Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Once and Future SPAG

As many of you reading this undoubtedly know, I was for five years the editor of a webzine covering goings-on in the modern interactive-fiction community: the Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games, or SPAG. In 2010 I turned it over to another fellow, but that didn’t work out too well in the long run. After 1.5 excellent issues under his guidance, SPAG fell dormant. It’s been that way for over a year now.

This has always vaguely bothered me, like a little worm of guilt always burrowing away at the back of my psyche. SPAG, you see, is just about the longest-lived institution in contemporary IF, dating back to 1994. It even pre-dates the big annual Competition. People have continued occasionally to inquire about the magazine’s status, which has only made me feel worse. Still, I never felt quite bad enough to take on the job of reviving SPAG myself, as that feels very much like a “been there, done that” kind of endeavor for me. So I let my guilt fester in the background as I continued with my other projects.

Luckily, someone has finally come to my psychological rescue. More importantly, he’s come to SPAG’s rescue. Danni Willis has already done a hell of a lot for IF with Parchment, his interpreter that lets you play IF right in the browser. Now he’s going to take over as editor of SPAG. He has big plans for a new, dynamic website. He also plans to take a shift in emphasis I began at the end of my tenure to its logical conclusion: SPAG will now be a magazine for in-depth features and analysis rather than a reviews clearinghouse, a change I wholeheartedly approve.

But of course, and as I said way too many times during my own tenure as editor, to succeed SPAG needs your articles and feedback. Please contact him, or contribute to the aforelinked forum discussion, with your article proposals and ideas on how to make the new SPAG bigger, better, and more relevant than ever. I know that it’s again in good hands at last.


Posted by on August 31, 2012 in Interactive Fiction, Modern Times




I haven’t had much to say recently about Scott Adams, the man who first brought adventure games to PCs. But he was out there through all of the developments I’ve covered since the last time I wrote a post about him, continuing to run Adventure International and to slowly expand his stable of simple 16 K adventures. I called AI the Dollar General of the early software industry in that last post, and I don’t know how to express it any better today. It existed in a sort of hazy space between publisher and mail-order catalog retailer; many of its programs were also available in other ways thanks to non-exclusive publishing agreements, and most were available only via the catalogs or the company’s single Longwood, Florida storefront (“Just 40 minutes from DISNEY WORLD!”), never finding their way into shops. AI is perhaps best seen as a bridge between the very earliest days of microcomputer software, when semi-altruistic organizations like SoftSide magazine’s TRS-80 Software Exchange and Creative Computing‘s equivalent organ acted as mere middlemen to help programmers sell their creations, and the modern paradigm that had fallen pretty firmly into place by 1982, of software publishers that functioned like book or record publishers in demanding exclusive rights from the actual creators and aggressively marketing those creations under their own brand.

In the long run such a business model was going to be problematic for AI, as the new order asserted itself more and more. As of 1982, however, they were still doing well within their niche. Their catalogs remained the same ramshackle pile of junk, oddities, and the occasional gem, all priced much cheaper than the more polished products of the competition. Sometimes, when AI felt they had a particularly hot product on their hands, they would try to pierce their insularity and play with the On-Lines and Brøderbunds, yet without losing the same weirdly, um, casual approach to basic English diction that marked their catalogs and the adventures of their founder.

I don’t think “penultimate” means what you think it does, Mr. AI Copywriter. At moments like this there’s something almost lovable about AI’s happy slapdashery.

Space war games aside, AI’s flagship titles remained their adventure games. Despite being like Ken Williams and Doug Carlston in needing to spend more and more time running a company and less and less hacking, Scott Adams managed to author another of these in 1981, Savage Island Part 2, and also co-authored Golden Voyage with a university student named William Demas. This brought AI’s line of official Scott Adams games to the neat dozen that have passed into history as the original Scott Adams canon. By 1982 their OtherVentures line, a grab bag of games not authored by the master himself, consisted of an additional five titles of varying technical approaches and quality, among them yet another port of Crowther and Woods’s original Adventure and Lance Micklus’s landmark Dog Star Adventure. But now AI’s comfortable position was beginning to feel threatened by the innovations of other companies. To understand why, let’s step back for just a moment to survey the adventuring field as a whole.

There’s a simple narrative about the life and (commercial) death of the text adventure that most of you interested enough to read this blog probably know all too well already. In the beginning, it goes, adventure games were all text all the time. But then came Mystery House, and in the years that followed more and more makers began adding pictures to their games, which became more and more important, until finally they were all that was left. Throw in the requisite appreciation of Infocom and a few other holdouts who stayed with text until it was painfully obvious that that way lay madness, and that’s pretty much the story.

As simplified encapsulations go, the story is fine. Still, there are things that surprised me when I started to look closely at the actual timeline of releases. One of those was just how quickly games with graphics came to dominate the market in the wake of Mystery House and (especially) The Wizard and the Princess, at least on machines like the Apple II that had the ability to display reasonable pictures. A flood of other “hi-res adventures” followed On-Line’s into the market, so many that On-Line would eventually feel the need to start suing others for using what they saw as their own name for their own unique line of games. Already in its May 1982 issue Softline magazine wrote that “the demands of the market are weighted heavily toward hi-res graphics” in adventure games.

