No one regards what is before his feet; we all gaze at the stars.
— Quintus Ennius, circa 200 BC
It had been one hell of a year for the United States and most of the rest of the Western world — a year of rampant chaos and conflict at home and abroad, when the very foundations of democratic society seemed on the verge of crumbling to dust. In the course of twelve months, a brutal war with no prospect of ending had escalated to an unimaginable degree, a fractious nation’s most prominent civil-rights leader and one of its presumptive presidential candidates had been assassinated, and the streets had burned with radical and reactionary violence. And there had been a pandemic to boot, an unusually virulent flu virus responsible for an estimated 100,000 deaths in the United States alone.
And then, at the end of it all, human beings orbited another world. Apollo 8 slipped the surly bonds of Earth on December 21, 1968. Not quite three days later, on Christmas Eve, it entered Lunar orbit.
Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders sent home pictures of the Moon from close up to mark this momentous event. But the photographs they took that resonated the most were actually those of the Earth, revealed from 240,000 miles away to be the tiniest of islands in the hostile ocean of the cosmos. The straight-laced pilots and engineers inside the spacecraft were the farthest thing from poets, but they rose to the occasion on this enchanted evening. As millions of people all over the Earth gazed at their planet — at their desperately fragile-looking home — flickering there on their television screens, the astronauts read aloud from the Book of Genesis. At that moment, it didn’t matter whether you were a believer or not; those ancient words echoing down through time transcended religious dogma — transcended, dare we say it, religion itself.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
Mission Commander Borman closed the proceedings just before the spacecraft swung around to the dark side of the Moon and lost contact with home: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.”
Although my editing process means it will be a couple of weeks yet before you read these words, I’m writing them between the Christmas and New Year’s of 2020, a natural time for contemplation and stock-taking. And we certainly have plenty to contemplate: 2020 was also one hell of a year, arguably the most cataclysmic in the Western world since 1968. The last twelve months have been marked by a worldwide pandemic which has altered all of our lives immeasurably, combined with worldwide demands for racial justice that are, one might say, the business that was left unfinished after Martin Luther King’s assassination. The world around us today looks completely different from the one we knew 365 days ago, and it’s not clear when or even whether the Old Normal will return.
But alas, there was no grace note like Apollo 8 to close this year and help us to put things in their proper perspective. Back in 1968, we firmly believed that this year’s most memorable Christmas greeting might come from astronauts near Jupiter or Saturn, but the reality is that a human being hasn’t left Earth orbit since 1972.
Nevertheless, some sort of perspective is sorely needed after a year like the one we’ve just experienced. For better or for worse, we’re living an ever-increasing proportion of our lives virtually. So, perhaps we can find a way to see a bigger picture that way. Perhaps the time is right to talk about Microsoft Space Simulator.
Space Simulator was the brainchild of an enigmatic fellow named Charles Guy, who didn’t give interviews during his lifetime and who died young from cancer in 2004, thus complicating the work of writers like me immeasurably. Born in 1961, he attended the University of Illinois in Champaign, a town which was also the home of subLogic of Flight Simulator fame. In fact, Bruce Artwick and Stu Moment, that company’s founders, were alumni of the same university. They first hired Guy to help Artwick with the programming burden as they brought Flight Simulator to more and more platforms.
Soon, however, Guy got a project of his own: he was placed in charge of Jet, a simulation of the F-16 and F/A-18 fighter jets. As they had done with Flight Simulator, subLogic ported and supported Jet for years after its initial release in 1985, keeping Guy plenty busy. But the Jet line ended in 1989, when subLogic effectively split into two separate companies amidst lawsuits and recriminations, with one of the companies being led by each of the two erstwhile founders.
Guy backed the right horse; he left subLogic to join Artwick’s appropriately named Bruce Artwick Organization, which had walked away with the crown jewel of the old subLogic simulation empire: the contract to make Microsoft Flight Simulator for MS-DOS and the Macintosh. He worked on those programs for a brief while, then convinced Artwick and Microsoft to let him make Space Simulator.
The fact was, Guy’s bona fides as an expert in winged flight weren’t quite up to those of Bruce Artwick or Stu Moment. He had duly attempted to qualify for a pilot’s license back in the 1980s, thus conforming to what had become something of a subLogic tradition, but he nearly lost control of his airplane when he soloed for the first time. “He managed to recover, but never flew a plane again after that,” remembers a friend.
Guy’s real passion was astronomy. Heaven in the metaphorical and literal sense was one to him: few things moved him more than a clear night sky full of stars. It had all begun when he was fifteen years old and happened to look up on just such a perfect night:
What I saw was so intense that it frightened me. I had to look down at the ground. It was too much. Slowly, I built up the nerve to look at it more and more with my naked eyes. And eventually, I got to the point where I couldn’t stop looking at it. I became more and more obsessed with it.
The scale of it was frightening to me. I felt like I was standing on a pinpoint, oppressed by the size of this thing. It really did frighten me, but I found that this fear really isn’t like normal fear. It is the kind of fear that is respectful, although it becomes a fear that must be conquered and resolved. It leads toward growth and understanding.
When he talked about stargazing, he did so as if he was actually traveling to the stars he saw through his telescope, as perhaps he was in spirit: “I’ll tell you where I’m headed. I’m headed to Sagittarius. I’ll often go to M22, then M8, then M17. I like to go south to north, hitting all the H2 regions, and the good globular and open clusters. There are a lot of them in Sagittarius.” It was only natural for him to make a game where you could take just the sorts of trips he was already taking in his mind’s eye.
Space Simulator is a game of two halves — assuming, that is, that we can agree to call a piece of software with no goals and no real rules a game at all — and they don’t always fit together perfectly. On the one hand, Space Simulator is exactly what you might expect from its own name and that of the development studio behind it: a serious simulation of spaceflight. You can fly historical craft like the Apollo Command and Lunar Modules, the Space Shuttle, or even the Manned Maneuvering Unit used by Shuttle astronauts for spacewalks. Or you can explore farther afield from Earth in one of a variety of theoretical spacecraft of the future. Either way, the experience can be as realistic as you want it to be. You can use the program’s many available shortcuts to slew your way around the galaxy without ever touching a thruster control for yourself, or you can sit down with pen and paper and plot your own orbits and trajectories; doing so requires far more higher-math skills than I possess, but I’m told that, if you have the requisite skills, you’ll find the program to be an entirely consistent, entirely realistic environment in which to play NASA navigator. Of course, at some point you’ll have to bite the bullet and embrace some of the simulator’s shortcuts, as some of the voyages you can plot for yourself will take billions of years if you insist on making them in real time.
The other side of Space Simulator — the side nearer to Charles Guy’s heart, one senses — are the actual places you can fly or slew your way to. In fact, Space Simulator boasts what must be as large a virtual “world” as has ever been built into a game, encompassing the full extent of the Milky Way Galaxy and some distance beyond. (“Can you believe that we’re going to try to put all of this inside a computer?” exclaimed Guy spontaneously one evening under one of his beloved clear night skies.) You can visit the stars and planets and moons of our solar system or the ones that are theorized to exist in others, and just gaze in wonder or make pictures or even videos of your discoveries, knowing that what you see and record is as accurate as the state of the science of astronomy during the early 1990s could make it. All of it is presented in Super VGA graphics at a resolution of 800 X 600, meaning it still looks pretty good today. The sense of wonder was and still remains strong with this one.
Indeed, a palpable spirit of starry-eyed idealism still clings to Microsoft Space Simulator all these years later. Defying their 1990s reputation as soulless dirty tricksters — a reputation which was well-earned in many other contexts — Microsoft worked enthusiastically with Charles Guy and the rest of the Bruce Artwick Organization for some three years to stuff the entirety of a galaxy onto three floppy disks. Grant Fjermedal, a journalist who was there through much of the process, shares this anecdote about the arrival of an early version at Microsoft, one which for the first time let you explore the galaxy using a joystick.
The evening after it arrived, in March of 1993, program manager Jon Solon carried [the] disks home and loaded it on his machine. He flew through space until after midnight, chasing down planets and orbiting the Moon, excited about being able to leave the keyboard controls behind in favor of the more fluid joystick. Jon, who had been program manager for three versions of Flight Simulator, compared the experience to the first time he took off from Chicago’s Meigs Field, circled the skyscrapers, and successfully landed.
All the next day at Microsoft, people were hunting through storage rooms (and through the offices of their pals) looking for joysticks that weren’t being used. There were those who flew, and those who enthused. People were being flagged down and dragged into offices: “I’ve got to show you something — watch this!” It was a day when the door seemed to open wider than ever before.
Far from limiting the scope of the simulation, Jon Solon and the others at Microsoft encouraged Charles Guy to expand it. It was Solon, for example, who insisted that it ought to be possible to land your spacecraft on the planets you encountered, in order to see their diverse environments firsthand.
