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The 68000 Wars, Part 5: The Age of Multimedia

A group of engineers from Commodore dropped in unannounced on the monthly meeting of the San Diego Amiga Users Group in April of 1988. They said they were on their way to West Germany with some important new technology to share with their European colleagues. With a few hours to spare before they had to catch their flight, they’d decided to share it with the user group’s members as well.

They had with them nothing less than the machine that would soon be released as the next-generation Amiga: the Amiga 3000. From the moment they powered it up to display the familiar Workbench startup icon re-imagined as a three-dimensional ray-traced rendering, the crowd was in awe. The new model sported a 68020 processor running at more than twice the clock speed of the old 68000, with a set of custom chips redesigned to match its throughput; graphics in 2 million colors instead of 4096, shown at non-interlaced — read, non-flickering — resolutions of 640 X 400 and beyond; an AmigaOS 2.0 Workbench that looked far more professional than the garish version 1.3 that was shipping with current Amigas. The crowd was just getting warmed up when the team said they had to run. They did, after all, have a plane to catch.

Word spread like crazy over the online services. Calls poured in to Commodore’s headquarters in West Chester, Pennsylvania, but they didn’t seem to know what any of the callers were talking about. Clearly this must be a very top-secret project; the engineering team must have committed a major breach of protocol by jumping the gun as they had. Who would have dreamed that Commodore was already in the final stages of a project which the Amiga community had been begging them just to get started on?

Who indeed? The whole thing was a lie. The tip-off was right there in the April date of the San Diego Users Group Meeting. The president of the group, along with a few co-conspirators, had taken a Macintosh II motherboard and shoehorned it into an Amiga 2000 case. They’d had “Amiga 3000” labels typeset and stuck them on the case, and created some reasonable-looking renderings of Amiga applications, just enough to get them through the brief amount of time their team of “Commodore engineers” — actually people from the nearby Los Angeles Amiga Users Group — would spend presenting the package. When the truth came out, some in the Amiga community congratulated the culprits for a prank well-played, while others were predictably outraged. What hurt more than the fact that they had been fooled was the reality that a Macintosh that was available right now had been able to impersonate an Amiga that existed only in their dreams. If that wasn’t an ominous sign for their favored platform’s future, it was hard to say what would be.

Of course, this combination of counterfeit hardware and sketchy demos, no matter how masterfully acted before the audience, couldn’t have been all that convincing to a neutral observer with a modicum of skepticism. Like all great hoaxes, this one succeeded because it built upon what its audience already desperately wanted to believe. In doing so, it inadvertently provided a preview of what it would mean to be an Amiga user in the future: an ongoing triumph of hope over hard-won experience. It’s been said before that the worst thing you can do is to enter into a relationship in the hope that you will be able to change the other party. Amiga users would have reason to learn that lesson over and over again: Commodore would never change. Yet many would never take the lesson to heart. To be an Amiga user would be always to be fixated upon the next shiny object out there on the horizon, always to be sure this would be the thing that would finally turn everything around, only to be disappointed again and again.

Hoaxes aside, rumors about the Amiga 3000 had been swirling around since the introduction of the 500 and 2000 models in 1987. But for a long time a rumor was all the new machine was, even as the MS-DOS and Macintosh platforms continued to evolve apace. Commodore’s engineering team was dedicated and occasionally brilliant, but their numbers were tiny in comparison to those of comparable companies, much less bigger ones like Apple and IBM, the latter of whose annual research budget was greater than Commodore’s total sales. And Commodore’s engineers were perpetually underpaid and underappreciated by their managers to boot. The only real reason for a top-flight engineer to work at Commodore was love of the Amiga itself. In light of the conditions under which they were forced to work, what the engineering staff did manage to accomplish is remarkable.

After the crushing disappointment that had been the 1989 Christmas season, when Commodore’s last and most concerted attempt to break the Amiga 500 into the American mainstream had failed, it didn’t take hope long to flower again in the new year. “The chance for an explosive Amiga market growth is still there,” wrote Amazing Computing at that time, in a line that could have summed up the sentiment of every issue they published between 1986 and 1994.

Still, reasons for optimism seemingly did still exist. For one thing, Commodore’s American operation had another new man in charge, an event which always brought with it the hope that the new boss might not prove the same as the old boss. Replacing the unfortunately named Max Toy was Harold Copperman, a real, honest-to-goodness computer-industry veteran, coming off a twenty-year stint with IBM, followed by two years with Apple; he had almost literally stepped offstage from the New York Mac Business Expo, where he had introduced John Sculley to the speaker’s podium, and into his new office at Commodore. With the attempt to pitch the Amiga 500 to low-end users as the successor to the Commodore 64 having failed to gain any traction, the biggest current grounds for optimism was that Copperman, whose experience was in business computers, could make inroads into that market for the higher-end Amiga models. Rumor had it that the dismissal of Toy and the hiring of Copperman had occurred following a civil war that had riven the company, with one faction — Toy apparently among them — saying Commodore should de-emphasize the Amiga in favor of jumping on the MS-DOS bandwagon, while the other faction saw little future — or, perhaps better said, little profit margin — in becoming just another maker of commodity clones. If you were an Amiga fan, you could at least breathe a sigh of relief that the right side had won out in that fight.

The Amiga 3000

It was in that hopeful spring of 1990 that the real Amiga 3000, a machine custom-made for the high-end market, made its bow. It wasn’t a revolutionary update to the Amiga 2000 by any means, but it did offer some welcome enhancements. In fact, it bore some marked similarities to the hoax Amiga 3000 of 1988. For instance, replacing the old 68000 was a 32-bit 68030 processor, and replacing AmigaOS 1.3 was the new and much-improved — both practically and aesthetically — AmigaOS 2.0. The flicker of the interlaced graphics modes could finally be a thing of the past, at least if the user sprang for the right type of monitor, and a new “super-high resolution” mode of 1280 X 400 was available, albeit with only four onscreen colors. The maximum amount of “chip memory” — memory that could be addressed by the machine’s custom chips, and thus could be fully utilized for graphics and sound — had already increased from 512 K to 1 MB with the release of a “Fatter Agnus” chip, which could be retrofitted into older examples of the Amiga 500 and 2000, in 1989. Now it increased to 2 MB with the Amiga 3000.

The rather garish and toy-like AmigaOS 1.3 Workbench.

The much slicker Workbench 2.0.

So, yes, the Amiga 3000 was very welcome, as was any sign of technological progress. Yet it was also hard not to feel a little disappointed that, five years after the unveiling of the first Amiga, the platform had only advanced this far. The hard fact was that Commodore’s engineers, forced to work on a shoestring as they were, were still tinkering at the edges of the architecture that Jay Miner and his team had devised all those years before rather than truly digging into it to make the more fundamental changes that were urgently needed to keep up with the competition. The interlace flicker was eliminated, for instance, not by altering the custom chips themselves but by hanging an external “flicker fixer” onto the end of the bus to de-interlace the interlaced output they still produced before it reached the monitor. And the custom chips still ran no faster than they had in the original Amiga, meaning the hot new 68030 had to slow down to a crawl every time it needed to access the chip memory it shared with them. The color palette remained stuck at 4096 shades, and, with the exception of the new super-high resolution mode, whose weirdly stretched pixels and four colors limited its usability, the graphics modes as a whole remained unchanged. Amiga owners had spent years mocking the Apple Macintosh and the Atari ST for their allegedly unimaginative, compromised designs, contrasting them continually with Jay Miner’s elegant dream machine. Now, that argument was getting harder to make; the Amiga too was starting to look a little compromised and inelegant.

Harold Copperman personally introduced the Amiga 3000 in a lavish event — lavish at least by Commodore’s standards — held at New York City’s trendy Palladium nightclub. With CD-ROM in the offing and audiovisual standards improving rapidly across the computer industry, “multimedia” stood with the likes of “hypertext” as one of the great buzzwords of the age. Commodore was all over it, even going so far as to name the event “Multimedia Live!” From Copperman’s address:

It’s our turn. It’s our time. We had the technology four and a half years ago. In fact, we had the product ready for multimedia before multimedia was ready for a product. Today we’re improving the technology, and we’re in the catbird seat. It is our time. It is Commodore’s time.

I’m at Commodore just as multimedia becomes the most important item in the marketplace. Once again I’m with the leader. Of course, in this industry a leader doesn’t have any followers; he just has a lot of other companies trying to pass him by. But take a close look: the other companies are talking multimedia, but they’re not doing it. They’re a long way behind Commodore — not even close.

Multimedia is a first-class way for conveying a message because it takes the strength of the intellectual content and adds the verve — the emotion-grabbing, head-turning, pulse-raising impact that comes from great visuals plus a dynamic soundtrack. For everyone with a message to deliver, it unleashes extraordinary ability. For the businessman, educator, or government manager, it turns any ordinary meeting into an experience.

In a way, this speech was cut from the same cloth as the Amiga 3000 itself. It was certainly a sign of progress, but was it progress enough? Even as he sounded more engaged and more engaging than had plenty of other tepid Commodore executives, Copperman inadvertently pointed out much of what was still wrong with the organization he helmed. He was right that Commodore had had the technology to do multimedia for a long time; as I’ve argued at length elsewhere, the Amiga was in fact the world’s first multimedia personal computer, all the way back in 1985. Still, the obvious question one is left with after reading the first paragraph of the extract above is why, if Commodore had the technology to do multimedia four and a half years ago, they’ve waited until now to tell anyone about it. In short, why is the the world of 1990 “ready” for multimedia when the world of 1985 wasn’t? Contrary to Copperman’s claim about being a leader, Commodore’s own management had begun to evince an understanding of what the Amiga was and what made it special only after other companies had started building computers similar to it. Real business leaders don’t wait around for the world to decide it’s ready for their products; they make products the world doesn’t yet know it needs, then tell it why it needs them. Five years after being gifted with the Amiga, which stands alongside the Macintosh as one of the two most visionary computers of the 1980s precisely because of its embrace of multimedia, Commodore managed at this event to give every impression that they were the multimedia bandwagon jumpers.

The Amiga 3000 didn’t turn into the game changer the faithful were always dreaming of. It sold moderately, mostly to the established Amiga hardcore, but had little obvious effect on the platform’s overall marketplace position. Harold Copperman was blamed for the disappointment, and was duly fired by Irving Gould, the principal shareholder and ultimate authority at Commodore, at the beginning of 1991. The new company line became an exact inversion of that which had held sway at the time of the Amiga 3000’s introduction: Copperman’s expertise was business computing, but Commodore’s future lay in consumer computing. Jim Dionne, head of Commodore’s Canadian division and supposedly an expert consumer marketer, was brought in to replace him.

An old joke began to make the rounds of the company once again. A new executive arrives at his desk at Commodore and finds three envelopes in the drawer, each labelled “open in case of emergency” and numbered one, two, and three. When the company gets into trouble for the first time on his watch, he opens the first envelope. Inside is a note: “Blame your predecessor.” So he does, and that saves his bacon for a while, but then things go south again. He opens the second envelope: “Blame your vice-presidents.” So he does, and gets another lease on life, but of course it only lasts a little while. He opens the third envelope. “Prepare three envelopes…” he begins to read.

