Tag Archives: trs-80

The Quill

The Quill

Let’s begin today by stepping back in time to the dawn of the PC era (and the early days of this blog): 1978. The debut of Scott Adams’s Adventureland that year also marked the debut of the world’s first reuseable adventure-gaming engine, in which a single interpreter program runs a variety of different games by being fed different databases. And reuse the system Adams did, to the tune of six titles released in 1979 alone, while the rest of the computing world set to work figuring out how the system was put together. Two TRS-80 hackers, Allan Moluf and Bruce Hanson, were particularly dedicated. By January of 1980 they were distributing to select buddies a text file which described Adams’s database format in careful detail along with a set of utilities for examining existing games. By 1981 they had written the Adventure Executor, a new interpreter capable of playing any of Adams’s games; just provide it with the database file. And their efforts culminated in early 1982 in The Adventure System, a complete authoring package that let you create new games in the Scott Adams database format as well as dissect existing ones to your heart’s content for the low, low price of $40.

The Adventure System as advertised in the March 1982 80 Microcomputing

The Adventure System as advertised in the March 1982 80 Microcomputing

For various reasons, starting with the TRS-80 platform on which it ran being rather isolated from the rest of the computing world and ending with the small print that demanded a $200 license fee to use The Adventure System to create commercial adventures, it never caught on. Moluf and Hanson, however, were not alone in their inquisitiveness. Others across the pond were also looking hard at the Scott Adams games. Their efforts would have much more lasting repercussions.

During the earliest days of personal computing in Britain, when practitioners consisted of just a few tens of thousands of soldering-iron-wielding dreamers, one Ken Reed managed to get hold of an imported TRS-80 along with some of the Scott Adams games. Like Moluf and Hanson, Reed was as interested in figuring out how they worked as he was in playing them. He doggedly pulled the system apart, and published his findings in the August 1980 Practical Computing magazine, the nearest equivalent British hobbyists had to the American hackers’ favorite Byte. Reed’s article wasn’t so obviously practical as the work of Moluf and Hanson. It didn’t provide exact specifications of the Scott Adams database format, nor tools for hacking on the games, nor even a complete original game or a complete interpreter for running a game. No, it provided something that in the long run would prove to be much more empowering: a detailed proposal for making an engine similar to Adams’s for yourself, complete with pseudo-code listings that could be applied to virtually any platform you had handy and knew how to program.

The impact the article had on British gaming over the following decade can hardly be overstated. Richard Turner and Chris Thornton, two university students, formed Artic Computing and used the article as the basis for their own line of Adams-like adventures that began with Planet of Death, likely the first commercial text adventure written in Britain, in June of 1981. Many variations on the article’s approach were soon appearing in other games. But its most important descendent was not a standalone game at all but a complete adventure-writing system similar in spirit to The Adventure System. This system, however, got several things right that the older system had gotten so wrong. It was called The Quill, and it was the brainchild of a Welshman in his late twenties named Graeme Yeandle.

When Yeandle analyzed those early Artic games and found them to be put together in a way suspiciously similar to Reed’s system, his first reaction was to think that he could do that just as well as Turner and Thornton. He went so far as to write to Artic to offer his services, but never got a reply to his letter. Whilst messing about with adventure-game databases and interpreters on his new Spectrum, he noticed an advertisement for a local publisher called Gilsoft, located just twelve miles from his Cardiff home — in fact, in the town where he had been born, Barry. He decided to pay their office a visit. On doing so, he learned that “they” were a single teenager named Tim Gilberts, and the “office” was Gilberts’s bedroom in the family home. Still, Gilberts was bright and ambitious, and the two hit it off. (Gilberts thought Yeandle “looked just like Clive Sinclair.”) When Yeandle told him about his adventure-game experiments, Gilberts encouraged him to make a real game for him to market. He ended up writing two, Time-Line and Magic Castle, which Gilberts sold through modest classified ads in the magazines for £5 each (the former, the smaller and simpler of the pair, as the companion to another game on the same tape).

About this time Yeandle realized, like many a programmer before him, that he could save a great deal of time in the long run if he spent some time now improving his development tools. While he was using a variation of the design scheme from Reed’s article, he was still constructing the database files laboriously by hand. He discussed with Gilberts his idea for a menu-driven data-entry system to automate the process. If it worked out it could become a sort of house adventure-authoring system which Gilberts could share with other prospective authors. Gilberts enthusiastically agreed, and Yeandle spent most of his nights and weekends during 1983 — this was still very much a sideline; he was employed full-time as a systems analyst — working on what would become The Quill. As the program grew more refined, Gilberts made a new proposal: instead of just using it in-house to make more adventures, why not sell it as a product in its own right, and open adventure authorship to anyone with a Speccy? And so was the adventure-game scene in Britain changed forever.

The Quill was greeted rapturously when it debuted just in time for the 1983 Christmas season. Micro-Adventurer magazine, which appropriately enough debuted at almost the same instant, called it a “revolution” in their very first issue: “Once in a while, a product comes along to revolutionize the whole microcomputer scene. The Quill is one such, and will change the face of the microcomputer adventure.” The Quill sold for just £15, and — and this is absolutely key to everything that followed — Gilsoft asked for no cash royalty for commercial works created with it, only that you insert a little “Made with The Quill!” blurb somewhere in the final work. Most other commercial systems for creating adventure and CRPG games, both before and after The Quill, didn’t offer such convenient terms, sharply limiting their appeal.

Sales were so brisk that Gilsoft soon gave up bothering to sell much of anything else; Gilberts was more than content to run the house that The Quill had built. Within weeks of its release so-called “Quilled adventures” were everywhere. By a year or so after that at least half of the adventures on the British market were Quilled — and that’s not even considering all of the less ambitious creators who just toyed around making games for family and friends, or released their games for free into public-domain channels.

About a year after The Quill, Gilsoft released The Illustrator, which let users add graphics to their games. It ended up selling almost as well as The Quill itself, and soon the requisite illustrated Quilled games were flooding the market. Gilsoft also funded ports of the system to most of the other viable British platforms, although sadly there was no easy way of moving an adventure database created on, say, a Spectrum to the BBC Micro or Commodore 64 short of reentering the whole by hand. As the system spread across Europe, now catching onto the PC revolution at last, countless souls used it to create games in their native languages.

Quilled games in Swedish, Italian, Spanish, and Czech

Quilled games in Swedish, Italian, Spanish, and Czech

Many of the earliest adventures in German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and the Scandinavian and Eastern European languages were Quilled. An attempt was also made to market The Quill in North America as The Adventure Writer, but without much success. It was entrusted there to a tiny company called Codewriter who lacked the resources to make it known and widely distributed in that more intimidating and elitist marketplace. And so, like so much else in the bifurcated computing culture of the 1980s, The Quill remained an exclusively European phenomenon.

The Quill's menu system, where thousands of adventure authors spent thousands of hours

The Quill’s menu system, where thousands of adventure authors spent thousands of hours

Given the sorts of tools available to adventure writers today, The Quill is bound to seem underwhelming when we load it up on our Speccy emulator. One doesn’t really program a game at all using The Quill; one simply enters its data, menu by menu, filling in its rooms, its objects, its text. The logic available to the author is hard-coded into the interpreter, and not very complex at that. Nor is the process of creation a very intuitive one. It’s very difficult to get any sense of the big picture from all of these granular menu views. One is best served by planning one’s game out entirely on paper, using The Quill itself very much as the simple data-entry front-end it was originally conceived as. Even on those terms many trivial tasks are painfully tedious. The parser doesn’t really parse at all. There’s just a simple pattern matcher, which the author must micro-manage to the finest detail. One cannot simply define an object as takeable, for example, but must hand-enter the command that will allow it to be taken and dropped — and must do this separately for every single takeable object in the game. (Much of this tedium was removed in later versions of The Quill. See John Elliott’s comment below.)

