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What’s the Matter with Covert Action?

Covert Action‘s cover is representative of the thankfully brief era when game publishers thought featuring real models on their boxes would drive sales. The results almost always ended up looking like bad romance-novel covers; this is actually one of the least embarrassing examples. (For some truly cringeworthy examples of artfully tousled machismo, see the Pirates! reissue or Space Rogue.)

In the lore of gaming there’s a subset of spectacular failures that have become more famous than the vast majority of successful games. From E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to Daikatana to Godus, this little rogue’s gallery inhabits its own curious corner of gaming history. The stories behind these games, carrying with them the strong scent of excess and scandal, can’t help but draw us in.

But there are also other, less scandalous cases of notable failure to which some of us continually return for reasons other than schadenfreude. One such case is that of Covert Action, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley’s 1990 game of espionage. Covert Action, while not a great or even a terribly good game, wasn’t an awful game either. And, while it wasn’t a big hit, nor was it a major commercial disaster. By all rights it should have passed into history unremarked, like thousands of similarly middling titles before and after it. The fact that it has remained a staple of discussion among game designers for some twenty years now in the context of how not to make a game is due largely to Sid Meier himself, a very un-middling designer who has never quite been able to get Covert Action, one his few disappointing games, out of his craw. Indeed, he dwells on it to such an extent that the game and its real or perceived problems still tends to rear its head every time he delivers a lecture on the art of game design. The question of just what’s the matter with Covert Action — the question of why it’s not more fun — continues to be asked and answered over and over, in the form of Meier’s own design lectures, extrapolations on Meier’s thesis by others, and even the occasional contrarian apology telling us that, no, actually, nothing‘s wrong with Covert Action.

What with piling onto the topic having become such a tradition in design circles, I couldn’t bear to let Covert Action‘s historical moment go by without adding the weight of this article to the pile. But first, the basics for those of you who wouldn’t know Covert Action if it walked up and invited you to dinner.

As I began to detail in my previous article, Covert Action‘s development at MicroProse, the company at which Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley worked during the period in question, was long by the standards of its time, troubled by the standards of any time, and more than a little confusing to track in our own time. Begun in early 1988 as a Commodore 64 game by Lawrence Schick, another MicroProse designer, it was conceived from the beginning as essentially an espionage version of Sid Meier’s earlier hit Pirates! — as a set of mini-games the player engaged in to affect the course of an overarching strategic game. But Schick found that he just couldn’t get the game to work, and moved on to something else. And that would have been that — except that Sid Meier had become intrigued by the idea, and picked it up for his own next project, moving it in the process from the Commodore 64 to MS-DOS, where it would have a lot more breathing room.

In time, though, the enthusiasm of Meier and his assistant designer Bruce Shelley also began to evaporate; they started spending more and more time dwelling on an alternative design. By August of 1989, they were steaming ahead with Railroad Tycoon, and all work on Covert Action for the nonce had ceased.

After Railroad Tycoon was completed and released in April of 1990, Meier and Shelley returned to Covert Action only under some duress from MicroProse’s head Bill Stealey. With the idea that would become Civilization already taking shape in Meier’s head, his enthusiasm for Covert Action was lower than ever, but needs must. As Shelley tells the story, Meier’s priorities were clear in light of the idea he had waiting in the wings. “We’re just getting this game done,” Meier said of Covert Action when Shelley tried to suggest ways of improving the still somehow unsatisfying design. “I’ve got to get this game finished.” It’s hard to avoid the impression that in the end Meier simply gave up on Covert Action. Yet, given the frequency with which he references it to this day, it’s seems equally clear that that capitulation has never sat well with him.

Covert Action casts you as the master spy Max Remington — or, in a nice nod to gender equality that was still unusual in a game of this era, as Maxine Remington. Max is the guy the CIA calls when they need someone to crack the really tough cases. The game presents you with a series of said tough cases, each involving a plot by some combination of criminal and/or terrorist groups to do something very bad somewhere in the world. Your objective is to figure out what group or groups are involved, figure out precisely what they’re up to, and foil their plot before they bring it to fruition. As usual for a Sid Meier game, you can play on any of four difficulty levels to ensure that everyone, from the rank beginner to the most experienced super-sleuth, can be challenged without being overwhelmed. If you do your job well, you will arrest the person at the top of the plot’s org chart, one of the game’s 26 evil masterminds. Once no more masterminds are left to arrest, Max can walk off into the sunset and enjoy a pleasant retirement, confident that he has made the world a safer place. (If only counter-terrorism was that easy in real life, right?)

The game lets Max/Maxine score with progressively hotter members of the opposite sex as he/she cracks more cases.

The strategic decisions you make in directing the course of your investigation will lead to naught if you don’t succeed at the various mini-games. These include rewiring a junction box to tap a suspect’s phone (Covert Action presents us with a weirdly low-tech version of espionage, even for its own day); cracking letter-substitution codes to decipher a suspect’s message traffic; tailing or chasing a suspect’s car; and, in the most elaborate of the mini-games, breaking into a group’s hideaway to either collect intelligence or make an arrest.

Covert Action seems to have all the makings of a good game — perhaps even another classic like its inspiration, Pirates!. But, as Sid Meier and most of the people who have played it agree, it doesn’t ever quite come together to become an holistically satisfying experience.

It’s not immediately obvious just why that should be the case; thus all of the discussion the game has prompted over the years. Meier does have his theory, to which he’s returned enough that he’s come to codify it into a universal design dictum he calls the “the Covert Action rule.” For my part… well, I have a very different theory. So, first I’ll tell you about Meier’s theory, and then I’ll tell you about my own.

Meier’s theory hinges on the nature of the mini-games. He doesn’t believe that any of them are outright bad by any means, but does feel that they don’t blend well with the overarching strategic game, resulting in a lumpy stew of an experience that the player has trouble digesting. He’s particularly critical of the breaking-and-entering mini-game — a “mini-game” complicated enough that one could easily imagine it being released as a standalone game for the previous generation of computers (or, for that matter, for Covert Action‘s contemporaneous generation of consoles). Before you begin the breaking-and-entering game, you must choose what Max will carry with him: depending on your goals for this mission, you can give him some combination of a pistol, a sub-machine gun, a camera, several types of grenades, bugs, a Kevlar vest, a gas mask, a safe-cracking kit, and a motion detector. The underground hideaways and safe houses you then proceed to explore are often quite large, and full of guards, traps, and alarms to avoid or foil as you snoop for evidence or try to spirit away a suspect. You can charge in with guns blazing if you like, but, especially at the higher difficulty levels, that’s not generally a recipe for success. This is rather a game of stealth, of lurking in the shadows as you identify the guards’ patrol patterns, the better to avoid or quietly neutralize them. A perfectly executed mission in many circumstances will see you get in and out of the building without having to fire a single shot.

The aspect of this mini-game which Meier pinpoints as its problem is, somewhat ironically, the very ambition and complexity which makes it so impressive when considered alone. A spot of breaking and entering can easily absorb a very tense and intense half an hour of your time. By the time you make it out of the building, Meier theorizes, you’ve lost track of why you went in in the first place — lost track, in other words, of what was going on in the strategic game. Meier codified his theory in what has for almost twenty years been known in design circles as “the Covert Action rule.” In a nutshell, the rule states that “one good game is better than two great ones” in the context of a single game design. Meier believes that the mini-games of Covert Action, and the breaking-and-entering game in particular, can become so engaging and such a drain on the player’s time and energies that they clash with the strategic game; we end up with two “great games” that never make a cohesive whole. This dissonance never allows the player to settle into that elusive sense of total immersion which some call “flow.” Meier believes that Pirates! works where Covert Action doesn’t because the former’s mini-games are much shorter and much less complicated — getting the player back to the big picture, as it were, quickly enough that she doesn’t lose the plot of what the current situation is and what she’s trying to accomplish.

It’s an explanation that makes a certain sense on its face, yet I must say that it’s not one that really rings true to my own experiences with either games in general or Covert Action in particular. Certainly one can find any number of games which any number of players have hugely enjoyed that seemingly violate the Covert Action rule comprehensively. We could, for instance, look to the many modern CRPGs which include “sub-quests” that can absorb many hours of the player’s time, to no detriment to the player’s experience as a whole, at least if said players’ own reports are to be believed. If that’s roaming too far afield from the type of game which Covert Action is, consider the case of the strategy classic X-Com, one of the most frequently cited of the seeming Covert Action rule violators that paradoxically succeed as fun designs. It merges an overarching strategic game with a game of tactical combat that’s far more time-consuming and complicated than even the breaking-and-entering part of Covert Action. And yet it must place high in any ranking of the most beloved strategy games of all time. As we continue to look at specific counterexamples like X-Com or, for that matter, Pirates!, we can only continue to believe in the Covert Action rule by applying lots of increasingly tortured justifications for why this or that seemingly blatant violator nevertheless works as a game. So, X-Com, Meier tells us, works because the strategic game is relatively less complicated than the tactical game, leaving enough of the focus on the tactical game that the two don’t start to pull against one another. And Pirates!, of course, is just the opposite.

I can only say that when the caveats and exceptions to any given rule start to pile up, one is compelled to look back to the substance of the rule itself. As nice as it might be for the designers of Covert Action to believe the game’s biggest problem is that its individual parts were just each too darn ambitious, too darn good, I don’t think that’s the real reason the game doesn’t work.

So, we come back to the original question: just what is the matter with Covert Action? I don’t believe that Covert Action‘s core malady can be found in the mini-games, nor for that matter in the strategic game per se. I rather believe the problem is with the mission design and with the game’s fiction — which, as in so many games, are largely one and the same in this one. The cases you must crack in Covert Action are procedurally generated by the computer, using a set of templates into which are plugged different combinations of organizations, masterminds, and plots to create what is theoretically a virtually infinite number of potential cases to solve. My thesis is that it’s at this level — the level of the game’s fiction — where Covert Action breaks down; I believe that things have already gone awry as soon as the game generates the case it will ask you to solve, well before you make your first move. The, for lack of a better word, artificiality of the cases is never hard to detect. Even before you start to learn which of the limited number of templates are which, the stories just feel all wrong.