Yet anyone who happened to be looking closely might have observed that the firing of Copperman represented something more than the usual shuffling of the deck chairs on the S.S. Commodore. Upon his promotion, it was made clear to Jim Dionne that he was to be held on a much shorter leash than his predecessors, his authority carefully circumscribed. Filling the power vacuum was one Mehdi Ali, a lawyer and finance guy who had come to Commodore a couple of years before as a consultant and had since insinuated himself more and more with Irving Gould. Now he advanced to the title of president of Commodore International, Gould’s right-hand man in running the global organization; indeed, he seemed to be calling far more shots these days than his globe-trotting boss, who never seemed to be around when you needed him anyway. Ali’s rise would not prove a happy event for anyone who cared about the long-term health of the company.

For now, though, the full import of the changes in Commodore’s management structure was far from clear. Amiga users were on to the next Great White Hope, one that in fact had already been hinted at in the Palladium as the Amiga 3000 was being introduced. Once more “multimedia” would be the buzzword, but this time the focus would go back to the American consumer market Commodore had repeatedly failed to capture with the Amiga 500. The clue had been there in a seemingly innocuous, almost throwaway line from the speech delivered to the Palladium crowd by C. Lloyd Mahaffrey, Commodore’s director of marketing: “While professional users comprise the majority of the multimedia-related markets today, future plans call for penetration into the consumer market as home users begin to discover the benefits of multimedia.”

Commodore’s management, (proud?) owners of the world’s first multimedia personal computer, had for most of the latter 1980s been conspicuous by their complete disinterest in their industry’s initial forays into CD-ROM, the storage medium that, along with the graphics and sound hardware the Amiga already possessed, could have been the crowning piece of the platform’s multimedia edifice. The disinterest persisted in spite of the subtle and eventually blatant hints that were being dropped by people like Cinemaware’s Bob Jacob, whose pioneering “interactive movies” were screaming to be liberated from the constraints of 880 K floppy disks.

In 1989, a tiny piece of Commodore’s small engineering staff — described as “mavericks” by at least one source — resolved to take matters into their own hands, mating an Amiga with a CD-ROM drive and preparing a few demos designed to convince their managers of the potential that was being missed. Management was indeed convinced by the demo — but convinced to go in a radically different direction from that of simply making a CD-ROM drive that could be plugged into existing Amigas.

The Dutch electronics giant Philips had been struggling for what seemed like forever to finish something they envisioned as a whole new category of consumer electronics: a set-top box for the consumption of interactive multimedia content on CD. They called it CD-I, and it was already very, very late. Originally projected for release in time for the Christmas of 1987, its constant delays had left half the entertainment-software industry, who had invested heavily in the platform, in limbo on the whole subject of CD-ROM. What if Commodore could steal Phillips’s thunder by combining a CD-ROM drive with the audiovisually capable Amiga architecture not in a desktop computer but in a set-top box of their own? This could be the magic bullet they’d been looking for, the long-awaited replacement for the Commodore 64 in American living rooms.

The industry’s fixation on these CD-ROM set-top boxes — a fixation which was hardly confined to Phillips and Commodore alone — perhaps requires a bit of explanation. One thing these gadgets were not, at least if you listened to the voices promoting them, was game consoles. The set-top boxes could be used for many purposes, from displaying multimedia encyclopedias to playing music CDs. And even when they were used for pure interactive entertainment, it would be, at least potentially, adult entertainment (a term that was generally not meant in the pornographic sense, although some were already muttering about the possibilities that lurked therein as well). This was part and parcel of a vision that came to dominate much of digital entertainment between about 1989 and 1994: that of a sort of grand bargain between Northern and Southern California, a melding of the new interactive technologies coming out of Silicon Valley with the movie-making machine of Hollywood. Much of television viewing, so went the argument, would become interactive, the VCR replaced with the multimedia set-top box.

In light of all this conventional wisdom, Commodore’s determination to enter the fray — effectively to finish the job that Phillips couldn’t seem to — can all too easily be seen as just another example of the me-too-ism that had clung to their earlier multimedia pronouncements. At the time, though, the project was exciting enough that Commodore was able to lure quite a number of prominent names to work with them on it. Carl Sassenrath, who had designed the core of the original AmigaOS — including its revolutionary multitasking capability — signed on again to adapt his work to the needs of a set-top box. (“In many ways, it was what we had originally dreamed for the Amiga,” he would later say of the project, a telling quote indeed.) Jim Sachs, still the most famous of Amiga artists thanks to his work on Cinemaware’s Defender of the Crown, agreed to design the look of the user interface. Reichart von Wolfsheild and Leo Schwab, both well-known Amiga developers, also joined. And for the role of marketing evangelist Commodore hired none other than Nolan Bushnell, the founder almost two decades before of Atari, the very first company to place interactive entertainment in American living rooms. The project as a whole was placed in the capable hands of Gail Wellington, known throughout the Amiga community as the only Commodore manager with a dollop of sense. The gadget itself came to be called CDTV — an acronym, Commodore would later claim in a part of the sales pitch that fooled no one, for “Commodore Dynamic Total Vision.”

Nolan Bushnell, Mr. Atari himself, plugs CDTV at a trade show.

Commodore announced CDTV at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1990, inviting selected attendees to visit a back room and witness a small black box, looking for all the world like a VCR or a stereo component, running some simple demos. From the beginning, they worked hard to disassociate the product from the Amiga and, indeed, from computers in general. The word “Amiga” appeared nowhere on the hardware or anywhere on the packaging, and if all went according to plan CDTV would be sold next to televisions and stereos in department stores, not in computer shops. Commodore pointed out that everything from refrigerators to automobiles contained microprocessors these days, but no one called those things computers. Why should CDTV be any different? It required no monitor, instead hooking up to the family television set. It neither included nor required a keyboard — much industry research had supposedly proved that non-computer users feared keyboards more than anything else — nor even a mouse, being controlled entirely through a remote control that looked pretty much like any other specimen of same one might find between the cushions of a modern sofa. “If you know how to change TV channels,” said a spokesman, “you can take full advantage of CDTV.” It would be available, Commodore claimed, before the Christmas of 1990, which should be well before CD-I despite the latter’s monumental head start.

That timeline sounded overoptimistic even when it was first announced, and few were surprised to see the launch date slip into 1991. But the extra time did allow a surprising number of developers to jump aboard the CDTV train. Commodore had never been good at developer relations, and weren’t terribly good at it now; developers complained that the tools Commodore provided were always late and inadequate and that help with technical problems wasn’t easy to come by, while financial help was predictably nonexistent. Still, lots of CD-I projects had been left in limbo by Phillips’s dithering and were attractive targets for adaptation to CDTV, while the new platform’s Amiga underpinnings made it fairly simple to port over extant Amiga games like SimCity and Battle Chess. By early 1991, Commodore could point to about fifty officially announced CDTV titles, among them products from such heavy hitters as Grolier, Disney, Guinness (the publisher, not the beer company), Lucasfilm, and Sierra. This relatively long list of CDTV developers certainly seemed a good sign, even if not all of the products they proposed to create looked likely to be all that exciting, or perhaps even all that good. Plenty of platforms, including the original Amiga, had launched with much less.

While the world — or at least the Amiga world — held its collective breath waiting for CDTV’s debut, the charismatic Nolan Bushnell did what he had been hired to do: evangelize like crazy. “What we are really trying to do is make multimedia a reality, and I think we’ve done that,” he said. The hyperbole was flying thick and fast from all quarters. “This will change forever the way we communicate, learn, and entertain,” said Irving Gould. Not to be outdone, Bushnell noted that “books were great in their day, but books right now don’t cut it. They’re obsolete.” (Really, why was everyone so determined to declare the death of the book during this period?)

CDTV being introduced at the 1991 World of Amiga show. Doing the introducing is Gail Wellington, head of the CDTV project and one of the unsung heroes of Commodore.

The first finished CDTV units showed up at the World of Amiga show in New York City in April of 1991; Commodore sold their first 350 to the Amiga faithful there. A staggered roll-out followed: to five major American cities, Canada, and the Commodore stronghold of Britain in May; to France, Germany, and Italy in the summer; to the rest of the United States in time for Christmas. With CD-I now four years late, CDTV thus became the first CD-ROM-based set-top box you could actually go out and buy. Doing so would set you back just under $1000.

The Amiga community, despite being less than thrilled by the excision of all mention of their platform’s name from the product, greeted the launch with the same enthusiasm they had lavished on the Amiga 3000, their Great White Hope of the previous year, or for that matter the big Christmas marketing campaign of 1989. Amazing Computing spoke with bated breath of CDTV becoming the “standard for interactive multimedia consumer hardware.”

“Yes, but what is it for?” These prospective customers’ confusion is almost palpable.

Alas, there followed a movie we’ve already seen many times. Commodore’s marketing was ham-handed as usual, declaring CDTV “nothing short of revolutionary” but failing to describe in clear, comprehensible terms why anyone who was more interested in relaxing on the sofa than fomenting revolutions might actually want one. The determination to disassociate CDTV from the scary world of computers was so complete that the computer magazines weren’t even allowed advance models; Amiga Format, the biggest Amiga magazine in Britain at the time with a circulation of more than 160,000, could only manage to secure their preview unit by making a side deal with a CDTV developer. CDTV units were instead sent to stereo magazines, who shrugged their shoulders at this weird thing this weird computer company had sent them and returned to reviewing the latest conventional CD players. Nolan Bushnell, the alleged marketing genius who was supposed to be CDTV’s ace in the hole, talked a hyperbolic game at the trade shows but seemed otherwise disengaged, happy just to show up and give his speeches and pocket his fat paychecks. One could almost suspect — perish the thought! — that he had only taken this gig for the money.

In the face of all this, CDTV struggled mightily to make any headway at all. When CD-I hit the market just before Christmas, boasting more impressive hardware than CDTV for roughly the same price, it only made the hill that much steeper. Commodore now had a rival in a market category whose very existence consumers still obstinately refused to recognize. As an established maker of consumer electronics in good standing with the major retailers — something Commodore hadn’t been since the heyday of the Commodore 64 — Phillips had lots of advantages in trying to flog their particular white elephant, not to mention an advertising budget their rival could only dream of. CD-I was soon everywhere, on store shelves and in the pages of the glossy lifestyle magazines, while CDTV was almost nowhere. Commodore did what they could, cutting the list price of CDTV to less than $800 and bundling with it The New Grolier Encyclopedia and the smash Amiga game Lemmings. It didn’t help. After an ugly Christmas season, Nolan Bushnell and the other big names all deserted the sinking ship.

Even leaving aside the difficulties inherent in trying to introduce people to an entirely new category of consumer electronics — difficulties that were only magnified by Commodore’s longstanding marketing ineptitude — CDTV had always been problematic in ways that had been all too easy for the true believers to overlook. It was clunky in comparison to CD-I, with a remote control that felt awkward to use, especially for games, and a drive which required that the discs first be placed into an external holder before being loaded into the unit proper. More fundamentally, the very re-purposing of old Amiga technology that had allowed it to beat CD-I to market made it an even more limited platform than its rival for running the sophisticated adult entertainments it was supposed to have enabled. Much of the delay in getting CD-I to market had been the product of a long struggle to find a way of doing video playback with some sort of reasonable fidelity. Even the released CD-I performed far from ideally in this area, but it did better than CDTV, which at best — at best, mind you — might be able to fill about a third of the television screen with low-resolution video running at a choppy twelve frames per second. It was going to be hard to facilitate a union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood with technology like that.

