Monthly Archives: February 2013

Free Fall, Part 2: Murder on the Zinderneuf

Murder on the Zinderneuf

Mystery stories have been a staple of adventure gaming since 1978’s Mystery Mansion. That’s little surprise; no other form of traditional static literature so obviously sees itself as a form of game between reader and writer, and thus is so obviously amenable to adaptation into other ludic forms. Said adaptations existed well before the computer age, in such forms as the Baffle Books of the 1920s, the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers of the 1930s, and the perennial board game Cluedo (Clue in North America) of 1949.

The early computerized mystery games had the superficial trappings of classic mystery literature but little of the substance. Games like Mystery Mansion and Mystery House were essentially standard Adventure-style treasure hunts, full of mazes and static puzzles, that happened to play out on the stage set of a mystery story. It really wasn’t possible to implement much else with, say, On-Line’s primitive Hi-Res Adventure engine.

That, of course, is why Infocom’s Deadline came as such a revelation. Unlike virtually everyone else making adventure games as of 1982, Infocom had the tools to do a mystery right, to capture the spirit and substance of classic mystery stories in addition to the window dressing. With such a proof of concept to examine (and one which proved to be a major hit at that), combined with a recent uptick in interest in the mystery genre within ludic culture in general following the republication of the old Dennis Wheatley dossiers and an elaborate new board game called Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, other developers started diving into mysteries with similar earnestness. Some of them worked in the text-adventure form, but others branched out into other paradigms. For instance, Spinnaker’s two child-oriented Snooper Troops games and CBS Software’s two adult-oriented Mystery Master games replaced parsers and a single complex story with a more casual form of crime solving. Each contains a series of shorter cases to solve by traveling around a graphical city map, ferreting out clues at each location using a menu-driven interface. A top rating is achieved by solving the crime quickly, using a minimum of clues.

And then there was the game that would become known mostly as that other Free Fall game after the huge success of Archon: Murder on the Zinderneuf. It’s that most interesting anomaly that pops up more than you might expect, an adventure game designed by someone who didn’t much like adventure games.

Jon Freeman laid out his objections to traditional adventure games in an article in the December 1980 issue of Byte, contrasting the form and its limitations with those of the CRPG form he was then working with in crafting Automated Simulations’s DunjonQuest games. An adventure game, he says, is so static that it’s hardly a game at all. It’s “really a puzzle that, once solved, is without further interest.” The former part of this claim became increasingly less true as more dynamic, responsive game worlds like that of Deadline were developed, but the latter part… well, it’s hard to deny that point. The real question is to what extent this bothers you. One remedy to this fundamental failing is perhaps to create longer, deeper works that take as long to play once as it might take you to exhaust the interest of another type of game over many, many plays. Another, of course, is to simply say so what, to note that no one ever criticizes other forms of art, like books, for not being infinitely re-readable (not that Shakespeare doesn’t come close). But still, a re-playable adventure (or for that matter re-readable book) would, all else being held equal, be superior to a non-re-playable version of the same game. Freeman, who still lists Cluedo amongst his favorite games of all time, recycled that game’s concept on the computer, but fleshed out the suspects, the setting, the randomly generated stories behind the murders themselves, to make something more in line with the expectations of adventure gamers.

The mystery may change, but the setting and the actors, the raw materials of these little computer-generated dramas, must inevitably remain the same. Luckily, they’re pretty inspired. The game takes place in 1936, the heyday of the rigid airship, surely one of the most romantic and just plain cool methods of travel ever invented. On a trans-Atlantic voyage aboard the fictional German airship Zinderneuf, a murder has been committed. Which of the sixteen passengers was killed, and which did the killing, and why… these are the elements that are generated anew each time. As a whole genre of pulp-action tabletop RPGs have taught us, the 1930s are a wonderful period for fans of intrigue and derring-do, and Zinderneuf uses that well. Freeman and Reiche work in a lot of the era’s touchstones: old Hollywood, action serials, the Berlin Olympics, the Spanish Civil War, the mob, Amelia Earhart, spiritualism, adventurous archaeologists (Raiders of the Lost Ark was still huge while they worked on the game), and of course Communists and Nazis. It’s an effervescent, pulpy version of history. (That said, our libertarian friend Freeman just can’t restrain himself from taking a political shot at Franklin Delano Roosevelt that strikes a weird sourpuss note amongst all the fun: “Roosevelt was still offering his own version of ‘bread and circuses’ as he ‘guided’ the United States through an unprecedented four terms of depression and war.”) The Zinderneuf itself, meanwhile, proves perfect for a Murder on the Orient Express-style whodunnit. Playing as one of eight detectives drawn from literature or television — including homages to Mike Hammer, Miss Marple, Columbo, and the inevitable Sherlock Holmes among others — you have twelve hours to solve the case before the Zinderneuf touches down in New York and the suspects all scatter to the winds.

Murder on the Zinderneuf

Those twelve hours translate to just 36 minutes of game time — yes, this is a real-time game. The idea here was to replace a 40-hour adventure game with a half-hour game that “can be replayed 100 times.” Also replaced are the text and parser, with a top-down graphical display and an entirely joystick-driven interface.

Murder on the Zinderneuf

Each game begins by telling you who has been murdered from among the cast of characters, each of whom receives a capsule bio in the manual. And then, as Holmes would say (and the manual happily quotes), the game is afoot. You collect evidence in two ways. First, you can search the cabins of the victim and any of the other passengers to see what connections you can discover.

Murder on the Zinderneuf

In the case above, I now know that the murderer of Oswald Stonemann is most likely someone with black hair; the victim is always assumed to have been killed in his cabin. This immediately narrows the suspect list down to five. A logical next step may be to search the cabins of those five suspects, to see what further connections I can turn up. Eventually, however, I will want to start questioning suspects. I can choose the approach I take to each. Various approaches are more or less favorable to different combinations of detective and suspect, something that must be deduced with play. If I choose wisely, perhaps I get a clue.

Murder on the Zinderneuf

Murder on the Zinderneuf

When I believe I have determined opportunity and motive (the game is oddly uninterested in the actual means of murder), I can accuse someone. A false accusation, or one based on insufficient evidence, doesn’t end the game, but does greatly affect your “detective rating” at the end, and prevents you from using that suspect as a source of information for the rest of the game. If you haven’t accused anyone by the time twelve hours (i.e., 36 minutes) have passed, you get one last chance to make an accusation, at some cost to your detective rating, before the game reveals the murderer for you.

There’s much that’s very impressive here. The randomly-generated cases go far beyond the likes of Colonel Mustard in the drawing room with the pistol. Most of the cases don’t even involve that most reliable standby of the mystery writer, love triangles. One time I discovered that Phillip Wollcraft, the archaeologist, had killed the young Natalia Berenski because he was in thrall to certain nameless be-tentacled somethings and needed a handy virgin to sacrifice. (Yes, even the H.P. Lovecraft mythos makes an appearance in this giddy pastiche of a setting, marking what may just be its first appearance in a computer game.) Another time I discovered that the beautiful pilot and all-around adventuress Stephie Hart-Winston had killed the Reverend Jeremiah Folmuth after learning he had in turn killed her beloved brother in a hit-and-run car accident years before. Other cases involve espionage (a natural given the time period), blackmail, even vampires. Most manage to tie the crime back to the period and setting and the specific persona of the characters involved with impressive grace.

But for all that, and despite its superficially easy joystick-driven interface and bright and friendly onscreen graphics that actually look much nicer (at least on the Atari) than those of Archon, Zinderneuf doesn’t quite work for me. Part of the problem derives from all of that rich background information existing only in the manual, not on the screen. The first half-dozen times you play you’re frantically flipping through the pages trying to figure out just who is who as the clock steadily ticks down, an awkward experience a million miles away from Trip Hawkins’s ethos for a new, more casual sort of consumer software. By the time you get over that hump, some of the seams in the narrative generator are already starting to show. You learn what combinations of clues generally lead where, and start to see the same motives repeat themselves. For all the game’s narrative flexibility, there are just eight master stories into which all of the other elements must be slotted. The shock of Wollcraft doing the deed diminishes considerably after you see the same story repeat itself again, with only the name of his victim changed. All of these limitations are of course easily understandable in light of the 48 K of memory the game has at its disposal. Still, things started feeling very shopworn for me long before Freeman’s ideal of a hundred plays.

