RSS

Tag Archives: epyx

A Time of Endings, Part 2: Epyx

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

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

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

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

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

Dave Morse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nintendo Game Boy and the Atari Lynx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
38 Comments

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

 

Tags: , ,

The Evolution of the (Epyx) Games

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

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

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

U.S. Home Computer Market -- 1986

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

World Games

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

 

Tags: , ,

How Things Work: Commodore 64 and Summer Games Edition

I’m always trying to convey a sense of the audacity and creativity of hackers of the early PC era, who made so much out of so little. I include amongst this group both the hardware hackers who created the machines themselves and the software hackers who took them to place even their creators never imagined. In that spirit, I thought today we’d look at how the Commodore 64’s hardware team managed to make it do some of what it could given the technical constraints under which they labored, and how the software team who created Summer Games at Epyx found ways to make it do even more than they had fully considered. So, much of this article is for the gearheads among you, or at least those of you who’d like to understand a bit more of what the gearheads are on about. If you’re a less technical sort, perhaps you’ll be consoled by learning about some of the softer factors that went into the Summer Games design as well. And if that’s not interesting, hey, you can still watch my wife and I (mostly I) fail horribly at various Summer Games events via the movie clips.

This is, by the way, my first attempt to make use of WordPress 3.6’s integrated video capabilities. You’ll need an up-to-date browser with good HTML 5 support to see the clips. Hopefully my site won’t choke on the bandwidth demands. We’ll see how we go.

While you’re waiting (hopefully not too long) for the videos to load, let’s consider the basic visual capabilities of the Commodore 64: a palette of 16 colors at a resolution of 320 X 200. Those capabilities are, to say the least, modest by modern standards, but they actually present a huge problem when paired with another key specification: the 64 has just 64 K of RAM memory. This is all there is to work with; there is no separate bank of video memory, as on a modern computer. Everything — programs, data, the contents of the screen, and miscellaneous other things like buffers for the disk drive — must draw from this pool.

Now, a modern programmer wishing to represent a 320 X 200 screen with 16 colors in memory would probably just store it as a series of pixels, with one byte devoted to each pixel and storing a value of between 0 and 15 to represent that pixel’s color. This approach, known as bitmap graphics, is straightforward and eminently flexible, but there’s a problem. Consider: a 320 X 200 screen has exactly 64,000 pixels. In other words, by devoting one byte to each pixel we’ve just filled our entire 64 K of memory with a single screen.

Let’s consider then. Even a modern programmer, if she’s a more efficient sort, might note that we only actually need four bits to store a number between 0 and 15, and could therefore, at the cost of a bit more confusing layout, pack two pixels into every byte. That reduces consumption to a little under 32 K — better, but it’s still untenable to devote half of our precious memory to the screen.

It’s because bitmap graphics are so demanding that only high-end machines like the Apple Lisa and Macintosh used them by default at the time of Summer Games‘s release. And, notably, even those 68000-powered machines only displayed black and white, which reduced the requirement from four bits per pixel to one — a simple on-off, black-or-white toggle. Let’s consider the alternative that the 64’s designers, as well as those of many other machines, employed in various ways: character graphics.

Commodore 64 startup screen

In its default mode, the 64 subdivides its screen into a grid of character cells, each 8 X 8 pixels. Thus there are 40 of them across and 25 down, corresponding to the machine’s standard text display. Elsewhere in memory are a set of up to 256 tiles that can be copied into these cells. A default set, containing the glyph for each letter, number, and mark of punctuation in addition to symbols and simple line-drawing figures, lives in ROM. The programmer can, however, swap this set out for her own set of tiles. This system is conceptually the same as the tile-graphics system which Richard Garriott used in the Ultima games, but these tiles are smaller (only the size of a single character) and monochrome, just a set of bits in which 1 represents a pixel in the foreground color, 0 a pixel in the background color. The latter color is set globally, for the whole screen. The former is specified individually for each cell, via a table stored elsewhere in memory.

So, let’s look at what all this means in terms of memory. Each cell on the screen consumes one byte, representing the number (0 to 255) of the tile that is placed there. There are 1000 character cells on a 40 X 25 display, so that’s about 1 K consumed. We need 8 bytes to store each tile as an 8 X 8 grid of on-off pixels. If we use all 256, that’s 2 K. Finally, the color table with the foreground color for each cell fills another 1 K. We’ve just reduced 32 K to 4 K, or just 2 K if we use the default set of character glyphs in ROM. Not bad. Of course, we’ve also introduced a lot of limitations. We now have to build our display, jigsaw-puzzle style, from our collection of tiles. And each cell can only use two of our total of 16 colors, one of which can be unique to that cell but the other of which must be the same for the entire screen. For someone wishing to make a colorful game, this last restriction in particular may just be too much to accept.

Enter multicolor character mode. Here, we tell the 64 that we want each tile to be not monochrome but drawn in four colors. Rather than using one bit per pixel within the tile, we now use two, which allows us to represent any number from 0 to 3. One of these colors is still set individually for each cell; the other three are set globally, for the screen as a whole. And there’s another, bigger catch: because we still only devote eight bytes to each tile, we must correspondingly reduce its resolution, and that of the screen as a whole. Each tile is now 4 X 8 (horizontally elongated) pixels, the screen as a whole 160 X 200. Even so, this is easily the most widely used mode in Commodore 64 games. It’s also the mode that Scott Nelson (little brother of Starpath co-founder Craig Nelson) chose for Summer Games‘s flag selection screen.