When the finished Space Simulator finally shipped in late 1994, Microsoft got behind it in a big way. The manual they included in the box was a minor wonder in itself, a patient introduction to the program’s complexities in more than 200 friendly, well-written, eminently approachable pages; few to no other software publishers would have had it in them to produce a manual like this, for any sort of program. In addition to a lavish advertising campaign positioning Space Simulator as the natural heir to the 3-million-selling Flight Simulator, Microsoft published not one but two strategy guides through their own press, and granted Sybex Books special inside access so they could publish a third. (These three books nicely encompassed the full range of Space Simulator‘s personality: the Sybex book was the hardcore one, its second half chock full of equations and subsection titles like “Geometric Properties of All Conic Sections”; meanwhile one of the Microsoft books was most interested simply in helping you to take in the galaxy’s sights, while the third aimed for a point somewhere in between the other two.)
With support like this behind his creation, an ebullient Charles Guy was moved to exclaim that Space Simulator “might bring on a whole new social revolution!” Or a “spiritual revolution,” as Grant Fjermedal put it: “Perhaps a tool to simulate even a part of the vastness of space will lead us to ponder what that vastness might mean for humanity, as we glide through the soft darkness of space, clutching hold of our garden planet in orbit around our gracious middle-aged Sun.” For truly Space Simulator contains multitudes. One can be merrily slewing through the galaxy, only to look down and realize that 40 years, 400,000 years, 4 million years have passed since one left Earth. Through Space Simulator, we can almost glimpse infinity. The contemplation of such enormity, like that of a single grain of sand, can be a source of both existential terror and spiritual comfort. “It was while traveling the stars at a time-scale setting of 68 years per second,” writes Fjermedal, “that I most fully understood the vastness of our galaxy and the brevity of our lives.”
Unfortunately, the public proved for once resistant to Microsoft’s much-vaunted marketing acumen when it came to Space Simulator. In retrospect at least, the problems with the product as a commercial proposition aren’t hard to identify. It was the ultimate in “make your own fun” games, even more so than a so-called “software toy” like, say, SimCity — or for that matter Flight Simulator. When you start the game, you find yourself parked in orbit around Earth. From there, it’s entirely up to you to decide what you want to do and how you want to do it by digging through a cryptic nest of menus; Space Simulator absolutely demands that you read that brilliant manual through, carefully and completely, to get much of anywhere with it. And even after you do so, it demands that you be the type of person who considers unguided, goal-less exploration fun. Space Simulator does have support for “missions,” which are exactly what they sound like they would be, even to the point of including a scoring system, but this capability is weirdly under-utilized. The game includes just two of them out of the box: one covering Apollo 17, the final mission to the Moon, and the other covering a typical Shuttle mission. One suspects that Microsoft envisioned a robust Space Simulator aftermarket that would have included more “mission disks” among other products, much like the many scenery disks which were released for Flight Simulator.
But sadly, sales of Microsoft Space Simulator never justified any such further releases. The dedicated gaming press, and dedicated gamers in general, didn’t know quite what to make of it, even as it was far too demanding for more casual users. Of course, Microsoft Flight Simulator was another willfully cerebral, esoteric, goal-less experience that defied all of the conventional wisdom about what made a hit computer game, and yet managed to become the best-selling computer-gaming franchise of its generation. Why was Space Simulator so different? Perhaps its spaces were just too vast, its conceptual grandiosity too intimidating. It’s easier to get a handle on the idea of flying a small plane from airport to airport, even if there isn’t much point to it beyond the fantasy of being up there in the wild blue yonder, than it is to conceive and plan a voyage to Polaris in a Bussard ramjet. Maybe the idea of a voyage of a million years simply strained too many imaginations past the breaking point.
Whatever the reason for its commercial failure, Microsoft Space Simulator went quietly out of print within a couple of years, even as Flight Simulator continued to go strong. Charles Guy left the Bruce Artwick Organization shortly after it became clear that his passion project would not be fomenting any social revolutions. He bounced around the games industry in various programming roles for the rest of his life, but never got a chance to helm a game of his own of any sort again, much less one with the scope of this one.
Space Simulator is an oddly forgotten artifact today; you’ll be hard-pressed to find any online discussion of it at all. And that’s a shame, as it possesses at least two sources of enduring interest. In one sense, it’s a fascinating product of its time, that heady cusp of the second, ultimately more enduring home-computer boom, when the multimedia capabilities of the latest machines were inspiring more big companies than just Microsoft to take a flier on unabashedly intellectual, crazily idealistic software.
In another sense, though, Space Simulator transcends its time. No one since Charles Guy has attempted to make a piece of software quite like this one. There are certainly technical simulations of spaceflight that are even more detailed than Space Simulator, just as there are planetarium programs to let you do virtual stargazing with the benefit of an additional quarter-century of astronomical discoveries. Yet no one else has given you a spacecraft and then just set you loose to go explore the natural wonders of our galaxy with it, thereby giving you a more embodied sort of window onto our staggeringly magnificent and terrifyingly immense universe than any planetarium can hope to create. Computer games are not known for their ability to provoke spiritual awakenings, but if any one of them can, perhaps it is this one. Stare, if you dare, into the vastness, and see that it is good. A little perspective is never a bad thing.
A Microsoft Space Simulator Gallery
Saturn, possibly the most beautiful of all the planets of our solar system — after Earth, that is. While we watch the planet itself rotate in the top window, we watch some of the more prominent of its dozens of moons orbit in the bottom window. You may find that you can spend a surprisingly long time just watching their clockwork motion.
Another view of Saturn, with the spaceship we’ve used to visit it in the foreground.
Returning to Earth in the Galactic Explorer, a spacecraft obviously modeled after the Discovery from 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, given that the space station before us betrays the same influence, we can almost imagine this scene as a lost frame from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film.
In another scene that might easily have come from 2001, a space station orbits the Moon.
A once-familiar sight from the real world: the Space Shuttle touches down at Cape Canaveral.
The Andromeda Galaxy, seen from well beyond the border of our own Milky Way Galaxy. The programmers among you will appreciate what an awesome feat it is to devise a coordinate system able to pinpoint a location 2.5 million light years from Earth as well as it can a single runway in Florida.
The Whirlpool Galaxy, 23.5 million light years away from Earth.
In yet another scene from a future that’s been inordinately slow in arriving, we soar above a colony on Mars.
Space Simulator can also be used as a planetarium, showing a view of the sky from any position on Earth at any time you wish.
This error message appears surprisingly often as you explore, providing as good an illustration as any of the sheer scale of the simulation.
Our one and only home in a beautiful but inhospitable universe. May we be better stewards of it after 2020 than we’ve been in the years prior…
(Sources: the books Microsoft Space Simulator: The Official Strategy Guide by Rick Barba, Adventures in Space Simulator: The Ultimate Desktop Astronaut’s Guide by Grant Fjermedal, and Space Simulator Strategies and Secrets by Nick Dargahi; Computer Gaming World of December 1994; Computer Play of November 1988. The “Talk” page of the Wikipedia entry on Microsoft Space Simulator proved one of my few sources of personal information on the enigmatic Charles Guy.
Microsoft Space Simulator has been out of print for many years. Therefore I’ve put it up here for download, packaged so as to be as easy as possible to get running under DOSBox on a modern Windows, Macintosh, or Linux system. Happy exploring! May you find the perspective you crave.)
The ebook version of my recently concluded Analog Antiquarian series on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon is now available, and at a special low, low price at that. (Well, it’s actually priced lower because it’s a shorter book, but it’s worth every penny, I promise you.) If you do happen to pick up a copy, or have been reading along over on the sister site, an honest review on Amazon and/or Good Reads would be greatly appreciated. Remember as well that Analog Antiquarian patrons get free copies of all the books. (Hint, hint..)
Sigh… I’ll get this marketing thing down someday. In the meantime, I’ll see you Friday with some new Digital content. Thank you for your support, Digital and/or Analog, and in whatever form it takes.
After Edison’s original phonograph came out, people said that they could not detect a difference between a phonograph and a real performance. Clearly the standard that they had for audio fidelity back in 1910 was radically different from the standard we have. They got the same enjoyment out of that Edison phonograph that we do out of [a] high-fidelity [stereo]. As audio fidelity has gotten better and better, our standards have gotten higher and higher; if we listen to a phonograph from 1910, it sounds horrible to our modern ears.
The same thing has obviously happened to flight simulators.
— Brand Fortner, 2010
It seems to me that vintage flight simulators have aged worse than just about any other genre of game. No, they weren’t the only games that required a large helping of imagination to overlook their underwhelming audiovisuals, that had sometimes to ask their players to see them as what they aspired to be rather than what they actually were. But they were perhaps the ones in which this requirement was most marked. When we look back on them today, we find ourselves shaking our heads and asking what the heck we were all thinking.
