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Time Zone: Aftermath

Time Zone met a fairly cool reception upon its release. It wasn’t panned in the magazines; bad reviews were all but nonexistent in this era. Still, it received surprisingly little coverage for such a major release from such a major publisher. When it was discussed, the main preoccupation was its immense size, with little attention given to its other qualities. Most likely those assigned to write about it were as intimidated by it as everyone else, and didn’t know quite where else to begin.

Feedback from the everyday gaming public in the only form that ultimately matters to a publisher, sales, was also very disappointing. As they had for the other Hi-Res Adventures, On-Line had announced plans to port the game to the Atari 400 and 800 — where, thanks to the small disk capacity of those machines, it was projected to occupy an astounding 20 disk sides. In the wake of very poor sales, however, they quietly shelved those plans, judging it not worth the effort. Within a few months all active promotion had ceased, as On-Line wrote the game off as a failed, not-to-be-repeated experiment and moved on. Luckily they still had plenty of more successful software, enough so that the Time Zone project, while it certainly didn’t help the bottom line, didn’t by itself endanger the house that Ken and Roberta had built.

It’s temping to see in Time Zone‘s failure the adventuring public standing up for their rights at last, rejecting the absurdities of the genre to the strains of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (hopefully the Who’s version rather than Twisted Sister’s). Alas, this probably wasn’t the case. Cruelty and unfairness were still largely what was expected of an adventure game at this stage. Of the games I’ve looked at so far for this blog, only (bizarrely enough) Softporn is not at least a little bit sadistic, and that hadn’t prevented many of them from becoming hits. Time Zone‘s sins were not so much unique as compounded by its size, affirmatively answering the question of whether a game could be simply too big.

The other question Time Zone answered was whether an adventure game could cost too much, and therein lies the more obvious reason for its failure. Prices had escalated rapidly since the days of 1978, when individual programmers had sold games in Ziploc baggies for $5 or $10. Publishers watched in delight as they raised their prices — to $20, $35, finally to $50 with the arrival of Wizardry — and people just kept on buying, even as the United States and the world plunged deeper into the worst recession prior to the recent one. Looked at from today’s perspective, the games business circa 1982 looks like the proverbial license to print money, as publishers could sell games created in a few months by one or two programmers for prices that were, when considered with inflation, equal to or greater than those of modern AAA titles developed by teams of hundreds. Yet there was a limit, and Wizardry and Time Zone by their respective success and failure pretty definitively found it. From then on publishers would not dare to venture much beyond $50 for even their most lavish productions. As the public’s expectations went up, resulting in games that needed bigger development teams and ever more time to make, profit margins correspondingly shrank. No wonder so many game-makers from those halcyon days can’t help but look back on the early 1980s with a certain wistfulness.

There were of course some people who bought Time Zone, and even some who claimed to enjoy it. It managed to place 20th in Softalk magazine’s readers’ poll for the best software of 1982, beating out the likes of Infocom’s Deadline. And Electronic Games magazine gave it a year-end “Certificate of Merit.”

The most prominent fan of all was Roe R. Adams III, the prolific adventure-game reviewer and columnist for several magazines who according to legend became the first in the world to solve the game, just one week after its release, and according to Steven Levy’s Hackers then “declared Roberta’s creation one of the greatest gaming feats in history.” Adams was active on a telecommunications service known as The Source, an important early online community that was the first of its kind barring only PLATO, and as such is probably worthy of a post or three in its own right. After watching his other, less adept adventuring friends flounder in the game, he convinced the powers that were on The Source to set up an area called the Vault of Ages, dedicated to plumbing the mysteries of Time Zone collaboratively. Users were greeted with the following upon going there:

Welcome to the Vault of Ages. Here we are coordinating the greatest group effort in adventure solving — the complete mapping of On-Line’s Time Zone.

I am the curator of the vault. You are the 85th intrepid time traveler to seek the knowledge of the vault. Herein we are gathering, verifying, and correlating information about each time zone. Feel free to visit here anytime, but remember that for the vault to fill, we need your contributions of information. Anytime you have new information about mapping, puzzle solutions, traps overcome, items found, s-mail this info to me. After verification, your contributed jigsaw puzzle piece will be added to the vault file, and your name will be entered upon the rolls as a master solver. Now step this way and I will introduce you to the Master Catalog.

