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Peter Molyneux’s Kingdom in a Box

Peter Molyneux, circa 1990

Peter Molyneux, circa 1990.

I have this idea of a living world, which I have never achieved. It’s based upon this picture in my head, and I can see what it’s like to play that game. Every time I do it, then it maybe gets closer to that ideal. But it’s an ambitious thing.

— Peter Molyneux

One day as a young boy, Peter Molyneux stumbled upon an ant hill. He promptly did what young boys do in such situations: he poked it with a stick, watching the inhabitants scramble around as destruction rained down from above. But then, Molyneux did something that set him apart from most young boys. Feeling curious and maybe a little guilty, he gave the ants some sugar for energy and watched quietly as they methodically undid the damage to their home. Just like that, he woke up to the the idea of little living worlds with lots of little living inhabitants — and to the idea of he himself, the outsider, being able to affect the lives of those inhabitants. The blueprint had been laid for one of the most prominent and influential careers in the history of game design. “I have always found this an interesting mechanic, the idea that you influence the game as opposed to controlling the game,” he would say years later. “Also, the idea that the game can continue without you.” When Molyneux finally grew bored and walked away from the ant hill on that summer day in his childhood, it presumably did just that, the acts of God that had nearly destroyed it quickly forgotten. Earth — and ants — abide.

Peter Molyneux was born in the Surrey town of Guildford (also hometown of, read into it what you will, Ford Prefect) in 1959, the son of an oil-company executive and a toy-shop proprietor. To hear him tell it, he was qualified for a career in computer programming largely by virtue of being so hopeless at everything else. Being dyslexic, he found reading and writing extremely difficult, a handicap that played havoc with his marks at Bearwood College, the boarding school in the English county of Berkshire to which his family sent him for most of his teenage years. Meanwhile his less than imposing physique boded ill for a career in the military or manual labor. Thankfully, near the end of his time at Bearwood the mathematics department acquired a Commodore PET,  while the student union almost simultaneously installed a Space Invaders machine. Seeing a correspondence between these two pieces of technology that eluded his fellow students, Molyneux set about trying to program his own Space Invaders on the PET, using crude character glyphs to represent the graphics that the PET, being a text-only machine, couldn’t actually draw. No matter. A programmer had been born.

These events, followed shortly by Molyneux’s departure from Bearwood to face the daunting prospect of the adult world, were happening at the tail end of the 1970s. Like so many of the people I’ve profiled on this blog, Molyneux was thus fortunate enough to be born not only into a place and circumstances that would permit a career in games, but at seemingly the perfect instant to get in on the ground floor as well. But, surprisingly for a fellow who would come to wear his huge passion for the medium on his sleeve — often almost as much to the detriment as to the benefit of his games and his professional life — Molyneux took a meandering path filling fully another decade to rise to prominence in the field. Or, to put it less kindly: he failed, repeatedly and comprehensively, at every venture he tried for most of the 1980s before he finally found the one that clicked.

Perhaps inspired by his mother’s toy shop, his original dream was to be not so much a game designer as a computer entrepreneur. After earning a degree in computer science from Southampton University, he found himself a job working days as a systems analyst for a big company. By night, he formed a very small company called Vulcan in his hometown of Guildford to implement a novel scheme for selling blank disks. He wrote several simple programs: a music creator, some mathematics drills, a business simulator, a spelling quiz. (The last, having been created by a dyslexic and terrible speller in general, was a bit of a disaster.) For every ten disks you bought for £10, you would get one of the programs for free along with your blank disks. After placing his tiny advertisement in a single magazine, Molyneux was so confident of the results that he told his local post office to prepare for a deluge of mail, and bought a bigger mailbox for his house to hold it all. He got five orders in the first ten days, less than fifty in the scheme’s total lifespan — along with about fifty more inquiries from people who had no interest in the blank disks but just wanted to buy his software.

Taking their interest to heart, Molyneux embarked on Scheme #2. He improved the music creator and the business simulator and tried to sell them as products in their own right. Even years later he would remain proud of the latter in particular — his first original game, which he named Entrepreneur: “I really put loads of features into it. You ran a business and you could produce anything you liked. You had to do things like keep the manufacturing line going, set the price for your product, decide what advertising you wanted, and these random events would happen.” With contests all the rage in British games at the time, he offered £100 to the first person to make £1 million in Entrepreneur. The prize went unclaimed; the game sold exactly two copies despite being released near the zenith of the early-1980s British mania for home computers. “Everybody around me was making an absolute fortune,” Molyneux remembers. “You had to be a complete imbecile in those days not to make a fortune. Yet here I was with Entrepreneur and Composer, making nothing.” He wasn’t, it appeared, very good at playing his own game of entrepreneurship; his own £1 million remained far out of reach. Nevertheless, he moved on to the next scheme.

Scheme #3 was to crack the business and personal-productivity markets via a new venture called Taurus, initiated by Molyneux and his friend Les Edgar, who were later joined by one Kevin Donkin. Molyneux having studied accounting at one time in preparation for a possible career in the field (“the figures would look so messy that no one would ever employ me”), it was decided that Taurus would initially specialize in financial software with exciting names like Taurus Accounts, Taurus Invoicing, and Taurus Stock Control. Those products, like all the others Molyneux had created, went nowhere. But now came a bizarre story of mistaken identity that… well, it wouldn’t make Molyneux a prominent game designer just yet, but it would move him further down the road to that destination.

Commodore was about to launch the Amiga in Britain, and, this being early on when they still saw it as potential competition for the IBMs of the world, was looking to convince makers of productivity software to write for the machine.  They called up insignificant little Taurus of all people to request a meeting to discuss porting the “new software” the latter had in the works to the Amiga. Molyneux and Edgar assumed Commodore must have somehow gotten wind of a database program they were working on. In a state of no small excitement, they showed up at Commodore UK’s headquarters on the big day and met a representative. Molyneux:

He kept talking about “the product,” and I thought they were talking about the database. At the end of the meeting, they say, “We’re really looking forward to getting your network running on the Amiga.” And it suddenly dawned on me that this guy didn’t know who we were. Now, we were called Taurus, as in the star sign. He thought we were Torus, a company that produced networking systems. I suddenly had this crisis of conscience. I thought, “If this guy finds out, there go my free computers down the drain.” So I just shook his hand and ran out of that office.

An appropriately businesslike advertisement for Taurus's database manager gives no hint of what lies in the company's futures.

An appropriately businesslike advertisement for Taurus’s database manager gives no hint of what actually lies in the company’s future…

By the time Commodore figured out they had made a terrible mistake, Taurus had already been signed as official Amiga developers and given five free Amigas. They parlayed those things into a two-year career as makers of somewhat higher-profile but still less than financially successful productivity software for the Amiga. After the database, which they named Acquisition and declared “the most complete database system conceived on any microcomputer” — Peter Molyneux’s habit of over-promising, which gamers would come to know all too well, was already in evidence — they started on a computer-aided-design package called X-CAD Designer. Selling in the United States for the optimistic prices of $300 and $500 respectively, both programs got lukewarm reviews; they were judged powerful but kind of incomprehensible to actually use. But even had the reviews been better, high-priced productivity software was always going to be a hard sell on the Amiga. There were just three places to really make money in Amiga software: in personal-creativity software like paint programs, in video-production tools, and, most of all, in games. In spite of all of Commodore’s earnest efforts to the contrary, the Amiga had by now become known first and foremost as the world’s greatest gaming computer.

The inspiration for the name of Bullfrog Software.

The inspiration for Bullfrog Software.

Molyneux and his colleagues therefore began to wind down their efforts in productivity software in favor of a new identity. They renamed their company Bullfrog after a ceramic figurine they had lying around in the “squalor” of what Molyneux describes as their “absolutely shite” office in a Guildford pensioner’s attic. Under the new name, they planned to specialize in games — Scheme #4 for Peter Molyneux. “We had a simple choice of hitting our head against a brick wall with business software,” he remembers, “or doing what I really wanted to do with my life anyway, which was write games.” Having made the choice to make Bullfrog a game developer, their first actual product was not a game but a simple drum sequencer for the Amiga called A-Drum. Hobgoblins and little minds and all the rest. When A-Drum duly flopped, they finally got around to games.

A friend of Molyneux’s had written a budget-priced action-adventure for the Commodore 64 called Druid II: Enlightenment, and was looking for someone to do an Amiga conversion. Bullfrog jumped at the chance, even though Molyneux, who would always persist in describing himself as a “rubbish” programmer, had very little idea how to program an action game. When asked by Enlightenment‘s publisher Firebird whether he could do the game in one frame — i.e., whether he could update everything onscreen within a single pass of the electron gun painting the screen to maintain the impression of smooth, fluid movement — an overeager Molyneux replied, “Are you kidding me? I can do it in ten frames!” It wasn’t quite the answer Firebird was looking for. But in spite of it all, Bullfrog somehow got the job, producing what Molyneux describes as a “technically rather poor” port of what had been a rather middling game in the first place. (Molyneux’s technique for getting everything drawn in one frame was to simply keep shrinking the size of the display until even his inefficient routines could do the job.) And then, as usual for everything Molyneux touched, it flopped. But Bullfrog did get two important things out of the project: they learned much about game programming, and they recruited as artist for the project one Glenn Corpes, who was not only a talented pixel pusher but also a talented programmer and fount of ideas almost the equal of Molyneux.

Despite the promising addition of Corpes, the first original game conjured up by the slowly expanding Bullfrog fared little better than Enlightenment. Corpes and Kevin Donkin turned out a very of-its-time top-down shoot-em-up called Fusion, which Electronic Arts agreed to release. Dismissed as “a mixture of old ideas presented in a very unexciting manner” by reviewers, Fusion was even less impressive technically than had been the Enlightenment port, being plagued by clashing colors and jittery scrolling — not at all the sort of thing to impress the notoriously audiovisually-obsessed Amiga market. Thus Fusion flopped as well, keeping Molyneux’s long record of futility intact. But then, unexpectedly from this group who’d shown so little sign of ever rising above mediocrity, came genius.

To describe Populous as a stroke of genius would be a misnomer. It was rather a game that grew slowly into its genius over a considerable period of time, a game that Molyneux himself considers more an exercise in evolution than conscious design. “It wasn’t an idea that suddenly went ‘Bang!'” he says. “It was an idea that grew and grew.” And its genesis had as much to do with Glenn Corpes as it did with Peter Molyneux.

Every Populous world is built out of combinations of just 16 blocks.

Every Populous world is built out of combinations of just 56 blocks.

It all began when Corpes started showing off a routine he had written which let him build isometric landscapes out of three-dimensional blocks, like a virtual Lego set. You could move the viewpoint about the landscape, raising and lowering the land by left-clicking to add new blocks, right-clicking to remove them. Molyneux was immediately sure there was a game in there somewhere. His childhood memory of the ant farm leaping to mind, he said, “Let’s have a thousand people running around on it.”

Populous thus began with those little people in lieu of ants, wandering independently over Corpes’s isometric landscapes in real time. When they found a patch they liked, they would settle down, building little huts. Since, this being a computer game, the player would obviously need something to do as well, Molyneux started adding ways for you, as a sort of God on high, to influence the people’s behavior in indirect ways. He added something he called a “Papal Magnet,” a huge ankh you could place in the world to draw your people toward a given spot. But there would come a problem if the way to the Ankh happened to be blocked by, say, a lake. Molyneux claims he added Populous‘s most basic mechanic, the thing you spend by far the most time doing when playing the game, as a response to his “incompetence” as a coder and resulting inability to write a proper path-finding algorithm: when your people get stuck somewhere, you can, subject to your mana reserves — even gods have limits — raise or lower the land to help them out. With that innovation, Populous from the player’s perspective became largely an exercise in terraforming, creating smooth, even landscapes on which your people can build their huts, villages, and eventually castles. As your people become fruitful and multiply, their prayers fuel your mana reserves.

Next, Molyneux added warfare to the picture. Now you would be erecting mountains and lakes to protect your people from their enemies, who start out walking about independently on the other side of the world. The ultimate goal of the game, of course, is to use your people to wipe out your enemy’s people before they do the same to you; this is a very Old Testament sort of religious experience. To aid in that goal, Molyneux gradually added lots of other godly powers to your arsenal, more impressive than the mere raising and lowering of land if also far more expensive in terms of precious mana: flash floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. You know, all your standard acts of God, as found in the Bible and insurance claims.

Lego Populous. Bullfrog had so much fun with this implementation of the idea that they seriously discussed trying to turn it into a commercial board game.

Lego Populous. Bullfrog had so much fun with this implementation of the idea that they seriously discussed trying to turn it into a commercial board game.

Parts of Populous were prototyped on the tabletop. Bullfrog used Lego bricks to represent the landscapes, a handy way of implementing the raising-and-lowering mechanic in a physical space. They went so far as to discuss a license with Lego, only to be told that Lego didn’t support “violent games.” Molyneux admits that the board game, while playable, was very different from the computerized Populous, playing out as a slow-moving, chess-like exercise in strategy. The computer Populous, by contrast, can get as frantic as any action game, especially in the final phase when all the early- and mid-game maneuvering and feinting comes down to the inevitable final genocidal struggle between Good and Evil.

Bullfrog. From left: Glenn Corpes (artist), Shaun Cooper (tester), Peter Molyneux (designer and programmer), Kevin Donkin (designer and programmer), Les Edgar (office manager), Andy Jones (artist and tester).

Bullfrog. From left: Glenn Corpes (artist and programmer), Shaun Cooper (artist and tester), Peter Molyneux (designer and programmer), Kevin Donkin (designer and programmer), Les Edgar (office manager), Andy Jones (artist and tester).

Ultimately far more important to the finished product than Bullfrog’s Lego Populous were the countless matches Molyneux played on the computer against Glenn Corpes. Apart from all of its other innovations in helping to invent the god-game and real-time-strategy genres, Populous was also a pioneering effort in online gaming. Multi-player games — the only way to play Populous for many months — took place between two people seated at two separate Amigas, connected together via modem or, if together in the same room as Molyneux and Corpes were, via a cable. Vanishingly few other designers were working in this space at the time, for understandable reasons: even leaving aside the fact that the majority of computer owners didn’t own modems, running a multi-player game in real-time over a connection as slow as 1200 baud was hardly a programming challenge for the faint-hearted. The fact that it works at all in Populous rather puts the lie to Molyneux’s self-deprecating description of himself as a “rubbish” coder.

You draw your people toward different parts of the map by placing the Papal Magnet. The first one to touch it becomes the leader. There are very few words in the game, which made it much easier to localize and popularize across Europe. Everything is done using the initially incomprehensible suite of icons you near the bottom of the screen.

You draw your people toward different parts of the map by placing the Papal Magnet. The first one to touch it becomes the leader. There are very few words in the game, which only made it that much easier for Electronic Arts to localize and popularize across Europe. Everything is instead done using the initially incomprehensible suite of icons you near the bottom of the screen. Populous does become intuitive in time, but it’s not without a learning curve.

Development of Populous fell into a comfortable pattern. Molyneux and Corpes would play together for several hours every evening, then nip off to the pub to talk about their experiences. Next day, they’d tweak the game, then they’d go at it again. It’s here that we come to the beating heart of Molyneux’s description of Populous as a game evolved rather than designed. Almost everything in the finished game beyond the basic concept was added in response to Molyneux and Corpes’s daily wars. For instance, Molyneux initially added knights, super-powered individuals who can rampage through enemy territory and cause a great deal of havoc in a very short period of time, to prevent their games from devolving into endless stalemates. “A game could get to the point where both players had massive populations,” he says, “and there was just no way to win.” With knights, the stronger player “could go and massacre the other side and end the game at a stroke.”

A constant theme of all the tweaking was to make a more viscerally exciting game that played more quickly. For commercial as well as artistic reasons — Amiga owners weren’t particularly noted for their patience with slow-paced, cerebral games — this was considered a priority. Over the course of development, the length of the typical game Molyneux played with Corpes shrank from several hours to well under one.

Give them time, and your people will turn their primitive villages into castles -- and no, the drawing isn't quite done to scale.

Give them time, and your people will turn their primitive huts into castles.