I also found other elements of the design problematic. When you get down to it, there just isn’t that much to really do, and what there is is often more frustrating than it needs to be. Searching a cabin requires wandering about it trying to cover every square inch until the game beeps to inform you that you discovered a clue — or did not. And talking to suspects can be just as off-putting. Most will only answer a question or two before wandering off again; you then aren’t allowed to speak to them again without speaking to someone else first. Thus the game quickly devolves into a lot of sifting through denials and non-committals, struggling to figure out the right approach to use, while only being able to field one or two questions to your star witness (or suspect) at a time. The memory limitations so strangle the dialog that it’s impossible to pick up clues, as you might in a real conversation, about whether or why your current interrogation approach is failing, or which one might better suit. Murder on the Zinderneuf is fascinating and groundbreaking as a concept, but ultimately a game should be fun in addition to any other virtues it might possess, and here I’m just not sure how well it succeeds. Reading the manual with its cast of exaggerated characters was for me almost more entertaining than actually playing.

Zinderneuf‘s ideal of a narrative that is new every time is neat, and certainly interesting for someone like me to write about as the road almost entirely not taken in adventure games. But are there perhaps good reasons for it to be the road not taken? Maybe for someone primarily interested in games as experiential fictions a 40-hour story, crafted by a person, is more satisfying than 100 30-minute stories generated by the computer. At risk of making Freeman a straw man for my argument, it’s tempting to think again about the flaws that he believed he saw in existing adventures. I believe that designers who see games as rules systems to be carefully crafted and tweaked are often put off by adventure games, which are ultimately all about the fictional context, the lived experience of playing the protagonist in a story. Perhaps having the system itself generate the story could be seen, consciously or unconsciously, as a way to fix this perceived imbalance, to return the art of game design (as opposed to fiction-authoring) to the center of the equation. Yes, Murder on the Zinderneuf‘s narrative generator is clever, but it’s not as clever as, say, Marc Blank, the author of Deadline — and arguably not clever enough to sustain a genre whose appeal is so deeply rooted in its fiction. Zinderneuf is more interesting as a system than as a playable story, in a genre whose appeal is so rooted in story. That, anyway, is how this story lover sees it. Which isn’t to discount Zinderneuf‘s verve in trying something so new. We need our flawed experiments just as much as we do our masterpieces, for they push boundaries and give grist for future designers’ mill. (In that spirit, check out Christopher Huang’s An Act of Murder sometime, which does in text much of what Zinderneuf does in graphics, with results I find more satisfying.)

For several years after 1983, their landmark year of Archon and Murder on the Zinderneuf, Free Fall remained a prominent presence in the growing games industry. In 1984 they released Adept, a sequel to Archon that didn’t quite attract the same love or sales, but was nonetheless a solid success. Soon after they were given an early prototype of the Amiga, thanks to an arrangement Trip Hawkins, a great booster of that machine, worked out with Commodore. Their superb port of Archon became one of the first games available for the Amiga, and they followed it shortly after with a port of Adept of similar quality. Many players still consider these the definitive versions of both games.

Freeman also became a prominent voice in the emerging field of game-design theory, which was separating itself at last by the mid-1980s from the very different art of game programming. He, a defiant non-programmer who had written three books and numerous articles about the art of board-game design before founding Free Fall, was ideally suited to push that process along. Like the last designer I profiled, Dan Bunten, Freeman was given a soapbox of sorts via a column (“The Name of the Game”) in Computer Gaming World. Its ostensible purpose was to tackle tough, controversial subjects head-on. Yet there’s a thin line between delivering hard-hitting, unvarnished reality as one sees it and, well, just kind of sounding like a jerk, and I’m not sure Freeman always stays on the right side of it. His hilarious rant about the Commodore 64 proves that, whatever else he may be, he is no Nostradamus: “software developers will jump off the bandwagon even faster than they got on”; buyers “will think all computers are horrible and throw the whole idea out the window along with their 64.” The Commodore 64 has always evoked special rage from Atari 8-bit loyalists like Freeman. The Atari machines were the 64’s most obvious competitor as fellow low-cost home computers with excellent graphics and sound after weaker sisters like Texas Instruments left the market. They were also arguably the ones the 64 most damaged commercially. “There but for the 64 could have gone the Atari 8-bits,” Atari fans think when they see the 64’s huge success, and not without some justification. But Freeman’s, shall we say, strongly held opinions extended beyond the platform wars. Arcade clones are not just uncreative but morally bankrupt, “illegitimate,” “nasty little pieces of trash.” Programmers doing ports are people “who can’t come up with original subjects for games.” More generally, phrases like “colossal stupidity” and “I almost certainly know more — probably a lot more — about this than you do” creep in a bit too often.

Following the Amiga Archon ports, Free Fall worked for several years on a project that marked a return to Freeman’s roots with Automated Simulations and Temple of Apshai: Swords of Twilight, an ambitious RPG for the Amiga that finally appeared in 1989. It had the unique feature of allowing up to three players to inhabit its world at the same time, each with her own controller, adventuring cooperatively. Despite being released once again by EA, the game seemed to suffer from a dearth of distribution or promotion, and came and went largely without a trace, and without ever being ported beyond the Amiga, a relative minority platform in North America. Another five years elapsed before Free Fall released Archon Ultra, this time on the SSI label. That game was poorly received as adding little to the original, and once again sank quickly into obscurity. And, a few casual card games and the like aside, that’s largely been that from Free Fall. They are still officially a going concern, but seem to exist today largely to license their intellectual property (i.e., Archon) to interested developers. If their output after 1986 or so seems meager given the extraordinary productivity and energy of their first few years, know that my impression — and I must emphasize that this is only an impression, with little data to back it up — is that life has thrown its share of difficulties at Freeman and Westfall since their heydays as stars of Hawkins’s stable of software artists, difficulties that go beyond just some games that performed disappointingly in the marketplace.

If you’d like to try Murder on the Zinderneuf for yourself, I’ve prepared the usual care package for you, with an Atari 8-bit disk image and the (essential) manual. Next time we’ll say goodbye to EA’s Software Artists for a while and catch up with some Implementors again.

(A good interview with Freeman and Westfall can be found online at Halcyon Days, and one with Freeman alone at Now Gamer. Contemporary articles about Free Fall are in the January 1983 Softline, the November 1984 A.N.A.L.O.G., the February 1985 Family Computing, the July/August 1987 Info, and the November 1984 Compute!’s Gazette (Freeman must have been gritting his teeth through that interview, given his opinion of the Commodore 64). Freeman’s Computer Gaming World column ran from the May/June 1983 issue through the April/May 1985 issue.)


Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Free Fall, Part 1: Archon

Jon Freeman and Anne Westfall

Jon Freeman and Anne Westfall

In the late 1970s Anne Westfall, a mother, housewife, and divorcee in her early thirties, started attending Santa Rosa Junior College. With her children “old enough to take care of themselves,” she was looking for a new direction in her life. She sampled a bit of everything on the college’s menu, but fell in love with computer programming via a course in BASIC. More programming courses followed. She became so good at it so quickly that when some members of the faculty were contacted by a local civil-engineering company that was looking to hire programmers for a new software division they hooked her up with a job. Just like that she had a career; she spent the next two years writing programs for surveyors and subdivision planners on the TRS-80.

