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

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

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

Dale A. Hillman
President, XOR Software
1985

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

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

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

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

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

Microsoft Adventure box art

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

Floppy Disk

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

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

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

Figure 1

Figure 1 (click to expand)

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

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

Figure 2

Figure 2

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

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

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

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

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

Ultima III

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pirates!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 5

Figure 5

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

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

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

Dungeon Master

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

3 1/2 inch floppy disk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 6

Figure 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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A Pirate’s Life for Me, Part 2: The Scene

Fair warning: This article contains a couple of images that qualify as Not Safe For Work. Scroll further with caution!

Disks

The scene, the underground, whatever name you attach to it, there will never be anything like it again. There was a certain degree of innocence about it all, even though the activities were largely illegal. No one really understood that because most of us were still living at home trying to get through primary school! We had no larger world view to place the activities in context, no moral compass to tell us it was wrong. It was just fun, and that’s all we cared about!

— A scener named “Fantasy”

There is no historical instant to label as the beginning of the so-called “scene,” the loose international association of hackers, crackers, phreakers, and traders who dedicated themselves to making every computer game available for free within hours of its release, regardless of where in the world that initial release took place. The scene’s story rather begins with thousands of individual stories taking place in thousands of places, in the playgrounds and computer stores and bedrooms where young people first began to casually trade their latest software purchases among themselves. Someone who had a friend in the next town over, where the pool of games being passed around might be very different, could become a big fish in his own small pond by visiting said friend for a little inter-city trading. Gradually a larger distribution network was formed that offered immense rewards in status for the best-connected traders. It didn’t take long for some of these teenage kingpins to start editing their initials into the games, just so everyone at their school would be sure to know from whose largess they were benefiting. And so it began, driven, as it always would be, by the eternal adolescent need for acceptance and validation as much as it was by the very new technologies of home computers and the games they played.

If we insist on identifying a more concrete point of origin for the scene, we could do worse than the birth of Eagle Soft Incorporated, the oldest of the big cracking groups whose bewildering, ever-changing allegiances and wars would come to dominate life in the scene. In 1982, three Canadians named Dan, Jason, and Jim decided to band together under the Eagle Soft banner, chosen from a literal banner of an eagle that Dan happened to have hanging above his bed. With copy protection now becoming more common on games and other software, Jim, a citizen of Singapore studying in Canada, became one of the the world’s first recognized crackers through his work de-protecting early Commodore 64 games. Then another, even better cracker from the United States named Mitch joined the group. In a matter of months he took it over, as the original Canadian trio all lost interest and got on with their lives in one way or another. Unlike Mitch, who remained an almost unique exception by simply going by his first name, the new members he recruited all adopted online handles, the perfect complement to a social milieu that would come to represent for its participants an alternate, fantastic existence divorced from all the trials and tribulations of high school.

Eagle Soft

Eagle Soft dominated the Commodore 64 cracking scene in North America throughout the 64’s glory years there, thanks not only to their technical chops but also to a network of contacts inside magazines and stores that often resulted in an Eagle Soft crack of a game hitting the scene before an honest buyer could walk into a store and purchase it. The earliest Eagle Soft cracks went entirely unclaimed. Later the group started to edit in their initials (“ESI”) wherever they could find a place — for instance, as a replacement for the usual “loading…” message. Soon, however, the Eagle Soft eagle, one of the most iconic images of the cracking scene as a whole, made its first appearance. It became the centerpiece of the custom-programmed introductions that Eagle Soft took to including in the games they cracked. Such “cracktros” were soon a staple of the emerging scene, a place for the various groups to brag about their accomplishments, greet their friends and flame their enemies, and, teenage boys being teenage boys, quote their favorite rock lyrics (Eagle Soft always had a particular obsession with Rush).