Eventually with more than 1800 members, the Vault of Ages is a fascinating example of early crowd-sourcing, an ancestor of everything from Wikipedia to a thousand Lost message boards, and as such of perhaps more ultimate significance than Time Zone itself.

Within On-Line, Time Zone was notable in retrospect for being the first project of Jeff Stephenson. The great unsung hero of On-Line’s (soon to be Sierra’s) glory years, Stephenson would largely take over from Ken Williams as the company’s hacker-in-chief as the latter found business concerns monopolizing his time. Stephenson became the technical architect behind the next two generations of Sierra adventure games, designing the AGI and SCI engines and development tools that allowed Sierra’s games, like Infocom’s, to run on any platform for which the company wrote an interpreter. We’ll be getting much more familiar with Stephenson and his work in the years to come.

Still, most within On-Line were happy to forget about Time Zone as quickly as possible. That’s not all that surprising, given the chaotic development process, the unsatisfying final result, and the commercial failure of the project. Yet it went beyond even that. There was something ill-starred about Time Zone that seemed to affect many involved with it. Most of the youngsters who worked on the game left for university or other greener pastures upon its completion, happy not to have anything more to do with the games industry. Terry Pierce, the 18-year-old artist who had drawn all of those 1400 pictures virtually singlehandedly, burned out more dramatically. He was the best friend of Ken’s little brother John, who was only slightly older but already filling numerous high-profile roles at On-Line, including putting together the packaging for Time Zone. John describes a “kind of psychotic episode,” in which Terry was found “walking down the snowy highway at night in below freezing weather with no shoes or shirt on.” He also was gone shortly after that incident, severing all contact with his erstwhile best friend and everyone else at On-Line for over 20 years.

But the saddest tale of all was that of Bob Davis. Davis, you’ll remember, was the personable fellow who had gone from clerking at a liquor store to designing his own game to heading the Time Zone project in six months. He had a history of alcoholism and drug abuse, but had managed to get himself basically clean and sober by the time he started working for On-Line. But around the time that Time Zone was wrapping up, Davis, making more money than he ever had in his life, started to indulge in a big way again. He quit his job shortly after, deciding he could write games on his own and sell them to publishers. Davis was a bright guy when sober, but he hadn’t a prayer of authoring a game from scratch when bereft of tools like Ken’s ADL adventure-scripting language. He fumbled with learning assembly language for the Atari VCS, one of the most notoriously difficult programming platforms ever devised. But mostly he shot up drugs.

Soon the royalty checks started to get smaller as his game Ulysses and the Golden Fleece went from new hit to catalog status, and soon after the money was gone along with his wife. Davis began calling On-Line’s offices on an almost daily basis, asking for a job he obviously was no longer capable of doing — or, even better, just a straight handout. Knowing where the money would go if he just gave it to him, one kind-hearted old colleague offered to pay his mortgage directly; Davis angrily slammed down the phone in response. He started trying to pass bad checks all over town, becoming a pariah in this small community where everybody knew everybody. In a story that rings familiar to all too many of us, he “flamed out in a way that burned every bridge along the way,” in John William’s words, and by the end of the year was in jail in Fresno. I don’t know what happened to him after that, although I can say that he never rejoined the games industry to build on his unlikely early success. John believes he called On-Line just once after his release from jail, to an understandably “chilly reception.” But Bob Davis, first through all those increasingly desperate phone calls and then through the bad memories of his fall from grace, haunted On-Line for years afterward, casting a pall over everyone’s memories of Time Zone itself.

And that sad note is where we’ll have to leave it with Time Zone. As we’ll soon have several occasions to learn again, individuals and companies could fall as fast as they rose in the early PC industry.