At the West Coast Computer Faire of March 1980, fate placed her company’s booth next to that of Automated Simulations of Temple of Apshai and DunjonQuest fame. She got to talking with Automated’s co-founder and primary game designer, Jon Freeman, and a spark both creative and romantic was kindled. Before meeting Freeman computer games had never even occurred to her as an interest, much less a career. She vaguely knew of some housed on some large computer systems to which she had access, and had played Space Invaders a few times at a pizza parlor, but that was about it. Yet Freeman apparently made one hell of an advocate. Not only did she and he become an item, but just five months after meeting her he convinced her to quit her secure job to come program games for Automated Simulations. Soon after they were married.

The marriage has survived to this day, but the new job proved more problematic. Westfall was forced to work as a so-called “maintenance programmer,” tweaking and maintaining the DunjonQuest engine. She also found herself at the epicenter of a power struggle of sorts between Freeman and his founding partner, Jim Connelley. From the time of their first game, Starfleet Orion back in 1978, the two men had fallen into an equitable division of roles. Freeman, who had spent years studying and writing about tabletop-game design but did not program, designed the games; Connelley, a professional programmer for years before Automated’s founding, implemented them. Even as the company grew in the wake of Temple of Apshai‘s success and other designers and programmers came aboard, the basic division of labor remained: Freeman in charge of the creative, Connelley in charge of the technical. From the start Connelley had focused on developing a reusable engine for the DunjonQuest line, written in BASIC for maximum portability and maintainability and capable of running on virtually any computer with at least 16 K of memory. But now, inspired by Westfall’s talent, by newer machines like the Atari 400 and 800, and by newer iterations of the CRPG concept like Ultima and Wizardry, Freeman was getting antsy. Automated’s games were being left behind, he said. He pushed to abandon BASIC and rewrite everything from scratch in assembly language, and to stop targeting a one-size-fits-all lowest-common-denominator machine. Connelley flatly refused, preferring to continue churning out more scenarios using the same old engine. Finally, at the end of 1981, it all devolved into litigation, which ended with Freeman and Westfall, along with other partisans from their camp, walking away. (For what it’s worth, Freeman’s camp ultimately proved to be in the right. Plummeting sales of Automated’s increasingly archaic-looking games forced a major change in direction within a year of the split, including the adoption of the much catchier name Epyx and a new focus on flashy games for next-generation platforms like the Commodore 64. But that’s a story for another time…)

Freeman and Westfall decided to form their own little development group, the cleverly titled Free Fall Associates, to develop games and publish them through others. They would stay small to avoid a repeat of the power struggles at Automated, and write exactly the games they wanted for the platform they wanted: the Atari 800, the most audiovisually advanced 8-bit computer on the market. They would work as partners, as Freeman had in the beginning with Connelley — only now Westfall could assume the programmer’s role. Seeing a divide between slow-paced, ugly, off-putting strategy games and flashier but vapid action fare, they decided to try to make games that slotted in between: fast-paced and aesthetically pleasing but with an element of depth.

Tax Dodge

They took pride in making sure their first game was nothing like those Freeman had designed for Automated Simulations. Tax Dodge was a maze game that took advantage of the Atari’s graphics and sound — but don’t call it a Pac-Man clone or even variant lest Freeman, who railed against the unoriginal arcade clones that still littered the bestseller charts, get very huffy with you. The maze now spanned many screens, smoothly scrolling with the player, an effect that would have been very difficult to manage on the more limited hardware of, say, the Apple II. This gave a quality of exploration, of discovery as the player charted the maze. Rather than ghosts, the player must avoid five sinister IRS agents; rather than gobble pills, she collects cash. Finding an accountant in the maze yields a precious tax shelter. It was a theme near and dear to the heart of Freeman, whose capsule biographies in his games never failed to mention his belief in libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism. Indeed, Freeman was among if not the first designer to sneak political statements into his games. (You may remember his 1980 game Rescue at Rigel, which set players on a hostage-rescue mission against a thinly disguised Ayatollah Khomeini, from an earlier article on this site.)

Tax Dodge made little commercial impression, for which Freeman later blamed the fact that the Atari’s demographics skewed much younger than those of the Apple II and TRS-80, the machines on which Automated had largely concentrated their efforts. Most potential players, he argued, missed the satire that was so much of the fun. Still, it also couldn’t have helped that the game was distributed by a tiny publisher called Island Graphics, who lacked the wherewithal to get the game the sort of prominent advertising and feature reviews that were becoming increasingly important as the software industry steadily professionalized. Maybe this freelance-developer thing wasn’t going to be that easy after all. But then Trip Hawkins and Electronic Arts came calling.

Given that Freeman was one of the few prominent designers not bound by contract to another publisher at the moment, Free Fall was an obvious target for Hawkins in his quest for “software artists.” But they were also a good fit in other ways. If you were reminded of Hawkins’s mantra of “simple, hot, and deep” software when I mentioned Free Fall’s determination to bridge the gap between strategy and action, congratulations, you’ve been paying good attention to my recent articles. Clearly these people were all on the same page. Freeman and Westfall were so excited by Hawkins’s vision that they pitched him two radically different ideas for games. One was for a vaguely chess-like strategy game which would erupt into player-against-player action when two pieces met one another on the board; the other was for an infinitely replayable whodunnit mystery. Hawkins was in turn so impressed that he asked for them both for EA’s stable of launch titles, leaving Free Fall with barely six months to make two ambitious games from scratch.

Freeman and Westfall realized they would need some help. They hired a programmer with whom they had worked at Automated Simulations, Robert Leyland, to implement the mystery, freeing Westfall to just work on the strategy game. And they brought in another person they knew from their Automated days, Paul Reiche III, to work with Freeman on the design of both games.

Reiche was just 22, but had already had quite a career in both tabletop and computer games. While still teenagers, he and some friends had written and self-published a series of supplements for Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop RPGs. Soon after, TSR themselves came calling, to sweep him off to their Wisconsin headquarters to work for them, doing design, writing, illustrating, whatever was needed. He was undoubtedly talented, but it couldn’t have hurt that, being still a teenager at the time of his hiring, he was willing to work cheap. Regardless, it was a dream job for a young D&D nut; he got to share a byline with Gary Gygax himself on the first Gamma World adventure module while just 20 years old.

Reiche first met Freeman at a D&D convention in 1980, where Freeman was demonstrating the DunjonQuest line in an effort to attract the tabletop RPG crowd to this new computerized variant. The two hit it off, and Reiche soon agreed to design a DunjonQuest scenario for Automated, The Keys of Acheron. Then, around the time of Free Fall’s founding, Reiche got himself fired from TSR, according to his telling for raising a stink about the buying of a Porsche as company car for an executive; maybe working cheap was starting to seem less appetizing. He was back in California, studying geology at Berkeley, when Freeman offered him the chance to get back into game design, this time exclusively on the computerized side. He jumped at the chance. Amongst other advantages, it made good sense from a financial perspective. The tabletop RPG industry was already nearing its historical high-water mark by late 1982, but computer games were just getting started.

I’m going to talk in more detail about Archon, the strategy game, today; next time I’ll talk about Murder on the Zinderneuf, the mystery.

Like so much else, much of the fascination amongst gamers with more, shall we say, colorful variants of chess can be traced back to Star Wars — in this case, to the holographic game played between Chewbacca and R2-D2 aboard the Millennium Falcon. That scene, combined with the explosion in popularity of D&D and by extension fantasy of all stripes, led to a minor craze for new variants of chess. Sometimes that meant nothing more than standard chess sets which replaced pawns with goblins and bishops with dragons to give it all a bit of a different flavor. But other people were more ambitious. The movement reached a sort of absurd fruition when Gary Gygax published the rules for Dragonchess in Dragon magazine’s one-hundredth issue in 1985. It featured a three-level board filled with monsters drawn from D&D‘s Monster Manual, with all of the fiddly rules and exceptions you might expect from the man whose signature game (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) filled three hardbound rulebooks and hundreds of closely typed pages.