Even tweaked to play quickly and violently, Populous was quite a departure from the tried-and-true Amiga fare of shoot-em-ups, platformers, and action-adventures. The unenviable task of trying to sell the thing to a publisher was given to Les Edgar. After visiting about a dozen publishers, he convinced Electronic Arts take a chance on it. Bullfrog promised EA a finished Populous in time for Christmas 1988. By the time that deadline arrived, however, it was still an online multiplayer-only game, a prospect EA knew to be commercially untenable. Molyneux and his colleagues thus spent the next few months creating Populous‘s single-player “Conquest Mode.”

In addition to the green and pleasant land of the early levels, there are also worlds of snow and ice, desert worlds, and even worlds of fire and lava to conquer.

In addition to the green and pleasant land of the early levels, there are also worlds of snow and ice, desert worlds, and even worlds of fire and lava to conquer.

Perilously close to being an afterthought to the multi-player experience though it was, Conquest Mode would be the side of the game that the vast majority of its eventual players would come to know best if not exclusively. Rather than design a bunch of scenarios by hand, Bullfrog wrote an algorithm to procedurally generate 500 different “worlds” for play against a computer opponent whose artificial intelligence also had to be created from scratch during this period. This method of content creation, used most famously by Ian Bell and David Braben in Elite, was something of a specialty and signpost of British game designers, who, plagued by hardware limitations far more stringent than their counterparts in the United States, often used it as a way to minimize the space their games consumed in memory and on disk. Most recently, Geoff Crammond’s hit game The Sentinel, published by Firebird, had used a similar scheme. Glenn Corpes believes it may have been an EA executive named Joss Ellis who first suggested it to Bullfrog.

Populous‘s implementation is fairly typical of the form. Each of the 500 worlds except the first is protected by a password that is, like everything else, itself procedurally generated. When you win at a given level, you’re given the password to a higher, harder level; whether and how many levels you get to skip is determined by how resounding a victory you’ve just managed. It’s a clever scheme, packing a hell of a lot of potential gameplay onto a single floppy disk and even making an effort to avoid boring the good player — and all without forcing Bullfrog to deal with the complications of actually storing any state whatsoever onto disk.

It inevitably all comes down to a frantic final free-for-all between your people and those of your enemy.

It inevitably all comes down to a frantic final free-for-all between your people and those of your enemy.

Given their previous failures, Bullfrog understandably wasn’t the most confident group when a well-known British games journalist named Bob Wade, who had already played a pre-release version of the game, came by for a visit. For hours, Molyneux remained too insecure to actually ask Wade the all-important question of what he thought of the game. At last, after Wade had joined the gang for “God knows how many” pints at their local, Molyneux worked up the courage to pop the question. Wade replied that it was the best game he’d ever played, and he couldn’t wait to get back to it — prompting Molyneux to think he must have made some sort of mistake, and that under no circumstances should he be allowed to play another minute of it in case his opinion should change. It was Wade and the magazine he was writing for at the time, ACE (Advanced Computer Entertainment), who coined the term “god game” in the glowing review that followed, the first trickle of a deluge of praise from the gaming press in Britain and, soon enough, much of the world.

Bullfrog’s first royalty check for Populous was for a modest £13,000. Their next was for £250,000, prompting a naive Les Edgar to call Electronic Arts about it, sure it was a mistake. It was no mistake; Populous alone reportedly accounted for one-third of EA’s revenue during its first year on the market. That Bullfrog wasn’t getting even bigger checks was a sign only of the extremely unfavorable deal they’d signed with EA from their position of weakness. Populous finally and definitively ended the now 30-year-old Peter Molyneux’s long run of obscurity and failure at everything he attempted. In his words, he went overnight from “urinating in the sink” and “owing more money than I could ever imagine paying back” to “an incredible life” in games. Port after port came out for the next couple of years, each of them becoming a bestseller on its platform. Populous was selected to become one of the launch titles for the Super Nintendo console in Japan, spawning a full-blown fad there that came to encompass comic books, tee-shirts, collectibles, and even a symphony concert. When they visited Japan for the first time on a promotional tour, Molyneux and Les Edgar were treated like… well, appropriately enough, like gods. Populous sold 3 million copies in all according to some reports, an almost inconceivable figure for a game during this period.

Amidst all its other achievements, Populous was also something of a pioneer in the realm of e-sports. The One magazine and Electronic Arts hosted a tournament to find the best player in Britain.

The One magazine and Electronic Arts hosted a tournament to find the best Populous player in Britain.

While a relatively small percentage of Populous players played online, those who did became pioneers of sorts in their own right. Some bulletin-board systems set up matchmaking services to pair up players looking for a game, any time, day or night; the resulting connections sometimes spanned national borders or even oceans. The matchmakers were aided greatly by Bullfrog’s forward-thinking decision to make all versions of Populous compatible with one another in terms of online play. In making it so quick and easy to find an online opponent, these services prefigured the modern world of Internet-enabled online gaming. Molyneux pronounced them “pretty amazing,” and at the time they really were. In 1992, he spoke excitedly of a recent trip to Japan, where’d he seen a town “with 10,000 homes all linked together. You can play games with anybody in the place. It’s enormous, really enormous, and it’s growing.” If only he’d known what online gaming would grow into in the next decade or two…

A youngster named Andrew Reader wound up winning the tournament, only to get trounced in an exhibitio match by the master, Peter Molyneux himself. There was talk of televising a follow-up tournament on Sky TV, but it doesn't appear to have happened.

A youngster named Andrew Reader wound up winning the tournament, only to get trounced in an exhibition match by the master, Peter Molyneux himself. There was talk of televising a follow-up tournament on Sky TV, but it doesn’t appear to have happened.

The original Amiga version of Populous had been released all but simultaneously with the Amiga version of SimCity. Press and public alike immediately linked the two games together; AmigaWorld magazine, for instance, went so far as to review them jointly in a single article. Both Will Wright of SimCity fame and Peter Molyneux were repeatedly asked in interviews whether they’d played the other’s game. Wright was polite but, one senses, a little disinterested in Populous, saying he “liked the idea of playing God and having a population follow you,” but “sort of wish they’d gone for a slightly more educational angle.” Molyneux was much more enthusiastic about his American counterpart’s work, repeatedly floating a scheme to somehow link the two games together in more literal fashion for online play.  He claimed at one point that Maxis (developers of SimCity) and his own Bullfrog had agreed on a liaison “to go backwards and forwards” between their two companies to work on linking their games. The liaison, he claimed, had “the Populous landscape moving to and from SimCity,” and a finished product would be out sometime in 1992. Like quite a number of the more unbelievable schemes Molyneux has floated over the years, it never happened.

The idea of a linkage between SimCity and Populous, whether taking place online or in the minds of press and public, can seem on the face of it an exceedingly strange one today. How would the online linkage actually work anyway? Would the little Medieval warriors from Populous suddenly start attacking SimCity‘s peaceful modern utopias? Or would Wright’s Sims plop themselves down in the middle of Molyneux’s apocalyptic battles and start building stadiums and power plants? These were very different games: Wright’s a noncompetitive, peaceful exercise in urban planning with strong overtones of edutainment; Molyneux’s a zero-sum game of genocidal warfare that aspired to nothing beyond entertainment. Knowing as we do today the future paths of these two designers — i.e., ever further in the directions laid down by these their first significant works — only heightens the seeming dichotomy.

That said, there actually were and are good reasons to think of SimCity and Populous as two sides of the same coin. For us today, the list includes first of all the reasons of simple historical concordance. Each marks the coming-out party of one of the most important game designers of all time, occurring within bare weeks of one another.

But of course the long-term importance of these two designers to their field wasn’t yet evident in 1989; obviously players were responding to something else in associating their games with one another. Once you stripped away their very different surface trappings and personalities, the very similar set of innovations at the heart of each was laid bare. AmigaWorld said it very well in that joint review: “The real joy of these programs is the interlocking relationships. Sure, you’re a creator, but even more a facilitator, influencer, and stage-setter for little computer people who act on your wishes in their own time and fashion.” It’s no coincidence that, just as Peter Molyneux was partly inspired by an ant hill to create Populous, one of Will Wright’s projects of the near future would be the virtual ant farm SimAnt. In creating the first two god games, the two were indeed implementing a very similar core idea, albeit each in his own very different way.

Joel Billings of the king of American strategy games SSI had founded his company back in 1979 with the explicit goal of making computerized versions of the board games he loved. SimCity and Populous can be seen as the point when computer strategy games transcended that traditional approach. The real-time nature of these games makes them impossible to conceive of as anything other than computer-based works, while their emergent complexity makes them objects of endless fascination for their designers as much or more so for than their players.

In winning so many awards and entrancing so many players for so long, SimCity and Populous undoubtedly benefited hugely from their sheer novelty. Their flaws stand out more clearly today. With its low-resolution graphics and without the aid of modern niceties like tool tips and graphical overlays, SimCity struggles to find ways to communicate vital information about what your city is really doing and why, making the game into something of an unsatisfying black box unless and until you devote a lot of time and effort to understanding what affects what. Populous has many of the same interface frustrations, along with other problems that feel still more fundamental and intractable, especially if you, like the vast majority of players back in its day, experience it through its single-player Conquest Mode. Clever as they are, the procedurally generated levels combined with the fairly rudimentary artificial intelligence of your computer opponent introduce a lot of infelicities. Eventually you begin to realize that one level is pretty much the same as any other; you just need to execute the same set of strategies and tactics more efficiently to have success at the higher levels.

Both Will Wright and Peter Molyneux are firm adherents to the experimental, boundary-pushing school of game design — an approach that yields innovative games but not necessarily holistically good games every time out. And indeed, throughout his long career each of them has produced at least as many misses as hits, even if we dismiss the complaints of curmudgeons like me and lump SimCity and Populous into the category of the hits. Both designers have often fallen into the trap, if trap it be, of making games that are more interesting for creators and commentators than they are fun for actual players. And certainly both have, like all of us, their own blind spots: in relying so heavily on scientific literature to inform his games, Wright has often produced end results with something of the feel of a textbook, while Molyneux has often lacked the discipline and gravitas to fully deliver on his most grandiose schemes.

But you know what? It really doesn’t matter. We need our innovative experimentalists to blaze new trails, just as we need our more sober, holistically-minded designers to exploit the terrain they discover. SimCity and Populous would be followed by decades of games that built on the possibilities they revealed — many of which I’d frankly prefer to play today than these two original ground-breakers. But, again, that reality doesn’t mean we should celebrate SimCity and Populous one iota less, for both resoundingly pass the test of historical significance. The world of gaming would be a much poorer place without Will Wright and Peter Molyneux and their first living worlds inside a box.

(Sources: The Official Strategy Guide for Populous and Populous II by Laurence Scotford; Master Populous: Blueprints for World Power by Clayton Walnum; Amazing Computing of October 1989; Next Generation of November 1998; PC Review of July 1992; The One of April 1989, September 1989, and May 1991; Retro Gamer 44; AmigaWorld of December 1987, June 1989, and November 1989; The Games Machine of November 1988; ACE of April 1989; the bonus content to the film From Bedrooms to Billions. Archived online sources include features on Peter Molyneux and Bullfrog for Wired Online, GameSpot, and Edge Online. Finally, Molyneux’s postmortem on Populous at the 2011 Game Developers Conference.

Populous is available for purchase from GOG.com.)

 

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Wasteland

Wasteland

We can mark the formal beginning of the Wasteland project to the day in December of 1985 when Brian Fargo, head of Interplay, flew out to Arizona with his employee Alan Pavlish to meet with Michael Stackpole. If all went well at the meeting, Pavlish was to join Stackpole and Ken St. Andre as the third member of the core trio who would guide the game to release. His role, however, would be very different from that of his two colleagues.

A hotshot programmer’s programmer, Pavlish, though barely twenty years old, had been kicking around the industry for several years already. Before Interplay existed, he’d done freelance work on Commodore VIC-20 games for their earlier incarnation as Boone Corporation, and done ports of games like Murder on the Zinderneuf to the Apple II and Commodore 64 for another little company called Designer Software. When Pavlish came to work for Interplay full-time, Fargo had first assigned him to similar work: he had ported the non-Interplay game Hacker to the Apple II for Activision. (In those pre-Bard’s Tale days, Fargo was still forced to accept such unglamourous work to make ends meet.) But Fargo had huge respect for Pavlish’s abilities. When the Wasteland idea started to take off while his usual go-to programming ace Bill Heineman1 was still swamped with the Bard’s Tale games and Interplay’s line of illustrated text adventures, Fargo didn’t hesitate to throw Pavlish in at the deep end: he planned to make him responsible for bringing the huge idea that was Wasteland to life on the little 64 K 8-bit Apple II and Commodore 64.

However, when Fargo and Pavlish got out of their airplane that day it was far from certain that there would be a Wasteland project for Pavlish to work on at all. In contrast to St. Andre, Stackpole was decidedly skeptical, and for very understandable reasons. His experiences with computer-game development to date hadn’t been happy ones. Over the past several years, he’d been recruited to three different projects and put considerable work into each, only to see each come to naught in one way or another. Thanks largely to the influence of Paul Jaquays,2 another tabletop veteran who headed Coleco’s videogame-design group during the first half of the 1980s, he’d worked on two games for the Coleco Adam, a would-be challenger in the home-computer wars. The more intriguing of the two, a Tunnels & Trolls adaptation, got cancelled before release. The other, an adaptation of the film 2010: Odyssey Two, was released only after the Adam had flopped miserably and been written off by Coleco; you can imagine how well that game sold. He’d then accepted a commission from science-fiction author cum game developer Fred Saberhagen to design a computer game that took place in the world of the latter’s Book of Swords trilogy. (Stackpole had already worked with Flying Buffalo on a board game set in the world of Saberhagen’s Berserker series.) The computerized Book of Swords had gone into stasis when it became clear that Berserker Works, the development company Saberhagen had founded, just didn’t have the resources to finish it.

So, yes, Stackpole needed some convincing to jump into the breach again with tiny Interplay, a company he’d never heard of.3 Luckily for Interplay, he, Fargo, and Pavlish all got along like a house on fire on that December day. Fargo and Pavlish persuaded Stackpole that they shared — or at least were willing to accommodate — his own emerging vision for Wasteland, for a computer game that would be a game and a world first, a program second. Stackpole:

Programmers design beautiful programs, programs that work easily and simply; game designers design games that are fun to play. If a programmer has to make a choice between an elegant program and a fun game element, you’ll have an elegant program. You need a game designer there to say, “Forget how elegant the program is — we want this to make sense, we want it to be fun.”

I was at a symposium where there were about a dozen people. When asked to tell what we were doing, what I kept hearing over and over from programmer/game designers was something like “I’ve got this neat routine for packing graphics, so I’m going to do a fantasy role-playing game where I can use this routine.” Or a routine for something else, or “I’ve got a neat disk sort,” or this or that. And all of them were putting these into fantasy role-playing games. Not to denigrate their skills as programmers — but that’s sort of like saying, “Gee, I know something about petrochemicals, therefore I’m going to design a car that will run my gasoline.” Well, if you’re not a mechanical engineer, you don’t design cars. You can be the greatest chemist in the world, but you’ve got no business designing a car. I’d like to hope that Wasteland establishes that if you want a game, get game designers to work with programmers.

This vision, cutting as it does so much against the way that games were commonly made in the mid-1980s, would have much to do with both where the eventual finished Wasteland succeeds and where it falls down.

Ditto the game’s tabletop heritage. As had been Fargo’s plan from the beginning, Wasteland‘s rules would be a fairly faithful translation of Stackpole’s Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes tabletop RPG, which was in turn built on the foundation of Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls. A clear evolutionary line thus stretched from the work that St. Andre did back in 1975 to Wasteland more than a decade later. No CRPG to date had tried quite as earnestly as Wasteland would to bring the full tabletop experience to the computer.

You explore the world of Wasteland from a top-down perspective rather than the first-person view of The Bard's Tale. This screenshot and the ones that follow come from the slightly later MS-DOS port rather than the 8-bit original.