Growing up in the 1980s, I certainly wasn’t immune to the appeal of virtual flight; I spent many hours with subLogic’s Flight Simulator II and MicroProse’s Gunship on my Commodore 64, then hours more with F/A-18 Interceptor on my Commodore Amiga. Revisited today, however, all of those games strike me as absurdly, unplayably primitive. Therefore they and the many games like them have appeared in these histories only in the form of passing mentions.
The case of flight simulators thus serves to illustrate some of the natural tensions implicit in what I do here. On the one hand, I want to celebrate the games that still stand up today, maybe even get some of you to try them for the first time all these years later — and I’ve yet to find a vintage flight simulator which I can recommend on those terms. But on the other hand, I want to sketch an accurate, non-anachronistic picture of these bygone eras of gaming as they really were. In this latter sense, my efforts to date have been sadly inadequate in the case of flight simulators; the harsh fact is that these games which I’ve neglected so completely were in fact among the most popular of their time, accounting on occasion for as much as 25 percent of the computer-game industry’s total revenue. Microsoft Flight Simulator, the prototypical and perennial product of its type, was the most commercially successful single franchise in all of computer gaming between 1982 and 1995 — all despite having no goals other than the ones you set for yourself and for the most part no guns either. (Let that sink in for a moment!)
All of which is to say that a reckoning is long overdue here. This article, while it may not quite give Microsoft Flight Simulator and its siblings their due, will at least begin to redress the balance.
Many people assumed in the 1980s, as they still tend to do today, that the early microcomputer flight simulators were imperfect imitations of the bigger simulators that were used to train pilots for real-world flying. In point of fact, though, the relationship between the two was more subtle — even more symbiotic — than one might guess. To appreciate how this could be, we need to remember that the 3D-graphics techniques that were being used to power all flight simulators by the 1980s were a new technology at the time — new not just to microcomputers but to all computers. Until the 1980s, the “big” flight simulators made for training purposes were very different beasts from the ones that came later.
That said, the idea of flight simulation in general goes back a long, long way, almost all the way back to the dawn of powered flight itself. It took very little time at all after Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, for people to start asking how they might train new pilots in some more forgiving, less dangerous way than putting them behind the controls of a real airplane and hoping for the best. A 1910 issue of Flight magazine — the “first aero weekly in the world” — describes the “Sanders Teacher,” a mock-up of a real airplane mounted on a pivoting base so that it could sway with the wind in response to control inputs; unlike the fragile real aircraft of its era, this one was best “flown” when there was a stiff breeze.
The Sanders Teacher, one of the earliest attempts to simulate flight.
In 1929, Edwin Link of Binghamton, New York, created the Link Trainer, the first flight simulator that we might immediately recognize as such today. An electro-mechanical device driven by organ bellows in its prototype form, it looked like an amputated single-seater-airplane cockpit. The entire apparatus pitched and turned in response to a trainee’s movements of the controls therein, while an instructor sat next to the gadget to evaluate his performance. After an initially skeptical response from the market, usage of the Link Trainer around the world exploded with the various military buildups that began in the mid-1930s. It was used extensively, in both its official incarnation and in unlicensed knock-offs, by virtually every combatant nation in World War II; it was a rite of passage for tens of thousands of new pilots, marking the most widespread use of technology in the cause of simulation to that point in the history of the world.
An American student pilot in a Link Trainer, circa 1943.
The programmable digital computers which began to appear after the war held out the prospect of providing a more complete simulation of all aspect of flight than analog devices like the Link Trainer and its successors could hope to achieve. Already in 1950, the United States Navy funded a research effort in that direction at the University of Pennsylvania. Yet it wasn’t until ten years later that the first computerized flight simulators began to appear. Once again, Link Aviation Devices provided the breakthrough machine here, in the form of the Link Mark 1, whose three processors shared 10 K of memory to present the most credible imitation of real flight yet, with even wind and engine noise included if you bought the most advanced model. By 1970, virtually all flight simulators had gone digital.
But there was a persistent problem afflicting all of these efforts at flight simulation, even after the dawn of the digital age. Although the movements of cockpit instruments and even the physical motion of the aircraft itself could be practically implemented, the view out the window could not. What these machines thus wound up simulating was a totally blind form of flying, as in the heaviest of fogs or the darkest of nights, when the pilot has only her instruments to guide her. Flying-by-instruments was certainly a useful skill to have, but the inability of the simulators to portray even a ground and horizon for the pilot to sight on was a persistent source of frustration to those who dreamed of simulating flight as it more typically occurred in the real world.
Various schemes were devised to remedy the situation, some using reels of film that were projected on the “windows” of the cockpit, some even using a moving video camera which “flew” over model terrain. But snippets of static video are a crude tool indeed in an interactive context, and none of these solutions yielded anything close to the visual impression of real flight. What was needed was an out-the-window view that was generated on the fly in real time by the computer.
In 1973, McDonnell-Douglas introduced the VITAL II, a computerized visual display which could be added to existing flight simulators. Even its technology, however, was different in a fairly fundamental sense from that of the flight simulators that would appear later. The computers which ran the latter would use what’s known as raster-based or bitmap graphics: a grid of pixels stored in memory, which are painted to the monitor screen by the computer’s display circuitry without additional programming. VITAL II, by contrast, used something known as vector graphics, in which the computer’s processor directly controls the electron gun inside the display screen, telling it where to go and when to fire to produce an image on the screen. Although bitmap graphics are far easier for the programmer to work with and more flexible in countless ways, they do eat up memory, a commodity which most computers of the early 1970s had precious little of to spare. Therefore vector graphics were still being used for many applications, including this one.
Thanks to the limitations of its hardware, the VITAL II could only show white points of light on the surface of a black screen, and thus could only be used to depict a night flight. Indeed, it showed only lights — the lights of runways, airports, and to some extent their surrounding cities.
Such was the state of the art in flight simulation during the mid-1970s, when a young man named Bruce Artwick was attending the University of Illinois in Champaign.
Flight simulators aside, this university occupies an important place in the history of computing in that it was the home of PLATO, the pioneering computer network that anticipated much of the digital culture that would come two decades or more after it. A huge variety of games were developed for PLATO, including the first CRPGs and, most importantly for our purposes today, the first flight simulator to be intended for entertainment and casual exploration rather than professional pilot training. Brand Fortner’s game of Airfight wasn’t quite a real-time simulation as we think of it today — you had to hit the NEXT key over and over to update the screen — but it could almost feel like it ran in real time to those willing and able to pound their keyboards with sufficient gusto. Brian Dear described the experience in his book about the PLATO system:
By today’s standards, Airfight’s graphics and realism, like every other PLATO game, are hopelessly primitive. But in the 1970s Airfight was simply unbelievable. These rooms full of PLATO terminals weren’t “PLATO classrooms,” they were PLATO arcades, and they were free. If you were lucky enough to get in (there were always more people wanting to play than the game could handle), you joined the Circle or the Triangle teams, chose from a list of different airplane types to fly, and suddenly found yourself in a fighter plane, looking out of the cockpit window at the runway in front of you, with the control tower far down the runway… You’d hit “9” to set the throttle at maximum, “a” for afterburners, “w” a few times to pull the stick back, and then NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT to update the screen as you rolled down the runway, lifted off, and shot up into the sky to join the fight. It might be seconds or minutes, depending on how far away the enemy airplanes were, before you saw dots in the sky, dots that as you flew closer and closer turned into little circles and triangles. (So they weren’t photorealistic airplanes — it didn’t matter. You didn’t notice. This was battle. This was Airfight.) As you got closer and closer to one of these planes, the circles and triangles got more defined — still small, still pathetically primitive by today’s standards — but you knew you were getting closer and that’s all that mattered. As you got closer and closer you hit “s” to put up your sights, to aim. Eventually, if you were good, lucky, or both, you would be so close that you’d see a little empty space, an opening, inside the little circle or triangle icon. That’s when you were close enough to see what players called “the whites of their eyes” and that’s when you let ’em have it: SHIFT-S to shoot. SHIFT-S again. And again. Until you’d run out of ammo and KABOOM! It was glorious.
And it was addictive. People stayed up all night playing Airfight. If you went to a room full of PLATO terminals, you’d hear the clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-CLACKETY-CLACK-CLACK-BAM-BAM!-WHAM!-CLACK-CLACK! of everyone’s keyboards, as the gamers pounded them, mostly NEXT-NEXT-NEXT’ing to update their view and their radar displays (another innovation of this game — in-cockpit radar displays, showing you where the enemy was).
The standard PLATO terminal at that time was an astonishingly advanced piece of hardware to place at the disposal of everyday university students: a monochrome bitmap display of no less than 512 X 512 pixels. Thus Airfight, in addition to being the first casual flight simulator, was the first flight simulator of any kind to use a bitmap display. This fact wasn’t lost on Bruce Artwick when he first saw the game in action — for Artwick already knew a little something about the state of the art in serious flight simulation.