Pirated games cracked by North American groups like Eagle Soft were first released almost exclusively via modem, through a fast-growing underground network of BBS systems. Telecommunications in those days was almost unbelievably primitive. Almost all of the boards were single-user systems, a single Commodore 64 or similar computer attached to a single phone line. Because only one person could be online uploading or downloading at any one time, the boards’ time was precious. A scener was expected to justify his use of a system’s time by uploading new “warez” as well as downloading; many boards had a credit system that might award two “download credits” for every block uploaded. Like everything else about the scene, the boards themselves were ranked according to a hierarchy running from “lame” to “eleet”; the better the board’s ranking, the more connected were its users and the more recent the games hosted there. Games trickled down through the hierarchy, from the “0-dayz” boards to the “3-dayz” to the “5-dayz” to all the others, to be eventually traded in gymnasiums and lunch rooms via the sneaker net by those kids so lame they didn’t even own modems. Primitive though it was, the system was surprisingly efficient. A hot new game could easily be available nationwide on the most eleet boards within 24 hours of its arrival on store shelves — if not before it was actually released, thanks to the scene’s contacts inside publishers and magazines. Within a week or two after that one could expect to find it on even the lamest boards.

In those days, there were few affordable legal ways to call between telephone area codes without incurring minute-by-minute long-distance charges, an expense very few parents of teenagers were willing to tolerate. Thus the grease that lubricated the distribution of pirated games was “phreaking,” the illegal practice of making long-distance calls for free. The PC industry had always had connections to this shady art; Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs famously first bonded over a “blue box” used to generate the whistling tones that could be used to fool the analog phone systems of the early 1970s, and one of the first pieces of third-party hardware made available for the original Apple II was a similar device. In the 1980s, the scene made phreaking more popular than ever. By now the old analog switches that were vulnerable to blue boxes were on their way out, but the new phenomenon of long-distance calling cards was on the way in. These allowed customers to take their long-distance services with them when they traveled; they needed only dial a local access number, then input the code on their card followed by the long-distance number they were actually wanting to call. In the beginning, many of the calling-card codes consisted of only five digits, meaning that for a company with just 5000 calling-card customers fully one possibility in twenty would be a valid number. Sceners developed programs to brute-force the numbers; these could be set up overnight to try combination after combination until a valid one turned up. Once they were found, the phreaker could either reserve the codes for his own use or trade them on the boards for download credits or other considerations. Most would last a few weeks, until the victim got her first bill for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Because they were so essential to the workings of the scene, long-distance codes (“codez”) and other means of phreaking were if anything even more sought-after than the games themselves, the fastest way for a new arrival to earn cred and rise through the class hierarchy. Unfortunately, phreaking was also by far the most common if not the only way for a scener to get himself into real legal trouble. The last legal questions surrounding the copyright eligibility of software had been settled by the time the scene came into its own, but enforcement still remained at best problematic. Very few district attorneys saw much profit in hauling teenagers into criminal court for trading computer games, and the game publishers themselves, players in a niche industry as they were, had neither the clout to influence the district attorneys nor the financial wherewithal to pursue civil cases. The case of the big phone companies, however, was another matter entirely. The few police investigations and prosecutions that resulted from the American scene’s activities virtually all revolved not around the software piracy that was the perpetrators’ real raison d’être, but rather around the offense of phone phreaking, or even more dangerous practices like credit-card fraud; desperate for more and better hardware to improve their boards and thus improve their standing, some sceners took to using stolen credit-card numbers to order equipment to convenient nearby vacant houses.

That said, even police involvement of this stripe was uncommon, and often exaggerated within the scene itself. Sceners, being almost universally at that rebel-without-a-cause phase of life, relished the idea of being daring outlaws out of all proportion to the reality of the risk. While the so-called “leet speek” that already characterized the scene by the mid-1980s — replacing “software” with “warez,” “hacker” with “haxxor,” “elite” with “eleet” — was allegedly developed to circumvent electronic law-enforcement filters that might be tracking their activities, one senses that such constructions were more important as typical adolescent markers of inclusion and exclusion.