Amidst all of the excitement following the system’s debut, some did voice a concern that it would lead to a rash of games that were not only primitive but all primitive in the same idiosyncratic way. Such fears were by no means entirely baseless. To some extent this is problem with any authoring system; I wouldn’t be the first to note that Graham Nelson’s droll English diction has become the voice of contemporary interactive fiction thanks to the default messages of Inform, the mostly widely used development system today. The Quill’s limitations and lack of flexibility merely make it even more immediately obvious to any experienced adventurer that she is playing a Quilled game. That said, The Quill’s relatively long life gave plenty of people plenty of time to dig deep, to learn to push it and to learn to hack it. Much better, more complex works could be created with it than you might expect after a few minutes of fiddling around in its menus. Given the limitations of the 48 K Spectrum on which it runs, The Quill is put together in a very smart way. The average Quilled game is not only easier to create but more pleasant to play than (at the least) the average BASIC game. Tellingly, no one managed to come up with a system notably better for the Spectrum and equivalent machines despite the obvious commercial potential of such a beast.

Until Yeandle himself, that is: in late 1986 GilSoft released his second-generation system, the Professional Adventure Writer (PAW). Arriving fairly late in the day for text adventures as a mainstream gaming staple, at least in Britain, it didn’t become quite the phenomenon that The Quill had been, but did power many more games throughout Europe well into the 1990s.

Indeed, it’s for that legacy of empowerment that PAW and (especially) The Quill deserve to be remembered today. It’s not that established software houses didn’t use The Quill; they did, to a surprising degree. Even Artic Computing, who had ignored Yeandle earlier, started using the Quill to create some of their new adventures. So did no less a light than Melbourne House of The Hobbit fame. But it’s mostly for all the little guys that The Quill seemed a minor miracle. North America had nothing comparable, and, presumably in consequence, far fewer independent voices making and selling text adventures. Europe, by contrast, was blessed in having not only The Quill but a marketplace willing to accept and buy works by the inspired amateurs who used it. Gilberts himself was well aware of the democratizing effect of The Quill:

Anyone who wants to write can produce a novel without technical knowledge. You may not create great art but there’s nothing to stop you trying. The Quill has opened up the same kind of opportunity to those who enjoy adventuring. We’ve tried to provide the computer equivalent of pen and paper.

No, most Quilled adventures are not great art or even great games, and they’re not likely to get as much attention on this blog as they may deserve given that I have so many other titles that qualify at least as the latter to sort through. Yet many are personal, idiosyncratic works of the sort gaming could always use more of. The best of them have a real writerly personality, another thing always in short supply in gaming fictions. Some of the most fun, and arguably the most culturally useful, Quilled adventures are the ones that satirize the solemn pretensions (especially of the high-fantasy stripe) of mainstream gaming culture then and now — titles like Bored of the Rings, The Boggit, Loads of Midnight, The Big Sleaze, or the immortal Dildo and the Dark Lord (did I mention that Quilled adventures were also more liable to traffic in sex than the titles from bigger publishers?).

The person with the most amazing Quill story of all might just be John Wilson, the founder of Zenobi Software. After publishing a few of his own Quilled games on the label in the mid-1980s and seeing them do fairly well, Wilson began soliciting games from outside authors. Even as the bigger publishers gradually got out of text adventures, Wilson built a successful if modest business out of selling the games via mail order, communicating with customers via a newsletter and whatever magazine advertising he could afford that month. Zenobi alone published almost 250 games, the vast majority of them created with The Quill or PAW, before hanging it up at last in the shockingly late year of 1997, by which time Gilsoft and the rest of the gaming milieu that had birthed Zenobi were long gone. All of which is enough to qualify Zenobi as the most prolific of commercial text-adventure publishers, the most long-lived, and the last to give it up, and all by a wide margin.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, The Quill and PAW were easily the most widely used adventure-creation systems of the 1980s. In the whole of computing history they’re rivaled only by Graham Nelson’s various Inform incarnations, which may have powered a comparable number of games by now but have taken some twenty years to do it. The architect of this creative explosion, Graeme Yaendle, never gave up his day job and never made as much money from it as you might expect. He recalls that in the wake of The Quill’s first gush of popularity in 1984 his royalty checks from Gilsoft actually amounted to more than his regular pay check — but “that didn’t last long.” The Quill was, even more so than most software, widely pirated. It’s safe to say that many of those Quilled games being sold in magazine adverts were themselves made with pirated copies; GilSoft didn’t have any practical way to keep tabs on who had bought and who hadn’t. Even their modest request that users include a mention of The Quill in their Quilled games also went unenforced and widely ignored. And consumers will always outnumber creators in any time and place, meaning that even an insanely popular engine of creation like The Quill will never sell more than a fraction of the copies of a hit game. Gilsoft and Yeandle could probably have made considerably more money from The Quill by pricing it higher and being more aggressive about asserting their rights in various areas. But Gilsoft wasn’t Microsoft and young Gilberts was no Bill Gates; he was happy if the business just paid for “my beer and a car.” Anyway, The Quill was so successful precisely because it was so cheap and easy; changes to Gilsoft’s business model could likely only have diminished its impact.

As a consolation prize for fame and fortune, Yeandle and Gilberts got to see their creation getting used all around them, the most satisfying validation any programmer or engineer (or artist?) can enjoy. And they got to know that their work was allowing people to be creative in a medium that would otherwise have been inaccessible to them. At least in retrospect, that seems like more than enough.

(Much of this article was sourced from an old interview with Yaendle from The Solution Archive. Yeandle’s now-defunct home page was also invaluable. And see also the Gilsoft features in Sinclair User #28 and #37. I discovered much of Moluf and Hanson’s work while digging through old TRS-80 file archives, an often productive if exhausting way of researching.)


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I’ve already introduced some hackers on this blog who defied pop-culture stereotypes of blinkered nerddom with a remarkable range of interests and activities outside of computers. Marc Blank, for example, managed to finish medical school while moonlighting with MIT’s Dynamic Modeling Group, where he learned enough to become the most important technical architect behind Infocom’s technology. Andrew Greenberg of Wizardry fame went on to become a lawyer, and now “hacks the law with glee.” In its essence the attraction of hacking is the joy of coming to understand a complex, dynamic, semi-autonomous system, and then bending it to your will. Plenty else in the modern world beyond computers offers some of the same experience, medicine and law perhaps not least among them. Not to mention, to choose an obvious parallel for this blog, games.

The fellow I want to introduce you to today, Doug Carlston, had a background at least as eclectic as anyone I’ve mentioned earlier. Born in 1947 as the son of a Harvard-educated theologian, Doug by the time he was 30 already had a dizzying resume to his name: a Bachelor’s in social psychology from Harvard, studies in international economics at Johns Hopkins, and a law degree from Harvard Law School. In addition to his studies, he had also run a business designing and building houses; spent a year teaching in Botswana; written an introductory textbook on Swahili; written other language guides for American Express. But by 1977 Doug, two years out of law school, was bored, stuck with an uninteresting job with a huge law firm on the 82nd floor of Chicago’s Sears Tower. As a junior lawyer, he got “the kind of work nobody else wants to do,” like conducting client surveys and doing wills and trusts. Feeling “fat and slow” in addition to bored, he packed up and moved to a small town in Maine with a view to getting back to nature. There he set up an independent law practice serving the locals. That proved to chiefly mean defending clients who ran afoul of the stiff local hunting ordinances. Trouble was, virtually all of his clients were clearly guilty, and many never bothered to pay him for his services, making the practice both uninteresting and not terribly lucrative. To help with the latter problem, Doug began to dabble once again in housebuilding in addition to the law. Helping with the former was the TRS-80 he’d bought, ostensibly to help with bookkeeping at the office. Now, however, he just couldn’t stop playing with it.

The TRS-80 was far from Doug’s first exposure to computing. In fact, computing was yet another of those myriad of interests and activities that had marked his life to that point. He had been introduced to computers as early as 1964, when he attended a sort of summer camp for gifted teenagers who might be interested in becoming engineers. There he first dabbled in FORTRAN programming, finding it fascinating. When he went off to Harvard, he found a job there as a “programming assistant,” basically a tutor to help other students bend the machines to their will. When the time came to lock up the computer lab for the day, Doug and his buddies would stuff chewing gum into the locks so that they could sneak back in in the middle of the night and hack. Still, by the time he bought his TRS-80 in 1978 those days were many years in the past.