At SCA events and similarly minded gatherings, meanwhile, living chess tournaments became more common. These replaced inanimate chess pieces with real people decked out in appropriate costumes, standing on a board that filled an auditorium floor. When two pieces met in one of these games they battled it out there on the board for the crowd’s delight. Sometimes these battles were purely for show, but in other cases players were assigned roles based on their understood talent at fencing, from pawn to queen and king. In these cases the battles were for real — or as real as fake swords allow. The inevitable result, of course, was a very different sort of game, as suddenly a lucky or dogged pawn, or a tired knight, could alter the balance and ruin the most refined of traditional chess strategies. Freeman participated in such a game as a pawn, experiencing the new spontaneity firsthand. (He acquitted himself well, managing to kill a fellow pawn and then fight a knight to a draw — i.e., a mutual kill.) The experience got him thinking about doing something similar on the computer. It seemed like just the sort of mix of strategy and action Free Fall was after.

Which is not to say that Freeman and Reiche simply recreated the living-chess experience on the computer. If anything Archon‘s relationship to chess is rather overblown, for Archon is both simpler and more complicated. Movement falls into the former category. Every piece has a maximum number of squares it can move in a turn, and either moves on the ground (meaning it can move only horizontally or vertically and cannot jump pieces) or in the air (meaning it can also move diagonally, and can jump pieces). There is nothing like the complications of, say, the knight in traditional chess. On the other hand, there are more pieces to deal with in Archon, and more places to put them. The board is now 9 X 9 rather than 8 X 8, with the requisite additional two units per side. The larger size was chosen because it fit most neatly on the screen, provided the optimum balance between visibility and strategic possibility, and allowed for three power points to be neatly spaced across the middle of the board. Controlling these three spaces, plus the additional power point located at each edge of the board, wins the game instantly. Alternately, if less strategically, one can win by simply killing all of the opposing player’s units.

The Archon game board. Note the three power points running down the center. Two more are hidden under the wizard and sorceress on the center-left and center-right squares.

The Archon game board. Note the three power points running down the center. Two more are hidden under the wizard and sorceress on the center-left and center-right squares.

The two opposing forces are no longer mirror images of each other. The game is subtitled The Light and the Dark; the Light side (presumably good) has different units with different combat abilities from the Dark side (presumably evil). Some units use a melee attack; others shoot missiles or fireballs; still others, like the banshee, have an area attack that spreads outward from their person; each side has one unit (the wizard or the sorceress) who can cast a handful of spells once each per game.

The board at the dark extreme of the luminosity cycle. Note the contrast with the picture above, which shows the cycle at its mid-point.

The board at the dark extreme of the luminosity cycle. Note the contrast with the picture above, which shows the cycle at its mid-point.

Of the squares on the board, 25 are always light, 25 always dark. However, the remaining 31, including the three central power points, constantly cycle from light to dark and back. This fact is critical to strategy, because light units gain a big advantage when fighting on light squares, and vice versa. Thus the wise player plans her attacks and retreats, her feints and thrusts, around the ever-changing board. Accidentally leaving a powerful piece exposed on the wrong color of square can lead to the worst sort of self-recrimination when your opponent pounces to take out your golem with her goblin. And yes, just as in the live chess match that inspired Freeman, double kills are possible.

A phoenix (Light) and dragon (Dark) battle. Because this fight is taking placing on a light square, the phoenix has a huge advantage; note the difference in the life bars at the edge of the screen.

A phoenix (Light) and basilisk (Dark) battle. Because this fight is taking placing on a light square, the phoenix has a huge advantage; note the difference in the life bars at the edge of the screen.

Still other elements of Archon would never have been possible on the tabletop. For instance, the health of each unit is tracked even outside of the combat screen. It takes a few turns to fully recover from a hard fight, meaning a stubborn opponent can kill your wizard just by throwing enough cannon fodder — i.e., goblins — at it turn after turn. The game clearly wants to be played more quickly, more urgently, even (dare I say it?) less strategically than a classic chess match. You find yourself tossing your units into the fray, not pausing to study every option and plan your next several turns in advance. What with the fast pace and the role that reflexes play, playing Archon with another human feels like really going at it, with little of the cool cerebral feel of chess. I have to believe this is intentional, and certainly it’s a more than valid design choice. Indeed, it’s the prime source of Archon‘s appeal in contrast to a game like chess.

That said, there’s one flaw in the strategic game that bothers me enough to really impact my appreciation for the game as a whole. When playing a relatively close game, it’s all too easy to find yourself in an ugly stalemate, in which each player has just a few units left and neither has any incentive to risk any of them by moving them off of favorably colored squares. At this point both sides are just stuck, until someone loses patience at last and attacks the enemy on one of her favorable squares in the face of long odds indeed, all but guaranteeing sacrificing that piece — and, eventually, losing the game — for the sake of just ending the damn thing already. I’m not sure I have any brilliant suggestion of how this could have been fixed — maybe begin to cycle more squares from light to dark as the number of pieces on the board is reduced, thus forcing more dynamism into the game?; maybe add conditions for a chess-style draw? — but I do know that it needed to have been for me to raise my judgment of Archon from “just” a fun and creative effort to the timeless classic many would have me label it. (Then again, it’s possible I’m just missing something strategically obvious. If you have a solution to this dilemma, by all means tell me about it.)

As you might imagine given the time constraints, Westfall, Freeman, and Reiche worked like dogs on Archon even as Freeman and Reiche also labored over Murder on the Zinderneuf. Free Fall had no offices; everything was done out of Freeman and Westfall’s home in Portola Valley, California. Westfall:

We had a tough schedule at first. For six months we didn’t even read a book or go to the movies, and that’s disaster in our house. We basically worked all the time. At meals we were always discussing the games. How to do this, and what to do about that. We worked from the time we got up until all hours of the night. Then we’d get up the next day, grab a cup of coffee, and go back to work.

Archon had been envisioned from the beginning as a two-player game. However, just a month before they had to turn over the game, EA begged them to add a single-player option, thus saddling Free Fall with the task of coding a complete AI, in addition to everything else that still had to be done, in one month. With so little time and eager to preserve the game’s fast-paced character, they focused on making an AI that was “fast and decent” rather than “slow and perfect.” As Ozark Softscape did for M.U.L.E., they also made it possible for the AI to play itself, a godsend for shop display windows. And then they added one additional groundbreaking feature that has been little remarked since the game’s release. Freeman:

There’s a built-in, self-adjusting difficulty factor in Archon so that if the computer keeps beating up on you, it will get easier and easier. But most people don’t know that because it goes in little tiny increments. By the time it really starts kicking in, players think, “Oh, I’m just getting better.” Well, they are, partly; but partly it’s because the computer is not being as good. But nobody knows that’s there. It’s not something we advertise, but we were aware of the problem.

Just like chess: how do two unequal players play chess? Well, not very well. And there’s not really a great deal you can do about it. If you start taking pieces away, you change the game so radically that you’re not playing chess anymore. Archon is the same way. So we said, we want to do a game in which we can do that without screwing it up.

This very likely marks the first example of adaptive AI in the commercial game industry, a radical step in the direction of friendlier, more accessible gameplay — and in the direction of Trip Hawkins’s vision of consumer software — that deserves to be celebrated more than it has been. It also kind of leaves you wondering whether any victory over the computer was truly earned, a dilemma familiar to many modern gamers. Ah, well… groundbreaking as Archon‘s adaptive AI is, the game is still best experienced with two players, where it all becomes moot anyway.

Released in a striking monochrome sleeve that beautifully presented the theme of Light and Dark, Archon struck a major chord with the public. It became the second-best-selling of those seven EA launch titles, behind only Pinball Construction Set. I strongly encourage you to play it, but I’m not going to provide a download here. Free Fall, you see, is still around as at least a semi-going concern and still licensing variants and remakes, and I don’t want to step on any toes. I’m sure you can find the original game on your own if you’re so inclined. The Atari 8-bit incarnation was the first developed and is thus the best reflection of the original vision for the game, although the Commodore 64 port does look nicer. If you do snag one of these versions from somewhere else, maybe think about buying the latest licensed incarnation as well, if for nothing else than to show your appreciation to Freeman and Westfall.