Literary critics have a special word, “mimesis,” which they tend to deploy when a piece of fiction conspicuously passes or fails the smell test of immersive believability. Dating back to classical philosophy, “mimesis” technically means the art of “showing” a story — as opposed to “diegesis,” the art of telling. It’s been adopted by theorists of textual interactive fiction as well as a stand-in for all those qualities of a game’s fiction that help to immerse the player in the story, that help to draw her in. “Crimes against Mimesis” — the name of an influential Usenet post written in 1996 by Roger Giner-Sorolla — are all those things, from problems with the interface to obvious flaws in the story’s logic to things that just don’t ring true somehow, that cast the player jarringly out of the game’s fiction — that reveal, in other words, the mechanical gears grinding underneath the game’s fictional veneer. Covert Action is full of these crimes against mimesis, full of these gears poking above the story’s surface. Groups that should hate each other ally with one another: the Colombian Cartel, the Mafia, the Palestine Freedom Organization (some names have been changed to protect the innocent or not-so-innocent), and the Stassi might all concoct a plot together. Why not? In the game’s eyes, they’re just interchangeable parts with differing labels on the front; they might as well have been called “Group A,” “Group B,” etc. When they send messages to one another, the diction almost always rings horribly, jarringly wrong in the ears of those of us who know what the groups represent. Here’s an example in the form of the Mafia talking like Jihadists.

If Covert Action had believable, mimetic, tantalizing — or at least interesting — plots to foil, I submit that it could have been a tremendously compelling game, without changing anything else about it. Instead, though, it’s got this painfully artificial box of whirling gears. Writing in the context of the problems of procedural generation in general, Kate Compton has called this the “10,000 Bowls of Oatmeal Problem.”

I can easily generate 10,000 bowls of plain oatmeal, with each oat being in a different position and different orientation, and mathematically speaking they will all be completely unique. But the user will likely just see a lot of oatmeal. Perceptual uniqueness is the real metric, and it’s darn tough. It is the difference between an actor being a face in a crowd scene and a character that is memorable.

Assuming that we can agree to agree, at least for now, that we’ve hit upon Covert Action‘s core problem, it’s not hard to divine how to fix it. I’m imagining a version of the game that replaces the infinite number of procedurally-generated cases with 25 or 30 hand-crafted plots, each with its own personality and its own unique flavor of intrigue. Such an approach would fix another complaint that’s occasionally levied against Covert Action: that it never becomes necessary to master or even really engage with all of its disparate parts because it’s very easy to rely just on those mini-games you happen to be best at to ferret out all of the relevant information. In particular, you can discover just about everything you need in the files you uncover during the breaking-and-entering game, without ever having to do much of anything in the realm of wire-tapping suspects, tailing them, or cracking their codes. This too feels like a byproduct of the generic templates used to construct the cases, which tend to err on the safe side to ensure that the cases are actually soluble, preferring — justifiably, in light of the circumstances — too many clues to too few. But this complaint could easily be fixed using hand-crafted cases. Different cases could be consciously designed to emphasize different aspects of the game: one case could be full of action, another more cerebral and puzzle-like, etc. This would do yet more to give each case its own personality and to keep the game feeling fresh throughout its length.

The most obvious argument against hand-crafted cases, other than the one, valid only from the developers’ standpoint, of the extra resources it would take to create them, is that it would exchange a game that is theoretically infinitely replayable for one with a finite span. Yet, given that Covert Action isn’t a hugely compelling game in its historical form, one has to suspect that my proposed finite version of it would likely yield more actual hours of enjoyment for the average player than the infinite version. Is a great game that lasts 30 hours and then is over better than a mediocre one that can potentially be played forever? The answer must depend on individual circumstances as well as individual predilections, but I know where I stand, at least as long as this world continues to be full of more cheap and accessible games than I can possibly play.

But then there is one more practical objection to my proposed variation of Covert Action, or rather one ironclad reason why it could never have seen the light of day: this simply isn’t how Sid Meier designs his games. Meier, you see, stands firmly on the other side of a longstanding divide that has given rise to no small dissension over the years in the fields of game design and academic game studies alike.

In academia, the argument has raged for twenty years between the so-called ludologists, who see games primarily as dynamic systems, and the narratologists, who see them primarily as narratives. Yet at its core the debate is actually far older even than that. In the December 1987 issue of his Journal of Computer Game Design, Chris Crawford fired what we might regard as the first salvo in this never-ending war via an article entitled “Process Intensity.” The titular phrase meant, he explained, “the degree to which a program emphasizes processes instead of data.” While all games must have some amount of data — i.e., fixed content, including fixed story content — a more process-intensive game — one that tips the balance further in favor of dynamic code as opposed to static data — is almost always a better game in Crawford’s view. That all games aren’t extremely process intensive, he baldly states, is largely down to the laziness of their developers.

The most powerful resistance to process intensity, though, is unstated. It is a mental laziness that afflicts all of us. Process intensity is so very hard to implement. Data intensity is easy to put into a program. Just get that artwork into a file and read it onto the screen; store that sound effect on the disk and pump it out to the speaker. There’s instant gratification in these data-intensive approaches. It looks and sounds great immediately. Process intensity requires all those hours mucking around with equations. Because it’s so indirect, you’re never certain how it will behave. The results always look so primitive next to the data-intensive stuff. So we follow the path of least resistance right down to data intensity.

Crawford, in other words, is a ludologist all the way. There’s always been a strongly prescriptive quality to the ludologists’ side of the ludology-versus-narratology debate, an ideology of how games ought to be made. Because processing is, to use Crawford’s words again, “the very essence of what a computer does,” the capability that in turn enables the interactivity that makes computer games unique as a medium, games that heavily emphasize processing are purer than those that rely more heavily on fixed data.

It’s a view that strikes me as short-sighted in a number of ways. It betrays, first of all, a certain programmer and systems designer’s bias against the artists and writers who craft all that fixed data; I would submit that the latter skills are every bit as worthy of admiration and every bit as valuable on most development teams as the former. Although even Crawford acknowledges that “data endows a game with useful color and texture,” he fails to account for the appeal of games where that very color and texture — we might instead say the fictional context — is the most important part of the experience. He and many of his ludologist colleagues are like most ideologues in failing to admit the possibility that different people may simply want different things, in games as in any other realm. Given the role that fixed stories have come to play in even many of the most casual modern games, too much ludologist rhetoric verges on telling players that they’re wrong for liking the games they happen to like. This is not to apologize for railroaded experiences that give the player no real role to play whatsoever and thereby fail to involve her in their fictions. It’s rather to say that drawing the line between process and data can be more complicated than saying “process good, data bad” and proceeding to act accordingly. Different games are at their best with different combinations of pre-crafted and generative content. Covert Action fails as a game because it draws that line in the wrong place. It’s thanks to the same fallacy, I would argue, that Chris Crawford has been failing for the last quarter century to create the truly open-ended interactive-story system he calls Storytron.

Sid Meier is an endlessly gracious gentleman, and thus isn’t so strident in his advocacy as many other ludologists. But despite his graciousness, there’s no doubt on which side of the divide he stands. Meier’s games never, ever include rigid pre-crafted scenarios or fixed storylines of any stripe. In most cases, this has been fine because his designs have been well-suited to the more open-ended, generative styles of play he favors. Covert Action, however, is the glaring exception, revealing one of the few blind spots of this generally brilliant game designer. Ironically, Meier had largely been drawn to Covert Action by what he calls the “intriguing” problem of its dynamic case generator. The idea of being able to use the computer to do the hard work of generating stories, and thereby to be able to churn out infinite numbers of the things at no expense, has always enticed him. He continues to muse today about a Sherlock Holmes game built using computer-generated cases, working backward from the solution of a crime to create a trail of clues for player to follow.

Meier is hardly alone in the annals of computer science and game design in finding the problem of automated story-making intriguing. Like his Sherlock Holmes idea, many experiments with procedurally-generated narratives have worked with mystery stories, that most overtly game-like of all literary genres; Covert Action‘s cases as well can be considered variations on the mystery theme.  As early as 1971, Sheldon Klein, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, created something he called an “automatic novel writer” for auto-generating “2100-word murder-mystery stories.” In 1983, Electronic Arts released Jon Freeman and Paul Reiche III’s Murder on the Zinderneuf as one of their first titles; it allowed the player to solve an infinite number of randomly generated mysteries occurring aboard its titular Zeppelin airship. That game’s flaws feel oddly similar to those of Covert Action. As in Covert Action, in Murder on the Zinderneuf the randomized cases never have the resonance of a good hand-crafted mystery story. That, combined with their occasional incongruities and the patterns that start to surface as soon as you’ve played a few times, means that you can never forget their procedural origins. These tales of intrigue never manage to truly intrigue.

Suffice to say that generating believable fictions, whether in the sharply delimited realm of a murder mystery taking place aboard a Zeppelin or the slightly less delimited realm of a contemporary spy thriller, is a tough nut to crack. Even one of the most earnest and concentrated of the academic attempts at tackling the problem, a system called Tale-Spin created by James Meehan at Yale University, continued to generate more unmimetic than mimetic stories after many years of work — and this system was meant only to generate standalone static stories, not interactive mysteries to be solved. And as for Chris Crawford’s Storytron… well, as of this writing it is, as its website says, in a “medically induced coma” for the latest of many massive re-toolings.

In choosing to pick up Covert Action primarily because of the intriguing problem of its case generator and then failing to consider whether said case generator really served the game, Sid Meier may have run afoul of another of his rules for game design, one that I find much more universally applicable than what Meier calls the Covert Action rule. A designer should always ask, Meier tells us, who is really having the fun in a game — the designer/programmer/computer or the player? The procedurally generated cases may have been an intriguing problem for Sid Meier the designer, but they don’t serve the player anywhere near as well as hand-crafted cases might have done.

The model that comes to mind when I think of my ideal version of Covert Action is Killed Until Dead, an unjustly obscure gem from Accolade which, like Murder on the Zinderneuf, I wrote about in an earlier article. Killed Until Dead is very similar to Murder on the Zinderneuf in that it presents the player with a series of mysteries to solve, all of which employ the same cast of characters, the same props, and the same setting. Unlike Murder on the Zinderneuf, however, the mysteries in Killed Until Dead have all been lovingly hand-crafted. They not only hang together better as a result, but they’re full of wit and warmth and the right sort of intrigue — they intrigue the player. If you ask me, a version of Covert Action built along similar lines, full of exciting plotlines with-a-ripped-from-the-headlines feel, could have been fantastic — assuming, of course, that MicroProse could have found writers and scenario designers with the chops to bring the spycraft to life.