Put crudely, we might say that text-adventure makers sorted themselves into two groups: those who saw text as a necessary kludge only, and got away from it as quickly as possible (the vast majority); and those who defined themselves by a more literary sensibility of which the use of text was an essential part (largely only Infocom at this point, although a handful of others would spring up to follow their example). In other words, are you working with text because there’s no other choice given technological constraints, or out of an intrinsic fascination with the medium? Let’s call the former group Type 1; the latter Type 2. This dichotomy continues to persist today; those who continue to write and play textual interactive fiction out of a love of the form itself often confuse others who see text adventures only as an early, primitive form of gaming technology that was quickly and thankfully replaced with something better.

The big, obvious drawback of including graphics was that they used precious memory and disk space on machines that had little of either to spare. Still, most players were entranced enough by pictures that they were willing to accept the tradeoff of less or worse everything else: total text, total length, parser, world modeling, execution speed, etc. The Apple II commercial adventure market by 1982 was divided between the picture-sporting but otherwise very primitive “hi-res adventures” and, well, at this stage pretty much just Infocom, who offered no pictures but better and more of just about everything else. It would be another year or so before Infocom started aggressively marketing their lack of graphics as addition by subtraction, but already they were beginning to stand out from everyone else for their refusal to jump on the hi-res bandwagon.

The only company that didn’t fit comfortably into this bifurcation was Adventure International. The Scott Adams adventures were still built using the same technological blueprint Adams had developed way back in 1978, when his Adventureland became the first adventure game to reach microcomputers. They still had to fit, database and interpreter, into just 16 K of memory, meaning they combined the worst of both adventuring paradigms: the lack of pictures of Infocom and the primitive everything else of typical graphics games. Luckily, the games’ low system requirements made them ideal for a market virtually everyone else missed. In addition to comparatively powerful machines like the Apple II, Atari 400 and 800, and the new IBM PC, the computer industry of the early 1980s had a huge soft underbelly of cheap, low-powered machines like the TRS-80 Model 1 and 3, the TI-99/4A, and the king of this segment and bestselling computer in the world, the Commodore VIC-20. For these machines, the Scott Adams titles, with their need for only 16 K of memory and their ability to run off cassette or even (in the case of the VIC-20) cartridge, were literally the only adventure games in town. Adams had a captive market here, as uncontested as the general PC market had been back in 1978. For several years he fed very well upon it.

Yet it would be nice to compete on the bigger machines as well, wouldn’t it? To do that he would obviously need to improve his games, to bring them more in line with those of either On-Line or Infocom. Given the carelessness of the prose in his games, one might be tempted to immediately lump Adams in with On-Line as a Type 1 developer. Surprisingly, however, even in a 1984 interview he was still expressing ambivalence about the addition of graphics to adventure gaming: “I still do prefer text. The player is left to exercise his imagination and provide his own images, which is more exciting.” Still, it would be much easier to add graphics to his existing games, using the ample memory and disk space they left unused in a machine like the 48 K Apple II Plus, than to rewrite them from scratch with the better everything else of Infocom. And that was clearly the path of least commercial resistance. As he said in the same interview, “If we can provide graphics, and people want graphics, then we should let them have graphics.” The result was SAGA, the Scott Adams Graphic Adventures.

At the heart of each SAGA is the original non-graphic adventure’s data file. (Literally; even misspellings go uncorrected.) To this foundation AI’s long-term in-house artist, “Peppy,” added lots of bright, colorful illustrations, one for each location as well as the occasional bonus scene. Following On-Line’s lead, you can see the text “behind” a picture by hitting enter on an empty command line, and takeable objects show up in the pictures, lending them a certain degree of interactivity and functionality rather than serving strictly as decoration. However, there isn’t the persistent annoyance that dogs the On-Line games of always needing to wonder whether pieces of the illustrations not described in the text can nevertheless be interacted with. Because they are text adventures with hooks for graphics retrofitted after the fact, you can turn off the graphics entirely if you like without missing anything vital.

In preparation for writing this post, I played through the SAGA version of Pirate Adventure, Adams’s second game and the one, along with The Count and perhaps the original Adventureland, that is generally the most fondly remembered today. (In contrast to pretty much every other designer ever, Adams’s games tended to get less and less satisfying as his career progressed.) And indeed, Pirate Adventure, which was co-written by his wife of the time, Alexis Adams, shows Scott Adams with his best foot forward. This early in his career he did not yet feel the need to ratchet up the difficulty through increasingly absurd puzzles. Yes, there are still some parser frustrations as well as such Scott Adams-isms as UNLIGHT as the antonym of the verb LIGHT, but the central task of building a ship is fun, and there’s an enthusiastic, encouraging tone to the text (what there is of it) that makes the whole go down surprisingly easy even today, a remarkable feat for such an early, primitive effort. There’s even a smidge of the more dynamic storyworld that would appear in The Count, with a cracker-loving parrot and a rum-loving pirate who move about. The SAGA version, with lots of pictures that are perhaps not quite up with the best of On-Line but aren’t bad either, only adds to the charm — at least until the slowness of loading all those graphics from disk makes you opt for all-text mode again.

