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Pirates!

Pirates!

Shortly after designing and programming F-15 Strike Eagle, the million-selling hit that made MicroProse’s reputation as the world’s premier maker of military simulations, Sid Meier took a rare vacation to the Caribbean. Accompanying him was his new girlfriend, whom he had met after his business partner Wild Bill Stealey hired her as one of MicroProse’s first employees. A few days after they left, she called Stealey in a panic: “I can’t find Sid!” It eventually transpired that, rather than being drowned or abducted by drug smugglers as she had suspected, he had gotten so fascinated with the many relics and museums chronicling the golden age of Caribbean buccaneering that he’d lost all track of time, not to mention the obligations of a boyfriend taking his girlfriend on a romantic getaway. She would just have to get used to Sid being a bit different from the norm if she hoped to stay together, Stealey explained after Meier finally resurfaced with visions of cutlasses and doubloons in his eyes. She apparently decided that she could indeed accept Meier as he was; in time she would become his first wife. And yet that was only one of the two life-changing seeds planted on that trip. Meier now had pirates on the brain, and the result would be a dizzying leap away from military simulations into a purer form of game design — a leap that would provide the blueprint for his brilliant future career. If there’s something that we can legitimately label as a Sid Meier school of game design, it was for the game called simply Pirates! that it was first invented.

That said, the reality of creativity is often much messier than writers like me with our preference for tidy narratives would prefer. Old habits dying hard, Meier first conceived of the game that would become Pirates! as a fairly rigorous simulation of ship-to-ship combat in the Age of Sail, heavily inspired by the old Avalon Hill naval board game Wooden Ships and Iron Men. Such a game would have marked a bit of a departure for MicroProse, whose military simulations and strategy games had to date reached no further back into history than World War II, but would still broadly speaking fit in with their logo’s claim that they were makers of “Simulation Software.” Problem was, there were already computer games out there that claimed to scratch that itch, like SSI’s Broadsides and Avalon Hill’s own Clear for Action. While few outside the ultra-hardcore grognard set had found either of those games all that satisfying, Meier couldn’t seem to figure out how to do any better. And so Pirates! found itself on the back burner for quite some time after his return from the Caribbean, while he went back to business as usual inside Wild Bill’s simulation-industrial complex, making military porn for the Tom Clancy generation: designing and programming a World War II submarine simulation called Silent Service, developing the “Command Series” of strategic wargames with Ed Bever, giving vital help to Arnold Hendrick’s Gunship development team.

Greg Tavares's windowing engine in action.

Gregg Tavares’s windowing engine in action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dueling in Pirates!.

Dueling in Pirates!.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A battle at sea.

A battle at sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Accolade Gets Distinctive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Test Drive

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
 

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The Evolution of the (Epyx) Games

The American home-computer industry entered 1987 feeling more optimistic than it had in several years. With the bloodletting of 1985 now firmly in the past, there was a sense amongst the survivors that they had proved themselves the fittest and smartest. If the ebullient a-computer-for-every-home predictions of 1983 weren’t likely to be repeated anytime soon, it was also true that the question on everybody’s lips back in 1985, of whether there would even still be a home-computer industry come 1987, felt equally passé. No, the home-computer industry wasn’t going anywhere. It was just too much an established thing now. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as mainstream as television, but it had built a base of loyal customers and a whole infrastructure to serve them. And with so many companies having dropped by the wayside, there was now again the potential to make a pretty good living there. The economic correction to a new middle way was just about complete. The industry, in other words, was beginning to grow up — and thank God for it. Even Atari and Commodore, the two most critical hardware players in the field of low-cost computing, had seemingly gotten their act together after being all but left for dead a couple of years ago; both were beginning to post modest profits again.

The mood of the industry was, as usual, reflected by the trade shows. The second of the two big shows that served as the linchpin of every year on the circuit, the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago in June, was a particularly exciting place to be, with more and more elaborate displays than had been seen there in a long, long time. Compute! magazine couldn’t help but compare it to “the go-go days of 1983,” but also was quick to note that “introductions are positioned to avoid any repeat of the downturn.” “Excited but wiser” could have served as the slogan of the show. But an even better slogan for entertainment-software publishers in particular might have been, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I’ve been writing quite a lot in recent articles about the new generation of 68000-based machines that were causing so much excitement. Yet the fact is that the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga were little more than aspirational dreams for the majority of the mostly young people actually buying games. The heart of that market remained the cheaper, tried-and-true 8-bit machines which continued to outsell their flashier younger brothers by factors of five or ten to one. And the most popular 8-bit machine had remained the same since 1983: the Commodore 64. A chart published in the December 1986 Compute! gives a sense of the state of the industry at the time.

U.S. Home Computer Market -- 1986

If anything, this chart undersells the importance of the Commodore 64 and its parent company to the games industry. Plenty of those IBMs and Apples, as well as the “Other” category, made up mostly of PC clones, were being used in home offices and the like, playing games if at all only as an occasional sideline. The vast majority of Commodores 64s, however, were being used primarily or exclusively as games machines. Many a publisher that dutifully ported their titles to each of the six or seven commercially viable platforms found that well over half of their sales were racked up by the Commodore 64 versions alone. No wonder so many made it their first and sometimes only target. Not all were thrilled about this state of affairs; with its antiquated BASIC, chunky 40-column text, and molasses-slow disk drives the Commodore 64 was far from a favorite of many programmers, so much so that a surprising number developed elaborate cross-compiler setups to let them write their 64 programs anywhere else but on an actual 64. Many others who had had personal dealings with Commodore, particularly in the double-crossing bad old days of Jack Tramiel, simply hated the company and by extension its products on principle. Yet you couldn’t hate them too much: fact was that the 64 was the main reason there still was any games industry to speak of in 1987.