 

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Time Zone: Tackling the Monster

As a kid, I absolutely loved time-travel stories. I devoured Quantum Leap and Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol, and later in adulthood was very enamored with Connie Willis’s more sophisticated takes on the tropes. As cool science-fictional concepts go, time travel is pretty hard to top. By comparison every other genre of story is limited, bound to whatever milieu the author has chosen or invented. But time travel lets you go hopscotching through the universe — or a multiplicity of them — within the bounds of a single volume.

It also makes a pretty darn appealing premise for an adventure game, maybe even more so than for traditional fiction, what with setting being the literary element adventures do best. And indeed, time travel forms its own lively adventure sub-genre which just happens to include some of my very favorites. Time Zone does not make that list, but it is the first major text adventure to really explore the genre. Considering what a natural fit it is for an adventure game, I’m only surprised that a game like Time Zone took this long to appear. (And yes, I know I’m opening myself up to long lists of obscure or amateur titles that did time travel before Time Zone. By all means, post ’em if you got ’em. But as a professional adventure with a full-fledged time-hopping premise, I’d say Time Zone is probably worthy of recognition as the first text adventure to really go all in for time-travel fiction of the sort I knew as a kid.)

Time-travel stories may be written out of fascination with the intrinsic coolness of time travel itself, but they do often need some sort of framing premise and conflict to motivate their heroes. Time Zone goes with a B-movie riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is the “dawn of man,” echoes the Time Zone manual, and mankind is being observed with interest by an advanced alien race, the Neburites. Here, however, the aliens are evil, and get pissed off as the centuries go by and mankind’s essential badassitude asserts itself:

The year is 4081. The Earth is a fast-paced, highly technological society. The advancement of Earth in the last 2000 years is an amazement to Earth historians and a constant source of pride to Earth scientists. The Neburites, though, feel quite the opposite.

In the 2000 years since our last glimpse of the extraterrestrials they have advanced little, and their jealousy for the Earth’s advancement has grown to a mad fervor. The evil Neburite ruler Ramadu fears that the Earth will very soon become the superior race in the galaxy. This must not happen. His plan is to strike now, before the Earth is advanced enough to defend itself against an attack. So Ramadu has built an awesome ray gun, and aimed it directly at the distant Earth.

It seems that unless something is done, if Ramadu is not stopped and his weapons destroyed, Earth will never see the year 4082.

Stopping him is, of course, a job for you, an everyday Earthling living in 1982, given to you along with a time machine by “a terrestrial guardian or keeper.”

It’s never explained just why you were chosen rather than someone from, you know, the year 4081 who might consider the Earth’s pending destruction a more urgent problem, nor why this mission needs to involve all this time travel at all. You must visit dozens of times and places to collect the equipment you’ll need to confront Ramadu on his home planet in 4081 — exotic stuff like a hammer, a knife, a rope, and a damn rock(!). It would be a lot easier and faster to pop into your house — the time machine just appeared in your back yard, after all — or at worst down the street to the local hardware store to collect these trinkets and be on your way directly to Ramadu.

To some extent these absurdities are part and parcel of adventure gaming even today. (If you somehow lose the walking stick that is key to many puzzles in my own game The King of Shreds and Patches, why can’t you just go to a shop and buy another one?) Even today games often drag and contort their stories, not without split seams and shrieks of pain, into shape to accommodate their technical affordances. As a collection of smaller adventures bound together with bailing wire and duct tape, Time Zone has no notion of global state other than through the objects the player is carrying with her, which she obtained by solving various zones, just as Wizardry has no way of controlling for winning other than by looking to see whether the party is carrying the amulet they could only obtain by taking out Werdna. The necessary suspension of disbelief just seems somehow more extreme in Time Zone, as, for example, when I park my time machine on a city street in the middle of downtown London without anyone seeming to notice or care.

But, yeah, you can say I’m just anachronistically poking holes in a game running on very limited technology — except that Infocom released a game at the same time that showed a reasonably consistent, believable premise and setting was very possible even with 1982 technology. (More on that in a future post.)