In 1985 or so a new species of game began to trickle into the American Commodore 64 scene. These new arrivals went unmentioned in the magazines’ review sections and were never spotted on store shelves. And they had a different feel about them as well. Typical American commercial software at the time tended to be fairly high-concept stuff, with lots of earnest simulations, strategy games, and adventure games. The new games, though, unabashedly emphasized fast action and fast graphics over depth. Many already came equipped with cracktros of their own, but these also were different in character from the norm, with audiovisual production values that often smoked even those of the impressive action games to which they were attached. And, while the boasting, greeting, and warring being done by the groups behind these new cracktros wasn’t all that different from what American sceners were used to, it was all being carried on by groups no one had ever heard of before, and often in distinctly broken English that was apt to suddenly lapse into spasms of incomprehensible German or Dutch. The American scene had finally met the European.

A typical Commodore 64 cracktro. Something tells me most sceners greeted this game with particular interest...

A typical Commodore 64 cracktro. Something tells me most sceners greeted this game with particular interest…

The fast-action sensibilities of these new games were right in line with the American scene’s own, ironically much more so than the games commonly made in their own country. They quickly became great favorites, among the most sought-after warez of all. Certain groups became import/export specialists, establishing trading alliances with the groups across the pond. Particularly in the beginning, their trading was often done via the mail. Later, sceners began to practice the risky art of international phreaking. Europeans learned that they could make good use of the calling cards issued by American phone companies to their customers traveling abroad; there followed a booming codez-for-warez trade between the United States and Europe.

The European versions of machines like the Commodore 64 and Amiga were slightly different than the American, with their video signal and internal timings made to conform to the European PAL television standard rather than the American NTSC. This was enough to break certain games that really pushed the hardware, or to make them flicker or run slightly too quickly or too slowly. Some sceners therefore became specialists in PAL or NTSC “fixing,” the art of adapting games to run correctly under the alternate standard. This was far from trivial work — a marker of the fact that, much as the scene may look at times like little more than boys acting out, the best of those boys had real technical chops.

If it’s surprising that the two scenes should have developed so similarly in what was initially all but complete isolation from one another, well, one can only presume that nerdy yet rebellious teenagers really don’t vary all that fundamentally from country to country. More surprising is that the scene took root so strongly in Europe in the face of barriers that must have seemed almost unbelievably confounding to their American counterparts. One was the simple barrier of language. Very few European sceners had English as their native language; computer-mad Britain was, somewhat oddly, never all that huge in the scene, which was biggest in West Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Yet they adopted English, the language they all learned to at least some extent in school and also that of most of the pop culture they consumed, as their lingua franca. The European scene’s diction is indescribable but immediately identifiable to anyone who’s spent any time around it, a mixture of stiff, grammatically suspect schoolboy constructions, leet speek, and phrases copied and pasted out of movies and music, with a heaping dose of profanity layered on top to make it all go down easy.

Another barrier facing European sceners was the cost of telecommunications. European telephone systems, unlike their American counterparts, generally still charged even local calls by the minute in the scene’s formative years, and prior to the influx of all those American codez there were few ways to safely phreak one’s way around this situation. Thus trading by post rather than BBS dominated in Europe for some years. Just as American sceners happily cheated the phone companies, European sceners did the same to the postal systems. Stamps were covered with a thin layer of glue or hairspray, which could be peeled away when packages arrived at their destination, taking with it the postal service’s mark showing the stamps had been used. Another possibility was to attend one of the “copyparties” that started sprouting up in Europe by about 1986. At most of them, you needed only turn up, equipped with a computer, dozens of blank disks, and dozens of games of your own for trading, to get in one the action.

An issue of Illegal, one of the scene's newsletters.

An issue of Illegal, one of the scene’s newsletters.

The specter of law enforcement, usually more a theoretical than an actual threat in North America, was a more serious concern in Europe. Plenty of mail swappers had uncomfortable run-ins with the local postal authorities that resulted in hefty fines and very unhappy parents, and in more extreme cases jail terms for international smuggling and/or mail fraud. One French scener by the name of Maximillian, a major trader in the codez used for international phreaking, was tracked down by Interpol and sentenced to several years in prison. The European police also generally took the crime of software piracy more seriously than their American counterparts. The West German and Norwegian police went so far as to institute special task forces to concentrate on the software-piracy problem, although games were seldom if ever their main focus. Still, for sceners in those countries and others the proverbial policeman’s knock on the front door, while not exactly commonplace, was hardly entirely unknown either. The police would arrive armed with search warrants and the full force of the law to ransack the scener’s bedroom while shocked parents looked on in horror.

