japan was winning the war handily. They had come for our steel, and we had done nothing. They had come for our auto industry, and we had done nothing. They had come for our televisions and stereos, and we had done nothing. Now they were coming for our videogame consoles. How long would it be until the PC industry, arguably the biggest economic success story of the 1980s, was threatened as well?

Given the subject of this article, I should take a moment to clarify right now that this blog has not been and will never become a history of console-based videogames. This blog is rather a history of computer games, a culture possessed of plenty of interconnections and collisions with the larger, more mainstream culture of the consoles, but one which has nevertheless remained largely its own thing ever since the first popular videogame console and the first three pre-assembled PCs were all launched during the single fecund year of 1977. In addition to reasons of pure personal preference, I justify this focus by noting that a fair number of people are doing great, rigorous history in the realm of videogames, while the realm of computer games has been comparatively neglected.

Still, we can’t really understand the history of computer games without reckoning with those aforementioned interconnections and collisions with the world of the consoles. And one of the biggest and most obvious collisions of all was that crazy time at the tail end of the 1980s when Nintendo arrived to sweep the rug out from under a computer-game industry which had spent the last few years convinced that it was destined to become the next great movement in mainstream American entertainment — i.e., destined to hold exactly the position that this Japanese upstart had just swept in and taken over with breathtaking speed. Small wonder that coded allusions to the dark days of World War II, accompanied by thinly veiled (or blatantly unveiled) racism, became the order of the day in many sectors of American culture, industry, and government alike. Meanwhile the bewildered computer-game executives were trying to figure out what the hell had just hit them and what they should do about it. Let’s join them now in asking the first of those questions.

Hiroshi Yamauchi

Hiroshi Yamauchi

The history of the company known as Nintendo — the name can be very roughly translated as an admonition to work hard but also to accept that one’s ultimate success is in the hands of greater powers — dates all the way back to 1889, when it was founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi as a maker of intricately painted playing cards, known as “hanafuda” in Japanese. Nintendo managed to survive and grow modestly amid many changes in Japanese life over the course of the next half-century and beyond. The company’s modern history, however, begins in 1949, when Hiroshi Yamauchi, latest scion of the family-owned business, took over as president. Far more ambitious than his forebears, this latest Yamauchi was inspired by the entrepreneurial ferment of the rebuilding postwar Japan to expand Nintendo beyond playing cards and collectibles. The results of his efforts were decidedly mixed in the early years. Among his less successful initiatives were a line of instant-rice meals — a sort of ricey Ramen Noodles before Ramen Noodles were cool — and a chain of “love motels” offering busy executives the convenience of paying for their trysts by the hour. (Ironic as they might seem in light of Nintendo’s later rigorously enforced family-friendly image, at the time the love motels seemed to everyone around him a natural innovation for Yamauchi to have dreamed up; he was a notorious philanderer.) More successful, for a while, was a Nintendo taxi service. Yet even it was hardly a world-beater. Throughout the first two decades of Yamauchi’s lengthy reign he continued to cast restlessly about for the Big One, the idea that would finally take Nintendo to the next level.

In 1969, he made a big step in the direction of finding his company’s life’s purpose when he founded a new division called simply “Toys.” Employing a number of young gadget freaks as inventors, Toys began to churn out a series of strange contraptions straight out of Rube Goldberg, such as the Ultra Hand, a scissor-like reach extender that was more whimsical than practical; the Ultra Machine, an indoor mechanical baseball pitcher; and the Ultra Scope, a periscope for peeking around corners and over fences. (Parents were not terribly fond of this last one in particular.) All were quite successful, opening at last the sustainable new business front for Nintendo that Yamauchi had been dreaming of for so long.

With electronic components getting smaller and cheaper by the year, Nintendo’s innovative toys inevitably began to take on more and more of an electronic character as time wore on. The first big success in the realm of electronic gadgets was something called the Nintendo Beam Gun, which combined a light gun with a set of targets equipped with the appropriate photoelectric sensors; more than 1 million of them were sold. Nintendo built on the Beam Gun’s success with a chain of Laser Clay Ranges — think “clay pigeons” — that spread across Japan during the mid-1970s, re-purposed bowling alleys where patrons could engage in gunfights with cowboys and “homicidal maniacs” projected onto the far wall.

With Atari now going strong in the United States, videogames were a natural next step for Nintendo. They first made a series of Color TV Games, each a home videogame capable of playing a few variants of a single simple game when hooked up to the family television set; they sold at least 2.5 million of them in the late 1970s. The Nintendo Game & Watch, a whole line of handheld gadgets capable of playing a single game each, did even better; Nintendo is estimated to have sold over 40 million of them during the 1980s. Meanwhile they were also moving into the standup arcade; Donkey Kong, released in 1981, became a worldwide smash, introducing the Nintendo name to many in the United States for the first time. The designer of that cute, colorful, relatively non-violent game, a virtual blueprint for the eventual Nintendo aesthetic as a whole, was one Shigeru Miyamoto. He would become not only Nintendo’s own most famous designer and public figure, but the most famous Japanese videogame designer of all time, full stop. The protagonist of Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong, a little leaping Italian plumber named Mario, was also destined for greatness as one of if not the most famous videogame characters of all time (his only serious rival is likely Pac-Man, another contemporaneous Japanese creation).

All of this success, however, was only laying the groundwork for Nintendo’s masterstroke. Moving on from the single-game units that had so far been Nintendo’s sole output, Yamauchi tasked his engineers with creating a proper videogame console capable of playing many games that could be sold separately in the form of cartridges, just like the Atari VCS. The device they came up with was hardly state of the art even at the time of its debut. It was built around a clone of the venerable old 8-bit MOS 6502, the same chip found in the Atari VCS as well as American home computers like the Apple II and Commodore 64, with those circuits that were protected by patents excised. It offered graphics a little better than the likes of the 64, sound a little worse. The new machine was being readied at seemingly the worst possible time: just as the Great Videogame Crash was underway in the United States, and just as the worldwide conventional wisdom was saying that home computers were the future, videogame consoles a brief-lived fad of the past. Yet Nintendo freely, even gleefully defied the conventional wisdom. The Nintendo Family Computer (“Famicom”) was deliberately designed to be as non-computer-like as possible. Instead it was patterned after Nintendo’s successful toys and gadgets — all bright, garish plastic, with as few switches and plugs as possible, certainly with nothing as complicated as a keyboard or disk drive. It looked like a toy because Nintendo designed it to look like a toy.

The Nintendo Famicom

The Nintendo Famicom

Yamauchi realized that a successful videogame console was at least as much a question of perception — i.e., of marketing — as it was of technology. In the imploding Atari, he had the one great counterexample he needed, a perfect model of what not to do. Atari’s biggest sin in Yamauchi’s eyes had been to fail to properly lock down the VCS. It had never occurred to them that third parties could start making games for “their” machine, until Activision started doing just that in 1980, to be followed by hundreds more. Not only had all of those third-party cartridges cost Atari hundreds of millions in the games of their own that they didn’t sell and the potential licensing fees that they didn’t collect, they had also gravely damaged the image of their platform: many or most Atari VCS games were just plain bad, and some were in devastatingly terrible taste to boot. The public at large, Yamauchi realized, didn’t parse fine distinctions between a game console and the games it played. He was determined not to lose control of his brand as Atari had done theirs.

For better and for worse, that determination led to Nintendo becoming the first of the great walled gardens in consumer software. The “better” from the standpoint of consumers was a measure of quality control, an assurance that any game they bought for their console would be a pretty good, polished, playable game. And from the standpoint of Yamauchi the “better” was of course that Nintendo got a cut of every single one of those games’ earnings, enough to let him think of the console itself as little more than a loss leader for the real business of making and licensing cartridges: “Forgo the big profits on the hardware because it is really just a tool to sell software. That is where we shall make our money.” The “worse” was far less diversity in theme, content, and mechanics, and a complete void of games willing to actually say almost anything at all about the world, lest they say something that some potential customer somewhere might possibly construe as offensive. The result would be an infantilization of the nascent medium in the eyes of mainstream consumers, an infantilization from which it has arguably never entirely escaped.

Whatever the reservations of curmudgeons like me, however, the walled-garden model of software distribution proved successful even beyond Yamauchi’s wildest dreams. After releasing their new console to Japanese consumers on July 15, 1983, Nintendo sold more than 2.5 million of them in the first eighteen months alone. Sales only increased as the years went by, even as the hardware continued to grow more and more technically obsolete. Consumers didn’t care about that. They cared about all those cute, colorful, addictive games, some produced by an ever-widening circle of outside licensees, others — including many or most of the best and best-remembered — by Nintendo’s own crack in-house development team, with that indefatigable fount of creativity named Shigeru Miyamoto leading the way. Just as Yamauchi had predicted, the real money in the Famicom was in the software that was sold for it.

Minoru Arakawa

Minoru Arakawa

With the Famicom a huge success in Japan, there now beckoned that ultimate market for any ambitious up-and-comer: the United States. Yamauchi had already set up a subsidiary there called Nintendo of America back in 1980, under the stewardship of his son-in-law Minoru Arakawa. Concerns about nepotism aside — no matter how big it got, Nintendo would always remain the Yamauchi family business — Arakawa was ideal for the job: an MIT-educated fluent English-speaker who had traveled extensively around the country and grown to understand and love its people and their way of life. Under his stewardship, Nintendo of America did very well in the early years on the back of Donkey Kong and other standup-arcade games.

Yet Nintendo as a whole hesitated for quite some time at the prospect of introducing the Famicom to North America. When Arakawa canvased toy stores, the hostility he encountered to the very idea of another videogame console was palpable. Atari had damaged or destroyed many a business and many a life on the way down, and few drew much of a distinction between Atari and the videogame market as a whole. According to one executive, “it would be easier to sell Popsicles in the Arctic” than to convince the toy stores to take a flyer on another console.

But Arakawa, working in tandem with two American executive recruits who would become known as “the two Howards” — Howard Lincoln and Howard Philips — wouldn’t let go of the idea. Responding to focus-group surveys that said the Japanese Famicom was too toy-like and too, well, foreign-looking to succeed in the United States, he got Nintendo’s engineers to redesign the externals to be less bulbous, less garish, and less shiny. He also gave the Famicom a new, less cutsy name: the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. The only significant technical update Nintendo made for North America was a new state-of-the-art handshaking system for making sure that every cartridge was a legitimate, licensed Nintendo game; black-market cartridges duplicated by tiny companies who hoped to fly under the radar of Nintendo’s stringent licensing regime had become a real problem on the Famicom. Tellingly, the lockout system was by far the most technically advanced aspect of the NES.

The Nintendo Entertainment System

The Nintendo Entertainment System

The new NES made its public debut at last at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1985. Few in the home-computer trade press — the videogame trade press didn’t really exist anymore — paid it any real attention. The big news of the show was rather the new Jack Tramiel-led Atari’s 16-bit ST computer. Computer Gaming World was typical, mentioning the NES only as a passing bit of trivia at the end of a long CES feature article: “Nintendo even offered an entirely new game system.” Clearly Arakawa and company had an uphill climb before them.