AI released SAGA versions of the first three of the Scott Adams dozen in 1982, followed by the next three the following year, while also continuing to market the text-only versions for low-end machines that couldn’t support the graphic versions. Some of the OtherVentures also got their graphical due. A changing market and changing priorities after that meant that the remaining titles never got converted.

In their time the SAGA games served their purpose of breathing new life into this stable of old, comparatively unsophisticated games. Sure, Adventure International continued to look a bit low rent in comparison to slicker publishers, but their games were relatively inexpensive and, at their best, fun. For plenty of eager adventurers who had exhausted the works of other publishers, or who lacked the machine or the money to access them, Scott Adams and his OtherVentures buddies still held plenty of appeal. They could even do one thing the competition couldn’t: they could talk. That is, when running on a computer with a Votrax Type ‘n Talk, the first hardware-based speech synthesizer to arrive for PCs. Sure, it was a gimmick, but it was a clever one, and one that probably sold some SAGAs on its own.

If you’d like to check out SAGA for yourself, here’s Pirate Adventure for the Apple II.


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The Prisoner 2

The Prisoner was a big sales success, at least by the standards of a small software house like Edu-Ware. Enough people were eager to believe in a vision of games as Art to embrace it despite its almost aggressively off-putting personality — or, perhaps, they were just desperate enough for new adventures that they were ready to put up with artistic aspirations as long they also had puzzles to solve. Regardless, the game played a crucial role in the company’s idealistic core mission, to bring quality educational software to this new generation of personal computers. The steady flow of profits from The Prisoner gave Edu-Ware, supported by Apple’s own efforts to define the Apple II as “the education computer,” time and resources to build a customer base of schools and engaged parents for titles like their Compu-Math and Algebra series.

Yet times were changing fast in software, and particularly in entertainment software. Even by just eighteen months after its release The Prisoner — with its sluggish all-BASIC implementation, its blocky, monochrome text or low-resolution graphics displays, and its photocopy/Ziploc-bag-based packaging — was beginning to look sadly amateurish in comparison with the latest extravaganzas from the likes of On-Line and Brøderbund. Edu-Ware therefore decided to remake their cash cow in a more polished, slicker, faster edition, with color and more and better graphics. Confusingly, they decided to call the new game The Prisoner 2, even though it was very much a remake rather than a sequel. Marketing never was Edu-Ware’s strong suit.

The new project reflected changing models of development, not only within a growing Edu-Ware but also within a growing software industry. The original had been cranked out by David Mullich in a furious six weeks of hacking. There was no separate design process; he simply designed as he coded, adding in whatever seemed cool and appropriate as it struck his fancy. By the time of The Prisoner 2, however, Mullich had acquired the title of “development manager” at Edu-Ware, with a staff of several programmers working under him on the company’s various projects. Having gotten more adept at 6502 assembly language since the time of the first game, he himself programmed some speed-critical routines for graphics that were also used in other Edu-Ware titles, as well as a text parser. He also drew the game’s graphics on paper. But to translate those drawings onto the computer, and to code everything else, he employed one Mike St. Jean, who worked, once again in BASIC, from a detailed design document provided by Mullich. Mullich was, in other words, transitioning from the jack-of-all-trades hacker typical of the very early PC era to this new creature known as a “game designer.” Those aforementioned assembly-language routines would be, in Mullich’s own words, “among the last programs I actually coded myself” in a career in software that continues to this day.

The results of his efforts are, as is all too typical of remakes, mixed. While it may have had at least as much to do with lack of time, expertise, and resources as artistic intent, the original’s stark, Constructivist appearance did much to strengthen the atmosphere of oppression, coercion, and collectivist subjugation. The Prisoner 2, by contrast, looks at first glance like just another “hi-res adventure” of the sort that were flooding the market by 1982 in response to On-Line Systems’s success, and the maze section that opens the game bears a pronounced resemblance to, of all things, the Wizardry series.

Likewise, the variety of different interfaces found in the original game, which the player had to puzzle out on her own to succeed, is here replaced in almost all places by a two-word parser that is unusually balky even by the standards of the time. It’s tempting to read some of its obstinacy as another instance of the old Prisoner tactic of resisting consistent interface standards to keep the player always ill at ease. How else to read the fact that the parser sometimes demands that you navigate with “forward,” “back,” “right,” and “left,” and other times with traditional compass directions? Still, it just somehow doesn’t quite work as well as the first game’s interface smorgasbord.

The new, more professional presentation must inevitably also become more technically opaque, removing some of the possibility for winning through, um, other means like code-diving. This might be a good thing in any other game, but, as Steve Pederson wrote in response to my article on the original Prisoner, in this case “nothing could be more in the spirit of the game [than cheating].”