The TRS-80 served to reignite the old passion. Doug did use it to code programs useful to his practice, but he also embarked on an ambitious game, which he called Galactic Empire. It’s a work of considerable historical importance in its own right, quite apart from its place in Doug’s career. It was, you see, the first recognizable example of a “4X” (“explore, expand, exploit, exterminate”) grand strategy game to appear on a PC, the ancestor of such seminal later titles as Civilization and Master of Orion. The player begins Galactic Empire with a single medium-sized planet and a fleet of 200 ships. From this starting point she is expected to conquer the 19 other worlds of the game’s galaxy. Along the way she must manage each conquered planet’s economy, juggling taxes and population, in order to build more ships for her fleet. As you would expect of a game written in BASIC on a 16 K TRS-80, Galactic Empire is absurdly stripped down and primitive in comparison to its successors. Yet the core attributes — and the vision — are there.

What happened next will be familiar to anyone who read my earlier articles about other pioneers of the early software industry. Doug came up with some packaging and began selling his game directly to local computer stores, as well as through outlets for semi-professional software like SoftSide magazine’s TRS-80 Software Exchange and a similar organ run by Creative Computing. When Scott Adams started Adventure International, he signed up there as well. (Occupying a weird ground somewhere between software publisher and catalog merchant, AI did not demand an exclusive license to the software they “published.”) Meanwhile he made a second game, Galactic Trader, which replaced military with economic conquest. By the end of 1979, the two games together were bringing in about $1000 per month.

That $1000 was very welcome, because otherwise the bottom was falling out for Doug financially. The second oil crisis precipitated by the Iranian Revolution had seriously damaged the economy, and Doug could no longer sell his houses. Meanwhile it was becoming increasingly clear that his country law practice was not sustainable on its own, at least not in this economy. Barely two years after coming to Maine, he decided to cut his losses and move on, yet again, to something else. With no clear plan as yet what that something would be, he piled into his old Chevy Impala along with his 220-pound mastiff (in the front seat) and his computer (in the back) to visit his little brother in Eugene, Oregon. The car started to die before he made it there, in the vicinity of Yellowstone National Park. Doug:

Something went out with the transmission. It started throwing out smoke. Fortunately, by the time I got into western Oregon it was mostly downhill to Eugene because I had the windows rolled down so we could breathe because the smoke was coming up through the transmission. I couldn’t go more than 15 miles an hour and the windshield wipers wouldn’t work and it was a blizzard outside. I was out there kind of working the wipers by hand going downhill. Finally, we got down into Pendleton, which was just a lot lower than Walla Walla, and we could see again. We made it to about five miles from Eugene when the car finally gave up and my brother came and got me.

Said brother, Gary Carlston, had also made an interesting life of it so far. Like Doug, Gary had gone to Harvard, where he had planned, largely on a whim, to major in Celtic Studies. However, that program was full. On the same floor were the offices for Scandinavian Studies. He knew that the Carlston family had originally come to the United States from Sweden, and like his brother he was fascinated by languages, so what the hell… six years later, he had a Master’s in Scandinavian Languages and Literature. In the midst of that, Gary decided to spend one summer holiday in, appropriately enough, Sweden. An accomplished basketball player and coach, he got into a pick-up game with some locals there. One thing led to another, and Gary found himself returning the following year for a gig that was, in Steven Levy’s words, “so desirable that grown men gasped when he mentioned it”: coaching a Swedish women’s basketball team. Gary himself would later say, “Most girls in Sweden don’t look like the tall model type you’d expect.” Pause… wait for it. “This team did, though.” Whatever its perks, he proved to be good at the fundamentals of his job, leading the team to three championships and two runners-up in five years.

With Harvard and basketball behind him, Gary was faced with making a living in the real world. He briefly taught Swedish in a summer program, but the language was hardly in huge demand in the United States. He worked for a year as a director of the March of Dimes charity in Eugene, but he hated it, and finally quit. That was in the summer of 1979. When brother Doug arrived for his visit, Gary had already spent six months fruitlessly looking for another permanent job while trying to bring in a little something selling reflectors to the parents of schoolchildren.

So, the two brothers, both completely broke, compared and contrasted their misfortune and wondered what the hell to do next. Then Doug, remembering the one thing that had been going pretty well for him lately, suggested that they start a real software publisher to sell his games instead of relying on the semi-professional distribution networks. The very non-computer-literate Gary allegedly replied, “What’s software?” He took some convincing, but, with no other prospects on the horizon, finally agreed. Brøderbund Software was officially founded on February 25, 1980, with $7000 the brothers were able to scrounge from their last savings and their family. As Doug later told Forbes magazine, the company was born at that place and moment only “because I was stuck without a car and didn’t have the money to buy a new one.”

The name “Brøderbund” itself is of course an odd one that would never pass muster with a corporate public-relations department today. It actually first appears in Doug’s very first game, Galactic Empire, where it’s the name of one of the warring factions. “Brøderbund” is a compound noun that is vaguely recognizable to speakers of a number of languages, but isn’t quite correct in any of them. In Danish and Norwegian, the word “brødre” is the plural of “bror,” which means “brother.” (The “ø” is a special vowel found only in Danish and Norwegian; it’s pronounced like the German “ö,” and, also like “ö,” is often used in plural forms of nouns.) It’s probably acceptable to change it to “brøder” in a compound word, to make pronunciation easier. However, the second part of the name, “bund,” is in no sense correct. The intended meaning is obviously the German “Bund,” meaning a bond or union. Yet in Danish or Norwegian the correct word would be “forbund”; “bund” alone means a ground or base, obviously not the intended meaning. So, what we have here is a mash-up of Danish and German — or an example of a sort of pidgin Danish, if you prefer.

Which is not to say that the Carlston brothers didn’t know exactly what they were doing in creating the name. Both were fascinated by languages, and enjoyed this sort of linguistic play. They chose to use the Danish and Norwegian word for “brother” in place of Gary’s more familiar Swedish because Swedish uses German-style umlauts; thus the word would have become “bröder.” The problem with “bröder” was that the “ö” would be impossible to represent on computer screens of the time. The “ø,” however, could be represented by simply typing a zero; then as (sometimes) now, computer displays used the slash to easily distinguish “0″ from “o.” This also made the name a clever play on computer technology itself. Even in their professional copy, where the proper character would presumably have been available, the company would often write “Brøderbund” as “Br0derbund” to reinforce the computer connection. As for pronunciation… let’s not even get into that. Suffice to say that everyone just said the name as “Broderbund,” although that’s not correct if we insist on reading it as a Scandinavian word.

Linguistic issues aside, Brøderbund was not a stunning success in its early months. They did have three games to sell, in the form of Doug’s Galactic trilogy. (He had recently completed a third and final game in the series.) Yet, with Softsel yet to be founded, software distribution to retail was in a confused and uncertain state, and neither brother was naturally suited to cold-calling stores to try to sell them on their products. May of 1980 was the low point; it seems incredible, but Doug claims that sales for that entire month were exactly $0.00. Then two things happened that would begin to turn the company around.

At the very first trade show at which they exhibited, the West Coast Computer Faire of March 1980, the Carlstons had made the acquantence of the Japanese software company Starcraft. In June, they got a call from them. As I mentioned in a recent post, Starcraft would later make a big name for itself within Japan by porting and translating Western games for the domestic market. At this point, however, they were reaching out to the West with a view to moving software in the other direction. They had coded several solid action games for the Apple II. Now they were looking for an American partner to sell them for them. This was a huge break, not only because the flashier Starcraft titles diversified Brøderbund’s portfolio greatly when contrasted with Doug’s more cerebral text-oriented strategy games, but also because these games ran on the Apple II, already a much more vibrant and healthy software platform than the Radio Shack-strangled TRS-80. From this point forward, Brøderbund would also switch their emphasis to the Apple II, porting the Galactic trilogy over and developing most of their new software for that platform first.