As if the legitimate authorities weren’t scary enough, then as now the copyright wars attracted a fair number of shady dealers on the side of ostensible law and order. One German lawyer, Günther Freiherr von Gravenreuth, made the war against software piracy a dodgy sort of personal crusade, going so far as to send entrapping letters to suspected sceners in the persona of “Tanja,” a 16-year-old girl looking for new games; whatever else you can say about him, Gravenreuth certainly did know how to capture a teenage boy’s interest. If they replied, the targets could expect to be threatened with a lawsuit, along with a helpful settlement offer for many thousands of marks. (Gravenreuth was himself found in 2004 to be one of the masterminds of an international for-profit software piracy ring that dwarfed in scale and sophistication anything the scene could have imagined.)

Despite all these pressures, the scene not only survived in Europe but thrived, and for far longer than its American equivalent. Much of the reason for the European scene’s comparative longevity had to do with the rise and fall of the computing platforms that both American and European sceners favored. While virtually all viable platforms had their share of cracking groups, the core of the scene always identified most closely with Commodore’s machines, first the 64 and later the Amiga. When the former began to slowly fade and the latter to rise in the late 1980s, European sceners made a natural, gradual migration. Because the Amiga never quite took off in North America as it did in Europe, however, the American scene largely faded away with the 64. Between 1988 and 1990, most of the prominent American groups and crackers disbanded or retired, leaving the scene as a whole a largely European phenomenon, where it would continue to grow for another half-decade. Indeed, it still survives, in a shrunken and more subdued form with little continuing interest in software piracy, right to the present day. So dominant did its identity as a European phenomenon become that today the very fact that a scene ever existed at all in North America is all but forgotten by many.

But how did one get involved in the scene in the first place? In the hope that one individual’s story might take the place of a lot of dull generalities, let me tell you how it happened for “Weasel,” a German scener.

Our hero’s first computer, bought for him by his parents in 1985, was a Commodore 128 that he used in 64 mode all the time because the 128 didn’t have much in the way of games. He started out trading only with his schoolyard chums. But as his mania for collecting grew, his network of contacts grew to match: “People were coming to me now to get the latest games. I had them all!”

He found fascinating the cracktros that came attached to many of the games he was now trading, created by groups with names like the Dynamic Duo, 1001 Crew, Triad, German Cracking Service, and Federation Against Copyright. As the cracktros grew more elaborate almost by the month, he found himself spending more time admiring them and reading their “scrolltexts” than he did playing the games. “One day I want to be one of those guys as well,” he thought, “being part of a group and doing lots of cracks for all the people inside and outside of that so-called ‘scene.'” With that goal in mind, he started learning to program, first in BASIC, then in machine language, following a course in one of the magazines. He used his new knowledge to tinker with the cracktros and the games themselves, changing this and that to see what would happen. And, because every aspiring scener needed a handle, he started to call himself “Wiesel,” from a car advertisement he had stuck to his bedroom door: “Schneller als ein Wiesel!”

One day he took his skateboard to a popular local hill, at the top of which he noticed a rather incongruous stack of floppy disks amid the jumble of backpacks and bags left lying around by the boarders. When he saw the owner of the disks pick them up, he screwed up his courage to walk over and start a conversation. The owner was a fellow who called himself Havok, a music specialist with a cracking group called Frontline. Havok invited him to the next Frontline meeting, to take place in a Burger King in just a few days. Wiesel accepted in a daze, feeling “I must be dreaming.”

At the meeting, he was given an original of a game called Ikari Warriors, whose copy protection was known to be fairly strenuous. His assignment was to crack the game and bring it to the next weekly meeting, thereby to prove himself worthy — or unworthy — of membership.

