Daily Archives: November 7, 2011

Interactive Fantasies

In the early days of microcomputers, every sizable city seemed to have a store that not only sold hardware and software but became a social nexus for enthusiasts. The role that The Byte Shop played in Silicon Valley and that The Computer Emporium played in Des Moines was assumed in Los Angeles by Rainbow Computing. David Gordon, founder of Programma International, and Ken Williams both bought their first Apple IIs there and became regulars around the place. Sherwin Steffin of Edu-Ware was another regular customer. More than a customer, actually: he worked out a deal with Gene Sprouse, the owner, wherein Sprouse gave Edu-Ware a second Apple II system for the use of his partner Steve Pederson and Sprouse received Edu-Ware’s first game, Space, at cost.

Designed and programmed, like all of the earliest Edu-Ware efforts, by Steffin and Pederson themselves, Space was a science-fiction CRPG, the first of a line of “pure” games Edu-Ware labelled Interactive Fantasies to distinguish them from their educational products. The player generates a character using one module, then — shades of Eamon — imports that character into a scenario for play, and (if she survives) exports her again for play in other scenarios. Designed as just the first of a whole family of Space games, Space I features five scenarios in addition to the character generator. Its obvious inspiration — painfully obvious, in that Edu-Ware would later get sued over it — is the tabletop RPG Traveller (1977) from Game Designers’ Workshop, the first long-lived science-fiction RPG and one of the first of any stripe to appear from a publisher other than TSR.

A unique aspect of Traveller is its detailed character-generation system. Rather than just roll up some statistics, choose a character class and some spells, buy some equipment, and start adventuring as in Dungeons and Dragons, character creation in Traveller is a whole sub-game onto itself, kind of an RPG within an RPG, albeit one played at a much more abstracted level. The player creates not just some vital statistics for her avatar but a whole history, following her career in interstellar military service through a series of terms of service. Each term brings skills and experience, but also age, which eventually starts to have debilitating effects of its own. The player must thus balance experience against age in deciding when to retire from the service and start her adventuring career. Filling more than 20 pages in the original Traveller manual, character creation was so detailed and engaging that some grew into the habit of rolling up characters just for the fun of it.

Space might be described not so much as an adaptation of Traveller as a whole as an adaptation of the Traveller character-generation system. Even after the creation process per se is through, the individual scenarios are played at an unusually high level of abstraction, making them feel like a continuation of the same process. If, as some claim, the essence of a CRPG is the character-building process, Space has to be one of the purest examples of the form ever constructed.

Still, Steffin and Pederson felt constrained in Space and, indeed, many other ideas by their lack of formal programming education and skill. Therefore, when they met a young programmer at Rainbow with the technical skills they lacked and a head full of ideas, they took it as a godsend. His name was David Mullich.

Mullich’s route to computers had been a rather atypical one. As a child he had not been transfixed at all by the mathematics and science that fascinated most hackers; appropriately enough for a kid growing up in Los Angeles, Mullich had been a theater and film buff. With a dream of directing, he had seriously considered making film his major at university, but, according to his now-deleted MySpace page, shied away when he arrived at Cal State Northridge and “saw hundreds of other students who had the same ambition.” Casting about for an alternative, Mullich tried a computer-science class, and fell in love with computers and programming. Soon he was officially a computer-science major, an artsy kid turned hacker. His instructor for a COBOL class happened to be Russ Sprouse, brother of Gene, who hired Mullich for his first contract programming job and later found him a gig as a regular employee at Rainbow.

Steffin and Pederson initially hired Mullich — still finishing up at university — as a part-time contractor. Under those terms he not only coded educational software but also wrote a second set of scenarios for Space as well as the original games Windfall and Network. He not only programmed these games, but conceptualized and designed them from scratch, and quickly at that. Network, for instance, was born when Steffin called Mullich and told him he needed a new game for a trade show next weekend. Mullich designed and programmed Network in three days flat.

As soon as Mullich finished university in 1980, he joined Steffin, Pederson, and sales manager Mike Leiberman at Edu-Ware as Employee #4. There he began working on the most ambitious project he had yet tackled: a computer game based on the classic British television show The Prisoner.

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Posted by on November 7, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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