None of CDTV’s problems were the fault of the people who had created it, who had, like so many Commodore engineers before and after them, been asked to pull off a miracle on a shoestring. They had managed to create, if not quite a miracle, something that worked far better than it had a right to. It just wasn’t quite good enough to overcome the marketing issues, the competition from CD-I, and the marketplace confusion engendered by an interactive set-top box that said it wasn’t a game console but definitely wasn’t a home computer either.

CDTV could be outfitted with a number of accessories that turned it into more of a “real” computer. Still, those making software for the system couldn’t count on any of these accessories being present, which served to greatly restrict their products’ scope of possibility.

Which isn’t to say that some groundbreaking work wasn’t done by the developers who took a leap of faith on Commodore — almost always a bad bet in financial terms — and produced software for the platform. CDTV’s early software catalog was actually much more impressive than that of CD-I, whose long gestation had caused so many initially enthusiastic developers to walk away in disgust. The New Grolier Encyclopedia was a true multimedia dictionary; the entry for John F. Kennedy, for example, included not only a textual biography and photos to go along with it but audio excerpts from his most famous speeches. The American Heritage Dictionary also offered images where relevant, along with an audio pronunciation of every single word. American Vista: The Multimedia U.S. Atlas boasted lots of imagery of its own to add flavor to its maps, and could plan a route between any two points in the country at the click of a button. All of these things may sound ordinary today, but in a way that very modern ordinariness is a testament to what pioneering products these really were. They did in fact present an argument that, while others merely talked about the multimedia future, Commodore through CDTV was doing it — imperfectly and clunkily, yes, but one has to start somewhere.

One of the most impressive CDTV titles of all marked the return of one of the Amiga’s most beloved icons. After designing the CDTV’s menu system, the indefatigable Jim Sachs returned to the scene of his most famous creation. Really a remake rather than a sequel, Defender of the Crown II reintroduced many of the additional graphics and additional tactical complexities that had been excised from the original in the name of saving time, pairing them with a full orchestral soundtrack, digitized sound effects, and a narrator to detail the proceedings in the appropriate dulcet English accent. It was, Sachs said, “the game the original Defender of the Crown was meant to be, both in gameplay and graphics.” He did almost all of the work on this elaborate multimedia production all by himself, farming out little more than the aforementioned narration, and Commodore themselves released the game, having acquired the right to do so from the now-defunct Cinemaware at auction. While, as with the original, its long-term play value is perhaps questionable, Defender of the Crown II even today still looks and sounds mouth-wateringly gorgeous.


If any one title on CDTV was impressive enough to sell the machine by itself, this ought to be have been it. Unfortunately, it didn’t appear until well into 1992, by which time CDTV already had the odor of death clinging to it. The very fact that Commodore allowed the game to be billed as the sequel to one so intimately connected to the Amiga’s early days speaks to a marketing change they had instituted to try to breathe some life back into the platform.

The change was born out of an insurrection staged by Commodore’s United Kingdom branch, who always seemed to be about five steps ahead of the home office in any area you cared to name. Kelly Sumner, managing director of Commodore UK:

We weren’t involved in any of the development of CDTV technology; that was all done in America. We were taking the lead from the corporate company. And there was a concrete stance of “this is how you promote it, this is the way forward, don’t do this, don’t do that.” So, that’s what we did.

But after six or eight months we basically turned around and said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. It ain’t going to go anywhere, and if it does go anywhere you’re going to have to spend so much money that it isn’t worth doing. So, we’re going to call it the Amiga CDTV, we’re going to produce a package with disk drives and such like, and we’re going to promote it like that. People can understand that, and you don’t have to spend so much money.”

True to their word, Commodore UK put together what they called “The Multimedia Home Computer Pack,” combining a CDTV unit with a keyboard, a mouse, an external disk drive, and the software necessary to use it as a conventional Amiga as well as a multimedia appliance — all for just £100 more than a CDTV unit alone. Commodore’s American operation grudgingly followed their lead, allowing the word “Amiga” to creep back into their presentations and advertising copy.

Very late in the day, Commodore finally began acknowledging and even celebrating CDTV’s Amigahood.

But it was too late — and not only for CDTV but in another sense for the Amiga platform itself. The great hidden cost of the CDTV disappointment was the damage it did to the prospects for CD-ROM on the Amiga proper. Commodore had been so determined to position CDTV as its own thing that they had rejected the possibility of equipping Amiga computers as well with CD-ROM drives, despite the pleas of software developers and everyday customers alike. A CD-ROM drive wasn’t officially mated to the world’s first multimedia personal computer until the fall of 1992, when, with CDTV now all but left for dead, Commodore finally started shipping an external drive that made it possible to run most CDTV software, as well as CD-based software designed specifically for Amiga computers, on an Amiga 500. Even then, Commodore provided no official CD-ROM solution for Amiga 2000 and 3000 owners, forcing them to cobble together third-party adapters that could interface with drives designed for the Macintosh. The people who owned the high-end Amiga models, of course, were the ones working in the very cutting-edge fields that cried out for CD-ROM.

It’s difficult to overstate the amount of damage the Amiga’s absence from the CD-ROM party, the hottest ticket in computing at the time, did to the platform’s prospects. It single-handedly gave the lie to every word in Harold Copperman’s 1990 speech about Commodore being “the leaders in multimedia.” Many of the most vibrant Amiga developers were forced to shift to the Macintosh or another platform by the lack of CD-ROM support. Of all Commodore’s failures, this one must loom among the largest. They allowed the Macintosh to become the platform most associated with the new era of CD-ROM-enabled multimedia computing without even bothering to contest the territory. The war was over before Commodore even realized a war was on.

Commodore’s feeble last gasp in terms of marketing CDTV positioned it as essentially an accessory to desktop Amigas, a “low-cost delivery system for multimedia” targeted at business and government rather than living rooms. The idea was that you could create presentations on Amiga computers, send them off to be mastered onto CD, then drag the CDTV along to board meetings or planning councils to show them off. In that spirit, a CDTV unit was reduced to a free toss-in if you bought an Amiga 3000 — two slow-selling products that deserved one another.

The final verdict on CDTV is about as ugly as they come: less than 30,000 sold worldwide in some eighteen months of trying; less than 10,000 sold in the American market Commodore so desperately wanted to break back into, and many or most of those sold at fire-sale discounts after the platform’s fate was clear. In other words, the 350 CDTV units that had been sold to the faithful at that first ebullient World of Amiga show made up an alarmingly high percentage of all the CDTV units that would ever sell. (Phillips, by contrast, would eventually manage to move about 1 million CD-I units over the course of about seven years of trying.)

The picture I’ve painted of the state of Commodore thus far is a fairly bleak one. Yet that bleakness wasn’t really reflected in the company’s bottom line during the first couple of years of the 1990s. For all the trouble Commodore had breaking new products in North America and elsewhere, their legacy products were still a force to be reckoned with outside the United States. Here the end of the Cold War and subsequent lifting of the Iron Curtain proved a boon. The newly liberated peoples of Eastern Europe were eager to get their hands on Western computers and computer games, but had little money to spend on them. The venerable old Commodore 64, pulling along behind it that rich catalog of thousands upon thousands of games of all stripes, was the perfect machine for these emerging markets. Effectively dead in North America and trending that way in Western Europe, it now enjoyed a new lease on life in the former Soviet sphere, its sales numbers suddenly climbing sharply again instead of falling. The Commodore 64 was, it seemed, the cockroach of computers; you just couldn’t kill it. Not that Commodore wanted to: they would happily bank every dollar their most famous creation could still earn them. Meanwhile the Amiga 500 was selling better than ever in Western Europe, where it was now the most popular single gaming platform of all, and Commodore happily banked those profits as well.

Commodore’s stock even enjoyed a brief-lived bubble of sorts. In the spring and early summer of 1991, with sales strong all over Europe and CDTV poised to hit the scene, the stock price soared past $20, stratospheric heights by Commodore’s recent standards. This being Commodore, the stock collapsed below $10 again just as quickly — but, hey, it was nice while it lasted. That same year, worldwide sales topped the magical $1 billion mark, another height that had last been seen in the heyday of the Commodore 64. Commodore was now the second most popular maker of personal computers in Europe, with a market share of 12.4 percent, just slightly behind IBM’s 12.7 percent. The Amiga was now selling at a clip of 1 million machines per year, which would bring the total installed base to 4.5 million by the end of 1992. Of that total, 3.5 million were in Europe: 1.3 million in Germany, 1.2 million in Britain, 600,000 in Italy, 250,000 in France, 80,000 in Scandinavia. (Ironically in light of the machine’s Spanish name, one of the few places in Western Europe where it never did well at all was Spain.) To celebrate their European success, Irving Gould and Mehdi Ali took home salaries in 1991 of $1.75 million and $2.4 million respectively, the latter figure $400,000 more than the chairman of IBM, a company fifty times Commodore’s size, was earning.

But it wasn’t hard to see that Commodore, in relying on all of these legacy products sold in foreign markets, was living on borrowed time. Even in Europe, MS-DOS was beginning to slowly creep up on the Amiga as a gaming platform by 1992, while Nintendo and Sega, the two big Japanese console makers, were finally starting to take notice of this virgin territory after having ignored it for so long. While Amiga sales in Europe in 1992 remained blessedly steady, sales of the Amiga in North America were down as usual, sales of the Commodore 64 in Eastern Europe fell off thanks to economic chaos in the region, and sales of Commodore’s line of commodity PC clones cratered so badly that they pulled out of that market entirely. It all added up to a bottom line of about $900 million in total earnings. The company was still profitable that year, but considerably less so than the year before. Everyone was now looking forward to 1993 with more than a little trepidation.

Even as Commodore faced an uncertain future, they could at least take comfort that their arch-enemy Atari was having a much worse time of it. In the very early 1990s, Atari enjoyed some success, if not as much as they had hoped, with their Lynx handheld game console, a more upscale rival to the Nintendo Game Boy. The Atari Portfolio, a genuinely groundbreaking palmtop computer, also did fairly well for them, if perhaps not quite as well as it deserved. But the story of their flagship computing platform, the Atari ST, was less happy. Already all but dead in the United States, the ST’s market share in Europe shrank in proportion to the Amiga’s increasing sales, such that it fell from second to third most popular gaming computer in 1991, trailing MS-DOS now as well as the Amiga.

Atari tried to remedy the slowing sales with new machines they called the STe line, which increased the color palette to 4096 shades and added a blitter chip to aid onscreen animation. (The delighted Amiga zealots at Amazing Computing wrote of these Amiga-inspired developments that they reminded them of “an Amiga 500 created by a primitive tribe that had never actually seen an Amiga, but had heard reports from missionaries of what the Amiga could do.”) But the new hardware broke compatibility with much existing software, and it only got harder to justify buying an STe instead of an Amiga 500 as the latter’s price slowly fell. Atari’s total sales in 1991 were just $285 million, down by some 30 percent from the previous year and barely a quarter of the numbers Commodore was doing. Jack Tramiel and his sons kept their heads above water only by selling off pieces of the company, such as the Taiwanese manufacturing facility that went for $40.9 million that year. You didn’t have to be an expert in the computer business to understand how unsustainable that path was. In the second quarter of 1992, Atari posted a loss of $39.8 million on sales of just $23.3 million, a rather remarkable feat in itself. Whatever else lay in store for Commodore and the Amiga, they had apparently buried old Mr. “Business is War.”