A comparison of the manuals also gives me conflicted feelings. The original shipped with only the most essential information on the game and some slightly pedantic “educational notes” penned by Edu-Ware founder Sherwin Steffin. For the sequel, this document was replaced with a slicker production which elaborates a mythology of sorts for The Island and even for the original Prisoner television series. The Island, we are told, was created in the 1960s in response to the agitations of the counterculture.

It was in this climate that The Island was created. Its purpose then was to silence dissenters and to perpetuate authoritarian rule. Leaders of various social movements and government operatives who learned too much of their employer’s plans both unwillingly found themselves a new home on The Island — until such time as they were absorbed back into the system or died. But, from the perspective of the rest of the world, they had vanished without a trace, presumably the victims of foreign or illegal organizations.

Towards the end of the decade came the first exposé of The Island. It was presented in the form of a television adventure series so that its producers could circumvent the problems of censorship. Its focus was as a psychological study and a political statement concerning the problem of keeping one’s individuality and personal freedom in a technological society. While it did gain a cult audience, its messages did not receive the recognition that they deserved.

So, the influence of The Island spread unchecked in the seventies. The “me” generation proved to be a perfect target not only for The Island’s sinister activities, but also for one of the most powerful weapons of mass enslavement ever created: the computer. Ever increasing meddling by computer networks, data bases, and information peddlers in our daily lives forced us close to the verge of becoming mere numbers within the memory banks of hundreds of machines across the country. More and more information about us became accessible to anyone who had a link into the proper data base. With the flip of a switch, instantly our reputations could be tarnished and our influence destroyed. Lives became statistics, and statistics could be altered.

In short, the computer was turning society into a vast collective prison.

In the debate that raged through the 1970s and 1980s (and to some extent still today) on whether the computer was a tool of liberation and creative possibility or a tool for dehumanization and subjugation, this narrative comes down on the latter side. Yet The Prisoner 2 is of course using a computer to make just the sort of creative, humanistic statement it says the computer will stamp out. As always where The Prisoner is involved, the contradictions bite deep.

Mullich has here totally abandoned the notion from the original game of merely being “inspired by” the television show. He is now explicitly playing in the same storyworld as the show — and doing it without any sort of licensing deal with The Prisoner‘s corporate parent ITC Entertainment, who were either unusually benevolent or very unobservant. Ironically, Mullich later in his career would join Disney, where he would spend some of his time stamping out just this sort of intellectual-property infringement.

Eternal debates over intellectual property aside, I’m still not sure how I feel about the sequel’s elaborate backstory. Part of me wants to say that Mullich and company say far, far too much here, that rooting The Island in such a specific historical and cultural context costs them much of the ominously enigmatic feel of both the original game and television series. On the other hand, this more detailed fictional context does enable the most notable new aspect of the sequel: a sharply satirical critique of the videogame craze that was just reaching its first-generational peak when The Prisoner 2 reached stores in mid-1982.

A more disturbing turn of events took place in the eighties, however. Instead of the public becoming cautious of computerization, they took the devices into their very homes. For hours at a time, people would sit blank-faced in front of television sets playing uninspired clones of Asteroids, Space Invaders, and Pac-Man. An entire civilization was willing to waste their precious lives playing mindless games, relentlessly pursuing nursery-school melodies, high scores, and pointless goals.

In that spirit, the Rovers, the balloon-like guards who prevented escape from The Island in both the television series and the first game, are replaced in the sequel with… Pac-Man.

As good adventure gamers, we might be tempted to agree with Mullich’s criticism of these mindless arcade games, to assume that our more cerebral games are exempt from his criticisms. But then we come to a building he added just for the sequel: the Grail House. Inside is something that was already becoming a symbol of adventure games at their most banal by this time: an extended maze. The maze includes rooms which specifically reference Adventure, Mystery House, The Wizard and the Princess, and the Scott Adams games.

Whether these portrayals are fleshed-out enough to rise to the level of satire is perhaps debatable, but they don’t exactly feel like loving tributes either. The Mystery House room, which flags you as a murderer (presumably of Ken Williams himself) until you find “absolution” in the church, has a particularly abrasive edge to it. Indeed, and especially given the truly awful parser, one could almost read the entirety of The Prisoner 2 as a satire on the absurdities of contemporary adventure gaming. The ultimate goal of the game is after all to free yourself by “escaping” from pointless submission to this world inside your computer, as Edu-Ware’s Steve Pederson is doing in the striking box art.

Leaving aside both other adventure games and The Prisoner 2‘s more colorful but less effective appearance (prompted, ironically, by commercial considerations that required keeping up with those very same other adventure games), much of the subversive, anti-authoritarian message of the original game does remain in the sequel. In some places it is even strengthened. The Library in the original, for instance, contained a hopelessly inscrutable free-association scenario whose issue could be a vital clue or a book getting burned. The sequel tries to force you to actively burn books.