Summer Games country selection screen

But… wait, you might be saying. Surely the colorful screen shown above doesn’t always use the same three of the four colors within each tile. In fact, it doesn’t, and this introduces us to one of the keys to getting the most out of the Commodore 64: raster interrupts.

The picture on a cathode-ray-tube television or monitor is generated by an electron gun which moves across and down behind the screen, firing charged electrons at phosphors that coat the back of the screen glass. This causes them to briefly glow — so briefly, in fact, that the gun must paint the screen 60 times per second for televisions using the North American NTSC standard, or 50 times for the European PAL standard, in order to display a stable image without flicker. After painting each line of the screen from left to right, the gun must move back to the left to paint the next. This split second’s delay can be exploited by the Commodore 64 programmer. She can ask the machine to generate what’s known as a raster interrupt when the gun finishes painting a given line. She then has a few microseconds to make changes to the display configuration before the gun starts painting the next line. She can, for example, change one or more of the three supposedly fixed colors, as Scott Nelson does to generate the screen shown above.

But let’s say we don’t want to deal with trying to create a picture using tiles. The Commodore 64 actually does also offer a bitmap mode of sorts, albeit one with restrictions of its own that allow it to reduce the memory footprint from an untenable 32 K to a more reasonable if still painful 9 K. Here an 8 K chunk of memory is allocated to the bitmap, with each bit representing the status (on or off) of a single pixel. The foreground color represented by an “on” pixel is once again determined by a 1 K color table, with the colors still sorted into 8 X 8 pixel blocks. This leads to the most obvious oddity of the 64’s bitmap mode: the bitmap does not run all the way across the screen and then down, but rather across and down through each 8 X 8 cell that is assigned a given foreground color.

Bitmap mode on the Commodore 64

For those willing to trade resolution for colors, there is also a multicolor bitmap mode, which, like the multicolor character mode, treats each two bits as representing a single pixel of one of four possible colors. Horizontal resolution is accordingly reduced to 160 pixels. This mode is, however, more flexible than multicolor character mode in its choice of colors. Another area of memory, of 1 K, is allocated to a collection of color pairs for each cell, each pair packed into a single byte. Thus we can freely choose three of the four colors found within each cell without resorting to raster interrupts or other tricks. Total memory devoted to the display in multicolor bitmap mode amounts to 10 K.

That may not look like much at first glance, but for a programmer trying to shoehorn a complex game into 64 K it’s quite a sacrifice indeed. For this reason, and because its other restrictions could make it almost as challenging to work with as character mode, bitmap mode is not used as often as you might expect in Commodore 64 games. Summer Games is, however, a partial exception, employing bitmap mode in quite a number of places. For instance, Stephen Landrum’s opening-ceremonies sequence uses a multicolor bitmap. This sequence also demonstrates another critical part of the 64’s display hardware: sprites.


Doing animation by changing the contents of screen memory is very taxing on a little 8-bit CPU like the 64’s 6502, not to mention tricky to time so that changes are not made in the middle of screen paints, which would result in ugly jerking and tearing effects. Sprites come to the rescue. Indeed, their presence or absence is a good indication of whether a given machine from this era is pretty good at playing graphically intense games (the 64, the Atari 8-bit lines) or not (the Apple II, the IBM PC). A sprite is a relatively small graphical element which is overlaid onto the physical screen, but independent of the bitmap or tile map stored in memory. It can be moved about quickly at minimal cost, just by changing a couple of registers. The display circuitry does the rest.

The 64 offers eight sprites to the programmer, each exactly 24 pixels wide by 21 tall. The image for each is stored in memory as the usual grid of on/off bits, for the modest total of 64 bytes used per sprite. An on bit represents the sprite’s color, of which each has exactly one; an off bit represents transparency, so that whatever is on the screen behind shows through. This means that the 24 X 21 pixel pixel size is not so arbitrary as it may first appear; a smaller sprite can be displayed simply by turning off the unneeded pixels.

There is also the inevitable multicolor sprite, which gives us three foreground colors to work with at the expense of half of our horizontal resolution. In this mode, the sprite is effectively just 12 X 21 pixels, but each pixel is now twice as wide as before, resulting in the same physical width on the screen. As in multicolor character mode, the second and third colors are fixed across all sprites in this mode.

A sprite can be pointed to different addresses in memory for its image between screen paints, creating the possibility of making animated sprites which cycle through a sequence of frames, page-flip style. Likewise, single- and multicolor sprites can be placed together and moved in lockstep to create larger or more complex onscreen figures. In the sequence above, the runner is made from three single-color sprites, each of which cycles through 14 frames of animation. (If you’ve played Impossible Mission, he may look familiar to you: he is in fact the same sprite as your avatar in that game, which Dennis Caswell happily shared with his colleagues.) The flames are four multicolor sprites, each with four frames of animation. And each of the eight doves is a single single-color sprite of eight animation frames.

But… again, wait. That’s far more than eight sprites in total, isn’t it? As you may have guessed, Landrum uses raster interrupts to reconfigure and thus reuse sprites as each screen paint proceeds. With the addition of such tricks the 64’s effective limit becomes not eight sprites in total but no more than eight sprites horizontally parallel with one another.

Let’s take another example, this time one showing an actual, interactive event in action: Stephen Landrum’s pole vault. I have my usual mediocre performance in the clip that follows, but my wife Dorte kicks some ass and actually demolishes our old world record.