So I went home and inserted the disk into my computer to have a look at the game. What I first saw looked like a never-be-able-to-crack-that game. So I almost gave up at the beginning, when I noticed the game loading with a track-sector fastloader. I had never seen anything like that before. But I never stopped thinking about a way to get into that damn program. I recalled everything I had already learned about machine language, and tried to find out as much as I could about the loading routine, the protection, the game itself, and how it worked. Finally I found a way to access the game, and after a while I had a working memory backup saved on my disk.

When Wiesel proudly returned to Frontline with crack in hand, they pronounced his work good enough and offered him official membership. There was only one condition: he needed to change his handle from the German “Wiesel” to the English “Weasel,” to “give it an international touch.” Thanks to his boldness, initiative, and technical chops, he was a real participant in the scene at last. He spent the remainder of his teenage years bouncing from group to group — Frontline, Matrix, Crazy, Crest, Enigma, Red Sector, Legend, Avantgarde, Fantastic Four Cracking Group — in the extended soap opera of shifting allegiances and relationships that was the life of a prominent scener. As with so much in life, the hardest part had proved to be just getting through the door.

Cracktros and demos often repurposed — read, stole — graphics and sound from games. The love scene from Defender of the Crown was a great favorite, for obvious reasons.

And once through the door, what was life like then as a real scener? Well, the scene was first and foremost a rough place, dominated as it was by teenage boys with angsty streaks a mile wide. Prominent sceners could be as young as age 13, and most tended to scale back their involvement or drop out entirely before entering their twenties, as jobs and university and girlfriends proved harder and harder to forgo for the all-consuming obligations of being a big wheel in the scene. Sceners mention in interviews already feeling “old” and out of step with the Lord of the Flies politics of the scene as young as age 17.

There were some exceptions to the demographic rule. Eagle Soft, for example, numbered two actual girls within their ranks (Ladyhawk and Scorpio), who served as their artists, drawing their famous eagle among other pictures. Perhaps the most amusing exception of all is that of Derbyshire Ram, an English country gentleman who retired in his fifties, took up the Commodore 64 as a hobby, and became a major trader and member of several big groups. While Derbyshire Ram was by all reports a gentle soul and an all-around good egg, others among the sprinkling of adults who chose to spend so much time hanging out with all these teenage boys may have had more disturbing motivations; one, known as Music Man, was reportedly jailed for child molestation.

But, exceptions aside, we can guess that at least 90 percent of active sceners during the 1980s were boys between the ages of 13 and 19. The reality that the members of this international criminal conspiracy almost all had parents hectoring them to do their homework and spend more time away from their computer could lead to some hilarious juxtapositions. Mitch of Eagle Soft, for instance, who was for years the most respected cracker in North America, worshiped by legions of disciples within the scene, tells of hiding in bed under the covers with his brother and a portable Commodore 64 playing Maniac Mansion into the night. Really, how many international criminal masterminds have a bed time?

It seems safe to say that many of these kids were the sort who don’t have the easiest time of it in high school. Sadly, instead of creating a gentler teenage society, most embraced the “shit roles downhill” theory of social policy with relish, choosing victims below them in the scene’s pecking order to harass mercilessly. Most of their flames and diatribes will sound very familiar to anyone who’s ever been unwise enough to read YouTube comments. We’ve already encountered one or two of the scene’s cruder productions in passing in earlier articles, like the text adventure Mad Party Fucker, with its tagline “The object of this game is to fuck as many women as you can without getting bufu’ed by fags (contracting AIDS).” Tolerance wasn’t any higher than grammar on the scene’s list of virtues.