You explore the world of Wasteland from a top-down perspective instead of the first-person view of The Bard’s Tale. Note that this screenshot and the ones that follow come from the slightly later (and vastly more pleasant to play) MS-DOS port rather than the 8-bit original.

Early in the new year, Stackpole and St. Andre visited Interplay’s California offices for a week to get the process of making Wasteland rolling. St. Andre arrived with a plot already dreamed up. Drawing heavily from the recent ultra-violent action flick Red Dawn, it posited a world where mutually-assured destruction hadn’t proved so mutual after all: the Soviet Union had won the war, and was now occupying the United States. The player would control a group of American freedom fighters skulking around the farmlands of Iowa, trying to build a resistance network. St. Andre and Stackpole spent a month or more after their visit to California drawing maps of cornfields and trying to find ways to make an awful lot of farmers seem different from one another. (Some of this work can be seen in the Agricultural Center in the finished Wasteland.) But finally the pair had to accept the painful truth: the game they were designing was boring. “I said it will be the dullest game you ever saw,” remembers St. Andre, “because the Russians would be there in strength, and your characters start weak and can’t do anything but skulk and hide and slowly, slowly build up.”

St. Andre suggested moving the setting to the desert of the American Southwest, an area with which he, being born and raised in Arizona, was all too familiar. The region also had a certain thematic resonance, being intimately connected with the history of the atomic bomb. The player’s party might even visit Las Vegas, where folks had once sat on their balconies and watched the mushroom clouds bloom. St. Andre suggested nixing the Soviets as well, replacing them with “ravening monsters stalking through a radioactive wasteland, a few tattered humans struggling to survive against an overwhelming threat.” It meant chucking a fair amount of work, but Fargo agreed that it sounded too good to pass up. They might as well all get used to these sorts of false starts. Little would go smoothly or according to plan on this project.

After that first week at Interplay, St. Andre and Stackpole worked from home strictly in a design role, coming up with the plans for the game that were then left to Pavlish in California to implement in code — still an unusual way of working in the mid-1980s, when even many of the great designers, like Dan Bunten4 and Sid Meier, tended to also be great programmers. But St. Andre and Stackpole used their computers — a Commodore 64 in the case of the former, a battered old Osborne luggable in that of the latter — to do nothing more complex than run a word processor. Bundle after bundle of paper was shipped from Arizona to California, in the form of both computer printouts and reams of hand-drawn maps. St. Andre and Stackpole worked, in other words, largely the same way they would have had Wasteland been planned as a new tabletop adventure module.

Wasteland must be, however, one hell of a big adventure module. It soon became clear that the map-design process, entailing as it did the plotting of every single square with detailed descriptions of what it contained and what the party should be able to do there, was overwhelming the two. St. Andre:

I hadn’t thought a great deal about what was going to be in any of these places. I just had this nebulous story in my mind: our heroes will start in A, they’ll visit every worthwhile place on the map and eventually wind up in Z — and if they’re good enough, they’ll win the game. Certain things will be happening in different locations — monsters of different types, people who are hard to get along with, lots of comic references to life before the war. I figured that when the time came for me to design an area, the Indian Village, for example, I would sit down and figure out what would be in it and that would be it. Except that it started taking a long time. Every map had 1024 squares on it, and each one could do something. Even if I just drew all the buildings, I had to go back and say, “These are all square nine: wall, wall, wall, wall, wall. And if you bump into a wall you’ll get this message: ‘The Indians are laughing at you for walking into a wall.'” Whatever — a map that I thought I could toss off in one or two days was taking two weeks, and the project was falling further and further behind.

Fargo agreed to let St. Andre and Stackpole bring in their old Flying Buffalo buddies Liz Danforth and Dan Carver to do maps as well, and the design team just continued to grow from there. “The guys who were helping code the maps, correcting what we sent in, wanted to do some maps,” remembers Stackpole. “Everyone wanted to have his own map, his own thumbprint on the game.”

Even Fargo himself, who could never quite resist the urge to get his own hands dirty with the creations of this company he was supposed to be running from on high, begged for a map. “I want to do a map. Let me have Needles,” St. Andre remembers him saying. “So I said, ‘You’re the boss, Brian, you’ve got Needles.'” But eventually Fargo had to accept that he simply didn’t have the time to design a game and run a company, and the city of Needles fell to another Interplay employee named Bruce Balfour. In all, the Wasteland manual credits no fewer than eight people other than St. Andre and Stackpole with “scenario design.” Even Pavlish, in between trying to turn this deluge of paper into code, managed to make a map or two of his own.

Wasteland is one of the few computer games in history in which those who worked on the softer arts of writing and design outnumbered those who wrote the code and drew the pictures. The ratio isn’t even close: the Wasteland team included exactly one programmer (Pavlish) and one artist (Todd J. Camasta) to go with ten people who only contributed to the writing and design. One overlooked figure in the design process, who goes wholly uncredited in the game’s manual, was Joe Ybarra, Interplay’s liaison with their publisher Electronic Arts. As he did with so many other classic games, Ybarra offered tactful advice and generally did his gentle best to keep the game on course, even going so far as to fly out to Arizona to meet personally with St. Andre and Stackpole.

Those two found themselves spending as much time coordinating their small army of map designers as they did doing maps of their own. Stackpole:

Work fell into a normal pattern. Alan and I would work details out, I’d pass it down the line to the folks designing maps. If they had problems, they’d tell me, Alan and I would discuss things, and they’d get an answer. In this way the practical problems of scenario design directly influenced the game system and vice versa. Map designers even talked amongst themselves, sharing strategies and some of these became standard routines we all later used.

Stackpole wound up taking personal responsibility for the last third or so of the maps, where the open world begins funneling down toward the climax. St. Andre:

I’m fairly strong at making up stories, but not at inventing intricate puzzles. In the last analysis, I’m a hack-and-slash gamer with only a little thought and strategy thrown in. Interplay and Electronic Arts wanted lots of puzzles in the game. Mike, on the other hand, is much more devious, so I gave him the maps with difficult puzzles and I did the ones that involved walking around, talking to people, and shooting things.

The relationship between these two veteran tabletop designers and Pavlish, the man responsible for actually implementing all of their schemes, wasn’t always smooth. “We’d write up a map with all the things on it and then Alan would say, ‘I can’t do that,'” says St. Andre. There would then follow some fraught discussions, doubtless made still more fraught by amateur programmer St. Andre’s habit of declaring that he could easily implement what was being asked in BASIC on his Commodore 64. (Stackpole: “It’s like a duffer coming up to Arnold Palmer at an average golf course and saying, ‘What do you mean you can’t make that 20-foot putt? I can make a 20-foot putt on a miniature golf course.'”) One extended battle was over the question of grenades and other “area-effect” weapons: St. Andre and Stackpole wanted them, Pavlish said they were just too difficult to code and unnecessary anyway. Unsung hero Joe Ybarra solved that one by quietly lobbying Fargo to make sure they went in.

One aspect of Wasteland that really demonstrates St. Andre and Stackpole’s determination to divorce the design from the technology is the general absence of the usual numbers that programmers favor — i.e., the powers of two that fit so neatly into the limited memories of the Apple II and Commodore 64. Pavlish instinctively wanted to make the two types of pistols capable of holding 16 or 32 bullets. But St. Andre and Stackpole insisted that they hold 7 or 18, just like their real-world inspirations. As demonstrated by the 1024-square maps, the two did occasionally let Pavlish get away with the numbers he favored, but they mostly stuck to their guns (ha!). “It’s going to be inelegant in terms of space,” admits Stackpole, “but that’s reality.”

Logic like this drove Pavlish crazy, striving as he was to stuff an unprecedentedly complex world into an absurdly tiny space. Small wonder that there were occasional blowups. Slowly he learned to give every idea that came from the designers his very best try, and the designers learned to accept that not everything was possible. With that tacit agreement in place, the relationship improved. In the latter stages of the project, St. Andre and Stackpole came to understand the technology well enough to start providing their design specifications in code rather than text. “Then we could put in the multiple saving throws, the skill and attribute checks,” says St. Andre. “Everything we do in a [Tunnels & Trolls] solitaire dungeon suddenly pops up in the last few maps we did for Wasteland because Mike and I were doing the actual coding.”

When not working on the maps, St. Andre and Stackpole — especially the latter, who came more and more to the fore as time went on — were working on the paragraph book that would contain much of Wasteland‘s story and flavor text. The paragraph book wasn’t so much a new idea as a revival of a very old one. Back in 1979, Jon Freeman’s Temple of Apshai, one of the first CRPGs to arrive on microcomputers, had included a booklet of “room descriptions” laid out much like a Dungeons & Dragons adventure module. This approach was necessitated by the almost unbelievably constrained system for which Temple of Apshai was written: a Radio Shack TRS-80 with just 16 K of memory and cassette-based storage. Moving into the late 1980s, the twilight years of the 8-bit CRPG, designers were finding the likes of the Apple II and Commodore 64 as restrictive as Freeman had the TRS-80 for the simple reason that, while the former platforms may have had four times as much memory as the latter, CRPG design ambitions had grown by at least the same multiple. Moving text, a hugely expensive commodity in terms of 8-bit storage, back into an accompanying booklet was a natural remedy. Think of it as one final measure to wring just a little bit more out of the Apple II and Commodore 64, those two stalwart old warhorses that had already survived far longer than anyone had ever expected. And it didn’t hurt, of course, that a paragraph book made for great copy protection.

While the existence of a Wasteland paragraph book in itself doesn’t make the game unique, St. Andre and Stackpole were almost uniquely prepared to use theirs well, for both had lots of experience crafting Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures. They knew how to construct an interactive story out of little snippets of static text as well as just about anyone, and how to scramble it in such a way as to stymie the cheater who just starts reading straight through. Stackpole, following a tradition that began at Flying Buffalo, constructed for the booklet one of the more elaborate red herrings in gaming history, a whole alternate plot easily as convoluted as that in the game proper involving, of all things, a Martian invasion. All told, the Wasteland paragraph book would appear to have easily as many fake entries as real ones.

You fight some strange foes in Wasteland. Combat shifts back to something very reminiescent of The Bard's Tale, with the added tactical dimension of a map showing everyone's location that you can access by tapping the space bar.

For combat, the display shifts back to something very reminiscent of The Bard’s Tale, with the added tactical dimension of a map showing everyone’s location that you can access by tapping the space bar. And yes, you fight some strange foes in Wasteland

Wasteland‘s screen layout often resembles that of The Bard’s Tale, and one suspects that there has to be at least a little of the same code hidden under its hood. In the end, though, the resemblance is largely superficial. There’s just no comparison in terms of sophistication. While it’s not quite a game I can love — I’ll try to explain why momentarily — Wasteland does unquestionably represent the bleeding edge of CRPG design as of its 1988 release date. CRPGs on the Apple II and Commodore 64 in particular wouldn’t ever get more sophisticated than this. Given the constraints of those platforms, it’s honestly hard to imagine how they could.

Key to Wasteland‘s unprecedented sophistication is its menu of skills. Just like in Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, you can tailor each of the up to four characters in your party as you will, free from the restrictive class archetypes of Dungeons & Dragons (or for that matter Tunnels & Trolls). Skills range from the obviously useful (Clip Pistol, Pick Lock, Medic) to the downright esoteric (Metallurgy, Bureaucracy, Sleight of Hand). And of course career librarian St. Andre made sure that a Librarian skill was included, and of course made it vital to winning the game.

Also as in Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, a character’s chance of succeeding at just about anything is determined by adding her level in a relevant skill, if any, to a relevant core attribute. For example, to determine a character’s chance of climbing something using her Climb skill the game will also look to her Agility. The system allows a range of solutions to most of the problems you encounter. Say you come to a locked door. You might have a character with the Pick Lock skill try getting in that way. Failing that, a character with the Demolition skill and a little handy plastic explosives could try blasting her way in. Or a strong character might dispense with skills altogether and just try to bash the door down using her Strength attribute. Although a leveling mechanism does exist that lets you assign points to characters’ skills and attributes, skills also improve naturally with use, a mechanism not seen in any previous CRPG other than Dungeon Master (a game that’s otherwise about as different from Wasteland as a game can be and still be called a CRPG).

The skills system makes Wasteland a very different gameplay experience from Ultima V, its only real rival in terms of 8-bit CRPG sophistication at the time of its release. For all its impressive world-building, Ultima V remains bound to Richard Garriott’s standard breadcrumb-trail philosophy of design; beating it depends on ferreting out a long string of clues telling you exactly where to go and exactly what to do. Wasteland, by contrast, can be beaten many ways. If you can’t find the password the guard wants to let you past that locked gate, you can try an entirely different approach: shoot your way in, blow the gate open, pick the lock on the back door and sneak in. It’s perhaps the first CRPG ever that’s really willing to let you develop your own playing personality. You can approach it as essentially a post-apocalyptic Bard’s Tale, making a frontal assault on every map and trying to blow away every living creature you find there, without concerning yourself overmuch about whether it be good or evil, friend or foe. Or you can play it — relatively speaking — cerebrally, trying to use negotiations, stealth, and perhaps a little swindling to get what you need. Or you can be like most players and do a bit of both, as the mood and opportunity strikes you. It’s very difficult if not impossible to get yourself irretrievably stuck in Wasteland. There are always options, always possibilities. While it’s far less thematically ambitious than Ultima V —  unlike the Ultima games, Wasteland was never intended to be anything more or less than pure escapist entertainment — Wasteland‘s more flexible, player-friendly design pointed the way forward while Ultima V was still glancing back.

Indeed, a big part of the enduring appeal of Wasteland to those who love it is the sheer number of different ways to play it. Interplay picked up on this early, and built an unusual feature into the game: it’s possible to reset the entire world to its beginning state while keeping the same group of lovingly developed characters. Characters can advance to ridiculous heights if you do this enough, taking on some equally ridiculous “ranks”: “1st Class Fargo,” “Photon Stud,” etc., culminating in the ultimate achievement of the level 183 “Supreme Jerk.” This feature lets veteran players challenge themselves by, say, trying to complete the game with just one character, and gives an out to anyone who screws up her initial character creation too badly and finds herself overmatched; she can just start over again and replay the easy bits with the same party to hopefully gain enough experience to correct their failings. It takes some of the edge off one of the game’s most obvious design flaws: it’s all but impossible to know which skills are actually useful until you’ve made your way fairly deep into the game.

The very fact that re-playing Wasteland requires you to reset its world at all points to what a huge advance it represents over the likes of The Bard’s Tale. The first CRPG I know of that has a truly, comprehensively persistent world, one in which the state of absolutely everything is saved, is 1986’s Starflight (a game that admittedly is arguably not even a CRPG at all). But that game runs on a “big” machine in 1980s terms, an IBM PC or clone with at least 256 K of memory. Wasteland does it in 64 K, rewriting every single map on the fly as you play to reflect what you’ve done there. Level half of the town of Needles with explosives early in the game, and it will still be leveled when you return many days later. Contrast with The Bard’s Tale, which remembers nothing but the state of your characters when you exit one of its dungeon levels, which lets you fight the same big boss battles over and over and over again if you like. The persistence allows you the player to really affect the world of Wasteland in big-picture ways that were well-nigh unheard-of at the time of its release, as Brian Fargo notes:

Wasteland let you do anything you wanted in any order you wanted, and you could get ripple effects that might happen one minute later or thirty minutes later, a lot like [the much later] Grand Theft Auto series. The Ultima games were open, but things tended to be very compartmentalized, they didn’t ripple out like in Wasteland.

Wasteland is a stunning piece of programming, a resounding justification for all of the faith Fargo placed in the young Alan Pavlish. Immersed in the design rather than the technical end of things as they were — which is itself a tribute to Pavlish, whose own work allowed them to be — St. Andre and Stackpole may still not fully appreciate how amazing it is that Wasteland does what it does on the hardware it does it on.

All of which rather raises the question of why I don’t enjoy actually playing Wasteland a little more then I do. I do want to be careful here in trying to separate what feel like more objective faults from my personal issues with the game. In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, let me put the latter right out there first.