B.F. Skinner’s theories of education come in for even sharper criticism here than in the first game. Succeeding at a series of rote memory exercises leads to a diploma and a wicked pun. (And note the teacher’s apple shaped, once again, like Pac-Man…)

Sometimes the manipulations of truth and perceptions reach new heights of inspiration, such as in this genius re-purposing of a quote from Thomas Jefferson.

We’re tempted to want to add a “be” — or, better yet, a “be free” — to the end. For the record, however, here’s the full quote:

No government ought to be without censors, and where the press is free, no one ever will. If virtuous, it need not fear the fair operation of attack and defence. Nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth whether in religion, law or politics. I think it as honorable to the government neither to know nor notice its sycophants or censors, as it would be undignified and criminal to pamper the former and persecute the latter.

Jefferson is here using the word “censor” in an archaic way, as a term for a person who closely monitors and criticizes the actions of another, generally one in a position of power. (Some remnant of this usage persists in the adjective “censorious,” as in condemning an unnecessarily critical critic’s “censorious behavior.”) Thus, far from arguing for censorship in the modern sense, he is arguing for the very governmental openness and transparency that is anathema to the powers that be on The Island.

The Prisoner 2 continues to emphasize that it itself is your enemy. In addition to the established dirty tricks from its predecessor (that bogus error message that tries to trick you into entering your resignation code appears again), it has some new ways to be belligerent. At one point it even threatens to re-format the game disk.

No, it doesn’t go quite that far. If you lose this game of judicial hangman, the game tries to fake you out by grinding the disk just like it would during a format, but ultimately declines to actually do the deed.

Another amusing fake-out is the computerized “Free Information” booth.

Asking “why” in this section makes the computer go berserk, screen flashing gibberish and disk drives wildly blinking and grinding. In addition to several episodes of Star Trek, this sequence also evokes the climax to one of the classic episodes of The Prisoner television show, “The General.” It’s also, of course, the all-important question that B.F. Skinner’s theories of education don’t prepare students to answer.

So, yes, The Prisoner 2 does manage to get its lumps in. If it doesn’t feel quite as laser-focused in its presentation and rhetoric or, well, quite as necessary as its predecessor, it’s certainly not an embarrassment. Yet, and ironically given its more polished presentation, it was not the same sort of commercial success. Steve Pederson estimates that it only sold in the range of 3000 to 5000 units in total, pretty underwhelming figures in comparison to games I’ve covered recently like Choplifter (9000 copies in its first month) or Deadline (25,000 copies in its first eight months). This was in spite of being ported to the Atari 400 and 800 and the IBM PC in addition to the Apple II. The entertainment-software market was growing rapidly, but Edu-Ware’s share in it was not.

To begin to understand why that should be, we might look to tensions and contradictions within Edu-Ware itself. Edu-Ware’s president and founder, Sherwin Steffin, had no great investment in games. As his company’s name would imply, his passion, a product of his long and ongoing career in education, was educational software. The company’s two other important players, Mullich and Steve Pederson, were each a generation younger than Steffin, and much more interested in computers and games for their own sakes. Steffin was happy to allow them to indulge their interest as long as everyone also strove to develop the high-quality educational software that he had founded the company to create — and luckily so, as the first Prisoner turned out to be a gold mine that helped get his own projects off the ground. Yet by 1982 those projects were able to fly on their own, with programs like Algebra 1 selling in the tens of thousands. As Pederson has said, “As time went on, it became harder and harder to justify game development.” Edu-Ware didn’t need games anymore, and with a hungry market for their educational software and a president rather disinterested in the field, the company had begun the gradual process of abandoning the games market even as The Prisoner 2 was being released. As a retread (however well done) of an older game and with an unengaged corporate parent, The Prisoner 2‘s lackluster sales performance is not so surprising. Edu-Ware’s last big game release, the final, less than compelling installment of its Empire trilogy of science-fiction RPGs, appeared early the following year. And that was pretty much that for the Interactive Fantasies line to which The Prisoner games had belonged.

In July of 1983, Edu-Ware was purchased by a much larger company that had heretofore focused on software for big institutional machines, Management Sciences America. There are a couple of ways to see this development. On the one hand, plucky little Edu-Ware looked to already be facing an uncertain future in the educational market it had pioneered, as new companies like Spinnaker with established corporate parents entered with slick new products for the growing numbers of Apple II-devoted educators and parents. Perhaps finding a deep-pocketed parent of its own was the only way for Edu-Ware to have a hope of survival in this new, more crowded world. On the other hand, Sherwin Steffin told me recently via email that “marketing was an area in which I had neither skill nor interest,” and that this purchase was exactly the “exit strategy that I had planned from the beginning.”

What happened next, though, Steffin had most certainly not planned. He, Mullich, and Pederson were allowed to work without disruption for only a short time before relations collapsed in a pile of accusations, ultimatums, and, eventually, lawsuits. The Edu-Ware brand was largely merged into MSA’s Peachtree line of productivity software in 1984, and the last traces of the old company were obliterated by early 1985. By this time Steffin, Mullich, and Pederson were all long gone. It was an inglorious, anticlimactic end for a pioneering publisher, but not, alas, an atypical one.