It’s not really surprising given the simplistic story and world model, but it is interesting to note the lack of many traditional time-travel tropes and concerns in Time Zone, the questions and paradoxes that do almost as much as the multiplicity of settings time travel offers to make it such a fun premise for a story (or a game). For instance, there’s no thought at all given to what happens if you change history. I suppose thought is not really needed, first of all because many zones have nothing interesting really going on anyway. For those that do, alteration of history is prevented by what Carl Muckenhoupt (whose own posts on Time Zone I highly recommend as companions to this one) calls “the poverty of the game engine.” The parser understands very little beyond what you have to do to solve the game, meaning that if you try to do something to mess with history — like, say, kill Christopher Columbus — you’re not going to be able to communicate your idea anyway.

The one place where Time Zone does nod toward traditional time-travel concerns is in not letting you carry objects back in time to a point before they were invented; if you try it, the anachronistic objects are destroyed. This of course provides Roberta Williams with a way of gating her puzzle design, preventing the player from using an obviously applicable item from solving this or that puzzle. It can also be very annoying, not only because it’s all too easy to be careless and lose track of what you’re carrying where, but also because it’s not always clear to the player — or, I strongly suspect given the countless historical gaffes in the game, to Roberta either — just when an item was invented, and thus just where the (time)line of demarcation really lies. In the small blessings department, the game does at least tell you when objects are destroyed this way. Given the era and the designer, one could easily imagine it keeping mum and letting you go quite a long way before figuring out you’ve made your game unwinnable.

But I should outline the general structure of the game before we go any further. From your home base that is literally your contemporary home, you can travel to each of the seven continents in any of five times — 50 BC, 1000 AD, 1400 AD, 1700 AD, 2082 AD — to collect what you need for the climax on Neburon in 4082 AD. (The manual says 4081, but it seems to have been written back when the game was still expected to ship in 1981 — thus the neat 2100-year gap.) Oh, and you can also visit 400 million BC, but only in one location. It’s explained as being thus limited because this was before the continents as we know them came into being. The same is also claimed to be true, bizarrely, of 10,000 BC (obviously there were no geologists around On-Line). Not all of the zones need to be visited; some serve only as red herrings. In what is, depending on your point of view, either a ripoff or the funniest joke in the game (or both), Antarctica in every single time consists of just a single location. You can only get out of your time machine, say, “Gee, it’s too cold here,” and climb back inside.

Some of the zones contain historical characters drawn straight from grade-school history books, giving the game (like so much of Roberta Williams’s work) a feel of children’s literature.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note that Time Zone is not exactly rigorous about putting these characters precisely when they belong. It’s kind of tough to know to what extent Roberta messes with chronology just to be able to fit in all the cool stuff she wants to given just five time periods in which to put it all — Columbus certainly seems like a must-have, even if he is displaced by 92 years — and to what extent it’s all down to sloppy or nonexistent research. In her interview with Computer Gaming World to promote Time Zone, Roberta mentions an error she made, placing a rhea bird in Australia rather than South America. She explains the error away more disingenuously (or is this supposed to be funny?) in the manual:

To make a more interesting and challenging adventure, we have made some minor changes. For example, at one point in the game (I won’t say where) we have placed a rhea egg where you will never find a rhea bird. Anyone knowledgeable in ornithology knows that a rhea bird belong in South America (which is not where it is). This type of thing happens from time to time in Time Zone.

Worrying so much over such a minor point leaves one thinking that Time Zone‘s history must be rigorous indeed. Um, no. In addition to thinking that Pangaea still existed in 10,000 BC, the game also thinks that man invented fire in 10,000 BC. (In fact, it lets you be the one who invents fire, creating all sorts of timeline repercussions — if the game was more interested in such things, that is).

And it places brontosauruses (from the Jurassic period) and tyrannosauruses (from the Cretaceous) together in 400 million BC, hundreds of millennia too early for either. And then there’s Napoleon ruling in 1700 AD.

It’s hard for me to attribute this to the need to have cool stuff, because Louis XIV’s France was a pretty interesting historical moment in its own right. And your mission in this zone is to collect a comb and some perfume, which fits better with the Sun King’s effete court than with the more martial Napoleon. So, I must reluctantly conclude that Roberta doesn’t know her Louis XIV from her Napoleon. She also thinks that Saint Petersburg is in Asia, and that Peter the Great was the husband of Catherine the Great. “History books aren’t a lot of fun,” she asserts in the manual. Which kind of begs one to wonder why someone who doesn’t like history books is writing a game about history.