It’s of course possible that my reaction to Covert Action is hopelessly subjective, inextricably tied to what I personally value in games. As my longtime readers are doubtless aware by now, I’m an experential player to the core, more interested in lived experiences than twiddling the knobs of a complicated system just exactly perfectly. In addition to guaranteeing that I’ll never win any e-sports competitions — well, that and my aging reflexes that were never all that great to begin with — this fact colors the way I see a game like Covert Action. The jarring qualities of Covert Action‘s fiction may not bother some of you one bit. And thus the debate about what really is wrong with Covert Action, that strange note of discordance sandwiched between the monumental Sid Meier masterpieces Railroad Tycoon and Civilization, can never be definitely settled. Ditto the more abstract and even more longstanding negotiation between ludology and narratology. Ah, well… if nothing else, it ensures that readers and writers of blogs like this one will always have something to talk about. So, let the debate rage on.

(Sources: the books Expressive Processing by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and On Interactive Storytelling by Chris Crawford; Game Developer of February 2013. Links to online sources are scattered through the article.

If you’d like to enter the Covert Action debate for yourself, you can buy it from GOG.com.)

 
 

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Railroad Tycoon

It says much about Sid Meier, a born game designer if ever there was one, that he tended to get some of his best work done when he was allegedly on vacation. A few years after his significant other had lost all track of him on what she thought was a romantic getaway to the Caribbean but he came to see as the ideal chance to research his game Pirates!, another opportunity for couple time went awry in August of 1989, when he spent the entirety of a beach holiday coding a game about railroads on the computer he’d lugged with him. The experience may not have done his relationship any favors, but he did come home with the core of his second masterpiece of a game — a game that would usher in what many old-timers still regard as the golden age of computerized grand strategy.

That Meier felt empowered to spend so much time on a game that featured no war or killing says much about the changing times inside MicroProse, the erstwhile specialist in military simulations and war games he had co-founded with the flamboyant former active-duty Air Force pilot “Wild” Bill Stealey. The first great deviation from the norm for MicroProse had been Meier’s first masterpiece, the aforementioned Pirates! of 1987, which Stealey had somewhat begrudgingly allowed him to make as a palate cleanser between the company’s military games. After that, it had been back to business as usual for a while, with Meier designing a submarine simulator based on a Tom Clancy thriller (the audience synergy of that project was almost too perfect to be believed) and then a flight simulator based on the rampant speculation among aviation buffs about the Air Force’s cutting-edge new stealth fighter (the speculation would almost all prove to be incorrect when the actual stealth fighter was unveiled, leaving MicroProse with a “simulation” of an airplane that had never existed).

Yet by the time the latter game was nearing completion in late 1988, a couple of things were getting hard to ignore. First was the warm reception that had been accorded to Pirates!, the way that entirely new demographics of players who would never have dreamed of buying any of MicroProse’s other games were buying and enjoying this one. And second was the fact that the market for MicroProse’s traditional military simulations, while it had served them well — in fact, served them to the tune of nearly 1 million copies sold of their most successful simulation of all, Sid Meier’s F-15 Strike Eagle — was starting to show signs of having reached its natural limit. If, in other words, MicroProse hoped to continue to increase their sales each year — something the aggressive and ambitious Stealey liked doing even more than he liked making and flying flight simulators — they were going to have to push outside of Stealey’s comfort zone. Accordingly, MicroProse dramatically expanded the scope of their business in the last two years of the 1980s, buying the Firebird and Rainbird software labels from British Telecom and setting up an affiliated-label program for distributing the work of smaller publishers;  Stealey hoped the latter might come in time to rival the similar programs of Electronic Arts and Activision/Mediagenic. In terms of in-house development, meanwhile, MicroProse went from all military games all the time — apart from, that is, the aberration that had been Pirates! — to a half-and-half mixture of games in the old style and games that roamed further afield, in some cases right into the sweet spot that had yielded the big hit Pirates!.

Sid Meier, right, at MicroProse circa early 1990 with tester Russ Cooney.

Thus the first project which Sid Meier took up after finishing F-19 Stealth Fighter was a spy game called Covert Action. Made up like Pirates! of a collection of mini-games, Covert Action was very much in the spirit of that earlier game, but had been abandoned by its original designer Lawrence Schick as unworkable. Perhaps because of its similarities to his own earlier game, Meier thought he could make something out of it, especially if he moved it from the Commodore 64 to MS-DOS, which had become his new development platform with F-19 Stealth Fighter. But Covert Action proved to be one of those frustrating games that just refused to come together, even in the hands of a designer as brilliant as Meier. He therefore started spending more and more of the time he should have been spending on Covert Action tinkering with ideas and prototypes for other games. In the spring of 1989, he coded up a little simulation of a model railroad.

The first person to whom Meier showed his railroad game was Bruce Shelley, his “assistant” at MicroProse and, one senses, something of his protege, to whatever extent a man as quiet and self-effacing as Meier was can be pictured to have cultivated someone for such a role. Prior to coming to MicroProse, Shelley had spent his first six years or so out of university at Avalon Hill, the faded king of the previous decade’s halcyon years of American tabletop war-gaming. MicroProse had for some time been in the habit of hiring refugees from the troubled tabletop world, among them Arnold Hendrick and the aforementioned Lawrence Schick, but Shelley was hardly one of the more illustrious names among this bunch. Working as an administrator and producer at Avalon Hill, he’d had the opportunity to streamline plenty of the games the company had published during his tenure, but had never been credited with an entirely original design of his own. When he arrived at MicroProse in early 1988 — he says his application for employment there was motivated largely by the experience of playing Pirates! — Shelley was assigned to fairly menial tasks, like creating the maps for F-19 Stealth Fighter. Yet something about him clearly impressed Sid Meier. Shortly after F-19 Stealth Fighter was completed, Meier came to Shelley to ask if he’d like to become his assistant. Shelley certainly didn’t need to be asked twice. “Anybody in that office would have died for that position,” he remembers.

Much of Shelley’s role as his Meier’s assistant, especially in the early days, entailed being a constantly available sounding board, playing with the steady stream of game prototypes Meier gave to him — Meier always seemed to have at least half a dozen such potential projects sitting on his hard drive alongside whatever project he was officially working on — and offering feedback. It was in this capacity that Shelley first saw the model-railroad simulation, whereupon it was immediately clear to him that this particular prototype was something special, that Meier was really on to something this time. Such was Shelley’s excitement, enthusiasm, and insightfullness that it wouldn’t take long for him to move from the role of Meier’s sounding board to that of his full-fledged co-designer on the railroad game, even as it always remained clear who would get to make the final decision on any question of design and whose name would ultimately grace the box.

It appears to have been Shelley who first discovered Will Wright’s landmark city simulation SimCity. Among the many possibilities it offered was the opportunity to add a light-rail system to your city and watch the little trains driving around; this struck Shelley as almost uncannily similar to Meier’s model railroad. He soon introduced Meier to SimCity, whereupon it became a major influence on the project. The commercial success of SimCity had proved that there was a place in the market for software toys without much of a competitive element, a description which applied perfectly to Meier’s model-railroad simulation at the time. “Yes, there is an audience out there for games that have a creative aspect to them,” Meier remembers thinking. “Building a railroad is something that can really emphasize that creative aspect in a game.”

And yet Meier and Shelley weren’t really happy with the idea of just making another software toy, however neat it was to lay down track and flip signals and watch the little trains drive around. Although both men had initially been wowed by SimCity, they both came to find it a little unsatisfying in the end, a little sterile in its complete lack of an historical context to latch onto or goals to achieve beyond those the player set for herself. At times the program evinced too much fascination with its own opaque inner workings, as opposed to what the player was doing in front of the screen. As part of his design process, Meier likes to ask whether the player is having the fun or whether the computer — or, perhaps better said, the game’s designer — is having the fun. With SimCity, it too often felt like the latter.

In his role as assistant, Shelley wrote what he remembers as a five- or six-page document that outlined a game that he and Meier were calling at that time The Golden Age of Railroads; before release the name would be shortened to the pithier, punchier Railroad Tycoon. Shelley expressed in the document their firm belief that they could and should incorporate elements of a software toy or “god game” into their creation, but that they wanted to make more of a real game out of it than SimCity had been, wanted to provide an economic and competitive motivation for building an efficient railroad. Thus already by this early stage the lines separating a simulation of real trains from one of toy trains were becoming blurred.

Then in August came that fateful beach holiday which Meier devoted to Railroad Tycoon. Over the course of three weeks of supposed fun in the sun, he added to his model-railroad simulation a landscape on which one built the tracks and stations. The landscape came complete with resources that needed to be hauled from place to place, often to be converted into other resources and hauled still further: trains might haul coal from a coal mine to a steel mill, carry the steel that resulted to a factory to be converted into manufactured goods, then carry the manufactured goods on to consumers in a city. When Meier returned from holiday and showed it to him, Shelley found the new prototype, incorporating some ideas from his own recent design document and some new ones of Meier’s making, to be just about the coolest thing he’d ever seen on a computer screen. Shelley:

We went to lunch together, and he said, “We have to make a decision about whether we’re going to do this railroad game or whether we’re going to do the spy game.”

I said, “If you’re asking me, there’s no contest. We’re doing the railroad game. It’s really cool. It’s so much fun. I have zero weight in this company. I don’t have a vote in any meeting. It’s up to you, but I’m ready to go.”

Shelley was so excited by the game that at one point he offered to work on it for free after hours if that was the only way to get it done. Thankfully, it never came to that.

Dropping Covert Action, which had already eaten up a lot of time and resources, generated considerable tension with Stealey, but when it came down to it it was difficult for him to say no his co-founder and star designer, the only person at the company who got his name in big letters on the fronts of the boxes. (Stealey, who had invented the tactic of prefixing “Sid Meier’s” to Meier’s games as a way of selling the mold-busting Pirates!, was perhaps by this point wondering what it was he had wrought.) The polite fiction which would be invented for public consumption had it that Meier shifted to Railroad Tycoon while the art department created the graphics for Covert Action. In reality, though, he just wanted to escape a game that refused to come together in favor of one that seemed to have all the potential in the world.