Put simply, the writing of Wasteland just isn’t to my taste. I get the tone that St. Andre and Stackpole are trying to achieve: one of over-the-top comic ultra-violence, like such contemporary teenage-boy cinematic favorites as the Evil Dead films. And they do a pretty good job of hitting that mark. Your characters don’t just hit their enemies in Wasteland, they “brutalize” them. When they die, enemies “explode like a blood sausage,” are “reduced to a thin red paste,” are “spun into a dance of death,” or are “reduced to ground round.” And then there’s some of the imagery, like the blood-splattered doctor in the infirmary.

Wasteland

The personal appeal you find in those quotes and that image, some of the most beloved among Wasteland‘s loyal fandom, says much about whether you’ll enjoy Wasteland as a whole. In his video review of the game, Matt Barton says that “you will be disgusted or find it hilarious.” Well, I must say that my own feelings rather contradict that dichotomy. I can’t quite manage to feel disgusted or outraged at this kind of stuff, especially since, in blessed contrast to so many later games, it’s almost all described rather than illustrated. I do, however, find the entire aesthetic unfunny and boring, whether it’s found in Wasteland or Duke Nukem. In general, I just don’t find humor that’s based on transgression rather than wit to be all that humorous.

I am me, you are you, and mileages certainly vary. Still, even if we take it on its own terms it seems to me that there are other problems with the writing. As CRPG Addict Chester Bolingbroke has noted, Wasteland can’t be much bothered with consistency or coherency. The nuclear apocalypse that led to the situation your characters find themselves in is described as having taken place in 1998, only ten years on from the date of Wasteland‘s release. Yet when the writers find it convenient they litter the game with absurdly advanced technology, from human clones to telepathic mind links. And the tone of the writing veers about as well, perhaps as a result of the sheer number of designers who contributed to the game. Most of the time Wasteland is content with the comic ultra-violence of The Evil Dead, but occasionally it suddenly reaches toward a jarring epic profundity it hasn’t earned. The main storyline, which doesn’t kick in in earnest until about halfway through the game, is so silly and nonsensical that few of even the most hardcore Wasteland fans remember much about it, no matter how many times they’ve played through it.

Wasteland‘s ropey plotting may be ironic in light of Stackpole’s later career as a novelist, but it isn’t a fatal flaw in itself. Games are not the sum of their stories; many a great game has a poor or nonexistent story to tell. To whatever extent it’s a triumph, Wasteland must be a triumph of game design rather than writing, one last hurrah for Michael Stackpole the designer before Michael Stackpole the novelist took over. The story, like the stories in many or most allegedly story-driven games, is just an excuse to explore Wasteland‘s possibility space.

And that possibility space is a very impressive one, for reasons I’ve tried to explain already. Yet it’s also undone, at least a bit, by some practical implementation issues. St. Andre and Stackpole’s determination to make an elegant game design rather than an elegant program comes back to bite them here. The things going on behind the scenes in Wasteland are often kind of miraculous in the context of their time, but those things are hidden behind a clunky and inelegant interface. In my book, a truly great game should feel almost effortless to control, but Wasteland feels anything but. Virtually every task requires multiple keystrokes and the navigation of a labyrinth of menus. It’s a far cry from even the old-school simplicity of Ultima‘s alphabet soup of single-keystroke commands, much less the intuitive ease of Dungeon Master‘s mouse-driven interface.

Some of Wasteland‘s more pernicious playability issues feel like they stem from an overly literal translation of the tabletop experience to the computer.  The magnificent simplicity of the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes system feels much more clunky and frustrating on the computer. As you explore the maps, you’re expected to guess where a skill and/or attribute might be of use, then to try manually invoking it. If you’re not constantly thinking on this level, and always aware of just what skills every member of your party has that might apply, it’s very easy to miss things. For example, the very first map you’re likely to visit contains a mysterious machine. You’re expected to not just dismiss that as scenery, or to assume it’s something you’ll learn more about later, but rather to use someone’s Intelligence to learn that it’s a water purifier you might be able to fix. Meanwhile other squares on other maps contain similar descriptions that are just scenery. In a tabletop game, where there is a constant active repartee between referee and players, where everything in the world can be fully “implemented” thanks to the referee’s imagination, and where every player controls just one character whom she knows intimately instead of a whole party of four, the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes system works a treat. In Wasteland, it can feel like a tedious, mechanistic process of trial and error.

Other parts of Wasteland feel like equally heroic but perhaps misguided attempts to translate things that are simple and intuitive on the tabletop but extremely difficult on the computer to the digital realm at all costs, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. There is, for instance, a convoluted and confusing process for splitting your party into separate groups that can be on entirely separate maps at the same time. It’s impressive in its way, and gives Wasteland claim to yet another first in CRPG history to boot, but one has to question whether the time and effort put into it might have been better spent making a cleaner, more playable computer game. Ditto the parser-based conversation engine that occasionally pops up. An obvious attempt to bring the sort of free-form conversations that are possible with a human referee to the computer, in practice it’s just a tedious game of guess-the-word that makes it far too easy to miss stuff. While I applaud the effort St. Andre and Stackpole and their colleagues at Interplay made to bring more complexity to the CRPG, the fact remains that computer games are not tabletop games, and vice versa.

And then there’s the combat. The Bard’s Tale is still lurking down at the foundation of Wasteland‘s combat engine, but Interplay did take some steps to make it more interesting. Unlike in The Bard’s Tale, the position of your party and their enemies are tracked on a graphical map during combat. In addition to the old Bard’s Tale menu of actions — “attack,” “defend,” etc. — you can move around to find cover, or for that matter charge up to some baddies and stave their heads in with your crowbars in lieu of guns.

Yet somehow combat still isn’t much fun. This groundbreaking and much beloved post-apocalyptic CRPG also serves as an ironic argument for why the vast majority of CRPG designers and players still favor fantasy settings. Something that feels important, maybe even essential, feels lost without the ability to cast spells. Not only do you lose the thrill of seeing a magic-using character level up and trying out a new slate of spells, but you also lose the strategic dimension of managing your mana reserves, a huge part of the challenge of the likes of Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. In theory, the acquiring of ever more powerful guns and the need to manage your ammunition stores in Wasteland ought to take the place of spells and the mana reserves needed to cast them, but in practice it doesn’t quite work out like that. New guns just aren’t as interesting as new spells, especially considering that there really aren’t all that many of the former to be found in Wasteland. And you’re never very far from a store selling bullets, and you can carry so many with you anyway that it’s almost a moot point.

Most of all, there’s just too much fighting. One place where St. Andre and Stackpole regrettably didn’t depart from CRPG tradition was in their fondness for the wandering monster. Much of Wasteland is a dull slog through endless low-stakes battles with “leather jerks” and “ozoners,” an experience sadly divorced from the game’s more interesting and innovative aspects but one that ends up being at least as time-consuming.

For all these reasons, then, I’m a bit less high on Wasteland than many others. It strikes me as more historically important than a timeless classic, more interesting than playable. There’s of course no shame in that. We need games that push the envelope, and that’s something that Wasteland most assuredly did. The immense nostalgic regard in which it’s still held today says much about how amazing its innovations really were back in 1988.

As the gap between that year of Wasteland‘s release and Fargo, Pavlish, and Stackpole’s December 1985 meeting will attest, this was a game that was in development an insanely long time by the standards of the 1980s. And as you have probably guessed, it was never intended to take anything like this long. Interplay first talked publicly about the Wasteland project as early as the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1986, giving the impression it might be available as early as that Christmas. Instead it took fully two more years.

Thanks to Wasteland‘s long gestation, 1987 proved a very quiet year for the usually prolific Interplay. While ports of older titles continued to appear, the company released not a single original new game that year. The Bard’s Tale III, turned over to Bill Heineman following Michael Cranford’s decision to return to university, went into development early in 1987, but like Wasteland its gestation would stretch well into 1988. (Stackpole, who was apparently starting to like this computer-game development stuff, wrote the storyline and the text for The Bard’s Tale III to accompany Heineman’s design.) Thankfully, the first two Bard’s Tale games were continuing to sell very well, making Interplay’s momentary lack of productivity less of a problem than it might otherwise have been.

Shortly before Wasteland‘s belated release, St. Andre, Stackpole, and Pavlish, along with a grab bag of the others who had worked with them, headed out to the Sonoran Desert for a photo shoot. Everyone scoured the oddities in the backs of their closets and the local leather shops for their costumes, and a professional makeup team was recruited to help turn them all into warriors straight out of Mad Max. Bill Heineman, an avid gun collector, provided much of the weaponry they carried. The final picture, featured on the inside cover of Wasteland‘s package, has since become far more iconic than the art that appeared on its front, a fitting tribute to this unique team and their unique vision.

Some of the Wasteland team. Ken St. Andre, Michael A. Stackpole, Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

Some of the Wasteland team. From left: Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

Both Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III were finished almost simultaneously after many months of separate labor. When Fargo informed Electronic Arts of the good news, they insisted on shipping the two overdue games within two months of each other — May of 1988 in the case of Wasteland, July in that of The Bard’s Tale III — over his strident objections. He had good grounds for concern: these two big new CRPGs were bound to appeal largely to the same group of players, and could hardly help but cannibalize one another’s sales. To Interplay, this small company that had gone so long without any new product at all, the decision felt not just unwise but downright dangerous to their future.

Fargo had been growing increasingly unhappy with Electronic Arts, feeling Interplay just wasn’t earning enough from their development contracts for the hit games they had made for their publisher. Now this move was the last straw. Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III would be the last games Interplay would publish through Electronic Arts, as Fargo decided to carry out an idea he’d been mulling over for some time: to turn Interplay into a full-fledged publisher as well as developer, with their own name — and only their own name — on their game boxes.

Following a pattern that was already all too typical, The Bard’s Tale III — the more traditional game, the less innovative, and the sequel — became by far the better selling of the pairing. Wasteland didn’t flop, but it didn’t become an out-and-out hit either. Doubtless for this reason, neither Interplay nor Electronic Arts were willing to invest in the extensive porting to other platforms that marked the Bard’s Tale games. After the original Apple II and Commodore 64 releases, the only Wasteland port was an MS-DOS version that appeared nine months later, in March of 1989. Programmed by Interplay’s Michael Quarles, it sports modestly improved graphics and an interface that makes halfhearted use of a mouse. While most original players of Wasteland knew it in its 8-bit incarnations, it’s this version that almost everyone who has played it in the years since knows, and for good reason: it’s a far less painful experience than the vintage 8-bit one of juggling disks and waiting, waiting, waiting for all of those painstakingly detailed maps to load and save.

Wasteland‘s place in history, and in the mind of Brian Fargo, would always loom larger than its sales figures might suggest. Unfortunately, his ability to build on its legacy was immediately hampered by the split with Electronic Arts: the terms of the two companies’ contract signed all rights to the  Wasteland name as well as The Bard’s Tale over to Interplay’s publisher. Thus both series, one potential and one very much ongoing, were abruptly stopped in their tracks. Electronic Arts toyed with making a Bard’s Tale IV on their own from time to time without ever seeing the idea all the way through. Oddly given the relative sales numbers, Electronic Arts did bring a sequel of sorts to Wasteland to fruition, although they didn’t go so far as to dare to put the Wasteland name on the box. Given the contents of said box, it’s not hard to guess why. Fountain of Dreams (1990) uses Michael Quarles’s MS-DOS Wasteland engine, but it’s a far less audacious affair. Slipped out with little fanfare — Electronic Arts could spot a turkey as well as anyone — it garnered poor reviews, sold poorly, and is unloved and largely forgotten today.

In the absence of rights to the Wasteland name, Fargo initially planned to leverage his development team and the tools and game engine they had spent so long creating to make more games in other settings that would play much like Wasteland but wouldn’t be actual sequels. The first of these was to have been called Meantime, and was to have been written and designed by Stackpole with the help of many of the usual Wasteland suspects. Its premise was at least as intriguing as Wasteland‘s: a game of time travel in which you’d get to meet (and sometimes battle) historical figures from Cyrano de Bergerac to P.T. Barnum, Albert Einstein to Amelia Earhart. At the Winter CES in January of 1989, Fargo said that Meantime would be out that summer: “I am personally testing the maps right now.” But it never appeared, thanks to a lot of design questions that were never quite solved and, most of all, thanks to the relentless march of technology. All of the Wasteland development tools ran on the Apple II and Commodore 64, platforms whose sales finally collapsed in 1989. Interplay tinkered with trying to move the tool chain to MS-DOS for several years, but the project finally expired from neglect. There just always seemed to be something more pressing to do.

Somewhat surprisingly given the enthusiasm with which they’d worked on Wasteland, neither St. Andre nor Stackpole remained for very long in the field of computer-game design. St. Andre returned to his librarian gig and his occasional sideline as a tabletop-RPG designer, not working on another computer game until recruited for Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2 project many years later. Stackpole continued to take work from Interplay for the next few years, on Meantime and other projects, often working with his old Flying Buffalo and Wasteland colleague Liz Danforth. But his name too gradually disappeared from game credits in direct proportion to its appearance on the covers of more and more franchise novels. (His first such book, set in the universe of FASA’s BattleTech game, was published almost simultaneously with Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III.)

Fargo himself never forgot the game that had always been first and foremost his own passion project. He would eventually revive it, first via the “spiritual sequels” Fallout (1997) and Fallout 2 (1998), then with the belated Kickstarter-funded sequel-in-name-as-well-as-spirit Wasteland 2 (2014).

But those are stories for much later times. Wasteland was destined to stand alone for many years. And yet it wouldn’t be the only lesson 1988 brought in the perils and possibilities of bringing tabletop rules to the computer. Another, much higher profile tabletop adaptation, the result of a blockbuster licensing deal given to the most unexpected of developers, was still to come before the year was out. Next time we’ll begin to trace the story behind this third and final landmark CRPG of 1988, the biggest selling of the whole lot.

(Sources: PC Player of August 1989; Questbusters of Juy 1986, March 1988, April 1988, May 1988, July 1988, August 1988, October 1988, November 1988, January 1989, March 1989. On YouTube, Rebecca Heineman and Jennell Jaquays at the 2013 Portland Retro Gaming Expo; Matt Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo; Brian Fargo at Unity 2012. Other online sources include a Michael Stackpole article on RockPaperShotgun; Matt Barton’s interview with Rebecca Heineman on Gamasutra; GTW64’s page on Meantime.

Wasteland is available for purchase from GOG.com.)


  1. Bill Heineman now lives as Rebecca Heineman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

  2. Paul Jaquays now lives as Jennell Jaquays. 

  3. Interestingly, Stackpole did have one connection to Interplay, through Bard’s Tale designer Michael Cranford. Cranford sent Flying Buffalo a Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure of his own devising around 1983. Stackpole thought it showed promise, but that it wasn’t quite there yet, so he sent it back with some suggestions for improvement and a promise to look at it again if Cranford followed through on them. But he never heard another word from him; presumably it was right about this time that Cranford got busy making The Bard’s Tale

  4. In what must be a record for footnotes of this type, I have to also note that Dan Bunten later became Danielle Bunten Berry, and lived until her death in 1998 under that name. 

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Brian Fargo and Interplay

Interplay

I touched on the history of Brian Fargo and his company Interplay some time ago, when I looked at the impact of The Bard’s Tale, their breakout CRPG hit that briefly replaced the Wizardry series as the go-to yin to Ultima‘s yang and in the process transformed Interplay almost overnight from a minor developer to one of the leading lights of the industry. They deserve more than such cursory treatment, however, for The Bard’s Tale would prove to be only the beginning of Interplay’s legacy. Let’s lay the groundwork for that future today by looking at how it all got started.

Born into suburban comfort in Orange County, California, in 1962, Brian Fargo manifested from an early age a peculiar genius for crossing boundaries that has served him well throughout his life. In high school he devoured fantasy and science-fiction novels and comics, spent endless hours locked in his room hacking on his Apple II, and played Dungeons and Dragons religiously in cellars and school cafeterias. At the same time, though, he was also a standout athlete at his school, a star of the football team and so good a sprinter that he and his coaches harbored ambitions for a while of making the United States Olympic Team. The Berlin Wall that divides the jocks from the nerds in high school crumbled before Fargo. So it would be throughout his life. In years to come he would be able to spend a day at the office discussing the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons, then head out for an A-list cocktail party amongst the Hollywood jet set with his good friend Timothy Leary. By the time Interplay peaked in the late 1990s, he would be a noted desirable bachelor amongst the Orange County upper crust (“When he’s not at a terminal he can usually be found rowing, surfing, or fishing”), making the society pages for opening a luxury shoe and accessory boutique, for hosting lavish parties, for planning his wedding at the Ritz-Carlton. All whilst continuing to make and — perhaps more importantly — continuing to openly love nerdy games about killing fantasy monsters. Somehow Brian Fargo made it all look so easy.