Shortly after the Starcraft deal was made, Gary got a call from his beloved old basketball colleagues from Sweden, saying they were coming to San Francisco and wanted to meet him there. When he told them that he didn’t have the money to come, they said they could pay for half of the trip — for a one-way ticket from Eugene to San Francisco. The brothers hatched a plan: Gary would fill his suitcase with software, then visit every computer store he could find in the Bay area, attempting to sell the stuff to them personally and hopefully earn enough to get home again. It worked beautifully; he sold almost $2000 worth of software. In the absence of a proper distribution network, the way forward was now clear: they must visit stores personally to sell the owners on their games. At the end of July, Doug took off on a zigzagging road trip to Boston and back, and sold some $15,000 worth of games on the way.

Still, it was a fairly time-consuming and expensive way of moving product, and times remained tight. Doug:

We were going weeks where we only ate on three days; things were that tight. We had used up all my savings from being an attorney and were maxed out on my credit card. My parents didn’t have any money. [In] October my mother lent us $2000 that she had inherited and her sister also lent us $2000.

Then, near the end of the year, Starcraft gave them a goldmine in the form of Apple Galaxian, a perfect clone of a new hit arcade game from another Japanese company, Namco. Soon enough people would be getting sued over far less blatant copying, but it was, ironically given the company’s later reputation for integrity and innovation, this unabashed arcade ripoff that really established Brøderbund as a major player in the software industry. Doug claims today to have not even been aware at first that it was a facsimile of someone else’s game, as the game had just recently been introduced to North American arcades.

Critically, it was at just this point that Softsel, the first proper software distributor, arrived on the scene, making it much easier for Brøderbund and other companies to get their products into stores around the country without the necessity for personal meet-and-greets. Bob Leff of Softsel played a key, and very personal, role in Apple Galaxian‘s success. Doug:

When I sent him a copy of this new game, he said, “We love it, and I want 5000 copies right away.” And I told him, “I’d love to do it, but I don’t have 5000 disks, and I don’t have enough money to buy 5000 disks.” He said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll lend you the money. You buy the disks and I’ll lend you the money as long as you send them all to me.” I said okay. And he sold everything within a month.

Brøderbund’s sales went from $10,000 in November of 1980 to $55,000 in December, all on the strength of Apple Galaxian. In fact, their sales for December amounted to more than those for the entire rest of the year. Apple Galaxian topped the Softalk magazine chart as the bestselling Apple II program in the country for three months. (Yes, it even outsold VisiCalc during that period.) With both Namco and, oddly, Apple themselves beginning to make legal rumbles, Brøderbund changed the name to Alien Rain in the spring of 1981, and it continued a bestseller for quite some months under its new moniker.

On the back of Apple Galaxian/Alien Rain, the Carlstons could begin to hire some employees and make bigger, more ambitious deals with a growing stable of outside developers. They brought in their younger sister Cathy, who had been unhappy in her job as a retail buyer for Lord and Taylor, to take the role of office manager. And they branched out into productivity software, for which they would soon become more famous than they were for their games. Bank Street Writer, an innovative word processor, was a particular hit, as was the first really complete payroll package to be released for PCs. In the summer of 1981, they left Eugene, which they felt was just too isolated and small to be conducive to their business and which had a horrible problem with fog that sometimes shut down the airport for a week or more at a time, for San Rafael, California, a town in the vicinity of San Francisco that was most famous for being the home of George Lucas and his production company Lucasfilm. In typically unpretentious fashion, they effected the move by renting three U-Haul trucks, packing everything up, and driving the lot down themselves.

You’ll have a hard time finding anyone who knew or worked with the Carlstons with much bad to say about them. For years the siblings each took a regular shift on Brøderbund’s production line, by all indications not as a gimmick but out of a real, heartfelt desire to demonstrate “the dignity in all of the work” at the company, and to have a chance to bond and really talk with their employees. Indeed, they found themselves caring more for their employees than any business guide would recommend, sometimes giving them a second chance even after they were caught stealing. Doug: “It turns out that Gary was the only person who could fire people — which is a valuable skill. He didn’t like it but he was able to do it.” Doug also demonstrated what would seem a hopelessly naive attitude toward his direct competitors. He called them all the “brotherhood,” and even wrote a book in 1985 (the long out-of-print Software People) to sing their praises. Somehow he and his siblings got rich in the cutthroat world of capitalism in the most subversive way imaginable: by just being really nice and fair to everyone, and never losing their idealism about the software they produced. Or anyway, that was most of it. As a story I’m about to retell will illustrate, there was a certain competitive edge to be found under their more cuddly qualities.

Everyone liked the Carlstons, but Brøderbund forged a special bond with On-Line Systems. Although the religious Carlston clan did not share the Williams’ taste for partying, the two companies were otherwise remarkably similar. Both were founded at almost the same time; both focused their early efforts on the Apple II; both enjoyed a relaxed internal culture unconcerned with rank or title; both published a diverse array of software, mostly from outside programmers, rather than specializing like, say, Infocom; both were headed by erstwhile hackers who found less and less time to write code as their businesses grew; both shared the conviction that they were doing something that really mattered for the future; both would ultimately prove to be long-term survivors and winners in a brutal industry, outliving virtually all of their other peers. Especially after making the move to San Rafael, the Williams and the Carlstons saw quite a lot of one another, and shared more trade secrets than any MBA would recommend.

The Carlstons were naturally all invited on that On-Line-sponsered, era-defining whitewater-rafting trip in the summer of 1981. One evening on that trip Doug and Ken Williams seriously discussed merging their two companies, but ultimately decided that it wouldn’t make sense. Normally a company merges with another to get something it lacks, but their two companies were so similar that it was hard to see what that something could be, in the case of either — not to mention the stress of sorting out locations, products lines, management structures, etc. Most of all, it became pretty clear that neither Ken nor Doug was very interested in giving up any control of the company he had founded. Instead they would continue as unusually friendly competitors for more than 15 years.

Another incident from the trip shows why that may have been for the best. While drifting down the river, the group came to a spot where “the water was deep and smooth, and cliffs rose up above the river banks.” Ken shouted to stop the boats, so he and whoever else wanted to could climb up to the cliffs and dive off. Quite a large number, including Roberta and Doug and his sister Cathy, who had swum competitively, decided to join him. At the top, however, Ken got cold feet, even as others were taking the plunge. He begged Doug to go back down with him and Roberta, so they wouldn’t have to be the only chickens in the group. Doug said no, and, to encourage him, suggested that they all four hold hands and jump off together. Ken agreed, they joined hands and ran toward the edge — but Ken balked again. In the end he and Roberta climbed back down in shame, while Doug and Cathy made the leap. “I pushed myself a little further than I was ready to handle,” Ken said. They were all friends, Doug layer wrote, “but we all like to win, and if the other falters, we aren’t likely to wait too long for him to catch up.” In his own quiet way Doug was as driven to win as the blustery Ken — or, as demonstrated by that moment on the top of the cliff, perhaps more so.

Brøderbund may have been having more and more success with their productivity software, but they were hardly ready to abandon games. Indeed, their action games were amongst the most popular and highly regarded on the Apple II. We’ll look at a particularly important title in their stable, released just about a year after the rafting adventure, next time.

(The early history of Brøderbund has been very well documented. The most useful sources for this article were: Steven Levy’s Hackers; Doug Carlston’s own Software People (out of print); the lengthy interview Doug Carlston conducted with The Computer History Museum in 2004; and a profile of the company in the September 1984 Creative Computing.)


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Selling Zork

When we left off, it was late summer, 1979, and seven of the nine partners involved with Infocom were living in Boston, working various day jobs, and discussing as time allowed just what the newly minted company should actually do. Meanwhile, the other two partners, Marc Blank and Joel Berez, were living in Pittsburgh and doing something more practical about the question, designing — entirely on paper at this stage — a system for getting Zork (or at least half of it) from the PDP-10 to the microcomputer. As Blank and Berez continued their work that fall, they became more and more convinced that, yes, this could actually work, and so began lobbying the others back in Boston to make Zork Infocom’s first project. Their case was compelling enough that even a reluctant Al Vezza finally agreed.