Still, this was no time to bask in the glow of sweet revenge. The question of where Commodore and the Amiga went from here was being asked with increasing urgency in 1992, and for very good reason. The answer would arrive in the latter half of the year, in the form at long last of the real, fundamental technical improvements the Amiga community had been begging for for so long. But had Commodore done enough, and had they done it in time to make a difference? Those questions loomed large as the 68000 Wars were about to enter their final phase.

(Sources: the book On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore by Brian Bagnall; Amazing Computing of August 1987, June 1988, June 1989, July 1989, May 1990, June 1990, July 1990, August 1990, September 1990, December 1990, January 1991 February 1991, March 1991, April 1991, May 1991, June 1991, August 1991, September 1991, November 1991, January 1992, February 1992, March 1992, April 1992, June 1992, July 1992, August 1992, September 1992, November 1992, and December 1992; Info of July/August 1988 and January/February 1989; Amiga Format of July 1991, July 1995, and the 1992 annual; The One of September 1990, May 1991, and December 1991; CU Amiga of June 1992, October 1992, and November 1992; Amiga Computing of April 1992; AmigaWorld of June 1991. Online sources include Matt Barton’s YouTube interview with Jim Sachs,  Sébastien Jeudy’s interview with Carl Sassenrath, Greg Donner’s Workbench Nostalgia, and Atari’s annual reports from 1989, available on archive.org. My huge thanks to reader “himitsu” for pointing me to the last and providing some other useful information on Commodore and Atari’s financials during this period in the comments to a previous article in this series. And thank you to Reichart von Wolfsheild, who took time from his busy schedule to spend a Saturday morning with me looking back on the CDTV project.)

 
 

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A Time of Endings, Part 1: Cinemaware

The computer-game industry, like most young industries, was marked by ebbs and flows. Periodically, new advances in technology, new economic circumstances, and new consumer expectations led to the mass extinction of companies that had once seemed impregnable, even as new companies swept onto the scene to replace them. We’ve already seen one of these periods of transition: the home-computer bust of the mid-1980s that followed the first home-computer boom. Now, just five years later in historical time, we’re about to see another as the 1980s become the 1990s. Under the pressure of Nintendo, the American computer-game industry in particular was redefining itself yet again in terms of platforms, technologies, and modes of play. Inevitably, the disruption brought with it its share of casualties, including among them a number of companies we’ve come to know well in earlier articles. I’ve recently told the story of how the text-adventure specialists Infocom and (in Britain) Level 9 met their end when people largely stopped buying text adventures. Over the course of the next few articles, I’ll be writing about some other endings. Lest that sound horribly depressing, do know that the stories of these failures are not so much stories of companies that did too little as of companies that tried to do too much. For, as Neil Young told us, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”


 

Amidst the litany of mistakes Commodore made with their brilliantly innovative Amiga computer, it’s hard to choose just one as the most deadly to the platform’s long-term future. Certainly, however, their failure to push early and aggressively into CD-ROM must place near the top of any such list. With its 4096-color graphics and its stereo digital sound, the Amiga upon its release in 1985 already offered two-thirds of the equation that would lead to the so-called “multimedia-computing” boom of more than five years later. The only thing it lacked was a storage device capable of holding sufficient quantities of all those colorful graphics and sampled sound. The Amiga relied on 3.5-inch floppy disks that could hold just under 1 MB apiece, a generous number in terms of conventional programs and data but a pittance in terms of multimedia. Thus when Microsoft hosted the CD-ROM’s coming-out party in the form of the first CD-ROM Conference in March of 1986, few people were more excited by the new storage format’s potential than the nascent Amiga user base. “If you are wondering where [CD-ROM] leaves Amiga users,” wrote the Amiga magazine Amazing Computing in just their fourth issue, “it can be said in just three words: ‘in the pink!'” With its 650 MB of storage space, the CD-ROM seemed poised to unleash the Amiga’s true potential.

But, in what was already becoming a pattern, Commodore seemed blissfully unaware of any of it, playing no part in those early industry conferences and revealing no plans to capitalize on the new storage medium. Instead it was left to Microsoft with CD-ROM and Philips with their competing proprietary CD-I technology to be the chief impetus behind optical storage. The earliest CD-ROM products, designed as they were for the audiovisually hidebound IBM clones, filled their discs with huge amounts of text in the form of dictionaries, (text-only) encyclopedias, spelling checkers, thesauri, etc., all of which were important and innovative in their own ways. Yet, as everyone at the early CD-ROM conferences recognized, the really exciting potential of the medium lay in the emerging, as-yet unlabelled realm of multimedia computing that was the Amiga’s specialty. And yet Commodore did nothing. Even when both Apple and Atari released CD-ROM drives for the Amiga’s two most obvious direct competitors, the Macintosh and ST lines, they still did nothing. While Commodore fiddled, an incredible opportunity, born of Philips’s endless delays in getting a CD-based set-top box to market and the fact that no one other than Commodore had a reasonably priced computer with the audiovisual potential to do justice to CD-ROM-fueled multimedia computing, passed them by. When they finally did wake up in the new decade, it would largely be too late; they were now one of many in a market they could have owned.

Of all the Amiga game developers, the one that had the most cause of all to be frustrated by Commodore’s disinterest in CD-ROM was Bob Jacob’s Cinemaware, who throughout their existence would remain both the developer most closely identified with the platform and, not coincidentally, the one that pushed most aggressively to turn their games into true interactive multimedia experiences. Cinemaware’s “interactive movies” made a name for themselves by surrounding their fairly simplistic core game play with animated cut scenes, sampled sounds, and cinematic scores. Unfortunately, the amount and fidelity of all of this that Cinemaware could include was sharply limited by the floppy disks on which they had to distribute their games. With hard drives far from commonplace peripherals on the Amiga, especially in Europe — another situation that was largely thanks to a complete lack of initiative from Commodore — Jacob felt compelled to design his games with a floppy-drive-only Amiga system in mind. In an effort to minimize the disk swapping that could all too quickly get completely out of control with such a setup, he set an upper limit of two disks for each interactive movie. (He would bend from that standard only once, for It Came from the Desert, the 1989 production which was by many measures Cinemaware’s most ambitious completed game ever, and which was therefore allowed to spill onto a third disk.) Even with Cinemaware’s compression technology, with which they tinkered endlessly to try to get a few more pictures or sounds on each disk, only so much content could be fit onto two floppies. And almost worse for Cinemaware than the disks’ limited capacity was the speed, or rather lack thereof, of the Amiga’s floppy drives. The need to constantly shovel all that data in and out of memory from floppy disk played havoc with the sense of cinematic flow which Cinemaware worked so hard to achieve. One spent almost as much time staring at a blank screen as one spent actually playing or watching a Cinemaware game, waiting always for that next sequence to load from the chunka-chunking disk drives.

For these reasons, already by 1988 Jacob was actively looking beyond an Amiga platform that was left stuck in a veritable technological stasis by Commodore’s inaction, looking toward the platforms of the future that would allow his vision of multimedia gaming to truly come to life. It was during that year that a company called the Ideal Group came to his attention with a gadget called the View-Master Interactive Vision.

Interactive Vision was one of many attempts during this period, all of them highly problematic in hindsight, to turn the VCR, which had exploded into ubiquity over the course of the 1980s in exactly the way that the home computer so conspicuously hadn’t, into a device capable of hosting interactive content. Like most such schemes, Ideal’s plan leveraged the so-called “vertical-blank interval.” Sixty times per second, the electron gun which painted the images unspooling from the videotape onto the television screen had to make its way from the bottom right corner of the screen, where each painting cycle wound up, back to the top left to begin painting a new frame. The section of the tape which passed beneath the read head of the VCR during this interval was normally simply dead space. Ideal, however, realized that they could place computer code into these gaps. The Interactive Vision unit itself, a very basic 8-bit computer, was connected between the VCR and the television to read and process this code, which could tell it to overlay simple graphics onto the conventional video unspooling from the videotape, letting the user play videogames superimposed over this video background. It was, in other words, essentially the same concept that lay behind many of the laser-disc-driven standup-arcade games that followed the huge success of Dragon’s Lair.1

The View-Master Interactive Vision system in a nutshell.

For all its similarity to the spawn of Dragon’s Lair, Interactive Vision was extremely limited in comparison to laser-disc-driven applications of the same concept, being bound to the absolute linearity of the videotape format. Recognizing its limitations, Ideal planned to market it as a children’s product, selling for no more than $120, rather than as a game console or a more generalized home-entertainment product like the Philips CD-I. Still, within that space they’d managed to negotiate a bevy of licenses to die for, including Sesame Street, the Muppets, and the classic Disney characters. Bob Jacob and Cinemaware also jumped aboard with enthusiasm when they were approached about making a showpiece game for the system. It was at this point that Jacob hired David Riordan, the former rock musician and current interactive-video pioneer whom we met in an earlier article, in the context of his later work on It Came from the Desert. He also contracted with another old friend of ours: filmmaker, animator, and puzzle-game auteur Cliff Johnson of Fool’s Errand fame.

Riordan, Johnson, and the rest of Cinemaware’s new “Interactive Entertainment Group” were assigned to work on a Disney game which was to be packaged with every Interactive Vision system. After much experimentation, they settled on a thirty-minute videotape featuring ten very simple mini-games, glued together and overlaid onto old Disney cartoon clips. Although its aesthetic goals and its target market could hardly have been more different, the end result wound up resembling nothing so much as Mel Croucher’s earlier Sinclair Spectrum-based multimedia art project Deus Ex Machina in terms of structure: that of a relentlessly unfolding linear program, the interactive elements formed to the constraints of the linear media that grounded them. Cinemaware called their take on the concept Disney’s Cartoon Arcade.

Disney’s Cartoon Arcade in action on the View-Master Interactive Vision system. The player is trying to solve a simple jigsaw puzzle to the right of the screen while cartoon clips play in the background.

Like all of the other efforts along these lines, Interactive Vision flopped, vanishing into the marketplace without a trace. For his part, Dave Riordan judged that “the trouble with the View-Master system was that it was sold as a toy. It got lost on the shelves among the racing cars and the dolls.” Whether that was indeed the problem or whether the system was, as I rather suspect, simply too obviously jerry-rigged a system to have any consumer appeal, the work Cinemaware did with Interactive Vision set a pattern for the second half of the company’s existence. Widely perceived though his company continued to be as the premier Amiga developer, Jacob continued to look beyond that platform in the service of his larger vision of interactive movies as the future of mainstream entertainment. Simply put, if Commodore wasn’t interested in forwarding that vision, he would find partners that would. Riordan’s Interactive Entertainment Group, not disbanded but rather expanded in the wake of Interactive Vision’s failure, would drive these expensive and uncertain forays into emerging technologies, while the rest of the company paid the bills by continuing to make and market games on floppy disk for the Amiga and other traditional home computers.

Working now without Cliff Johnson, who had signed onto the Interactive Vision project only as an outside contractor, Riordan’s future projects would replace VCRs with optical media. Like so much of the American games industry, Cinemaware had first latched onto Phillips CD-I as the optical-storage format of the future. “When CD-I is a reality,” Riordan said, “I think Cinemaware will have a field day with the technology and bring our dream to life with real people, soundtracks, and dialog.” But, again like the rest of the industry, Cinemaware eventually found Philips’s endless delays, along with their platform’s technical limitations in the all-important realm of video playback, to rather take the bloom off the rose. “I’m no longer as high on CD-I as I once was,” Jacob was saying already well before the end of 1988. “You can design around [the limitations], but it’s not really enough.”