They deliberately started small. They would sell the NES first in New York City only — chosen because Arakawa considered it the most cynical and challenging place to market a new gadget in the country, and, as the old song says, “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.” Starting with a warehouse full of the first 100,000 NESs to arrive from Japan and a $50 million war chest, Arakawa and the two Howards personally visited virtually every toy and electronics store in the five boroughs to press flesh and demonstrate the NES to skeptical managers and proprietors — and (hopefully) to take orders when they were finished. Meanwhile Nintendo blitzed the airwaves with advertising. They managed to sell 50,000 NESs in New York alone that Christmas season — not bad for an unknown gadget in a field that everyone, from the most rarefied pundit to the most ordinary Joe or Jane on the street, considered to be yesterday’s fad.

From that promising start they steadily expanded: first to that other taste-maker capital Los Angeles, then to Chicago, to San Francisco, to Dallas and Houston, and finally nationwide. Sales hit the magic 1 million mark well before the end of 1986. Cheap and cheerful and effortless in its lack of fiddly disk drives and keyboards, the NES was selling by that point as well as the Commodore 64, and far better than any other home computer. In the NES’s second year on the market it eclipsed them all to such an extent as to make continued comparison almost pointless: 3 million NESs were sold during those twelve months alone. And, astonishingly, it was still just getting started. During 1988, 7 million NESs were sold, to go with 33 million cartridges, each of which represented yet more profit for Nintendo. Lifetime NES sales topped 30 million in 1990, by which time one out of every three American homes could boast one of these unassuming gray boxes perched underneath the television. Total NES and Famicom lifetime sales reached a staggering 75 million in 1992; as many Nintendos were by then in the world as all PCs, whether found in homes or businesses or schools, combined. Even the Atari VCS in the heyday of the first videogame fad had never been able to boast of numbers like this.

Because Nintendo had come into the console market when it was universally considered dead, they had been able to reinvent it entirely in their own image. Just as “Atari” had once been a synonym for videogames in general, now “Nintendo” threatened to become the same for a new generation of players. Savvy about branding and marketing in a way that Atari had never quite managed to be, Nintendo felt compelled to actively push against this trend by aggressively protecting and limiting the use of their trademarks; they didn’t want people buying a new “Nintendo” that happened to have the name of Sega, Sony, or 3DO stamped on its case.

Nintendo’s penetration of the North American market could (and doubtless has) serve as the basis of an MBA course in marketing and brand-building. Starting from the less than nothing of a dead industry replete with consumer ill-will, coming from a foreign nation that was viewed with fear and mistrust by many Americans, Nintendo of America built one of the largest and most insanely loyal customer bases the American economy has ever known. They did it by tying their own brand to brands their target demographic was known to already love, like Pepsi and McDonald’s. They did it by building Nintendo stores within stores in major chains from Macy’s to Toys “R” Us, where kids could browse and play under the benevolent gaze of Mario while their parents shopped. (By 1991, Nintendo alone represented 20 percent of Toys “R” Us’s total revenues, and seven of their ten best-selling single products.) They did it by building a massive mailing list from the warranty cards that their young customers sent in, then using contests and giveaways to make every single one of them feel like a valued member of the new Generation Nintendo. They did it by publishing a glossy magazine, Nintendo Power, full of hints and tips on the latest games and all the latest news on what was coming next from Nintendo (and nothing on what was coming from their competitors). They did it by setting up a hotline of “Nintendo Game Counselors,” hundreds of them working at any one time to answer youngsters’ questions about how to get through this tricky level or kill that monster. They did it by relentlessly data-mining to find out what their customers liked about their games and what they didn’t, and crafting new releases to hit as many players as possible precisely in their sweet spots. They did it by spending up to $5 million on a single 30-second television commercial, four or five times the typical going rate, making the new commercials for a new Nintendo game an event in themselves. They did it by making sure that Mario and Zelda and their other iconic characters were everywhere, from televisions shows to records, from lunch boxes to bed sheets. And they did it by never worrying their customers with the sorts of metrics that the home-computer makers loved: kilobytes and megabytes and colors and resolutions and clock speeds and bit counts. The NES was so thoroughly locked down that it was years before there was any published information available at all on what was really contained within those ubiquitous gray plastic shells.

If it can all sound a little soulless when laid out like that, well, few in business would argue with the end results. Nintendo seemed to be becoming more American than most Americana. “A boy between 8 and 15 without a Nintendo is like a boy without a baseball glove,” wrote Hobby World magazine in 1988. In 1990 a survey found Mario to be more recognizable to American children than that most American of all cartoon icons — Mickey Mouse.

And where did all of this leave the established American computer-game industry? That was a question that plenty in said industry itself were asking with ever-increasing frustration and even desperation. Total sales of computer games published on all platforms in 1989 totaled about $300 million; total sales for Nintendo cartridges, $1 billion. It wasn’t supposed to have gone like this. No one in computer games had seen anything like Nintendo coming. They, the computer-game industry, were supposed to have been the next big wave in American home entertainment — a chicken in every pot and a home computer in every living room. Instead this Japanese upstart had stolen their thunder to such an extent as to render their entire industry an afterthought, a veritable non-entity in the eyes of most financial analysts and venture capitalists. Just to add insult to the injury, they were being smothered by thoroughly obsolete 8-bit technology when they could offer consumers audiovisual feasts played on Amigas and Atari STs and IBM PS/2s with VGA graphics. A computer-game designer with Electronic Arts saw unnerving parallels between his own industry and another American industry that had been devastated by Japan in the previous decade:

The best companies and the best programmers were making computer games. But the Nintendo player didn’t care about the sophisticated leaps we were making on computers — the frame rate of the images or incredible sound. They just wanted fun. It was like we were making gas guzzlers and the Japanese were making subcompacts.

At street level the situation didn’t look much better. Fred D’Ignazio, a columnist for Compute!’s Gazette, shares a typical story:

My kids and I used to play games on our home computer — games like Epyx’s The Legend of Blacksilver, SSI’s Questron II, EA’s Jordan vs. Bird: One-on-One, Gamestar’s Take Down, Arcadia’s Aaargh!, and, of course gobs and gobs of good educational games.

Then the Nintendo landed, and things haven’t been the same since. The Nintendo runs day and night. (We’re not even allowed to shut off the machine when we go to bed because there’s always a game in progress — and there’s no disk drive to back it up.) Meanwhile, I don’t think our little home computer has been fired up in weeks.

The computer that was most damaged by Nintendo’s invasion of North America was undoubtedly the Commodore 64. It was very cheap in computer terms, but once you added in the cost of the essential disk drive it was nowhere near as cheap as the NES. And it was still a computer, even if a computer that had long been used primarily for playing games. You had to type in arcane commands to get a game started, had to wait for the game to load, often had to shuffle disks in and out of the drive and do a lot more waiting as you actually played. A Compute!’s Gazette reader shares the story of her attempt to introduce her Nintendo-loving eight-year-old nephew to the joys of Commodore 64 gaming:

As he looked through my 64 software to pick out a game, I started to give directions on how to handle the software and disk drive. Before I could finish he said, “I just want to use a cartridge and start playing.” After about fifteen minutes into a game he said, “This is great, but how come it takes so long to start the game again and why do I have to keep turning the disk over and over all the time?” Shortly after, he started complaining that his hand was too small for the joystick. He tried three other joysticks, but he either had the same problem or the joystick didn’t have the dexterity needed to play the game. He then said, “I wish I could use my Nintendo controls on your Commodore.” Soon after, he quit and went right to his Nintendo.

The Commodore 64 was in a very difficult position, squeezed from below by Nintendo and squeezed from above by the Amiga and Atari ST and, most of all, by ever more consumer-friendly MS-DOS-based machines from companies like Tandy, which were beginning to sport hard disks, crisp VGA graphics, sound cards, and mice. There wasn’t much that Commodore’s aged little breadbox could offer in response to a feature set like that. In the battle versus Nintendo for the low end, meanwhile, all of the immense force of playground public opinion was arrayed against the Commodore 64. The 64 was clunky and slow and ugly. It was the machine your big brother used to play games on, the one your parents kept pushing you toward to learn programming or to play educational (blech!) games. The Nintendo was the machine that all your friends played on — the same friends who would look on you as a freak if you tried to get them to play a computer game with you.

If you think that hardcore Commodore 64 users accepted this changing world order peacefully, you don’t have much experience with the fanatic platform loyalties of the 1980s. Their heated opinions on the 64’s Nintendo crisis spilled much ink on the pages of the remaining 64-centric magazines, moving through spasms of denial (“If Nintendo has the ability to keep its users captured, why do my two nephews keep pestering me to let them play the games that I have for my 64?”), advice (“Commodore could bring out some new peripherals like a light gun to play shooting games or a keyboard to make use of the superior sound of the 64”), and justification (“This letter was typed on a 64. Let’s see any Nintendo do that!”). When all else failed, there was always good-old-fashioned name-calling: “The word-processing capability of the 64 is a pointless feature to most Ninnies, since the majority of them don’t seem to be able to read and write anyway. Most of the Ninny chic was built on the fact that a baboon could operate it.”

None of this raging against the dying of the light could make any difference. The Commodore 64 went into an undeniable decline in 1988. That decline became a free fall in 1989, and in 1990 the 64 was effectively declared dead by the American software industry, with virtually every publisher terminating support. The other great 8-bit survivor, the Apple II, hung on a little longer thanks to an entrenched user base in schools and small businesses, but when Apple finally discontinued all production of the line in 1993 the news was greeted by most publishers with a shrug: “I didn’t know those old things were still being made!”

The computer-game publishers’ reactions to Nintendo were complicated, ofttimes uncertain, occasionally downright contradictory. With Nintendo rapidly taking over what used to be the low end of the computer-game market, many publishers felt emboldened to refocus their energies on the still slowly growing higher end, particularly on all those new consumer-oriented clones from Tandy and others. Plenty of publishers, it must be said, weren’t really all that sad to see the 64 go. The platform had always been tricky to develop for, and its parent company was still widely loathed for heaps of very good reasons; everyone in the industry seemed to have at least one Commodore horror story to tell. Many had come to see the 64 during its years of dominance as an albatross holding back ambitions that would have been realizable on the bigger, more powerful platforms. Now they were at last free to pursue those grander schemes.

At the same time, though, the Commodore 64 had been their cash cow for years, and there remained the question of whether and how soon all those bigger machines would make up for its loss. Certainly they failed resoundingly to take up the slack in 1989, a bad year for the computer-game industry and a great one for Nintendo. Electronic Arts, the closest thing the industry as a whole had to a bellwether, had their worst year ever that year, leaving some investors openly calling for the resignation of founder Trip Hawkins.

As unhappy as the majority of industry old-timers remained with the Nintendo-dominated state of affairs in digital games in general, that $1 billion in annual cartridge revenue and massive mainstream penetration was awfully tempting. As early as 1988, it seemed that just about everyone was discussing adapting their computer games to the NES, and a fair number were swallowing their pride to approach Nintendo with hat in hand, asking for a coveted license to make NES games. In addition to the sheer size of the Nintendo market, it also had the advantage that piracy, which many in the computer-game industry continued to believe was costing them at least half of the revenues they would otherwise be enjoying, was nonexistent there thanks to those uncopyable cartridges and the NES’s elaborate lockout system.

Activision,1 who had enjoyed their greatest success by far in the old glory days of the Atari VCS, jumped onto the Nintendo bandwagon with perhaps the most enthusiasm of all. Activision’s head, the supremely unsentimental Bruce Davis, often sounded as if he would be perfectly happy to abandon computers altogether, to make Activision exclusively a publisher of videogame cartridges again: “If hardware companies are designing a machine for one purpose, they will do a better job than on a multi-function machine.”

