A Busy 1980

26 Aug

When we last left Scott Adams at the end of 1979, he was poised to take this adventuring thing to the proverbial next level, with a solid catalog of games already available on a number of platforms, with perhaps the best name recognition in the nascent computer-game industry, and with a new company — Adventure International — ready to publish his works and the works of others under its own imprint. The following year saw him realize all of that potential and more, to take a place at the forefront of a new industry.

Adventure International grew by leaps and bounds for the next few years, while always remaining, like everything Adams touched, indelibly stamped with the personality of its founder. AI was the Dollar General of the early software industry. Its catalogs are filled with a ramshackle collection of software of every stripe. In addition to the expected text adventures from Adams and others (many of these also using Adams’s engine), there were arcade clones (“far superior to any Space Invader game for the TRS-80 microcomputer so far”, announces the blurb for Invaders Plus, with more honesty than legal wisdom); space strategy games (Galactic Empire and Galactic Trader); chess programs (“although a graphic display of the chessboard is provided, it is recommended that an actual chessboard be used during play…”); board game adaptations (Micropoly, which is once again foolish enough to advertise that it is a clone of Monopoly right in the promotional text); even TRS-80 Opera, which let one listen to the William Tell overture via a transistor radio set in close proximity to the machine’s cassette port (the TRS-80’s lack of proper RF shielding was not always such a bad thing). And for when fun-and-games time was over, there were also math programs, print spoolers, programming tools, drawing programs, and educational software to hand, the latter evincing the usual fascination with states and their capitals that was so common amongst early programmers. All of this software was relatively cheap, with $9.95 or $14.95 being the most common price points, and somewhat… variable… in quality. Still, there was a thrill to be had in walking the virtual aisles of the AI catalogs, gazing at the shelves groaning with the output of an expanding new industry, wondering what crazy (not to say hare-brained) idea would be around the next bend. Hovering over the whole scene was always the outsized personality of Adams himself, who would remain throughout AI’s brief but busy lifetime an unusually visible company leader. (A reading of the legal fine print shows AI itself to be merely “a division of Scott Adams, Inc.”)

The year 1980 represents an important historical moment for the entertainment-software industry. A few exceptions such as Microsoft and Automated Simulations aside, computer games had previously been distributed as a sideline by semi-amateurs who hung their Ziploc baggies up in the local computer store and signed up with the hobbyist distribution services run by SoftSide and Creative Computing magazines. Now, though, companies like AI and a few others that sprung up around the same time began to professionalize the field. Within a few years the Ziploc baggies would be replaced with slick, colorful boxes stuffed with glossy manuals and other goodies, and the semi-amateurs in their home offices and bedrooms with real development studios whose members did this stuff for a living. Computer games were becoming a viable business, bringing more resources onto the scene that would soon allow for bigger and more ambitious creations than anything yet seen, but also bringing all the complications and loss of innocence associated with monetizing a labor of love.

In light of the explosive growth of his company, it’s no surprise that Adams’s creation of new adventures slowed down dramatically at this point. Some of his energy was consumed — and not for the last time — with repackaging his already extant games. All received pen-and-watercolor cover illustrations courtesy of an artist known as “Peppy,” whose colorful if unpolished style perfectly suited the gonzo enthusiasm of Adams’s prose.

AI released just two new Adams-penned adventures in 1980: the Western pastiche Ghost Town in the spring and Savage Island Part One, first of a two-parter advertised as difficult enough for the hardcore of the hardcore, just in time for Christmas. I thought we’d take a closer look at the first of these to see how far Adams’s art had progressed since The Count.

The simple but painful answer to that question is: not at all, really. In fact, it has regressed in many ways. The Western setting was apparently merely the next on Adams’s list of genre touchstones to cover, as it does little to inform the experience of play. Ghost Town is a plotless treasure hunt, just like Adventureland; it’s as if the The Count never happened: “Drop treasures then score.” Sigh.

We rob the saloon of its cash box just because it’s there. Double sigh.

Worse, even as a treasure hunt Ghost Town is neither entertaining nor satisfying. A few quips such as the response to trying to GO MIRROR (“I’m not Alice!”) aside, Ghost Town has lost some of the friendly warmth that made one somewhat willing to forgive the earlier games their own dodgy moments. The useful HELP command with its little nudges and food for thought has disappeared entirely, while the puzzles have devolved into a veritable catalog of design sins. Adams had been slowly ramping up the difficulty of each successive game that he wrote, apparently expecting his player to work through the games in order and thus to be prepared by the time they faced Ghost Town. I suppose that’s a reasonable enough approach in the abstract, but in reality there is no way to train for the puzzles in Ghost Town. Even some of the least objectionable require considerable outside knowledge, of things like the composition of gunpowder or the translation of Morse code.