With talk of new optical formats everywhere, Cinemaware had no more of a clue than anyone else as to which one(s) would win out. So, they decided to try to support them all, by developing a process within the Interactive Entertainment Group to release new products on a whole range of formats as they appeared. “Someday, somewhere, people are going to invent a very compelling interactive technology, a mass-market entertainment medium that will bring parents and children into a mass-market application,” Jacob said. “I don’t know which hardware system is going to win, but once we’ve developed an interactive design methodology we can shoot material and use it across all formats.” He envisioned Riordan’s group as “a training ground where the methodology of interactive games can be developed and refined, ready for the arrival of the appropriate technology.”


Going back to Cinemaware’s roots, Riordan’s group made a CD-ROM version of Defender of the Crown, still by far the company’s biggest hit ever, for MS-DOS machines. Almost entirely forgotten today, this first CD-ROM version of Cinemaware’s most iconic title marked just the second game ever released on the medium, trailing Mediagenic’s CD-ROM version of The Manhole for the Macintosh onto store shelves by mere days. In many ways, the CD-ROM Defender of the Crown was a more complete demonstration of the future of computer gaming than that other optical landmark. While the graphics and game play remained largely the same as the Amiga original, Riordan’s team added a soundtrack performed by an actual orchestra recorded in an actual studio  — a first for the games industry — along with voice actors playing the narrator and many of the characters. Riordan:

It’s the audio that’s the key. Take someone talking, for example, the intonation in their voice is what really gives the words meaning. Reading text is nothing — but you can say, “I hate you,” in so many different ways, and even make it sound like “I love you.” Or, to take another example, imagine watching a scary movie without music. The music tells you so much about what’s going on. Without it, it’s just not scary at all — and when it comes to games I want people to really back off from the screen!

For Amiga stalwarts, seeing Jim Sachs’s classic graphics, now made possible in full fidelity on MS-DOS by the emerging VGA graphics standard, up there on the screen alongside all the impressive new audio marked a bitter moment indeed, about as clear a measure as could be imagined of just how far their chosen platform had already fallen behind the cutting edge. Granted, with CD-ROM drives still vanishingly rare on everyday machines, this first-ever CD-ROM-based game for MS-DOS was almost more a demonstration of intent than a serious commercial product for Cinemaware — a situation which doubtless does much to explain its obscurity today. It did, however, become the basis for ports to some of the other CD-based platforms that began to appear over the next couple of years, while the techniques that went into making it became the basis of the BOLT unified development environment that was used to make Cinemaware’s arguable best game for the Amiga, It Came from the Desert.

By far the biggest project Cinemaware was ever able to bring to any sort of fruition, It Came from the Desert was also unusual in being the only one to unify the two halves of the company’s latter-day identity. Riordan’s team first produced the floppy-disk-based Amiga version, doing an unusually good job of working within that setup’s limitations to make a really interesting, playable game of it. After completing that version, they moved on to a CD-ROM version that for the first time would feature video clips with real actors — thus beginning to dig the “full-motion-video” rabbit hole down which much of the industry would scurry for the next half-decade or so. Always the optimist, Riordan claimed that many name actors were interested in starring in interactive productions, if Cinemaware could just prove to them the form’s commercial potential. “They saw what happened with VCRs,” he said, drawing an appealing but perhaps flawed comparison, “and how they made more money from the video releases than they did from the original movies. Now they’re watching out closely to see what happens with computer games. We may get big names very soon for games.” In the meantime, Riordan used his connections in Hollywood to recruit a troupe of unknowns, who played their roles in front of green screens that would later be turned into computer-generated backgrounds. And, turning the process on its head, Riordan’s team also experimented with overlaying their graphics of giant ants onto filmed backgrounds.

Shooting It Came from the Desert on a soundstage. Such scenes would become very familiar ones within the games industry in the several years to come; this was ground zero of the whole full-motion-video craze.

A closeup of the actors in front of the “green screen.” They were filmed using a Betacam — the world was still a long way from going all-digital — with a filter that blocked the green. The result, as long as no one wore green, was a set of disembodied figures ready to be digitized with a frame grabber and superimposed over a computer-generated background. Call it a very, very primitive form of CGI.

The end result. Unfortunately, because of the limitations of the NEC TurboGrafx-16’s display hardware, the only released version didn’t look anywhere near even this good.

It was also possible to go the other way, superimposing computer graphics onto video backgrounds.

By 1990, when the Interactive Entertainment Group was in full flight with the full-motion-video It Came from the Desert, the Amiga market in North America was going soft. Thankfully, though, the platform’s continued vitality in Europe more than made up for it; thus Cinemaware’s bread-and-butter interactive movies continued to do quite well on the whole. Meanwhile the company continued to branch out into other areas within the realm of traditional computer games, roaming increasingly far afield from their alleged specialty. Already in 1988 they had embarked on their hugely influential TV Sports line of games that simulated the broadcast of professional sports like football and basketball rather than the experience of the athletes themselves. Around the same time, Jacob had leveraged his strong relationship with his European publisher Mirrorsoft to begin importing popular European action-oriented Amiga titles into North America. He was soon signing deals to publish original games that had even less to do with his company’s usual focus. For instance, having made Cliff Johnson’s acquaintance through the Interactive Vision project, he published 3 in Three, the follow-up to The Fool’s Errand, under the Cinemaware label after Miles Computing, Johnson’s prior publisher, went bust. (Abandoning the storybook aesthetic of The Fool’s Errand for an approach derived from the avant-garde animated films Johnson loved dearly, 3 in Three just doesn’t work for me like its predecessor does; it has some brilliant moments, but has too many repetitive puzzles of the least interesting types, lacks an equally compelling thoroughgoing meta-puzzle, and generally frustrates more than it delights.) Departing even further from what people had come to expect from Cinemaware were the two Star Saga games partially designed by Andrew Greenberg of Wizardry fame. These were elaborate and demanding multiplayer hybrids of tabletop RPGs and computer-based entertainments built around “paragraph books” with hundreds of pages of text — this from a publisher founded on the philosophy of “no typing, get you right into the game, no manual.” Unsurprisingly, the Star Saga games flopped resoundingly for Cinemaware, as they had for Masterplay, the tiny publishing venture Greenberg had originally set up to market them.

Whether one considers all these side ventures a dilution of Jacob’s vision or simply smart diversification, Cinemaware’s traditional computer games, while certainly not all hits (witness: Star Saga), were profitable in the aggregate. They just weren’t anywhere near profitable enough to pay for Cinemaware’s ambitious cutting-edge experiments. Projects like the full-motion-video It Came from the Desert were horrendously expensive in comparison to virtually anything the games industry had ever tackled before. Scoring a soundtrack and recording a real orchestra performing it, for instance, must cost at least $10,000 per track when all was said and done. Even the unknown actors employed by Cinemaware for It Came from the Desert cost about $500 per day per actor, far more than the salary of the best programmers or graphic artists. And then there were the costs of film crews, soundstage rentals, etc. Cinemaware’s debt began to mount alarmingly as they outspent the profits from their traditional games by huge margins. Bob Jacob and Dave Riordan had their hearts in the right place, but the reality remained that they had pushed the company into a dangerous position, well ahead of even the bleeding edge of the consumer marketplace. They were investing money they didn’t have in games that almost no one had the equipment to actually play.

For understandable reasons, then, Cinemaware looked with more and more wistfulness toward Japan, a nation that seemed by many metrics to be doing a much better job turning the ideal of multimedia computing into practical consumer products than any Western nation. On March 14, 1990, Jacob announced that the Japanese firm NEC, maker of computers and game consoles, had purchased approximately a 20 percent share of Cinemaware and with it a seat on the company’s board of directors. NEC had recently begun importing their very successful domestic game console, the PC Engine, into North America as the TurboGrafx-16. While it wasn’t actually doing all that well there at the moment in the face of stiff competition from Nintendo and Sega, NEC believed they had an ace up their sleeve that would make the partnership with Cinemaware a natural fit: a CD add-on, the first of its kind for a console, that NEC was planning to bring Stateside that summer. The CD-equipped TurboGrafx-16, they confidently expected, would be the realization at last of everyone’s old dreams for Phillips CD-I. And when it dropped and took the market by storm, Cinemaware would be there to reap the rewards alongside NEC. In tandem with the stock purchase, Cinemaware and NEC signed an agreement to make Riordan’s in-progress full-motion-video version of It Came from the Desert, previously envisioned as a platform-agnostic product, a TurboGrafx-16 CD exclusive.

The TurboGrafx-16 with CD add-on.

It all went horribly wrong. The first problem was the console itself, which was built around an 8-bit CPU derived from the venerable old MOS 6502, a chip with the merest fraction of the computing power Cinemaware had expected to have at their disposal for the full-motion-video It Came from the Desert. The puny CPU meant that Cinemaware had to simplify the game play dramatically over the floppy-based Amiga version, while a display capable of only 512 colors meant they had to degrade the graphics into a clashing melange of vague outlines. And then the TurboGrafx-16 CD add-on hit the market and proceeded, like the console before it, to sell hardly at all in a market that already had Nintendo as the dominant force and Sega playing the role of the plucky upstart. Cinemaware had spent at least $700,000 on a game they couldn’t sell, whether on the moribund TurboGrafx-16 or, thanks to the exclusive deal they’d signed, on any other platform. Expensive TurboGrafx-16 ports of TV Sports: Football and TV Sports: Basketball and another fruitless exclusive in the form of TV Sports: Hockey were almost as damaging, leaving Cinemaware drowning under the debt they’d run up in making them. Nor was NEC all that supportive of their partner. Jacob claims that the entire American management team that had handled the disastrous introduction of the TurboGrafx-16 and its CD add-on, as well as negotiated the deal with Cinemaware, was “summarily fired” in the aftermath of the console’s failure. With no prospect of a bailout from NEC, “all of a sudden we were in very bad straits.”

Indeed, Jacob describes his decision to do the deal with NEC as nothing less than Cinemaware’s “downfall.” Distracted and financially pinched by the TurboGrafx-16 projects, Cinemaware released only one of their Amiga interactive movies in 1990. Wings, the ninth and, as it would transpire, the last of the line, did well enough in the Amiga’s stronghold of Europe, but neither it nor the rest of Cinemaware’s catalog could sustain a company so intent on throwing good money after the bad of the TurboGrafx-16.

As 1990 came to a close, Jacob had no choice but to search for a buyer to rescue Cinemaware. He spent some time in talks with Columbia Pictures, trying to convince this storied cinematic giant of the bright future of interactive cinema, but ultimately without success. He then danced for a while with Electronic Arts, already Cinemaware’s North American distributor. That looked more promising; Trip Hawkins and most of his senior staff were supposedly in favor of the deal, but a newly empowered board of directors — Electronic Arts had gone public in October of 1989 — nixed it. Cinemaware entered 1991 with debts in excess of $1 million, a huge burden for a company that employed less than forty people. Although Cinemaware needed more, not less staff to bring his vision of CD-ROM-based interactive movies to fruition, Jacob had no choice but to begin laying people off. The death spiral had begun; Cinemaware now lacked the manpower to complete any of the games that might otherwise have saved them.

Jacob dissolved Cinemaware that summer, auctioning off its technologies and licenses to the highest bidders. Among the late projects that would never come to fruition was the dubious proposition of a TV Sports game called Rollerbabes, tackling the thriving — or rather not — sport of roller derby. There was also a cowboy western, envisioned as another big interactive-movie production. The inevitable TV Sports: Football II fell by the wayside as well, while perhaps the most ambitious of all the axed projects was a spy caper called The Enemy Within that Jacob still insists would have “redefined gaming as we know it.” “The game was so far advanced in concept,” he claims, “that its basic creative core still has not been achieved” — whatever that means.