But it’s the more unlikely NES converts that provide the best evidence of just how far Nintendo had come and just how much pressure the traditional computer-game industry was feeling. The NES began to get quite a number of ports of computer-game fare that no one would ever have imagined trying to put on a machine like this just a year or two earlier. Origin, for instance, put out NES versions of Ultima III and Ultima IV, and Lucasfilm Games ported Maniac Mansion. (See Douglas Crockford’s “The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion for a description of the hoops publishers like Lucasfilm had to jump through to meet Nintendo’s stringent content restrictions.) Even SSI, whose traditional stock-in-trade of turn-based, cerebral, complicated strategy games was about as far from the whimsy of Mario and Zelda as you could get, moved Pool of Radiance over to the NES. Computer Gaming World, the journal of choice for those same cerebral strategy gamers, tried to rope in Mario fans with a new magazine-within-a-magazine they dubbed “Video Gaming World.”

Few of these initiatives bore all that much fruit. The publishers may have found a way to get their games onto the NES, but said games remained far from the sort of fare most Nintendo players were interested in; suffice to say that Nintendo never had to worry about any of these titles eclipsing Mario. Still, the fact that so many computer-game publishers were making such an effort shows how scary and uncertain Nintendo was making their world. Perhaps the most telling moment of all came in August of 1990, when an embattled Trip Hawkins announced that Electronic Arts would be jumping into the console space as well. This was the same Trip Hawkins who had written a commitment to “stay with floppy-disk-based computers only” into Electronic Arts’s first business plan, who had preached the gospel of home computers as successors to videogame consoles as loudly and proudly as anyone in his industry. Now he and his company were singing a very different tune. Bing Gordon, Hawkin’s right-hand man at Electronic Arts, compared home computers to of all unflattering things steam engines. James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, had imagined one in every home, with a bunch of assorted pulleys and gears to make it do different things. Instead modern homes had a bunch of more specialized machines: washing machines, food processors… and now Nintendos. Soon Hawkins would leave Electronic Arts to found 3DO, a company to make… you guessed it, a new videogame console.

Some, however, chose a more belligerent path than these can’t-beat’em joiners. Nintendo’s rigorous control of the NES’s walled garden rankled everyone in the older software industry; this just wasn’t how their business was done. They believed that Nintendo was guilty of restraint of trade, antitrust violations, you name it. Particularly enraging was Nintendo’s complete control of the manufacturing pipeline for NES cartridges. Leveraging those data-mining systems of theirs, more sophisticated than anyone had heretofore ever dreamed of, Nintendo made sure that the supply of new games was always slightly less than the demand for them, thereby creating a hype for each new title as a hot, desirable status symbol among the Nintendo Generation and, most of all, avoiding the glut of games piled up in warehouses — and, eventually, landfills — that had marked the Great Videogame Crash of 1983. But when American publishers saw their games produced in insufficient quantities to become the hits they believed they might otherwise have been, they cried foul. The Software Publishers Association served as the disgruntled voice of the American software industry as a whole in what became a full-scale public-relations war against Nintendo.

The SPA believes that Nintendo has, through its complete control and single-sourcing of cartridge manufacturing, engineered a shortage of Nintendo-compatible cartridges. Retailers, consumers, and independent software vendors have become frustrated by the unavailability of many titles during the holiday season, and believe that these shortages could be prevented by permitting software vendors to produce their own cartridges.

American publishers felt certain that Nintendo was playing favorites, favoring their own games and those of their favorite third-party publishers — generally the ones from Japan — by manipulating production numbers and manipulating the sentiments of Generation Nintendo through the coverage they gave (or didn’t give) each game in Nintendo Power. “If I pissed Nintendo off,” runs a typical complaint, “I would get less product. My games would get hit in Nintendo Power and they’d get low ratings.” And the most surefire way to piss Nintendo off, at least according to this complainer, was to release a game for the NES’s first serious competitor, the Sega Genesis console that entered the United States in 1989.

There was plenty of tinder already lying about the public sphere, just waiting to be ignited by such rhetoric. All of the concerns about videogames that had been voiced by parents, educators, and politicians during the heyday of Generation Atari were now being dusted off and applied to Generation Nintendo. Now, however, they were given additional force by Nintendo’s very foreignness. Plenty of Americans, many of whom had still not completely forgiven Japan for Pearl Harbor, saw a nefarious agenda behind it all, a fifth column of Mario-obsessed youngsters who might come to undermine the very nation. “Notice the way Super Mario is drawn,” wrote one in a letter to a magazine. “He has the eyes of someone who has been brainwashed.” Lurking just below the surface of such complaints, unstated but by no means unconveyed, were old attitudes toward the Japanese as shifty characters who could never be trusted to follow the rules, whether in war or business. It all came down to “cultural” differences, they muttered disingenuously: “There’s more of a sharing of the pie by American companies. In Japan, it’s different: winners win big and losers lose.”

Hoping to capitalize on the burgeoning anti-Nintendo sentiment, in December of 1988 Tengen Games, a spinoff of Atari Games (which was itself the successor to the standup-arcade portion of the original Atari’s business), sued Nintendo in federal court for antitrust violations and monopolistic practices: “The sole purpose of the lockout system is to lock out competition.” Having found a way to defeat the much-vaunted lockout system through a combination of industrial espionage, reverse engineering, and good old social engineering — this is one of the few occasions in Nintendo’s history where one might accuse them of having been naive — Tengen simultaneously launched a few of their own unauthorized games for the NES.

Nintendo’s counterattack against Tengen was massive and comprehensive. Not only did they launch the expected blizzard of legal actions, but they made it clear to all of the stores that handled their products that there would be grave consequences if they chose to sell the Tengen games as well. Such threats ironically represented a far more clear-cut antitrust violation than anything found in Tengen’s original suit. When Tengen got the court to order Nintendo to cease and desist from such behavior, Nintendo allegedly only became more subtle. “You know, we really like to support those who support Nintendo, and we’re not real happy that you’re carrying a Tengen product,” a rep might say. “By the way, why don’t we sit down and talk about product allocations for next quarter? How many Super Marios did you say you wanted?” “Since it was illegal, there were always excuses,” remembers one retailer. “The truck got lost, or the ship from Japan never arrived.”

Tengen was determined to try their case against Nintendo first and foremost in the court of American public opinion. “Who gave Nintendo the power to decide what software the American public can buy?” they asked. The New York Times, for one, agreed with them: “A verdict in favor of Nintendo would probably have a spillover effect into the personal-computer industry, where it could have a chilling effect on the free flow of ideas and innovations that have characterized that market since its inception.” An opportunistic Congressman named Dennis Eckart launched a high-profile crusade against Nintendo that led to lots of heated rhetoric amid Congressional hearings and the involvement of several state Attorneys General and the Federal Trade Commission. Jack Tramiel of the other Atari (the one currently making the Atari ST computer), who had always viewed lawsuits as healthy business competition by other means, piled on with a suit of his own, claiming that by monopolizing the market Nintendo was keeping his own company from getting good software for its machines. “Nintendo has demonstrated its disregard for free and fair competition in America,” said Jack’s son and anointed successor Sam Tramiel.

Yet the anti-Nintendo sentiment in the country didn’t ultimately do much to help either of the two Ataris’ legal cases; the courts proved willing to buck that rising tide. In a landmark ruling against Tengen in March of 1991, Judge Fern Smith stated that Nintendo had the right to “exclude others” from the NES if they so chose, thus providing the legal soil on which many more walled gardens would be tilled in the years to come. Similarly, the Tramiels’ suit against Nintendo was definitively rejected in 1992, after having cost their company a great deal of time, energy, and most of all money it could ill afford. The other various and multifarious investigations into Nintendo’s business, of which there were far too many to summarize here, resulted in a mixed bag of vindications and modest slaps on the wrist that did nothing to alter Nintendo’s overall trajectory. Perhaps the best argument against Nintendo as a monopoly was the arrival of the company’s first competitors in the console space, beginning with Sega, who proved that it actually was still possible to carve out a non-Nintendo place of one’s own in the game-console industry that Nintendo had so recently resurrected.

Nintendo, then, was here to stay, as were Sega and other competitors still to come. The computer-game industry would just have to accept that and reckon with it as best they could. In the end, the threat from Japan proved not quite as apocalyptic as it had seemed during the darkest days of 1989. In 1990 computers could start to boast of a modest new buzz of their own, thanks to the new so-called “multimedia PCs” and a bunch of new games that took advantage of their capabilities. Having ceded the low ground to the consoles, computers had retained the high ground, a loyal constituency of slightly older, more affluent gamers who still had plenty of room in their hearts for the sort of big, high-concept strategy, adventure, and CRPG games that weren’t all that realizable on the more limited consoles. The computer-game industry grew again already in 1990, and by a double-digit percentage at that. The vibrant jungle of PC gaming would continue to bloom in a thousand ways at once, some of them productive, some of them dead ends, some of them inspiring, some of them kind of repugnant. And through it all, the jungle of PC gaming would remain interesting in ways that, at least for this humble writer, the fussily manicured walled garden of Nintendo has never quite managed to be. But whichever mode of distribution you personally favored, one thing became clear as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s: neither Generation Nintendo nor the emerging Generation Wintel would be going anywhere anytime soon.

(Sources: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes; Game Over by David Sheff; Compute!’s Gazette of May 1988, March 1989, August 1989, September 1989, October 1989; Computer Gaming World of September/October 1985 and June 1988; Amazing Computing of January 1989; materials in the SSI and Brøderbund collections at the Strong Museum of Play.)


  1. Activision changed their name to Mediagenic midstream in these events. Because I haven’t told the story behind that change yet, and in order to just generally avoid confusion, I simply refer to the company as “Activision” in this article. 

 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 4: Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance is one of the most important CRPGs of all time in terms of both design and the genre’s commercial history. Coming as it did near the end of the line for an 8-bit CRPG tradition that began in earnest with the original Ultima and Wizardry games back in 1981, it’s easy to see it as the culmination of that tradition, blending the ideas and approaches of its predecessors with its own brand new commercial trump card, the Dungeons & Dragons license. The latter was more than enough to move Pool of Radiance and the Gold Box line it spawned into place as the 1B to the Ultima series’s perennial 1A, replacing the Bard’s Tale games, whose own shooting star was now in the descendant. As Wizardry had been replaced by The Bard’s Tale not so long ago, so was The Bard’s Tale now replaced by the Gold Box.

My wife Dorte and I recently played through Pool of Radiance as the first stage in a grander project of trying to take the same party of characters through the entire four-game series that it begins. This article describes what we found therein.

Being the first game in a series that would spawn three direct sequels, Pool of Radiance limits your characters to somewhere between level 6 and 9, depending on class; this is strictly a low- to mid-level adventure, reserving the real power-gaming for its sequels. Still, there’s a big difference between level 1 and level 6, and the thrill of seeing your characters advance and grow in power, so much at the heart of an RPG’s appeal, is the greatest at the lower levels.