Meier and Shelley threw themselves into Railroad Tycoon. When not planning, coding — this was strictly left to Meier, as Shelley was a non-programmer — or playing the game, they were immersing themselves in the lore and legends of railroading: reading books, visiting museums, taking rides on historic steam trains. The Baltimore area, where MicroProse’s offices were located, is a hotbed of railroad history, being the home of the legendary Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the oldest common-carrier rail network in the country. Thus there was plenty in the area for a couple of railroad buffs to see and do. Meier and Shelley lived and breathed trains for a concentrated six months, during which they, in tandem with a few artists and other support personnel, took Railroad Tycoon from that August prototype to the finished, boxed game that shipped to stores in April of 1990, complete with a beefy 180-page manual written by Shelley. Leaving aside all of Railroad Tycoon‘s other merits, it was a rather breathtaking achievement just to have created a game of such ambition and complexity in such a short length of time.

But even in ways apart from its compressed development time Railroad Tycoon is far more successful than it has any right to be. It’s marked by a persistent, never entirely resolved tension — one might even say an identity crisis — between two very different visions of what a railroad game should be. To say that one vision was primarily that of Meier and the other that of Shelley is undoubtedly a vast oversimplification, but is nevertheless perhaps a good starting point for discussion.

One vision of Railroad Tycoon is what we might call the operational game, the building game, or the SimCity-like game, consisting of laying down stations, tracks, and switches, scheduling your trains, and watching over them as they run in real time. A certain kind of player can spend hours tinkering here, trying always to set up the most efficient possible routes, overriding switches on the fly to push priority cargoes through to their destinations for lucrative but intensely time-sensitive rewards. None of this is without risk: if you don’t do things correctly, trains can hurtle into one another, tumble off of washed-out bridges, or just wind up costing you more money than they earn. It’s therein, of course, where the challenge lies. This is Meier’s vision of Railroad Tycoon, still rooted in the model-railroad simulation he first showed Shelley back in early 1989.

The other vision of Railroad Tycoon is the game of high-level economic strategy, which first began to assert itself in that design document Bruce Shelley wrote up in mid-1989. In addition to needing to set up profitable routes and keep an eye on your expenses, you also need to judge when to sell bonds to fund expansion and when to buy them back to save the interest payments, when to buy and sell your own stock and that of other railroads to maximize your cash reserves. Most of all, you need to keep a close eye on the competition, who, if you’ve turn the “cutthroat competition” setting on, will try to buy your railroad out from under you by making runs on your stock — that is, when they aren’t building track into your stations, setting up winner-take-all “rate wars.”

This vision of Railroad Tycoon owes much to a board game called 1830: Railways and Robber Barons which Shelley had shepherded through production during his time at Avalon Hill. Although that game was officially designed by Francis Tresham, Shelley had done much to help turn it into the classic many board-game connoisseurs still regard it as today. After Shelley had arrived at MicroProse with his copy of 1830 in tow, it had become a great favorite during the company’s occasional board-game nights. While 1830 traded on the iconography of the Age of Steam, it was really a game of stock-market manipulation; the railroads in the game could have been swapped out for just about any moneymaking industry.

Put very crudely, then, Railroad Tycoon can be seen as 1830 with a SimCity-like railroad simulation grafted on in place of the board game’s pure abstractions. Bill Stealey claims that Eric Dott, the president of Avalon Hill, actually called him after Railroad Tycoon‘s release to complain that “you’re doing my board game as a computer game.” Stealey managed to smooth the issue over; “well, don’t let it happen again” were Dott’s parting words. (This would become a problem when Meier and Shelley promptly did do it again, creating a computer game called Civilization that shared a name as well as other marked similarities with the Avalon Hill board game Civilization.)

Immense though its influence was, some of the elements of 1830 came to Railroad Tycoon shockingly late. Meier insists, for instance, that the three computerized robber barons you compete against were coded up in a mad frenzy over the last two weeks before the game had to ship. Again, it’s remarkable that Railroad Tycoon works at all, much less works as well as it does.

The problem of reconciling the two halves of Railroad Tycoon might have seemed intractable to many a design team. Consider the question of time. The operational game would seemingly need to run on a scale of days and hours, as trains chug around the tracks picking up and delivering constant streams of cargo. Yet the high-level economic game needs to run on a scale of months and years. A full game of Railroad Tycoon lasts a full century, over the course of which Big Changes happen on a scale about a million miles removed from the progress of individual trains down the tracks: the economy booms and crashes and booms again; coal and oil deposits are discovered and exploited and exhausted; cities grow; new industries develop; the Age of Steam gives ways to the Age of Diesel; competitors rise and fall and rise again. “You can’t have a game that lasts a hundred years and be running individual trains,” thought Meier and Shelley initially. If they tried to run the whole thing at the natural scale of the operational game, they’d wind up with a game that took a year or two of real-world time to play and left the player so lost in the weeds of day-to-day railroad operations that the bigger economic picture would get lost entirely.

Meier’s audacious solution was to do the opposite, to run the game as a whole at the macro scale of the economic game. This means that, at the beginning of the game when locomotives are weak and slow, it might take six months for a train to go from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. What ought to be one day of train traffic takes two years in the game’s reckoning of time. As a simulation, it’s ridiculous, but if we’re willing to see each train driving on the map as an abstraction representing many individual trains — or, for that matter, if we’re willing to not think about it at all too closely — it works perfectly well. Meier understood that a game doesn’t need to be a literal simulation of its subject to evoke the spirit of its subject — that experiential gaming encompasses more than simulations. Railroad Tycoon is, to use the words of game designer Michael Bate, an “aesthetic simulation” of railroad history.

Different players inevitably favor different sides of Railroad Tycoon‘s personality. When I played the game again for the first time in a very long time a year or so ago, I did so with my wife Dorte. Wanting to take things easy our first time out, we played without cutthroat competition turned on, in which mode the other railroads just do their own thing without actively trying to screw with your own efforts. Dorte loved designing track layouts and setting up chains of cargo deliveries for maximum efficiency; the process struck her, an inveterate puzzler, as the most delightful of puzzles. After we finished that game and I suggested we play again with cutthroat competition turned on, explaining how it would lead to a much more, well, cutthroat economic war, she said that the idea had no appeal whatsoever for her. Thus was I forced to continue my explorations of Railroad Tycoon on my own. The game designer Soren Johnson, by contrast, has told in his podcast Designer Notes how uninterested he was in the operational game, preferring to just spend some extra money to double-track everything and as much as possible forget it existed. It was rather the grand strategic picture that interested him. As for me, wishy-washy character that I am, I’m somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

One of the overarching themes of Sid Meier’s history as a game designer is a spirit of generosity, a willingness to let his players play their way. Railroad Tycoon provides a wonderful example in the lengths to which it goes to accommodate the Dortes, the Sorens, and the Jimmys. If you want to concentrate on the operational game, you can turn off cutthroat competition, turn on “dispatcher operations,” set the overall difficulty to its lowest level so that money is relatively plentiful, and have at it. If even that winds up entailing more economics than you’d like to concern yourself with, one of Railroad Tycoon‘s worst-kept secrets is an “embezzlement key” that can provide limitless amounts of cash, allowing you essentially to play it as the model-railroad simulation that it was at its genesis. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in Railroad Tycoon primarily as a game of grand economic strategy, you can turn on cutthroat competition, turn off dispatcher operations, crank the difficulty level up, and have a full-on business war that would warm the cockles of Jack Tramiel’s heart. If you’re a balanced (or wishy-washy) fellow like me, you can turn on cutthroat competition and dispatcher operations and enjoy the full monty. Meier and Shelley added something called priority shipments to the game — one-time, extremely lucrative deliveries from one station to another — to give players like me a reason to engage with the operational game even after their tracks and routes are largely set. Priority deliveries let you earn a nice bonus by manually flipping signals and shepherding a train along — but, again, only if you enjoy that sort of thing; a budding George Soros can earn as much or more by playing the stock market just right.

One story from Railroad Tycoon‘s development says much about Sid Meier’s generous spirit. Through very nearly the entirety of the game’s development, Meier and Shelley had planned to limit the amount of time you could play at the lower difficulty levels as a way of rewarding players who were willing to tackle the challenge of the higher levels. Such a restriction meant not only that players playing at the lower difficulty levels had less time to build their railroad network, but that they lost the chance to play with the most advanced locomotives, which only become available late in the game. Almost literally at the very last possible instant, Meier decided to nix that scheme, to allow all players to play for the full 100 years. Surely fans of the operational game should have access to the cool later trains as well. After all, these were the very people who would be most excited by them. The change came so late that the manual describes the old scheme and the in-game text also is often confused about how long you’re actually going to be allowed to play. It was a small price to pay for a decision that no one ever regretted.

That said, Railroad Tycoon does have lots of rough edges like this confusion over how long you’re allowed to play, an obvious byproduct of its compressed development cycle. Meier and Shelley and their playtesters had nowhere near enough time to make the game air-tight; there are heaps of exploits big enough to drive a Mallet locomotive through (trust me, that’s a big one!). It didn’t take players long to learn that they could wall off competing railroads behind cages of otherwise unused track and run wild in virgin territory on their own; that they could trick their competitors into building in the most unfavorable region of the map by starting to build there themselves, then tearing up their track and starting over competition-free in better territory; that the best way to make a lot of money was to haul nothing but passengers and mail, ignoring all of the intricacies of hauling resources that turned into other resources that turned into still other resources; that they could do surprisingly well barely running any trains at all, just by playing the market, buying and selling their competitors’ stock; that they could play as a real-estate instead of a railroad tycoon, buying up a bunch of land during economic panics by laying down track they never intended to use, then selling it again for a profit during boom times by tearing up the track. Yes, all of these exploits and many more are possible — and yes, the line between exploits and ruthless strategy is a little blurred in many of these cases. But it’s a testament to the core appeal of the game that, after you get over that smug a-ha! moment of figuring out that they’re possible, you don’t really want to use them all that much. The journey is more important than the destination; something about Railroad Tycoon makes you want to play it fair and square. You don’t even mind overmuch that your computerized competitors get to play a completely different and, one senses, a far easier game than the one you’re playing. They’re able to build track in useful configurations that aren’t allowed to you, and they don’t even have to run their own trains; all that business about signals and congestion and locomotives gets abstracted away for them.