The University of Illinois’s Institute of Aviation was one of the premiere aerospace programs in the country, training both engineers and pilots. Artwick happened to be pursuing a master’s degree in general electrical engineering, but he roomed with one of the university’s so-called “aviation jocks”: an accomplished pilot named Stu Moment, who was training to become a flight instructor at the same time that he pursued a degree in business. “We agreed that Stu would teach me to fly if I taught him about digital electronics,” Artwick remembers. Although Artwick’s electrical-engineering program would seemingly mark him as a designer of hardware, the technological disciplines were more fluid in the 1970s than they’ve become today. His real passion, indulged willingly enough by his professors, had turned out to be the nascent field of bitmap 3D graphics. So, he found himself with one foot in the world of 3D programming, the other in that of aviation: the perfect resumé for a maker of flight simulators.
Airfight hit Artwick like a revelation. In a flash, he understood that the PLATO terminal could become the display technology behind a flight simulator used for more serious purposes. He sought and received funding from the Office of Naval Research to make a prototype 3D display useful for that purpose as his master’s thesis. Taking advantage of his knowledge of hardware engineering, he managed to connect a PLATO terminal to one of the DEC PDP-11 minicomputers used at the Aviation Institute. He then employed this setup to create what his final thesis called “a versatile computer-generated flight display,” submitting his code and a 60-page description of its workings to his instructors and to the Office of Naval Research.
It’s hard to say whether Artwick’s thesis, which he completed in May of 1976, was at all remarked among the makers of flight simulators already in use for pilot training. Many technical experiments like it came out of the aerospace-industrial complex’s web of affiliated institutions, sometimes to languish in obscurity, sometimes to provide a good idea or two for others to carry forward, but seldom to be given much credit after the fact. We can say, however, that by the end of the 1970s the shift to bitmap graphics was finally beginning among makers of serious flight simulators. And once begun, it happened with amazing speed; by the mid-1980s, quite impressive out-the-cockpit views, depicting nighttime or daytime scenery in full color, had become the norm, making the likes of the VITAL II system look like the most primordial of dinosaurs.
This photo from a 1986 brochure by a flight-simulator maker known as Rediffusion Simulation shows how far the technology progressed in a remarkably short period of time after bitmap 3D graphics were first introduced on the big simulators. Although the graphical resolution and detail are vastly less than one would find in a simulator of today, the Rubicon has already been crossed. From now on, improvements will be a question of degree rather than kind.
Meanwhile the same technology was coming home as well, looking a bit less impressive than the state-of-the-art simulators in military and civilian flight schools but a heck of a lot better than VITAL II. And Artwick’s early work on that PLATO terminal most definitely was a pivotal building block toward these simulators, given that the most important person behind them was none other than Artwick himself.
After university, Artwick parlayed his thesis into a job with Hughes Aircraft in California, but found it difficult to develop his innovations further within such a large corporate bureaucracy. His now-former roommate Stu Moment started working as a flight instructor right there in Champaign, only to find that equally unsatisfying. In early 1977, the two decided to form a software company to serve the new breed of hobbyist-oriented microcomputers. It was an auspicious moment to be doing so; the Trinity of 1977 — the Apple II, Radio Shack TRS-80, and Commodore PET, constituting the first three pre-assembled personal computers — was on the near horizon, poised to democratize the hobby for those who weren’t overly proficient with a soldering iron. Artwick and Moment named their company subLogic, after a type of computer circuit. It would prove a typical tech-startup partnership in many ways: the reserved, retiring Artwick would be the visionary and the technician, while the more flamboyant, outgoing Moment would be the manager and the salesman.
Artwick and Moment didn’t initially conceive of their company as a specialist in flight simulators; they rather imagined their specialty to be 3D graphics in all of their potential applications. Accordingly, their first product was “The subLogic Three-Dimensional Micrographics Package,” a set of libraries to help one code one’s own 3D graphics in the do-it-yourself spirit of the age. Similar technical tools continued to occupy them for the first couple of years, even as both partners continued to work their day jobs, hoping that grander things might await them in the future, once the market for personal computers had had time to mature a bit more.
In June of 1979, they decided that moment had come. Artwick quit his job at Hughes and joined Moment back in Champaign, where he started to work on subLogic’s first piece of real consumer software. Every time he had attempted to tell neophytes in the past about what it was his little company really did, he had been greeted with the same blank stare and the same stated or implied question: “But what can you really do with all this 3D-graphics stuff?” And he had learned that one response in particular on his part could almost always make his interlocutors’ eyes light up with excitement: “Well, you could use it to make a flight simulator, for instance.” So, subLogic would indeed make a flight simulator for the new microcomputers. Being owned and operated by two pilots — one of them a licensed flight instructor and the other one having considerable experience in coding for flight simulators running on bigger computers — subLogic was certainly as qualified as anyone for the task.
They released a product entitled simply Flight Simulator for the Apple II in January of 1980. One can’t help but draw comparisons with Will Crowther and Don Woods’s game of Adventure at this point; like it, Flight Simulator was not only the first of its kind but would lend its name to the entire genre of games that followed in its footsteps.
Fearing that his rudimentary, goal-less simulation would quickly bore its users, Artwick at the last minute added a mode called “British Ace,” which featured guns and enemy aircraft to be shot down in an experience distinctly reminiscent of Airfight. But he soon discovered, rather to his surprise, that most people didn’t find those additional accoutrements to be the most exciting aspect of the program. They enjoyed simply flying around this tiny virtual world with its single runway and bridge and mountain — enjoyed it despite all the compromises that a host machine with six-color graphics, 32 K of memory, and a 1 MHz 8-bit CPU demanded. It turned out that a substantial portion of early microcomputer owners were to a greater or lesser degree frustrated pilots, kept from taking to the air by the costs and all of the other logistics involved with acquiring a pilot’s license and getting time behind the controls of a real airplane. They were so eager to believe in what Flight Simulator purported to be that their imaginations were able to bridge the Grand Canyon-sized gap between aspiration and reality. This would continue to be the case over the course of the many years it would take for the former to catch up to the latter.
Flight Simulator on the Apple II.
Still, subLogic didn’t immediately go all-in for flight simulation. They released a variety of other entertainment products, from strategy games to arcade games. They even managed one big hit in the latter category, one that for a time outsold all versions of Flight Simulator: Bruce Artwick’s Night Mission Pinball was a sensation in Apple II circles upon its release in the spring of 1982, widely acknowledged as the best game of its type prior to Bill Budge’s landmark Pinball Construction Set the following year. subLogic wouldn’t release their last non-flight simulator until 1986, when an attempt to get a sports line off the ground fizzled out with subLogic Football. In the long run, though, it was indeed flight simulation that would make subLogic one of the most profitable companies in their industry, all thanks to a little software publisher known as Microsoft.
In late 1981, Microsoft came to subLogic looking to make a deal. IBM had outsourced to the former the operating system of the new IBM PC, whilst also charging them with creating or acquiring a variety of other software for the machine, including games. So, they wanted Artwick to create a “second generation” of his Flight Simulator for the IBM PC, taking full advantage of its comparatively torrid 4.77 MHz 16-bit processor.
Artwick spent a year on the project, working sixteen hours or more per day during the last quarter of that period. The program he turned in at the end of the year was both a dramatic improvement on what had come before and a remarkably complete simulation of flight for its era. Its implementation of aeronautics had now progressed to the point that a specific airplane could be said to be modeled: a Cessna 182 Skylane, a beloved staple of private and recreational aviation that was first manufactured in 1956 and has remained in production to this day. Artwick replaced the wire-frame graphics of the Apple II version with solid-filled color, replaced its single airport with more than twenty of them from the metropolitan areas of New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles. He added weather, as well as everything you needed to fly through the thickest fog or darkest night using instruments alone; you could use radio transponders to navigate from airport to airport. You could even expect to contend with random engine failures if you were brave enough to turn that setting on. And, in a move that would have important implications in the future, Artwick also designed and implemented a coordinate system capable of encompassing the greater portion of North America, from southern Canada down to the Caribbean, although it was all just empty green space at this point outside of the four metropolitan areas.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0
This first Microsoft Flight Simulator was released in late 1982, and promptly became ubiquitous on a computer that was otherwise not known as much of a game machine. Many stodgy business-oriented users who wouldn’t be caught dead playing any other game seemed to believe that this one was acceptable; it was something to do with the label of “simulator,” something to do with its stately, cerebral personality. Microsoft’s own brief spasm of interest in games in general would soon peter out, such that Flight Simulator would spend half a decade or more as the only game in their entire product catalog. Yet it would consistently sell in such numbers that they would never dream of dropping it.