The story is appropriate to the characters’ somewhat limited powers. It’s surprisingly modest in scale and scope, at least within the over-the-top context of ludic fantasy in general. Instead of saving the world, you’re “only” out to save a little town called Phlan that’s been largely overrun with monsters in recent years. Like so much about Pool of Radiance, the scenario harks back to the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons experience, to iconic low-level adventures like Gary Gygax’s own The Keep on the Borderlands and the classic British module The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. In these, as in Pool of Radiance, the stakes for the campaign world are relatively low but the stakes for the players’ party couldn’t be higher. There are, thank God, no “Chosen Ones” or existential universal threats in Pool of Radiance, a welcome distinction that largely holds true throughout the Gold Box line.

In addition to the decidedly modest heights to which characters are allowed to rise in Pool of Radiance specifically, the need to fit the Gold Box games in general into TSR’s existing milieus tended to rein in such excesses. You can’t have every party saving the world when said world needs to be shared by hundreds of adventure modules, source books, computer games, and novels. Those who are invested in the Forgotten Realms as a setting will be able to situate Phlan on a map of the Realms and enjoy the lengthy explication of the region’s history and geography included with the game. Those like me who couldn’t really care less how Phlan fits into the greater Realms don’t have to worry about it.

More interesting to me is the game’s method of telling the more immediate story of your own party of adventurers. As in the contemporaneous Wasteland, much of that story is moved into an accompanying booklet of paragraphs. To my mind, though, Pool of Radiance‘s paragraph book is richer and more interesting than that of Wasteland. In addition to flavor text, you’ll also find maps, diagrams, and illustrations inside the paragraph book to further enrich the experience. And, while I wouldn’t accuse the writing of being precisely good, it is knowing and entertaining in its pulpy cheesiness — and really, how much more can one expect out of such an artificial narrative experience as a traditional monster-bashing CRPG? Dorte and I laughed at the writing a lot, but, hey, it was good-natured laughter; we didn’t go in expecting Shakespeare.

Pool of Radiance

When starting Pool of Radiance, the first order of business — after getting past the irritating code-wheel-based copy protection, that is — must be to create your six-character adventuring party. As was remarked often by disappointed purists back in the day, Pool of Radiance offers nothing close to a full implementation of the byzantine collection of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers. You can, for instance, choose among only the four core, archetypal character classes of fighter, cleric, magic user, and thief, combining them with the six races of human, dwarf, elf, gnome, half-elf, and halfling. Personally, I don’t consider such simplifications a negative at all really. Trust me, what’s here is more than (over)complicated enough. More on that later.

Don't you just love the 1980s permed hair and headband? Makes me want to listen to a little Olivia Newton John.

Don’t you love the 1980s permed hair and headband? Makes me want to listen to a little Olivia Newton John.

As usual for games of this tradition, Pool of Radiance lets you re-roll a character’s statistics as many times as you like to get someone you consider viable. Or, if you like, the game lets you bypass all of the virtual dice-rolling and just input starting ability scores of your choice for your characters. Implemented in the service of some ill-defined scheme to let you move your favorite tabletop characters into the computer game, the feature was promptly used by legions of cheaters to make parties full of super characters with the maximum score of 18 in every attribute. But the final joke was on them: Pool of Radiance punishes such players by scaling some of the fights to the overall power of the party, leading to some long, drawn-out combats for the cheaters that those who play fair will breeze through. As we’re beginning to see already, this game does have a way of proving itself more cleverly designed than one initially wants to give it credit for.

You can combine male heads with female bodies and vice versa when creating a portrait for your character, a feature apparently left in because it amused SSI's programmers. Combined with the questionable fashion choices, the results can be kind of horrifying.

You can combine male heads with female bodies and vice versa when creating a portrait for your character, a feature apparently left in because it amused SSI’s programmers. Combined with the questionable fashion choices, the results can be kind of horrifying.

You can also choose what each character’s “tabletop miniature” will look like, a feature reaching all the way back to Dungeons & Dragons‘s earliest roots in hardcore miniatures wargaming. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see much difference in the icons with these pixelated graphics.

Pool of Radiance

Once you’ve put your party together, you can finally begin the game proper. It opens with your arrival by boat at the last remaining human enclave in the once-thriving village, and a brief guided tour thereof by a representative of the town. The screen layout will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played a Wizardry or Bard’s Tale game. I would say, however, that just the guide’s introduction alone already contains more text and story content than either of those games.

After the guide is finished, you can start to explore. The opening area is devoid of monsters and completely safe (well, almost; stay out of taverns for a while). It contains all the expected accoutrements of a CRPG home base: shops of various sorts, temples for healing, a training hall for leveling up.

Pool of Radiance

It wouldn’t be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons if the shops didn’t offer a healthy selection of Gary Gygax’s beloved but incomprehensible-to-the-rest-of-us Medieval arms. (“How many kinds of pole arms do you need, Gary?” asked Dave Arneson. “It’s a stick with a pointy thing on the end of it!”) Players of course always ignore all the Gallic gibberish and just pick out a trusty long sword, axe, or mace. None of the weird stuff is used by any of the creatures you fight, nor is it found in any of their treasure hordes, triggering a sneaking suspicion that the designers of Pool of Radiance had no more idea what any of this is than the rest of us do.

Pool of Radiance

Another nod to the classic tabletop experience is the table of “tavern tales” found in the paragraph book, just like the ones found in Keep on the Borderlands and all those other early Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules. (How many modules start with the party meeting in a tavern and overhearing rumors about that nearby castle/dungeon/graveyard/monastery?)

Pool of Radiance

Your goals in Pool of Radiance are delivered in the form of commissions found at the city clerk’s office. Several are usually available at any one time, giving the game a welcome non-linearity. As you carry out commissions, you return to the clerk to check them off your to-do list and to receive rewards in the form of experience and money. The whole process is immensely satisfying. As you build up your party, you venture further and further afield, claiming back more and more of Phlan from the monsters. This modest exercise in urban renewal feels far more rewarding than the elaborate save-the-world plots found in most CRPGs.

Another thing that happens as you complete commissions is that you gain a better and better overview of Phlan and its environs as a whole, learning how it all fits together. As usual in such old-school CRPGs as this one, each area is a fixed size, of 16 by 16 squares in this case. Yet SSI made the effort to make them fit together in logical, even intriguing ways to build a larger environment. If you can manage to get yourself in the right frame of mind, mapping really does become one of Pool of Radiance‘s pleasures. Dorte, a spatial-puzzle-loving fan of Carcassonne and Blokus in all the ways I am not, is the cartographer when we play Gold Box games. (I’m the driver; she wants nothing to do with that quirky interface.) I caught her from time to time when we weren’t playing redrawing and repositioning and even taping together her level maps to create a grand plan of Phlan: “This is fun!”

Making mapping far more fun in Pool of Radiance is the game’s complete disinterest in all of the nonsense that’s usually associated with it. There are no spinners or teleports or other artificial time-extenders and frustration-inducers. Unlike The Bard’s Tale, Pool of Radiance has enough real content that it doesn’t need that stuff. Indeed, the designers bent over backward to make mapping as painless as possible. Your grid location on the current map is usually shown right there onscreen, as is the direction you’re currently facing; note the “5, 5” and the “E” respectively on the screenshot above. There’s even an overhead auto-map of sorts. It’s not quite ideal — doors don’t show up on it, nor for that matter anything else other than walls and corridors — but, hey, it shows that they were trying. It’s all part of a thoroughgoing theme of Pool of Radiance, that of duplicating most of the gameplay of its predecessors in the broadest strokes, but doing it all just a little bit better, a little bit smarter, and most of all with a little bit more mercy on you, the long-suffering player.

For instance, consider the case of the wandering monster. In Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale, entering a new area always brings a little thrill of excitement as you get to see what types of new critters now come after you. That excitement dissipates, however, as the same handful of monsters just keep coming at you. Pretty soon you just wish you could move around and finish drawing your map without being attacked by endless hordes of the same old same old.

Pool of Radiance fixes this problem, simply and ingeniously and without requiring much technical innovation at all. When you enter a new area, you do indeed find it populated with the expected horde of wandering monsters. Once you’ve fought and won a certain number of combats, though, they simply stop coming. Your overarching goal being to clear the monsters out of Phlan, this makes a great deal of thematic sense for this particular game. But more importantly, it makes a lot of sense as good game design in general. Combined with lots of interesting fixed encounters, far more than the one or two typical of a Wizardry or Bard’s Tale dungeon level, it keeps the game from ever descending into a dull grindfest. Just when you’re starting to get tired of a stream of samey encounters, they stop. I can’t overemphasize what a difference this one simple act of mercy makes for my own enjoyment of Pool of Radiance. Suddenly an entire genre of gaming that used to bore me becomes a pleasure. The older I get and the more loathe I become to waste my time on anything if I can help it, the more my first rule of game design becomes a match for my first rule of writing: don’t be boring.

Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance‘s adherence to that maxim extends to the times when you do have to fight; combat in this game is a magnificent experience. I think most fans of Pool of Radiance and the other Gold Box games would agree with me that their beating heart is the best combat engine yet devised for a CRPG at the time of their release. Indeed, some would argue that these games still haven’t been bettered in this respect if your definition of good CRPG combat is a cerebral, tactical, turn-based affair. (Granted, such a thing is not particularly in step with mainstream tastes these days.) There’s a welcome logic at play here that’s painfully absent from virtually all of the Gold Box series’s rivals. Because combat is what you spend the vast majority of your time doing in these old CRPGs, the designers of this one decided to take the time to make it really, really great.

And, like so much about the Gold Box games, the focus on intricate combat is also a perfect fit for the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons license. Many have accused that game of not being a role-playing game at all, rather a 1:1-scale wargame focusing on combat almost to the exclusion of all else. Whether you consider that description to be a criticism or not — one suspects that that’s exactly what many if not most players really wanted from the game anyway — Pool of Radiance does its inspiration proud. Just as combat is the essence of Dungeons & Dragons, combat is the essence of the Gold Box games.

Take, for instance, the inevitable mass-damage Fireball spell, a staple of just about every fantasy CRPG ever made. When your magic user gains access to Fireball in the latter stages of Pool of Radiance, it’s a big moment. Yet it’s still not something you can use quite as mindlessly as you can in other games. This Fireball spell has a set area of effect, and doesn’t discriminate between friend and foe. Therefore you need to place it very, very carefully to avoid nuking your own party. You also have to reckon with range, line of sight, and even the spell’s casting time when doing so; if your magic user gets hit while she’s busy casting a spell, she loses it. None of which is to say that a spell like Fireball isn’t wonderful. Quite the opposite: it’s all the more satisfying when a well-placed explosion takes out an entire rank of orcs. And then there’s Lightning Bolt, another spell you’ll acquire at about the same time as Fireball that’s even more tricky to set up just perfectly, and even more satisfying when it works. There are many layers to the onion of Gold Box combat, and they only multiply as you climb the ranks and build more powerful characters — and of course find yourself fighting more powerful monsters as you do so, often with special attacks of their own to go with unique immunities and vulnerabilities that demand you adjust your tactics constantly.