Time Zone has always had a reputation as a fearsomely unfair and difficult game. That’s true enough, but it’s not universally true when you look at in a granular way. Many — probably most — of the puzzles break down into a few repeated archetypes, such as trading one fairly obvious item for another item.

There’s even a limited but surprising amount of kindness (or “user friendliness,” as the manual says over and over; presumably that term had just come into vogue). In addition to the game’s being kind enough to tell you when you lose an item in the timestream, the inventory limit, while present, is a very generous 16 items or so. And there are technically no mazes, if we restrict the term to rooms that are not laid out so that going north after going south gets you back where you started.

There are, however, large, tedious-to-map grids of empty rooms in virtually every zone you visit, and the game never tells you which exits from a location are available, forcing you to rely on trial and error. (Thank God the Hi-Res engine doesn’t support diagonal exits.) Indeed, Time Zone may have the shabbiest ratio of rooms to things to actually do in them in adventure-game history. By my count there are 57 items in the game, about the same as each of the first two Zork games — but spread over more than 1300 rooms. If anything the ratio feels even worse than that, as you wander through endless “pastures,” “meadows,” “fields,” and “city streets.” Actually playing Time Zone feels not like a grand journey through history, but rather a long slog through a whole bunch of nothing. No wonder poor Terry Pierce was reduced to tears at having to draw this monotony.

To relieve the boredom, entering some of these otherwise meaningless locations leads to instant death. The only way to solve many of these “puzzles” is to learn from the deaths and not enter that location again.

Some of the pictures are pretty nice, up to the standard of the earlier Hi-Res Adventures. Others show the strain of drawing 1400 pictures in eight months; they look pretty bad.

Something that’s often overlooked about the Hi-Res Adventures today is that they are not simply text adventures with illustrations, after the style of, say, the Magnetic Scrolls games of the later 1980s. Right from Mystery House there was an element of interactivity to their graphics: drop an item in an area and you would see it there; open a door and you would see it open onscreen; etc. That’s quite impressive. However, occasionally, just occasionally, Roberta decides to put essential information into the picture rather than bothering to describe it in text. Because this happens relatively seldom, and because there’s so much else in those pictures that isn’t implemented in the game, these occasions are devilishly easy to miss entirely.

In the picture below, that little green thing at the bottom right that looks like an air vent is an essential oxygen mask — apparently for a person with a very weirdly shaped head, but that’s another issue — that’s going to get destroyed if we go back in time with it in the time machine with us.

Nothing in the picture below is implemented except one of the drawers, which contains a knife that you need.

Only the cabinet is implemented below, which… you know the drill.

And the tusks of the elephant skeleton are implemented as separate objects that can be pried out and taken, something I’d never suspect in a million years.

All of this is frustrating in the extreme, but none of it is really that different from the other Hi-Res Adventures. What makes Time Zone so untenable, and leads to its reputation for difficulty and cruelty, is the combinatorial-explosion factor. There’s a pretty fixed order in which you need to work your way through the zones, using items found in one to solve puzzles in the next. Yet the game gives no clue whatsoever what that order must be, leaving you hopelessly at sea about where to go next or what to work on. (And then of course if you miss something like one of the above…) By late in the game you’ll have a full inventory plus a whole collection of extra objects piled outside your time machine, and won’t even know what to take with you from zone to zone.

Throw in all of the other annoyances — the pointless sudden deaths; the huge empty maps; the items and entire zones that serve only as red herrings; the uncertainty about what you can and can’t interact with; the obstinate parser; and just a few howlingly bad puzzles to top it all off — and the result is just excruciating. Theoretically this game could be solved, but really, why would you want to? Anyone willing to put this amount of methodical, tedious work in for so little positive feedback might be better off doing something that benefits mankind, or at least earns her a paycheck.