The screen you see here is another multicolor bitmap. The vaulter is made up of three single-color sprites, which cycle through seven frames of animation as he runs and are then changed appropriately to reflect his state after he goes airborne. The pole is three single-colored sprites and the crossbar is a single multicolored sprite, as is, surprisingly and cleverly, the stationary top of the nearer (right-hand) upright. To understand this last, we have to understand the 64’s concept of sprite priority. Sprites are numbered from 0 to 7. If two sprites overlap one another, the sprite with the lower number is drawn on top of the one with the higher number. Landrum uses this property to easily create the illusion of the jumper passing behind the nearer upright as he soars through the air.

You might have noticed that the pole, the crossbar, and the upright are all quite large. This is down to yet another feature of the 64’s sprite system. It’s possible to expand a sprite vertically or horizontally or both, doubling its size (but not its resolution).

The pole vault is not quite as polished as most of the events, which may be a sign that, as one of the later events completed, it was a bit rushed. There’s some odd artifacting in the pole, for instance. And there’s a wonderful bug that lets you vault under the crossbar on its highest setting, creating a world record for the ages.


The two swimming events, which were started by Randy Glover but finished by Landrum following the former’s abrupt resignation, are the most complex in Summer Games. They’re largely an exercise in rhythm; you have to press the joystick button as your swimmer’s arms enters the water, then releases it when they emerge. I’m awful at it, but Dorte is pretty good.


The clock at top right is formed from six single-color sprites, each swimmer from four. The rest of what you see here may begin to illustrate how crazy you can get with raster interrupts. Each paint begins with the 64 in single-color bitmap mode. This allows the text (“Ready… Set… Go!”), which is drawn and erased directly into the bitmap, to be rendered in the higher resolution. But then, just as the electron gun reaches the top of the stands, the screen is changed to a multicolor bitmap.

Glover and Landrum use a technique known as double buffering to make the scrolling as smooth as possible. There are actually two bitmaps in memory, one of which is always being displayed and the other of which is being updated by the CPU for the next step in the scroll. When the time comes, the two are swapped, as the 64’s VIC-II graphics chip is pointed to the other in the pair. Well, it’s almost that simple. Complications arise because the poor 6502 just doesn’t have time to completely redraw a screen in memory for every pixel of scroll. Luckily, it doesn’t have to. The VIC-II also has what are known as horizontal and vertical fine-scrolling registers. They allow the programmer to shift the bitmap that appears onscreen by from 1 to 7 bits to the right (as in the swimming events) or down. Since this will create an ugly empty zone at the edges of the display for which the computer has no pixel data to display, another register lets the programmer expand the size of the border slightly to cover these cells — the width of the screen is reduced from 40 to 38 columns, or the height from 24 to 23 lines. Now it’s possible for Glover and Landrum to scroll the screen eight pixels before having to swap to the alternate bitmap, giving the CPU time to make said bitmap. Double buffering is rather unusual to find on the 64, as it’s horrendously expensive in memory. And indeed, the swimming events use virtually every last byte.

But that’s probably enough tech talk for today. Just for fun — and because if you got through all that you’ve earned it — let’s look at the other events in somewhat less exhaustive (exhausting?) detail.

The two running events have their origin in Starpath’s old Supercharger decathlon project, but were brought to the 64 and completed by Brian McGhie. Like virtually everyone at Epyx, he had no particular knowledge of or burning interest in Olympic sports. He therefore relied on a stack of old Sports Illustrateds to try to get the look of his runners and the stadium right. The events are very similar in appearance, but unlike the swimming events very different in execution. The 100 meter dash is a notorious joystick killer. You have to move the stick back and forth as quickly as possible — nothing more, nothing less. The 4 X 400 meter relay, by contrast, is the most cerebral of the events, a game of energy conservation and chicken. I’m unaccountably good at both, much to Dorte’s frustration.


Interestingly, the scrolling in these events is implemented in an entirely different way from that in the swimming, illustrating how very much Summer Games is really a collection of individual efforts brought together under one banner. McGhie uses a multicolor character screen, and rather than using double buffering updates the hidden border areas on the fly to… but I promised to stop with the tech talk, didn’t I?

The diving event is yet another of Landrum’s. The diver here rather disconcertingly never surfaces after entering the water, simply because Landrum ran out of time.


Skeet shooting was a joint project of John Leupp, Steve Mudry, and Randy Glover prior to his departure. They originally planned to show the shooter on the screen, as in all of the other events, but found it difficult to work out a practical way of implementing the event from that perspective. So skeet shooting received the only first-person perspective in Summer Games, and the poor shooter was left out entirely.


Finally, there’s the gymnastics event — really just a vault — by Mudry. In an example of the, shall we say, casual approach to box art that was so rife in this era, the Summer Games box shows someone doing a handstand.


If nothing else, this article has hopefully conveyed what a tricksy machine the Commodore 64 is, full of hidden capabilities and exploitable quirks. Learning to make it dance for you requires considerable time even if you have examples to follow. If you don’t… well, small wonder that its games were just beginning to come into their own in 1984, the year it had its second birthday. And Epyx and companies like it were barely scratching the surface. In a couple of years Summer Games would look downright quaint.

You can download the original Commodore 64 Summer Games and its manual from here if you like, for use in the emulator of your choice (I recommend VICE). Unlike most of the disk images floating around the Internet, this one is pristine, with the original set of world records, so you and your friends and/or family can make your own records — which is about 20% of the fun of playing Summer Games — rather than be shamed by the performances of obsessed teenagers from two or three decades ago.

We’ll continue to observe the Commodore 64 scene with interest in future articles. But next we’ll check in with a group of Atari 8-bit loyalists: the backwoods savants of Ozark Softscape.