But before all that he was just a suburban kid who loved games, whether played on the tabletop, in the arcade, on the Atari VCS, or on his beloved Apple II. Softline magazine, the game-centric spinoff of the voice-of-the-Apple-II-community Softalk, gives us a glimpse of young Fargo the rabid gamer. He’s a regular fixture of the high-score tables the magazine published, excelling at California Pacific’s Apple II knock-off of the arcade game Head-On as well as the swordfighting game Swashbuckler. Already a smooth diplomat, he steps in to soothe a budding controversy when someone claims to have run up a score in Swashbuckler of 1501, a feat that others claim is impossible because the score rolls over to 0 after 255. It seems, Fargo patiently explains, that there are two versions of the game, one of which rolls over and one of which doesn’t, so everyone is right. But the most tangible clue to his future is provided by the question he managed to get published in the January 1982 issue: “How does one get so many pictures onto one disk, such as in The Wizard and the Princess, where On-Line has more than 200 pictures, with a program for the adventure on top of that?” Yes, Brian Fargo the track star had decided to give up his Olympic dream and become a game developer.

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur.

Young Brian Fargo, software entrepreneur, 1982.

By that time Fargo was 19, and a somewhat reluctant student at the University of California, Irvine as well as a repair technician at ComputerLand. No more than an adequate BASIC programmer — he would allow even that ability to atrophy as soon as he could find a way to get someone else to do his coding for him — Fargo knew that he hadn’t a prayer of creating one of the action games that littered Softline‘s high-score rankings, nor anything as complex as Ultima or Wizardry, the two CRPGs currently taking the Apple II world by storm. He did, however, think he might just be up to doing an illustrated adventure game in the style of The Wizard and the Princess. He recruited one Michael Cranford, a Dungeons and Dragons buddy and fellow hacker from high school, to draw the pictures he’d need on paper; he then traced them and colored them on his Apple II. He convinced another friend to write him a few machine-language routines for displaying the graphics. And to make use of it all he wrote a simple BASIC adventure game: you must escape the Demon’s Forge, “an ancient test of wisdom and battle skill.” Desperate for some snazzy cover art, he licensed a cheesecake fantasy print in the style of Boris Vallejo, featuring a shapely woman tied to a pole being menaced by two knights mounted on some sort of flying snakes — this despite a notable lack of snakes (flying or otherwise), scantily-clad females, or for that matter poles in the game proper. (The full Freudian implications of this box art, not to mention the sentence I’ve just written about it, would doubtless take a lifetime of psychotherapy to unravel.)

The Demon's Forge box art, which won Softline magazine's Relevance in Packaging Award, with Flying-Snakes-and-Ladies-in-Bondage clusters.

The Demon’s Forge box art, which won Softline magazine’s sarcastic Relevance in Packaging Award, with Flying-Snakes-and-Ladies-in-Bondage clusters.

Fargo employed a guerrilla-marketing technique that would have made Wild Bill Stealey proud to sell The Demon’s Forge under his new imprint of Saber Software. He took out a single advertisement in Softalk for $2500. Then he started calling stores around the country to ask about his game, claiming to be a potential customer who had seen the advertisement: “A few minutes later my other line would ring and the retailer would place an order.” It didn’t make him big money, but he made a little. Then along came Michael Boone.

Boone was another old high-school friend, a scion of petroleum wealth who had dutifully gone off to Stanford to study petroleum engineering, only to be distracted by the lure of entrepreneurship. For some time he vacillated between starting a software company and an ice-cream chain, deciding on the former when his family’s connections came through with an injection of venture capital. His long-term plan was to make a golf simulation for the new IBM PC: “IBM seemed like the computer that business people and the affluent were buying. So, I should write a golf game for the IBM computer.” Knowing little about programming and needing product to get him started, he offered to buy out Fargo’s The Demon’s Forge and his Saber Software for a modest $5000, and have Fargo come work for him. Fargo dropped out of university to do so in late 1982. He assembled a talented little development team consisting of programmers “Burger” Bill Heineman and Troy Worrell along with himself, right there in his and Boone’s hometown of Newport Beach.1

Boone Corporation. Michael Boone is first from left, Bill Heineman second, Troy Worrell fourth, Brian Fargo fifth. Jay Patel isn't present in this photo.

Boone Corporation, 1983. Michael Boone is first from left, Bill Heineman second, Troy Worrell fourth, Brian Fargo fifth. They’re toasting with Hires Root Beer. “Hires Root Beer,” “Hi-Res graphics.” Get it?

After porting The Demon’s Forge to the IBM PC, Fargo’s little team occupied themselves writing quick-and-dirty cartridge games like Chuck Norris Superkicks and Robin Hood for the Atari VCS, ColecoVision, and the Commodore VIC-20 and 64. These were published without attribution by Xonox, a spinoff of K-tel Records, one of many dodgy players flooding the market with substandard product during the lead-up to the Great Videogame Crash. Michael Boone agreed to publish under his own imprint a couple of VIC-20 action games — Crater Raider and Cyclon — written by a talented programmer named Alan Pavlish whom Fargo knew well. Meanwhile work proceeded slowly on Boone’s golf simulation for the rich, which was now to be a “tree-for-tree, inch-for-inch recreation of the course at Pebble Beach.” When some Demon’s Forge players called to ask for a hint, Fargo learned that they were part of a company trying to get traction for the Moodies, a bunch of pixeish would-be cartoon characters derivative of the Smurfs; soon they came in to sign a contract for a game to be called Moodies in Iceland.

But then came the Crash. One day shortly thereafter Boone walked into the office and announced that he was taking the company in another direction: to make dry-erase boards instead of computer games. Since Fargo and his team had no particular competency in that field, they were all out of a job. Boone’s new venture would prove to be hugely successful, giving us the whiteboards now ubiquitous to seemingly every office or cubicle in the world and making Boone himself very, very rich. But even had they been able to predict his future that wouldn’t have been much consolation for Fargo and his suddenly forlorn little pair of programmers.

Fargo decided that it really shouldn’t be that hard for him to do what Michael Boone had been doing in addition to managing the development team. In fact, he had already been working on a side venture, a potential $60,000 contract with World Book Encyclopedia to make some rote educational titles of the drill-and-practice stripe. After signing that contract, he founded Interplay Productions to see it through. It wasn’t a glamorous beginning, but it represented programs that could be knocked out quickly to start bringing in money. Heineman and Worrell agreed to stay with Fargo and try to make it work. Fargo added another programmer named Jay Patel to complete this initial incarnation of Interplay. The next six to nine months consisted of Fargo hustling up whatever work he could find, game or non-game, and his team hammering it out: “We did work for the military, stuff for McGraw Hill — we did anything we could do. We didn’t have the luxury of creating our own software. We had to do other people’s work and just kept our ideas in the back of our minds.”

The big break they’d been hoping for came midway through 1984. Interplay “hit Activision’s radar,” and Activision decided to let Fargo and company make some adventure games for them. Activision at the time was reeling from the Great Videogame Crash, which had destroyed their immensely profitable cartridge business almost overnight. CEO Jim Levy had decided that the future of the company, if it was to have one, must lie with software for home computers. With little expertise in this area, he was happy to sign up even an unproven outside developer like the nascent Interplay. Mindshadow and The Tracer Sanction, the first two games Interplay was actually willing to put their name on, were the results.

Fargo’s team had found time to dissect Infocom games and tinker with parsers and adventure-game engines even back during their days as Boone Corporation. Mindshadow and Tracer Sanction were logical extensions of that experimentation and, going back even further, of Fargo’s first game The Demon’s Forge. Fargo found a young artist named Dave Lowery, who would go on to quite an impressive career in film, to draw the pictures for Mindshadow; they came out looking a cut above most of the competition in the crowded field of illustrated adventure games. Mindshadow‘s Bourne Identity-inspired plot has you waking up with amnesia on a deserted island. Once you escape the island, you embark on a globe-trotting quest to recover your memories. There’s an interesting metaphysical angle to a game that’s otherwise fairly typical of its period and genre. As you encounter new people, places, and things that you should know from your earlier life, you can use the verb “remember” to fit them into place and slowly rebuild your shattered identity.

Mindshadow did relatively well for Interplay and Activision, not a blockbuster but a solid seller that seemed to bode well for future collaborations. Less successful both aesthetically and commercially was Tracer Sanction, a science-fiction adventure that isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be serious or humorous and lacks a conceptual hook like Mindshadow‘s “remember” gimmick. But by the time it appeared Fargo had already shifted much of his team’s energy away from adventure games and into the CRPG project that would become The Bard’s Tale.

Fargo and his old high-school buddy Michael Cranford had been dreaming of doing a CRPG since about five minutes after they had first seen Wizardry back in 1981. Cranford had even made a stripped-down CRPG on his own, published on a Commodore 64 cartridge by Human Engineered Software under the title Maze Master in 1983 to paltry sales. Now Fargo convinced him to help his little team at Interplay create a Wizardry killer. It seemed high time for such an undertaking, what with the Wizardry series still using ugly monochrome wire frames to depict its dungeons and monsters and available only on the Apple II, Macintosh, and IBM PC — a list which notably didn’t include the biggest platform in the industry, the Commodore 64. Indeed, CRPGs of any sort were quite thin on the ground for the Commodore 64, decent ones even more so. Fargo:

At the time, the gold standard was Wizardry for that type of game. There was Ultima, but that was a different experience, a top-down view, and not really as party-based. Sir-Tech was kind of saying, “Who needs color? Who needs music? Who needs sound effects?” But my attitude was, “We want to find a way to use all those things. What better than to have a main character who uses music as part of who he is?”

Soon the game was far enough along for Fargo to start shopping it to publishers. His first stop was naturally Activision. One of Jim Levy’s major blind spots, however, was the whole CRPG genre. He simply couldn’t understand the appeal of killing monsters, mapping dungeons, and building characters, reportedly pronouncing Interplay’s project “nicheware for nerds.” And so Fargo ended up across town at Electronics Arts, who, recognizing that Trip Hawkins’s original conception of “simple, hot, and deep” wasn’t quite the be-all end-all in a world where all entertainment software was effectively “nicheware for nerds,” were eager to diversify into more hardcore genres like the CRPG. EA’s marketing director Bing Gordon zeroed in on the appeal of one of Cranford’s relatively few expansions on Wizardry, the character of the bard. He went so far as to change the game’s name from Shadow Snare to The Bard’s Tale to highlight him, creating a lovable rogue to serve as the star of advertisements and box copy who barely exists in the game proper: “When the going gets tough, the bard goes drinking.” Beyond that, promoting The Bard’s Tale was just a matter of trumpeting the game’s audiovisual appeal in contrast to the likes of Wizardry. Released in plenty of time for Christmas 1985, with all of EA’s considerable promotional savvy and financial muscle behind it, The Bard’s Tale shocked even its creators and its publisher by outselling the long-awaited Ultima IV that appeared just a few weeks later. Interplay had come into the big time; Fargo’s days of scrabbling after any work he could find looked to be over for a long, long time to come. In the end, The Bard’s Tale would sell more than 400,000 copies, becoming the best-selling single CRPG of the 1980s.

The inevitable Bard’s Tale sequel was completed and shipped barely a year later. Another solid hit at the time on the strength of its burgeoning franchise’s name, it’s generally less fondly remembered today by fans. It seems that Michael Cranford and Fargo had had a last-minute falling-out over royalties just as the first Bard’s Tale was being completed, which led to Cranford literally holding the final version of the game for ransom until a new agreement was reached. A new deal was brokered in the nick of time, but the relationship between Cranford and Interplay was irretrievably soured. Cranford was allowed to make The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight, but he did so almost entirely on his own, using much of the tools and code he and Interplay’s core team had developed together for the first game. The lack of oversight and testing led to a game that was insanely punishing even by the standards of the era, one that often felt sadistic just for the sake of it. Afterward Cranford parted company with Interplay forever to study theology and philosophy at university.

Despite having rejected The Bard’s Tale themselves, Activision was less than thrilled with Interplay’s decision to publish the games through EA, especially after they turned into exactly the sorts of raging hits that they desperately needed for themselves. Fargo notes that Activision and EA “just hated each other,” far more so even than was the norm in an increasingly competitive industry. Perhaps they were just too much alike. Jim Levy and Trip Hawkins both liked to think of themselves as hip, with-it guys selling the future of art and entertainment to equally hip, with-it buyers. Both were fond of terms like “software artist,” and both drew much of their marketing and management approaches from the world of rock and roll. Little Interplay had a tough task tiptoeing between these two bellicose elephants. Fargo:

We were maybe the only developer doing work for both companies at the same time, and they just grilled me whenever they had the chance. Whenever there was any kind of leak, they’d say, “Did you say anything?” I was right in the middle there. I always made sure to keep my mouth shut about everything.

Still, Fargo managed for a while to continuing doing adventure games for Activision alongside CRPGs for EA. Interplay’s Activision adventure for 1985, Borrowed Time, might just be their best. It was created at that interesting moment when developers were beginning to realize that traditional parser-based adventure games, even of the illustrated variety, might not cut it commercially much longer, but when they weren’t yet quite sure how to evolve the genre to make it more accessible and not seem like a hopeless anachronism on slick new machines like the Atari ST and Amiga. Borrowed Time is built on the same engine that had already powered Mindshadow and The Tracer Sanction, but it sports an attempt at providing an alternative to the keyboard via a list of verbs and nouns and a clickable graphic inventory. It’s all pretty half-baked, however, in that the list of nouns are suitable to the office where you start the game but bizarrely never change thereafter, while there are no hotspots on the pictures proper. Nor does the verb list contain all the verbs you actually need to finish the game. Thus even the most enthusiastic point-and-clicker can only expect to switch back and forth constantly between mouse or joystick and keyboard, a process that strikes me as much more annoying than just typing everything.

The clickable word list is great -- until you leave your office.

Borrowed Time on the Amiga. The clickable word list is great — until you leave your office.

Thankfully, the game has been thought through more than its interface. Realizing that neither he nor anyone else amongst the standard Interplay crew were all that good at writing prose, Fargo contacted Bill Kunkel, otherwise known as “The Game Doctor,” who had made a name for himself as a sort of Hunter S. Thompson of videogame journalism via his column in Electronic Games magazine. Fargo’s pitch was simple: “Okay, you guys have a lot of opinions about games, how would you like to do one?” Kunkel, along with some old friends and colleagues named Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley, decided that they would like that very much, forming a little company called Subway Software to represent their partnership. Subway proceeded to write all of the text and do much of the design for Borrowed Time. Fargo gave them a “Script by” credit for their contributions, the first of many such design credits Subway would receive over the years to come (a list that includes Star Trek: First Contact for Simon & Schuster).

Like Déjà Vu, ICOM Simulations’s breakthrough point-and-click graphic adventure of the same year, Borrowed Time plays in the hard-boiled 1930s milieu of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. The tones and styles of the two games are very  similar. Both love to make sardonic fun of the hapless, down-on-his-luck PI who serves as protagonist almost as much as they love to kill him, and both mix opportunities for free exploration with breakneck chases and other linear bits of derring-do in service of some unusually complicated plots. And I like both games on the whole, despite some unforgiving old-school design decisions. While necessarily minimalist given the limitations of Interplay’s engine, the text of Borrowed Time in particular is pretty good at evoking its era and genre inspirations.

Collaborations like the one that led to Borrowed Time highlight one of the most interesting aspects of Fargo’s approach to game development. In progress as well in many other companies by the mid-1980s, it represented a quiet revolution in the way games got made that was changing the industry.