In fact, one might argue that when it comes to combat Pool of Radiance actually betters the typical tabletop experience as most real players knew it. Gary Gygax’s elaborate rules for combat presumed a lot of knowledge about where all of the various combatants were standing in relation to one another and the environment, but it was never entirely clear how to plot and keep track of all that without infinite time to draw up floor plans or construct scale models of the environment. But the computerized Dungeons & Dragons has no problem coming up with such plans on the fly, presenting each battle using wargamey “miniatures” that would have warmed Gygax’s heart and keeping track of all of the other complications that usually led to fudging, simplifying, and house-ruling the tabletop game. One might say that all those fiddly rules were just waiting all along for SSI to come along and make them actually playable. Gold Box combat rules. I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s so wonderful that I’m willing to forgive a lot about the rest of the game that surrounds it.

And that’s good because, almost paradoxically given how progressive Pool of Radiance is in many ways, there really is quite a lot to forgive here. The game’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness: almost every one of its numerous frustrating, infuriating qualities stems from an overzealous faithfulness to the fiddly rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

To begin with, there’s the racial level limits, which arbitrarily cap the maximum advancement in all classes except thief for all races except humans. The levels limits are something of a hidden poison pill whose effect won’t hit you until you import your old party with all of their hard-won experience into Pool of Radiance‘s sequel. It comes as a hard blow indeed when you realize that some of your stalwarts are going to be untenable because they can’t keep pace with the escalating power of the opponents they will be facing in that game and the ones that follow. All you can do is cast your old non-human characters aside and roll up new, human characters to replace them. This is terrible game design, all courtesy of our old friend Gary Gygax. Here’s his justification:

The character races in the AD&D system were selected with care. They give variety of approach, but any player selecting a non-human (part- or demi-human) character does not have any real advantage. True, some of those racial types give short-term advantages to the players who choose them, but in the long run, these same characters are at an equal disadvantage when compared to human characters with the same number of experience points. This was, in fact, designed into the game. The variety of approach makes role selection more interesting. Players must weigh advantages and disadvantages carefully before opting for character race, human or otherwise. It is in vogue in some campaigns to remove restrictions on demi-humans — or at least relax them somewhat. While this might make the DM popular for a time with those participants with dwarven fighters of high level, or elven wizards of vast power, it will eventually consign the campaign as a whole to one in which the only races will be non-human. Dwarves, elves, et al will have all the advantages and no real disadvantages, so the majority of players will select those races, and humankind will disappear from the realm of player character types. This bears upon the various hybrid racial types, as well.

Like so many of Gygax’s justifications, this one is patent nonsense. (I do, however, treasure the smirking reference to what’s “in vogue” — classic Gygax through and through.) The way to ensure that humans stay viable and desirable, if that’s a design goal, isn’t to cripple all of the other races so badly that they become pointless, but to offer some similar off-setting advantage to humans. Humans in TSR’s own Star Frontiers tabletop RPG, for instance, get to add some bonus points to the ability scores of their players’ choice, justified with a paean to humanity’s sheer jack-of-all-trades adaptability in contrast to the more specialized powers of the other races.

Pool of Radiance

We also have Gygax to thank for Pool of Radiance‘s convoluted method of handling spells. Unlike virtually every other CRPG but like tabletop Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a cleric or magic user’s list of spells in this game isn’t treated as a handy universal repository from which she can fire off the spell of her choice at will (as long, of course, as she still has the mana to do so). No, in the Gold Box games you have to memorize ahead of time the precise spells you think you will actually want to use on your next expedition. Because you usually don’t know precisely what kind of monsters you’ll be fighting in the course of said expedition, you’re continually being caught out with the wrong selection of spells. Run into a pack of disease-causing undead without having memorized Cure Disease? Too bad; reload back at camp and try a different spell arsenal. Run into the rare locked door that your fighters can’t bash in, and you don’t have Knock memorized? Take the long walk back to a safe area to rest and memorize it. There’s no strategy to any of this, just rote trial and error. The system is actively damaging to the pleasure induced by that magnificent combat engine. Because so many of the more specialized spells are useful only in specific situations, you end up treating every encounter as a nail and always having lots of Fireball hammers memorized to bash it with. How much better would it be to feel the thrill of satisfaction that comes with a well-timed Animate Dead, Blink, or Invisibility 10′ Radius?

One can only be thankful that SSI didn’t see fit to implement the tabletop rules’ requirement that characters collect a bunch of “material components” to cast most spells. (Interestingly, a similar system did show up in Ultima, with its system of “reagents.”) Presumably it was just too much to fit into a program that needed to run on a Commodore 64 — and thank God for that.

The most initially baffling of all the design choices in Pool of Radiance — baffling, that is, if you aren’t familiar with the tabletop game — is its handling of money. First of all, the game insists on dividing your funds into different types of coins — platinum, gold, electrum, ad nauseam — and keeping rigorous track of exactly how many of each coin your characters carry. It would be like a game with a contemporary setting telling you that you have 2 five-dollar bills, 2 one-dollar bills, 3 quarters, 1 dime, 1 nickel, and 7 pennies instead of just telling you you have $12.97. All because, once again, that’s how Gygax says you should do it. The Gold Box games are quite possibly the only CRPGs in history where your quest can hinge on whether you have the correct change for something. How’s that for heroic fantasy?

Pool of Radiance

And then there’s just so much money. Phlan and its environs are drowning in wealth. Because the weight of all of those individualized coins is meticulously tracked, you can’t carry it all; never have Dorte and I wished more for a bank than during our time in Phlan. Within a few hours, you’ll be leaving mountains of coins behind after encounters as a matter of course, dropping coins in the street, leaving shopkeepers 1000-platinum-piece tips after spending 10 gold pieces on a few arrows. Forget trying to reclaim the village from the monsters; there’s enough money in Phlan to buy each and every citizen a mansion in whatever is the Forgotten Realms’s equivalent of Beverly Hills. What on earth is going on here? Why would anyone design a game this way?

Well, what’s going on here is a vicious conflict between the needs of Pool of Radiance the computer game and the tabletop Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. Those rules are as persnickety about experience points as they are about most things, allowing Dungeon Masters to award them for exactly two things: killing monsters and finding treasure. A tabletop Dungeons & Dragons campaign is — or was meant to be — a slow-paced affair, with characters spending many months at each level. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide and elsewhere, Dungeon Masters are continually cautioned not to let their campaigns devolve into “Monty Haul” affairs where magic items and experience points are passed out like candy. Yet a CRPG like Pool of Radiance is in fact by necessity a Monty Haul affair. People don’t want to spend months waiting for their computer characters to level up. People want to see them move through the ranks in relatively short order, want a more concentrated dose of the RPG experience. So, SSI needed to increase the pace. The obvious way to do that was to hand out more experience more quickly. Yet they were bound to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules that coupled experience awards strictly to monsters killed and hordes looted. And now we begin to understand the broken economy: all that money is flying around strictly as a way of passing experience to characters without violating the letter of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules; the spirit of the rules is, of course, another matter entirely.

The natural next question is to ask why SSI felt themselves bound so strictly to the tabletop rules, even when it proved so damaging to the finished product. The obvious supposition is that TSR, fiercely protective of Dungeons & Dragons as they always were both before and after the era of Gary Gygax, told them they were so bound. The contemporary adventure-game reviewer and columnist Shay Addams, who may or may not have been reporting information gleamed from contacts at SSI, claimed that “TSR insisted that SSI stick by the original rules, and they had final say on the finished product.” While the latter assertion is certainly true, the idea of an overly pedantic, nitpicky TSR is somewhat cast into doubt by the fact that people who were associated with the Gold Box project at SSI don’t tend to describe the relationship in those terms today. Instead we hear always of a genuinely collaborative relationship filled with lots of give and take, a relationship so warm that it spawned cross-company friendships that persisted in some cases long after both companies ceased to exist. Further, one has to presume that the folks SSI was working with at TSR were all too aware themselves of what a confusing muddle Advanced Dungeons & Dragons could be, for they were hard at work on a second edition of the rules that was meant to untangle some of their Gygaxian knots at the very time that SSI was developing Pool of Radiance.

But, whether the compulsion to so literally translate so many rules from tabletop to desktop arose from within TSR or SSI, Addams is right about its effect: “That restriction must have been creatively inhibiting, for it means ignoring much of what game designers have learned about writing RPGs designed to be played on a computer — which are decidedly different from face-to-face games.” Advanced Dungeons & Dragons proved a double-edged sword for Pool of Radiance, the source of much of what is good in it and most of what is bad. I’m not sure that I’ve ever reviewed another game that so freely mixes really good ideas with really bad ones. Too often Pool of Radiance feels like playing tabletop Dungeons & Dragons with the most humorlessly pedantic Dungeon Master ever.

On balance, though, the good outweighs the bad — which I must say kind of surprises me, given that there’s so very much I love to complain about in this game. One big difference-maker is certainly that the thing that Pool of Radiance does best, tactical combat, it does so insanely well. And then when we get out of the weeds of the irritating minutiae of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and look at Pool of Radiance in a more holistic sense, those shocking progressive tendencies do overshadow the pedanticism in the final reckoning. Unlike so many of its contemporary CRPGs, there’s a sense about this one that its designers actually tried to walk a mile in their players’ shoes. Pool of Radiance is very solvable in comparison to an Ultima with its fragile string-of-pearls approach to plotting, and doesn’t wear out its welcome like a Bard’s Tale with its boring empty mazes and boring endless combats. If you told me that you only planned to play one 1980s-vintage CRPG in your life, I’d tell you to make it this one.

Thankfully, it’s recently become much easier to do just that. Pool of Radiance and its three sequels are now available on GOG.com along with all the other Gold Box games, ready to run on modern computers. These versions emulate the MS-DOS versions, which are faster, prettier (relatively speaking), and easier to play than the Commodore 64 originals. (Trust me, you don’t want to play 8-bit CRPGs in their 8-bit incarnations, unless you really, really enjoying swapping mounds of disks and waiting, waiting, waiting at every turn.)

I won’t lie to you: the learning curve can be a little steep with these games. To try to alleviate that just a bit, I’ll close today by offering some hard-won tips Dorte and I assembled after our own recent play-through. Crude and ugly and opaque though it may appear in the beginning, stick with it for an hour or two and you may be surprised at just how compelling Pool of Radiance can become. Sure, you might find yourself complaining the whole time you play; it’s just that kind of game. But give it a fair chance and soon you might not want to quit playing either. And that’s the real test, isn’t it?