(This article draws again from the Epyx retrospectives in the July 1988 and August 1989 issues of Commodore Magazine. Technical details of Summer Games were drawn from the Commodore 64 design case study which appeared in the March 1985 IEEE Spectrum. I also lifted the diagram showing the 64’s unusual bitmap mode from there. For what it’s worth, my favorite 64 technical reference is Mapping the Commodore 64 by Sheldon Leemon. And if I may be forgiven a blatant plug, do check out my book on the Amiga if you’re interested in the sort of technical details I’ve delved into in this post. Some of what I go into in the book actually apply equally to the 64, and I explain basic concepts, starting with what a bit and byte actually are, much more fully there.)

 
 

Tags: , ,

From Automated Simulations to Epyx

When Robert Botch joined Automated Simulations as director of marketing just as 1982 expired, it wasn’t exactly the sexiest company in the industry. They were still flogging their Dunjonquest line, which now consisted of no less than eleven sequels, spinoffs, and expansions to Temple of Apshai. More than a year after co-founder Jon Freeman had left in frustration over partner Jim Connelley’s refusal to update Automated’s technology, the entire line was still derived from the same BASIC-based engine that had first been designed to run on a 16 K TRS-80 back in 1979. It was hard for anyone to articulate why someone would choose to play a Dunjonquest game in a world that contained Ultima and Wizardry. And, indeed, Automated’s sales numbers were not looking very good, and the company had stopped making money almost from the moment that the Ultima and Wizardry series debuted. Still, that hadn’t prevented them from benefiting from the torrents of venture capital that entered the young industry in 1982, courtesy of the pundits who were billing home computers as the next big thing to succeed the game consoles. But now the investors were getting worried, wondering if this stodgy company and their somewhat pedantic approach to gaming had really been such a good risk after all. Thus Botch, whom Connelley hired under pressure to remake Automated’s image.

Botch’s first assignment was to visit the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that January, with Dunjonquest titles in tow to display to the crowd on a big-screen television rented for the occasion. Botch, who knew nothing about computers or computer games, didn’t much understand the Dunjonquest concept. He could hardly be blamed, for just trying to figure out which one you could play was confusing as hell: you needed to already have Temple of Apshai to play these additional games, but needed Hellfire Warrior to play those, etc. He was therefore relieved when another employee handed him a disk containing a straightforward, standalone action/puzzle game for the Atari home-computer line called Jumpman, a sort of massively expanded version of the arcade classic Donkey Kong with thirty levels to explore. Unusually for Automated, who usually developed games in-house, its presence was the result of an unsolicited third-party submission from a hacker named Randy Glover.

Randy Glover, developer of Jumpman

Randy Glover, developer of Jumpman

Botch was such a computer novice that he couldn’t figure out how to boot the game; his colleague had to tell him to “put it in that little slot over by the computer.” But when he finally got it working he fell in love. The rest of the show turned into an extended battle of wills between Botch and Connelley. The latter, who was determined to showcase the Dunjonquest games, would “come over, yell a lot, and tell me to take the disk out. Whenever he left the room, I’d load the program in again.” The crowd seemed to agree with Botch: he left CES with a notebook full of orders for the as yet unreleased Jumpman, convinced that in it he had seen the only viable future for his new employers.

The embattled Connelley saw his power further eroded the following month, when the investors brought in Michael Katz, an unsentimental, hard-driving businessmen with an eye for mainstream appeal. He had spent the past four years at Coleco, where he had masterminded the launch of some very successful handheld electronic games as well as the ColecoVision console, which had just sold more than 500,000 units in its first Christmas on the market. It was first agreed that Connelley and Katz would co-lead the company, but this was obviously impractical and untenable. In a scenario that could have easily happened to Ken Williams at Sierra if he had been less strong-willed and business-savvy, Connelley was being eased out of his own company by the monied interests he had welcomed with open arms. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, he left within months, taking a number of his loyalists with him to form a development studio he named The Connelley Group, which would release a couple of games through Automated before becoming free agents and eventually fading away quietly.

Katz, Botch, and the other newcomers were thus left alone to literally transform Automated Simulations into a new company. Automated had for some time now been branding many of their games with the label of “Epyx,” arrived at because their first choice, “Epic,” was already taken by a record label. No matter; “Epyx” was a better name anyway, proof that even a blind-to-PR squirrel like Connelley could find a nut every now and again. Katz and Botch now made it the official name of the reborn company, excising all trace of the stodgy old “Automated Simulations” name. Gone also would be the nerdy old Dunjonquest line which positively reeked of Dungeons and Dragons sessions in parents’ basements. They would instead strive to make Epyx synonymous with colorful, accessible games like Jumpman, aimed straight at the heart of the mass market. The old slogan of “Computer Games Thinkers Play” now became “Strategy Games for the Action-Game Player,” and they hired Chiat Day, Apple’s PR firm and the hottest such in Silicon Valley, to remake Epyx’s image entirely.

Epyx

Jumpman itself made a good start toward that goal. It was a huge hit, especially once ported to the Commodore 64. One of first games to really take proper advantage of the 64’s audiovisual capabilities, it hit that platform like a nova at mid-year, topping the sales charts for months and probably becoming the bestselling single Commodore 64 game of 1983. It alone was enough to return Epyx to profitability. Unsurprisingly given commercial returns like that, from now on Epyx would develop first and most for the 64. They also hired Glover to work in-house. Before the end of the year he had already delivered a cartridge-based pseudo-sequel, Jumpman Junior, to reach ultra-low-end systems without a disk drive.