The other Free Fall game amongst those early titles, Murder on the Zinderneuf, didn’t attract anywhere near as much attention as Archon. Yet in its own way it’s every bit as interesting — perhaps even more so if, like me, you like a strong dose of story in your games. We’ll talk about that game, and wrap up the story of Free Fall, next time.

(I’ll include the main sources I used for researching Free Fall in the concluding article.)


Posted by on February 20, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Dan Bunten and M.U.L.E.

Dan Bunten

Dan Bunten

As Electronic Arts got off the ground, Trip Hawkins hired three veterans from his time at Apple — Dave Evans, Pat Marriott, and Joe Ybarra — to become the first people with the job title of “producer” at EA. Their new careers began with a mock draft: Hawkins had them draw lots to determine the order in which they would get to pick the developers they would be working with. Naturally, the three experienced developers all went in the first round, and in the order of their status within established gaming circles. Evans picked first, and chose Bill Budge, the first and arguably still the greatest of the Apple II’s superstar game developers, with name recognition within that community that could be matched by very few others. Marriott chose next, and picked Free Fall Associates, whose Jon Freeman had been responsible for the landmark CRPG hit Temple of Apshai and the Dunjonquest line of sequels and spinoffs that had followed it from Automated Simulations. That left Ybarra with Dan Bunten and his new team Ozark Softscape.

Unlike the others, Bunten had no hits on his resume; his biggest game to date had sold all of 6000 copies. He had previously published through Strategic Simulations, Incorporated, which was the antithesis of Hawkins’s vision of casual consumer software, having been founded by a grognard named Joel Billings to release a series of almost aggressively off-putting computer wargames in the hardcore tabletop tradition. Still, Hawkins had fallen in love with one of Bunten’s SSI games, a business simulation called Cartels and Cutthroats. He had first tried to buy it outright from Billings. When his overtures were rejected, he turned to Bunten himself to ask if he would like to make a game kind of like it for EA. Thus the presence of this B-lister on EA’s rolls, complete with generous royalty and advance. To make things even worse, Ozark was located, as the name would imply, deep inside flyover country: Little Rock, Arkansas. Ybarra certainly didn’t relish the many trips he would have to make there. Little did he realize that the relationship would turn into one of the most rewarding of his career, or that the first game he would develop with Ozark, M.U.L.E., would become the most beloved of all the early titles inside the company, or that it would go on to be remembered as one of the greatest of the all-time classic greats.

Dan Bunten was an idealist from an early age. At university he protested the Vietnam War, and also started a bicycle shop, not to make money but to help save the world. According to his friend Jim Simmons, Bunten’s logic was simple: “If more people rode bikes, the world would be a better place.” When he watched Westerns, Bunten was an “Indian sympathizer”: “It just seems like such a neat, romantic culture, in tune with the earth.” A staunch anti-materialist, he drove a dented and battered old Volkswagen for years after he could afford better. “I felt like I sold out when I bought a 25-inch color TV,” he said. That 1960s idealism, almost quaint as it now can sound, became the defining side of Bunten the game designer. He campaigned relentlessly for videogames that brought people together rather than isolating them. As his most famous quote, delivered at an early Game Developers Conference, went, “No one on their death bed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer!'” M.U.L.E. positively oozes that idealistic sentiment. As such, it’s an easy game to fall in love with. Certainly your humble blogger here must confess to being a rabid fanboy.

The seeds of M.U.L.E. were planted back in 1978 when Bunten bought his first Apple II. Educated as an industrial engineer, he at that time was 29, married and with daughter, and seemingly already settled into running a consulting firm doing city planning under a National Science Foundation grant in Little Rock. The eldest of six children, Bunten and his siblings had played lots of board games growing up: “When I was a kid the only times my family spent together that weren’t totally dysfunctional were when we were playing games.” In fact, some of his fondest childhood memories had taken place around a Monopoly board. Dan and his brother Bill had also delved into the world of wargames; when the former was twelve and the latter ten they had designed a complete naval wargame of their own, drawing the map directly onto the basement floor. During a gig working at the National Science Foundation, he had spent some of his time tinkering on their Varian minicomputer with an elaborate football simulation he imagined might eventually become the heart of a Master’s thesis in systems simulation. Now he started working on a game for the Apple II. Right from the beginning his approach to game design was different from that of just about everyone else.

Bunten loved more than anything the social potential of gaming. Setting a precedent that would endure for the rest of his career, he determined to bring some of that magic to the computer. Working in BASIC with only 16 K, he wrote a simple four-player auction game called Wheeler Dealers. He designed a simple hardware gadget to let all four players bid at once. (The details of how this worked, as well as the game software, unfortunately appear to be lost to history.) Then he found a tiny Canadian mom-and-pop publisher called Speakeasy Software to sell the game and the gadget for $54. (Speakeasy’s founder Brian Beninger: “Dan called out of the blue one day and spoke to Toni [Brian’s wife]. She had never experienced an accent from the southern United States and had trouble understanding him…”) Legend has it that Wheeler Dealers was the first computer game ever sold in a box, a move necessitated by the inclusion of the hardware gadget. However, such a claim is difficult to substantiate, as other games, such as Temple of Apshai and Microsoft Adventure, were also beginning to appear in boxes in the same time frame. What is certain is that Bunten and Speakeasy took a bath on the project, managing to sell just 50 to 150 (sources vary) of the 500 they had optimistically produced. In retrospect that’s unsurprising given the game’s price and the limited reach of its tiny publisher, not to mention the necessity of gathering four people to play it, but it did set another, unfortunate precedent: Wheeler Dealers would not be the last Bunten game to commercially disappoint.

Computer Quarterback, in its 1981 incarnation

Computer Quarterback, in its 1981 incarnation

Still, Bunten had caught the design bug. For his next project, he dusted off the FORTRAN source to his old football simulation. As would befit a Master’s thesis project, that game was the “most thoroughly mathematically modeled” that he would ever do, the deepest he would ever delve into pure simulation. It was, in other words, a great fit for the hardcore grognards at SSI, who released Computer Quarterback as one of their first titles in an all-text version in 1980, followed by a graphical update that took advantage of the Apple II’s hi-res mode in 1981. Typically for SSI, the manual determinedly touts Bunten’s professional credentials in an attempt to justify him as a designer of “adult games.” There is even affixed his seal as a “State of Arkansas Registered Professional Engineer”:

By affixing my seal hereto, I certify that this product was developed in accord with all currently accepted techniques in the fields of operations research, systems simulation, and engineering design, and I further accept full responsibility for the professional work represented here.

It all seems a bit dreary, and an especially odd sentiment from a fellow who would become known for championing easy accessibility to everyday people in his designs. Yet simulation of the real world was in fact a deep, abiding fascination of Bunten, albeit one that would be more obscured by his other design tendencies in his later, mature games. In the meantime, SSI’s audience of the hardcore was big enough to make Computer Quarterback Bunten’s bestselling game prior to his signing with EA, the one that convinced him to quit his day job in city planning and dive into game development full time. Indeed, the aforementioned figure of 6000 sold at the time of EA’s founding would continue to increase afterward; SSI would continue to sell updated versions well into the late 1980s.

Cartels and Cutthroats Cartels and Cutthroats

Bunten’s next game was the one that caught Hawkins’s eye, Cartels and Cutthroats. Like Hawkins of the “Strategy and Applied Game Theory” degree, Bunten was fascinated by economic simulations. For help with the modeling of Cartels, an oddly abstracted simulation of the business world — you are told in the beginning only that your company produces either “luxury,” “mixed,” or “necessity goods” — he turned to his little brother Bill, who had recently finished his MBA. Apparently few other gamers of the time shared Hawkins’s and Bunten’s interest in economic simulation; Cartels did not even manage the sales that Computer Quarterback had. Bunten later wryly noted that “evidently folks interested in playing with the stock market or business, do it in real-life instead.” That may to some extent be true, but in my opinion the game’s abstractions do it no favors; it’s hard to get excited about your role as producer of a “luxury good.” Cartels today reads as a step on the road to M.U.L.E.. The later game would continue the economics focus while grounding itself in a much more specific context that the player can really get her hands around.