 

A Few Tips On How to Best Enjoy Your Time in Phlan (and Beyond)

  • Take the time (and paper and ink) to print out the paragraph book rather than relying on a digital copy. There’s something to be said for the old-school physicality of flipping through actual pages to find notes and clues. And of course if you have a physical copy it’s easy to put a tick next to the entries you’ve read. Don’t peek at entries you haven’t been asked to read, and certainly don’t just read the paragraph book straight through. This game deserves to be played fair, on its own terms.
  • Plenty of modern players will want to bail as soon as they get a look at Pool of Radiance‘s bizarre-by-modern-standards keyboard-only interface. But have faith: yes, the interface is bizarre, but it’s consistent in its bizarreness. In general, you move up and down through vertical menus of nouns by using the 7 and 1 key on the numeric keypad, and select from horizontal menus of verbs by pressing the first letter of your choice. Every option available to you at any given time is always displayed onscreen, showing that SSI was by no means totally ignorant of the principles of good interface design. You can move your party about the world and move the cursor about the scene of combat using the numeric keypad as well. Within a few hours the interface will start to feel like a comfortable old shoe. No, really. Trust me.
  • Especially if you’re planning to take the grand tour through all three of Pool of Radiance‘s sequels, you’ll want to think carefully about the party you put together. All of the non-human races are pretty much right out, despite their ability to multi-class and other special abilities, because they come with crippling level limits that you will likely hit well before the end of the second game. As for classes, Dorte and I did quite well with a party made up of three fighters, two clerics, and one magic user. (I’m not a big fan of thieves, although their back-stabbing ability can be fun.) Having an extra cleric on-hand to heal and fight alongside your fighters can really come in handy at the lower levels, and having two clerics to turn undead in the graveyard, one of the toughest parts of Pool of Radiance, can be a lifesaver in many combats. In the second game you get the chance to turn one of your clerics and perhaps one of your fighters into magic users by doing something called dual-classing — which, yes, is different from multi-classing. Use it to build an offensive-magic-heavy party for the later games, where spells count for more and more and swords for less and less.
  • You’ll want to take your time making each individual character, re-rolling as many times as necessary to get one that will be viable in the long term; attribute scores, if not quite set in stone, can be increased only very rarely throughout the series. I recommend that each character should have a score of at least 17 in her class’s core attribute (Strength for fighters, Intelligence for magic users, Wisdom for clerics, Dexterity for thieves). Every character should have at least a 15 in Dexterity and Constitution, respectively to be able to move quickly in combat and to get bonus hit points with every level gain. And even the less critical ability scores shouldn’t be too awful; I would set 12 as an absolute floor. In order to dual-class in a later game, a character has to have at least a 15 in the core attribute of her old class and at least a 17 in that of her new; keep that in mind when planning your party and rolling your characters.
  • Buy a hand mirror for each character in one of the general stores in Phlan right away. No, it’s not vanity (although some of the hairstyles in Pool of Radiance might make you think otherwise). Trust me, you’ll thank me when the time comes.
  • Buy a bow and arrows for each of your fighters to go with their melee weapons. Thanks to the turn-based combat, you can switch back and forth at will on the fly, and it’s great to be able to cut down enemies at a distance.
  • Stay out of taverns early in the game to avoid the classic first-time Pool of Radiance experience of getting your new party embroiled in a massive, baffling free-for-all of a bar fight that leaves them all dead and you wondering what the hell just happened. I suspect that more players have bailed permanently on the game right there than at any other point.
  • Maps of all of Pool of Radiance are available in many places, including the official clue book that comes with the game if you buy it from GOG.com. Use them if you must. Before you do, though, at least take a stab at mapping the old-fashioned way. Again, the physicality of mapping on graph paper adds an ineffable something to the experience.
  • When pursuing commissions, remember that you don’t need to do them in the order they’re presented to you. If one is proving too difficult, save it for later and try another.
  • Dead trolls come back to life after a certain number of combat rounds. To prevent this, either kill them with fire — tricky to do at the lower levels — or keep a character standing on the exact spot where the troll died.
  • Early in your travels, you’ll encounter a notoriously difficult room full of trolls. Don’t feel like you have to defeat them right there and then. Go on and build up your strength a bit more, then come back for them.
  • To tackle the graveyard, your entire party needs to be equipped with silver or (preferably) magical weapons. Remember to use your cleric(s) to turn undead at the beginning of every fight involving undead monsters!
  • Dead, in the sense of 0 hit points, is not usually dead in Pool of Radiance. Unless the character was hit very hard, you can usually keep her alive but unconscious for the rest of the fight by bandaging her or casting Cure Light Wounds on her. You’ll definitely want to do so, given that…
  • Another one of Pool of Radiance‘s hidden poison pills is that if you pay to have a character resurrected in a temple (not like you don’t have enough money for it!) she loses 1 point of Constitution, a stiff price to pay indeed given how precious ability scores are. Think long and hard about whether that’s a price you’re willing to pay, or whether you should just try that last fight again.
  • You can convert your lower-denomination coins to platinum by “Pooling” your money inside a shop, then picking it up — or some portion of it — before you leave. This gives you more buying power for less weight carried. Even better, you can store your wealth yet more efficiently as gems and jewelry that you can sell whenever you have need of a little walking-around money.
  • If you have a set of the old first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers lying around, or are willing to spring for digital copies, it’s a good idea to consult them when you aren’t sure what something does or is. Some of the more obscure magic items and spells in Pool of Radiance aren’t properly explained anywhere else. Dorte thought these musty old books with the cheesy covers were hilarious when I dug them out — she persisted in calling them “the nerd books” — but she did keep asking me to look stuff up in them. Which brings me to…
  • Play with a partner, one of you mapping and one of you driving. Like all good things in life, a good game becomes even better when it’s shared. And wouldn’t you like to have someone to high-five when you use all your (combined) wits to win a tough fight?

(Sources: Shay Addams’s review of Pool of Radiance is found in the October 1988  Questbusters, and the Gary Gygax quote in the September 1979 Dragon.)

 
 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 3: From Tabletop to Desktop

Joel Billings of SSI never had a whole lot of use for Dungeons & Dragons, TSR, or RPGs in general. In this he was hardly unique among hardcore wargamers. The newer hobby had arisen directly from the older, forcing each and every grognard to a judgement and a reckoning. Some wargamers saw in RPGs the experiential games they had really been wanting to play all along; they jumped onto the RPG bandwagon and never looked back. Others, the ones who found Montgomery and Rommel far more interesting than Frodo and Sauron, scoffed at RPGs and their silly fantasies and clung all the tighter to their Avalon Hill and SPI boxes. And of course some split the difference, playing a little of this and a little of that.

Joel counted himself among the scoffers. His one experience with playing Dungeons & Dragons hadn’t been a positive one: a sadistic Dungeon Master killed his whole party before he had even begun to figure out what was going on. “This is the stupidest game I’ve ever seen,” he concluded. He never felt seriously tempted to try it again.

By the time that SSI was off and running, Joel and other wargame stalwarts like him had more reasons than ever to dislike RPGs. The late 1970s, you’ll remember, had seen the wargame at its commercial zenith, the RPG the exciting, fast-rising upstart genre. As the 1980s dawned and Dungeons & Dragons exploded into a popularity no wargame had ever dreamed of, it was hard not to blame one genre’s rapid rise for the other’s slow decline. Already in 1982 SPI, alongside Avalon Hill one of the twin giants of wargaming, found themselves in a serious financial crisis brought on partly by the general decline of the wargame market, partly by the general recession afflicting the American economy at the time, and partly by general mismanagement all too typical of their hobbyist-driven industry. TSR, now more than ten times the size of SPI thanks to the Dungeons & Dragons fad, gave them a secured loan of $425,000 to keep their doors open a while longer.

It will likely never be known whether what happened next was the result of Machiavellian scheming or just Gary Gygax and the Blume brothers’ usual bumbling approach to running TSR. Just two weeks after giving SPI the loan, TSR inexplicably called it in again. Having already used TSR’s money to satisfy their other creditors, SPI had no possible way to pay back the loan. TSR therefore foreclosed, announcing that they were taking over SPI. Shortly thereafter, realizing that SPI was so financially upside down as to become a negative asset on their books, they announced that what they had actually meant to say was that they were assuming ownership of all of SPI’s assets but none of their debts. When SPI’s creditors balked at this brazen attempt by TSR to have their cake and eat it too, TSR negotiated to pay them off for pennies on the dollar; something was better than nothing, figured the creditors. The end result was an SPI bankruptcy filing in effect if not in fact.

But any old wargamer who thought that the TSR purchase heralded better days for the company and the hobby was quickly disabused of that notion. TSR proved a terrible steward of SPI’s legacy, alienating their entire old design team so badly that they left en masse to reform as a new Avalon Hill subsidiary called Victory Games. Worse, TSR claimed that their acquisition of SPI’s assets had not included the paid-up subscriptions to SPI’s beloved house organ Strategy & Tactics; subscriptions were not assets at all, you see, but “liabilities.” Every Strategy & Tactics subscriber, even those who had splashed out a bundle for a “lifetime” subscription, would have to re-up immediately to continue receiving the magazine. And no, there would be no compensation for missed issues from the old regime. This act of betrayal of SPI’s most loyal customers didn’t just kill the most respected wargaming magazine in the world; it also, as Greg Costikyan puts it, shot the old subculture of wargaming in general in the head.

So, if a veteran wargamer like Joel Billings needed further reason to dislike all this Dungeons & Dragons silliness, there he had it. Trip Hawkins, a member of SSI’s board from the company’s inception, claims that he started telling Joel that he should branch out into CRPGs almost immediately after SSI was founded. But, although SSI quickly began to supplement their wargames with sports titles and other sorts of strategy games, Joel resisted CRPGs, saying that he preferred to publish “the games that he enjoyed personally.” RPGs, whether played on the tabletop or the desktop, clearly weren’t in that category.

Although Joel did nothing to encourage CRPG submissions, in late 1983 a fairly decent one arrived of its own accord. Written by two teenage brothers, Charles and John Dougherty, Questron had already ping-ponged around the industry a bit before it reached SSI. When the Dougherty brothers had sent it to Origin Systems, Richard Garriott had not only rejected it but told them in no uncertain terms to expect legal trouble if they dared to release something he considered to be so obviously derivative of his own Ultima games. Word of Garriott’s displeasure may very well have made the other major publishers shy away, until it ended up with the Doughertys’ long shot, nichey little SSI. Joel decided that, with a first entry in the genre all but gift-wrapped on his desk, he might as well dip a toe into these new waters and see how it went. SSI published Questron in February of 1984, albeit only after finding a way to placate an angry Garriott, who learned of their plans to do so at the January 1984 Winter Consumer Electronics Show and pitched a royal fit. Joel gave him a small stake in Questron‘s action and a small note on its box: “Game structure and style used under license of Richard Garriott.”

Questron

Questron proved a modest start to something very significant. The game, benefiting from the lack of new Ultima or Wizardry titles during 1984, did unexpectedly well. In fact, when the Commodore 64 port of the Apple II original shipped in August, it became the fastest-selling new release SSI had ever enjoyed. The final total would hit almost 35,000 copies, pretty good numbers for a company whose average game still failed to break 10,000 copies. Some meeting notes dated December 2, 1984, make the new thinking that resulted clear: “Going into fantasy games now, could really affect sales favorably.” A little over a month later, SSI was already going through something of an identity crisis: are we a “wargame company” or a more generalized “computer-game company,” more meeting notes plaintively ask.

But SSI would have a hard time building on the momentum of Questron in the time-honored game-industry way of turning it into a franchise. In the contract the Dougherty brothers had signed with SSI, the latter was granted a right of first refusal of a potential sequel. This put the Doughertys in essentially the same situation as a restricted free agent in sports: they were free to shop a potential Questron II to other publishers if they wished, but they had to allow SSI the chance to match any publisher’s offer before signing a final contract. Not understanding or choosing to ignore this stipulation, the Doughertys allowed themselves to be poached by none other than Trip Hawkins’s Electronic Arts, who, with The Bard’s Tale series still in the offing, were eager to hedge their bets with another potential new CRPG franchise. SSI knew nothing about what was going on until the Doughertys announced that they had gone over to the slicker, better-distributed Electronic Arts — farewell and thank you very much for everything. Feeling compelled to defend his own company’s interests, Joel sued Electronic Arts and the Doughertys. A potential Questron series remained in limbo, its momentum dissipating, while the lawsuit dragged on. The situation doubtless made for some strained times back at SSI’s offices, where board-member Trip Hawkins was still coming every month for the directors meeting.