But now Katz had a problem. Other than Glover, he lacked the technical staff to make the Jumpmans of the future. Most of them had left with Connelley — and anyway games like their old Dunjonquests were exactly what the new Epyx didn’t want to be making. Then Starpath caught Katz’s eye.

Back in 1981, two former Atari engineers, Bob Brown and Craig Nelson, had founded Arcadia, Inc., eventually to be renamed Starpath after the release of the Arcadia 2001, an ill-conceived and short-lived games console from Emerson Radio Corporation. Drawing from friends, family, and former colleagues, Brown and Nelson put together a crack team of hardware and software hackers to make their mark in the Atari VCS market. Their flagship product was the marvelously Rube Goldberg-esque Supercharger, which plugged into the VCS’s cartridge port and added 6 K of memory (which may not sound like much until you remember that the VCS shipped with all of 128 bytes), new graphics routines in ROM, and a cable to connect the console to a cassette player. Starpath developed and released half a dozen games on cassette for use with the Supercharger, most of them apparently quite impressive indeed. But problems dogged Starpath. The company lived in constant fear of legal action by Atari, whom Brown and Nelson had not left on particularly good terms, in response to their unauthorized expansion. It did eventually become clear that Starpath had little to fear from Atari, but for the worst possible reason: the videogame market was collapsing, and Atari had far bigger problems than little Starpath. By late 1983 Starpath was floundering. Katz swooped, buying the entire company for a song and moving them lock, stock, and barrel from Santa Clara, California, into Epyx’s headquarters in nearby Sunnyvale.

Katz had no interest in any of Starpath’s extant products for a dead Atari VCS market. No, he wanted the programming talent and creative flair that had led to the Supercharger and its games in the first place. If they could do work like that on the Atari VCS, imagine what they could do with a Commodore 64. The Starpath folks would prove to be the final, most essential piece in his remaking of Epyx.

One of Starpath’s programmers, Dennis Caswell, had been playing around with ideas for a platforming action-adventure game before the acquisition. Indeed, he was already at work trying to animate the running man who would be the star. It was decided to let Caswell, who had three Supercharger games under his belt, run with his idea on the Commodore 64. He says his elation at the platform change was so great that “I unplugged my [Atari] 2600 and threw it out of my office and into the hall.” Working essentially alone, Caswell crafted one of the iconic Commodore 64 games and one of the bestselling in the history of Epyx: Impossible Mission.

Starpath had also been working on a decathlon simulation. In fact, it was far enough long to be basically playable. They discussed porting it to the 64, but the capabilities of that machine quickly led them to think about something more than just a simulation of track and field. Why not use the luxury of 64 K of memory and disk-based storage to simulate a broader cross-section of Summer Olympic events? With the 1984 Summer Olympics coming to Los Angeles, it seemed the perfect game for the zeitgeist, with exactly the sort of mass-market appeal Katz wanted from his new titles. He thought it a brilliant idea, and even went so far as to approach the Olympic Committee about making it an officially licensed product. He found, however, that Atari had long before sewn up the rights, back when they had been the fastest growing company in America. Epyx therefore decided to do everything possible to associate the game with the Olympics without outright declaring it to be an official Olympics simulation. They pushed the envelope pretty far: the game would be called Summer Games, would begin with an opening ceremony and a runner lighting a flame to the strains of “Bugler’s Dream,” would offer medals, would (as its advertising copy proclaimed) let you “go for the gold!” representing the country of your choice. Such legal boundary-pushing became something of a habit; witness Impossible Mission, which plainly hoped to benefit from an association with Mission: Impossible. (This in spite of the fact that Scott Adams had already been forced by the lawyers to change the name of his third adventure from Mission Impossible to Secret Mission.) In the case of Summer Games, Epyx likely got away with it because Atari was in no financial shape to press the issue and the Olympic Committee, never the most progressive institution, was barely aware of home-computer games’ existence. To this day many people are shocked to realize that Summer Games is not actually an official Olympics game. It all speaks to Katz’s determination to create games that felt up-to-date and relevant to the times. Yes, sometimes that could backfire, leading to trying-way-too-hard titles like Break Dance. Much of the time, however, it was commercial gold.

The original design brief for Summer Games called for ten events. The team also very much wished to include head-to-head, real-time competition wherever the nature of the sport being simulated allowed it. Beyond that, they would pretty much make it up on the fly; even the events themselves were largely chosen in the moment. The Starpath programmers’ talents were augmented by Randy Glover of Jumpman fame and Epyx’s first full-time artist, Erin Murphy. They were all under the gun from the start, for Katz wanted them to have something ready to show at the 1984 Winter CES, barely six weeks away when the project was officially green-lit. They worked through the holidays to deliver. Epyx arrived at CES with a very impressive albeit non-interactive opening-ceremonies sequence, fairly playable 4 X 400-meter relay and 100-meter dash races (both partially adapted from Starpath’s old decathlon project), and a diving event. At the show they learned that they had more competition in the (pseudo-)Olympics genre beyond Atari. HESWare, an aggressive up-and-comer not that dissimilar to Epyx who were about to sign Leonard Nimoy as their spokesman, showed HES Games. The prospect pushed Epyx to make sure Summer Games both met its planned pre-Summer Olympics release date and was as good as they could make it. To help with the former, the original plan for ten events was reduced to eight, principally via the sacrifice of weight lifting (fans of which sport would have to wait until 1986’s World Games to get their due). To help with the latter, more resources and personnel were poured into the project.