Already the best-selling microcomputer in history well before 1987, the Commodore 64 just kept on selling, with sales hitting 7 million that year. Meanwhile sales of the newer Commodore 128 that could also play 64 games cruised past 1 million. This continued success was a tribute to the huge catalog of available games. As Bing Gordon of Electronic Arts put it, “The Commodore 64 is the IBM of home computing; no one thinks you’re dumb if you buy it.” Of course, this aberrational era when a full-fledged computer rather than a games console was the most popular way to play games in the country couldn’t last forever. Anyone sufficiently prescient could already see the writing on the wall by wandering to other areas of that Summer CES show floor, where an upstart console from Japan called the Nintendo Entertainment System was coming on strong, defying the conventional wisdom of just a year or two before that consoles were dead and buried. But for now, for just a little while longer, the Commodore 64 was still king, and Summer CES reflected also that reality with a final great flowering of games. Love it or hate it, programmers knew the 64 more intimately by 1987 than they possibly can the complex systems of today. They knew its every nook and cranny, its every quirk and glitch, and exploited all of them in the course of pushing the little breadbox to places that would have been literally unimaginable when it had made its debut five years before; plenty of games and other software stole ideas from the bigger, newer machines that simply didn’t yet exist to steal in 1982.

Starting today, I want to devote a few articles to chronicling the Commodore 64 at its peak, as represented by the games and companies on display at that 1987 Summer CES. We’ll start with Epyx, whose display was amongst the most elaborate on the show floor, an ersatz beach complete with sand, surfboards, Frisbees, and even a living palm tree. It was all in service of something called California Games, the fifth and newest entry in a series that would go down in history as the most sustainedly popular in the long life of the Commodore 64. If we were to try to name a peak moment for Epyx and their Games series, it would have to be the same as that for the platform with which they were so closely identified: Summer CES, June 1987.

You can get a pretty good sense of the advancement of Commodore 64 graphics and sound during its years as the king of North American gaming just by looking at the Games series. In fact, that’s exactly what we’re going to do today. We’re going to take a little tour of four of the five Games, hitting on just a couple of events from each that will hopefully give us a good overview of just how much Commodore 64 graphics and sound, along with gamer expectations of same, evolved during the years of the platform’s ascendency. These titles were so popular, so identified with the Commodore 64, that they strike me as the perfect choice for the purpose. And they also occupy a soft spot in my heart as games designed to be played with others; they’re really not that much fun played alone, but they can still be ridiculously entertaining today if you can gather one to seven friends in your living room. Any game that encourages you to get together in the real world with real people already has a huge leg up in my critical judgment. I just wish there were more of them.

Let’s start by taking another look at the original 1984 Summer Games, a game I already covered in considerable technical detail in an earlier article. Its graphics — particularly the fluid and realistic movements of the athletes themselves — were quite impressive in their day, but look decidedly minimalist in light of what would come later. Also notable is the complete lack of humor or whimsy or, one might even say, personality. Those qualities, allowed as they to a large extent are by better and richer audiovisuals, would arrive only in later iterations.

 
Few concepts in the history of gaming have lent themselves as well to almost endless iteration as the basic Games concept of a themed collection of sporting minigames. Thus after Summer Games turned into a huge hit more Games were inevitable, even if they wouldn’t be able to piggyback on an Olympics as Summer Games had so adroitly managed despite the lack of an official license. The first thought of Epyx’s programmers was, naturally enough, to follow Summer Games with a similar knock-off version of the Winter Olympics. By this time, however, it was late 1984, and Epyx’s marketing honcho Robert Botch said, probably correctly — he tended to be correct in most things — that a winter-sports game would be a hard sell when they finished it up in six or eight months; at that time, you see, it would be high summer. So they instead turned their attention to Summer Games II, consisting of eight more events, many of which had been proposed for the original collection but rejected for one reason or another. It proved to be if anything a better collection than its predecessor, with more variety and without the cheat of inserting two swimming events that were exactly the same but for their differing lengths. Graphics and sound were also modestly improved.

But the first really dramatic leap forward in those areas came with the next iteration, the long-awaited Winter Olympics-themed Winter Games that followed hot on the heels of Summer Games II. With Epyx’s in-house programmers and artists still busy with the latter, Winter Games was outsourced along with detailed specifications provided by Epyx’s own designers to another developer called Action Graphics. The partnership between the Silicon Valley-based Epyx and the Chicago-based Action Graphics was apparently a somewhat troubled one, with delays caused by poor communication threatening to scupper the planned Christmas 1985 launch. The project’s savior proved to be one Matt Householder, a recently arrived refugee from Atari who would play a huge role in the series going forward. Upon his hiring in July of 1985, his first role became that of Epyx’s official liaison to Action Graphics; he spent many weeks in Chicago pushing the game along to completion. A programmer himself with much experience with videogames, Householder suggested lots of extra little touches, sometimes helped out with technical problems, and, with the deadline ever looming, occasionally advanced the timetable via some artful deletion.

The bobsled was a particularly problem-plagued event. The original conception would have had the riders pushing the sled to get it started, just like in the real thing, but no one could quite figure out how to make it work. Householder made an executive decision to just excise that element entirely in favor of making the rest of the event as good as possible. Note in the video below how the clouds in the sky also move when the bobsled goes through a curve. This late Householder-prompted addition is a classic example of a little touch of the realistic whose presence might not be noticed but whose absence almost certainly would — perhaps not consciously, but only as a feeling that something is somehow “off” with the experience. Note also the music that now plays before this and all of the other Winter Games events to leaven the somewhat sterile feel of the original Summer Games.


The bobsled is actually quite graphically spare in contrast to some of the other events in Winter Games. See for example the biathlon, the most time-consuming single event to appear in any of the Games games and one of the most strategic. The speed of the targeting cursor in the shooting sections — and thus the difficulty of each shot — is determined by your heart rate when you arrive. Success is all about pacing yourself, setting up a manageable rhythm that keeps you moving along reasonably well but that also lets you make your shots. According to Householder, “It was put in there to make something completely different. It breaks up the pace of the other events, which are more tense, action/reaction type of things. You have to learn a different set of skills.” Barely a week before the deadline, Householder, bothered that the shooting just somehow didn’t feel right, suddenly suggested adding a requirement to eject the spent round and cock a new one before firing. They managed to shoehorn it in, and it does go a long way in adding verisimilitude to the experience. It’s not so important to make a game like this realistic per se, but to make the player feel like she’s really there, to capture the spirit of the event, if you will.