As it happened, Berez had been accepted for a graduate business program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He moved back to Boston that November for that — and to take the title of President of the still largely theoretical Infocom. Faced with being trapped in Pittsburgh all by himself while his friends implemented his designs, Blank made the rather personally momentous decision to drop out of his medical residency and come to Boston as well. Thus, as 1980 dawned the proverbial gang was all back together again, and work on a new Zork was proceeding apace.

With their connections at MIT and DEC, PDP-10 computer time was not hard to come by even for those at Infocom who had officially left MIT. Indeed, for all that their ultimate goal was to sell Zork on the micros, Infocom continued at this stage to do their work entirely on the PDP-10; perhaps the old motto of “We hate micros!” was still not entirely dead. Blank and Lebling wrote on the PDP-10 the complete ZIL development system, including the compiler and, for testing purposes, the first working Z-Machine virtual machine. Remarkably, the conceptual design that Blank and Berez had sketched out on napkins and scrap paper turned out perfectly workable in reality. As I noted in my last post, the reimplementation in ZIL even gave them the opportunity to improve on the original Zork in some ways.

Even when the time came to leave the PDP-10, Infocom’s biases showed through; the second Z-Machine implementation was not for a Radio Shack or an Apple, but for a DEC PDP-11. While the PDP-10 was DEC’s flagship model, big and powerful enough that it probably deserves to be labeled a mainframe rather than a minicomputer, the PDP-11 was the company’s smaller, cheaper bread-and-butter model. DEC is estimated to have sold over 170,000 of them during the 1970s alone. Relatively portable (if being able to move a computer with only a single van can count as “portable”) and requiring no raised floor or other data-center machinations, PDP-11s were everywhere: in factories, in laboratories, in air-traffic control centers — and in Joel Berez’s bedroom(!). The PDP-11 already had a Zork in a sense, having been the first target platform of that FORTRAN port of Dungeon, but that didn’t stop Infocom from making PDP-11 Zork their first commercial product. Relatively ubiquitous as the PDP-11 was, the market was not exactly a commercial gaming stronghold; Zork reportedly sold less than 100 copies there. (One of which recently surfaced on eBay; see Jason Scott’s Get Lamp site for a scan of the surprisingly thorough — albeit typewritten and mimeographed — manual.) Clearly, Infocom needed to get Zork onto the microcomputers.

In that spirit, Infocom purchased a TRS-80 system, and Scott Cutler, one of the few partners with any real microcomputer experience, set to work with Blank’s help to build a Z-Machine for it. The moment of truth came at last:

Scott and Marc demonstrated that Zork I was alive in it by starting the game and actually collecting points with the incantation “N.E.OPEN.IN.” (It’s certainly no less inspiring than “Come here, Mr. Watson; I want you!”)

It’s always a fraught moment when a programming project finally comes to life and does something. I remember my excitement when my own Z-Machine interpreter, Filfre, first printed out the opening text to the first game I elected to test it with, Infidel. I can only imagine Blank and Cutler’s excitement, when all of this was so new and the stakes were so much higher. Anyway, the Z-Machine concept worked. Once the game was completely playable, Infocom, heirs to an institutional computing tradition of doing things the right way, did something virtually unprecedented for a microcomputer game: they put their new game through rigorous, repeated testing. Their star tester was an MIT student named Mike Dornbrook, who fell in love with the game and obsessed over it endlessly, crafting lovingly detailed maps of its geography and working to iron out not just technical problems but dodgy puzzles and parser difficulties. (If only On-Line Systems, Scott Adams, and other developers had a similar patience and commitment to quality in these early days…)

Ongoing testing aside, Infocom had a real, marketable product. Now they just needed to decide how to sell it. One option was to do what Ken Williams was deciding to do at about this time, to go it alone. With little experience or knowledge of the young microcomputer industry, however, that seemed risky, and no one was excited about trying to devise packaging and duplicating thousands (hopefully!) of disks. They therefore began shopping Zork to publishers. An approach to Microsoft was rebuffed by the marketing department; they already had their own text adventure, Adventure itself, and apparently felt one was enough for any publisher. Later Bill Gates, who was a fan of the PDP-10 Zork, heard about the offer and tried to reopen the subject, but by then Infocom was already in talks with Dan Fylstra of Personal Software, leaving a Microsoft Zork to history as a fascinating might-have-been.

Personal Software has largely been forgotten today, but at the time it was the brightest star of the young software industry, easily eclipsing Microsoft. Founded by Peter R. Jennings and Fylstra, a founding editor of the seminal Byte magazine, PS hit a goldmine in 1979 when it reached an agreement with Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston to publish VisiCalc for the Apple II. Aided by some smart PS advertising that properly emphasized the revolutionary nature of this truly revolutionary product, VisiCalc was by the time Infocom came calling the talk of the business world and the software hit of the young microcomputer industry, eventually selling in the hundreds of thousands. VisiCalc not only made PS the biggest software publisher on the planet and the subject of profiles by the likes of Time magazine, but also gave them huge power within the industry. This power extended even to Apple itself; countless customers were putting the cart before the horse, buying Apple IIs just to have a computer to run their new copy of VisiCalc on. It was the first “killer app” of the PC era, and sold all of the Apple IIs that that label would imply. With money and power like that, PS certainly seemed not a bad way for Infocom to get their new game out there. Fylstra had attended business school at MIT, and was acquainted from there with both Vezza and the PDP-10 version of his product. It didn’t take Berez and Vezza much time to get a deal done which even included a sorely needed advance on future royalty payments, what with Infocom having pretty much spent their initial $11,500 on hardware, testers, and PDP-10 time.

In between their other tasks, the other partners wrote a couple of magazine articles to help drum up anticipation. “How to Fit a Large Program into a Small Machine,” a cagey explanation of the concepts of the virtual machine and virtual memory, appeared in Creative Computing that July; “Zork and the Future of Computerized Fantasy Simulations,” a more theoretical article on the burgeoning art of the text adventure, appeared in Byte‘s big “adventure” issue in December. Having not yet come up with the elegant name of “interactive fiction,” Lebling saddled Zork and its peers with the rather unwieldy “computerized fantasy simulations” (“CFP”) label in the latter. As it appeared the TRS-80 version of Zork was just coming onto the market under the PS imprint.

Initial sales were not overwhelming; the TRS-80 version sold about 1500 copies in its first nine months. This figure can perhaps be partly attributed to the unimaginative and halfhearted marketing of PS, who in the wake of the VisiCalc juggernaut were increasingly uncertain whether they wanted to be involved with games at all. It’s also true, however, that the TRS-80 software market never really thrived in the way that sales of TRS-80 hardware might make you expect. A big culprit was Radio Shack’s own policies. They insisted on selling in their stores only software published under their own imprint. Yet they offered developers a very paltry royalty compared to the rest of the industry, and refused to even properly credit them on the software itself, preferring the image of an all-benevolent Tandy Corporation that apparently dropped immaculate software creations out of its rear end. Owners of other computer stores, meanwhile, such as the ComputerLand outlets that were exploding across the country, left Radio Shack to sell and service its own machines, instead concentrating on other platforms. It’s likely that the TRS-80 Zork fell at least partially into this distributional black hole that was already in danger of making the TRS-80 an also-ran in contrast to the young microcomputer industry’s newly anointed darling, the Apple II. In fact, that very December Apple went public, making its founders and about 300 others instant millionaires — the first big tech IPO, and a sign that soon the “microcomputer industry” would just be the “computer industry.”

Speaking of which: Bruce Daniels, the only member of the original Zork team who hadn’t joined Infocom, had accepted a job with Apple and moved to California after graduation. He agreed to create a Z-Machine for the Apple II under contract. Apple II Zork was released in February of 1981, and it did much better than the TRS-80 version, selling a steady 1000 copies per month. Infocom now had a steady stream of revenue at last, along with the basic technological infrastructure — ZIL and the Z-Machine — that would define the company for the rest of its life. Things were starting to look pretty good — but twists and turns were just ahead.

