Daily Archives: September 25, 2011

Eamon, Part 2

One of the ironies of Eamon is that it reached its greatest aesthetic heights and greatest popularity long after its creator, Donald Brown, had abandoned it. For much in this blog entry I’m therefore indebted to the man who followed Brown as the head of the Eamon community, another Des Moines resident by the name of John Nelson. The reconstruction that follows is the best I’ve been able to do from Nelson’s memories and the other available documentation, but there is much about Eamon‘s history that remains sketchy or even contradictory.

Nelson first discovered Eamon in very early 1980, when he visited the home of an early player to trade comic books. At that time, there were just four additional adventures available beyond the base disk. By the time he bought his first Apple II from the Computer Emporium (no small investment at some $2500; Nelson had to sell his car to manage it), the collection was already up to ten. He met Brown himself at the Computer Emporium while making the purchase, and got from him the full set. In these early days Eamon saw little if any distribution beyond the circle of employees, customers, and hangers-on around the Computer Emporium. Most adventures were written either by Brown himself or by his immediate circle of friends; Jim Jacobson, Computer Emporium employee and author of “The Zephyr Riverventure,” was particularly prolific. That’s little surprise considering that in these earliest days creating an Eamon adventure was a tricky, undocumented process bereft of the tools and documentation that would come along later. Presumably, one virtually had to be in direct communication with Brown to have a chance of pulling it off.

That began to change when Brown released the first edition of the Dungeon Designer Diskette, a collection of utilities and information designed to at least begin to explain and automate the process. Still, it was only a beginning; the tools were still in a very primitive state. As the included Manual for Eamon Dungeon Designers attests, the programmer even had to do her own word wrapping when writing room descriptions: “If your description is longer than 40 characters, you must pad it with spaces so that when the description wraps around the Apple’s 40-column screen, the breaks are between words.” Further, Nelson describes Brown’s tools as prone to crashes and data corruption of all stripes. Nelson soon set to work improving these tools, if initially only for his own use, and making adventures: numbers 15, 16, 19, and 20 are all his work.

Up to this point Brown had been taking an active role in curating Eamon‘s growing library of adventures, testing each and, once it was judged ready, assigning it an official number in the collection and creating a disk for distribution from the Computer Emporium. But in 1981 Brown’s friends at the Computer Emporium decided that they had the talent to do more than just sell software and hardware; they would become software developers in their own right. They therefore formed CE Software (get it?), with the initial intention of concentrating on games. Given the hit that Eamon had become in the store, they asked Brown to come work with them on this new venture.

The result was SwordThrust, a commercial version of the Eamon concept. Just like Eamon, SwordThrust consisted of a master disk and a series of scenario disks through which the player was expected to guide the same character. The difference, beyond considerable additional complexity and refinement, was of course that the player had to pay for the privilege each time. Brown and CE gave SwordThrust a good hard try, releasing six adventures in addition to the base system, but the public just wasn’t interested in paying for an RPG system that looked like a text adventure. In 1982 CE pulled the plug, not only on SwordThrust but on all of its game-development efforts. But never fear, the story has a happy ending of sorts: CE and Brown went into productivity applications instead, and had a long and successful run there, most notably as the developers of QuickMail and QuicKeys for the Macintosh. In fact, CE Software is still alive today, long after the Computer Emporium closed its doors, under the name Startly Technologies.

But where did SwordThrust leave Eamon? That, as it happens, is exactly the question Nelson found himself asking when he saw Brown turning away from his first creation. He asked Brown if he could assume the role of Eamon‘s curator, to continue to verify and catalog new adventures and keep the system alive. Brown said okay.