Or maybe it can’t be solved. It wouldn’t be a Roberta Williams game without a couple of really terrible puzzles. One of those is found in Asia (should be Europe, but why quibble?) in 1700 AD, where you have to wait outside Catherine the Great’s castle for five turns for no apparent reason for her to emerge with hubby Peter the Great and drop a hat pin.

This is made especially annoying by the fact that the game doesn’t even have a WAIT verb; you have to fiddle around with endless LOOKs and the like to get the turns to pass. (If you construed from the lack of WAIT that there would be no puzzle mechanics involving time, the joke’s on you.)

The other crowning jewel is the mountainside in the Asia of 1000 AD where you must type a totally unmotivated OPEN SESAME.

Puzzles aside, Time Zone just feels a bit amateurish and sloppy most of the time. Like a piece of fiction from a beginning writer, one senses that no one is in control of its tone or message, which veer about wildly. Nowhere is this more painful than in its depictions of the non-white natives of the zones, which come off as hilariously racist — but, I’m sure, unintentionally so.

There are also weird occasions when the “children’s book” tone suddenly gives way to thoughtless violence.

So, no, Time Zone is not a very good game. The climax on Neburon, which takes two disk sides by itself, is actually the strongest part, full of sudden deaths and empty rooms but also possessed of a forward narrative drive and sense of tension that was still rare in this era, as you penetrate deeper and deeper into the alien base. If released on its own, it would have stood up as possibly the best of the Hi-Res line. As it is, though, it comes at the end of such an exhausting slog that it’s hard to really appreciate. By the time you see the victory screen — which, incidentally, makes no sense; why are the people in your home town of 1982 celebrating a victory you won in 4082? — you’re just glad it’s over, just like the team who made it were when they finally got it out the door.

Sometimes, as The Prisoner taught us, the best way to win is not to play. Time Zone is perhaps doubly disappointing because the premise has so much potential. But neither the technology nor the designer were really equipped to realize such an ambitious idea, and certainly not in the time allowed. Still, Time Zone is of undeniable historical significance, so I have the Apple II disk images and the manual for those of you who’d like to dive in.

Next time: a bit about the aftermath of Time Zone before we move on to something else.

 

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Time Zone

In January of 1981, as On-Line Systems were settling into their first office in Coarsegold, California, Roberta Williams already had three Hi-Res Adventures to her credit: Mystery House, The Wizard and the Princess, and the introductory adventure Mission: Asteroid. For her next game, she wanted to do something bold and big. Really big. She envisioned the ultimate treasure hunt, through time as well as space, in which the player would have to visit every continent at five different meticulously recreated historical moments, en route to a climax set on an alien planet in the far future that would by itself be larger than most standalone adventures.

When not working with Ken to get On-Line properly off the ground as a real business over the next six months, Roberta developed her idea, deciding exactly when and where should be included and sketching out maps and a puzzle structure as well as a simple framing story to justify it all. She had been so fascinated when first playing the original Adventure that she had “never wanted it to end.” Now, she seemed determined to get as close as possible to that ideal of infinite adventure. Time Zone just kept growing; by the time Roberta set the complete design document before Ken that summer, it had grown from an estimated five or six to twelve disk sides. This at a time when the biggest epics like Ultima and Wizardry were just spilling onto a second side for the first time.

Ken and Roberta had worked closely together on her first three games, with Roberta doing the writing and design and drawing the graphics and Ken coding it all on the computer. Now, however, Ken was busy running the full-fledged company that On-Line systems had become. Anyway, Time Zone was far too ambitious a project for just two people to tackle. So Ken assembled a team of about ten people for Time Zone, who would spend months working full-time or part-time on the game. The formation of what Ken dubbed “the Time Zone task force” marks a significant moment in the history of game development.