The original plan for the graphic depictions of this event was, as with the bobsled, somewhat more ambitious than the final version. The skier was to be shown from different angles on every screen, a scheme that Householder quickly excised in favor of a consistent if less graphically interesting side view. The lush backgrounds were inspired by photos of the actual event taken at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, recreated freehand by artist Steve Johnson. I must say that I love the winter-wonderland atmosphere this event and, indeed, much of Winter Games conjures up. Like the opening and closing ceremonies, the bobsled, and a couple of other events in Winter Games that clearly take inspiration from the Sarajevo Olympics, the biathlon is made bittersweet today by the knowledge of what was in store for so many of those sites and, more importantly, for the people who lived near them.

Having now covered most of the Olympics events that seemed practical to implement on a Commodore 64, there was some debate within Epyx on the best way to consider the series after Winter Games; it had turned into such a cash cow that no one was eager to bring it to a close. Marketing director Robert Botch suggested that Epyx effectively create their own version of the Olympics using interesting non-Olympic sports from all over the world, under the title of World Games. Householder ran with the idea, proposing turning the game into a sort of globe-trotting travelogue that would not only let the player participate in the unique sports of many nations but also get a taste of their cultures.

World Games

You’ll notice in the World Games screenshot above an advertisement for Continental Airlines, perhaps the first of its kind in a game that wasn’t itself blatant ad-ware and yet another example of Botch’s prescience as a marketer. If the times were changing, though, they were still changing slowly: Continental was able to buy this exposure in a game that would end up selling hundreds of thousands of copies by providing Epyx with nothing more than a handful of free tickets to Disney World for use in contests. On the other hand, perhaps Continental paid a fair price when one starts to consider demographic realities; the young people who made up the vast majority of Epyx’s customers generally weren’t much in the market for airline tickets quite yet.

Much as the documentary tone of the travelogue-style descriptions might lead you to believe otherwise, the Epyx design team was made up of a bunch of young American males who weren’t exactly well-traveled themselves, nor much versed in global sporting culture. They chose the majority of the sports in World Games by flipping through books and magazines, looking for things that seemed interesting and implementable. They then designed the events without ever having actually seen them in real life. This led to some bizarre decisions and outright mistakes, like their choice of barrel-jumping (on ice skates!) as the supposed national sport of Germany; absolutely no one in Germany had any idea what they were on about when the game came out. Their original plan to make soccer penalty kicks Germany’s national sport would have hit closer to home, even if a love for soccer is hardly confined to that country. But it proved to be technically infeasible.

With Epyx’s in-house programming team once again too busy with other projects to take it up, World Games was again contracted to outside programmers. This time a company called K-Byte did the honors, albeit under much closer supervision, with the art and music supplied by Epyx’s own people. Freed as they were from the rigid strictures of traditional Olympic disciplines and a certain fuddy-duddy air of solemnity that always accompanies them, the designers, artists, and programmers were able to inject much more creative whimsy, even humor. See for example what happens when you screw up badly in Scotland’s caber toss.


Speaking of screwing up: Epyx’s designers managed to completely miss the point of the caber toss. Athletes participating in the real sport are judged on aesthetics, on how cleanly and straightly they toss the caber. The objective is not, as in World Games, to simply chunk the bloody thing as far as possible.

The music tries its best — if, again, only within the limits of Epyx’s international awareness —  to echo the “national music” of each country represented. The bagpipe sound is quite impressive in its way; listen for the initial “squawk” each time the instrument changes pitch, so like the real thing.

But Mexico’s cliff-diving provides perhaps the best illustration of how far Epyx had come already by the time of World Games. It’s superficially similar to the diving event from Summer Games, as seen in my very first video above, but the difference is night and day. I speak not just of the heightened drama inherit in jumping off a rocky cliffside as opposed to a diving board, although that’s certainly part of it. Look also at the improved graphics, the addition of music, all of the little juicy touches that add personality and interest: the way the diver fidgets nervously as he waits to take the plunge, the way you can send him careening off the rocks in various viscerally painful ways, the seagull at the bottom of the cliff who will turn and fly off if you wait long enough. (Rumor has it that it’s possible to hit the seagull somehow if you botch a dive badly enough, but I’ve never succeeded in doing so.)


California Games, the fifth entry in the series and the culmination of the audiovisual progression we’ve been charting, was done completely in-house at Epyx. Indeed, it was also inspired much closer to home that any of the games that had come before. Walking through Golden Gate Park one weekend, watching bicyclists and skateboarders doing tricks for the crowds, Matt Householder’s wife Candi suggested that Epyx should use those sorts of sports in their next Games game.

But there’s a bit more than that to be said about California Games‘s origins, in terms of both universals and the specific context of the mid-1980s. In the case of the former, there’s the eternal promised land of California itself that’s been a part of the collective mythical landscape of Americans and non-Americans alike almost from the moment that California itself existed as a term of geography: Hollywood, Route 66, Disneyland, the Sunset Strip, the Beach Boys, palm trees, hot rods, surfboards, and of course bikinis and the sun-kissed beach bunnies who fill them out so fetchingly. (Botch wouldn’t be shy about incorporating the latter elements in particular into his marketing campaign.) “Go west, young man!” indeed. California Games combined this eternal California with a burgeoning interest amongst the young in what would come to be called “extreme sports” that saw many a teenager picking up BMX or half-pipe skateboarding. The first proposal that Householder submitted actually skewed much more extreme than the eventual finished product, including wind-surfing, hang-gliding, and parachuting events that were all excised in favor of some more sedate pursuits like Frisbee and Hacky Sack. He also proposed for the collection the almost instantly dating appellation of Rad Games; thankfully, Botch soon settled on the timeless California Games instead.

Which is not to say that California Games itself is exactly “timeless”; this is about as clearly a product of 1987 as it’s possible for a game to be. At that time the endlessly renewable California Dream was particularly hot. Even the name California Games, timeless or no, also managed to evoke the zeitgeist of 1987, when California Coolers and the California Raisins were all the rage. The manual includes a helpful dictionary of now painfully dated surfer and valley-girl slang.

LIKE (lik) prep. Insert anywhere you like, like, in any sentence, in, like, any context. Used most effectively when upset: “it’s, like, geez…” Or the coolest way to use “like” is with “all” (for more description). “It’s, like — I’m all — duuude, you’ve got sand in your jams.”