If these early SSI games can seem slightly anomalous to Bunten’s mature work in their unabashed focus on simulation, one thing did stay consistent: they were conceived primarily as multi-player affairs. SSI had to cajole him into putting together a rudimentary opponent AI and single-player mode for Computer Quarterback as a condition of acceptance for publication. Bunten named the computer’s team “The Robots,” which perhaps shows about how seriously he took them. Cartels and Cutthroats offers a number of ways for up to six people to play together, the most verisimilitudinous of which employs a printer to let each player grab her stock reports off the “teletype.” Here computer players, while once more optionally present, still don’t get no respect: now they are called “dummies.”

Cytron Masters

Bunten’s final game for SSI was a marked departure. Released on SSI’s short-lived Rapid Fire line of action-oriented titles, Cytron Masters plays like a prototype of the real-time strategy games that would become popular a decade later. Two players — the two-player mode was again the main focus; the computer opponent’s AI was predictably atrocious — face off on a battlefield of the future in real time, spawning and issuing orders to six types of units. Each player can have up to fifty units onscreen at once, all moving about semi-autonomously. Bunten’s first game to use large amounts of assembly-language code as opposed to BASIC, it was by far his most challenging programming project yet. Cytron had to juggle animations and sound effects while also running the simple AI routines for up to a hundred on-screen units and accepting input from two players, all without becoming so slow as to lose its status as an “action-strategy” game. This presented a huge challenge on the minimalist, aging hardware of the Apple II. As Bunten wrote in a Computer Gaming World article about the experience, “the Apple can’t do two things without a lot of effort (you have to time your clicks of the speaker with your graphic draw routine so that they take turns). It was a tough program to write [emphasis original].”

By this time the Atari 800 was almost three years old, and Bunten had had one “collecting dust” for a pretty good portion of that time. He had remained committed to the Apple II as both the machine with the healthiest software market and the one he knew how to make “sing.” But now he decided to have a go at porting Cytron Masters to the 800. The experience proved to be something of a revelation. At first Bunten expected to just duplicate the game on the Atari. But when he showed the first version to Atari users, they scoffed. “It’s a neat game, but where’s the color? And what are those little noises?” they asked in response to the explosions.

Needless to say, I decided that if the program was to do well as an Atari version, it would have to use a few of the features of that machine. But, during the conversion, I discovered that all the sophisticated hardware features of the Atari are useful! Cytron Masters uses the separate sound processor and four voices to make truly impressive sound effects (at least compared to the Apple); it uses the display list and display-list interrupts to change colors on the fly, and have character graphics, four-color text as well as hi-res graphics on one screen; it uses player/missile graphics for additional colors and fast animation; and most useful of all, it uses vertical-blank interrupts to allow two programs to (apparently) run at once!

Bunten became the latest of a long line of programmers to fall for the elegance of Jay Miner’s Atari 8-bit design, an elegance which the often developer-hostile antics of Atari itself could obscure but never quite negate. He would never develop another game on the Apple II, and the company he was already in the process of forming, Ozark Softscape, would be an Atari shop. (M.U.L.E. never even got a port to the Apple II.)

Cytron Masters was another relative commercial disappointment for Bunten and SSI. “Rather than appealing to both action gamers and strategy gamers,” he later said, “it seemed to fall in the crack between them.” But then, just as Bunten was finishing up the Atari port, Trip Hawkins came calling asking for that sequel to Cartels and Cutthroats and promising that EA could find him the commercial success that had largely eluded his SSI games.

By this point Bunten was already in the process of taking what seemed to him the next logical step in his new career, going from a lone-wolf developer and programmer to the head of a design studio. In a sense, Ozark Softscape was just a formalizing of roles that already existed. Of the three employees that now joined him in the new company, his little brother Bill had already helped a great deal with the design of Cartels and Cutthroats while also serving as a business adviser; Jim Rushing, a friend of Bill’s from graduate school, had offered testing and occasional programming input since the same time; and Alan Watson, formerly a salesman at a local stereo shop, had helped him with the technical intricacies of Cytron Masters and contributed his talents for Atari graphics programming to the port. Now the three came to Ozark largely in the roles they had already carved out. Bill Bunten, the only one to keep his day job (as a director of parks for the city of Little Rock) and the only non-programmer, would handle the administrative vagaries of running a business. Rushing would program, as would Watson in addition to serving as in-house artist. All three would offer considerable design input as well, but they all would ultimately defer to Dan, the reason they were all here. As Rushing later said, “We all knew Dan was a genius.” They were just happy to be along for the ride.

With their EA advance they rented a big house across the street from the University of Arkansas to serve as office, studio, and clubhouse. Each took a bedroom as an office, and they filled the living room and den with couches, beanbag chairs, and of course more computers, making of them ideal spaces for brainstorming and playing. They filled the huge refrigerator in the kitchen with beer, which helped to lure in a crowd of outsiders to play and offer feedback virtually every evening. These were drawn mostly from the biggest local computer club, the Apple Addicts, of which Dan had been the first president back in the days of Wheeler Dealers. He may have defected to the Atari camp since, but no one seemed to mind; at least one or two were inspired by what they saw in the house to buy Ataris of their own. When they grew tired of creating and playing, the house’s regular inhabitants as well as the visitors could exit the back door to walk around an idyllic fourteen-acre lake, to sit under the trees talking or skip rocks across the water. The house and its environs made a wonderful space for creation as well as an ideal laboratory for Dan’s ideas about games as social endeavors to bring people together. It was here that Dan and his colleagues took M.U.L.E. from the germ of a concept to a shipping game in less than nine months.

Said germ was to create a game similar to the rather dryly presented, text-based Cartels and Cutthroats, only more presentable and more accessible, in line with Trip Hawkins’s credo of “simple, hot, and deep” consumer software. They would be writing for the Atari 8-bit line, which in addition to excellent sound and graphics offered them one entirely unique affordance: these machines offered four joystick ports rather than the two (or none) found on other brands. Dan thus saw a way to offer in practical form at last the vision that had caused him to get involved with game design in the first place back in the days of Wheeler Dealers. Four people could gather around the living room, each with her own controller, and really play together, in real time; no need for taking turns in front of the computer or any of the other machinations that had marked his earlier games. This would allow him to create something much breezier than Cartels and Cutthroats — a game to replace the old board-game standbys on family game nights, a game for parties and social occasions. With the opportunity to do those Wheeler Dealers real-time auctions right at last, Dan dusted the old idea off and made it the centerpiece of the new design.

Given their intention to create a family board game for the next generation, Dan and his colleagues started to look at the classic designs for other ideas with which to surround the auctions. The obvious place to look for inspiration for a game with an economic theme was the game that is still pretty much the board game as far as the masses are concerned: Monopoly. Monopoly gets a lot of grief amongst hardcore gamers these days for a multitude of very real flaws, from an over-reliance on luck in the early stages to the way it often goes on forever after it becomes totally obvious who is going to win to the way it can leave bankrupted players sitting around with nothing to do for an hour or more while everyone else finishes. Yet there’s something compelling about it as well, something more than sheer cultural inertia behind its evergreen appeal. The team now tried to tease out what those qualities were. Bill Bunten said, half facetiously, that his favorite thing about Monopoly was the iconic metal tokens representing each player — the battleship, the car, the top hat, the shoe, etc. Everyone laughed, but the input became an important part of the new game’s charm: every player in it gets to pick the avatar she “most resembles.”