Things could get particularly vicious when one of the periodic “warz” broke out between rival groups. If the groups were of sufficient stature, the conflict could quickly become a global one, with every other group force to align themselves with one side or the other. The largest, most sustained, and most brutal of all the wars was probably the one sparked off in 1987 between Eagle Soft and their only real rival for dominance of the North American scene, a group called Untouchable Cracking Force. Again, some of the techniques used by the combatants will ring sadly familiar to anyone aware of some of the Internet harassment that goes on today. Sceners set up war dialers to call their enemies’ homes, endlessly, with a screeching modem on the other end for anyone who picked up; taped their enemies’ conversations, then sent out edited snippets to place them in a bad light (anything that could somehow be construed to imply that they were gay was particular gold); ordered massive quantities of pizza to their houses; sent them mail-order packages full of useless computer equipment, ordered cash-on-delivery.

Scene from a "war" between Eagle Soft and a rival group. Make no mistake: the scene could be an ugly, ugly place.

A scene from a war between Eagle Soft and Untouchable Cracking Force. Believe it or not, this is actually one of the less offensive images of its type.

A journalist who infiltrated the scene and published a newspaper article about the goings-on — one of its few appearances in the overground media — allegedly suffered even worse indignities at their hands. According to By-Tor, a former member of Eagle Soft:

I remember it caused GREAT disruption in the scene and many major groups got together and we harassed him for 2 weeks straight, (I wish I would remember the groups names involved) his credit cards were given out, were charged up for computer equipment that went to a lot of people in the scene. His MCI cards were phreaked and loaded up with charges. He had to change his phone number 3 times during this time and cancel credit cards as there were people in groups that were great hackers and had inside info to finding out his new phone numbers and credit card numbers. Taught him a lesson he never forgot, that he was forced to write a 2nd story apologizing to all of us for lying to us and writing his story explaining the workings of the ELITE SCENE. We put him through HELL. :)

This doesn’t truly convey in written words what truly went on but that is the main story. It was GREAT!

The worst transgression, considered beyond the pale by even most warring sceners but occasionally practiced nevertheless, was to make an anonymous call to the police (the “pigs”) to out a fellow scener as a phreaker and/or pirate. There were also scattered reports of physical confrontations, particularly at the copyparties in Europe, involving fists, baseball bats, pepper spray, or in one alarming case an allegedly live hand grenade.

Lest we judge all of this too harshly, we should remember that, driven by hormones, frustrations, and most of all peer pressure, almost all of us did and said things as adolescents that we aren’t particularly proud of. Betwixt and between the orgasms of ugliness real friendships were formed. The old sceners have for the most part long since gone on to productive lives and careers, often using the skills they learned cracking games and writing cracktros in those formative years. With the exception of only a few like our friend By-Tor who still remembers the scene’s worst antics as so “great,” most remember the scene fondly when thinking back, but naturally prefer to focus on its more positive aspects if they haven’t managed to forget the worst ugliness entirely. The collision between nostalgia and reality can be a little off-putting when they are, say, confronted with an actual newsletter to which they contributed, as happened with the fellow who once went by the handle of “Punk Executioner.”

The thing that struck me when re-reading this 20 year old text was the level of aggression and gorilla chest thumping. Clearly I owe a lot of apologies. This was more apparent after I penetrated deep into my garage and dug out the old C64. Re-reading some of the scroll texts and Reason 4 Treason articles made me cringe. It appears I took aim at any dork, nerd, drop-out, non-music listener, anti-graffiti, pro-establishment, unfashionable person out there. I’m not sure why, perhaps it was because I occasionally copped a bit of flak myself for being a ‘computer head’ at school. Being a Dungeons & Dragons geek and using a brief-case as a school bag didn’t do me any favours either.

The scene’s saving grace, assuming we’re willing to grant it one, must be that its was an ethos not just of nihilism but also, almost paradoxically, of creation and even artistic excellence. Cracking games wasn’t easy, particularly as time went on and the publishers’ protection schemes grew more and more sophisticated. The best crackers brought a real flair to the job, not just finding a way to copy the disk but also adding cheat modes, conveniences, and new features. See for instance the crack by a group called Nostalgia of Access Software’s Leader Board golf simulation, which combined the core game with the course add-on pack and a simple menu to switch between them, simplifying a rather laborious process of rebooting and switching disks that annoyed many a legitimate purchaser.