Despite it all, I’m tempted to say that in terms of pure design Railroad Tycoon is actually a better game than Civilization, the game Meier and Shelley would make next and the one which will, admittedly for some very good reasons, always remain the heart of Meier’s legacy as a designer. Yet it’s Railroad Tycoon that strikes me as the more intuitive, playable game, free of the tedious micromanagement that tends to dog Civilization in its latter stages. Likewise absent in Railroad Tycoon is the long anticlimax of so many games of Civilization, when you know you’ve won but still have to spend hours mopping up the map before you can get the computer to recognize it. Railroad Tycoon benefits enormously from its strict 100-year time limit, as it does from the restriction of your railroad, born from technical limitations, to 32 trains and 32 stations. “You don’t need more than that to make the game interesting,” said Meier, correctly. And, whereas the turn-based Civilization feels rather like a board game running on the computer, the pausable real time of Railroad Tycoon makes it feel like a true born-digital creation.

175 years of railroad history, from the Planet…

…to the Train à Grande Vitesse.

Of course, mechanics and interface are far from the sum total of most computer games, and it’s in the contextual layer that Civilization thrives as an experiential game, as an awe-inspiring attempt to capture the sum total of human thought and history in 640 K of memory. But, having said that, I must also say that Railroad Tycoon is itself no slouch in this department. It shows almost as beautifully as Civilization how the stuff of history can thoroughly inform a game that isn’t trying to be a strict simulation of said history. From the manual to the game itself, Railroad Tycoon oozes with a love of trains. To their credit, Meier and Shelley don’t restrict themselves to the American Age of Steam, but also offer maps of Britain and continental Europe on which to play, each with its own challenges in terms of terrain and economy. The four available maps each have a different starting date, between them covering railroad history from the distant past of 1825 to the at-the-time-of-the-game’s-development near-future of 2000. As you play, new locomotives become available, providing a great picture of the evolution of railroading, from Robert Stephenson’s original 20-horsepower Planet with its top speed of 20 miles per hour to the 8000-horsepower French Train à Grande Vitesse (“high-speed train”) with a top speed of 160 miles per hour. This is very much a trainspotter’s view of railroad history, making no attempt to address the downsides of the rush to bind nations up in webs of steel tracks, nor asking just why the historical personages found in the game came to be known as the robber barons. (For an introduction to the darker side of railroad history, I recommend Frank Norris’s 1901 novel The Octopus.) But Railroad Tycoon isn’t trying to do social commentary; it just revels in a love of trains, and that’s fine. It’s immensely likeable on those terms — another byproduct of the spirit of generosity with which it’s so shot through. Just hearing the introduction’s music makes me happy.


Upon its release, Railroad Tycoon hit with the force of a freight train. Following the implosion of the 8-bit market at the tail end of the 1980s, North American computer gaming had moved upscale to focus on the bigger, more expensive MS-DOS machines and the somewhat older demographic that could afford them. These changes had created a hunger for more complicated, ambitious strategy and simulation games. SimCity had begun to scratch that itch, but its non-competitive nature and that certain sense of sterility that clung to it left it ultimately feeling a little underwhelming for many players, just it as it had for Meier and Shelley. Railroad Tycoon remedied both of those shortcomings with immense charm and panache. Soren Johnson has mentioned on his podcast how extraordinary the game felt upon its release: “There was just nothing like it at the time.” Computer Gaming World, the journal of record for the new breed of older and more affluent computer gamers, lavished Railroad Tycoon with praise, naming it their “Game of the Year” for 1990. Russell Sipe, the founder and editor-in-chief of the magazine, was himself a dedicated trainspotter, and took to the game with particular enthusiasm, writing an entire book about it which spent almost as much time lingering lovingly over railroad lore as it did telling how to win the thing.

Meier and Shelley were so excited by what they had wrought that they charged full steam ahead into a Railroad Tycoon II. But they were soon stopped in their tracks by Bill Stealey, who demanded that they do something with Covert Action, into which, he insisted, MicroProse had poured too many resources to be able to simply abandon it. By the time that Meier and Shelley had done what they could in that quarter, the idea that would become Civilization had come to the fore. Neither designer would ever return to Railroad Tycoon during their remaining time at MicroProse, although some of the ideas they’d had for the sequel, like scenarios set in South America and Africa, would eventually make their way into a modestly enhanced 1993 version of the game called Railroad Tycoon Deluxe.

Coming as it did just before Civilization, the proverbial Big Moment of Sid Meier’s illustrious career, Railroad Tycoon‘s historical legacy has been somewhat obscured by the immense shadow cast by its younger sibling; even Meier sometimes speaks of Railroad Tycoon today in terms of “paving the way for Civilization.” Yet in my view it’s every bit as fine a game, and when all is said and done its influence on later games has been very nearly as great. “At the beginning of the game you had essentially nothing, or two stations and a little piece of track,” says Meier, “and by the end of the game you could look at this massive spiderweb of trains and say, ‘I did that.'” Plenty of later games would be designed to scratch precisely the same itch. Indeed, Railroad Tycoon spawned a whole sub-genre of economic strategy games, the so-called “Tycoon” sub-genre — more often than not that word seems to be included in the games’ names — that persists to this day. Sure, the sub-genre has yielded its share of paint-by-numbers junk, but it’s also yielded its share of classics to stand alongside the original Railroad Tycoon. Certainly it’s hard to imagine such worthy games as Transport Tycoon or RollerCoaster Tycoon — not to mention the post-MicroProse Railroad Tycoon II and 3 — existing without the example provided by Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley.

But you don’t need to look to gaming history for a reason to play the original Railroad Tycoon. Arguably the finest strategy game yet made for a computer in its own time, it must remain high up in that ranking even today.

(Sources: the books Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III, The Official Guide to Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon by Russell Sipe, and Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay; ACE of May 1990; Compute!’s Gazette of May 1989; Computer Gaming World of May 1990, July/August 1990, and September 1990; Soren Johnson’s interviews with Bruce Shelley and Sid Meier. My huge thanks go to Soren for providing me with the raw audio of his Sid Meier interview months before it went up on his site, thus giving me a big leg up on my research.

Railroad Tycoon Deluxe has been available for years for free from 2K Games’s website as a promotion for Meier’s more recent train game Railroads!. It makes a fine choice for playing today. But for anyone wishing to experience the game in its original form, I’ve taken the liberty of putting together a download of the original game, complete with what should be a working DOSBox configuration and some quick instructions on how to get it running.)

 
 

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

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

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

Dale A. Hillman
President, XOR Software
1985

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

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

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

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

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

Microsoft Adventure box art

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

Floppy Disk

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

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

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

Figure 1

Figure 1 (click to expand)

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

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

Figure 2

Figure 2

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

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

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

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

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

Ultima III

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pirates!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 5

Figure 5

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

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

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

Dungeon Master

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

3 1/2 inch floppy disk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 6

Figure 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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Pirates!

Pirates!

Shortly after designing and programming F-15 Strike Eagle and Silent Service, the two huge hits that made MicroProse’s reputation as the world’s premier maker of military simulations, Sid Meier took a rare vacation to the Caribbean. Accompanying him was his new girlfriend, whom he had met after his business partner Wild Bill Stealey hired her as one of MicroProse’s first employees. A few days after they left, she called Stealey in a panic: “I can’t find Sid!” It eventually transpired that, rather than being drowned or abducted by drug smugglers as she had suspected, he had gotten so fascinated with the many relics and museums chronicling the era of Caribbean buccaneering that he’d lost all track of time, not to mention the obligations of a boyfriend taking his girlfriend on a romantic getaway. She would just have to get used to Sid being a bit different from the norm if she hoped to stay together, Stealey explained after Meier finally resurfaced with visions of cutlasses and doubloons in his eyes. Meier had had a not-so-secret agenda in choosing this particular spot in the world for a romantic getaway. He was, you see, already working on his next game, a game about Caribbean piracy. The end result would be a dizzying leap away from military simulations into a purer form of game design — a leap that would provide the blueprint for his brilliant future career. If there’s something that we can legitimately label as a Sid Meier school of game design, it was for the game called simply Pirates! that it was first invented. As for the girlfriend, she apparently decided that she could indeed accept the vagaries of life with a game-design genius: she became his first wife.

Pirates! was first conceived by another Microprose designer, Arnold Hendrick, as a fairly rigorous simulation of ship-to-ship combat in the Age of Sail, heavily inspired by the old Avalon Hill naval board game Wooden Ships and Iron Men. Such a game would have marked a bit of a departure for MicroProse, whose military simulations and strategy games had to date reached no further back into history than World War II, but would still broadly speaking fit in with their logo’s claim that they were makers of “Simulation Software.” Problem was, there were already computer games out there that claimed to scratch that itch, like SSI’s Broadsides and Avalon Hill’s own Clear for Action. While few outside the ultra-hardcore grognard set had found either of those games all that satisfying, Hendrick couldn’t seem to figure out how to do any better. And so Pirates! found itself on the back burner, and Hendrick moved on to do Gunship instead.

Greg Tavares's windowing engine in action.

Gregg Tavares’s windowing engine in action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dueling in Pirates!.

Dueling in Pirates!.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A battle at sea.

A battle at sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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MicroProse’s Simulation-Industrial Complex (or, The Ballad of Sid and Wild Bill)

Microprose

Change was in the air as the 1980s began, the drawn-out 1960s hangover that had been the 1970s giving way to the Reagan Revolution. The closing of Studio 54 and the release of Can’t Stop the Music, the movie that inspired John J.B. Wilson to start the Razzies, marked the end of disco decadence. John Lennon, whilst pontificating in interviews on the joys of baking bread, released an album milquetoast enough to play alongside Christopher Cross and Neil Diamond on Adult Contemporary stations — prior to getting shot, that is, thus providing a more definite punctuation mark on the end of 1960s radicalism. Another counterculture icon, Jerry Rubin, was left to give voice to the transformation in worldview that so many of his less famous contemporaries were also undergoing. This man who had attempted to enter a pig into the 1968 Presidential election in the name of activist “guerrilla theater” became a stockbroker on the same Wall Street where he had once led protests. “Money and financial interest will capture the passion of the ’80s,” he declared. The 1982 sitcom Family Ties gave the world Steven and Elyse Keaton, a pair of aging hippies who are raising an arch-conservative disciple of Ronald Reagan; it was thus the mirror image of 1970s comedies like All in the Family. Michael J. Fox’s perpetually tie-sporting Alex P. Keaton became a teenage heartthrob because, as Huey Lewis would soon be singing, it was now “Hip to be Square.” Yes, that was true even in the world of rock and roll, where bland-looking fellows like Huey Lewis and Phil Collins, who might very well have inhabited the cubicle next to yours at an accounting firm, were improbably selling millions of records and seeing their mugs all over MTV.