We’ll talk about them soon enough, but next time I want to leave the historical reality behind for a while in favor of virtual reality. Yes, we’re going to take a little tour of Zork‘s Great Underground Empire.


Posted by on January 11, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Binning the Trash-80

The microcomputer landscape of 1980 looked very different than it had when the trinity of 1977 first hit the scene. The hackers and early adopters who first made the TRS-80 a success were a step closer to sane than the solder-iron-wielding crazies who had constructed Altairs in their garages out of a set of diagrams and a loose pile of chips, but only a step. Owning and operating a computer was still expensive and difficult, and the question on the lips of wives and girlfriends across the country — “But what is it really good for?” — did not have any particularly strong answers. By 1980, though, that was changing, sufficiently so in fact that segments of the population were beginning to purchase computers not out of fascination with the technology itself, but rather because of what the technology would allow them to accomplish. That was due to the work of all those early adapters, who hacked like mad to create useful things that would justify their time in the terms that matter most in a market economy, dollars and cents, and thus in turn buy them yet more time to hack.

The most celebrated of these early killer apps today, perhaps due to its having been featured on The Triumph of the Nerds documentary, is VisiCalc, the spreadsheet program whose basic approach is still echoed in the Microsoft Excel we all know and love (?) today. Introduced in late 1979, it gave accountants, small-business owners, and even home users compelling reasons to own a microcomputer — whether to calculate taxes or accounts receivable and payable, or just to keep the checkbook balanced. But there are other examples. The first crude word processing application was called The Electric Pencil; it predated even the trinity of 1977, appearing for the early kit computers in December of 1976. It took WordStar, however, to refine the concept into a program flexible and powerful enough to begin to replace the expensive specialized word-processing machines found on secretary’s desks around the country upon its release in September of 1978. dBase, the first programmable relational database for microcomputers, made its first appearance in 1979. And while they were seldom openly mentioned as a reason to buy these early computers, games were always present as a sort of guilty pleasure and secret motivator. They were still crude and limited in 1980, but growing by leaps and bounds in both ambition and sales as the first specialized entertainment publishers such as Adventure International got off the ground, and as new microcomputers much more suited for play began to appear in the wake of the Atari VCS game-console sensation which began sweeping the country in earnest during the holiday season of 1979.

Ah, yes, the new machines. As new applications showed how useful and/or entertaining computers could be in both businesses and homes and as their sales figures responded, plenty of new players came rushing into the market. Some, such as the Exidy Sorcerer and Texas Instruments 99/4, found little traction, becoming mere historical footnotes and modern collector’s items. Others, though, heralded major new technological and cultural developments. We’ll get to these at some point, but for this post let’s see if we can bring some sort of order — i.e., some categories — to the crazy quilt of microcomputers available by 1980. Oddities like the TI 99/4 (the world’s first 16-bit microcomputer based on a CPU of TI’s own design) aside, most computers were based on one of two 8-bit CPU architectures.

First there was the Intel 8080, the chip at the heart of the original Altair kit computer and its contemporaries, and the Z80, a mostly compatible CPU from Zilog that nevertheless offered a more flexible, efficient design; this, you may recall, was the chip Tandy chose for the TRS-80. Apart from the TRS-80, which for better and (as we shall shortly see) for worse remained largely its own thing, these machines generally ran the first widespread platform-agnostic operating system for microcomputers, CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers). Developed by Gary Kildall at the very dawn of the microcomputer era and published by his company Digital Research, CP/M was the MS-DOS — or, if you like, the Microsoft Windows — of this early era, a de facto if not official standard that allowed machines from a huge variety of makers to share software and information. (There is also a more tangible link between CP/M and MS-DOS: depending on whom you talk to, the original MS-DOS from 1981 was either “inspired by” CP/M or an outright unauthorized reverse engineering of the earlier O/S. But that subject will doubtlessly come up again in later posts…) For a computer to run CP/M, it required two things: an Intel 8080 or Zilog Z80 CPU, and a certain standard bus design for communicating with its disk drives and other peripherals, known as the S-100 — a design which had its origins as far back as the original Altair.(UPDATE: As Jonno points out in the comments, an S-100 bus was not a strict requirement for CP/M.)

CP/M and the Intel- and Zilog-based architectures on which it ran became the standard environment for “serious” microcomputing of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the kind done in corporate offices and small businesses. WordStar and dBase were both born there, and VisiCalc, although conceived on the Apple II, quickly found its way there. CP/M had, however, no graphics capabilities at all and only limited support for real-time operations, making it problematic as a platform for many types of games and even educational software. It also relied upon the existence of at least one disk drive on its host platform at a time when such devices tended to be very pricy. These factors made CP/M and the 8080 a poor fit for the less expensive, usually cassette-based computers generally chosen by home users. That market was dominated by another hardware architecture, that of the MOS Technologies 6502 CPU.

When the 6502 first appeared in 1975, MOS was a tiny independent chip-maker, but that changed when Commodore purchased the entire company in late 1976. This move, one of the smartest that Commodore head Jack Tramiel ever made, left the Commodore in the enviable position of making money not only when it sold its own machines such as the PET, but also every time a rival purchased 6502s for its own products. Said rivals initially included only Apple with its Apple II line and a number of kit-based computers from various small manufacturers, but that would change soon enough.

A CP/M equivalent for 6502-based machines was never developed, meaning that they remained largely incompatible with one another. BASIC did serve as a partial lingua franca, as virtually all of these machines housed a version of Microsoft’s industry-standard BASIC in their ROMs, but there was enough variation from implementation to implementation that most programs needed at least some customizing. And of course when one progressed beyond BASIC to assembly language to take full advantage of everything a 6502-based machine had to offer — especially graphics and sound, which capabilities varied wildly from model to model — one was faced with essentially coding everything from scratch for each machine one wished to support. Crazy times — although with the ever-increasing proliferation of incompatible mobile computing devices in our own times it’s starting to look like 1980 all over again.

What the 6502 world lost in compatibility it gained in flexibility. Freed from the need to work through a comparatively complex and inefficient OS like CP/M, programmers could code right to the metal on these machines, manipulating every element of the hardware directly for maximum efficiency. Further, the 6502-based machines, being generally aimed at the home and education markets, tended to feature the graphics and sound capabilities that were missing from the bland, textual world of CP/M; the Apple II, for instance, was the only member of the trinity of 1977 with support for proper bitmap graphics, a subject I’ll begin to discuss in more detail in my next post.

But now you might be wondering where all of this left the TRS-80, which fit neatly into neither of the two categories just described. Although the TRS-80 was built around the Z80 CPU, Radio Shack had chosen in the name of penny pinching not to implement the S-100 bus design. (UPDATE: As happens from time to time around these parts, this is not correct. Actually, the problem involved the memory map of the original TRS-80, in which ROM proceeded RAM; a CP/M machine required the reverse. Thanks to Jonno for pointing this out in the comments.) This made CP/M a nonstarter. Despite being a huge success in its early years and still having the largest installed base of any microcomputer, the TRS-80′s future was, at least in retrospect, already clouded in 1980. Its incompatibility with CP/M left it cut off from the quickly growing base of serious business software found on that OS. In spite of the TRS-80′s relatively cheap price, Radio Shack’s reputation as purveyors of cheap junk for the masses did little to attract business users, and in a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario this lack of business users discouraged developers from porting their products from CP/M to the little oddball Tandy machine. And in the other half of the microcomputer market, the 6502-dominated world of games machines and hobbyist computing, the TRS-80 was also looking like an increasingly poor fit with its almost complete lack of graphics and absolutely complete lack of sound. The arrival of the Atari 400 and 800, colorful 6502-based machines with superb graphics and sound for the time, and, a bit later in early 1981, the Commodore VIC-20, a much less capable machine in comparison but one nevertheless sporting color graphics and sound for an unprecedentedly low price, were particularly ominous signs.

While the wisdom of many of its moves is debatable, Tandy at least did not stand entirely still in the face of these developments. In fact, it released quite a blizzard of new machines, none of which came close to recapturing the market share the TRS-80 enjoyed in the late 1970s.