Even as this happened, attrition, a constant at Epyx, also became a concern. Katz’s new Epyx could be a rewarding place, but also an unrelentingly intense and competitive one, full of mathematical athletes convinced they were the smartest people in the room and all too happy to demonstrate it at their rivals’ expense. The spirit of competition extended beyond working hours; hundreds of dollars changed hands weekly in epic games of poker. Even some of Epyx’s brightest stars eventually found the company’s testoserone-and brainpower-fueled culture too much to take. Thus Starpath co-founder Bob Brown, finding Starpath’s new masters not to his liking, left quite soon after the acquisition, and Randy Glover, who had been assigned to the swimming events, abruptly left not long after CES. The swimming events were taken up by Stephen Landrum, the biggest single contributor to the project as a whole, who also did the opening ceremonies and the diving and pole-vaulting events.

It had been decided early on that Summer Games would let you compete as the representative of any of a variety of nations, complete with flags and national anthems to play during the medal ceremonies. Since it obviously would not be possible to include all of the 140 countries who would participate in the real Olympics, Epyx was left with the question of which ones should make the cut. Beyond the big, obvious powerhouses of the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, commercial considerations once again reigned supreme here. Katz had begun signing deals with foreign distributors, pushing hard to get Epyx’s games into the vibrant British and steadily emerging Western European software markets. Epyx reasoned that players in these countries would want the opportunity to represent their own nation. Thus relative Summer-Olympic non-factors like Norway and Denmark were included in the game, while potent teams from parts of the world that didn’t buy computer games, like East Germany, Romania, and Yugoslavia, were omitted. Most of the countries included had never been visited by anyone at Epyx. They sourced the flag designs from a world atlas, and called consulates and sales connections in Europe to drum up sheet music for the various anthems. Many of those anthems had never been heard by anyone working on the game; if some sound a bit “off” in tone or tempo, perhaps that’s the reason. For the coup de grâce, Epyx couldn’t resist including their own company as one of the “nations,” complete with a national anthem that was actually the Jumpman theme.

Summer Games was nearing the final crunch time on May, 8, 1984, when the Soviet Union initiated a boycott of the Los Angeles Games in a rather petty quid pro quo for the West’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. (The people who were really hurt by both gestures were not the governments of the boycotees but a generation of athletes on both sides of the political divide, who lost what was for many literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete against the true best of their peers on the biggest stage their sports could offer them.) Epyx quickly decided to leave the Soviet Union in their version of the Olympics. After the game’s release, they reached out a bit cheekily to the Soviets in real life. Blotch:

We sent the Russian [read: Soviet] embassy (in Washington, D.C.) several copies of Summer Games for the Commodore 64. An enclosed letter stated since they would not be competing in the regular Olympics, at least they could participate in our version of the Games. This package was eventually returned to us with a thank-you note, because they only had access to Atari home computers. Our marketing people quickly replaced the Commodore software with Atari material and sent it back. I always wondered if they enjoyed the game, because we never heard from them again.

Epyx’s bigger concern was the same as that of everyone involved with the Los Angeles Games, whether directly or tangentially: what commercial impact would the boycott have? It seemed it must inevitably tarnish the Games’ luster somewhat. In the case of both Summer Games and the Olympic Games themselves, the impact would turn out to be less than expected. The latter has gone down in history as the most financially successful Olympics of modern times, while Summer Games would become — and this probably comes as anything but a spoiler to most of you — one of the bestselling computer games of the year, and the first entry of the bestselling series in the history of the Commodore 64.

Katz was determined to get Summer Games out in June, to beat HES Games to the market and to derive maximum advantage from the pre-Olympics media buildup. The team worked frantically to finish the final two events (gymnastics and skeet shooting) and swat bugs. They worked all but straight through the final 72 hours. Disks went into production right on schedule, the morning after the code they contained had been finalized.

Summer Games

Summer Games went on to sell in the hundreds of thousands across North America and Europe, thoroughly overshadowing the less impressive Olympian efforts of HESWare and Atari, the latter of whose games were at any rate only available on their own faltering lines of game consoles and home computers. It would be ported to a variety of platforms, although it would always remain at its best on the Commodore 64. Together with Impossible Mission and a racing game developed by the indefatigable Landrum and Caswell called Pitstop II, both also huge worldwide smashes, Summer Games completed the remaking of Epyx’s image and made of them a worldwide commercial powerhouse. Being for the most part conceptually simple games without much dependence on text, most of Epyx’s games were ideally suited to do well in non-English-speaking countries. Combined with Katz’s aggressive distributional push, this was key to making Epyx one of the first big entertainment-software publishers that could be said to be truly international. With so many potential customers to serve in emerging new markets and several new hits in addition to the still popular Jumpman, sales in 1984 soared as Epyx enjoyed almost exponential growth in earnings as the months passed.

We’ll continue the story of Epyx later, but for now I’m not quite done with Summer Games. Next time I’d like to do something I haven’t done in a while: dig into the technology a bit and explain how some of the magic that wowed so many back in 1984 actually works. It was also give us a chance to get to know the Commodore 64, a computer whose importance to gaming during the middle years of the 1980s can hardly be overstated, just a little bit better.

(The bulk of this article is drawn from two lengthy retrospectives published in the July 1988 and August 1989 issues of Commodore Magazine. The pictures of Randy Glover comes from the April 1984 K-Power.)

 
 

Tags: , ,

DunjonQuest

I can hardly emphasize enough the influence that war games and tabletop role-playing games (particularly, of course, TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons) had on early computer-based ludic narratives. Sometimes that influence is obvious, as in games like Eamon that explicitly sought to bring the D&D experience to the computer. In other cases it’s more subtle.