No institution benefited more from this rolling back of the countercultural tide than the American military. Just prior to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the military’s morale as well as its public reputation were at their lowest ebb of the century. All four services were widely perceived as a refuge for psychopaths, deadbeats, and, increasingly, druggies. A leaked internal survey conducted by the Pentagon in 1980 found that about 27 percent of all military personnel were willing to admit to using illegal drugs at least once per month; the real numbers were almost certainly higher. Another survey found that one in twelve of American soldiers stationed in West Germany, the very front line of the Cold War, had a daily hashish habit. In the minds of many, only a comprehensively baked military could explain a colossal cock-up like the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in April of 1980, which managed to lose eight soldiers, six helicopters, and a C-130 transport plane without ever even making contact with the enemy. Small wonder that this bunch had been booted out of Vietnam with their tails between their legs by a bunch of shoeless rebels in black pajamas.

The military’s public rehabilitation began immediately upon Ronald Reagan’s election. Reagan not only continued but vastly expanded the military buildup his predecessor Jimmy Carter had begun, whilst declaring at every opportunity his pride and confidence in the nation’s fighting men and women. He was also willing to use the military in ways that hadn’t been dared since the withdrawal from Vietnam. As I recounted recently in another article, the Reagan administration began probing and feinting toward the Soviet Union, testing the boundaries of its airspace as well as its resolve in ways almost unprecedented since the Cold War had begun all those decades before. On October 25, 1983, the United States invaded the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada to depose a Soviet-friendly junta that had seized power just days earlier. In later years this attack by a nation of 235 million on a nation of less than 100,000, a nation which was hardly in a position to harm it even had it wanted to, would be roundly mocked. But at the time the quick-and-easy victory was taken as nothing less than a validation of the American military by large swathes of the American public, as a sign that the military could actually accomplish something, could win a war, definitively and (relatively) cleanly — no matter how modest the opponent.

We need only look to popular culture to see the public’s changing attitude toward the military writ large. Vietnam veterans, previously denounced as baby killers and conscienceless automatons, were by mid-decade shown all over television as good, dutiful men betrayed and scorned by their nation. For a while there it seemed like every popular action series on the air featured one or more psychically wounded but unbowed Vietnam vets as protagonists, still loyal to the country that had been so disloyal to them: The A-Team; Magnum, P.I; Airwolf; Miami Vice. During the commercial breaks of these teenage-boy-friendly entertainments, the armed forces ran their slick new breed of recruiting commercials to attract a new generation of action heroes. The country had lost its way for a while, seduced by carping liberalism and undermined by the self-doubt it engendered, but now America — and with it the American military — were back, stronger, prouder, and better than ever. It was “morning again in America.”

Arguably the most important individual military popularizer of all inhabited, surprisingly, the more traditionally staid realm of books. Tom Clancy was a husband and father of two in his mid-thirties, an insurance agent living a comfortable middle-class existence in Baltimore, when he determined to combine his lifelong fascination with military tactics and weaponry with his lifelong desire to be a writer. Published in 1984 by, of all people, the Naval Institute Press — the first novel they had ever handled — his The Hunt for Red October tells the story of the eponymous Soviet missile submarine, whose captain has decided to defect along with his vessel to the West. A merry, extended chase ensues involving the navies of several nations — the Soviets trying to capture or sink the Red October, the West trying to aid its escape without provoking World War III. It’s a crackerjack thriller in its own right for the casual reader, but it was Clancy’s penchant for piling on layer after layer of technical detail and his unabashed celebration of military culture that earned him the love of those who were or had been military personnel, those who admired them, and many a teenage boy who dreamed of one day being among them. Clancy’s worldview was, shall we say, uncluttered by excessive nuance: “I think we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys. Don’t you?” Many Americans in the 1980s, their numbers famously including President Reagan himself, did indeed agree, or at least found it comforting to enjoy a story built around that premise. I must confess that I myself am hardly immune even today to the charms of early Tom Clancy.

By 1986, the year that Clancy published his second novel Red Storm Rising, the military’s rehabilitation was complete and then some. The biggest movie of that year was Top Gun, a flashy, stylish action flick about F-14 fighter pilots that played to the new fast-cutting MTV aesthetic, its cast headlined by an impossibly good-looking young Tom Cruise and its soundtrack stuffed with hits. I turned fourteen that year. I can remember my friends, many of them toting Hunt for Red October or Red Storm Rising under their arms, dreaming of becoming fighter pilots and bedding women like Top Gun‘s Kelly McGillis. Indeed, “fighter pilot” rivaled the teenage perennial of “rock star” for the title of coolest career in the world. The American military in general was as cool as it’s ever been.

Joining the likes of Tom Clancy and Tom Cruise as ambassadors of this idealized vision of the military life were the inimitable John William “Wild Bill” Stealey and his company MicroProse. Stealey himself was, as one couldn’t spend more than ten seconds in his presence without learning, a former Air Force pilot. Born in 1947, he graduated from the Air Force Academy, then spent six years as an active-duty pilot, first teaching others to fly in T-37 trainers and then guiding gigantic C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft all over the world. After his discharge he took an MBA from the Wharton School, then set off to make his way in the world of business whilst continuing to fly A-37s, the light attack variant of the T-37, on weekends for the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. By 1982 he had become Director of Strategic Planning for General Instruments, a company in the Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley specializing in, as their advertisements proclaimed, “point-of-sale, state-lottery, off-track, and on-track wagering systems utilizing the most advanced mini- and microcomputer hardware and software technologies.” Also working at General Instruments, but otherwise moving in very different circles from the garrulous Wild Bill, was a Canadian immigrant named Sid Meier, a quiet but intense systems engineer in his late twenties who was well known by the nerdier denizens of Hunt Valley as the founder of the so-called Sid Meier’s Users Group, a thinly disguised piracy ring peopled with enthusiasts of the Atari 800 and its sibling models. Sid liked to say that he wasn’t actually playing the games he collected for pleasure, but rather analyzing them as technology, so what he was doing was okay.

The first real conversation between Stealey and Meier has gone down in gaming legend. In May of 1982, the two found themselves thrown together in Las Vegas for a series of boring corporate meetings. They ended up at an arcade in the basement of the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, in front of a game called Red Baron. Stealey sat down and scored 75,000 points, and was quite proud of himself. Then Meier racked up 150,000, and could have kept on going if he’d wanted to. When Stealey asked him how he, the quiet nerd, had beat a hotshot pilot, Meier said the opponents in the game had been programmed to follow just a handful of patterns, which he’d memorized whilst watching Stealey play. “It’s not very good,” he said. “I could write a better game in a week.” “If you could, I could sell it,” replied Stealey.

Sid Meier and Bill Stealey pose in 1988 with the actual Red Baron machine that led to the formation of Microprose. It was discovered in storage at the MGM Grand and purchased by Microprose.

Sid Meier and Bill Stealey pose in 1988 with the actual Red Baron machine that had led to the formation of MicroProse six years earlier.

Much more than a week went by, and Stealey forgot about the exchange. But then, three months later, Meier padded up to him in the halls of General Instruments and handed him a disk containing a simple World War II shoot-em-up called Hellcat Ace. Shocked that he had come through, Stealey took it home, played it, and “wrote him a four-page memo about what was wrong with the flying and combat.” Seeing the disappointment on Meier’s face when he handed him the memo, Stealey thought that would be the end of it. But a week later Meier was back again, with another disk: “I fixed all of those things you mentioned.” His bluff well and truly called, Stealey had no choice but to get started trying to sell the thing.

First, of course, they would need a name for their company. Stealey initially looked for something with an Air Force association, but couldn’t come up with anything that rang right. For a while the two mulled over the awful name of “Smuggers Software,” incorporating an acronym for “Sid Meier’s Users Group.” But eventually Meier came up with “MicroProse.” After all, he noted, his code was basically prose for microcomputers. The “prose” also served as a pun on “pros” — professionals. With no better ideas on offer, Stealey reluctantly agreed: “It’ll be hard to remember, but once they got it, nobody will forget it.”

Packaging Meier’s game in a plastic baggie with a mimeographed cover sheet, Stealey started visiting all of the computer stores around Baltimore, giving them an early version of what would soon become known inside the industry as the Wild Bill Show — a combination of the traditional hard sell with buckets of Air Force bravado and a dollop of sheer charm to make the whole thing go down easy. Meier paid a local kid 25 cents per game to copy the disks and assemble the packages. By the end of 1982 sales had already reached almost 500 per month, at $15 wholesale per piece. Not bad for a side venture that Stealey had first justified to himself as a convenient way to get a tax write-off for his Volvo.

Early the following year Stealey managed by the time-honored technique of buying an advertisement to get Antic magazine to review Hellcat Ace. The review was favorable if not glowing: “While the graphics are not stunning, the game plays well and holds your interest with multiple skill levels and a variety of scenarios.” On the heels of this, MicroProse’s first real exposure outside the Baltimore area, Stealey took to calling computer stores all over the country, posing as a customer looking for Hellcat Ace. When they said they didn’t carry it, he would berate them in no uncertain terms and announce that he’d be taking his business to a competitor who did carry the game. After doing this a few times to a single store, he’d call again as himself: “Hello, this is John Stealey. I’m from MicroProse. I’d like to sell you Hellcat Ace.” The hapless proprietor on the other end of the line would breathe a sign of relief, saying how “we’ve been getting all kinds of phone calls for that game.” And just like that, MicroProse would be in another shop.

While Stealey sold like a madman, Meier programmed like one, churning out new games at a staggering clip. With MicroProse not yet having self-identified as exclusively or even primarily a maker of simulations, Stealey just craved product from Meier — any sort of product. Meier delivered. He reworked the Hellcat Ace code to turn it into Spitfire Ace. He combined the arcade hit Donkey Kong with the Atari VCS hit Pitfall! to produce Floyd of the Jungle, whose most unique feature was the chance for up to four players to play simultaneously, thanks to the Atari 800’s four joystick ports. He made a top-down air-combat game called Wingman that also supported up to four players, playing in teams of leader and wingman. He made a game called Chopper Rescue that owed more than a little something to the recent Apple II smash Choplifter and supported up to eight players, taking turns. (It would later be reissued as Air Rescue I, its original name having been perhaps just a bit too close to Choplifter‘s for comfort.) He made a surprisingly intricate strategic war game called NATO Commander that anticipated the scenario of Red Storm Rising — a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, with the specter of nuclear weapons conveniently hand-waved away — three years before that book’s publication. And finally there was Solo Flight, a take on civilian aviation that was more simulation-oriented than its predecessors, including a VHF navigation system and an entertaining mail-delivery challenge in addition to its free-flight mode. All of these gushed out of him in barely eighteen months, during most of which he was still working at General Instruments during the day. They found their places on the product lists with which Stealey continued to bombard shops and, soon, the big distributors as MicroProse slowly won a seat with the big boys of the industry.