Tandy released a new machine called the TRS-80 Model 2 (the original TRS-80 being now retroactively renamed to the Model 1) in late 1979. The Model 2 was designed to capture the business computing market that was passing the Model 1 by; it sold with integrated disk drives and did properly implement the S-100 bus included bank-switchable ROM, thus allowing it to run CP/M. But it was also a much more expensive machine than the Model 1 and, most dismaying of all, completely incompatible with it. Thanks to Radio Shack’s usual lack of marketing acumen and genius for clunky, tacky-looking design as well as its high price, it was not a big success in the business market, while its incompatibility made it of little interest to existing Model 1 owners.

The Model 3 which appeared to replace the Model 1 in the summer of 1980, meanwhile, was rather forced on Radio Shack. The Model 1 had put out so much radio interference that, in an example of the boundless ingenuity that marked the early microcomputer era, people began writing programs to manipulate memory so as to make music using this interference along with a nearby transistor radio to pick it up. New FCC regulations for 1981 forced Radio Shack to build in proper RF shielding, and thus spoiled that particular kind of fun. In addition to fixing this issue, the Model 3 also sported a slightly faster version of the Z80 CPU and (hallelujah!) real lower-case letter support for both input and output amongst other modest improvements. Yet it did nothing to improve the Model 1′s meager display capabilities. And, in the one-step-forward two-steps-back dance that seemed to define Radio Shack, the Model 3 was optimistically said to be just “80%” compatible with the Model 1, while, once again, no S-100 bus meant no the design did not allow for CP/M. Radio Shack in their marketing genius now had three separate machines labeled the TRS-80, each now partially or entirely compatible with its siblings. Just imagine trying to figure out what software actually worked on your version…

And incredibly, there was yet another completely incompatible TRS-80 released in 1980, this one the most significant of all. Although officially called the TRS-80 Color Computer, it was a radical departure from anything seen before, being built around perhaps the most advanced 8-bit CPU ever produced, the new Motorola 6809E. Like so many Radio Shack systems, it offered intriguing potential bundled together with some dismaying weaknesses. On the plus side were the powerful 6809E itself and an advanced Microsoft BASIC that made it a favorite among hobbyist programmers; on the weak side were sound and graphics capabilities that, while a step up from the other TRS-80 models, were still not competitive with new and upcoming models from companies like Atari and Commodore. In spite of that the CoCos, as they soon became affectionately known, had a long run during which they consistently flew under the radar of the mainstream, attracting little in the way of games or applications from most publishers or even from Radio Shack itself, but survived on the back of a sort of cult industry all their own sustained by a fanatically loyal user base. The CoCo line did not finally go out of production until 1991.

There are many more interesting stories to tell about Radio Shack’s quirky little computers, but none would ever come close to dominating the industry the way that the TRS-80 Model 1 did for those first few years. In truth, even the Model 1 was popular because it was widely available at a time when distribution channels for other brands were barely extant and because its price was reasonable rather than because of any sterling technical qualities of the machine itself. The TRS-80 was really not so far removed from Radio Shack’s other products: it basically got the job done, but in about the most uncool and unsexy way imaginable. It primed the pump of the home computer industry and brought adventure games into the home for the first time, but already in 1980 its time was passing.

So, we’ll bit adieu to the old Trash-80 and move on next time to look at the machine that made the company that has come to define cool and sexy in technology. Yes, I’m talking about those two plucky kids in that California garage.


Posted by on September 6, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction



Robert Lafore’s Interactive Fiction

Quick: Who first coined the term interactive fiction? And why?

Assuming you had an answer at all, and assuming you’re a loquacious git like me, it may have run something like this:

The term originated, many years after the birth of the genre it describes, in the early 1980s with a company called Infocom. At that time, games of this sort were commonly known as “adventure games” or “text adventures,” the latter to distinguish them from the graphical brand of story-based games which were just beginning to compete with text-based titles in the marketplace of that time. Indeed, both terms are commonly used to this day, although they generally connote a rather “old-school” form of the genre that places most of its emphasis on the more gamelike, as opposed to literary, potentials of the form. Infocom decided that interactive fiction was a term which more accurately described their goal of creating a viable new literary form, and following that company’s demise the term was appropriated by a modern community of text-based storytellers who in many ways see themselves as heirs to Infocom’s legacy.

That, anyway, is what I wrote five years ago in my history of interactive fiction. I still think it describes pretty accurately Infocom’s motivation for replacing the term text adventure with IF, but it’s inaccurate in one important sense: the term did not actually originate with Infocom. It was rather the creation of a fellow named Robert Lafore, who founded a company under that name in 1979 and published software from 1980 to 1982 through Scott Adams’s Adventure International. By the time that Lafore came to AI, he already had three titles in the line ready to go. Local Call for Death and Two Heads of the Coin are mystery stories with an obvious debt to Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes respectively, while Six Micro-Stories presents six brief vignettes in a variety of settings and genres. Over the next year or so he wrote two more: His Majesty’s Ship Impetuous, in the style of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels; and Dragons of Hong Kong, in the spirit of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series of oriental mysteries.

To understand what Lafore’s concept of IF is and how it works, let’s begin with some promotional copy. After asking us to “step into a new dimension in literature,” Adventure International’s advertisement for the line continues:

Traditionally, literature has been a one-way medium. The information flow was from the novel to the reader, period. Interactive fiction changes this by permitting the reader to participate in the story itself.

The computer sets the scene with a fictional situation, which you read from the terminal. Then you become a character in the story: when it’s you’re turn to speak, you type in your response. The dialog of the other characters, and even the plot, will depend on what you say.

Wow. No previous computer “game” had dared to compare its story to that of a novel. Just the text above, divorced from the actual program it describes, demonstrates a real vision of the future of ludic narrative.

But as anyone who’s had experience with early computer-game ad copy knows, the reality often doesn’t match the rhetoric, with the latter often seeming aspirational rather than descriptive, corresponding more with the game the authors would like to have created than with the technical constraints of 8-bit processors and miniscule memories. Here’s a complete play-through of the first of the vignettes of Six Micro-Stories, “The Fatal Admission”:

Admittedly, this is not Lafore’s finest hour, so let’s try to be gentle. Let’s leave aside the fact that an admiral could only have been in the Kriegsmarine, not the Gestapo, as well as Lafore’s obvious cluelessness about German. Let’s also leave aside the illogicality of the question on which the story turns. (If I’ve been actively impersonating Colonel Braun for so long, how could I not know what flight wing I am with?) And let’s leave aside the unfair, learning-by-death aspect of the whole experience. I just want to get down to how the program works right now.

As will probably surprise no one, the program is not parsing the player’s responses in any meaningful sense, but rather doing simple pattern matching on the player’s input, somewhat in the style of Eliza but without even that program’s sophistication. Given this, it’s inevitably very easy to trip the program up, intentionally or unintentionally. Consider the following response to the admiral’s question about Captain Eiderdown:

What’s happened here is that the program has found the “not” in the player’s input and thrown out everything else, assuming the sentence to be a negative answer. This is not an isolated incident. Let’s try yet again to answer the trick question about the 57th Air Wing correctly and stay alive.

Cool! Now we can accept our new assignment and learn even more juicy Nazi secrets.

Woops. The program has failed to understand us entirely that time, which is at least better than a misunderstanding I suppose.

Obviously simple answers are the best answers.

Various vignettes in Six Micro-Stories do various things with the entered text. Perhaps the most complex and computationally interesting entry in the collection is called “Encounter in the Park,” in which you must try to get a date from a young lady you meet by chance in the park. It plays like a goal-directed version of Eliza, albeit a very primitive one. In case the connection is not obvious, the love interest’s name is even, you guessed it, Eliza.

The ultimate solution is ice cream; the mere mention of it causes Eliza to shed her sophisticated Updike-reading trappings and collapse into schoolgirl submissiveness. (The implications of this behavior in a paternalistic society like ours we will leave for the gender-studies experts.)

Another vignette is little more than a multiple-choice quiz on the age-old question of the definition of art.