As usual, I’ve prepared a copy of The Prisoner 2 for those of you who’d like to try it for yourselves. This time that’s especially important. Like its predecessor, The Prisoner 2 writes to the game disk during play, meaning that most of the copies archived on the Internet contain someone else’s half-finished game. I’ve prepared a zip with a clean copy of the Apple II disk, along with the manual (courtesy of the amazing Museum of Computer Adventure Game History). You might also want to have a look at a fascinating document at the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities: David Mullich’s original design document for the game.

Be seeing ewe!


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Dan Gorlin was 27 years old in early 1981, and already possessed of the sort of multifarious resume that’s typical of so many we’ve met on this blog. He was just coming off a three-year stint with Rand Corporation, doing artificial-intelligence research, but before that he’d studied piano at the California Institute of the Arts, and also studied and taught African dance, music, and culture. Now the Rand gig was over, and he suddenly found himself with time on his hands and no great urgency to find another job right away; his wife was earning very well as an oil-industry executive. While staying home to show prospective buyers the Los Angeles house he and his wife had put up for sale, Gorlin started tinkering for the first time with a microcomputer, an Apple II Plus that belonged to his grandfather. Said grandfather, a hopeless gadget freak, loved the idea of a PC, but in actuality hardly knew how to turn the Apple II on; he called floppy disks “sloppy disks” out of genuine confusion. So, Gorlin had no difficulty keeping the machine at his house for weeks or months at a stretch.

He wasn’t using the Apple II to play games. Indeed, as he has repeatedly stated in interviews, Gorlin has never been much of a gamer. He was rather intrigued by what he might do with the Apple II as a programmer, what he might create on it. He started learning the vagaries of the Apple II’s hi-res graphics, the bitmapped display mode that many computers in 1981 still lacked. Amongst his other passions, Gorlin was fascinated by helicopters, so he started developing a program that would let a player fly a little helicopter around the screen using the joystick. At first he attempted to implement a pilot’s-eye view, showing the view from the cockpit in three dimensions, Flight Simulator-style, but eventually gave up on this as too taxing, settling for a third-person view of his little helicopter. Still, he tried, to the extent possible on a 48 K 8-bit computer, to make his program an accurate simulation of the rather odd and counter-intuitive physics of helicopter flight. Eventually he had a very acceptable little helicopter simulator running, if also one that was very tricky to fly.

He may have had the physics of flight in place, but Gorlin, who couldn’t help but notice by this point that others were making serious money selling Apple II games, needed a hook, a reason for flying the helicopter that could turn his simulator project into a real game with challenges and a goal. He tried adding some enemy tanks and planes to shoot at and be shot at in standard arcade fashion, but it somehow still didn’t feel right. Then one fateful afternoon a local kid whom Gorlin had hired to do some repairs on his car was playing around with the program. “You should have some men to pick up,” the kid said — like in one of his favorite arcade games, the mega-popular Defender. Gorlin, non-gamer that he was, knew nothing about Defender, so he walked over to the local laundromat to have a look.

Defender is in many ways a typical creation of its time, with the player tasked with shooting down wave after wave of enemy ships to increase her score and earn extra lives. It does, however, have one unique element, from whence derives its name. Little “astronauts” wander the planet’s surface at the bottom of the screen. In an unexpected injection of Close Encounters into Star Wars, certain enemy ships attempt to abduct these fellows. If they succeed in carrying one off, the player has one last chance to effect a rescue: she can shoot down the offending ship, scoop up the falling astronaut, and set him down safely back on the planet’s surface. If enough astronauts get abducted (or killed falling from their destroyed abductors), the planet explodes and an onslaught of particularly deadly enemies begins, until the player either dies (most likely) or manages to revert everything back to normal by killing them all.

Defender‘s astronauts function more as a mechanical gimmick to differentiate the game from its peers than an earnest attempt at ludic worldbuilding, but they were enough to get Gorlin thinking about a new and unique goal for his own game. What if, instead of making the goal to shoot down enemies for points, he instead made it to rescue unarmed hostages for, well, the sake of doing good? It was a scenario very much in step with the times. In April of 1980, President Jimmy Carter had authorized sending six helicopters to attempt to rescue the 52 Americans being held hostage in Tehran following the Iranian Revolution of the previous year. The mission turned into an infamous fiasco which cost eight Americans on the mission their lives without ever even making contact with a single hostage — or Iranian for that matter — and arguably cost Carter any hope he might have still held for reelection later that year. Oddly, Gorlin says that he never made the obvious connection between his developing idea and the recent event in Iran until he started showing his game in public and heard people talking about it. Still, it’s hard not to feel that the influence must have been at least subconsciously present from long before that point. It’s certainly safe to say that most of the people who eventually made Choplifter one of the biggest Apple II hits of 1982 saw it as a direct response to an humiliation that still smarted with patriotic souls two years later, a chance to re-stage the mission and this time get it right.