Stealey and Meier had an odd relationship. Far too different in background, personality, and priorities to ever be real friends, they were nevertheless the perfect business partners, each possessing in spades what the other conspicuously lacked. Meier brought to the table technical wizardry and, as would only more gradually become apparent, a genius for game design that at the very least puts him in the conversation today for the title of greatest designer in the history of the field. Stealey brought business savvy, drive, practicality, and a genius for promotion. Alone, Stealey would probably have had an impressive but boring career in big business of one stripe or another, while Meier would have spent his life working comfortable jobs whilst war-gaming and hacking code as a quiet hobby. They were two of the luckiest people in the world to have found each other; neither would have had a chance of making his mark on history without the other.

It might seem a dangerously imbalanced relationship, this pairing of an Air Force jock who hit a room like a force of nature with a quiet, bookish computer freak. At his worst, Stealey could indeed sound like a Svengali putting the screws to his lucrative pet savant. Look closer, however, and you had to realize that Stealey genuinely respected Meier, was in awe of his sheer intellectual firepower:

One Christmas, I gave him a book detailing the days of the Civil War. Five days later, he gave it back to me. I asked if he did not like the book. He said he loved it, but had already memorized all the key dates and events in it, and thought I might like to read it too. Sid is brilliant!

And Meier wasn’t quite the pushover he might first appear to be. Retiring and shy as he was by disposition, he was also every bit or more as strong-willed as Stealey, sometimes to an infuriating degree. As conservative and risk-averse in his personal life as he was bold and innovative in his programming and design, Meier refused to give up his day job at General Instruments for an astonishingly long time. After pitching in $1500 to help found MicroProse, he also refused to invest any more of his own capital in the company to set up offices and turn it into a real business. That sort of thing, he said, was Stealey’s responsibility. So Stealey took out a $15,000 personal loan instead, putting up his car as partial collateral. Most frustratingly of all, Meier clung stubbornly to his Atari 800 with that passion typical of a hacker’s first programming love, even as the cheaper Commodore 64 exploded in popularity.

It was the need to get MicroProse’s games onto the latter platform that prompted Stealey to bring on his first programmers not named Sid Meier, a couple of Meier’s buddies from his old Users Group. Grant Irani specialized in porting Meier’s games to the 64, while Andy Hollis used Meier’s codebase to make another Atari shoot-em-up, this time set in the Korean War, called MIG Alley Ace. Showing a bit more flexibility than Meier, he then ported his own game to the Commodore 64. He would go on to become almost as important to MicroProse as Meier himself.

Unlike so many of his peers, Stealey steered clear of the venture capitalists with their easy money as he built MicroProse. This led to some dicey moments as 1983 turned into 1984, and consumers started growing much more reluctant to shell out $25 or $30 for one of MicroProse’s simple games. The low point came in July of 1984, when, what with the distribution streams already glutted with products that weren’t selling anymore, MicroProse’s total orders amounted to exactly $27. About that time HESWare, never shy about taking the venture capitalists’ money and still flying high because of it, offered Stealey a cool $250,000 to buy Solo Flight outright and publish it as their own. When he asked Meier his opinion, Meier, as usual, initially declined to get involved with business decisions. But then, as Stealey walked away, Meier deigned to offer some quiet words of wisdom: “You know what? I heard you shouldn’t sell the family jewels.” Stealey turned HESWare down. HESWare imploded before the year was out; MicroProse would continue to sell Solo Flight, never a real hit but a modest, steady moneyspinner, for years to come.

Still, it was obvious that MicroProse needed to up their game if they wished to continue to exist past the looming industry shakeout. While with NATO Commander and Solo Flight he had already begun to move away from the simple action games that had gotten MicroProse off the ground, it was Sid Meier’s next game, F-15 Strike Eagle, that would set the template for the company for years to come. Stealey had been begging Meier for an F-15 game for some time, but Meier had been uncertain how to approach it. Now, with Solo Flight under his belt, he felt he was ready. F-15 Strike Eagle was a quantum leap in sophistication compared to what had come before it, moving MicroProse definitively out of the realm of shoot-em-ups and into that of real military simulations. The flight model was dramatically more realistic; indeed, the F-15 Strike Eagle aeronautics “engine” would become the basis for years of MicroProse simulations to come. The airplane’s array of weapons and defensive countermeasures were simulated with a reasonable degree of fidelity to their real-life counterparts. And the player could choose to fly any of seven missions drawn from the F-15’s service history, a couple of them ripped from recent headlines to portray events that happened in the Middle East a bare few months before the game’s release. F-15 Strike Eagle turned into a hit on a scale that dwarfed anything MicroProse had done before, a consistent bestseller for years, the game that made the company, both financially and reputationally. It became one of the most successful and long-lived computer games of the 1980s, with worldwide sales touching 1 million by 1990 — a stunning number for its era.

The games that followed steadily grew yet more sophisticated. Andy Hollis made an air-traffic-control simulation called Kennedy Approach that was crazily addictive. A new designer, William F. Denman, Jr., created an aerobatics simulation called Acrojet. Meanwhile the prolific Sid Meier wrote Silent Service, a World War II submarine simulation, and also three more strategic war games, MicroProse’s so-called “Command Series,” in partnership with one Ed Bever, holder of a doctorate in history: Crusade in Europe, Decision in the Desert, and Conflict in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, neither the strategy games nor the civilian simulations sold on anywhere near the scale of F-15 Strike Eagle. Only Silent Service rivaled and, in its first few months of release, actually outdid F-15, rocketing past 250,000 in sales within eighteen months. Meier, who “didn’t value money too highly” in the words of Stealey, who never saw much of a reason to change his lifestyle despite his increasing income, who often left his paychecks lying on top of his refrigerator forgotten until accounting called to ask why their checks weren’t getting cashed, couldn’t have cared less about the relative sales numbers of his games or anyone else’s. Stealey, though, wasn’t so sanguine, and pushed more and more to make MicroProse exclusively a purveyor of military simulations.

It’s hard to blame him. F-15 Strike EagleSilent Service, and the MicroProse military simulations that would follow were the perfect games for their historical moment, the perfect games for Tom Clancy readers; Clancy was, not coincidentally, also blowing up big at exactly the same time. Like Clancy, MicroProse was, perverse as it may sound, all about making war fun again.

Indeed, fun was a critical component of MicroProse’s games, one overlooked by far too many of their competitors. MicroProse’s most obvious rival as a maker of simulations was SubLogic, maker of the perennial civilian Flight Simulator and a military version called simply Jet that put players in the cockpit of an F-16 or F-18. SubLogic, however, emphasized realism above all else, even when the calculations required to achieve it meant that their games chugged along at all of one or two frames per second on the hapless likes of a Commodore 64, the industry’s bread-and-butter platform. MicroProse, on the other hand, recognized that they were never really going to be able to realistically simulate an F-15 or a World War II submarine on a computer with 64 K. They settled for a much different balance of playability and fun, one that gave the player a feeling of really “being there” but that was accessible to beginners and, just as importantly, ran at a decent clip and looked reasonably attractive while doing so. Stealey himself admitted that “I can’t even land Flight Simulator, and I’ve got 3000 flying hours behind me!” Fred Schmidt, MicroProse’s first marketing director, delivers another telling quote:

We’re not trying to train fighter pilots or submarine captains. What we’re trying to do is give people who will never have a chance to go inside a submarine the opportunity to get inside one and take it for a spin around the block to see what it is like. Our simulations give them that chance. They get a close-up look at simulated real life. They feel it, they experience the adventure. And at the end of the adventure, we want them to feel they got their money’s worth.

There’s an obvious kinship here with the idea of “aesthetic simulations” as described by Michael Bate, designer of Accolade hits like Ace of Aces. MicroProse, though, pushed the realism meter much further than Bate, to just before the point where the games would lose so much accessibility as to become niche products. Stealey was never interested in being niche. The peculiar genius of MicroProse, and particularly of Sid Meier, who contributed extensively even to most MicroProse games that didn’t credit him as lead designer, was to know just where that point was. This was yet another quality they shared with Tom Clancy.

That said, make no mistake: the veneer of realism, however superficial it might sometimes be, was every bit as important to MicroProse’s appeal as it was to Clancy’s. And the veneer of authenticity provided by Wild Bill Stealey, however superficial it might be — sorry, Wild Bill — was critical to achieving this impression. Stealey had started playing in earnest the role of the hotshot fighter jock by the time of F-15 Strike Eagle, the manual for which opened with an illustration of him in his flight suit and a dedication saying the game would “introduce you to the thrill of fighter-aircraft flying based on my fourteen years experience.” Under his signature is written “Fighter Pilot,” before the more apropos title of “President, MicroProse Software.” All of which probably read more impressively to those not aware that Stealey had never actually flown an F-15 or any other supersonic fighter, having spent his career flying subsonic trainers, transport aircraft, and second-string light attack planes. All, I have no doubt, are critical roles requiring a great deal of skill and bravery — but, nevertheless, the appellation of “fighter pilot” is at best a stretch.

Wild Bill Stealey

Stealey today freely admits that he was playing a character — not to say a caricature — for much of his time at MicroProse, that going to conventions and interviews wearing his flight suit, for God’s sake, wasn’t exactly an uncalculated decision. He also admits that other industry bigwigs, among them Trip Hawkins, loved to make fun of him for it. But, he says, “how do you remember a small company? It needs something special. All we had was Sid and Wild Bill.” And Sid certainly wasn’t interested in helping to sell his games.

Stealey seemed to particularly delight in doing his swaggering Right Stuff schtick for the press in Europe, where MicroProse had set up a subsidiary to sell their games already by 1986. Wild Bill in full flight was an experience that deserves a little gallery of its own. So, here are the reports of just a few mild-mannered journalists lucky or unlucky enough to be assigned to interview Stealey.