Still, with its creator having abandoned it, there followed a fallow period for Eamon; by late 1982 the adventure count had risen to just 25. But then Nelson found a way to get the system some national exposure. In his own words:

About this time, an article appeared in Creative Computing magazine written by Robert Plamondon. He was lamenting about the lack of any really good text adventure systems for the Apple II computer. I contacted Robert and asked if he had ever heard of Eamon. He had not, but was interested. I sent him several of the diskettes and he was very happy with them. He asked if he could include me in a follow-up article about Eamon. I said sure, no problem. So a follow-up article appeared in Creative Computing and I started getting mail from people all over the world.

In a very real way that article, which appeared in the January 1983 issue of Creative Computing, marked a rebirth for Eamon. Word began to spread through user groups and electronic bulletin-board systems around the world, with Nelson serving as the central hub for cataloging and distribution. Encouraged by the new interest, Nelson founded the National Eamon User’s Club with a friend of his, Bob Davis. They published the first NEUC newsletter in March of 1984, which among other things served as a godsend for the writers of articles like this one; from this point forward we at last have ongoing documentation of events in the world of Eamon. By that time Eamon had already grown to some 50 adventures.

Nelson is in many ways the unsung hero of Eamon. In addition to curating and popularizing, he also did critical technical work, building from Brown’s buggy utilities a workable and properly documented Dungeon Designer’s Disk and implementing plenty of improvements to the core Eamon system itself. When his interest in the Apple II began to wane in the late 1980s, he began work on a new Eamon for the IBM PC which ultimately never came to fruition, and passed the NEUC and its newsletter to a particularly active club member named Tom Zuchowski. Zuchowski changed the name of the club to the Eamon Adventurer’s Guild but otherwise pretty much continued business as usual. By this point, early 1988, there were 155 adventures available through the club.

The years of Nelson’s NEUC newsletter, 1984 to 1987, appear to represent the very peak of Eamon activity. In the years that followed, interest and production slowly tailed off, mirroring the declining fortunes of the Apple II platform itself. Zuchowski published the last regular issue of his newsletter in January of 2001, at which time Eamon was approaching 250 adventures. There has been sporadic activity since then — one Wade Clarke even entered a new Eamon adventure in last year’s IF Competition — but for all essential purposes this event marks the end of Eamon‘s long run as a living system.

Even at its peak Eamon was always something of a semi-obscure oddity, seldom mentioned even in adventure-gaming circles. When Nelson turned the NEUC over to Zuchowski, there were 138 active, dues-paying members. It’s of course true that this number represents only the very hardcore, and that many times that number likely played Eamon from time to time on a casual basis. Still, by any measure Eamon‘s presence was a pretty small one in comparison with the gaming scene of the Apple II as a whole. What they lacked in numbers, however, they made up for in enthusiasm and a sheer bloody-minded determination to keep the system alive even as the platform on which it ran fell into obsolescence.

The approach to the text adventure that Eamon pioneered, replacing RPG-style combat and simulation for set-piece puzzle design, has generally garnered little acceptance outside the Eamon community, excepting the oeuvre of the late Paul Allen Panks. Indeed, for many years “randomized combat” was practically a synonym for terrible game design in IF circles. As I mentioned in my first post in this series, though, some thoughtful folks have recently been challenging that convention wisdom. Certainly the newer IF-development systems have already begun to allow more simulation-oriented storyworlds that replace some aspects of set-piece design with believable emergent challenges. And certainly the hundreds or thousands of people who have been hooked by Eamon over the years saw something there that even the well-respected works of companies like Infocom just weren’t giving them. How all of these factors will play out in the long run is, as always, yet to be determined. For now, I’ll just say that, much as I love and respect Infocom, it never hurts to consider how some other folks approached the art of the text adventure as well if you’re looking for ideas to draw from.

Eamon is also of great interest for being at the center of the first community of interest to form not just around playing ludic narratives but around creating them. This fact, showing as it does how a small but committed community could create impressive technology and impressive interactive art, may be the most important aspect of Eamon of all. We’ll be meeting quite a few heirs to its tradition later on in this blog.

But next up, we start down a slippery slope indeed, as graphics come to the text adventure for the first time.


Posted by on September 25, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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