Replacing the chance to represent a country, Olympics-style, that had persisted through World Games are a bunch of prominent 1987 brands, some of which have survived (Costa Del Mar, Kawasaki, Ocean Pacific, Casio), some of which have apparently not (Auzzie Surfboards and Ray-D-O BMX, my favorite for its sheer stupidity). All paid Epyx to feature their logos in the game, with those willing to invest a bit more getting more prominent placement. Yes, Botch was figuring out this in-game-advertising thing fast. See for instance the logos plastered behind the skateboarding half pipe.


California Games was the first title in the series for which Epyx could draw on a fair amount of direct personal experience. Enthusiasts of the various sports inside the company demonstrated their skills for the cameras, the resulting video used as models for their onscreen versions. Some of the less athletic programmers and designers also had a go by way of getting into the spirit of the thing. Householder notes that “I nearly broke my skull a couple of times” on a skateboard in the Epyx parking lot.

To see how far Commodore 64 games came in less than four years, look at the colorful-in-both-senses-of-the-word surfing video below, with its gags like the shark. (A cute dolphin also shows up from time to time, albeit not so often as the shark and never, alas, when you’re trying to make a video.) Notice how the music, a rock song this time, plays during the action now to elevate the whole experience. The bagpipes and the like may have been impressive, but rock and roll was to be the sound of California Games, with Botch even managing to officially license “Louie Louie” for the title screen. And notice how the little surfer dude is an individual with his own look and, one might even say, personality, in comparison to the faceless (literally!) papier-mâché silhouettes of Summer Games.


California Games became an even bigger international hit than the previous four games in the series, one more symbol of the power of the California Dream. Epyx now had 200 employees, and was possessed of an almost unblemished record of commercial success that made them the envy of the industry, their catalog including not only hit games but also their Fast Load cartridge that many Commodore 64 owners considered indispensable and a very popular “competition-quality” joystick. But California Games would mark the end of an era. The downfall of this company and series that had been able to do no wrong for years would happen with stunning speed.

Nor could the Commodore 64 itself keep going forever. Having reached its peak at last in mid-1987, with programmers beginning to get a sense that it just wasn’t possible to push this little machine, extraordinarily flexible as it had proved to be, much further, the downward slope loomed. We, however, will stay perched here a little longer, to appreciate in future articles some more of the most impressive outpouring of games ever to grace the platform.

(Sources: Family Computing of September 1987; Commodore Magazine of July 1988 and August 1989; Commodore User of February 1986; Compute!’s Gazette of December 1986; Compute! of December 1986 and August 1987; Retro Gamer 46 and 49.

Such was the popularity of the first five of the Games that the property still holds some nostalgia value to this day, seeing periodic re-releases and revivals. The latest of these is from the German publisher Magnussoft, who have versions available for Windows, Macintosh, and Android. I must say, however, that there’s little left of the original feel in such efforts. I prefer to just play them in an emulator on the old Commodore 64. An intrepid fan who calls himself “John64″ has packaged all five titles onto a cartridge image who loads and plays almost instantly in an emulator like VICE. I take the liberty of providing the cartridge here as well along with all of the manuals.)

 

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Leader Board

Leader Board

Like just about every other sport, golf made it to computer screens quite early. A textual version was passed around in BASIC circles even before the arrival of the trinity of 1977, and was included in the landmark 1978 book BASIC Computer Games. Two years later, Atari released their blandly if descriptively named Golf cartridge for the VCS. Yet neither of these crude efforts, nor the ones which followed over the next few years, did the sport much justice. Those that had graphics at all were all played from a disembodied overhead perspective that could make them feel more like pinball than golf, and no one came close to computerizing the mix of science, art, and exquisite terror that is the golf swing. Then, as these things so often happen, a whole field of golf games appeared in 1986 which showed their courses from an actual golfer’s perspective and put the player’s focus squarely where it belongs, on the swing itself.

BASIC Golf running on a Commodore PET

BASIC Golf running on a Commodore PET

Atari's Golf cartridge for the VCS

Atari’s Golf cartridge for the VCS

Of this suddenly crowded field the two most popular turned out to be Accolade’s Mean 18 and Access’s Leader Board. If you try them both out today, you’re likely to be more impressed, at least initially, by the former than the latter. Mean 18 is a much more complete simulation of the real game, including trees, sand traps, water hazards, varying elevations, re-creations of actual courses, even the chance to make more courses of your own with an included editor. Leader Board, on the other hand, turns you loose in a surreally minimalist environment of empty land and water and absolutely nothing else. On a bullet list of features, there’s no comparison. Yet if you play them both a bit you might just find that Leader Board, for all that it lacks, nevertheless feels better. For me anyway, it’s just somehow more fun. But even if you still prefer Mean 18, Leader Board deserves respect, as well as the chance to be graded on something of a curve. While Mean 18, you see, ran only on the bigger 16-bit machines, Leader Board was born and bred on the humble Commodore 64.

Mean 18

Mean 18

Leader Board

Leader Board

Given the technical and conceptual achievement it represents, I thought we’d do something we haven’t done in quite a while: look at Leader Board as the Carver brothers would have seen it, from the perspective of designers and programmers putting it together piece by piece. I will get just a bit technical in some of what follows, so you might want to review my earlier articles on the Commodore 64 and its capabilities, as well as the parts of my Elite history that dealt with the fraught transition from 2D to 3D graphics.

So, the Carver brothers wanted to create a golf simulation from a 3D perspective on a computer with a 1 MHz processor and 64 K of memory. Where to start? Well, the first thing to do was to simplify the bounds of the simulation brutally, out of the knowledge that anything you abstract away today represents the best kind of work, the kind that you don’t have to do at all. Any simulation is a simplification of reality. The art of the science is figuring out just how much detail is necessary. Suffice to say that the Carver brothers drew that line much farther along than anyone could get away with today. Maybe they could add some complications back in later, once they had an initial working version. In the meantime, much of what we think of when we think of the game of golf got tossed out the window, not without the occasional groan of regret: trees, sand traps, any notion of fairways as opposed to roughs, any notion of a putting green as anything other than a perfectly circular area around the hole with a radius of 64 feet, any concept of elevation when not on the green. Wind made the cut, but with the odd yet simplifying quality that it will always blow in the same direction relative to the golfer no matter which way he faces.