Unlike traditional board or even war games, D&D and its contemporaries were marketed not as single products but as a whole collection of experiences, almost a lifestyle choice. Just getting started with the flagship Advanced Dungeons and Dragons system required the purchase of three big hardcover volumes — Monster Manual, Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide — and to this were soon added many more volumes, detailing additional monsters, treasures, gods, character classes, and increasingly fiddly rules for swimming, workshopping, sneaking, thieving, and of course fighting. But most of all there were adventure modules — pre-crafted adventures, actual ludic narratives to be run using the D&D ludic narrative system — by the dozen, meticulously cataloged via an alphanumeric system to help the obsessive keep track of their collection; a trilogy of modules dealing with giants got labelled “G1” through “G3,” a series of modules originating in Britain was labelled with “UK,” etc. Whatever its other advantages, this model was a marketer’s dream. Why sell just one game to your customers when you can lock them into an ever-expanding universe of products?

TSR’s one game / many products approach to marketing and its zeal for cataloging surfaces even amongst early computer-game developers that were not trying to adapt the D&D rules to the digital world. Scott Adams, for instance, numbered each of his adventures, eventually ending up with a canonical dozen. (Other adventures, presumably worthy but not written by the master himself, were published by Adventure International as a sort of official apocrypha in the form of the OtherVentures series.) Players were encouraged to play the adventures in order, as they gradually increased in difficulty; thus could the beginner cut her teeth on relatively forgiving efforts like Adventureland and Pirate Adventure before plunging into the absurdly difficult later games like Ghost Town and Savage Island. On-Line Systems adapted a similar model, retroactively subtitling Mystery House to Hi-Res Adventure #1 when Hi-Res Adventure #2, The Wizard and the Princess, hit the scene. The next game, Mission: Asteroid, which appeared in early 1981, was subtitled Hi-Res Adventure #0 in defiance of chronology, as it was meant to be a beginner’s game featuring somewhat fewer absurdities and unfair puzzles than the norm. These similarities with the D&D approach are in fact more than a marketing phenomenon. Both lines were built on reusable adventuring engines, after all. Just as a group of players would have many different adventures using the core D&D rules set, the Scott Adams or Hi-Res Adventures lines were essentially a core set of enabling “rules” (the engine) applied to many different instances of ludic narrative.

Still, of the developers we’ve look at so far, the ones who most obviously mimicked the D&D model were, unsurprisingly, the ones who came directly out of the culture of D&D itself: Donald Brown with the Eamon system, and Automated Simulations, developers of the DunjonQuest line that began with Temple of Apshai. J.W. Connelley, the principal technical architect for Automated Simulations, designed for Temple of Aphsai a reusable engine that read in data files representing each level of the dungeon being explored. As it did for Scott Adams and On-Line Systems, this approach both made the game more easily portable — versions for the three most viable machines in 1979, the TRS-80, the Apple II, and the Commodore PET, were all available that year — and sped development of new iterations of the concept. These were marketed as part of a unified set of experiences, called DunjonQuest; the alternative medieval-era spelling was possibly chosen to avoid conflict with a litigious TSR, who marketed a board game called simply Dungeon! in addition to the D&D rules.

And iterate Automated Systems did. Two more DunjonQuest games appeared the same year as Apshai. Both Datestones of Ryn and Morloc’s Tower were what Automated Simulations called MicroQuests, in which the character-building elements were removed entirely. Instead the player guided a preset character through a much smaller environment. The player was expected to play many times, trying to build a better score. In 1980 Automated Simulations released the “true” sequel to Apshai, Hellfire Warrior, featuring levels 5 through 8 of the labyrinth that began in that earlier game. They also released two more modest games, Rescue at Rigel and Star Warrior, the first and only entries in a new series, StarQuest, which took the DunjonQuest system into space.

At least from a modern perspective, there is a sort of cognitive dissonance to the series as a whole. The manuals push the experiential aspect of the games hard, as shown by this extract from the Hellfire Warrior manual:

Whatever your background and previous experience, we invite you to project not just your character but yourself into the dunjon. Wander lost through the labyrinth. Feel the dust underfoot. Listen for the sound of inhuman footsteps or a lost soul’s wailing. Let sulfur and brimstone assail your nostrils. Burn in the heat of hellfire, and freeze on a bridge of ice. Run your fingers through a pile of gold pieces, and bathe in a magic pool.

Enter the world of DunjonQuest.

For all that, none of the games has any real plot within the game itself. Neither Apshai nor Hellfire Warrior even has an ending, just endlessly regenerating dungeons to explore and a player character to perpetually improve. And the MicroQuests reward their players only with an unsatisfying final score in lieu of a denoument. Datestones of Ryn has a time limit of just 20 minutes, making it, in spite of the usual carefully crafted background narrative of its manual, feel almost more like an endlessly replayable, almost context-less action game than a CRPG. The gameplay of the series as a whole, meanwhile, strikes modern eyes as most similar to the genre of roguelikes, storyless (or at least story-light) dungeon crawls through randomly generated environments. This, however, is something of an anachronistic reading; Rogue, the urtext of the genre, actually postdates Apshai by a year.

I think we can account for these oddities when we understand that Jon Freeman, the principal game designer behind the systems, is aiming for a different kind of ludic narrative than that of the text adventures of Scott Adams and On-Line Systems. He hopes that, given the background, a description of the environment, a set of rules to control what happens there, and a healthy dose of imagination on the player’s part, a narrative experience will arise of its own accord. In other words, and to choose a term from a much later era, he throws in his lot with emergent narrative. To understand his approach better, I thought we might briefly take a closer look at one of the games, Rescue at Rigel.