When the first wave of PC clones hit the market soon after Flight Simulator was released, the computer magazines took to using it as a compatibility litmus test. After all, it pushed the CPU to its absolute limit, even as its code was full of tricky optimizations that took advantage of seemingly every single quirk of IBM’s own Color Graphics Adapter. Therefore, went the logic, if a PC clone could run Flight Simulator, it could probably run just about anything written for a real IBM PC. Soon all of the clone makers were rushing to buy copies of the game, to make sure their machines could pass the stringent test it represented before they shipped them out to reviewers.
Meanwhile Artwick began to port Microsoft Flight Simulator‘s innovations into versions for most other popular computers, under the rather confusing title of Flight Simulator II. (There had never been a subLogic Flight Simulator I on most of the computers for which this Flight Simulator II was released.) Evincing at least a modest spirit of viva la différence, these versions chose to simulate a Piper Cherokee, another private-aviation mainstay, instead of the Cessna.
Although the inexpensive 8-bit computers for which Flight Simulator II was first released were far better suited than the IBM PC for running many types of games, this particular game was not among them. Consider the case of the Commodore 64, the heart of the mid-1980s computer-gaming market. The 64’s graphics system had been designed with 2D arcade games in mind, not 3D flight simulators; its sprites — small images that could be overlaid onto the screen and moved about quickly — were perfect for representing, say, Pac-Man in his maze, but useless in the context of a flight simulator. At the same time, the differences between an IBM PC and a Commodore 64 in overall processing throughput made themselves painfully evident. On the IBM, Flight Simulator could usually manage a relatively acceptable ten frames or so per second; on the 64, you were lucky to get two or three. “We gave it a try and did the best we could,” was Artwick’s own less-than-promising assessment of the 8-bit ports.
Nevertheless, the Commodore 64 version of Flight Simulator II is the one that I spent many hours earnestly attempting to play as a boy. Doing so entailed peering at a landscape of garish green under a sky of solid blue, struggling to derive meaning from a few jagged white lines that shifted and rearranged themselves with agonizing slowness, each frame giving way to the next with a skip and a jerk. Does that line there represent the runway I’m looking for, or is it a part of one of the handful of other landmarks the game has deigned to implement, such as the Empire State Building? It was damnably hard to know.
Flight Simulator II on the Commodore 64.
As many a real pilot who tried Flight Simulator II noted, a virtual Piper Cherokee was perversely more difficult to fly than the real thing, thanks to the lack of perspective provided by the crude graphics, the clunky keyboard-based controls — it was possible to use a joystick, but wasn’t really recommended because of the imprecision of the instrument — and the extreme degree of lag that came with trying to cram so much physics modeling through the narrow aperture of an 8-bit microprocessor. Let’s say you’re attempting a landing. You hit a key to move the elevators a little bit and begin your glide path, but nothing happens for several long seconds. So, getting nervous as you see the white line that you think probably represents the runway getting a bit longer, you hit the same key again, then perhaps once more for good measure. And suddenly you’re in a power dive, your view out the screen a uniform block of green. So you desperately pound the up-elevator key and cut the throttle — and ten or twenty seconds later, you find the sky filling your screen, your plane on the verge of stalling and crashing to earth tail-first. More frantic course corrections ensue. And so it continues, with you swaying and bobbling through the sky like a drunken sailor transported to the new ocean of the heavens. Who needed enemy airplanes to shoot at in the face of all these challenges? Just getting your plane up and then down again in one piece — thankfully, the simulator didn’t really care at the end of the day whether it was on a runway or not! — was an epic achievement.
Needless to say, Flight Simulator II‘s appeal is utterly lost on me today. And yet in its day the sheer will to believe, from me and hundreds of thousands of other would-be pilots like me, allowed it to soar comfortably over all of the objections raised by its practical implementation of our grand dream of flight.
At a time when books on computer games had yet to find a place on the shelves of bookstores, books on Flight Simulator became the great exception. It began in 1985, when a fellow named Charles Gulick published 40 Great Flight Simulator Adventures, a collection of setups with exciting-sounding titles — “Low Pass on the Pacific,” “Dead-Stick off San Clemente” — that required one-tenth Flight Simulator and nine-tenths committed imagination to live up to their names. Gulick became the king of the literary sub-genre he had founded, writing five more books of a similar ilk over the following years. But he was far from alone: the website Flight Sim Books has collected no less than twenty of its namesake, all published between the the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, ranging from the hardcore likes of Realistic Commercial Flying with Flight Simulator to more whimsical fare like A Flight Simulator Odyssey. The fact that publishers kept churning them out indicates that there was a solid market for them, which in turn points to just how committed to the dream the community of virtual fliers really was.
Of course, the game that called itself simply Flight Simulator was by no means the only one in the genre it had spawned. While a few companies did try to sell their own civilian flight simulators, none managed to seriously challenge the ones from subLogic. But military flight simulators were a different matter; MicroProse Software in particular made their reputation with a string of these. Often designed and programmed by Sid Meier, MicroProse’s simulators were distinguished by their willingness to sacrifice a fair amount of realism to the cause of decent frame rates and general playability, with the added attraction of enemy aircraft to shoot down and cities to bomb. (While the old “British Ace” mode did remain a part of the subLogic Flight Simulator into the late 1980s, it never felt like more than the afterthought it was.) Meier’s F-15 Strike Eagle, the most successful of all the MicroProse simulators, sold almost as well as subLogic’s products for a time; some sources claim that its total sales during the ten years after its initial release in 1984 reached 1 million units.
subLogic as well did dip a toe into military flight simulation with Jet in 1985. Programmed by one Charles Guy rather than Bruce Artwick, this F-16 and F/A-18 simulator was a bit more relaxed and a bit more traditionally game-like than the flagship product, offering air-, land-, and sea-based targets for your guns and bombs that could and did shoot back. Still, its presentation remained distinctly dry in comparison to the more gung-ho personality of the MicroProse simulators. Although reasonably successful, it never had the impact of its older civilian sibling. Instead Spectrum Holobyte’s Falcon, which debuted in 1987 for 16-bit and better machines only, took up the banner of realism-above-all-else in the realm of jet fighters — almost notoriously so, in fact: it came with a small-print spiral-bound manual of almost 300 pages, and required weeks of dedication just to learn to fly reasonably well, much less to fly into battle. And yet it too sold in the hundreds of thousands.
In the meantime, Artwick was continuing to plug steadily away, making his Flight Simulator slowly better. A version 2.0 of the Microsoft release, with four times as many airports to fly from and many other improvements, appeared already in 1984, soon after the 8-bit Flight Simulator II; it was then ported to the new Apple Macintosh, the only computing platform beside their own which Microsoft had chosen to officially support. When the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga appeared in 1985, sporting unprecedented audiovisual capabilities, subLogic released versions of Flight Simulator II for those machines with dazzling graphical improvements; these versions even gave you the option of flying a sleek Learjet instead of a humble single-prop airborne econobox. Version 3.0 of Microsoft Flight Simulator arrived in 1988, coming complete with the Learjet, support for the latest VGA graphics cards, and an in-game flight instructor among other enhancements.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 3.0 included the first attempt at in-program flight instruction. It would continue to appear in all subsequent releases, being slowly refined all the while, much like the simulator itself.
Betwixt and between these major releases, subLogic took advantage of Artwick’s foresight in designing a huge potential world into Flight Simulator by releasing a series of “scenery disks” to fill in all of that empty space with accurately modeled natural features and airports, along with selected other human-made landmarks. The sufficiently dedicated — i.e., those who were willing to purchase a dozen scenery disks at $20 or $30 a pop — could eventually fly all over the continental United States and beyond, exploring a virtual world larger than any other in existence at the time.
Indeed, the scenery disks added a whole new layer of interest to Flight Simulator. Taking in their sights and ferreting out all of their secrets became a game in itself, overlaid upon that of flying the airplane. It could add a much-needed sense of purpose to one’s airborne ramblings; inevitably, the books embraced this aspect with gusto, becoming in effect tour guides to the scenery disks. When they made a scenery disk for Hawaii in 1989, subLogic even saw fit to include “the very first structured scenery adventure”:
Locating the hidden jewel of the goddess Pele isn’t easy. You’ll have to find and follow an intricate set of clues scattered about the islands that, with luck, will guide you to your goal. This treasure hunt will challenge all of your flying skills, but the reward is an experience you’ll never forget!
The sales racked up by all of these products are impossible to calculate precisely, but we can say with surety that they were impressive. An interview with Artwick in the July 1985 issue of Computer Entertainment magazine states that Flight Simulator in all its versions has already surpassed 800,000 copies sold. The other piece of hard data I’ve been able to dig up is found in a Microsoft press release from December of 1995, where it’s stated that Microsoft Flight Simulator alone has sold over 3 million copies by that point. Added to that figure must be the sales of Flight Simulator II for various platforms, which must surely have been in the hundreds of thousands in their own right. And then Jet as well did reasonably well, while all of those scenery disks sold well enough that subLogic completed the planned dozen and then went still further, making special disks for Western Europe, Japan, and the aforementioned Hawaii, along with an ultra-detailed one covering San Francisco alone.