By late 1981 all of the basic concepts of Choplifter had been implemented. While the enemy tanks and planes remained, they were now mere hindrances to be destroyed or — often preferably, because it wasted less time — avoided. The real goal was to rescue as many of the 64 hostages wandering the surface below as possible. You did this by landing the chopper next to them — but not directly on them, lest you crush them — and letting them climb aboard before an enemy tank could kill them. Once you had a pretty good load of hostages (your helicopter could hold up to 16), you needed to drop them off safely back at your base. The only score was the number of hostages you could manage to rescue before you lost the last of your three lives, or ran out of living hostages to carry away. If a new player could end up with more living than dead she was doing pretty well, and rescuing all 64 remains to this day one of the truly herculean feats of gaming lore.

Convinced that he “could make some money” with the game, Gorlin sent his prototype to Brøderbund, who had followed Apple Galaxian/Alien Rain with a wave of other, thankfully mostly more original titles that had garnered them a reputation as a premier publisher of Apple II action games. They loved Choplifter from the moment they booted it, and immediately flew Gorlin out to their new San Rafael headquarters to help him to polish it and to talk contract. Like so many others, Gorlin expresses nothing but warmth for Brøderbund and the Carlston siblings: “So the way they did it was, they’d see something that was like, it’d have promise, and they’d sort of engulf you with family love. It was a very nurturing environment.”

Brøderbund’s enthusiasm proved to be justified. When they started showing Choplifter at AppleFest and other trade shows that spring, people lined up “around the block” to play it. And when released in May of 1982, the game sold 9000 copies in its first month on the market, excellent numbers in those times. But that was only the beginning. Over the months and years that followed Brøderbund funded ports to virtually every viable platform that came along. And, in a move that must have made people wonder whether the earth was about to start orbiting the moon, Sega even bought a license to make a standup-arcade incarnation in 1986, a reversal of the normal practice of bringing arcade games to home platforms.

Gorlin worked on and off in the games industry over the years that followed, but often with the lack of enthusiasm we might expect from such a defiant non-gamer. He never had another high-profile success to match Choplifter, and his most abiding passion remains African dance. Still, with Choplifter‘s huge sales and Brøderbund’s very generous royalty rates even for ports and translations with which he had no direct involvement, he did very well for many years off his one big moment of glory. Even today when his name is mentioned it tickles at the back of many a long-time gamer’s mind, where it’s been rattling around for years after appearing on all those Choplifter title screens and boxes.

But what was it that made Choplifter so compelling to so many people? And, you might be wondering as a corollary, why am I devoting time to it on a blog that’s usually all about games with strong narrative elements? One immediate answer, at least to the former question, is that Gorlin was fortunate enough to create something perfectly in step with the zeitgeist of the early 1980s, when helicopter-based rescue missions and hostages were so much on people’s minds. Indeed, Gorlin himself has always mentioned this good fortune as a key to the game’s success. But in addition, and more importantly for our purposes, Choplifter is not just another action game. It’s doing something different from most of its peers, something that makes it worth talking about here in the same sense that Castle Wolfenstein was. It marks a step toward story, or at least real, lived experience, in a game that is not an adventure or CRPG.

Mind you, you won’t find a compelling story in the conventional sense attached to Choplifter. The manual justifies the action by explaining that the Bungeling Empire, a group of generically evil baddies invented by the Carlston brothers who appear in many early Brøderbund games, have kidnapped the 64 delegates to the United Nations Conference on Peace and Child Rearing they were hosting. (What could be more evil than to use violence against that conference?) Luckily, the United States has for some reason been allowed to build a post office(!) within Bungeling territory, into which they’ve smuggled “an entire helicopter disguised as a mail sorting machine.” You can use the reassembled helicopter to rescue the hostages and return them to the post office. It’s a typically silly action-game premise, obviously not meant to be taken too seriously.

No, it’s other aspects of Choplifter that make it interesting for my purposes, that make it feel like it wants to be an experiential game in a way that its peers don’t. One immediately noticeable difference is the aforementioned rejection of a scoring mechanic or a leaderboard. Your success or failure are measured not by some abstract, extra-diegetic numbers, but rather by two figures that have heaps of meaning within the world of the game: how many hostages you rescued and how many you allowed to be killed. Further, there is a definite end-point to Choplifter that involves more than the three avatar lives you have at your disposal. In addition to (naturally) ending when these are exhausted, the game ends when the supply of hostages is exhausted — when all have been killed or rescued. Complete failures, disappointments, tragedies, mixed outcomes, relative successes — and, for the holy grail, the complete victory of rescuing all 64 innocents — are possible. Contrast that with the kamikaze run that was the standard arcade game of the time, where you simply played until you ran out of lives.