Despite all the editing, the Carvers still needed to map a 3D landscape, simplified though it may be, into the Commodore 64’s memory and be able to display the scenery in proper perspective from any location, facing in any direction, as the player hacked her away toward the hole. Additionally, given the success their earlier games had enjoyed in Europe it was critical to them that this one also be playable from cassette, meaning the whole program — including the four separate 18-hole courses they wanted to include — should reside in memory at once. This was hardly playing to the natural strengths of the 64, whose graphics had been designed with 2D sprite-based games in mind. The solution they arrived at was to first design and store about 30 different polygons, each of which could be used to represent an “island” on the course, which was otherwise assumed to be pure water. Each hole of each course could then be built by arranging these islands, up to seven of them per hole, in different, often overlapping configurations. Just as his tile-graphics system allowed Richard Garriott to build huge worlds by mixing and matching reusable chunks of landscape, these reusable polygons saved the Carvers gobs of precious memory. The views of the course must be drawn using the Commodore 64’s multicolor bitmap mode; they were too irregular for character graphics. Thus every bit of memory saved was doubly precious, as a multicolor bitmap display consumes a full 10 K of the 64’s 64 K. If you look at the diagrams of the holes, you can see how they’re all built from the same pile of interchangeable parts.

Leader Board course diagrams

By applying the mathematics of 3D perspective, it was now possible to display views from any arbitrary location and facing for every hole — the first necessary step for a 3D golf game. As you can see from the video clip a bit further down the page, when playing the game you can actually watch each polygon/island being drawn in outline form and then filled in with color as each new perspective of the course is generated.

Next must come the golfer himself. It was hugely important to the Carvers that he should make a correct, believable swing. Bruce therefore filmed Roger taking swings under carefully controlled conditions using a high-quality video camera. About every fourth frame of the swing was developed as a slide and projected onto a glass screen, from which Roger could trace it onto graph paper using colored pencils, to be translated from there into the grid of bits that makes up each frame of each sprite in the Commodore 64’s memory. Or rather, six different areas of the image were each individually translated: the actual golfer, club included, is built from no fewer than six of the 64’s eight available sprites, each of a single color and carefully placed in relation to its siblings; thus the golfer’s white shirt and hat are made from one sprite, his brown pants from another, his black club from yet another, etc. (Although Bruce Carver first made his reputation through his mastery of multicolor sprites, Leader Board actually makes no use of them.) As the golfer goes through his swing, each sprite steps through its own sequence of bitmaps to recreate as closely as possible the smooth swing that had been originally captured on video.

Bruce Carver films Roger taking a golf swing.

Bruce Carver films Roger taking a golf swing.

Roger Carver traces his own image from a frame of video.

Roger Carver traces his own image from a frame of video.

Now how to have the player actually control the swing? After much experimentation, the Carvers hit upon a system that didn’t try to duplicate the actual motions of a swing via complicated joystick jerks of the sort Epyx tended to favor in their Games series, but somehow just felt better than anything else. (The developers of Mean 18 came up with an almost identical system simultaneously but apparently independently.) This so-called “three-click” system has persisted with only modest variations for decades as the go-to control scheme for computerized golf; any new game that deviates from it always provokes intense debate, and those that opt for something other than this by now traditional approach often all but define themselves by their rejection of the golf-swing status quo.

In Leader Board, then, you first aim the shot horizontally with a small targeting cursor, then press and hold the joystick button to begin your back swing. You release it when you’re ready to end the back swing — more back swing will hit the ball farther — but must be careful not to wait too long. The golfer now begins his forward swing. Hit the button again just as the club strikes the ball to “snap” it straight, or slightly before or after to deliberately — or, more likely, accidentally — hook or slice it to the left or right. Timing being so critical in this, the very heart of the game of golf whether played in the real world or on a computer, the simulation here had to be absolutely smooth, consistent, and precise. As in many other places in Leader Board, the Carvers took advantage of the Commodore 64’s timer-interrupt system to be sure of this. (Timer interrupts work similarly to the raster interrupts I discussed in an earlier article, except that they are triggered not by the movements of the electron gun which paints the screen but rather can be set to occur at a precise interval of microseconds.)


After the ball is struck, its X, Y, and Z vectors are calculated, taking into account the swing itself, gravity and air resistance, and, if you’re playing at “Professional” level, the wind. The ball is represented by a seventh sprite, which can have a number of possible sizes depending on its distance from you. In a nice touch that adds a welcome note of verisimilitude, the eighth sprite is employed as the shadow of the ball in flight; before the ball is struck, when it’s lying on the ground before you, this sprite is used to represent the targeting cursor. The movement of the ball and its shadow are again tied to the 64’s interrupt timer to assure that they are absolutely smooth and believable. If the sprite lands in the water, you have to try again; likewise, in yet another simplification, if you send it off the screen to left or right. Otherwise another view is generated from where the ball landed, and the hole continues. It is possible to hit the ball directly into the hole from the fairway, even to score a hole in one on some of the shorter holes, but it’s very, very difficult; in the couple of dozen complete games I’ve played recently (we got a bit obsessed with Leader Board around here for a while), I’ve managed it exactly once.

More commonly, you’ll eventually end up on the putting green, defined in Leader Board as simply an arbitrary circle 64 feet in radius around the hole. With no need for the concept of a snap, the control scheme is here simplified: just aim with the targeting cursor, then hold down the button until the power meter reaches the desired level, keeping in mind that a ball that’s traveling too fast when it reaches the hole will bounce right over it.


In order to make putting any real challenge, the Carvers were forced to add back in the concept of elevation they had excised from the rest of the simulation. The problem became how to portray slope on the relatively small surface of the green given a screen resolution of just 160 X 200. The ideal method would have been to add color shading to visually indicate contour, but they already needed to keep available four colors — the maximum permitted by the Commodore 64’s VIC-II graphics chip in any 4 X 8-pixel region — for drawing the other elements of the landscape. The somewhat kludgy and not entirely intuitive solution became a visual indicator, conveniently drawn in two of the available colors, to the left of the golfer. The vertical line represents the magnitude of the slope; the other represents its direction. The same system is used to represent wind intensity and direction when not on the green.