With Interplay, I wanted to take [development] beyond one- or two-man teams. That sounds like an obvious idea now, but to hire an artist to do the art, a musician to do the music, a writer to do the writing, all opposed to just the one-man show doing everything, was novel. Even with Demon’s Forge, I had my buddy Michael do all the art, but I had to trace it all and put it in the computer, and that lost a certain something. And because I didn’t know a musician or a sound guy, it had no music or sound. I did the writing, but I don’t think that’s my strong point. So, really, [Interplay was] set up to say, “Let’s take a team approach and bring in specialists.”

One of the specialists Fargo brought in for Interplay’s fourth and final adventure game for Activision, 1986’s Tass Times in Tonetown, we already know very well.

Tass Times in Tonetown

After leaving Infocom in early 1985, just in time to avoid the chaos and pain brought on by Cornerstone’s failure, Mike Berlyn along with his wife Muffy had hung out their shingle as Brainwave Creations. The idea was to work as consultants, doing game design only rather than implementation — yet another sign of the rapidly encroaching era of the specialist. Brainwave entered talks with several companies, including Brøderbund, Origin, and even Infocom. However, with the industry in general and the adventure game in particular in a state of uncertain flux, it wasn’t until Interplay came calling that anything came to fruition. Brian Fargo gave Mike and Muffy carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, as long as it was an adventure game. What they came up with was a bizarre day-glo riff on New Wave music culture, with some of the looks and sensibilities of The Jetsons. The adjective “tass,” the game’s universal designation for anything cool, fun, good, or desirable, hails from the Latin “veritas” — truth. The Berlyns took to pronouncing it as “very tass,” and soon “tass” was born. In the extra-dimensional city of Tonetown guitar picks stand in for money, a talking dog is a star reporter, and a “combination of pig, raccoon, and crocodile” named Franklin Snarl is trying to buy up all of the land, build tract houses, and transform the place into a boring echo of Middle American suburbia. Oh, and he’s also kidnapped your dimension-hopping grandfather. That’s where you come in.

I’ve heard Tass Times in Tonetown described from time to time as a “cult classic,” and who am I to argue? It’s certainly appealing at first blush, when you peruse the charmingly cracked Tonetown Times newspaper included in its package. The newspaper gives ample space to Ennio, the aforementioned dog reporter who owes more than a little something to the similarly anthropomorphic and similarly cute dogs of Berlyn’s last game for Infocom, the computerized board game Fooblitzky. It seems old Ennio — whom Berlyn named after film composer Ennio Morricone of spaghetti western fame — has been investigating the mundane dimension from which you hail under deep cover as your gramps’s dog Spot. Interplay’s adventure engine, while still clearly derivative of the earlier games, has been vastly improved, with icons now taking the place of lists of words and the graphics themselves filled — finally — with clickable hotspots. The bright, cartoon-surrealistic graphics still look great today, particularly in the Amiga version.

Tass Times in Tonetown on the Amiga. Ennio is on the case.

Tass Times in Tonetown on the Amiga. Ennio is on the case.

Settle in to really, seriously play, though, and problems quickly start to surface. It’s hard to believe that this game was co-authored by someone who had matriculated for almost three years at Infocom because it’s absolutely riddled with exactly the sort of frustrations that Infocom relentlessly purged from their own games. To play Tass Times in Tonetown is to die over and over and over again, usually with no warning. Walk through gramps’s dimensional gate and start to explore — bam, you’re dead because you haven’t outfitted yourself in the proper bizarre Tonetown attire. Ring the bell at an innocent-looking gate — bam, you’re dead because this gate turns out to be the front gate of the villain’s mansion. Descend a well and go west — bam, a monster kills you. Try to explore the swamp outside of town — bam, another monster kills you. The puzzles all require fairly simple actions to solve, but exactly which actions they are can only be divined through trial and error. Coupled with the absurd lethality of the game, that leads to a numbing cycle of saving, trying something, dying, and then repeating again and again until you stumble on the right move. The length of this very short game is also artificially extended via a harsh inventory limit and one or two nasty opportunities to miss your one and only chance to do something vital, which can leave you a dead adventurer walking through most of the game. As is depressingly typical of Mike Berlyn, the writing is clear and grammatically correct but a bit perfunctory, with most of the real wit offloaded to the graphics and the accompanying newspaper. And even the slick interface isn’t quite all that it first seems to be. The “Hit” icon is of absolutely no use anywhere in the game. Even more strange is the “Tell Me About” icon, which is not only useless but not even understood by the parser. Meanwhile other vital verbs still go unrepresented graphically; thus you still don’t totally escape the tyranny of the keyboard. Borrowed Time isn’t as pretty or as strikingly original as Tass Times in Tonetown, and it’s only slightly more shy about killing you, but on the whole it’s a better game, the one that gets my vote for the first one to play for those curious about Interplay’s take on the illustrated text adventure.

Thanks to the magic of pre-release hardware, Interplay got their adventures with shocking speed onto the next generation of home computers represented by the Atari ST, the Amiga, and eventually the Apple IIGS. Well before Tass Times in Tonetown, new versions of Mindshadow and Borrowed Time, updated with new graphics and, in the case of the former, the somewhat ineffectual point-and-click word lists of the latter, became two of the first three games a proud new Amiga owner could actually buy. Similarly, the IIGS version of Tass Times in Tonetown was released on the same day in September of 1986 as the IIGS itself. While the graphics weren’t quite up to the Amiga version’s standard, the game’s musical theme sounded even better played through the IIGS’s magnificent 16-voice Ensoniq synthesizer chip. Equally well-done ports of The Bard’s Tale games to all of these platforms would soon follow, part and parcel of one of Fargo’s core philosophies: “Whenever we do an adaptation of a product to a different machine, we always take full advantage of all of the machine’s new features. There’s nothing worse than looking at graphics that look like [8-bit] Apple graphics on a more sophisticated machine.”

And, lo and behold, Interplay finally finished their IBM PC-based recreation of Pebble Beach in 1986, last legacy of their days as Boone Corporation. It was published by Activision’s Gamestar sports imprint under the ridiculously long-winded title of Championship Golf: The Great Courses of the World — Volume One: Pebble Beach. It was soon ported to the Amiga, but sales in a suddenly very crowded golf-simulation field weren’t enough to justify a Volume Two. Despite their sporty founder, Interplay would leave the sports games to others henceforth. They would also abandon the adventure games that were by now becoming a case of slowly diminishing returns to focus on building on the CRPG credibility they enjoyed in spades thanks to The Bard’s Tale.

Interplay as of 1987. Even then, four years after the company's founding, all of the employees were still well shy of thirty.

Interplay as of 1987. Even then, four years after the company’s founding, all of the employees were still well shy of thirty.

By 1987, then, Brian Fargo had established his company as a proven industry player. Over many years still to come with Fargo at the helm, Interplay would amass a track record of hits and cult touchstones that can be equaled by no more than a handful of others in gaming’s history. They would largely deliver games rooted in the traditional fantasy and science-fiction tropes that gamers can never seem to get enough of, executed using mostly proven, traditional mechanics. But as often as not they then would garnish this comfort food with just enough innovation, just enough creative spice to keep things fresh, to keep them feeling a cut above their peers. The Bard’s Tale would become something of a template: execute the established Wizardry formula very well, add lots of colorful graphics and sound, and innovate modestly, but not enough to threaten delicate sensibilities. Result: blockbuster. The balance between commercial appeal and innovation is a delicate one in any creative field, games perhaps more than most. For many years few were better at walking that tightrope than Interplay, making them a necessary perennial in any history of games as a commercial or an artistic proposition. The fact that this blog strives to be both just means they’re likely to show up all that much more in the years to come.

(Sources: The book Stay Awhile and Listen by David L. Craddock; Commodore Magazine of December 1987; Softline of January 1982, March 1982, May 1982, September 1982, January 1983, September/October 1983, and November/December 1983; Amazing Computing of April 1986; Compute!’s Gazette of September 1983; Microtimes of March 1987; Orange Coast of July 2000, August 2000, September 2000, and May 2001; Questbusters of March 1991. Online sources include: Matt Barton’s interview with Rebecca Heineman, parts 1 and 3; Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo, part 1; Digital Press’s interview with Heineman; Gamestar’s interview with Fargo; interviews with Bill Kunkel at Gamasutra, Good Deal Games, and 8-bit Rocket; “trivia” in the MobyGames page on Tass Times in Tonetown; and a VentureBeat article on Interplay. Also Jason Scott’s interview with Mike Berlyn for Get Lamp that he was kind enough to share with me. And thanks to Alex Smith for sharing the “nichware for nerds” anecdote about Jim Levy in a comment on this blog. Feel free to download the Amiga versions of Borrowed Time and Tass Times in Tonetown from right here if you like.

I’ve finally rolled out a new minimalist version of this site for phone browsers. If you notice that anything seems to have gone sideways somewhere with it, let me know.

The Digital Antiquarian will be taking a holiday next week. Dorte and I are heading to Rome for a little getaway. But it’ll be back to business the week after, when we’ll cross the pond again at last to look at some developments in Britain and Europe.)


  1. Bill Heineman now lives as Rebecca Heineman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

 

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Starflight

Starflight

Fair warning: this article spoils the ending to Starflight, although it doesn’t spoil the things you need to know to get there.

Starflight, one of the grandest and most expansive games of the 1980s, was born in the cramped confines of a racquetball court. Rod McConnell, a businessman who had been kicking around Silicon Valley for some years, happened to have as his regular playing partner Joe Ybarra, a former Apple executive who in late 1982 had decamped to join Trip Hawkins’s fledgling new Electronic Arts as a game “producer.” Intrigued by Ybarra’s stories of “electronic artists” and an upcoming revolution in entertainment based on interactivity, McConnell wondered if he might somehow join the fun. He thus started discussing ideas with a programmer named Dave Boulton.

Boulton, who died in 2009, is the unsung hero of Starflight. His involvement with the project wouldn’t last very long, but his fingerprints are all over the finished game. He was, first and foremost, a zealot for the Forth programming language. He was one of the founding members of the Forth Interest Group, which was established just at the beginning of the PC era in 1977 and did stellar work to standardize the language and bring it to virtually every one of the bewildering variety of computers available by the early 1980s. More recently his hacking had led him to begin exploring the strange universe of Benoit Mandelbrot’s fractal sets fully eighteen months before Rescue on Fractalus! would make fractals a household name for gamers and programmers everywhere. Boulton enticed McConnell with an idea much bigger than Lucasfilm’s simple action game: an almost infinitely vast planet which, thanks to the miracle of fractals, the player could roam at will.

McConnell founded a company named Ambient Design and hired a couple of young programmers to help Boulton. One, Alec Kercso, was just finishing a degree in Linguistics in San Diego, but was more interested in his hobby of hacking. The other, Bob Gonsalves, was another dedicated Forther who wrote a monthly column on the language for Antic magazine. He was hired on the basis of this as well as his intimate familiarity with the Atari 8-bit platform, which thanks to its audiovisual capabilities was the great favorite around EA circles during that first year or so, until the Commodore 64 came online in earnest. On the strength of McConnell’s friendship with Ybarra and little else — the  whole group of them had among them neither any experience with game development nor any real plan for what their game would be beyond a vast environment created with fractals — EA signed them as one of the first of their second wave of contracts, following the premiere of the initial six, reputation-establishing EA games. Ybarra would be their producer, their main point of contact with and advocate within EA. He would have his work cut out for him in the years to come.

The idea soon evolved to encompass not just a single planet but many. The game, to be called Starquest, would let you fly in your starship across an entire galaxy of star systems, each with planets of its own, each of which would in turn be its own unique world, with unique terrain, weather, life forms, and natural resources. For Boulton, the man who had gotten this ball rolling in earnest in the first place, it was suddenly getting to be too much. You just couldn’t do all that on an 8-bit computer, he said, not even with the magic combination of Forth and fractals. He walked away. He would go on to develop early software for the Commodore Amiga and to join another unheralded founder, Jef Raskin of the original vision for the Apple Macintosh, to work on Raskin’s innovative but unsuccessful Canon Cat.

Left on their own with only Boulton’s prototype fractal code to guide them, Kercso and Gonsalves felt over their heads. They needed to be able to show each planet as a rotating globe from space, complete with the fractal terrain that the player would be able to explore more intimately if she elected to land, but didn’t know how to map the terrain onto a sphere. McConnell soon found another programmer, Tim Lee, who did. Lee had already written firmware for Texas Instruments calculators and written very complex policy-analysis applications for life-insurance companies. Yet another Forth fan, he’d just finished writing an actual game in the language, an IBM PC port of the Datasoft action game Genesis which Datasoft would never ship due to its incompatibility with the PCjr. With the graphics code he’d developed for that project, plus his own explorations of fractal programming, Lee was more than up to rendering those spinning terrain-mapped globes.

One of Tim Lee's spinning terrain-mapped planet. He was also responsible for most of the fundamental low-level architecrure of the game.

One of Tim Lee’s spinning terrain-mapped planets. He was also responsible for most of the fundamental low-level architecture of the game.

Lee also brought with him his programming expertise on the IBM PC. This prompted the team to take a big step: to abandon their little 8-bitters and move to the bigger 16-bit MS-DOS machines. They had recognized that Boulton had been right: their ideas were just too big to fit into 8 bits. MS-DOS was just finishing up its trouncing of CP/M to become undisputed king of the business-computing world, but had managed little penetration into homes, which were still dominated by the likes of the Apple II and Commodore 64. On the one hand, the IBM was a terrible gaming platform: its CGA graphics could show only four colors at a time in palettes that seemed deliberately chosen to clash as horribly with one another as possible and give artists nightmares; its single speaker was capable of little more than equally unpleasant bleeps and farts; even standard gaming equipment like joysticks were effectively non-existent due to a perceived lack of demand. But on the other hand, the IBM was an amazing gaming platform, with several times the raw processing power of the 8-bitters and at least twice the memory. Like so much in life, it all depended on how you looked at it. Ambient Design decided they needed the platform’s advantages to contain a galaxy that would eventually encompass 270 star systems with 811 planets between them, and they’d just have to take the bitter with the sweet. Still, it’s unlikely that EA would have gone along with the idea had it not been for the imminent release of the PCjr, which was widely expected to do in home computing what its big brother had in business computing.

Starflight

About this point the last and arguably biggest piece of the development puzzle arrived in the form of Greg Johnson, Kercso’s roommate. Not much of a programmer himself, Johnson had, like his roommate, also just finished a degree and wasn’t quite sure what to do next. He had listened avidly to Kercso’s reports on the game’s progress, and eventually started drawing pictures of imagined scenes on his Atari 800 just for fun. He was soon coming up with so many pictures and, more importantly, ideas that Kercso got him an interview and McConnell hired him. Just like that, Johnson became the much-needed lead designer. Until now the team had been focused entirely on the environment they were trying to create, giving little thought to what the player would be expected to actually do there. As Kercso would later put it, what had been an “open-ended game of exploration” now slowly began to evolve into “a complex story with interwoven plots and twists.” Johnson himself later said his job became to come up with what should happen, the others to come up with how it could happen. Or, as Lee put it, Johnson designed the scenario while the others designed “the game system that you could write the scenario for.” And indeed, he proved to be a boundless fount of creativity, coming up with seven unique and occasionally hilarious alien races for the player to fight, trade, and converse with during her travels.

Critical to those conversations became a designer we’ve met before on this blog, Paul Reiche III, who spent two important weeks helping Johnson and his colleagues to hash out a workable conversation engine which made use of the system of conversation “postures” from a game he had co-designed with Jon Freeman, Murder on the Zinderneuf. Reiche, an experienced designer of tabletop RPG rules and adventures as well computer games, continued to offer Johnson, who had heretofore thought of himself as a better artist than writer or designer, advice and ideas throughout the game’s protracted development.

The system of conversation "postures" from Murder on the Zinderneuf.

The system of conversation “postures” from Murder on the Zinderneuf.

Starflight's implementation of conversation postures.

Starflight’s implementation of conversation postures.