For the first run you make to rescue hostages, you don’t have to contend with any enemy aircraft, only some ground-bound tanks. Next time, the enemy jets start to show up. In one sense this is a standard arcade mechanic, of offering up tougher and tougher challenges as the player stays alive longer. In another, though, it’s a realistic simulation of the situation. The first time you fly out with your smuggled-in helicopter, you catch the Bungelings by surprise, and thus have a fairly easy time of it. Afterward, however, they know what you’re about, and are marshaling their forces to stop you. As you fly back again and again into ever-increasing danger, there’s a sense of a plot building to its climax.

The in-game presentation consistently enforces this sense of inhabiting a real storyworld. The graphics obviously cannot look too spectacular, given the limitations of their platform, but the behavior of the hostages in particular has a verisimilitude that can actually be kind of touching. When you first fly over a group, they stand and wave, desperately trying to attract your attention. When you fly closer, and it becomes clear that you’re trying to pick them up, they all rush frantically toward you. Should enemies get in the way, their behavior is almost as unpredictable as would be that of real civilians who suddenly find themselves on a battlefield. Some run away, figuring that remaining captive beats dying, while others dash madly toward the helicopter, and are often killed for their rashness. It takes those that do reach the helicopter a nail-biting moment to scramble inside. Hover just overhead and they jump frantically underneath you, trying to get aboard. Later, when you fly them back to the post office, they pile out of the helicopter and rush for the sanctuary of the building — but a few, just a few, pause for a moment to turn and wave back in thanks.

Other arcade games, like Donkey Kong, had brought a similar sense of characterization to their actors, but the emergent qualities and realistic strictures of Choplifter nevertheless make it feel real in a way that those games don’t. There’s the fact that you can, for example, only pack 16 hostages at a time into your helicopter. And of course there’s the already-mentioned gruesome possibility of crushing hostages if you land on top of them. Elements like this can make Choplifter feel off-putting at first if you approach it as just another classic arcade game. We don’t expect real-world logic to mix with game logic in quite that way, even though it would make perfect sense not to, you know, land on people’s heads if we were actually in that situation.

Another critical element is the behavior of the helicopter itself. Gorlin had originally envisioned Choplifter as a realistic simulation of actual helicopter flight, but a helicopter is about the most notoriously difficult type of aircraft there is to fly. Brøderbund convinced him that hewing too stubbornly to real helicopter physics would limit the appeal of the game far too much. Gorlin:

They taught me about playability. They helped me with control of the joystick.

The first Choplifter I showed Brøderbund was too realistic, too much of a helicopter simulation. De-emphasizing the weight of the calculations that simulated the vertical force control of the rotors made the chopper more flyable to the average player. I hated to see the realism go, but it did improve the game. In a lot of ways, Brøderbund helped me fine-tune and polish the presentation.

It’s important to note, however, that Brøderbund did not have Gorlin remove all of the realism. They just had him scale it back to a manageable level. What they achieved was — and this is important enough that I’m almost tempted to call it visionary — a sort of videogame hyper-realism. The helicopter’s motions are sloppy and unstable enough that you still feel like you’re really flying. It’s a very different experience from the clipped, precise controls of other arcade games, like Choplifter‘s partial inspiration Defender. Choplifter achieves the neat trick of making you feel like a real pilot without demanding that you acquire the skills of a real pilot first. That alone makes it an important step on the road to truly experiential action games. Choplifter consistently invites us to enter a storyworld, to play with our imaginations as well as our reflexes.

When a game of Choplifter is, one way or another, over, two simple, classic words appear on the screen: “The End,” reinforcing yet once more this sense of the game as a lived story. In a fascinating article in the July 1982 Softline, Jim Salmons heavily emphasized this and the other cinematic qualities of the game, marking it as an early case study in the long, fraught relationship between videogames and movies. Some of his conclusions do rather stretch the point, but the fact that Choplifter was inspiring people to see it in such a way is significant in itself. Salmons describes the game in a way that makes it sound at home with the ludic rhetoric of modern “serious games,” or for that matter some of the contemporary Edu-Ware simulations. On the player’s power to choose to what extent she goes after the enemy tanks and planes in lieu of simply trying to rescue the hostages:

Your temperament and values determine whether aggressive behavior is warranted. Sometimes, you can’t avoid it. On other occasions, it’s righteous reflex, as in retaliation for an enemy tank having just obliterated a huddled mass of frightened hostages.

No matter what heroics were involved, when all hostages are accounted for or all choppers lost, a transformation occurs. The eyes of the hero turn into the eyes of a general reading the dead and rescued statistics. What is the measure of success? Were three helicopters lost worth the return of six hostages? Though sixty returned, did four have to die?

Is Salmons going too far in turning Choplifter into a soul-searching exercise about the wages of war? Perhaps, at least a bit. But isn’t it interesting that the game managed to encourage such flights of fancy?

With its focus on rescue rather than destruction and its do-gooder plot, Choplifter today feels like a perfect symbol for Brøderbund themselves, about the nicest bunch who ever got filthy rich in business. We’ll hear more from them later, but next, as always, it’s on to something else. If you’d like to try Choplifter for yourself in the meantime, here’s the Apple II disk image for you.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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