With that, plus a small battery of sound effects which are often cleverly reused — for instance, the splash when a ball strikes water is always the same waveform played at one of four volumes depending on the distance of the ball — the Carvers had something quite special, if also something that was, like any game, full of sacrifices and compromises. They had always seen this minimalist world of green land and blue water as a mere jumping-off point. Now, however, their planned shipping date loomed, and Access wasn’t in a financial position to miss it. Therefore Leader Board went out the door as-is very early in 1986. When it proved a hit, the Carvers happily returned to the Leader Board well again and again: via Leader Board Tournament, a bare-bones sequel featuring four new courses but the same engine; via Executive Leader Board later in 1986, which added sand traps and trees; and finally via World Class Leader Board and three course expansion disks (Famous Courses of the World) in 1987 and 1988. By this time, the Carvers had something that approached a real game of golf, with real-world golf courses like St. Andrews and Pebble Beach, fairways and roughs and a whole variety of trees and other hazards, and variably shaped and sized greens. They had also largely remade Access in the eyes of gamers, from the Beach-Head company to the Leader Board company. Having accomplished all they felt they could on the Commodore 64 and seeing which way the industry winds were blowing, the Carvers now turned to bigger MS-DOS machines and what would become the most successful golf franchise of all, Links — a story for another time.

Executive Leader Board

Executive Leader Board

World Class Leader Board

World Class Leader Board

Before we say goodbye to Leader Board, I want to take a moment here to say just how ridiculously entertaining it is, even in its most minimalist configuration. There’s something elegant and classic about those bifurcated, abstract landscapes of the first Leader Board — enough so that, while the later Leader Boards are certainly more impressive as golfing simulations, I’m not entirely sure they’re all that much better as computer games. Leader Board is an engaging little diversion played alone against the course, trying to come in under par (there is no computer opponent available). But get some friends together and it’s absolute magic, like so many of the best Commodore 64 games and so many of my personal favorites. Find yourself an open-minded friend or two or three who are willing to overlook 8-bit-era graphics and give it a shot; I’ve prepared a download that includes the original Leader Board, Executive Leader Board, and World Class Leader Board — which I think I can without causing a great deal of controversy call the definitive 8-bit golf game — with all the course disks also included courtesy of some ingenious hackers from the days of yore. Fire up a Commodore 64 emulator and try it even if you wouldn’t be caught dead on a real golf course. Golf just works on a computer, as millions of players with no interest whatsoever in the real game have discovered over the years. A grand tradition begins in earnest right here.

(Sources this time out are the same as for the last article.)

 
 

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Access Software

Bruce and Roger Carver,  1985

Bruce and Roger Carver, 1985

The canon of Access Software is crazily varied in light of its relatively modest size. It begins with a utility and then proceeds through a series of frenetic action games of sometimes questionable taste, only to do an abrupt about-face and embrace that most staid of sports, golf. That long-line line of simulations is then joined by a series of gloriously cheesy full-motion-video adventure games. The variety is even more remarkable when you consider that the output of this modest company is largely derived from the minds of just three men: brothers Bruce and Roger Carver and one Chris Jones, instantly recognizable to adventure-game fans as the trench-coated future-noir detective Tex Murphy. The Access story begins in 1982, long before the technology that enabled Tex was more than a dream, when Bruce Carver took home one of the first Commodore 64s to be sold in Salt Lake City.

Bruce was hardly your stereotypical computer whiz kid. Reared in the conservative bosom of Mormonism, he was a settled 34-year-old family man, more than ten years into a career in industrial engineering, when he bought his 64. He’d been introduced to programming some fifteen years earlier at university, then gotten a baptism by fire in his first job after, in the San Francisco offices of the Pacific Fruit Express Company.

They had a computer that no one knew how to work. One day the boss dropped a pile of manuals on my desk and, “Learn how to work this thing — I see you’ve taken Fortran in college.”

I dug through the books until I figured out how it worked and programmed a lot of it myself. By that time, I was working in machine language, something I had never done before — I was used to working with high-level languages. At that point, I fell in love with computers.

After “talking his wife into” the idea years later, he bought a Commodore 64 system from Steve Witzel, owner of a local store called Computers Plus. Bruce found the 64 captivating, rediscovering a passion for hacking that had been lying dormant all these years. Soon he was devoting all the time he could spare to figuring out how the little machine in his basement worked.

That could be a more difficult proposition than you might think. In years to come the 64 would see its humble innards plumbed and charted and exploited to a degree matched by few other platforms in computing history. Those first machines, however, preceded the foundation for most of the vast literature to follow, Commodore’s official Programmer’s Reference Guide, by almost a year. The only source early buyers had for understanding the machine was the sketchy outline provided in the manual in the form of yet another BASIC programming primer. And the 64 was an unusually inscrutable machine at that. Its BASIC was of little use for divining or exploiting the 64’s true capabilities, given that it was the exact same BASIC that Jack Tramiel had purchased from Bill Gates for the Commodore PET back in 1977. It thus lacked any support whatsoever for most of what made the 64 special, like colors and sprites and the SID sound chip. The only way to access these capabilities in BASIC was to POKE values into memory locations and to PEEK at others to see what was inside. Problem was, you had to know what these memory locations were in the first place, for which the manual was of only limited help at best. And so thousands of early adopters like Bruce Carver set out to divine them for themselves, to construct a map of the machine and its capabilities, by methodically POKEing each of the 65,535 addresses and seeing what happened. It was madness, but it was a delightful sort of madness for the right sort of mind.

Bruce’s personal obsession became the 64’s sprite system, particularly a little-understood, semi-mythical something called a “multicolor” sprite that was mentioned in passing in two tables inside the manual but otherwise went completely unremarked. As I wrote in an earlier article about the 64’s technical capabilities, and as Bruce now discovered after a “long systematic search” just to find the video chip, a multicolored sprite let you use up to three colors rather than just one to construct it, at the expense of half the object’s horizontal detail. Bruce’s discoveries led to his first real Commodore 64 project, an editor which let him design single- or multicolor sprites interactively, then save them in a format easy to incorporate into either BASIC or assembly-language. He took it to Computers Plus to show Witzel, who told him that, if he applied just a bit more polish and wrote a manual for it, he’d have a perfectly salable product. This encouragement led to the founding of Access Software just four feverish months after Bruce had first set up his Commodore 64. Witzel, who would become a lifelong friend, knew very well how software distribution and sales worked, and was thus able to help Bruce get a foot in the door of the software industry.