“See that,” he bawled, tapping the largest ring I’ve ever seen on my desk, waking up the technical experts in the Commodore User offices, “that’s a genuine American Air Force Fighter Pilot’s Ring. Do that in a barroom in the States and you get instant service… they know you’re a fighter pilot.”


As far as Stealey is concerned, the only real pilots are fighter pilots. “What about airline pilots?” I ask. “Bus drivers,” says Wild Bill. Alright then — what about the pilots who talk endlessly about the freedom, the solitude, and the spiritual experience of flying?

“You wanna talk spiritual? I’ll tell you what’s spiritual… flying upside down in an F-15, doing mach 1.5 high above the Rocky Mountains, with the sun behind and the Pacific Ocean ahead of you… that’s spiritual… the rest is just sightseeing.

“Whooosh,” says Wild Bill, thrusting his hand through the air to illustrate his point.


“I’m selling these games to men. If you haven’t got the right stuff, I don’t want to know. I’m not interested in the kind of guy who just wants a short thrill. If you want to spend £6 on an arcade game that you’re going to play for half an hour, I don’t want you buying my software.”


Despite MicroProse’s size, growth has been accomplished at an intentionally conservative rate. Bill Stealey attributes this to his fighter-pilot background. Wait a minute — fighter pilots as conservative? “Of course fighter pilots are conservative. We wait until we accumulate sufficient data and then we wax the bad guys.”


Bill Stealey tells you all this in his usual verbal assault mode. Being on the other end of this barrage is to feel disoriented and dazed. Gradually, your senses return. You realize that there are other software houses out there, a possibility Bill hardly admits.

As soon as finances allowed, MicroProse took the Wild Bill Show to the next level by purchasing for him an unusual sort of company plane: a Navy surplus T-28 Trojan trainer. The plane cost a small fortune to keep in service, but it was worth it to let Stealey take up queasy, knock-kneed gaming journalists — and, occasionally, the lucky MicroProse fan — and toss the T-28 through some high-performance aerobatics.

Wild Bill prepares to terroize another journalist, in this case Jim Gracely, Managing Editor of Commodore Magazine.

Wild Bill prepares to terrorize another journalist, in this case Jim Gracely, Managing Editor of Commodore Magazine.

Of course, one person’s charming fighter jock is another’s ugly American. Not all journalists, especially in Europe, were entirely taken with either Stealey’s persona or with what one Commodore User journalist pointedly described as the “militaristic and Cold War tinge of MicroProse’s products.” This undercurrent of grumbling would erupt into a real controversy in Europe upon the release of Gunship, MicroProse’s big game of 1986.

By far MicroProse’s most ambitious, expensive, extended, and problem-plagued project yet, Gunship was helmed by a new arrival, a veteran designer of board games named Arnold Hendrick. Another helicopter game, it was originally conceived as a science-fictional “cops and robbers” scenario, playing on the odd but significant fascination the American media of the mid-1980s suddenly had with futuristic helicopters — think Blue Thunder and Airwolf. Work on the game began in earnest in April of 1985, with an announced shipping date of November of the same year, but Hendrick’s little team struggled mightily to devise a suitable flight model and graphics engine. At last, with two months to go, Meier wrote a new 3D aviation engine from scratch in just one month on a prototype of Commodore’s new 68000-based computer, the Amiga. It was decided to delay the game “indefinitely,” to make a “massive redeployment” in Stealey’s typical military jargon and port Meier’s work back to the little Commodore 64, the platform MicroProse knew best and the one that consistently sold best. With Stealey increasingly eager to define MicroProse exclusively as a maker of realistic simulations, the premise of the game was overhauled as well, to become a more sober — relatively speaking — depiction of the real-world AH-64 Apache assault chopper. By the time it finally arrived on the market in late 1986, it had absorbed three times as much time as expected and its development team had grown to four times the size anticipated. MicroProse had come a long way from the days of Floyd of the Jungle.

Just about everyone inside the games industry agreed that the delay had been worth it; this was MicroProse’s best game yet. Gunship‘s most innovative feature, destined to have a major impact not only on future games from MicroProse but on future games in general, was the way it let you simulate not just an individual mission but an entire career. When you start the game, you create and name a pilot of your own, a greenhorn of a sergeant. You then take on missions of your choice in any of four regions, picking and choosing as you will among four wars that are apparently all going on at the same time: Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East, or Western Europe (i.e., the Big One, a full-on Soviet invasion). If you perform well, you earn medals and promotions. If you get shot down you may or may not survive, and depending on where you crash-land may end up a prisoner of war. Either death or capture marks the definitive end to your Gunship career; this invests every moment spent in the combat zones with extra tension. The persistent career gives Gunship an element lacking from MicroProse’s previous simulations: a larger objective, larger stakes, beyond the successful completion of any given mission. It invests the game with an overarching if entirely generative plot arc of sorts as well as the addictive character-building progression of a CRPG, adding so much to the experience that career modes would quickly become a staple of simulations to come.

But some bureaucrats in West Germany were not so taken with Gunship as most gamers. There the “Bundesprüfstelle für Jugendgefährdende Schriften,” a list of writings and other communications that should not be sold to minors or even displayed in shops which they could enter, unexpectedly added Gunship to their rolls, to be followed shortly thereafter by F-15 Strike Eagle and Silent Service for good measure, for the sin of “promoting militarism” and thus being “morally corruptive and coarsening for the young user.” West Germany at the time constituted only about 1 percent of MicroProse’s business, but was likely the most rapidly expanding market for computers and computer games in the world. The blacklisting meant that these three games, which together constituted the vast majority of MicroProse’s sales in West Germany or anywhere else, could be sold only in shops offering a separate, adults-only section with its own entrance. Nor could they be advertised in magazines, or anywhere else where the teenage boys who bought MicroProse’s games in such numbers were able to see them. The games were, in other words, given the legal status of pornography: not, strictly speaking, censored, but made very difficult for people, especially young people, to acquire or even to find out about. If anything, it would now be harder for even an adult to get his hands on a MicroProse game than a porn film. There was after all a shopping infrastructure set up to support porn aficionados. There were no equivalent shops for games; certainly no computer store was likely to make a new entrance just to sell a few games. Thus the decision effectively killed MicroProse in West Germany. Stealey embarked on a long, exhausting battle with the German courts to have the decisions overturned. By the time he was able to get the Silent Service ban lifted, in 1988, that game was getting old enough that the issue was becoming irrelevant. Gunship and F-15 Strike Eagle took even longer to get stricken from the blacklist.

The debate over free speech and its limits is of course a complicated one, and one on which Germany, thanks to its horrific legacy of Nazism and its determination to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again, tends to have a somewhat different perspective than the United States. The authorities’ concerns about “militarism” also reflected a marked difference in attitude on the part of continental Western Europe from that of the anglosphere of the United States and Britain, both beneficiaries (or victims, if you prefer) of recent conservative revolutions led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher respectively. Europeans found it more difficult to be so blasé about the prospect of war with the Soviet Union — a war which would almost certainly be fought on their soil, with all the civilian death, destruction, and suffering that implied. In West Germany, blithely choosing to send your fictional Gunship pilot to the Western Europe region to fight against what the manual gushingly described as the “first team” in the “big time” struck much closer to home.

MicroProse was also involved in another, more cut-and-dried sort of controversy at the time of Gunship. Long before MicroProse, there had already existed a company called “MicroPro,” maker of the very popular WordStar word processor. As soon as MicroProse grew big enough to be noticed, MicroPro had begun to call and send letters of protest. At last, in 1986, they sued for trademark infringement. MicroProse, who really didn’t have a legal leg to stand on, could only negotiate for time; the settlement stipulated that they had to choose a new name by 1988. But in the end the whole thing came to nothing when MicroPro abruptly changed their own name instead, to WordStar International, and let MicroProse off the hook.

In the big picture these were all minor hiccups. MicroProse would continue to make their accessible, entertaining, and usually bestselling military simulations for years to come after Gunship: Airborne Ranger, F-19 Stealth Fighter, F-15 Strike Eagle II, M1 Tank Platoon, just to begin the list. In 1988 they cemented once and for all their status as the game publisher for the Tom Clancy generation with the release of Red Storm Rising, the game of the book.

The ultimate meeting of techno-thriller minds: Sid Meier, Wild Bill Stealey, Tom Clancy, and Larry Bond (his consultant and collaborator on the Red Storm Rising scenario).

The ultimate meeting of the simulation-industrial complex: Sid Meier, Wild Bill Stealey, Tom Clancy, and Larry Bond (Clancy’s consultant and collaborator on the Red Storm Rising scenario, as well as author of the Harpoon naval board game).

By then, however, the restlessly creative Sid Meier was also finding ways to push beyond the military-simulation template to which Stealey would have happily held him in perpetuity. In doing so he would create some of the best, most important games in history. Sid Meier and MicroProse are thus destined to be featured players around here for quite some time to come.

(Lots and lots of sources this time around. Useful for the article as a whole: the books Gamers at Work by Morgan Ramsay, Computer Gaming World of November 1987, Commodore Magazine of September 1987. Tom Clancy and cultural background: the book Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, New York Times Magazine of May 1 1988, Computer Gaming World of July 1988. General Instruments and the Red Baron anecdote: ComputerWorld of May 16 1977, Computer Gaming World of June 1988. On MicroProse’s name and the dispute with MicroPro: Computer Gaming World of October 1987 and November 1991, A.N.A.L.O.G. of September 1987. Reviews, advertisements, and anecodtes about individual games: Antic of May 1983 and June 1984 and November 1984, Computer Gaming World of January/February 1986 and March 1987, Commodore Magazine of December 1988, C.U. Amiga of August 1990. On the “promoting militarism” controversy: Computer Gaming Forum of Fall 1987 and Winter 1987, Commodore User of June 1987, Computer Gaming World of May 1988, Aktueller Software Markt of May 1989. Examples of the Wild Bill Show: Commodore User of May 1985, Your Computer of May 1985 and November 1987, Commodore Disk User of November 1987, Popular Computing Weekly of May 1 1986, Games Machine of October 1988 and November 1988. On the development of Gunship: the book Gunship Academy by Richard Sheffield. This article’s “cover art” was taken from the MicroProse feature in the September 1987 Commodore Magazine. If you’d like to see a premiere MicroProse simulation from this era in action, feel free to download the Commodore 64 version of Gunship from right here.)

 
 

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