“Protracted” is perhaps putting it too mildly. The process just seemed to go on forever, so much so that it became something of a sick running joke inside EA. The project appeared on more than three years worth of weekly status reports, from the time that EA was mature enough to have weekly status reports until the game’s belated release in August of 1986. Over that time the arcades and home game consoles crashed and burned; the home-computer industry went through its own dramatic boom and bust and stabilization; countless platforms came and went, not least among them the PCjr; EA gave up on the dream of revolutionizing mainstream home-entertainment and accepted the status of big fish in the relatively small pond of computer gaming; IBM achieved business-computing domination and then ceded it almost as quickly thanks to the cloners; the bookware craze came and went; Infocom rose to dizzying heights and crashed to earth just as quickly; the Soviet Union went from an Evil Empire to a partner in nuclear-arms control. And still, ever and anon, there was Starflight, the much more elegant name chosen for Starquest after the release of Sierra’s King’s Quest. McConnell’s company name changed as well before all was said and done, from Ambient Design to Binary Systems (get it?).

EA very nearly lost patience several times; McConnell credits his old friend Joe Ybarra with personally rescuing the project from cancellation on a number of occasions. With the contract structured to provide payments only after milestones that were few and increasingly far between, McConnell himself took personal loans and worked other jobs so as to be able to pay his team a pittance. Throughout it all he never lost faith, despite ample evidence that they didn’t, to be painfully blunt, entirely know what they were doing. The team members lived on savings or loans when their meager salaries ran out. Many months were consumed by fruitless wheel-spinning. As Lee later admitted, they were so entranced with this model universe that they “spent a lot of time trying to model things that didn’t add to the play of the game.” Forth was never the most readable language nor an ideal choice for a large group project, and as the project wandered off in this or that direction and back again the code got nightmarishly gnarly. This just made trying to modify or add to it take still longer. With McConnell only able to afford a tiny office and most of the team thus working remotely most of the time, just keeping everyone on the same page was difficult. Given the situation and the personalities involved, a certain amount of freelancing was inevitable. “There was no master plan detailing each and every task to be done,” said Kercso later. “We had an idea of what the major modules had to be and we added a lot of final design as we got into programming each of the modules”; then they did their best to mash it all together.

Starflight was a prototypical runaway, mismanaged, overambitious project, the likes of which the industry has seen many times since. The difference was, instead of being ignominiously cancelled or shoved out the door incomplete, Starflight somehow ended up amazing. Call it serendipity, or credit it to a team that just wouldn’t give up. Once the core group was assembled, nobody thought of quitting; everyone was determined to finish the game — and on its own original, insanely ambitious terms at that — or die trying. “I remember saying that I didn’t care if I died after it came out,” said Johnson later, but “please, God, let me live until then.”

The hopeless combat screen.

The hopeless muddle of a combat engine.

Some of the confusion and occasional lack of direction is visible in the final game. Even the biggest Starflight fan would have trouble praising the arcade-style in-space combat engine, for instance, which manages to be both far too simplistic and far too baffling to actually control. There’s a disconnected feeling to certain elements, as of clever ideas that were never fully woven into the holistic design. You can gather flora and fauna from the planets you visit and return them to your base to study, for example, but you make so little money from doing so as opposed to mining minerals — and the controls for stunning and gathering your specimens are once again so awkward — that you’re left wondering what the point is. Ditto most of the intriguing alien artifacts you find, which you cart excitedly back to base only to find that they “reveal very little of interest” and are “totally useless to us.” And the game has what should be a fatal case of split personality, being half stately space opera and half silly romp filled with sci-fi alien caricatures.

And yet it really doesn’t matter. Starflight is that rare piece of work that actually justifies the critic’s cliché of being more than the sum of its parts. It’s not a tight design; appropriately given its theme, it sprawls everywhere, sometimes seemingly uselessly so. But even its blind alleys are fascinating to wander down once or twice. It’s the opposite of a minimalist masterpiece like M.U.L.E., whose every last note is carefully considered and exhaustively tested and blended carefully into the whole. And you know what? It’s every bit as awesome.

But for the benefit of those of you who haven’t played it it’s really high time that I tell what the game’s all about, isn’t it?

Your home starbase, where you outfit your ship, select and train your crew, buy and sell equipment and resources, etc.

Your home starbase, where you outfit your ship, select and train your crew, buy and sell equipment and resources, etc. It was largely the work of Alec Kercso.

Starflight starts you off at your base on your home planet of Arth — no, that’s not a typo — with a rather shabbily equipped ship and a little bit of seed capital. If you’re smart, you’ll spend most of the latter training a crew, which will include, in the tradition of a certain classic television series that went where no man has gone before, a Captain, a Science Officer, a Navigator, an Engineer, a Communications Officer, and a Doctor. You’ll also need to save enough to add a cargo pod or three to your ship, so you can begin to earn money by landing on nearby planets and scooping up minerals for sale back at Arth. You need money to upgrade your ship with better engines, weapons, and defenses, to train your crew, and to buy something called endurium, if you can’t find or mine enough of it. Endurium is Starflight‘s equivalent to dilithium crystals, the semi-magical fuel that enables faster-than-light travel.

As you build up your ship and your bank account, you can travel ever farther from Arth, exploring an algorithmically generated galaxy so vast that, like the Fibonacci galaxies of Elite, even Starflight‘s creators hadn’t seen all of it before the game’s release. And so you fly and land where you will, searching for mineral-rich planets you can mine and, even better, habitable planets you can recommend for colonization; you receive a substantial finder’s fee in return for each recommendation. Alien races inhabit various sectors of the galaxy. Some you may be able to befriend, or at least achieve a level of mutual toleration with; others you’ll have to fight. Thus the need to fit out your ship with the best possible weapons and defenses.

Exploring the surface of a planet. This module was largely the work of Bob Gonsalves.

Exploring the surface of a planet. This module was largely the work of Bob Gonsalves.

This, then, is Starflight the sandbox game. While it’s in no way derivative of EliteStarflight‘s creators couldn’t have even been aware of the older game until quite late in their own development cycle, since Elite didn’t reach American shores until late 1985 — Starflight does generate a similar compulsion to explore, an addictive need to see what all is out there. But everything about Starflight is richer and more complex, with the exception only of the combat system that was the heart of Elite but a mere afterthought in Starflight (if you had to spend much time in Starflight actually fighting, it would be a very, very bad game). With so much more computing horsepower at their disposal, Binary Systems was able to add layer after intriguing layer: the ability to land on planets, and once there to engage in an exploring and mining mini-game that is as absurdly addictive as it is superficially simplistic; the chance to converse with the aliens you meet instead of just shooting at them; the whole CRPG angle of training a crew and keeping them healthy; sensor- and Navigator-confounding nebulae and wormholes to negotiate. Whereas Elite sessions soon settle down into a comfortable routine of trade-jump-fight-dock, rinse and repeat forever, Starflight always seems to have something new to throw at you.

But the most important difference is the plot that Starflight layers over its sandbox. I realize everyone is different on this point, but personally I always have a little bit of trouble with purely open-ended games (see my review of Seven Cities of Gold for another example). When I play Elite I eventually start to get bored for lack of any real narrative or goal to shoot for beyond the almost impossible one of actually becoming Elite. Ian Bell and David Braben originally wanted to include a real plot, but there just wasn’t room to contain it inside a 32 K BBC Micro. Starflight, however, has the sort of plot-driven direction that Elite so painfully lacks.

So, having told you what you can do in Starflight, let me now tell you why you do it. Evidence has recently turned up on Arth that the planet’s inhabitants did not evolve there; that it was colonized at some point in the distant past, that the colonists regressed into barbarism due to war or other pressures, and that only now has civilization recovered. A cache of old documents has also revealed the secrets of endurium and faster-than-light travel. All of which is great, except that Arth has even bigger fish to fry. A strange wave is spreading across the galaxy, causing stars to flare — with disastrous results for any orbiting planets — as it strikes them. Thus your mission is not just to explore and get rich, but to discover the source of the wave and to stop it before it reaches Arth.

Starflight has an unusually elaborate plot for its day, but unlike in so many more recent games it never straitjackets you to it. The plot is more backstory than story. The game is essentially a big scavenger hunt, sending you off to reconstruct quite a complicated galactic history. Follow the trail long enough and you should turn up the clues and objects you need to end the threat to Arth and the galaxy by blowing up a certain Crystal Planet that’s the source of all the trouble. There’s not all that much that you actually need to do to beat the game when you know how. In fact, you can do it in less than two game days. It’s the clue- and object-scavenging that’s all the fun, the process of putting the pieces of the backstory together. When you discover Earth, for example — yes, those original colonizers of Arth came, inevitably, from Earth — it gives a thrill when you first look down on those familiar continents from orbit. Other pieces of the puzzle are almost equally thrilling when they come to light. If you’re playing cold, sans walkthrough — which is honestly the only way to play; you’ll otherwise just be left wondering what all the fuss is about — you’ll need to look everywhere for clues: to the occasional emails you receive from your overseers on Arth; to messages and artifacts you find on the planets; to the map and other materials included in the game package. And, most importantly, you need to talk at length to all those aliens, a goofy and amusing rogue’s gallery of sci-fi clichés. They’re the silly part of this odd mixture of stately epic and silly romp — but they’re so much fun we’ll take them just as they are, cognitive dissonance be damned.

The Elowans, a race of plant-like hippies who evince peace and love along with passive aggression.

The Elowan, a race of plant-like hippies who evince peace and love along with passive aggression.

The Thrynn, who have such weird issues with the Elowan that they'll attack if you have one in your crew.

The Thrynn, who have such weird issues with the Elowan that they’ll attack if you have one in your crew.

The unforgettably loathsome Spemin, who lack backbone -- literally.

The unforgettably loathsome Spemin, who lack backbone — literally.

The Mechans, a group of robots who think you're just what they've been waiting for all these millennia.

The Mechans, a group of robots who think you’re just what they’ve been waiting for all these millennia.

Now, this plot-as-scavenger-hunt approach to gameplay is hardly an innovation of Starflight. The Ultima games in particular had long been trolling these waters by the time it appeared. The breadcrumb-following approach to game design always gives rise to the possibility of getting yourself stuck because you’ve missed that one little thing in this absurdly vast virtual world on which all further progress depends. Yet there is a difference between Starflight and Ultima in this respect, a difference not so much in kind as in quality. Starflight is a much more friendly, generous game. Whereas Ultima seems to relish making you fail by hiding vital clues in the most outlandish places or behind the most unlikely parser keywords, there’s a sense that Starflight really wants you to succeed, wants you to solve the mystery and save the galaxy. There are multiple ways to learn much of what you need to know, multiple copies of some vital artifacts hidden in completely different places, multiple solutions to most of the logistic and diplomatic puzzles it sets before you. Yes, there’s a time limit, what with Arth’s sun destined eventually to flare, but even that is very generous, operating more as a way to lend the game excitement and narrative urgency than a way to crush you for failing some hardcore gamer test. Its generosity is not absolute: in my own recent playthrough I had to turn to a walkthrough to learn that you need to be obsequious when you talk to the Velox or they’ll never share an absolutely vital piece of information that I don’t think you can glean anywhere else (remember that, would-be future players!). Still, even these few choke points feel more like accidents than deliberate cruelties strewn in your path by cackling designers. Starflight really does feel like a welcome step toward a more forgiving, inclusive sort of gaming.

Spoilers begin!

No discussion of Starflight‘s plot can be complete without the shocker of an ending. When you finally arrive at the Crystal Planet and are preparing to destroy it, everything suddenly gets deeply weird via a message from an earlier visitor:

I can hardly believe it! Those weird lumps are actually intelligent life. The Ancients are endurium! And we have spent hundreds of years hunting them to burn for fuel in our ships. Their metabolism is so much slower than ours that they live in an entirely different time framework. I don’t think they even know we are sentient. I believe it was only because of a link thru the Crystal Planet that contact was made at all. This Crystal Planet was their last defense. I can hardly blame them. Carbon-based life must have seemed something like a virus to them.

Despite this discovery, the only option — other than to simply stop playing — is to blow up the Crystal Planet anyway, thus annihilating the home planet of a race much more ancient and presumably more sophisticated than your own. It’s a strange, discordant sort of ending to say the least. Some have made much of it indeed; see for instance an earnest article in Envirogamer that would make of Starflight an elaborate allegory for our environmental problems of today, with endurium representing fossil fuels and the stellar wave standing in for global warming. I’m not really buying that. Not only does the article strike me as anachronistic, an argument born of 2009 rather than the mid-1980s, but I somehow have trouble seeing Starflight as a platform for such deliberate messaging; it strikes me as a grand escapist space opera, full stop, without any rhetorical axe to grind.

But is Starflight‘s ending a deliberate subversion of genre convention, like the controversial ending to Infidel? Maybe. It’s not as if the game is not without a certain melancholia in other places; for instance, you’ll occasionally meet a race of interstellar minstrels who roam the spacelanes singing sad songs about glories that used to be. Yet after you do the bloody deed on the Crystal Planet the game immediately leaps back to unabashed triumphalism, gifting you with medals and music and glory and a chance to roam the galaxy at your leisure with an extra 500,000 credits in your account, burning genocidal quantities of endurium as you do so with nary a moral qualm to dog your steps. What to make of this seeming obliviousness to the ramifications of what you’ve just done? You’ll have to decide for yourself whether it represents subtlety or just a muddle of mixed messages that got away from their creators. It’s just one more of the layers within layers that make Starflight so memorable for just about everyone who plays it.

Spoilers end!

In addition to its innovations in the softer arts of design and narrative, Starflight has one final, more concrete quality that sets it apart from what came before, one that can be very easy to overlook but is nevertheless of huge importance. It’s the first of these big open-world games that offers a truly persistent virtual world to explore. Due to the limitations of 8-bit floppy-disk drives, earlier games all fudge persistence in some way. The Wizardry and Bard’s Tale games, for instance, save only the state of your characters between sessions. Everything else resets to its original state as soon as you leave the game, or, indeed, just travel between dungeon levels or between the dungeon and the city. Amongst numerous other oddities, this means that you can actually “win” these games over and over with the same group of characters; the games literally forget you’ve done so almost immediately after showing you the victory screen. The 8-bit Ultimas do only a little better: the outdoor world map does persist along with the details of your characters, but cities and dungeons, again, reset themselves ad infinitum. You can go into a town, murder a dozen guards and rob every shop in town, then exit and return to find all restored to peace and tranquility again. Indeed, solving the early Ultimas is virtually dependent on you doing exactly this.

Starflight, however, is different. Its whole vast galaxy remembers what you have done, on both a macro- and micro-scale. If you discover a juicy new planet, name it, and recommend it for colonization, it goes by that name for the rest of the game. If you befriend or piss off a given alien race, they don’t forget you or what you’ve done. If you strip-mine a planet of all its minerals, they don’t reappear the next time you land on it. If you make notes in your “Captain’s Log” (a first in itself), they remain there until you delete them. If you blow up an alien race’s home planet thereby destroying their entire civilization, it stays blown up. This is a huge step forward for verisimilitude, one enabled by Binary Systems’s choice to throw caution to the wind and target the bigger, more capable MS-DOS machines.1

As Starflight neared release at last, it was very much an open question whether it would find an audience. By now the PCjr had come and gone — just as well given that the game’s memory requirements had ballooned past that machine’s standard 128 K to a full 256 K. No one had ever released such a major title exclusively on MS-DOS. Normally if that platform got games at all they were ports of titles that had already proved themselves on the more popular gaming machines, delivered months or years after their debuts elsewhere. Binary Systems and EA could only make sure Starflight supported the popular Tandy 1000’s enhanced graphics and hope for the best.

The best was far better than they had bargained for: initial sales far exceeded the most optimistic expectations, leaving EA scrambling to produce more copies to fill empty store shelves. It would eventually sell well over 100,000 copies on MS-DOS alone, a major hit by the standards of any platform. Starflight placed owners of other computers in the unaccustomed position of lusting after a game on MS-DOS of all places, a platform most had heretofore viewed with contempt. Appearing as it did even as owners of the new generation of 68000-based machines were reveling in their Macs, Amigas, and Atari STs, Starflight was an early sign of a sea change that would all but sweep those platforms into oblivion within five years or so. With it now clear that a market of eager MS-DOS gamers existed, the platform suddenly became a viable first-release choice for publishers and developers. Only years later would Starflight belatedly, and not without much pain given the unique Forthian nature of its underpinnings, be ported to the Amiga, ST, Macintosh, Sega Genesis, and even the little Commodore 64 — the latter of which would probably have been better bypassed. It would sell at least 200,000 more copies on those platforms, a nice instance of creativity and sheer hard work being amply rewarded for Rod McConnell’s idealistic little team of five.