And, increasingly over time, cracking was just one of the things that sceners did, and eventually not even the most important. In addition to horrid pornographic text adventures like Mad Party Fucker, sceners produced newsletters on paper and disks, in the case of the latter often with astonishingly good production values if not prose; home-grown utilities to produce graphics and, especially, music (the best of the scene’s so-called “sound trackers” on the Amiga were as good as any commercial music package); reams of art and countless hours of music, some of which wouldn’t sound particularly out of place on a modern dance floor, created with the aid of said utilities; and of course cracktros, which by the end of the 1980s had begun to morph into standalone demos, little showcases of multimedia art of sometimes stunning sophistication and ambition. In an odd but satisfying turnaround, software piracy became the afterthought of a vibrant and creative, if still very much underground, association of digital artists. Latter-day Amiga crackers even took to adding messages to their scrolltexts saying, hey, if you like this game you really ought to buy it — perhaps because by this point many current and former sceners were working in the games industry, snapped up for their audiovisual-programming chops by the very publishers who had once tried so hard to stamp them out. As copyparties turned into “demoparties” and the cracking scene turned into the “demoscene” in Europe in the early 1990s, it also became, relatively speaking, a gentler place, with an idealistic artistic ethos all its own. We’ll drop in on the scene again in a future article, to give you a chance to appreciate with me that unique community and some of its creations and to marvel with me how far it came in such a short time.

To be sure, the crackers and pirates who came before the demo coders were a less idealistic lot, motivated as they were by their teenage lusts for acceptance and for free games, but all their feverish cracking and trading all those years ago has had one supreme benefit. In cracking the games, they made it possible to archive and preserve them, something the companies that published them never spared a moment’s thought for. The sceners didn’t either, of course; they were hardly working for posterity when spreading their “0-day warez” around the world. Nevertheless, I’m hugely in their debt, as is everyone who cares about the history of gaming. The vast majority of the games you’ll find on the various disk-image archives today are the cracked versions, complete with their cracktros chronicling all the most recent wars and alliances, an ephemeral tempest in a teapot preserved forever. That, too, is another marker of our new digital way of living, toward which the scene, the first international digital subculture, pointed the way.

Next time we’ll wrap up this little series with a practical look at the mechanisms of copy protection itself: how it worked and how the scene’s crackers learned to defeat it.

(Sceners have done a very good job of archiving most of the artifacts of the 1980s and 1990s, although most of their own attempts at writing about their history quickly devolve into breathless but bewildering accounts of scene politics — “And then this group was formed, and went to war with this group, but this other group switched sides…,” etc. There’s a lot of that in Freax by Tamás Polgár, the only book I know of about the scene, but it’s nevertheless an essential resource for anyone hoping to really understand it. Otherwise this article is largely drawn from online scene sites. See Scenery, Heikki Orsila’s archive of scener interviews, Hall of Fame, the Illegal newsletter archives, and Recollection. Also see the chapter “The Scene” in my own The Future Was Here.)

 
 

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The 68000 Wars, Part 4: Rock Lobster

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

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

Thomas Rattigan

Thomas Rattigan

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

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

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

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

Commodore 64C

Commodore 64C

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

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

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

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

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

Amiga 2000

Amiga 2000

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

Amiga 500

Amiga 500

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

batmanpack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A New Force in Games, Part 3: SCUMM

Maniac Mansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labyrinth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Maniac Mansion

Better a tuna head than a shithead…

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

Skywalker Ranch

Maniac Mansion

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Habitat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

QuantumLink

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

QuantumLink's point-and-click main menu.

QuantumLink’s point-and-click main menu.

An online chat on QuantumLink

An online chat on QuantumLink.

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

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

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

Habitat

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

Habitat

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

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

Habitat

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

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


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

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

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


Addiction!

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

The One-Percenters

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

Robbery! Murder!

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

Law and Order Must Be Imposed!

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

Christianity Under Siege!

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

Family Values

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

Dangerous Bedfellows

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

It’s About Ethics in In-Game Journalism!

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

Arms Negotiations

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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