And then there’s this nihilistic little number, in which nothing you type makes any difference whatsoever:

Lafore was either in a pissy mood when he wrote that one or homing in on some existential truth the rest of us can’t bear to face — take your choice.

But these are exceptions. When we get past the parser to look at the player’s actual options (thank God for BASIC!), we find that the remainder of the vignettes, as well as all of the vastly more compelling full-length stories, are really multiple-choice narratives, in which the player can choose from (usually) two or (occasionally) as many as three, four, or five options in a series of hard-coded decision points. In other words, these are really choose-your-own-adventure stories / hypertext narratives / choice-based narratives (choose your term). They are much closer to the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were just beginning to flood bookstores in 1980 than they are to the text adventures of Scott Adams or, indeed, to the interactive fiction that Infocom would soon be publishing. It’s just that their real nature is obscured by the frustrating Eliza-esque “parser” which adds an extra layer of guesswork to each decision. Sure, there are arguments to be made for the parser here. Theoretically at least, allowing the player to make decisions “in her own words” could help to draw her into the story and the role she plays there. In practice, though, the opportunities for miscommunication are so great that they outweigh any possible positives.

In a demonstration of just how ridiculously far I’m willing to go to prove a point, I reimplemented what I consider to be the most satisfying of the longer stories, His Majesty’s Ship Impetuous, using the ChoiceScript system. (Well, okay, I did want to try out ChoiceScript as well, and this project made a good excuse…) If you care to play it, you’ll find that it’s a much more complete and satisfying efforts than those I’ve highlighted above, if not totally free of some of their design problems, in that getting an optimal outcome requires a bit of learning from death. Still, Lafore’s writing is sharp and well suited to the genre, and story as a whole is carefully thought through; this represents easily the most competently crafted fiction yet to grace a computer screen in 1980. Its good qualities come through much better shorn of the Eliza trappings. Indeed, it’s much more interesting to consider in this light, because choice-based narratives had not yet made their way to the computer before Lafore set to work.

I don’t want to try to formulate a detailed theory of choice-based narrative design here, particularly because Sam Kabo Ashwell is gradually doing exactly that via his amazing series of analyses of various works in the form — a series to which nothing I say here can bear comparison. I do, however, want to note that parser-based and choice-based narratives are very different from one another, yet are constantly confused; Lafore was perhaps the first to make this mistake, but he was hardly the last. For example, the Usenet newsgroup that was the center of IF discussion for many years,, was originally founded by hypertext aficionados, only to be invaded and co-opted by the text-adventure people. And even today, the very interesting-looking Varytale project bills itself as “interactive fiction.” Choice of Games doesn’t go that far, but does actively encourage authors to submit their ChoiceScript games to IF competitions, something that doesn’t really bother me but that perhaps does bring two sets of expectations into a collision that doesn’t always serve either so well.

The primary formal difference here is in the granularity of the choices offered. Parser-based IF deals in micro-actions: picking up and dropping objects, moving from one concretely bounded space to another, fiddling with that lock in exactly the right way to get that door open. Choice-based narratives at their best deal in large, defining decisions: going to war with Eastasia or with Eurasia, trying to find your way back to the Cave of Time or giving up. Even when the choices presented are seemingly of an IF-like granularity, such as whether to take the left or the right branch in that dungeon you’re exploring, they should turn out to be of real consequence. A single choice in a choice-based narrative can encompass thousands of turns in a parser-based work of IF — or easily an entire game. When authors combine a choice-based structure with an IF-like level of granularity, the results are almost always unfortunate; see for example 2009 IF Competition entry Trap Cave, which attempted to shoehorn an Adventure-style cave crawl into a choice-based format, or Ashwell’s analysis of a Fighting Fantasy gamebook. A choice-based narrative needs to give its player real narrative agency — at the big, defining level of choosing where the plot goes — to be successful. Parser-based IF does not; it can let the player happily busy herself with the details while guiding her firmly along an essentially railroaded plot arc.

Given that they can tell such large swathes of story at a hop, we might be tempted to conclude that choice-based games allow deeper, richer stories. In a way that’s true, especially in the context of 1980; it would have been impossible to pack even 10% of the story of His Majesty’s Ship Impetuous into a Scott Adams-style game. It’s also true that choice-based narratives are generally not so much about challenging their players with puzzles or tactical dilemmas as they are about the “pure” experience of story. A contemporary reviewer of His Majesty’s Ship Impetuous writing in SoftSide magazine, Dave Albert, very perceptively picked up on these qualities and in the process summarized the joys of a choice-based narrative as well as some of the frustrations of Lafore’s early implementation of same:

Lafore has tried to write an open-ended story with several possible endings, and he has tried to structure it so that the reader/player is unaware of the import of the decisions made. Where in previous stories the player is allowed to ask any question that comes to mind (with often incongruous and confusing results), in Impetuous yes or no decisions are presented. There is no way to work around this structure, and it is greatly to the benefit of the program that such is the case. There is no puzzle to solve, only a story to develop. The end goal is to survive and the decisions that you make will dictate whether you do or not. However, you cannot decipher what is the proper course of action that will guarantee your success. There are enough critical points (decisions) in the program to make you uncertain of your actions after several games. This greatly enhances the value of the program.

I wouldn’t frame all the specific design choices in Impetuous quite so positively as Albert, but I think the larger points stand. Choice-based works encourage the player to view them from on-high, like a puppet master manipulating not just her character but the strings of the plot itself; note that Impetuous is written in the third-person past tense. The player manipulates the story, but she does not always feel herself to be in the story. Some more recent choice-based works have even divorced the player entirely from any set in-world avatar. Parser-based IF, however, excels at putting you right there, immersed in the virtual reality you are exploring. Both approaches are valid for telling different kinds of stories, creating different kinds of experiences, and both can go horribly awry. Too many choice-based works leave their player feeling so removed from the action that she ceases to care at all (this, I must admit, is my typical reaction when playing even the modern ChoiceScript games, and the main reason my heart belongs firmly to the parser-based camp); too many parser-based works, especially early ones, become so fiddly that they only frustrate.

Minus the parser frustrations, Impetuous is a fairly successful piece of work, written at an appropriate level of abstraction for the choice-based form. If many of its choices are ultimately false ones, having no real effect on the plot, it disguises this well enough that the player does not really realize it, at least on the first play-through, while enough choices do matter to keep the player interested. Best of all, and most surprisingly when we consider the structure of, say, the early Choose Your Own Adventure books, there are no arbitrary, context-less choices (will you go right or left in this dungeon?) and no choices that lead out of the blue to death. Some of its ethical positions are debatable, such as the way it favors plunging headlong into battle versus a more considered approach, but perhaps that’s par for the course given its genre.

One of the amusing and/or disconcerting aspects of writing this blog has been that I sometimes find myself honoring pioneers who have no idea they are pioneers. Lafore traded in his entertainment-software business after writing Dragons of Hong Kong for a long, successful, and still ongoing career as an author of technical books. I’m going to guess that he has no idea that the term he invented all those years ago remains vital while the works to which he applied it have been largely forgotten.

By way of remedying that at least a little bit, do give my implementation of His Majesty’s Ship Impetuous a shot. I think it works pretty well in this format, and is more entertaining and well-written than it has a right to be. (Credit goes to Lafore for that, of course.) And if you’d like to play the originals of either Six Micro-Stories or His Majesty’s Ship Impetuous, you can do that do too.

1. Download my Robert Lafore starter pack.
2. Start the sdltrs emulator.
3. Press F7, then load “newdos.dsk” in floppy drive 0 and either “microstories.dsk” or “impetuous.dsk” into floppy drive 1.
4. Reboot the emulator by pressing F10.
5. At the DOS prompt, type BASIC.
6. Type LOAD “STORY:1″ for Six Micro-Stories; LOAD “STORY1:1″ for His Majesty’s Ship Impetuous.
7. Type RUN.

Next time I want to have a look at the evolving state of the computer industry in 1980 — and begin to execute a (hopefully) deft platform switch.


Posted by on September 1, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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