When we start with all this, and then add in the fact that subLogic remained a consistently small operation with just a handful of employees, we wind up with two founders who did very well for themselves indeed. Unsurprisingly, then, Bruce Artwick and Stu Moment, those two college friends made good, were a popular subject for magazine profiles. They were a dashing pair of young entrepreneurs, with the full complement of bachelor toys at their disposal, including a Cessna company plane which they flew to trade shows and, so they claimed, used to do modeling for their simulations. When David Hunter from the Apple II magazine Softalk visited them for a profile in January of 1983, he went so far as to compare them to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (Sadly, he didn’t clarify which was which…)
Speed is exhilarating. Uncontrolled growth is intoxicating. As long as youth can dream, life will never move fast enough.
Whether it’s motorcycles, cars, planes, skiing, volleyball, or assembly language, Bruce Artwick likes speed. He likes Winchester disk drives, BMWs, zooming through undergraduate and graduate school in four years, and tearing down the Angeles Crest Highway on a Suzuki at a dangerous clip. The president of subLogic, Artwick is a tall, quiet, 29-year-old bachelor. He possesses a remarkable mind, which has created several of the finest programs ever to grace the Apple’s RAM.
Contrast Artwick with Stu Moment. Outgoing, of medium height, and possessed of an exceptional love of flying, Moment is subLogic’s chairman of the board. A businessman, Moment has steered the company to its present course, complementing Artwick’s superior software-engineering talents with organizational and financial skills. He’s even picked up some modest programming skills, designing a system for logging flight hours at a fair-sized flying institute.
Redford and Newman. Lewis and Clark. Laurel and Hardy. Jobs and Wozniak. Artwick and Moment. The grand adventurers riding the hard trail, living and playing at lives larger than life. It’s an old story.
Stu Moment and Bruce Artwick with their Cessna on a cold morning for flying, 1982.
When the journalists weren’t around, however, the dynamic duo’s relationship was more fractious than the public realized. Artwick wanted only to pursue the extremely profitable niche which subLogic had carved out for themselves, while Moment’s natural impulse was to expand into other areas of gaming. Most of all, though, it was likely just a case of two headstrong personalities in too close a proximity to one another, with far too much money flying through the air around them. That, alas, is also an old story.
As early as 1981, the two spent some time working out of separate offices, so badly were they treading on one another’s toes in the one. In 1984, Artwick, clearly planning for a potential future without Moment, formed his own Bruce Artwick Organization and started providing his software to subLogic, which was now solely Moment’s company, on a contract basis.
The final split didn’t happen until 1989, but when it did, it was ugly. Lawsuits flew back and forth, disputing what code and other intellectual property belonged to subLogic and what belonged to Artwick’s organization. To this day, each man prefers not to say the other’s name if he can avoid it.
This breakup marked the end of the Flight Simulator II product line — which was perhaps just as well, as the platforms on which it ran were soon to run out of rope anyway in North America. Moment tried to keep subLogic going with 1990’s Flight Assignment: Airline TransportPilot, a simulation of big commercial aircraft, but it didn’t do well. He then mothballed the company for several years, only to try again to revive it by hiring a team to make an easier flight simulator for beginners. He sold both the company and the product to Sierra in November of 1995, and Flight Light Plus shipped three months later. It too was a failure, and the subLogic name disappeared thereafter.
It was Artwick who walked away from the breakup with the real prize, in the form of the ongoing contract with Microsoft. So, Microsoft Flight Simulator continued its evolution under his steady hand. Version 4.0 shipped in 1989, version 5.0 in 1993. Artwick himself names the latter as the entire series’s watershed moment; running on a fast computer equipped with one of the latest high-resolution Super-VGA graphics cards, it finally provided the sort of experience he’d been dreaming of when he’d written his master’s thesis on the use of bitmap 3D graphics in flight simulation all those years before. Any further audiovisual improvements from here on out were just gravy as far as he was concerned.
Flying above San Francisco in Microsoft Flight Simulator 5.0.
Such a watershed strikes me as a good place to stop today. Having so belatedly broken my silence on the subject, I’ll try to do a better job now of keeping tabs on Flight Simulator as it goes on to become the most long-lived single franchise in the history of computer gaming. (As of this writing, a new version has just been released, spanning ten dual-layer DVDs in its physical-media version, some 85 GB of data — a marked contrast indeed to that first cassette-based Flight Simulator for the 16 K TRS-80.) Before I leave you today, though, we should perhaps take one more moment to appreciate the achievements of those 1980s versions.
It’s abundantly true that they’re not anything you’re likely to want to play today; time most definitely hasn’t been kind to them. In their day, though, they had a purity, even a nobility to them that we shouldn’t allow the passage of time to erase. They gave anyone who had ever looked up at an airplane passing overhead and dreamed of being behind its controls a way to live that dream, in however imperfect a way. Although it billed itself as a hardcore simulation, Flight Simulator was in reality as much an exercise in fantasy as any other game. It let kids like me soar into the heavens as someone else, someone leading a very different sort of life. Yes, its success was a tribute to its maker Bruce Artwick, but it was also, I would argue, a tribute to everyone who persevered with it in the face of a million reasons just to give up. The people who flew Flight Simulator religiously, who bought the books and worked through a pre-flight checklist before taking off each time and somehow managed to convince themselves that the crude pixelated screen in front of them actually showed a beautiful heavenly panorama, did so out of love of the idea of flight. For them, the blue-and-green world of Flight Simulator was a wonderland of Possibility. Far be it from me to look askance upon them from my perch in their future.
(Sources: the book The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the Rise of Cyberculture by Brian Dear and Taking Flight: History, Fundamentals, and Applications of Flight Simulation by Christopher D. Watkins and Stephen R. Marenka; Flight of December 10 1910 and March 22 1913; Softalk of January 1983; Kilobaud of October 1977; Softalk IBM of February 1983; Data Processing of April 1968; Compute!’s Gazette of January 1985; Computer Gaming World of April 1987 and September 1990; Computer Entertainment of July 1985; PC Magazine of January 1983; Illinois CS Alumni News of spring 1996; the article “High-Power Graphic Computers for Visual Simulation: A Real-Time Rendering Revolution” by Mary K. Kaiser, presented to the 1996 symposium Supercomputer Applications in Psychology; Bruce Artwick’s Masters thesis “A Versatile Computer-Generated Dynamic Flight Display”; flight-simulator product brochures from Link and Rediffusion; documents from the Sierra archive housed at The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York; a brochure from an exhibition on the Link Trainer at the Roberson Museum and Science Center in 2000. Online sources include a VITAL II product-demonstration video; an interview with Bruce Artwick by Robert Scoble; a panel discussion from the celebration of PLATO’s 50th anniversary at the Computer History Museum; “A Brief History of Aircraft Flight Simulation” by Kevin Moore; the books hosted at Flight Sim Books. My guiding light through this article has been Josef Havlik’s “History of Microsoft Flight Simulator.” He did at least half of the research so that I didn’t have to…)
It’s always been a bit of a balancing act to decide which games I write about in detail here — a matter of balancing my level of personal interest in each candidate against its historical importance. In the early years of this project especially, when I still saw it as focusing almost exclusively on narrative-oriented games, I passed over some worthy candidates because I considered them somewhat out of scope. And now, needless to say, I regret some of those omissions.
One of the games that’s been made most conspicuous by its absence here is Lode Runner, Doug Smith’s seminal action-puzzle platformer from 1983. “Iconic” is a painfully overused adjective today, but, if any game truly can be called an icon of its era, it’s this one. So, I decided to take the release of Lode Runner: The Legend Returns, a 1994 remake/re-imagining that does fit neatly into our current position in the historical chronology, as an opportunity to have a belated look back at the original.
In late 1981, Doug Smith was studying architecture and numerical analysis at the University of Washington in Seattle. Meanwhile he had a part-time job in one of the university’s computer labs, where he met two other students named James Bratsanos and Tracy Steinbeck, who were tinkering with a game they called Kong, a not so-thinly-veiled reference to the arcade hit Donkey Kong. Bratsanos had first created Kong the previous year on one of his high school’s Commodore PET microcomputers, and the two were now in the process of porting it to one of the university’s DEC VAX-11/780 minicomputers. Smith soon joined the effort. When their fellow students started to show some interest in what they were doing, they made the game publicly available.