Most of Binary Systems stayed together long enough to craft a fairly workmanlike sequel, Starflight 2: Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula, released in 1989 for MS-DOS just as the first ports of the original game were reaching those other platforms. It was playable enough, but somehow lacked some of the magic of the original. Most then drifted away from the games industry, with only Greg Johnson continuing to work intermittently as a designer, most notably of the Toejam & Earl games for the Sega Genesis. Starflight had been such an all-consuming, exhausting labor of love that perhaps it was hard for the others to imagine starting all over again on another, inevitably less special project. Making Starflight had been the sort of experience that can come only once in a lifetime; anything else they did in games afterward would have been anticlimactic.

If we’re looking for something to which to attribute Starflight‘s success, both commercially and, more importantly, artistically, we’re fairly spoiled for choice. Alec Kercso credits the way that he and his colleagues were allowed to work “organically,” experimenting to see what worked and what didn’t. Credit also the odd idealism that clung to the team as a whole, which prompted them to never back away from their determination to make something bigger and qualitatively different than anything that had come before, no matter how long it took. Credit Joe Ybarra and the management of EA who, skeptical as they may sometimes have been, ultimately gave Binary Systems the time and space they needed to create a masterpiece. Credit Rod McConnell for giving his stable of talented youngsters the freedom to create whilst finding a way to keep the lights on through all those long years. And credit, almost paradoxically, the limited technology of the era. With their graphics capabilities sharply limited, the team was free to concentrate on building an interesting galaxy, full of interesting things to do, and to tweak it endlessly, without needing to employ dozens of artists and 3D modellers to represent every little idea; tellingly, the only artist on the team was Johnson, who was also the lead designer. And of course credit Johnson for giving the game a plot and an unforgettable, quirky personality all its own, without which all of its technical innovations would have added up to little.

There’s a stately dignity to Starflight even amidst all the goofy gags, a sense of something grand and fresh and new attempted and, even more remarkably, actually realized. Few games have ever captured that science-fictional sense of wonder quite this well. If you start playing it — and that’s very easy to do now; Starflight 1 and 2 are both available in one-click-installable form from GOG.com — you might just find yourself lost in its depths for a long, long time. This, my friends, is one of the great ones.

(Useful vintage articles on Starflight include an interview with Rod McConnell in the March 1987 Computer Gaming World and especially one with Tim Lee in the July/August 1987 Forth Dimensions. Alec Kercso wrote about the game in, of all places, Jonathan S. Harbour’s Microsoft Visual BASIC Programming with DirectX. Good recent articles include ones in The Escapist, Gamasutra, and Sega-16. Tim Lee gave part of the source code and many design documents to Ryan Lindeman. He once made even more source and documents available online, some of which can still be recovered via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Similarly available only via the Wayback Machine is Miguel Etto’s technical analysis of the game’s Forthian underpinnings.)


  1. This is not to say that all is smooth sailing. Starflight constantly saves updated versions of its data files to disk as you play. It then relies on you to “commit” all of these changes by cleanly exiting the game from the menu. If you ever exit without properly saving, or get killed, your game becomes unplayable until you reset it back to its original data — whereupon you have the joy of starting all over. My advice is to make backups of the files “STARA.COM” and “STARB.COM” after every successful session; then if you get killed or have some other problem you can just copy these back into the game’s directory to get back to a good state. Or, if you like, here’s a DOSBox startup script you can use to automatically keep a few generations of states. Just copy it into the “[autoexec]” section of the game’s “.conf” file, editing as needed to suit your directory names. 

 
 

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The Fractal Phenomenon

How long is the coast of Britain? Would you be surprised if I told you that it’s infinitely long? Infinite coastlines are just one of many byproducts of the strange mathematics of fractal geometry.

Why is geometry often described as “cold” and “dry?” One reason lies in its inability to describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain, a coastline, or a tree. Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.

— Benoit Mandelbrot

For centuries mathematicians and philosophers were dogged by a nagging problem. Classic Euclidean geometry, with its regular lines and planes and solids, was elegant and useful, but fell down when it came to describing the natural world. It was ill-equipped to describe the seemingly endless spatial complexity of a leaf — or, for that matter, a section of coastline. Indeed, it’s largely the very presence or absence of such chaotic complexity that we subconsciously use when we decide whether something is natural or human-made. The world humanity has built is created in the image of our geometry, while the universe that birthed us, even the very forms that enclose us, is defined by its refusal to conform to our ideals of coordinates and shapes and angles. To believe that the universe is somehow corrupted or deformed because of this refusal would be the height of hubris. “These are not natural irregularities, but with respect to our fancy only; nor are they incommodious to the true uses of life and the design of man’s being on earth,” wrote Richard Bentley in the time of Swift and Pope. Yet how to reconcile the riot of natural beauty with the cooler constructions of Euclid? Until very recently we literally lacked a mathematical language to describe the world around us.

In 1975 the Polish/French mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot provided such a language when he published his theory of fractal geometry. Mandelbrot discovered that certain solution sets to certain equations generate what he called “fractals” — patterns that are infinitely detailed. Such sets were much better suited to describe natural forms than anything heretofore present in the geometric arsenal.

It’s this seeming paradox of infinite detail that’s the thorniest conceptual part of natural forms and fractal geometry alike. To begin to get a handle on it, consider the “snowflake” curve, an idea first proposed by Helge von Koch in 1904. Imagine that you start with a line forming a simple geometric motif.

a "snowflake" curve

Now you replace every straight-line segment with another copy of the original motif.

a "snowflake" curve

You do it again…

a "snowflake" curve

And you keep on doing it over and over and over, to infinity.

a "snowflake" curve

As you look at a coastline or a leaf at ever greater levels of magnification, there are always more details, more curves and changes to discover. This continues forever — or at least until you hit the level of individual particles of matter, the sort of resolution limit of the universe itself. Thus that aforementioned infinite — or at any rate unmeasurable — coastline. “Coastline length turns out to be an elusive notion that slips between the fingers of one who tries to grasp it,” wrote Benoit Mandelbrot. “All measurement methods ultimately lead to the conclusion that the coastline’s length is very large and so ill-determined that it is best considered infinite.”  What to make of such a logical monstrosity?

Mandelbrot found a way out in some theories of dimensionality espoused by the controversial German mathematician Felix Hausdorff more than half a century before. The easiest way to describe conventional notions of dimensionality mathematically is to say that an object’s number of dimensions equates to the number of numbers needed to describe a single point on it. Thus a line (X) is one-dimensional; a plane (X and Y) two-dimensional; a solid (X, Y, and Z) three-dimensional. Hausdorff, however, floated the counter-intuitive notion that dimensions could be fractions as well as whole numbers. Consider a line. As it gets more wiggly, ever more complex in its gyrations, its dimensionality increases, until it becomes infinitely wiggly, and completely fills — or, perhaps better said, becomes — a plane. The pattern labelled 1a below, for example, is made up of infinite repetitions (within the bounds of the resolution of the picture) of the hook-like line segment labelled 1b. According to Hausdorff’s formulation, it has a dimensionality of 1.8687.

A line with a dimension of 1.8687

This idea of fractional dimensionality is a strange one, but seeing complex lines in terms of dimension rather than distance does allow us to dodge the paradox of infinite coastlines, restoring a mathematical order in which the coast of Britain is again longer than that of, say, the island where I live these days, Funen.

The most interesting fractal equations are not those like the ones shown above that simply repeat a pattern, but rather those that echo themselves but never exactly repeat, to infinity. The classic example is one of the first discovered by Mandelbrot himself, the appropriately named Mandelbrot set, consisting of all solutions to (z(n) ← z(n – 1)2 + c) which converge toward zero rather than expanding toward infinity. (Whilst trying to avoid getting too far down into the weeds here: this notation represents a potentially infinite series of iterations, in which n represents the current iteration. The result of the previous iteration — represented as z(n – 1) — is used as input for the next. The variable c is assumed to be a complex number, meaning it can be plotted onto the X and Y axes of a Cartesian coordinate system.)

The Mandelbrot set produces the most famous and immediately recognizable visual pattern in the field of fractals.

Mandelbrot set

At this point I’d like to give you a chance to explore the Mandelbrot set for yourself, via the little program embedded below. You can pan around by holding down the left mouse button and dragging in the desired direction; drill down deeper into the image by holding down the right button and dragging to select the region you’d like to magnify; and undo each step you’ve previously made by clicking the middle button. Notice how this infinite space is made up of similar patterns that are nevertheless never quite exactly the same.

Now for the caveats: as you zoom in to ever-greater levels of magnification, the picture begins to break down and lose detail. This is not a reflection of the pure mathematics of fractal geometry, but rather a byproduct of the computing reality of limited number precision and limited processing power, especially given that this is implemented in the relatively slow language of JavaScript. Any computerized exploration of fractals is inevitably bounded by such considerations, as well as by the resolution of the individual pixels that form the patterns. Eventually my program will not let you zoom in further at all, a concession to these realities; when you reach the point that your zooms don’t take anymore, you’ll have to zoom out by clicking the middle button to continue your explorations. Due to its processing demands, not to mention the lack of handy mouse buttons, I don’t recommend that you try to play with this program on your phones or tablets. (If these limitations smart, you might want to consider how far we’ve come; a typical 68000-based computer of the 1980s would have required hours to generate each new image.)

As useful and oddly beautiful as fractal lines like the ones produced by the Mandelbrot set can be, they’re only the beginning. Fractal planes are also possible, existing in some fractional limbo between two and three dimensions. Just as a plane is in this formulation an infinitely complicated line, a solid is an infinitely “wrinkled” plane. And just as fractal lines are perfect for representing coastlines and leaves, fractal planes can easily become mountains. The striking pictures shown below were computer-generated by Richard F. Voss in 1983 using only fractal equations.

Fractal mountains

It’s also possible — mathematically, that is — to go further, to produce fractals that strain toward a fourth (or higher) dimension. However, representing them becomes a problem given our three-dimensional world. We can only show a three-dimensional slice of these fractals. Doing so produces some strange shapes indeed, like the “dragons” of Alan Norton.

One of Alan Norton's "dragon" fractals

Benoit Mandelbrot published his magnum opus, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, in 1982; it still remains the definitive book on the subject. It’s a strange sort of mathematics text, in which Mandelbrot devotes at least as much space to philosophical digressions into the implications of his discoveries as he does to proofs and equations, and that much space again to lots of beautiful color slides of the fractals themselves. With the book’s publication, the theory of fractals became an example of a rare phenomenon indeed: a development in abstract higher mathematics that was taken up and trumpeted widely and excitedly by not just the likes of Scientific American (which devoted many, many articles to the subject) but also mainstream magazines, newspapers, even television broadcasts. As is all too typical of any new media plaything, fractals were hyped as useful for everything short of curing cancer — and I suspect that some wouldn’t put that past them either. Not only could physicists use them to understand the motions of molecules and biologists to understand the growth of plants, but some researchers claimed that fractal music was a possibility, while others claimed that they could help you get rich by revealing the “hidden patterns” that govern the stock market. In a 1984 article for Byte magazine, Peter R. Sørensen waxed effusive: “their uses range from physics, biology, and sociology, to art and even motion-picture scene simulation.” While I’m hardly qualified to speak to their uses in the former three scientific disciplines, I do feel fairly confident in claiming that they have had the greatest impact on those latter two, mushier categories, especially if we preface “art” with the word “computer” and allow computer games to slip in under that label.

Tellingly, Mandelbrot was employed at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center at the time he wrote The Fractal Geometry of Nature; all of the images found within it were generated by the computers there. Many fractal equations, including some of the most beautiful, aren’t complex at all in themselves, but the need to iterate through them so many times to produce their solution sets means that the science of fractals could exist only as a theory without the aid of computers. The first primitive computerized fractal visualizations had been produced by Robert W. Brooks and Peter Matelski in 1978, just three years after Mandelbrot first codified his theories. Virtually from that time forward fractals were inseparable from the computers needed to properly generate and study them.

Many people got their first glimpse of fractals before the hype started in earnest, in a remarkable sequence of computer-generated special effects included in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.


The creators of the sequence were the Lucasfilm Graphics Group, a collection of software and hardware engineers whom George Lucas had started putting together in 1979. These folks, whose numbers included such soon-to-be computer-graphics legends as Alvy Ray Smith, designed and built all of the hardware and software used to create sequences like this one. In 1986, the Graphics Group would be spun off to become an independent company whose name you might know: Pixar.

When Lucasfilm elected to start a computer-games division shortly after the sequence shown above was created, it was natural for it to draw inspiration, technologies, and even personnel from the Graphics Group. One of Lucasfilm’s first two games, Rescue on Fractalus!, proudly bears its graphical underpinnings and its status as the first game to make significant use of fractals right there in its title. (By way of continuing the theme, the alien enemies you fight are called the “Jaggies,” a reference to the ugly pixelized artifacts that are one of a computer artist’s worst enemies.) The game sparked great interest from its first press preview in May of 1984, thanks to its endlessly varied mountainous terrain, generated on the fly using fractal algorithms.


In the wake of Rescue on Fractalus! fractals were suddenly everywhere in the computing press; I’m not sure there was a single magazine that didn’t publish at least one big feature article on the subject over the next few years. The appeal of fractals to programmers was obvious, and had little to do with Mandelbrot’s esoteric philosophies about geometry and nature. Irregular, natural-looking landscapes had previously been dauntingly hard to craft for games — hard not only because they were a pain to draw but also and predominately because they were so un-amenable to compression algorithms and, indeed, to virtually all of the many innovative techniques programmers had discovered to store graphics data using minimal memory. Thus the distinctly regular, blocky graphics that were the norm, and the shock that was Rescue on Fractalus! Much like the Fibonacci-derived galaxies of Elite, fractals let programmers create whole landscapes generatively, from only an equation and a few seed numbers. They had their limitations, not least the amount of processing power that had to be allocated to generating them — Rescue on Fractalus! runs at all of 5 or 6 frames per second — but for many applications they seemed like magic. It was not a coincidence that after 1984 virtual landscapes started to become markedly richer and more natural.

But fractals did more than just make games prettier; they opened up whole new realms of possibility for them. The bit of video below, from a remarkable game that will be the topic of another article I’ll be publishing soon, may not look like much in contrast to some of what you’ve already seen today. Yet consider that, thanks to the magic of fractals, the planet being landed on is one of thousands to be topographically mapped in its entirety, and that you can land on it absolutely anywhere you like, zooming in from space to touch down where you will just as you can zoom and pan and explore the Mandelbrot set via the toy embedded into this article. Each of these unique worlds is generated using just a few numbers, a bare handful of bytes of precious memory.


Fractals aren’t quite the media darlings they once were; many other shiny objects have come and gone since the 1980s. And while they remain a valuable tool in many branches of science, they’re no longer viewed there either as the revolution they once were. You certainly don’t hear much anymore about fractal music or using fractals to play the stock market. Likewise, they’re now just another item in a game programmer’s bag of tricks. Still, they retain a fascination and beauty all their own. In that spirit, have fun in any further explorations you undertake, and if you discover any interesting patterns using my little toy above, or if you create any enhancements on the Studio Sketchpad site that hosts it, by all means let me know.

(As noted in the article proper, old computer magazines are an embarrassment of riches when it comes to information on fractals. Particularly good articles are found in the Byte of March 1984, September 1984, and June 1986; the 80 Microcomputing of December 1984; the Ahoy! of April 1987; the Amazing of March 1989, July 1989, October 1989, January 1990, June 1990, and April 1991; the Compute! of January 1983; and the A.N.A.L.O.G. of January 1986.

And since we’re in a multimedia sort of mood today, check out this song about the Mandelbrot set, sent to me by reader Rick Reynolds.)

 
 

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