Of course, in 1980, a time when Wikipedia was not a browser bookmark away, tracking down this sort of information might require a trip to the local library.

Other puzzles require us to see the room in question exactly as Adams pictured it, despite his famously terse room descriptions that do little more than list the objects therein. Still others reward only dogged persistence rather than insight, such as requiring us to tote a shovel around the map and dig in every single room to see whether anything turns up. Yet more, the worst of all, are protracted battles with the parser. How long it would take the average player to divine that she must SAY GIDYUP to get the horse to move is something I don’t even want to think about — nor how long she might fruitlessly try mixing the charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter together before finally just typing MAKE GUNPOWDER. At times the parser seems not just technically limited but intentionally cruel.

Typing just GUNPOWDER as opposed to WITH GUNPOWDER at the above prompt results in a generic failure message. My experience with Ghost Town makes me more enamored than ever of the idea that these early games were simply too technologically limited to support difficult puzzles that were also fair and logically tenable, that ramping up their difficulty beyond a certain rather low threshold inevitably resulted in nonsense like so many of the puzzles in Ghost Town and the absurd end-game of Adventure.

It’s also tempting to conclude that Adams himself simply lacked the vision to continue to push the text adventure forward. Tempting, but not entirely correct. For a couple of years Adams wrote an occasional column for SoftSide magazine. In the November, 1980, edition he announced a planned new adventuring system called Odyssey, which would take advantage of disk-drive-equipped systems in the same way as did Microsoft Adventure, using all of that storage space as an auxiliary memory store. His plans were ambitious to say the least:

1. More than one player in an Odyssey at one time. Players may help (or hinder) one another as they see fit!
2. Full paragraphs instead of “baby talk,” e.g., “Shoe the horse with the horseshoe and the hammer and nails.”
3. Longer messages;
4. sound effects; and
5. expanded plot lines.

To develop this system I have actually had to develop a new type of computer language which I call OIL (Odyssey Interpretive Language) which is implemented by a special Odyssey assembler that generates Odyssey machine code. This machine code is then implemented on each different micro, e.g. Apple, TRS-80, etc., through a special host emulator to simulate my nonexistent Odyssey computer.

Currently (as of the Washington computer show, Sept., 1980) the system is in the final stages of implementing a host emulator on a TRS-80 32 K disk system and writing the first Odyssey (which has been sketched out and is tentatively entitled Martian Odyssey) in OIL to run on the emulator. I hope that by the time you are reading this, Odyssey Number One will be available from your local computer store or favorite mail order house.

The technical conception of Odyssey sounds remarkably similar to what would soon be rolled out by a tiny Massachusetts startup called Infocom. Interestingly, Marc Blank and Stu Galley of Infocom had laid out in the abstract the design of their virtual machine, the “Z-Machine,” in an article in Creative Computing just a couple of months before Adams wrote these words. Could he have been inspired by that article?

Whatever the answer to that question, Martian Odyssey of course never appeared, and to my knowledge Adams never mentioned the Odyssey system again. For better and (ultimately) for worse, he elected to stick with what had brought him this far — meaning treasure hunts runnable on low-end 16 K computers equipped only with cassette drives. That strategy would continue to pay off handsomely enough for a few more years, yet it’s hard not to wonder about the path not taken, the territory ceded without a fight to Infocom and others. From 1980 on, Adams is more interesting as a businessman and an enabler for others than as a software artist in his own right. On that note, I want to talk about a few of the more interesting creations to stand alongside Adams’s own adventures in the jumble of the Adventure International catalog next time.

If you’d like to try Ghost Town, here’s a version you can load into the MESS emulator using its “Devices -> Quickload” function.


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19 Responses to A Busy 1980

  1. Adam Thornton

    August 26, 2011 at 2:29 am

    You know that Scott Adams is alive, well, on the net, and extremely approachable, right? You could just ask him about whether he was inspired by the _CC_ article, for instance….

    Contact me offline if you want his email address, but it’s easy to find.


    • Jimmy Maher

      August 26, 2011 at 12:06 pm

      Yes, of course. It’s been more than 30 years, though, and memories of such niggling details — the inspiration for a briefly considered plan that never got off the ground — inevitably fade with time.

      • Jeff Nyman

        May 9, 2021 at 12:31 pm

        Certainly things with fade with time. But, speaking historically, this seems very worth investigating. It would be extremely interesting to know, particularly from a historical perspective, why this didn’t go forward. I wouldn’t make the assumption that someone’s memories just somehow entirely degraded to the point of rendering investigation useless.