In Kong, you guided a little man through a single-screen labyrinth of tunnels linked by ladders, implemented entirely using monochrome textual characters; your man was a dollar sign, your enemies paragraph symbols. Armed only with a pick axe that was more tool than weapon, you must steal all of the gold that was lying around the place, whilst avoiding or delaying the guards who protected it, generally by digging pits into which they could fall. The group hid their game from the university’s administrators by embedding it into an otherwise broken graphing program. “‘Graph’ would prompt the user for a function,” remembers a fellow student named Rick LaMont, “then crap out unless the secret password was entered to play Kong.”
With its captive audience of playtesters in the form of the students who hung around the computer labs, the game grew organically as the weeks passed. Soon students were coming by only to play Kong; Lamont claims that “a ‘show process’ command would often report 80 percent of the users running ‘graph.'” Eager players began to queue up behind the university’s computer terminals, and Kong became a fixture of campus life, the University of Washington’s equivalent of what Zork had once been at MIT. Along the way, it gradually evolved from an arcade game into something that required as much thought as reflexes; the levels just kept getting more and more complex.
According to Smith, it was his eight-year-old nephew who convinced him to port the game to the Apple II; having visited the computer lab once or twice and seen it in action there, the little boy was decidedly eager for a version he could play at home. “After he bugged me enough,” said Smith in a 1999 interview, “one weekend I rewrote it for the Apple II, basically in three days.” This first microcomputer version was a copy of the DEC VAX version right down to its monochrome ASCII graphics. Smith made just one big change: he renamed the game Miner to avoid legal entanglements. After paying James Bratsanos $1500 for the rights to the game, he submitted it to Brøderbund Software, only to get a terse rejection letter back: “Thank you for submitting your game concept. Unfortunately, it does not fit with our product line.”
But, seeing how popular the game continued to be at the university, Smith decided to take another stab at it. He borrowed enough money to buy a color monitor and joystick for his Apple II, and programmed a second, much-improved version with color bitmap graphics and controls that took advantage of one of the Apple’s unique affordances: its joysticks had two buttons rather than the standard one, which in this case allowed the player’s avatar to drill to the left or right of himself without the player ever having to reach for the keyboard. In late 1982, Smith sent this new version to four different publishers, among them Brøderbund and Sierra. All of them knew as soon as they saw this latest version of the game that they wanted it for themselves. John Williams, the little brother of Sierra founder Ken Williams, and the company’s chief financial officer from the tender age of twenty, later claimed that he “almost lost his job” because he spent so much time playing the game Smith sent to them. But Smith wouldn’t end up publishing his game through Sierra. Instead he wound up entrusting it to Brøderbund after all.
Founded and run as a family business by a personable former lawyer and real-estate developer named Doug Carlston, Brøderbund would consistently demonstrate an uncanny talent for identifying exactly the software product that Middle America was looking for at any given moment, securing it for themselves, and then delivering it to their customers in the most appealing possible way. (At the risk of sounding unkind, I might note at this juncture that, whereas Ken Williams loved to talk about the mainstreaming of games and other software, the Carlston family talked less but proved more adept at the practical work of doing so.) In the years to come, this talent would result in a quantity of truly iconic Brøderbund titles out of all proportion to the relatively modest number of products which the company released in total: titles like Karateka, Carmen Sandiego, Bank Street Writer, The Print Shop, Prince of Persia, SimCity, Myst. But before any of them came Doug Smith’s game.
Brøderbund offered Smith a $10,000 advance and a very generous 23-percent royalty. And they also promised to get behind his game with the kind of concerted, professional marketing push that was still a rarity in the industry of that era. Showing a remarkable degree of restraint for his age as well as faith in his game’s potential, Smith signed with Brøderbund rather than accept another publisher’s offer of $100,000 outright, with no royalty to follow. He would be amply rewarded for his foresight.
For example, it was Brøderbund’s savvy marketers who gave Miner its final name. Well aware of the existence of another, superficially similar platform game called Miner 2049er, they proposed the alternate title of Lode Runner, as in “running after the mother lode.” Soon after choosing this new name that held fast the idea that the player was some sort or other of miner, they devised a more detailed fictional context for the whole affair that abandoned that notion entirely. It involved the evil Bungeling Empire, the antagonist of their 1982 hit Choplifter!:
You are a galactic commando deep in enemy territory. Power-hungry leaders of the repressive Bungeling Empire have stolen a fortune in gold from the people by means of excessive fast-food taxes. Your task? To infiltrate each of 150 different treasure rooms, evade the deadly Bungeling guards, and recover every chest of Bungeling booty.
In the spirit of this narrative, the hero’s pick axe became a laser drill.
Still, none of this background would be remembered by anyone who actually played the game. Instead the supposed Bungeling guards would become popularly known as “mad monks,” which their pudgy low-resolution shapes rather resembled. Doubtless plenty of imaginative young gamers made up new narratives of their own to fit the bizarre image of greedy monks chasing an intrepid adventurer up and down a maze of scaffolding dotted with gold.
Lode Runner on the Apple II.
Smith dropped out of university at the end of 1982, and worked closely with Brøderbund over the course of six months or so to polish his game in a concerted, methodical way, something that was seldom done at this early date. They helped him to tweak each of the 150 levels — some designed by Smith himself, some by the kids who lived around Smith’s family home, whom he paid out of his own pocket on a per-level basis — to a state of near-perfection, and arranged them all so that they steadily progressed in difficulty as you played through them one after another. And then Brøderbund encouraged Smith to polish up his level editor and include that as well.
Lode Runner got a rapturous reception upon its release in June of 1983, quickly becoming the best-selling product Brøderbund had ever released to that point; Smith was soon collecting more than $70,000 per month in royalties. If anything, its reputation among students of game design has become even more hallowed today. It stands out from its peers of 1983 like a young Glenn Gould in a beginner’s piano course.
That said, Lode Runner is not quite the sui generis game which its more enraptured devotees are sometimes tempted into claiming it to be. When James Bratsanos first created what would eventually become Lode Runner on the Commodore PET, he was according to his own testimony working from a friend’s description of an arcade game: “He didn’t explain it well, and I took creative liberties and assumed I understood what he meant. So for certain elements I completely misinterpreted it.” Bratsanos, an acknowledged non-gamer, may later have come to believe that the game his friend had been describing was Donkey Kong, and assumed that the major differences between that game and his stemmed from his youthful “misinterpretation” of his friend’s description of the former. But the chronology here doesn’t pass muster: Donkey Kong was first released in the summer of 1981, while Bratsanos is sure that he started working on his game, which originally went under the rather unpleasant name of Suicide, in 1980. Suicide became Kong only after Donkey Kong had been released and become an arcade sensation, and Bratsanos had started at the University of Washington the following fall.
So, what was it that his friend actually described to him back in 1980? The best candidate is Space Panic, a largely forgotten Japanese stand-up arcade game from that year which would seem to be the first ever example of the evergreen genre that would become known as the platformer. Not only did Space Panic have you running and climbing your way through a vertical labyrinth, but it also allowed you to dig holes in it to trap your enemies, just like Suicide, Kong, and finally Lode Runner. Space Panic was not a commercial success, perhaps because it asked for too much too soon from an audience still enthused with simpler fare like Space Invaders; it was reported that the average session with it lasted all of 30 seconds. But it does appear that it entranced one anonymous teenage boy enough that he told his buddy James Bratsanos all about it. And from that random conversation — from that butterfly flapping its wings, one might say — eventually stemmed one of the biggest games of the 1980s.
Space Panic, the 1980 standup-arcade game at the root of the Lode Runner family tree.
But if it isn’t quite an immaculate creation, Lode Runner is a brilliant one, a classic lesson in the way that fiendish complexity can arise out of deceptive simplicity in game design. It offers just six verbs — move left, right, up, or down; dig left or right — combined with only slightly more nouns — platforms of diggable brick or impenetrable metal, ladders, trap doors, overhead poles for shimmying, monks, treasures. And yet from this disarmingly short list of ingredients arises a well-nigh infinite buffet of devious possibility.
Although Lode Runner does retain some vestiges of its arcade inspirations in the form of a score and limited lives, it’s as much a puzzle or even a strategy game as an action game at heart. (Your lives are essentially meaningless in the end; you can save your progress at any point.) Playing each level entails first experimenting and dying — dying a lot — until you can devise a thoroughgoing plan for how to tackle it. Then, it’s just a matter of executing the plan perfectly; this is where the action elements come into play. The levels in Lode Runner are dynamic enough that getting through them doesn’t require stumbling across a single rote, set-piece solution envisioned by the designer; there’s space here for player creativity, space for variation, space for quick thinking that gets you out of an unanticipated jam — or that fails to do so just when you believe you’re on the brink of victory.
The levels build upon one another, each one training you for what’s still to come as it forces you to think about your limited menu of verbs and nouns in new ways. This sort of progressive design was not a hallmark of most computer games of 1983, and thus serves to make Lode Runner stand out all the more. The world would arguably have to wait until the release of DMA Designs’s Lemmings in 1991 to play another action-puzzler that was its equal in terms of design.