Spritemaster Spritemaster

Both Access’s first product and the first 64 product of its type, Spritemaster proved to be quite successful. It also led to an unexpected windfall of another sort. Bruce:

In December of 1982, I decided to attend a small Commodore dealer show in San Francisco. It was the perfect stage to introduce my new program to the public. The Commodore representative who was running the show came over and asked me if that was multicolored sprites I was displaying on the screen. I replied, yes, it was. He was so impressed with my work that he offered me a Xerox of a Commodore folder containing 64 technical information. He also warned me not to tell anyone else that I had it. So I returned home with a valuable prize that would save me many long hours of playing around with the computer.

Neutral Zone

The first Access game, Neutral Zone, arose directly out of Bruce’s latest technical explorations. It placed the player in charge of a missile battery defending a space station from hordes of aliens. The big gimmick was the way that the player could pan her weapon — and with it the screen — horizontally through a full 360 degrees to target aliens who flew in from everywhere. This was accomplished by taking advantage of scrolling registers that were not even hinted at by the Commodore 64’s manual and whose existence was thus completely unknown to most programmers. Aided by that precious notebook, Bruce was developing a reputation as one of the machine’s programming gurus. While he himself would later admit that Neutral Zone “isn’t a terrific game,” it was one hell of a technical tour de force for early 1983. At another trade show, this time in Florida, the same Commodore representative approached Bruce again to praise it, apparently without recognizing the fellow for whom his own help had been so instrumental.

Neutral Zone did well enough that Bruce decided to quit his day job at Redd Engineering, managing the neat trick of convincing some of Redd’s owners to invest in Access in the process; he would soon set up Access’s first office on the top floor of Redd’s own building. At this point Chris Jones enters the stage, in the uniform not of a roguish detective but rather a mild-mannered accountant — specifically, the Redd Engineering colleague Bruce had hired to do Access’s taxes. In the midst of that, Chris became entranced with the work Bruce was doing. Never of a technical bent himself, Chris was full of creative ideas for the application of Bruce’s ever-growing mastery of Commodore 64 graphics and sound. The two now agreed to do a game together, the first “real game” from Access that had been “planned in depth ahead of time, before any programming.”

Beach-Head Beach-Head

Beach-Head was inspired by the pair’s love for old World War II movies of the gung-ho John Wayne stripe. It charges you with recapturing an island that has been occupied by an enemy known only as “the Dictator.” Doing so requires the successful completion of no less than five individual action games. You must guide the invasion fleet toward the island whilst avoiding mines and torpedo attacks; fend off an enemy air attack on your fleet, followed by a surface attack; and finally storm the beaches and complete the final assault on the island’s central fortress. While hardly a cerebral exercise, it’s interesting for the amount of narrative it grafts onto its action-game template, and for being more sophisticated in some ways than you might expect. Far from being just five separate games packaged together, actions and, most importantly, casualties sustained in earlier phases actually affect later ones, leaving you with a tidy, unique little story at the end about your invasion (or invasion attempt).

Geoff Brown

Geoff Brown

Soon after Beach-Head‘s late 1983 American release, opportunity walked through the door in the form of the slick and stylish Englishman Geoff Brown, a former rock musician who owned and ran a major British software distributor called Centresoft. (In an interesting coincidence, “Center Soft” was one of the names Bruce had rejected for what became Access Software.) Brown now had the idea of starting his own software line called U.S. Gold, which would, as the name would imply, license the best games from the United States, repackage them for Europe — which would generally involve adapting them to work on cassette — and promote the living hell out of them; if there was one thing Brown was good at, it was promotion. For American publishers, U.S. Gold would be a cheap, painless way to maximize their markets, while for Geoff Brown it would turn into gold of another stripe; he would soon be driving one of only twenty Ferrari Testarossas on the roads of Britain. U.S. Gold’s client list would soon include a major swathe of the American games industry: Adventure International, Microprose, Epyx, Datasoft, SSI, Accolade, Sierra On-Line. Within a year they would own 25 percent of the British games industry, while Brown collected plenty of hate from domestic publishers for his blunt claim that American software was just better than European software as well as for an advertising budget that ran to five times the size of his nearest competitor. Yet it all started when Brown convinced Bruce Carver and his tiny company Access to let him bring Beach-Head to Europe as the very first U.S. Gold game.

Beach-Head was a perfect template for Brown’s vision for U.S. Gold: flashy, fast-paced, not very dependent on text, and thanks to its modular design very playable off cassette. “I couldn’t believe how fantastic it looked, with smooth animation and very realistic graphics,” Brown would later say. “The gameplay was like nothing I had ever seen in the UK, streets ahead of the competing UK product.” With Brown’s promotional savvy behind it, it became huge in Europe, selling in the vicinity of 150,000 units in its first year there and making of Bruce Carver a programming hero for countless European kids. Brown claims that it prompted home-grown British developers to “scrap everything they were working on” and start over to try to reach the bar set by Beach-Head. He also claims today that he shipped 1 million copies of Beach-Head through U.S. Gold, but it should be said that he is a bit prone to hyperbole and this number sounds extreme. Regardless, the game went on to become not just the most successful by far of Access’s early efforts but one of the seminal Commodore 64 titles, one that absolutely every kid with a 64 knew, owned, and played, whether legally or (as was much more the norm) illegally acquired.