Mirrorsoft, Cinemaware’s longstanding European partner and publisher, wound up acquiring most of the company’s assets, including the name itself. In this state of affairs, Jacob saw opportunity. He moved to Britain and tried to restart Cinemaware, after a fashion, under the name of Acme Interactive, using many of the old Cinemaware properties and licenses, leased back to him by Mirrorsoft. But within a year or so, Acme was acquired by the comic-book publisher Malibu Graphics, where Jacob’s people were combined with new hires to form Malibu Interactive. After a couple of years of modest success on consoles like the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, Malibu Interactive in turn was shut down after their parent company was acquired by Marvel Comics. None of the games that arose out of Jacob’s post-Cinemaware operations were as ambitious or innovative as the games he had made before, and following the Malibu shutdown he went back to his pre-Cinemaware role as a talent agent for the games industry.

What, then, shall we say in closing about Cinemaware? From a business standpoint, Bob Jacob obviously pushed his small company too far too soon, and paid the price for it. Rather than rake him further over the coals, it should suffice on that score to simply acknowledge that mistakes were made. A more interesting question is that of Cinemaware’s creative legacy. Jacob cites modern games like the Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed franchises as being heirs to the work done at Cinemaware in that they are “movie-like experiences.” “At the time, if people asked if Cinemaware was a genre,” he says, “I would say, ‘No, Cinemaware is the future. Cinemaware is where games are going.’ And ultimately, I was right.”

But was he really? To some extent perhaps, but far from entirely. Cinemaware was the first and for some time the most aggressive proponent of one view of the future of interactive entertainment, a view which by the early 1990s — ironically just as Cinemaware was dying — had become that of the American computer-games industry as a whole. It’s a view that we’ve already seen from various angles, and one that we’ll continue to see again and again as we move through this period of gaming history. The future, it claimed, would see conventional computer graphics take a backseat to a rich multimedia environment, a blending of digitized pictures, digitized video, digitized sound, and digitized music sourced from the real analog world that surrounds us. Although Cinemaware’s best-remembered games, their Amiga interactive movies, used decidedly limited amounts of all three, it was always understood within the company that this was due only to technical limitations. Dave Riordan actually labelled computer graphics as the primary thing limiting the mainstream appeal of games, drawing a comparison to cartoons, which, while popular then as they are now in their sphere, were nowhere near as popular as live-action film and video. Graphics, he said, could only “approximate reality”; “regardless of how interesting, they are not actual life.” Jacob said that “you’ve got to have a video look if there’s going to be a mass market. Computer graphics will not be acceptable to a market that’s been weaned on television. If you make it look like television and make it interactive, it’s going to work.”

Well, it largely didn’t work, although it would take the industry until some years beyond the death of Cinemaware to fully realize that. Full-motion video brings with it heaps of limitations in the types of interactivity games can support. We’ll have plenty of opportunities to delve into what those limitations are and the effects they had on games of this period in future articles, as we continue to explore this fraught but fascinating period in gaming history. For now, though, suffice to say that the limitations existed in spades, and that the optimism of proponents like Jacob and Riordan depended on minimizing or dismissing them to an unsustainable degree. Even during their day, Cinemaware became a poster child in some circles for what happens when presentation is emphasized over game play. And in the years since the company’s passing, the genre of full-motion-video games for which they paved the way have gone on to become perhaps the most critically reviled lineage in all of gaming history.

Jacob’s vision of the future of games as a business proposition, being predicated on his flawed vision of their aesthetic future, proved equally flawed. “There will be a new industry,” he said, that would combine “the music, movie, and software industries.” While intersections have certainly abounded, in the big picture this too just hasn’t happened.

Still, Bob Jacob, Dave Riordan, and Cinemaware weren’t by any means entirely wrong about the future. Their sense of cinematic flair did have a major influence on games that came well after the full-motion-video era, while digitized sound and music, not being subject to the same crippling limitations as digitized video, has long since all but completely superseded synthesized sound in games. Ironically for such a determinedly visionary company, their greatest failure might have been a failure of vision: a failure to realize that the public would willingly accept videogames as their own thing, entirely separate from film or television, if they were presented in an appealing, accessible way as their own thing. When it comes to the question of computer graphics versus full-motion video… well, the best graphics have gotten so good by now that it’s hard to tell the difference, isn’t it? Today Cinemaware’s interactive movies, like so many of the productions from other developers that would immediately follow them, read like dispatches from the past to a future that never arrived, as incongruous as the Jetsons-like automotive stylings of the 1950s. So, Bob Jacob was right even as he was wrong; games would go on to become both less and more than he ever imagined.

(Sources: Commodore Magazine of November 1988; Questbusters of October 1989, June 1990, March 1991, and July 1991; Computer Gaming World of March 1990 and May 1990; The One of October 1988 and November 1988; ACE of November 1989, April 1990, and May 1990; New Scientist of July 1989; PC Magazine of July 1989; CU Amiga of March 1990, August 1991, and May 1992; Raze of January 1991; The Games Machine of March 1990; The One of August 1991; Zero of April 1991 and July 1991; Amazing Computing of May 1986; the 1990 episode of Computer Chronicles entitled “Video Game Consoles.” Online sources include interviews with Bob Jacob by Matt Barton, Tristan Donovan, and Zach Meston. Finally, there’s my own interview with Cliff Johnson. Thanks again, Cliff!)


  1. As a further method of fostering interactivity, the audio channel of an Interactive Vision videotape could contain two separate audio tracks blended together into one using multiplexing techniques. The Interactive Vision unit could then filter out one track or the other at the time of playback, giving designers a way to choose between two soundtracks, depending on the user’s input. Indeed, most of the very few Interactive Vision tapes released apparently relied almost entirely on this simple feature rather than embracing the technology’s full range of possibility, as Cinemaware’s Interactive Vision product did. 

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Defender of the Crown

Defender of the Crown

If you rushed out excitedly to buy an Amiga in the early days because it looked about to revolutionize gaming, you could be excused if you felt just a little bit disappointed and underwhelmed as the platform neared its first anniversary in shops. There was a reasonable amount of entertainment software available — much of it from the Amiga’s staunchest supporter, Electronic Arts — but nothing that felt quite as groundbreaking as EA’s early rhetoric about the Amiga would imply. Even the games from EA were mostly ports of popular 8-bit titles, modestly enhanced but hardly transformed. More disappointing in their way were the smattering of original titles. Games like Arcticfox and Marble Madness had their charms, but there was nothing conceptually new about them. Degrade the graphics and sound just slightly and they too could easily pass for 8-bit games. But then, timed to neatly correspond with that one-year anniversary, along came Defender of the Crown, the Amiga’s first blockbuster and to this day the game many old-timers think of first when you mention the platform.

Digital gaming in general was a medium in flux in the mid-1980s, still trying to understand what it was and where it fit on the cultural landscape. The preferred metaphor for pundits and developers alike immediately before the Amiga era was the book; the bookware movement brought with it Interactive Fiction, Electronic Novels, Living Literature, and many other forthrightly literary branded appellations. Yet in the big picture bookware had proved to be something of a commercial dud. Defender of the Crown gave the world a new metaphorical frame, one that seemed much better suit to the spectacular audiovisual capabilities of the Amiga. Cinemaware, the company that made it, had done just what their name would imply: replaced the interactive book with the interactive movie. In the process, they blew the doors of possibility wide open. In its way Defender of the Crown was as revolutionary as the Amiga itself — or, if you like, it was the long-awaited proof of concept for the Amiga as a revolutionary technology for gaming. All this, and it wasn’t even a very good game.

The Cinemaware story begins with Bob Jacob, a serial entrepreneur and lifelong movie buff who fulfilled a dream in 1982 by selling his business in Chicago and moving along with his wife Phyllis to Los Angeles, cradle of Hollywood. With time to kill while he figured out his next move, he became fascinated with another, newer form of media: arcade and computer games. He was soon immersing himself in the thriving Southern California hacker scene. Entrepreneur that he was, he smelled opportunity there. Most of the programmers writing games around him were “not very articulate” and clueless about business. Jacob realized that he could become a go-between, a bridge between hackers and publishers who assured that the former didn’t get ripped off and that the latter had ready access to talent. He could become, in other words, a classic Hollywood agent transplanted to the brave new world of software. Jacob did indeed became a modest behind-the-scenes player over the next couple of years, brokering deals with the big players like Epyx, Activision, Spinnaker, and Mindscape for individuals and small development houses like Ultrasoft, Synergistic, Interactive Arts, and Sculptured Software. And then came the day when he saw the Amiga for the first time.

Jacob had gotten a call from a developer called Island Graphics, who had been contracted by Commodore to write a paint program to be available on Day One for the Amiga. But the two companies had had a falling out. Now Island wanted Jacob to see if he could place the project with another publisher. This he succeeded in doing, signing Island with a new would-be Amiga publisher called Aegis; Island’s program would be released as Aegis Images. (Commodore would commission R.J. Mical to write an alternate paint program in-house; it hit the shelves under Commodore’s own imprint as GraphiCraft.) Much more important to Jacob’s future, however, was his visit to Island’s tiny office and his first glimpse of the prototype Amigas they had there. Like Trip Hawkins and a handful of others, Jacob immediately understood what the Amiga could mean for the future of gaming. He understood so well, in fact, that he made a life-changing decision. He decided he wanted to be more than just an agent. Rather than ride shotgun for the revolution, he wanted to drive it. He therefore wound down his little agency practice in favor of spearheading a new gaming concept he dubbed “Cinemaware.”

Jacob has recounted on a number of occasions the deductions that led him to the Cinemaware concept. A complete Amiga system was projected to cost in the neighborhood of $2000. Few of the teenagers who currently dominated amongst gamers could be expected to have parents indulgent enough to spend that kind of money on them. Jacob therefore expected the demographic that purchased Amigas to skew upward in age — toward people like him, a comfortably well-off professional in his mid-thirties. And people like him would not only want, as EA would soon be putting it, “the visual and aural quality our sophisticated eyes and ears demand,” but also more varied and nuanced fictional experiences. They would, in other words, like to get beyond Dungeons and Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Star Trek as the sum total of their games’ cultural antecedents. At the same time, though, their preference for more varied and interesting ludic fictions didn’t necessarily imply that they wanted games that were all that demanding on their time or even their brainpower. This is the point where Jacob diverged radically from Infocom, the most prominent extant purveyor of sophisticated interactive fictions. The very first computer game that Jacob had ever bought had been Infocom’s Deadline. He hadn’t been all that taken with the experience even at the time. Now, what with its parser-based interface and all the typing that that entailed, its complete lack of audiovisual flash, its extensive manual and evidence reports that the player was expected to read before even putting the disk in the drive, and the huge demands it placed on the player hoping to actually solve its case, it served as a veritable model for what Jacob didn’t want his games to be. Other forms of entertainment favored by busy adults weren’t so demanding. Quite the opposite, in fact. His conception of adult gaming would have it be as easy-going and accessible as television. Thus one might characterize Jacob’s vision as essentially Trip Hawkins’s old dictum of “simple, hot, and deep,” albeit with a bit more emphasis on the “hot” and a bit less on the “deep.” The next important question was where to find those more varied and nuanced fictional experiences. For a movie buff living on the very doorstep of Tinsel Town, the answer must have all but announced itself of its own accord.