Just as in Lemmings, every single detail of Lode Runner‘s implementation becomes relevant as the levels become more complex, from the timing of events in the environment to the rudimentary but completely predictable artificial intelligence of the monks. Consider: the pits you drill are automatically filled in again after ten seconds, while monks climb out of pits into which they’ve fallen in just a few seconds. But what would happen if you could time things so that a pit is filled in while a monk is still inside it? The monk would get buried there permanently, that’s what, giving you a precious reprieve before the replacement who is spawned at the very top of the screen makes his way down to you once again. By the time you reach level 30 or so, you’ll be actively using the monks as your helpmates, taking advantage of the fact that they too like to pick up gold — for there’s now gold in places which you can’t reach, meaning you must depend on them to be your delivery men. Once one of them has what you need, you just need to make him fall into a pit, then walk on his head to steal the booty. Easy peasy, right? If you think so, don’t worry: there’s still 120 levels to go, each one more insidiously intricate than the last.
And then, when you’re done with all 150 levels, there’s still the level editor. Even by the standards of today, the original Apple II Lode Runner provides a lot of content. By the standards of 1983, its generosity was mind-boggling.
A phenomenal game by any standard, Lode Runner became a phenomenon of another sort in the months after its release. Doug Smith, a private, retiring fellow who loathed the spotlight, nevertheless became a household name among hardcore gamers, joining the likes of Bill Budge, Richard Garriott, and Nasir Gebelli as one of the last of the Apple II scene’s auteur-programmer stars. At a time when a major hit was a game that sold 50,000 copies, his game sold in the hundreds of thousands on the Apple II and in ports to the Commodore 64, the IBM PC, and virtually every other commercially viable computer platform under the sun. First it became the Apple II game of 1983; then it became the game of whatever year it happened to be ported to each other platform, collecting award after award almost by default. And then there was Japan.
Lode Runner appeared on the Macintosh soon after that machine’s release in 1984. Although the construction set was a a natural fit for that machine’s GUI, the actual game proved less satisfying. “What used to be a struggle strictly between the commando and the Bungeling guards is now also a battle between you and the [mouse] pointer,” wrote Macworld magazine. Such complaints would become something of a theme: Apple II purists insist to this day that no Lode Runner has ever played quite as well as the one that Doug Smith personally programmed for their favorite platform.
One of Doug Carlston’s smartest moves in the early days of Brøderbund was to forge links with the burgeoning software and gaming scene in Japan. He was particularly chummy with Yuji Kudo, the founder of Hudson Soft, Japan’s biggest software publisher of all. (A model-train enthusiast extraordinaire, Kudo took his company’s very un-Japanese name from his favorite type of steam locomotive.) The two men already had a deal in place to bring Lode Runner to Japan even before it was released in the United States. During the summer of 1983, it became one of the first ten games to be made available for the Nintendo Famicom — the videogame console that would later conquer the world as the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Like Wizardry before it and Populous after it, Lode Runner turned into that rarest of birds, a Western videogame which the Japanese embraced with all the fannish obsessiveness of which they’re capable — which is, to be clear, a lot of obsessiveness indeed. Before there was Super Mario Bros. to drive sales of Nintendo consoles all over the world, there was Lode Runner to get the ball rolling in Japan itself. Sales of the game in Japan alone topped 1 million in the first eighteen months, prompting one journalist to declare Lode Runner Japan’s new “national pastime.”
The country’s Lode Runner mania reached its peak in the summer of 1985, when Hudson Soft, Brøderbund, and Sony joined forces to sponsor a national competition in the game. Of the 3700 players between the ages of nine and fourteen who entered the competition, 50 became finalists, invited to come to Tokyo and play the game on what was at that time the largest video screen in the world, 86 feet in width. A slightly uncomfortable-looking Doug Smith, coaxed into the spotlight by Brøderbund’s marketers, presided over the affair and even agreed to join the competition. (He didn’t last very long.) “I like the people of Japan,” he said. “There’s an honesty among the people that is so refreshing — they would never think of pirating computer games, for instance.” (A more likely explanation for Lode Runner‘s high sales in Japan than the people’s innate honesty was, of course, the fact that piracy on the cartridge-based Famicom was a possibility for only the most technically adept.)
Lode Runner running on the biggest of all big screens in Japan.
A rare shot of Doug Smith in person, giving prizes to the winners of the Japanese Lode Runner competition.
By decade’s end, Lode Runner‘s worldwide sales had topped 2.5 million copies. I can hardly emphasize enough what absurdly high figures these are for a game first sold on the humble Apple II.
When you take Brøderbund’s generous royalty and combine it with sales like this, then reckon in the fact that Lode Runner was essentially a one-man production, you wind up with one very wealthy young game programmer. Still in his early twenties, Doug Smith found himself in the enviable position of never having to work another day in his life. He bought, according to his friend Rick LaMont, “a Porsche 911 Carrera, a Bayliner speedboat, a house in Issaquah, and a wife (as a colleague once joked).”
In the face of temptations like these, Doug Smith became one of a number of early Apple II auteurs, such as the aforementioned Bill Budge and Nasir Gebelli, who weren’t able to sustain their creative momentum as lone-wolf developers became teams and the title of game designer slowly separated itself from that of game programmer. He did provide Brøderbund with one Lode Runner sequel of a sort: Championship Lode Runner, with 50 new levels that had mostly been sent to the company by fans and that were (correctly) advertised as picking up in difficulty right where the first game had left off. But its technology and graphics were barely tweaked, and the decision to aim it exclusively at the hardest-core of the hardcore put a natural limit on its appeal.
After that, there followed several years of silence from Smith, off enjoying his riches and pondering the strange course his life had taken, from starving student to wealthy man of leisure in a matter of months. And truly, his is a story that could only have happened at this one brief window in time, when videogames had become popular enough to sell in the millions but could still be made by a single person.
Just as they did with Wizardry, the impatient Japanese soon took Lode Runner into their own hands, making and releasing a string of sequels in their country that would never appear elsewhere. But what ought to have been a natural ongoing franchise remained oddly under-served by Brøderbund in its country of origin; they released only one more under-realized, under-promoted sequel, for the Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit line only, created by their recently purchased subsidiary Synapse Software without Smith’s involvement. Perhaps they were just too busy turning all those other products into icons of their era.
It wasn’t until 1994, when Brøderbund’s ten-year option expired and all rights to the game and its trademarks reverted to Smith, that anyone attempted a full-fledged revival in the United States. Irony of ironies, the company behind said revival was Sierra, finally getting their chance with a game that had slipped through their fingers a decade before. The project was driven by Jeff Tunnell, the founder of what was now the Sierra subsidiary known as Dynamix, who had just made the classic puzzler The Incredible Machine.
Lode Runner: The Legend Returns was a symbol of everything that was right and wrong with the games industry of the mid-1990s. Dynamix added beautiful hand-painted backgrounds and a stereo soundtrack to the old formula, but in the minds of many the new version just didn’t play as well as the old; it had something to do with the timing, something to do with the unavoidably different feel of a 1990s 32-bit computer game versus the vintage 8-bit variety — and perhaps something to do as well with Tunnell’s decision to add a lot more surface complexity to the elegantly simple mix of the original, including locks and keys, snares, gas traps, bombs, jackhammers, buckets of goo, and even light and darkness. The Legend Returns did reasonably well for Sierra, but never became the phenomenon that the original had been in its home country. And as for Japan… well, it now preferred homegrown platformers that featured a certain Italian plumber. The various revivals since have generally met the same fate: polite interest, decent sales, but no return to the full-blown Lode Runner mania of the 1980s.
Lode Runner: The Legend Returns definitely looks a lot more impressive than the original, which was far from an audiovisual wonder even in its own time. Opinions are at best divided, however, on whether it plays better. One can detect the influence of Lemmings 2: The Tribes in its diverse, ever-shifting collection of obstacles and affordances, but the end result is somehow less compelling.
Smith did return to playing an active role in the games industry in the 1990s, working as the producer of a couple of Nintendo games among other things. He disappeared from view once again after the millennium, presumably occupying himself mostly with the raising of his five children. He died in 2014 at the age of just 53, of a cause that has never been publicly disclosed.
(Sources: the book Software People: Inside the Computer Business by Douglas G. Carlston; Retro Gamer 111; Ahoy! of April 1986; A.N.A.L.O.G. of March 1984; Computer Gaming World of January/February 1983, October 1983, and March 1986; Electronic Games of June 1983 and January 1985; inCider of April 1984; InfoWorld of October 31 1984; Macworld of August 1985; MicroTimes of December 1984 and September 1985; Brøderbund News of April of Fall 1985; InterAction of Fall 1994. Online sources include IGN‘s 1999 interview with Doug Smith, Jeremy Parish’s eulogy to Smith, and a 1991 Usenet reminiscence by Rick LaMont.