Raid Over Moscow Raid Over Moscow

Bruce came up with the title of Access’s next game, Raid Over Moscow, whilst driving home from the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in January of 1984 with some friends. The game, another multi-stage “arcade adventure,” was designed around the name. But this time Bruce and Chris walked, by their account naively, into controversy. In place of the abstractly fictional Dictator of Beach-Head, Raid Over Moscow posits a sneak nuclear attack by the very real Soviet Union, which you must defend against using an SDI-like system. It climaxes with the eponymous assault on Moscow itself; if you succeed here you leave behind a smoking nuclear crater. In questionable taste though it was, the game attracted little concern in the United States, where its jingoism felt sadly in step with those times when Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” rhetoric was reaching a peak, the real SDI program was all over the news, and the superpowers were closer to the brink of nuclear war than they had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In Europe, much closer to Moscow and much more aware of the horrors of war thanks to recent history, it was a different story: Raid Over Moscow caused the proverbial shitstorm upon its release through U.S. Gold. The magazine letter pages in Britain erupted with condemnations: “nuclear war is not a subject for fantasy”; “another sick episode of this American hang-up with the people of Russia”; “provocative, insulting, and harmful”; “a nasty little number”; “vicious propaganda”; “a load of American rubbish.” Others were equally strident in declaring Raid Over Moscow harmless, “just a game,” as the controversy spread from gaming circles to television newscasts, radio shows, and of course the always overheated London tabloids. In France and West Germany the game was released as simply Raid!!!, but that didn’t help in the latter country, whose government promptly banned it — and Beach-Head for good measure — from being advertised, sold to minors at all, or even displayed on store shelves. But the most extreme reaction of all happened in Finland, where the controversy made it to the halls of Parliament and prompted an official protest from the Soviet Union to the Finnish Foreign Ministry, calling the game “military propaganda” amongst other choice epithets. Naturally, Raid Over Moscow spent the several months that followed as the top-selling Commodore 64 game in Finland.

Even as he publicly dismissed the controversy by taking the “just a game” angle, Geoff Brown rubbed his hands in glee in deference to the old maxim that no press is bad press. Bruce Carver and Chris Jones, who whatever their personal politics did seem genuinely bewildered and at least somewhat bothered by it all, later claimed that Brown deliberately sparked the flames by contacting known “hawks” and “doves” in London political circles to tell them about the game and get them squawking at each other before it even came out. Later Brown supposedly stoked them by paying people to picket the Soviet Embassy in Raid Over Moscow tee-shirts, until Bruce finally told him to please just cool it.

Meanwhile back in Nevada, the last piece of the Access puzzle had fallen into place in the form of Bruce’s younger brother Roger, who had spent the last nine years in the Navy programming mainframe-based flight simulators. Intrigued by his brother’s programming exploits, he bought a Commodore 64 of his own, and quickly made a poker game that was quite playable. Impressed, Bruce convinced Roger not to reenlist but rather to come work with him instead in June of 1984; by this time Access was turning at last into a real company, with real offices and real employees. The two brothers worked along with Chris Jones on the inevitable Beach-Head II: The Dictator Strikes Back, yet another episodic military action game but one which did stretch the formula considerably by making it possible for two players to play against each other, one in the role of the Dictator and the other in that of the hero.

Beach-Head II Beach-Head II

Beach-Head II‘s other obvious innovation marked the onset of another of the Carvers’ longstanding technical obsessions. Inspired by the digitized speech snippet in Epyx’s Impossible Mission, they started looking for a way to incorporate speech into their own game. They caught up with Doug Mosser, whose company Electronic Speech Systems had been responsible for that snippet, at the January 1985 CES. Together the two companies were able to shoehorn quite a variety of spoken exclamations — all performed by Access’s package artist, Doug Vandergrift — into Beach-Head II, no mean feat given the limited speed and memory of the Commodore 64; just playing back one of these samples required about half of the 6502 CPU’s cycles, leaving precious little for everything else going on. While they didn’t come up with anything quite as indelible as Impossible Mission‘s “Stay a while! Stay forever!,” wounded soldiers in Beach-Head II scream for a “Medic!”; hostages whine, “Hey, don’t shoot me!”; the Dictator himself cackles and issues appropriate Evil Mastermindish threats. The Carvers would continue to relentlessly push the (often rudimentary) sound capabilities of the computers on which they worked, culminating in a patented system, which they dubbed RealSound, for getting, well, real sound and speech out of the IBM PC’s primitive bleeper of a speaker. It would be licensed to a number of other companies, until the arrival of ubiquitous sound cards made it moot.

Beach-Head II foreshadowed Access’s future in still another way. The opening sequence sees your forces parachuting into the Dictator’s stronghold from helicopters, then mounting an initial assault on the defensive perimeter. Trying to make the soldiers’ movements as realistic as possible, the three Access principals went out to a local park and filmed themselves running and scaling walls on a new video camera Roger had recently acquired. They then traced still frames of their figures to make the sprites in the game. This interest in the incorporation of live-action video footage — Roger and Chris were both to one degree or another frustrated filmmakers — would mark virtually every project Access would undertake for the next fifteen years.

For all its small-scale innovations, Beach-Head II, Access’s third episodic military action game, could be read as too much of a good thing. Sales certainly bore that out: Beach-Head had been a massive hit, Raid Over Moscow, despite all of the controversy and the attendant publicity, slightly less of one, while Beach-Head II sold yet worse. Access thus decided on a major change in direction: to make a multi-event sports simulation, a genre in which their developing motion-capture techniques might give them a big edge over the competition. From a commercial standpoint if nothing else, it made a lot of sense; Summer Games I and II from Epyx were absolutely huge in both North America and Europe (where they were released, naturally, under the U.S. Gold imprint).

The original conception for what would become Leader Board hewed very closely indeed to the Epyx model. Access imagined a game that consisted of four separate events: a baseball home-run derby, a soccer penalty kick, a “closest to the pin” golf challenge (meaning each player got three shots to get as close to a single hole as possible), and something else to be determined in the fullness of time. Roger being an excellent golfer, with a handicap that had been known to get as low as 3, they decided to make the golf challenge first. By the time they were done, it seemed obvious that they had something special, worthy of being expanded into a full-fledged 18-hole golf simulation. The other three events were forgotten, and Leader Board was born.

(The longest and most detailed accounts of Access’s early history are found in the July 1987 and August 1987 Commodore Magazine, the June/July 1985 Commodore Power Play, and Retro Gamer #120. Geoff Brown and U.S. Gold are profiled in the June 1985 ZZap!, the July 1986 Commodore User, and the October 1986 Your Computer. A sampling of reactions to Road to Moscow can be found in the October 1984, December 1984, February 1985, and March 1985 Computer and Video Games, and the April 1985 Sinclair User. And finally, not reading Finnish, I must admit that I sourced the Raid Over Moscow controversy in Finland straight from good old Wikipedia.)

 
 

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