Looking more deeply for the source of Monopoly‘s appeal, the team realized that it was socially- rather than rules-driven. Unlike most board games, which reward the analytical thinker able to maximize the interactions of a rules set, Monopoly — at least if you’re playing it right — rewards the softer arts of negotiation and diplomacy. The personalities of the players and the relationships among them have as much effect on the way play proceeds as do the rolls of the dice. In the Bunten family, Mom would always let you out of paying rent if you couldn’t afford it; Bill would force you to mortgage a property if you came up a dollar short on your rent. Alliances and partnerships would form and shift as a result. The team decided that they wanted that human element in their game. It had never been seen in a computer game before, for the very simple reason that it was beyond the scope of possibility for an AI opponent living in 48 K of memory. But in their game, conceived primarily as a multi-player experience, it should be possible.

And yet more elements were drawn from Monopoly. Play would center around a “board” of properties which would be gradually acquired by the players, through a land grant that began each turn or through auctions or trades. They also built in equivalents to Monopoly‘s Chance and Community Chest cards to keep play from getting too comfortable and predictable. In keeping with Dan’s roots in simulation, however, the game would attempt to model real economic principles, making its theme more than just the window-dressing it largely was in Monopoly. Producing the same good in two adjacent plots would let the player take advantage of economies of scale to produce more; having three plots in total producing the same good would also result in more production, thanks to the learning curve theory of production. In general, the computer allowed for a deeper, more fine-grained game model than was possible in dice and cardboard. For instance, normalized probability curves could be used in place of a six-sided die, and the huge sums of money the players would eventually accumulate could be tracked down to the dollar. It all would result in something more than just a computerized board game. It would be a real, functioning economy, a modest little virtual world where the rules of supply and demand played out transparently, effortlessly from the players’ perspective, just as they do in the real world.

But what should be the fictional premise behind the world? For obvious commercial reasons — Star Wars and Star Trek were huge in the early 1980s — they decided early on to give the game a science-fiction theme. Dan and Bill had both read Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein. Dating from the early stages of Heinlein’s dirty-old-man phase, there’s not much to recommend the book if you aren’t a fan of lots and lots of incestuous sex written in that uniquely clunky way of aging science-fiction writers who look around to realize that something called the Sexual Revolution has happened while they were hanging out at science-fiction conventions. Still, the brothers were inspired by one section of the book, “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter,” about a colony that settles on a distant planet. Provided with only the most meager materials for subsistence, they must struggle to survive and build a functioning economy and society by the time the colony ship returns years later to deliver more colonists and, more importantly, haul away the goods they produced to make a profit for everyone back in the more civilized parts of the galaxy. Sounds like a beautiful setup for a game, doesn’t it? To add a realistic wrinkle, the team decided that each of the four players would not only be working for herself, but must balance self-interest with the need to make the colony as a whole successful by the time the ship returned. Thus entered the balancing act people working in real economies must come to terms with, between self-interest and the needs of the society around them. A player who gets too cutthroat in her attempts to wring every bit of profit out of the others can bring the whole economy crashing down around her ears. (Perhaps some banking executives of recent years should have played more M.U.L.E. as youngsters.)

Among the most valuable tools that Heinlein’s colonists bring with them is a herd of genetically modified mules that are not only possessed of unusual strength and endurance but also so intelligent that they can engage in simple speech. The fact that the mules are nevertheless bought and sold like livestock makes this just one more squicky aspect of a very squicky book; it feels uncomfortably like slavery. Obviously that wouldn’t quite do for the game. Then one day Alan Watson’s son came in with a toy model of an AT-AT Walker from The Empire Strikes Back. It only took the removal of the guns and the addition of a listlessly shambling gait to go from Imperial killing machine to cute mascot. A hasty backronym was created: mules were now M.U.L.E.s, Multi-Use Labor Elements programmable to perform any of several different roles. They provided the pivot around which the whole experience would revolve.

He [a M.U.L.E.] was born — if you can call it that — in an underground lab in the Pacific Northwest. A major defense contractor had gone out of its way to get the job and they were stoked.

Stoked, this is, until the detailing robots went on strike. Costs ran over. Senators screamed. And when the dust had cleared, the job was finished by a restaurant supply firm, a maker of preschool furniture, and the manufacturers of a popular electric toaster.

It shows.

The game itself was quickly renamed from the underwhelming Planet Pioneers to M.U.L.E., albeit not without some conflict with EA, who pushed for the name Moguls from Mars. Thankfully, M.U.L.E. won the day in the end.

AT-AT Walkers M.U.L.E.

Combined with the Monopoly-inspired player avatars, the M.U.L.E.s anchored the game in a concrete reality, offering it an escape from the abstraction that had limited the appeal of Cartels and Cutthroats. Now the player could be embodied in the economic simulation. She didn’t just assign one of her plots to produce, say, smithore (the colony’s main cash crop, which requires food and energy to produce) from some textual display. No, she had to walk into the village at the center of the colony, buy a M.U.L.E., outfit it for the right sort of work, then lead it back to her plot. And now auctions could be implemented as a unique combination of footrace and game of chicken involving all of the players’ avatars. All of this is done entirely with the joystick, forming a GUI interface of sorts perfectly in line with Trip Hawkins’s vision of a new generation of friendly consumer software. The new “visual, tactile relationship” (producer Joe Ybarra’s words) between player and game also allowed some modest action elements to keep players on their toes: they had only a limited amount of time to try to accomplish everything they needed to — buying M.U.L.E.s, reequipping and rearranging them to suit current production needs, etc. — during their turn. Running out of time or misplacing a M.U.L.E. (thus causing it to run off) could be disastrous; conversely, working quickly and efficiently, and thus finishing early, gave time to earn some extra money by gambling in the pub, or, in an homage to Gregory Yob’s classic, go hunting for the “mountain wampus.” The latter was just one of many elements of whimsy the team found room to include, one more drop in M.U.L.E.‘s bucket of charm.

A land auction in progress.

A land auction in progress.

About to buy a M.U.L.E. in the village.

About to buy a M.U.L.E. in the village.

Leading a M.U.L.E. from the village at the center of the game board for placement in an empty plot (denoted by the house symbol) at far left.

Leading a M.U.L.E. from the village at the center of the game board for placement in an empty plot (denoted by the house symbol) at far left.

Hunt the "Wampus"

Hunt the “Wampus”

With the core ideas and mechanics now in place, Dan Bunten and his colleagues had the makings of one hell of a game on their hands. But as any good game designer, whether she works in cardboard or silicon, will tell you, even the most genius of designs must be relentlessly tested, endlessly tweaked. Ozark Softscape and EA devoted literally months to this task, gradually refining the design. Land had originally all been sold through auctions, but this soon became obviously problematic: once a player got fairly well ahead, she would be able to buy up every plot that became available, putting her economy in a different league from everyone else’s and making the outcome a foregone conclusion as early as halfway through the game. They solved this by automatically granting one plot of land to each player on every turn, only supplementing those grants with the occasional plot that came up for auction. They also added several other little tweaks designed to keep anyone from completely running away with the game. For instance, a bad random event can never happen to the player in last place, while a good can never happen to the player in first. In case of ties in auctions or land grants — two or more players arriving somewhere or pressing their buttons at the same time — priority always goes to the player furthest behind.

And then of course the economy itself — the exact relationship between supply and demand, the prices of the different commodities and the ways they fluctuated — required a multitude of adjustments to find the perfect balance.

The game was designed to always have four players, with the seats of any absent humans being filled by computer opponents. This required the development of AI. While obviously not the main point of M.U.L.E., the team to their credit did a pretty good job with that; the computer often makes smarter moves than you might expect. Single-player M.U.L.E. is a pale shadow of multi-player M.U.L.E., but it’s hardly a disaster. (As Dan later wrote, “Single-player M.U.L.E. is considerably better than single-player Monopoly!”) It’s even possible to let four computer opponents play while you sit back and watch, something that stores looking to feature the game in their sales windows must have greatly appreciated.