The suit wasn’t settled until April of 1987, ostensibly at least largely in SSI’s favor. The Doughertys’ long-delayed sequel was published shortly thereafter by Electronic Arts, but under the new title of Legacy of the Ancients. Meanwhile the Doughertys were obliged to design, but not to program, a Questron II for SSI; the programming of the sequel could either be done in-house by SSI or outsourced elsewhere at their discretion. It ended up going to Westwood Associates, a frequent SSI contractor on ports and other unglamorous technical tasks who would soon be making a bigger name for themselves as a developer of original games. Released at last in February of 1988, Questron II felt rather uninspired, as one might expect given the forced circumstances of its creation. It did surprisingly well, though, outselling the first Questron by some 16,000 copies. Rather than its own merits, its success was likely down to increasing enthusiasm for CRPGs in general among gamers, and to other things going on that year that were suddenly making little SSI among the biggest names in the genre.

Questron II

In the immediate wake of Questron I‘s release and success, however, those events were still well in the future. Neither Joel Billings’s troubles with his two teenage problem children nor his personal ambivalence toward CRPGs deterred him from recognizing the potential that game had highlighted. Never a publisher to shy away from releasing lots of games, SSI added CRPGs to their ongoing firehose of new wargames. To Joel Billings the businessman’s pleasure if perhaps to Joel Billings the wargamer’s chagrin, the average SSI CRPG continued to do far, far better than the average wargame. Indeed, their very next CRPG(ish) game after Questron, an unusual action hybrid called Gemstone Warrior released in December of 1984, became their first game of any type to top 50,000 copies sold. The more traditional Phantasie — names weren’t really SSI’s strong suit — in March of 1985 also topped the magic 50,000 mark. Soon the CRPGs were coming almost as quickly as the wargames: Rings of Zilfin (January 1986, 17,479 sold); Phantasie II (February 1986, 30,100 sold); Wizard’s Crown (February 1986, 47,676 sold); Shard of Spring (July 1986, 11,942 sold); Roadwar 2000 (August 1986, 44,044 sold); Gemstone Healer (September 1986, 6030 sold); Realms of Darkness (February 1987, 9022 sold); Phantasie III (March 1987, 46,113 sold); The Eternal Dagger (June 1987, 18,471 sold); Roadwar Europa (July 1987, 18,765 sold).

As the list above attests, sales figures for these games were all over place, but trended generally a bit downward over time as SSI flooded the market. Yet one thing did remain constant: the average SSI CRPG continued to outsell the average SSI wargame by a healthy margin. (The only exception to this rule was Roger Damon’s remarkable Wargame Construction Set, which after its release in October of 1986 became a surprise hit, the first SSI game to crack 60,000 copies sold.) All of these SSI CRPGs — so many coming so close together that it’s difficult even for dedicated fans of the genre’s history to keep them all straight — occupied a comfortable if less than prestigious second rung in the industry as a whole. To describe them as the games you played while you waited for the next Ultima or The Bard’s Tale may sound unkind, but it’s largely accurate. Like SSI’s other games, they tended to be a little bit uglier and a little bit clunkier than the competition.

Wizard's Crown

At their best, though, the rules behind these games felt more consciously designed than the games in the bigger, more respected series — doubtless a legacy of SSI’s wargame roots. This quality is most notable in Wizard’s Crown. The most wargamey of all SSI’s CRPGs, Wizard’s Crown was not coincidentally also the first CRPG to be designed in-house by the company’s own small staff of developers, led by Paul Murray and Keith Brors, the two most devoted tabletop Dungeons & Dragons fans in the office. Built around a combat engine of enormous tactical depth in comparison to Ultima and The Bard’s Tale, it may not be a sustainedly fun game — the sheer quantity and detail of the fights gets exhausting well before the end, and the game has little else to offer — but it’s one of real importance in the history of both SSI and the CRPG. Wizard’s Crown and its sequel The Eternal Dagger, you see, were essentially a dry run for the series of games that would remake SSI’s image.

Coming off a disappointing 1986, the first year in which SSI had failed to increase their earnings over the previous year, Joel Billings was greeted with some news that was rapidly sweeping the industry: that TSR was interested in making a Dungeons & Dragons computer game, and that they would soon be listening to pitches from interested parties. To say that Dungeons & Dragons was a desirable license hardly begins to state the case. This was the license in CRPGs, the name that inexplicably wasn’t there already, a yawning absence about to become a smothering presence at last. Everyone wanted it, and had wanted it for quite some time. That group included SSI as much as anyone; once again pushing aside any misgivings about getting into bed with the company that had shot his own favorite hobby in the head, Joel had been one of the many to contact TSR in earlier years, asking if they were interested in a licensing deal. They hadn’t been then, but now they suddenly were. Encouraged by Murray and Brors and other rabid Dungeons & Dragons fans around the office, Joel decided to put on a “full-court press,” as he describes it, to spare no effort in trying to get the deal for his own little company. Sure, it looked like one David versus a whole lot of Goliaths, but what the hell, right?

The full list of Goliaths with which SSI was competing for the license has never been published, but in interviews Joel has mentioned Origin Systems (of Ultima fame) and Electronic Arts (of The Bard’s Tale fame) as having been among them. As for the other contenders, we do know that there were at least seven more of them. One need only understand the desirability of the license to assume that the seven (or more) must have been a veritable computer-game who’s who. “We were going head to head with the best in the industry,” remembers Chuck Kroegel, a programmer and project manager on SSI’s in-house development team.

SSI was duly granted their hearing, scheduled for April 8, 1987, at TSR’s Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, headquarters. With a scant handful of weeks to prepare, they scrambled desperately to throw together some technology demos; these felt unusually important to SSI’s pitch, given that they were hardly known as a producer of slick or graphically impressive games. Those with a modicum of artistic talent digitized some monster portraits out of the Monster Manual on a Commodore Amiga, coloring them and adding some spot animation. Meanwhile the programmers put together a scrolling three-dimensional dungeon maze, reminiscent of The Bard’s Tale but better (at least by SSI’s own reckoning), on a Commodore 64.

But it was always understood that these hasty demos were only a prerequisite for making a pitch, a way to show that SSI had the minimal competency do this stuff rather a real selling point. When SSI’s five-man team — consisting of Joel Billings, Keith Brors, Chuck Kroegel, the newly hired head of internal development Victor Penman, and Vice President of Sales Randy Broweleit — boarded their plane for Lake Geneva, they were determined to really sell TSR on a vision: a vision of not just a game or two but a whole new computerized wing of Dungeons & Dragons that might someday equal or eclipse the tabletop variant. The pitch document that accompanied their presentation has been preserved in the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. I want to quote its key paragraphs, the “Overview,” in full.

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons computer game system would be provided as a series of modules built around a central character-creation, combat, and magic system. The first release would be this central system, which would include a modest dungeon adventure. It would be followed by the release of a number of adventure modules suitable for beginning-level characters. With the passage of time, higher-level adventures and more character types would be offered. Editors which would permit users to create their own dungeons, outdoors, and cities would also be provided. The timing on the introduction of these later releases would be determined by market demand.

The first release would be the central system. It would be similar to the Player’s Handbook in that it would provide for the creation of a number of character classes, combat, and spells. The players would draw on these abilities to create their characters for adventuring. Also included in this first release would be an introductory dungeon adventure in which the computer program would perform as DM.

This first release would be followed by a number of adventure games similar to TSR’s dungeon and adventure modules. The earliest of these would be aimed at beginning characters. As time passed and players had an opportunity to build up more powerful characters, more challenging modules would be released.

It is anticipated that at least three game sets will be released as a result of periodic improvements in and expansions of the game system. Each of these would be built on an improved and expanded version of the central system. The systems would be kept upwardly compatible so that characters developed on earlier versions of the system could take advantage of its improvements. Dungeon and adventure modules would be created for each of these game sets.

At some point (to be determined by marketing considerations) a number of editors would be released. These editors would enable the users to create their own computer adventures. The first of these would be a Dungeon Master’s Guide-type package, which would provide instructions and tools for setting up the adventures and a Monster Manual-type package to provide monsters for these adventures (the monster disk might be released much earlier since we can see non-DMs wanting it). Specialized packages for creating outdoor adventures, city adventures, overland adventures, seafaring adventures, underwater adventures, etc., would be added to meet market demand.

SSI's original plan for a Dungeons & Dragons "product family," as presented at their pitch. You can see traces of what would come here -- the eventual "Gold Box" line of CRPGs would be grouped into three separate series, each offering the chance to import characters from one game into the next -- the idea of a central "game disk" and add-on "adventure modules" would be thankfully abandoned.

SSI’s original plan for a Dungeons & Dragons “product family,” as presented at their pitch. You can see glimmers of what would come later here — the eventual “Gold Box” line of CRPGs would be grouped into three separate series, each offering the chance to import characters from one game into the next — but the idea of a central “game disk” and add-on “adventure modules” would be thankfully abandoned.

In some ways, what this overview offers is a terrible vision. The Wizardry series had opted for a similar overly literal translation of Dungeons & Dragons‘s core-game/adventure-module structure, requiring anyone who wanted to play any of the later games in the series to first buy and play the first in order to have characters to import. The fallout from that decision was all too easy to spot in the merest glance at the CRPG market as of 1987: the Wizardry series had long since pissed away the position of dominance it had enjoyed after its first game to become an also-ran (much like SSI’s own CRPG efforts) to Ultima and The Bard’s Tale.

On the other hand, though, this overview is a vision, which apparently stood it in marked contrast to most other pitches, focused as they were on just getting a single Dungeons & Dragons game out there as quickly as possible so everyone could start to clean up. TSR innately understood SSI’s more holistic approach. With the early 1980s Dungeons & Dragons fad now long past, their business model relied less on selling huge quantities of any one release than in leveraging — some would say “exploiting” — their remaining base of hardcore players, each of whom was willing to spend lots of money on lots of new products.

Further, the TSR people and the SSI people immediately liked and understood one another; the importance of being on the same psychological wavelength as a potential business partner should never be underestimated. Born out of wargames, TSR seemed to have that culture and its values entwined in their very DNA, even after the ugly SPI episode and all the rest of the chaos of the past decade and change. Many of the people there knew exactly where scruffy little SSI was coming from, born and still grounded in the culture of the tabletop as they were. These same folks at TSR weren’t so sure about all those bigger, slicker firms. While Joel Billings may not have had a lot of personal use for Dungeons & Dragons, that certainly wasn’t true of many of his employees. Joel claims that the “bottom line” that sold TSR on SSI was “an R&D staff that knows AD&D games, plays AD&D games, and enjoys AD&D games.” They would feel “honored to be doing computer AD&D games. If you’re doing fantasy games, the AD&D game is the one to do.” Chuck Kroegel sums up SSI’s biggest advantage over their competitors in fewer words: “We wanted this project more than the other companies.” That genuine personal interest and passion, along with SSI’s idea that this would be a big, ambitious, multi-layered, perhaps era-defining collaboration — TSR had never been known for thinking small — were the important things. The details could be worked out later.

At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June — yes, it’s that landmark CES again — SSI and TSR announced their unlikely partnership, formally signing the contract right there at the show in front of the press and SSI’s shocked rivals. The contract was for five years of Dungeons & Dragons software, with options to renew thereafter. It would officially go into effect on January 1, 1988, although development of a planned torrent of products would start immediately.