Bookware aside, the game industry had to some extent been aping the older, more established art form of film for a while already. The first attempt that I’m aware of to portray a computer game as an interactive movie came with Sierra’s 1982 text-adventure epic Time Zone, the advertising for which was drawn as a movie poster, complete with “Starring: You,” “Admission: $99.95,” and a rating of “UA” for “Ultimate Adventure.” It was also the first game that I’m aware of to give a credit for “Producer” and “Executive Producer.” Once adopted and popularized by Electronic Arts the following year, such movie-making terminology spread quickly all over the game industry. Now Bob Jacob was about to drive the association home with a jackhammer.

Each Cinemaware game would be an interactive version of some genre of movies, drawn from the rich Hollywood past that Jacob knew so well. If nothing else, Hollywood provided the perfect remedy for writer’s block: “Creatively it was great because we had all kinds of genres of movies to shoot for.” Many of the movie genres in which Cinemaware would work felt long-since played-out creatively by the mid-1980s, but most gaming fictions were still so crude by comparison with even the most hackneyed Hollywood productions that it really didn’t matter: “I was smart enough and cynical enough to realize that all we had to do was reach the level of copycat, and we’d be considered a breakthrough.”

Cynicism notwithstanding, the real, obvious love that Jacob and a number of his eventual collaborators had for the movies they so self-consciously evoked would always remain one of the purest, most appealing things about Cinemaware. Their manuals, scant and often almost unnecessary as they would be, would always make room for an affectionate retrospective on each game’s celluloid inspirations. At the same time, though, we should understand something else about the person Jacob was and is. He’s not an idealist or an artist, and certainly not someone who spends a lot of time fretting over games in terms of anything other than commercial entertainment. He’s someone for whom phrases like “mass-market appeal” — and such phrases tend to come up frequently in his discourse — hold nary a hint of irony or condescension. Even his love of movies, genuine as it may be, reflects his orientation toward mainstream entertainment. You’ll not find him waiting for the latest Criterion Collection release of Bergman or Truffaut. No, he favors big popcorn flicks with, well, mass-market appeal. Like so much else about Jacob, this sensibility would be reflected in Cinemaware.

Financing for a new developer wasn’t an easy thing to secure in the uncertain industry of 1985. Perhaps in response, Jacob initially conceived of his venture as a very minimalist operation, employing only himself and his wife Phyllis on a full-time basis. The other founding member of the inner circle was Kellyn Beeck, a friend, software acquisitions manager at Epyx, fellow movie buff, and frustrated game designer. The plan was to give him a chance to exorcise the latter demon with Cinemaware. Often working from Jacob’s initial inspiration, he would provide outside developers with design briefs for Cinemaware games, written in greater or lesser detail depending on the creativity and competency of said developers. When the games were finished, Jacob would pass them on to Mindscape for publication as part of the Cinemaware line. One might say that it wasn’t conceptually all that far removed from the sort of facilitation Jacob had been doing for a couple of years already as a software agent. It would keep the non-technical Jacob well-removed from the uninteresting (to him) nuts and bolts of software development. Jacob initially called his company Master Designer Software, reflecting both an attempt to “appeal to the ego of game designers” and a hope that, should the Cinemaware stuff turn out well, he might eventually launch other themed lines. Cinemaware would, however, become such a strong brand in its own right in the next year or two that Jacob would end up making it the name of his company. I’ll just call Jacob’s operation “Cinemaware” from now on, as that’s the popular name everyone would quickly come to know it under even well before the official name change.

After nearly a year of preparation, Jacob pulled the trigger on Cinemaware at last in January of 1986, when in a manner of a few days he legally formed his new company, signed a distribution contract with Mindscape, and signed contracts with outsiders to develop the first four Cinemaware games, to be delivered by October 15, 1986 — just in time for Christmas. Two quite detailed design briefs went to Sculptured Software of Salt Lake City, a programming house that had made a name for themselves as a porter of games between platforms. Of Sculptured’s Cinemaware projects, Defender of the Crown, the title about which Jacob and Beeck were most excited, was inspired by costume epics of yesteryear featuring legendary heroes like Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, while SDI was to be a game involving Ronald Reagan’s favorite defense program and drawing its more tenuous cinematic inspiration from science-fiction classics ranging from the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s to the recent blockbuster Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The other two games went to proven lone-wolf designer/programmers, last of a slowly dying breed, and were outlined in much broader strokes. King of Chicago, given to a programmer named Doug Sharp who had earlier written a game called ChipWits, an interesting spiritual successor to Silas Warner’s classic Robot War, was to be an homage to gangster movies. And Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon was given to one Bill Williams, who had earlier written such Atari 8-bit hits as Necromancer and Alley Cat and had just finished the first commercial game ever released for the Amiga, Mind Walker. His game would be an homage to Hollywood’s various takes on the Arabian Nights. Excited though he was by the Amiga, Jacob hedged his bets on his platforms just as he did on his developers, planning to get at least one title onto every antagonist in the 68000 Wars before 1986 was out. Only Defender of the Crown and Sinbad were to be developed and released first on the Amiga; King of Chicago would be written on the Macintosh, SDI on the Atari ST. If all went well, ports could follow.

All of this first wave of Cinemaware games as well as the ones that would follow will get their greater or lesser due around here in articles to come. Today, though, I want to concentrate on the most historically important if certainly not the best of Cinemaware’s works, Defender of the Crown.

Our noble Saxon hero on the job

Our noble Saxon hero on the job.

Defender of the Crown, then, takes place in a version of medieval England that owes far more to cinema than it does to history. As in romantic depictions of Merry Olde England dating back at least to Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, the stolid English Saxons are the heroes here, the effete French Normans — despite being the historical victors in the struggle for control of England — the villains. Thus you play a brave Saxon lord struggling against his Norman oppressors. Defender of the Crown really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as history, fiction, or legend. A number of its characters are drawn from Ivanhoe, which might lead one to conclude that it’s meant to be a sequel to that book, taking place after Richard I’s death has thrown his kingdom into turmoil once again. But if that’s the case then why is Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, who was killed in Ivanhoe, running around alive and well again? Should you win Defender of the Crown, you’ll be creating what amounts to an alternate history in which the Saxons throw off the Norman yoke and regain control of England. Suffice to say that the only history that Defender of the Crown is really interested in is the history of Hollywood. What it wants to evoke is not the England of myth or reality, but the England of the movies so lovingly described in its manual. It has no idea where it stands in relation to Ivanhoe or much of anything else beyond the confines of a Hollywood sound stage, nor does it care. Given that, why should we? So, let’s agree to just go with it.

The core of Defender of the Crown: Risk in Merry Olde England

The core of Defender of the Crown: Risk played in Merry Olde England

Defender of the Crown is essentially Risk played on a map of England. The other players in the game include three of the hated Normans and two other Saxon lords, who generally try to avoid attacking their ethnic fellows unless space starts getting really tight. Your goal is of course to wipe the Normans from the map and make of England a Saxon kingdom again. Woven into the simple Risk-like strategy game are a handful of action-oriented minigames that can be triggered by your own actions or those of the other lords: a grand jousting tournament, a midnight raid on an enemy castle, a full-on siege complete with a catapult that you use to knock down a beleaguered castle’s walls. In keeping with Jacob’s vision of Cinemaware games as engaging but light entertainments, a full game usually takes well under an hour to play, and there is no provision for saving or restoring.

From the beginning, it was Jacob’s intention to really pull out all the stops for Defender of the Crown in particular amongst his launch titles, to make of it an audiovisual showcase the likes of which had never been seen before. Shortly after signing Sculptured Software to do the programming, he therefore signed Jim Sachs to work with them, giving him a title familiar to Hollywood but new to the world of games: Art Director.

A Jim Sachs self-portrait

A Jim Sachs self-portrait, one of his early Amiga pictures that won him the job of Art Director for Defender of the Crown.

A self-taught artist from childhood and a programmer since he’d purchased a Commodore 64 just a few years before, Sachs had made quite a name for himself in quite a short time in Commodore circles. He’d written and released a game of his own for the Commodore 64, Saucer Attack, that mixed spectacular graphics with questionable gameplay (an accusation soon to be leveled against Defender of the Crown as well). He’d then spent a year working on another game, to be called Time Crystal, that never got beyond a jawdropping demo that made the rounds of Commodore 64 BBSs for years. He’d been able to use this demo and Saucer Attack to convince Commodore to give him developer’s status for the Amiga, allowing him access to pre-release hardware. Sach’s lovely early pictures were amongst the first to be widely distributed amongst Amiga users, making him the most well-known of the Amiga’s early hacker artists prior to Eric Graham flooring everyone with his Juggler animation in mid-1986. Indeed, Sachs was quite possibly the best Amiga painter in the world when Jacob signed him up to do Defender of the Crown — Andy Warhol included. He would become the most important single individual to work on the game. If it was unusual for an artist to become the key figure behind a game, that itself was an illustration of what made Cinemaware — and particularly Defender of the Crown — so different from what had come before. As he himself was always quick to point out, Sachs by no means personally drew every single one of the many lush scenes that make up the game. At least seven others contributed art, an absolutely huge number by the standards of the time, and another sign of what made Defender of the Crown so different from everything that had come before. It is fair to say, however, that Sachs’s virtual brush swept over every single one of the game’s scenes, tweaking a shadow here, harmonizing differing styles there. His title of Art Director was very well-earned.

This knight, first distributed by Jim Sachs as a picture file, would find his way into Defender of the Crown almost unaltered.

This knight, first distributed by Jim Sachs as a standalone picture, would find his way into Defender of the Crown almost unaltered.

By June of 1986 Sachs and company had provided Sculptured Software with a big pile of mouth-watering art, but Sculptured had yet to demonstrate to Jacob even the smallest piece of a game incorporating any of it. Growing concerned, Jacob flew out to Salt Lake City to check on their progress. What he found was a disaster: “Those guys were like nowhere. Literally nowhere.” Their other game for Cinemaware, SDI, was relatively speaking further along, but also far behind schedule. It seemed that this new generation of 68000-based computers had proved to be more than Sculptured had bargained for.

Desperate to meet his deadline with Mindscape, Jacob took the first steps toward his eventual abandonment of his original concept of Cinemaware as little more than a creative director and broker between developer and publisher. He hired his first actual employee beyond himself and Phyllis, a fellow named John Cutter who had just been laid off following Activision’s acquisition of his previous employer Gamestar, a specialist in sports games. Cutter, more technical and more analytical than Jacob, would become his right-hand man and organizer-in-chief for Cinemaware’s many projects to come. His first task was to remove Sculptured Software entirely from Defender of the CrownS.D.I. they were allowed to keep, but from now on they’d work on it under close supervision from Cutter. Realizing he needed someone who knew the Amiga intimately to have a prayer of completing Defender of the Crown by October 15, Jacob called up none other than R.J. Mical, developer of Intuition and GraphiCraft, and made him an offer: $26,000 if he could take Sachs’s pile of art and Jacob and Beeck’s design, plus a bunch of music Jacob had commissioned from a composer named Jim Cuomo, and turn it all into a finished game within three months. Mical simply said — according to Jacob — “I’m your man.”