  2. Nate

    October 13, 2011 at 3:43 am

    Ah, Ghost Town. Good times. Sometime in the mid-80s, playing a GW-BASIC set of the Adams adventures (probably downloaded off a BBS) on an AT-class box, I remember being inordinately proud of myself for working out how to crack the GW-BASIC “listing disabled” flag with a random POKE and then poring through the source code to reverse engineer the interpreter and write my own dump utility. It was the only way to solve some of thoes @&$* puzzles.

    I have especially fond memories of Savage Island I & II, and being delighted when I tried something I didn’t think would work and found that the world was modelled in more depth than I imagined for a two-word parser.

    Even today, although I’m sure I never listened to it when I was playing the game, I can’t hear “Telegraph Road” without thinking of Ghost Town, wandering down that lonely little road above the town to the telegraph office and trying to make gunpowder. It’s a moment that lives more in my imagination than in the game text, I’m sure. But somewhere in that tiny bunch of data is the seed of my fascination with IF.

    Pirate Adventure was the only SA game ever beat without cheating.

  3. Gideon Marcus

    February 5, 2017 at 3:30 am

    I know you say in your book that Scott Adams’ work barely qualifies as IF, but (and I never thought I’d say this) in some ways, Adams’ stuff is *better* than Infocom’s.

    Don’t get me wrong. I grew up on Infocom, and I love it, BUT…

    Several years ago, we as a family (me, wife, 7-year old daughter) decided to try playing text adventures together. One would maneuver, one would map, and we’d all try to solve the puzzles. Adams’ games proved a perfect balance of simplicity of presentation and complexity of challenges. We went through several of the games, and each of us got the satisfaction of solving at least one big problem.

    As much as I love Infocom, those are really single-player endeavors. Of course, my wife and I did have a lot of fun about fifteen years ago playing Trinity side-by-side and reporting our solutions as we found them, but that’s not quite the same.

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 5, 2017 at 8:33 am

      I can certainly see that. I think my bigger issue with Scott Adams is that he seemed to regress as a designer almost on a game-by-game basis. His early games are pretty solid; I even included Pirate Adventure and The Count in my personal Hall of Fame. But by the time you get to stuff like Ghost Town, the games are both primitive and very unfair — a bad combination.

  4. Mike Taylor

    October 16, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    Typo: “it is recommended than actual chess board be used during play” -> “that an”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 17, 2017 at 8:24 am


  5. Jeff Morris

    June 4, 2018 at 1:13 am

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 4, 2018 at 8:06 am

      Fixed with the archived version. Thanks!

  6. Anon

    August 22, 2018 at 1:45 am

    with the output of a expanding new → with the output of an expanding new

  7. Anon

    August 22, 2018 at 1:53 am

    In the November, 1980, addition → In the November, 1980, edition

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 22, 2018 at 8:20 am

      Man, I really had problems with “edition” and “addition,” didn’t I? Thanks for these!

  8. Will Moczarski

    June 22, 2019 at 7:45 pm

    Two corrections (or sic!s required) in the Scott Adams Odyssey quote: by the time your are -> you are & of favorite mail order house -> or favorite mail order house.

    • Jimmy Maher

      June 23, 2019 at 2:34 pm


  9. Paul B. Guy

    October 25, 2019 at 9:54 pm

    The link to Ghosttown.cmd fails (Chrome reports: Failed – Network error).

    By the way, this is a fantastic resource of information you have here.

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 28, 2019 at 3:34 pm

      Link fixed. Thanks!

  10. Jeff Nyman

    May 9, 2021 at 12:36 pm

    “…more enamored than ever of the idea that these early games were simply too technologically limited to support difficult puzzles that were also fair and logically tenable …”

    This seems like an interesting idea to expand on.

    For example, with the screenshot shown, it seems one way to have handled this was to just allow for “GUNPOWDER” without the “WITH” as well as allowing for “WITH GUNPOWDER”.

    The requirement to “SAY GIDYUP” to get the horse to move could have perhaps just been handled with recognizing “MOVE HORSE”. Maybe if someone tried a command like “MIX SULFUR”, the game could have responded with “WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE?”

    The point being I don’t know that these issues point to technological limits rather than just poor design choices or perhaps a case of simply not thinking through what players are likely to try. No doubt there is some validity to the idea that certain puzzles, and their solutions, might be difficult to render, such as perhaps limitations of how much (or how little) the player is able to craft a sensible command or even, perhaps, limitations of how much text can be rendered to describe the situation.

    But so far here I haven’t seen anything that suggests technological limitations; rather just (perhaps) a lack of thought around to craft the experience.


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