Rescue at Rigel draws its inspiration from classic space opera, a genre that had recently been revived by the phenomenal success of the first two Star Wars movies.

In the arenas of our imagination, not all of our heroes (or heroines!) wear rent black armor or shining silver mail, cleave barbarian foes on a wind-swept deck, or face a less clean fate at the hands of some depraved adept whose black arts were old when the world was young. Science fiction propels us about space-faring ships like Enterprise, Hooligan, Little Giant, Millenium Falcon, Nemesis, Nostromo, Sisu, Skylark, and Solar Queen into starry seas neither storm-tossed nor demon-haunted but no less daunting for all that — and lands us on brave new worlds whose shapes and sights and sounds are more plausible — but no less astonishing — then any seen by Sinbad.

The Rescue at Rigel player takes the role of Sudden Smith, a classic two-fisted pulp hero. He is about to beam down to the base of a race of insectoid aliens known as the Toolah, who have captured a group of scientists for “research,” among them Sudden’s girlfriend. The Toolah provide one of the surprisingly few references to events in the broader world outside of fantasy and science-fiction fandom that you’ll find in very early computer games. The leader caste of the Toolah are the “High Toolah,” a clear reference to Ayatollah Khomeini who had recently assumed power in Iran and held 52 Americans hostage there. “High Tollah,” the manual tells us, “are smug, superior, authoritarian, intolerant, narrow-minded, unimaginative, and set in their ways.” In this light, the inspiration for the scientist-rescue scenario becomes clear.

The gameplay involves exploring the conveniently dungeon-like labyrinth of the Toolah base, warding off Toolah and security robots while searching for the ten scientists being held hostage there. It is, like so many CRPGs, essentially a game of resource management; Sudden has limited medkits, limited ammunition, and, most of all, limited energy in the portable backpack he must use for everything from shooting Toolah to beaming scientists to safety. Worse, he has just 60 minutes of real time to rescue as many scientists as possible and also beam himself back to safety. Freeman takes pain to make the game an engine for exciting emergent narrative. If Sudden runs out of energy completely, for instance, he still has one potential avenue of escape: if he can return to his beam-down location and be there in the 60th minute, an automated transporter beam will carry him to safety. One can imagine a desperate situation straight out of Star Wars or a Dominic Flandry story, the player racing back amid a hail of blaster fire as the clock runs down and Toolah dog his footsteps. Certainly one can imagine Freeman imagining it.

But living that drama requires a pretty substantial degree of commitment and a lively imagination on the part of the player, as one look at the rather ugly screenshot above will probably attest. Indeed, the DunjonQuest games feel always like a sort of hybrid of the digital and the tabletop RPG experience, with at least as much of the experience emerging from the player’s imagination as from the game itself. Perhaps it was a wise move, then, for Automated Simulations to target tabletop RPG players so aggressively in marketing DunjonQuest. After all, they were accustomed to having to roll up their sleeves a bit and exercise some imagination to come up with satisfying narratives. Automated Simulations advertised DunjonQuest extensively in TSR’s Dragon magazine, and, in a move that could hardly be more illustrative of the types of people they imagined enjoying DunjonQuest, even gave away for a time a strategic board game called Sticks and Stones with purchase of a DunjonQuest game.

In late 1980, Automated Simulations changed its game imprint to the less prosaic Epyx, adapting the tagline “Computer games thinkers play.” The DunjonQuest games just kept coming for another two years. Included amongst the later releases were a pair of expansion packs each for Temple of Apshai and Hellfire Warrior, the first examples of such I know amongst commercial computer games. The weirdest and most creative use of the DunjonQuest engine came with 1981’s Crush, Crumble, and Chomp!: The Great Movie Monster Game, in which the player got to take control of Godzilla (woops! Goshzilla!) or another famous monster on an urban rampage. (For a detailed overview of the entire DunjonQuest series, which eventually amounted to a dozen games in total, see this article on Hardcore Gaming 101.)

Crush, Crumble, and Chomp! was, as it happened, the last work Freeman did for Epyx. At the West Coast Computer Faire of 1980, he had met a programmer named Anne Westfall; the two were soon dating. Westfall joined Epyx for a time, working as a programmer on some of the later DunjonQuest games. Both she and Freeman were, however, frustrated by Connelley’s disinterest in improving the DunjonQuest engine. Written in BASIC and originating on the now aging TRS-80 Model I, it had always been painfully slow, and was by now beginning to look dated indeed when ported to more modern and capable platforms. In addition, Freeman, a restless and creative designer, was growing tired with endless iterations on the DunjonQuest concept itself; he had had to battle hard even to go as far afield as Crush, Crumble, and Chomp!. At the end of 1981, Freeman and Westfall left Epyx to form the independent development house Free Fall Associates, about which I will have much more to say in the future. And after a couple of final DunjonQuest releases, Epyx morphed from “Computer Games Thinkers Play” into something very different, about which I will also have more to say in the future. Solid but never huge sellers even in their heyday, the DujonQuest games by that time did not compare terribly well to a new generation of computer RPGs — about which, you guessed it, I will have more to say in the future.

If you’d like to sample the DunjonQuest experience, I can provide a sampler package with an Apple II disk image which includes Temple of Apshai, Rescue at Rigel, Morloc’s Tower, and Datestones of Ryn, as well as the manuals for each.

Next up: we begin to explore a work of unprecedented thematic depth that sets my literary-scholar proboscises all atingle.

 
5 Comments

Posted by on October 28, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: , , ,