Previously games had been created by one or at most two or three people, each a jack-of-all-trades doing the art, design, and programming as needed. This was after all an era when much game design revolved around exploiting some technical quirk or capability of the hosting hardware, leaving precious little space between the abstracts of design and the details of implementation. Roberta Williams, who as a non-programmer as well as a female was very much the odd woman out in early 1980s game development, felt the need in a contemporary interview for Computer Gaming World to defend her contribution as a pure designer: “Sometimes I feel that people don’t think that I’m as much a part of the creative process as I claim, due to the fact that I don’t program. The designing of the game is the most important and creative part of the project (and also the most fun).” In explicitly separating programmers from artists from designers for the Time Zone project, Ken and Roberta began the march toward the modern model of big-studio development, in which the jack-of-all-trades mastermind has been superseded by teams of hundreds of specialists weaving ever more granular fragments of the whole tapestry. It seems safe to say that Time Zone‘s team was the largest ever assembled to that point to create a computer game — fittingly, as Time Zone was the closest game development got in 1981 to a modern AAA title.

Time Zone was of course to be a Hi-Res Adventure, meaning its appeal would be rooted in the pictures that would illustrate each of its locations. Arguably the most important person on the team after Roberta herself therefore became Terry Pierce, an 18-year old hired straight out of the local high school to draw 1400 pictures for the game in pencil on graph paper. Two others then laboriously traced the pictures on Apple’s Graphics Tablet, filled them in with color, and stored them on disk in a highly compressed format, all accomplished with the tools Ken had originally developed for The Wizard and the Princess. The other side of the operation was the “logistics team,” a few scripters who translated Roberta’s descriptions of geography and puzzles into Ken’s ADL (Adventure Design Language). They created each of Roberta’s “time zones” as a small, self-contained adventure game in its own right. In ostensible charge of the whole was Bob Davis, the personable fellow Ken had hired out of a local liquor store. Yes, in a career trajectory that could only have happened in 1981 and possibly only in the Oakhurst area, Davis had gone from liquor-store clerk to designer of his own game (Ulysses and the Golden Fleece, Hi-Res Adventure #4) to manager of the most ambitious game-development effort in computer history, all in a matter of months. In between finishing up his own game, he now tinkered with ADL for Time Zone and loosely supervised the other coders and artists.

As you might imagine, the whole project started to go off the rails pretty quickly. Davis was well liked by everyone — he was a guy with “a huge heart and a ton of enthusiasm” in John Williams’s words — but lacked the experience or temperament to be a project manager. And while he was adept enough with simple ADL scripting, he lacked the technical acumen needed to even come up with a plan for pulling together all of these little games his coders were creating into the monstrous whole that would be Time Zone. Meanwhile Ken, the one guy at On-Line with the technical know-how and organizational smarts to really manage the project, was kept so busy by other concerns that he could spare little attention. Still, he expected Davis and his team to deliver a completed Time Zone before Christmas — an impossible deadline even without all of the partying and other distractions that accompanied life at On-Line.

Then a savior of sorts walked through the door, in the form of one Jeff Stephenson. At 30 years old, Stephenson already had considerable experience in the computer industry, as well as the sort of rigorous understanding of the technology and the organizational skills that most of the self-taught hackers and kids around On-Line lacked. His last employer had been none other than Software Arts, developers of the most important microcomputer application in the world, VisiCalc. Upon moving from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the mountains of northern California, Stephenson decided to drop in on On-Line, the closest technology company, to see if they needed a programmer. From Hackers:

He put on cord jeans and a sport shirt for the interview; his wife suggested he dress up more. “This is the mountains,” Jeff reminded her, and drove down Deadwood Mountain to On-Line Systems. When he arrived, Ken told him, “I don’t know if you’re going to fit in here — you look kind of conservative.” He hired Jeff anyway, for $18,000 a year — $11,000 less than he’d been making at Software Arts.

Stephenson’s first assignment was to join Davis as co-head of the Time Zone project, to cut through the chaos and get the project back on track. His “conservatism” turned out to be exactly what Time Zone needed. He set everyone firmly and clearly about their appointed tasks, like would have been expected within the more businesslike confines of Software Arts. He himself made modifications to Ken’s Hi-Res Adventure engine to let them tie all of the regions in the game together, at least loosely, letting the player move her avatar from mini-adventure to mini-adventure via the time machine and to carry items with her. And he convinced another On-Line programmer, an action-game maestro named Warren Schwader, to dramatically speed up the rendering of the graphics as the player moved through this huge world. That made a game that would be, as we’ll see in my next post, very painful to play at least a modicum less painful.