There would be three distinct Advanced Dungeons & Dragons product lines. One line, which grew out of whole cloth during the negotiations, would be a series of “multi-player action/arcade games” that used settings and characters from TSR’s various novels and supplements, but otherwise had little to do with the tabletop game: “These games will focus on special aspects of AD&D, such as swordplay, spell-casting, and dungeon and wilderness exploration.” Having no particular competence in the area of action games, SSI would sub-contract with their European publishers, U.S. Gold, to make these games, drawing from the deep well of hotshot British game programmers to which U.S. Gold had access.

Another line evolved out of SSI’s original plan for a sort of “Dungeons & Dragons Construction Set.” Instead of letting Dungeon Masters make new computerized adventures — SSI and TSR, like many other companies, were worried about killing the market for future games by putting too good game-making tools in the hands of players — the Dungeon Master’s Assistant line would be designed to aid in the construction of adventures and campaigns for the tabletop game.

And finally there was the big line: a full-fledged implementation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as a series of CRPGs. The idea of a “central system” with “adventure modules” blessedly disappeared within a few months of the contract signing, replaced by a series of standalone games that would allow those who wished to do so to import the same party into each sequel; those who didn’t wish to do so, or who hadn’t played the earlier games at all, would still be able to create new characters in the later games.

The choice of a partner for this high-profile deal had been driven entirely by the creative types at TSR and the kinship they felt for SSI. That’s doubly surprising when you consider that it occurred well into the reign of Lorraine Williams, whose supposed dislike of games and gamers and constant meddling in the design process would later win her an infamous place in fan legend as the most loathed real-life villain in the history of the tabletop RPG. Whatever the veracity of the other claims made against her, in this case she ignored lots of very sensible questions to let her creative people have the partner they wanted. Could nichey little SSI improve their marketing and distribution enough to get the games in front of as many potential customers as someone like Electronic Arts? Could SSI raise the standards of their graphics and programming to make something attractive and slick enough to match the appeal of the Dungeons & Dragons trademark? In short, was SSI really up to this huge project, many times greater in scope than anything they’d done before? Lorraine Williams was betting five years of her flagship brand’s future, the most precious thing TSR owned, on the answer to all of these questions being yes. It was one hell of a roll of the dice.

SSI was more than ready to crow about their coup.

SSI was more than ready to crow about their coup from the moment the contract was signed.

If SSI was to pull it off, they would have to mortgage their hopefully bright future as the software face of Dungeons & Dragons and expand dramatically. In the months following the contract-signing ceremony, their in-house development staff expanded from 7 to 25 people. Among the new hires were SSI’s first full-time pixel artists, hired to give the new products a look worthy of the license. SSI’s games having never been the sort to wow anyone with their beauty, figuring out the graphics thing presented perhaps the greatest challenge of all, as Victor Penman recognized:

In the past, when SSI was primarily a wargames company, graphics were not as important as game play. Now the graphics will be better, making this product more of an improvement than any other. We’re committed to carrying out state-of-the-art graphics all the way down the line, so we’re dedicated to game sophistication and a new level of graphics more so than anything we’ve done to date.

With the action games outsourced to U.S. Gold and the Dungeon Master’s Assistant line being less demanding projects likely to be of only niche appeal anyway, the big push at SSI was on the first full-fledged Dungeons & Dragons CRPG. The new project used the two Wizard’s Crown games, especially those games’ intricate tactical-combat system, as a jumping-off point; most of the SSI veterans who had worked on those games were now employed on this new one. But that could only be a jumping-off point, for SSI’s plans needed to be much more ambitious now to please both TSR and the gaming public, who would expect this first real Dungeons & Dragons CRPG to be something really, truly special. As the first CRPG of a series that would come to include many more, a whole software ecosystem needed to be built from scratch to create it. A multi-platform game engine, interpreters, scripting languages, and level editors were all needed just for starters.

In a move that SSI would soon have cause to regret, the tool chain was built around the Commodore 64, then enjoying its belated final year as the American home-computer industry’s dominant platform. The choice isn’t hard to understand in the context of 1987: the 64 had been around for so long and for so strong that one could almost believe it would continue forever. SSI had sold 35 percent of all their games on the Commodore 64 during 1986, 10 percent more than it closest rival, the Apple II. If anything, these numbers were low for the industry in general, reflecting SSI’s specialization in cerebral strategy games, traditionally a bastion of the Apple II market. With this new partnership, SSI’s bid for the big time, there seemed every reason to think that the 64’s percentage of the pie would only increase. Therefore they would build and release the Dungeons & Dragons games first on the Commodore 64, ensuring that they looked and ran well on that all-important platform. Then they could adapt the same engine to run on the other, often more capable platforms.

The arrival of Dungeons & Dragons at SSI and the dramatic upending of the daily routine that it wrought created inevitable tensions at what had always been a low-key, workmanlike operation. The minority of staffers assigned to the non-Dungeons & Dragons business-as-usual — i.e., the company’s wargames and the last sprinkling of non-licensed CRPGs in the pipeline — started to feel, in the words of Chuck Kroegel, like “outcasts.” Staffers referred to themselves as either working in Disneyland (everything Dungeons & Dragons) or being exiled to Siberia (everything non-Dungeons & Dragons). Sometimes those descriptions could feel distressingly literal: desperate for space, SSI exiled the small team that tested and perfected non-Dungeons & Dragons external submissions to an unheated, cheerless nearby building. “There was a feeling on their part that we were getting all the goodies and they got all the cold Arctic air,” remembers Keith Brors.

Jim Ward, who got on fabolously with SSI, visits in 1990 to celebrate the company's tenth anniversary along with his plus-one.

Jim Ward, who got on fabulously with SSI, visits along with his plus-one in 1990 to celebrate the company’s tenth anniversary.

The folks in Disneyland got plenty of help from Lake Geneva. In the beginning the TSR/SSI partnership really was a partnership, standing it in marked contrast to most similar licensing deals. The scenario for the first Dungeons & Dragons CRPG was first written and designed as a tabletop adventure module by three of TSR’s most experienced staff designers, working under one Jim Ward, whose own history with Dungeons & Dragons went back to well before that name existed, when he had played in Gary Gygax’s earliest campaigns. The tabletop module was passed on to SSI for implementation on the computer in January of 1988. SSI had their hands plenty full before that date just getting the game engine up and running; that job was described by Victor Penman as “equivalent to producing the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual in one program.”

TSR’s close involvement ensured that the end result really did feel like tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, more so than any of the competing CRPG series — and this, of course, was exactly what its audience wanted. Ward’s team chose to set the game in TSR’s new campaign world of the Forgotten Realms, envisioned as the more generic, default alternative to the popular but quirky Dragonlance world of Krynn. The big boxed set that introduced the Forgotten Realms was published well after the contract signing with SSI, allowing TSR to carve out a space on the world’s map reserved for the computer games right from the outset. While many have grumbled that words like “generic” and “default” do all too good a job of describing the Forgotten Realms — “vanilla” is another strong candidate — Ward and company nevertheless drowned their scenario in the lore of the place, such as it is, leading to a CRPG with a sense of place comparable only to the Ultima series and its world of Britannia. To further cement the connection between Dungeons & Dragons the tabletop game and its computerized implementation, TSR prepared tie-in products of their own, including a novelization of the first CRPG written by Jim Ward with the help of Jane Cooper Hong and the original tabletop adventure module that had served as SSI’s design document.

SSI had promised TSR when making their original pitch that they could have an official Dungeons & Dragons CRPG ready to go within thirteen months at the outside of signing a deal. Joel Billings always took great pride in his company’s punctuality. Lingering, “troubled” projects of any stripe were a virtual unknown there during the 1980s; outside and in-house developers alike quickly learned to just get their games done and move on to the next if they wanted to continue to work with SSI. Dungeons & Dragons proved to be no exception. SSI would manage to meet their deadline of summer 1988.

With the big day drawing near, Joel Billings took an important step to address the still-lingering questions about whether SSI had the promotional and distributional resources to properly sell Dungeons & Dragons on the computer. It marked the next phase in SSI’s long, multi-faceted relationship with Trip Hawkins and his company Electronic Arts. Barely a year removed from settling SSI’s lawsuit and less than a year removed from losing the big TSR contract to them, Electronic Arts bought into SSI to the tune of 20 percent in May of 1988, giving the smaller company some much-needed cash to spend on a big Dungeons & Dragons promotional effort. SSI also became one of Electronic Arts’s affiliated labels, thus solving the distribution problems. As previous tales told on this blog will attest, such deals with the titans of the industry could be dangerous territory for smaller publishers like SSI. But SSI did have advantages that most of the affiliated labels didn’t: in addition to the longstanding personal relationship enjoyed by Trip Hawkins and Joel Billings, the buy-in would give Electronic Arts a real stake in SSI’s success, making them much harder to gut and cast aside if they should disappoint.

Grognards to the end, Trip Hawkins and Joel Billings dressed up as generals to celebrate their strategic alliance of May 1988.

Grognards to the end, Trip Hawkins and Joel Billings dress up as generals to celebrate their “strategic alliance” of May 1988.

SSI released the first title in all three branches of their new Dungeons & Dragons family tree in August of 1988, each on a different platform of the several each title would eventually reach. Dungeon Masters Assistant Volume 1: Encounters shipped on the Apple II. It would sell 26,212 copies across four platforms — not bad for such a specialized utility. Heroes of the Lance, an action game set in Dragonlance‘s world of Krynn that was developed and delivered as promised from Britain, shipped on the Atari ST. The first of what would come to be known as the “Silver Box” line of action-oriented Dungeons & Dragons games, it would sell an impressive 88,808 copies across four platforms, enough to easy qualify it as SSI’s all-time biggest seller.

Enough, that is, if it hadn’t been for Pool of Radiance, first of the “Gold Box” line of full-on Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs. Recognized as The Big One in the lineup right from the start, it didn’t disappoint. Beginning on the Commodore 64 and moving on to MS-DOS, the Apple II, the Macintosh, and the Amiga, its final sales total reached 264,536 copies in North America alone. By far the most successful release of SSI’s history as an independent company, it became exactly the transformative work that SSI (and Electronic Arts) had been banking on, a ticket to the big leagues if ever there was one. Even the Pool of Radiance clue book outsold any previous SSI game, to the tune of 68,395 copies.

Summer CES, June 1988. The big day draws near.

Summer CES, June 1988. The big day draws near.

The second serious attempt of 1988 to adapt a set of tabletop-RPG rules to the computer, Pool of Radiance makes, like its contemporary Wasteland, an enlightening study in game design for that reason and others. Happily, it’s mostly worthy of its huge success; there’s a really compelling game in here, even if you sometimes have to fight a little more than you ought to to tease it out. As a game, it’s more than worthy of an article in its own right. By way of concluding my little series on SSI and TSR and my bigger one on the landmark CRPGs of 1988, I’ll give it that article next time.

(Sources: As with all of my SSI articles, much of this one is drawn from the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Other sources include the Questbusters of March 1988, Computer Gaming World of March 1988 and July 1988, and Dragon of November 1987, May 1988, and July 1990. Also the book Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline, and Matt Barton’s video interviews with Joel Billings.)

 
 

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