Defender of the Crown

He got it done, even if it did nearly kill him. Mical insists to this day that Jacob wasn’t straight with him about the project, that the amount of work it ended up demanding of him was far greater than what he had been led to expect when he agreed to do the job. He was left so unhappy by his rushed final product that he purged his own name from the in-game credits. Sachs also is left with what he calls a “bitter taste,” feeling Jacob ended up demanding far, far more work from him than was really fair for the money he was paid. Many extra graphical flourishes and entire additional scenes that Mical simply didn’t have time or space to incorporate into the finished product were left on the cutting-room floor. Countless 20-hour days put in by Sachs and his artists thus went to infuriating waste in the name of meeting an arbitrary deadline. Sachs claims that five man-weeks work worth of graphics were thrown out for the jousting scenes alone. Neither Sachs nor Mical would ever work with Cinemaware again.

Jousting, otherwise known as occasionally knocking the other guy off his horse but mostly getting unhorsed yourself for no discernible reason

Jousting, otherwise known as occasionally knocking the other guy off his horse for no discernible reason but mostly getting unhorsed yourself.

Many gameplay elements were also cut, while even much of what did make it in has an unfinished feel about it. Defender of the Crown manages the neat trick of being both too hard and too easy. What happens on the screen in the various action minigames feels peculiarly disconnected from what you actually do with the mouse. I’m not sure anyone has ever entirely figured out how the jousting or swordfighting games are even supposed to work; random mouse twiddling and praying would seem to be the only viable tactics. And yet the Risk-style strategic game is almost absurdly easy. Most players win it — and thus Defender of the Crown as a whole — on their second if not their first try, and then never lose again.

Given this, it would be very easy to dismiss Defender of the Crown entirely. And indeed, plenty of critics have done just that, whilst often tossing the rest of Cinemaware’s considerable catalog into the trash can of history alongside it. But, as the length of this article would imply, I’m not quite willing to do that. I recognize that Defender of the Crown isn’t really up to much as a piece of game design, yet even today that doesn’t seem to matter quite as much as it ought to. Simplistic and kind of broken as it is, it’s still a more entertaining experience today than it ought to be — certainly enough so to be worth a play or two. And back in 1986… well, I united England under the Saxon banner a ridiculous number of times as a kid, long after doing so became rote. In thinking about Defender of the Crown‘s appeal, I’ve come to see it as representing an important shift not just in the way that games are made but also in the way that we experience them. To explain what I mean I need to get a bit theoretical with you, just for a moment.

Whilst indulging in a bit of theory in an earlier article, I broke down a game into three component parts: its system of rules and mechanics, its “surface” or user interface, and its fictional context. I want to set aside the middle entry in that trio and just think about rules and context today. As I also wrote in that earlier article, the rise in earnest of what I call “experiential games” from the 1950s onward is marked by an increased interest in the latter in comparison to the former, as games became coherent fictional experiences to be lived rather than mere abstract systems to be manipulated in pursuit of a favorable outcome. I see Defender of the Crown and the other Cinemaware games as the logical endpoint of that tendency. In designing the game, Bob Jacob and Kellyn Beeck started not with a mechanical concept — grand strategy, text adventure, arcade action, etc. — but with a fictional context: a recreation of those swashbuckling Hollywood epics of yore. That the mechanical system they came up with to underlie that fiction — a simplified game of Risk peppered by equally simplistic action games — is loaded with imperfections is too bad but also almost ancillary to Defender of the Crown the experience. The mechanics do the job just well enough to make themselves irrelevant. No one comes to Defender of the Crown to play a great strategy game. They come to immerse themselves in the Merry Olde England of bygone Hollywood.

For many years now there have been voices stridently opposed to the emphasis a game like Defender of the Crown places on its its fictional context, with the accompanying emphasis on foreground aesthetics necessary to bring that context to life. Chris Crawford, for instance, dismisses not just this game but Cinemaware as a whole in one paragraph in On Game Design as “lots of pretty pictures and animated sequences” coupled to “weak” gameplay. Gameplay is king, we’re told, and graphics and music and all the rest don’t — or shouldn’t — matter a whit. Crawford all but critically ranks games based entirely on what he calls their “process intensity”: their ratio of dynamic, interactive code — i.e., gameplay —  to static art, sound, music, even text. If one accepts this point of view in whole or in part, as many of the more prominent voices in game design and criticism tend to do, it does indeed become very easy to dismiss the entire oeuvre of Cinemaware as a fundamentally flawed concept and, worse, a dangerous one, a harbinger of further design degradations to come.

Speaking here as someone with an unusual tolerance for ugly graphics — how else could I have written for years now about all those ugly 8-bit games? — I find that point of view needlessly reductive and rather unfair. Leaving aside that beauty for its own sake, whether found in a game or in an art museum, is hardly worthy of our scorn, the reality is that very few modern games are strictly about their mechanics. Many have joined Defender of the Crown as embodied fictional experiences. This is the main reason that many people play them today. If beautiful graphics help us to feel embodied in a ludic world, bully for them. I’d argue that the rich graphics in Defender of the Crown carry much the same water as the rich prose in, say, Mindwheel or Trinity. Personally — and I understand that mileages vary here — I’m more interested in becoming someone else or experiencing — there’s that word again! — something new to me for a while than I am in puzzles, strategy, or reflex responses in the abstract. I’d venture to guess that most gamers are similar. In some sense modern games have transcended games — i.e., a system of rules and mechanics — as we used to know them. Commercial and kind of crass as it sometimes is, we can see Defender of the Crown straining toward becoming an embodied, interactive, moving, beautiful, fictional experience rather than being just the really bad take on Risk it unquestionably also is.

A fetching lass. Those partial to redheads or brunettes have other options.

A fetching lass gives you the old come-hither stare. Those partial to redheads or brunettes also have options.

A good illustration of Defender of the Crown‘s appeal as an experiential fiction as well as perhaps a bit of that aforementioned crassness is provided by the game’s much-discussed romantic angle. No Hollywood epic being complete without a love interest for the dashing hero, you’ll likely at some point during your personal epic get the opportunity to rescue a Saxon damsel in distress from the clutches of a dastardly Norman. We all know what’s bound to happen next: “During the weeks that follow, gratitude turns to love. Then, late one night…”

Consummating the affair. Those shadows around waist-level are... unfortunate. I don't actually think they're supposed to look like what they look like...

Consummating the affair. Those shadows around waist-level are… unfortunate. I don’t think they’re actually supposed to look like what they look like, although they do give a new perspective to the name of “Geoffrey Longsword.”

After the affair is consummated, your new gal accompanies you through the rest of the game. It’s important to note here that she has no effect one way or the other on your actual success in reconquering England, and that rescuing her is actually one of the more difficult things to do in Defender of the Crown, as it requires that you engage with the pretty terrible swordfighting game; I can only pull it off if I pick as my character Geoffrey Longsword, appropriately enough the hero with “Strong” swordfighting skills. Yet your game — your story — somehow feels incomplete if you don’t manage it. What good is a hero without a damsel to walk off into the sunset with him? There are several different versions of the virgin (sorry!) that show up, just to add a bit of replay value for the lovelorn.

As I’ve written earlier, 1986 was something of a banner year for sex in videogames. The love scene in Defender of the Crown, being much more, um, graphic than the others, attracted particular attention. Many a youngster over the years to come would have his dreams delightfully haunted by those damsels. Shortly after the game’s release, Amazing Computing published an unconfirmed report from an “insider” that the love scene was originally intended to be interactive, requiring “certain mouse actions to coax the fair woman, who reacted accordingly. After consulting with game designers and project management, the programmer supposedly destroyed all copies of the source code to that scene.” Take that with what grains of salt you will. At any rate, a sultry love interest would soon become a staple of Cinemaware games, for the very good reason that the customers loved them. And anyway, Jacob himself, as he later admitted in a revelation bordering on Too Much Information, “always liked chesty women.” It was all horribly sexist, of course, something Amazing Computing pointed out by declaring Defender of the Crown the “most anti-woman game of the year.” On the other hand, it really wasn’t any more sexist than its cinematic inspirations, so I suppose it’s fair enough when taken in the spirit of homage.

Defender of the Crown

Cinemaware wasn’t shy about highlighting one of Defender of the Crown‘s core appeals. Did someone mention sexism?

The buzz about Defender of the Crown started inside Amiga circles even before the game was done. An early build was demonstrated publicly for the first time at the Los Angeles Commodore Show in September of 1986; it attracted a huge, rapt crowd. Released right on schedule that November through Mindscape, Defender of the Crown caused a sensation. Amiga owners treated it as something like a prophecy fulfilled; this was the game they’d all known the Amiga was capable of, the one they’d been waiting for, tangible proof of their chosen platform’s superiority over all others. And it became an object of lust — literally, when the gorgeously rendered Saxon maidens showed up — for those who weren’t lucky enough to own Commodore’s wunderkind.  You could spend lots of time talking about all of the Amiga’s revolutionary capabilities — or you could just pop Defender of the Crown in the drive, sit back, and watch the jaws drop. The game sold 20,000 copies before the end of 1986 alone, astounding numbers considering that the total pool of Amiga owners at that point probably didn’t number much more than 100,000. I feel pretty confident in saying that just about every one of those 80,000 or so Amiga owners who didn’t buy the game right away probably had a pirated copy soon enough. It would go on to sell 250,000 copies, the “gift that kept on giving” for Jacob and Cinemaware for years to come. While later Cinemaware games would be almost as beautiful and usually much better designed — not to mention having the virtue of actually being finished — no other would come close to matching Defender of the Crown‘s sales numbers or its public impact.

Laying seige to a castle. The Greek fire lying to the left of the catapault can't be used. It was cut from the game but not the graphics, only to be added back in in later ports.

Laying siege to a castle. The Greek fire lying to the left of the catapult can’t be used. It was cut from the game but not the graphics, only to be added back in in later ports.

Cinemaware ported Defender of the Crown to a plethora of other platforms over the next couple of years. Ironically, virtually all of the ports were much better game games than the Amiga version, fixing the minigames to make them comprehensible and reasonably entertaining and tightening up the design to make it at least somewhat more difficult to sleepwalk to victory. In a sense, it was Atari ST users who got the last laugh. That, anyway, is the version that some aficionados name as the best overall: the graphics and sound aren’t quite as good, but the game behind them has been reworked with considerable aplomb. Even so, it remained and remains the Amiga version that most people find most alluring. Without those beautiful graphics, there just doesn’t seem to be all that much point to Defender of the Crown. Does this make it a gorgeous atmospheric experience that transcends its game mechanics or just a broken, shallow game gussied up with lots of pretty pictures? Perhaps it’s both, or neither. Artistic truth is always in the eye of the beholder. But one thing is clear: we’ll be having these sorts of discussions a lot as we look at games to come. That’s the real legacy of Defender of the Crown — for better or for worse.

Defender of the Crown

(Sources: On the Edge by Brian Bagnall; Computer Gaming World of January/February 1985, March 1987 and August/September 1987; Amazing Computing #1.9, February 1987, April 1987, and July 1987; Commodore Magazine of October 1987 and November 1988; AmigaWorld of November/December 1986. Jim Sachs has been interviewed in more recent years by Kamil Niescioruk and The Personal Computer Museum. Matt Barton and Tristan Donovan have each interviewed Bob Jacob for Gamasutra.

Defender of the Crown is available for purchase for Windows and Mac from GOG.com, in the Apple Store for iOS, and on Google Play for Android for those of you wanting to visit Merry Olde England for yourselves. All emulate the historically definitive if somewhat broken Amiga version, featuring the original Amiga graphics and sound.)

 
 

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