By this point the focus for everyone had long ago shifted from Roberta’s original starry-eyed dream of an adventure game for (literally!) the ages to just getting the damn thing done in some reasonably acceptable form. Roberta would later say in the CGW interview, “Once we got into it and saw how big of a job it was, we were almost sorry we started it in the first place.” It’s probably safe to say that most of her team would have happily removed the “almost” from that statement. What with the time constraints, they created essentially a skeleton of Roberta’s vision, with the historical vignettes given little more atmosphere or detail than were needed to support the simple overarching puzzle structure.

Still, all those pictures remained to be drawn, bringing an unbelievable burden of work down on Terry Pierce’s thin shoulders. Almost as burdensome as the quantity of work was the sheer tedium of the subject matter: hundreds and hundreds of uninteresting “fields,” “forests,” and “city streets” to accompany the few locations with something to actually do or look at in each region. In what seems a case of bizarrely misplaced priorities today, the Hi-Res Adventure brand demanded that every single one of Time Zone‘s more than 1300 locations be given its own unique picture, even if the location itself consisted of only “You are in a forest.” Ken and Roberta knew perfectly well where their bread was buttered. Hi-Res Adventures didn’t sell so well because of deathless prose or intricate world-modeling; they advanced little beyond the Scott Adams games in these areas. No, they sold so well because of all those colorful pictures that made them some of the most visually arresting software you could run on an Apple II. And so Pierce worked furiously to crank the pictures out; John Williams remembers the poor kid “almost in tears” from the stress, but still frantically sketching away.

Even with such heroic efforts, there was no way Time Zone was going to be ready for Christmas. The project slipped into 1982, finally shipping (with a big sigh of relief from all concerned) about the beginning of March. Taking into account the sheer quantity of locations, On-Line decided the game was worth a premium price: in fact, a rather staggering list price of $99.95, about twice what anyone had dared to charge for even the most ambitious of computer games before. (Indeed, when accounting for inflation Time Zone is still quite possibly the most expensive videogame ever released.) For an advertisement, they created a mock movie poster, making the most explicit link yet between games and movies. It’s an interesting moment in this fraught relationship, a step on the way to the “interactive movies” On-Line and others would be touting a decade down the road.

Roberta also compared Time Zone to an “epic movie in the tradition of Cecile B. DeMille” in her CGW interview.

The introduction to the manual touts the size and scope of the project proudly, reminding one of the similar introduction to Wizardry‘s manual: “Time Zone has been over a year in the making”; “Roberta Williams spent over six months writing and designing the game before the first line of code for the game was actually written”; “it was the biggest project that On-Line Systems has ever embarked upon”; “it required a complete restructuring of our adventure programming procedures”; “Time Zone is by far the largest and most complex game ever written for any microcomputer.” An article in Softline stated, “This game took more than fourteen months to complete and it has been estimated that it will take people a year to solve due to its extreme complexity.” Predictably enough, an adventure fanatic named Roe Adams III finished it in just about a week, and promptly called On-Line to tell them about it. (I suspect Adams must have hacked — not because the amount of actual content in Time Zone really amounts to all that much but because of its handful of completely absurd puzzles. But I suppose a sufficiently methodical and patient man who went without sleep theoretically could solve the game in a week…)

None of the promotion helped very much. Time Zone became a notorious, high-profile flop, the first such that On-Line had ever released — and a fate it richly deserved. As John Williams wrote to me to open our discussion about the game, “It frankly wasn’t that good.” Indeed, Time Zone is something of a nadir in the annals of adventure-game design, the logical culmination of several ugly trends that I’ve been harping on about for quite some time now in this blog. It plays like a caricature of an old-school text adventure, with all of the annoyances of the form and too few of the delights, and with its rushed development peeking through from every crack and seam. More on that next time.

(Thanks for much in this post goes again to John Williams, whose memories are always invaluable to me.)

 

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