Ozark relied for all of the exhaustive and exhausting testing required to get everything right not only on the endless stream of eager players who visited their house each night but also on others back at EA. Both Hawkins and Ybarra made considerable contributions to the design. Hawkins pushed always to make M.U.L.E. as realistic an economic simulation as its premise and the need for accessibility — not to mention the limited capabilities of the Atari 800 — would allow. Later he wrote the manual himself; like the game, it’s a model of concise, friendly accessibility, designed to get the player playing with an absolute minimum of tedious reading. As for Ybarra… well, here’s his level of dedication to a project of which he had started out so skeptical:

Right about the mid-point of the product, when we were starting to get [the] first playable [builds], that was when I started my several-hundred hour journey of testing this game. I can remember many nights I would come home from work and fire up the Atari 800 and sit down with my, at the time, two-year-old daughter on my lap holding the joystick that didn’t work, while I was holding the joystick that did work, testing this game. And I’d probably get eight or ten games in at night, and I would do that for two or three or four months actually, trying to work out all the kinks in the product.

By the way, at that time in the history of EA, we had no testers. In fact we had no assistance—we didn’t have anything! So producers had to do everything. I tested my own products; I built my own masters; I did all the disk-duplication work; I did all the copy-protection; I did the whole nine yards! If it was associated with getting the product manufactured, the producers did all the work. I remember a lot of nights there staying up until one or two o’clock in the morning playing M.U.L.E. and thinking, “Wow, this game is good!” It was a lot of fun. And then thinking to myself, “Gee, I wish the AI would do this.” So I took notes and took them along to Dan, and said “If you do these kinds of things at this point in the game, this is what happens.” He would take parts of those notes, and a couple of days later I’d get a new build and be back in that main chair back with my daughter on my lap, once again testing this thing and checking to see if it worked. More often than not, it did. That was a really special time.

As the game neared completion just in time for EA’s own launch as a publisher, the EA PR folks went to work. Hewing always to the “software artists” dictum, they cast Ozark Softscape as a group of hip back-country savants, sort of the gaming equivalent of the Allman Brothers Band. Their portrait on the inner sleeve of M.U.L.E. even bears a certain passing resemblance to the Allmans’ iconic At Fillmore East cover.

The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East

Seated from left: Bill Bunten, Jim Rushing, Alan Watson, Dan Bunten

Seated from left: Bill Bunten, Jim Rushing, Alan Watson, Dan Bunten

Like all of this software-artists stuff, it was a bit contrived. The girl Bill Bunten is apparently ogling like a real rock star on the prowl is actually his sister, hastily recruited to add an element of additional interest to the picture.

Heartbreakingly, the image-making and advertising didn’t get the job done. Despite all the love lavished on M.U.L.E. by Ozark Softscape and EA and despite deservedly stellar reviews, it was a commercial disappointment. M.U.L.E. sold only about 30,000 copies over its lifetime. By way of comparison, consider that Pinball Construction Set, another launch title, shifted over 300,000 units. Some of the disappointment may be down to M.U.L.E.‘s debuting on a relative minority platform, the Atari 8-bit line. Although it was later ported to the juggernaut Commodore 64, it was kludgier away from the Atari and its four joystick ports. Even the latest iteration of the Atari 8-bit line, the 1200XL, couldn’t play M.U.L.E. properly, thanks to Atari’s decision to reduce the four joystick ports to two in the name of cost reduction. Out of all the disappointments engendered by that very disappointing machine, this was perhaps the most painful. Thus M.U.L.E., the Atari 8-bit’s finest gaming hour, plays properly only on a subset of the line.

But likely even more significant was a fact that was slowly becoming clear, to Dan Bunten’s immense frustration: multi-player games just didn’t sell that well. It really did seem that most of the people buying computer games preferred to spend their time alone with them. Reluctantly recognizing this, even he would soon be forced by commercial concerns to switch to the single-player model, at least for a couple of games.

Yet we can take comfort in the fact that M.U.L.E.‘s reputation has grown to far exceed its commercial performance. Indeed, it’s better remembered and better loved today than all but a handful of the contemporaries that trounced it so thoroughly in the marketplace back in the day. And deservedly so, because playing M.U.L.E. with a group of friends is a sublime experience that stands up as well today as it did thirty years ago. The world is a better place because it has M.U.L.E. in it, and every time I think about it I feel just a little bit happier than I was before. Just a few notes of its theme music (written by a Little Rock buddy of the Buntens, Roy Glover) puts a smile on my face. If the reasons for that aren’t clear from all the words that have preceded these, that may be down to my failings as a writer. But it may just also be down to the way that it transcends labels and descriptions. If ever a game was more than the sum of its parts, it’s this one. I could tell you at this point how such gaming luminaries as Sid Meier, Will Wright, and Warren Spector speak about M.U.L.E. with stars in their eyes, but instead I’ll just ask you to please go play it.

There are modern re-creations on offer, but purists like me still prefer the original. In that spirit, here’s the manual and Atari disk image, which you can load into an emulator if, like most of us, you don’t have an old Atari 800 lying around. Pick up some old-time digital joysticks as well and then hook a laptop up to your television to really do the experience right. That’s the way that M.U.L.E. should be played — gathered around the living room with good friends and the snacks and beverages of your choice. At some point during the evening remember to look around and remind yourself in best beer-commercial fashion that gaming doesn’t get any better than this. And maybe drink a toast to the late, great Dan Bunten while you’re at it.

Update, August 1, 2023: The Dan Bunten of this article began to live as the woman Dani Bunten Berry in 1992; she died in 1998. I knew less about transgenderism at the time that I wrote this article than I do now, and would certainly have written it differently today. Which doesn’t, of course, mean that my handling of it would satisfy everybody. These are complicated issues, balancing fidelity to history against the rights of individuals to determine their own gender identities, potentially even retroactively. As such, reasonable people of good faith can and do disagree about them. For a fairly long-winded a description of my current opinions and editorial policy on these matters, thought through in a way they sadly weren’t at the time I wrote this article, see a comment I wrote elsewhere on this site in 2018.

(Sources: Dan wrote a column for Computer Gaming World from the July/August 1982 issue through the September/October 1985 issue. Those are a gold mine for anyone interested in understanding his design process. Particularly wonderful is his detailed history of M.U.L.E.‘s development in the April/May 1984 issue. Other interesting articles and interviews were in the June 1984 Compute!’s Gazette, the November 1984 Electronic Games, and the January 1985 Antic. Online, you’ll find a ton of historical information on World of M.U.L.E. Salon also published a good article about him ten years ago. Finally, see the site of the (apparently stalled) remake Alpha Colony for some nice — albeit somewhat buried — historical tidbits. And sorry this article runs so long. M.U.L.E. is… special. I really wanted to do it justice.)


Posted by on February 12, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Audio Killed the Blogging Star

Ken Gagne and Mike Maginnis recently invited me to be their guest on their Open Apple Podcast. The result, which should show definitively why I chose to be a writer rather than a deejay, can now be enjoyed on their website or just by clicking the play button below. We talk some about the blog and various other projects, and then I offer lots of color commentary about lots of things I sometimes know something about and sometimes do not. Check it out if you have a couple of hours to spare.

Huge thanks to Ken and Mike for inviting me on the show. It was a lot of fun to do.


The Pinball Wizard

Bill Budge in Electronic Arts software artist pose

Bill Budge in Electronic Arts software artist pose

The name of Bill Budge has already come up from time to time on this blog. Mentioning him has been almost unavoidable, for he was one of the titans amongst early Apple II programmers, worshiped for his graphical wizardry by virtually everyone who played games. As you may remember, his name carried such weight that when Richard Garriott was first contacted by Al Remmers of California Pacific to propose that he allow CP to publish Akalabeth Garriott’s first reaction was a sort of “I’m not worthy” sense of shock at the prospect of sharing a publisher with the great Budge. Having arrived at the time of the birth of Electronic Arts and Budge’s masterpiece, Pinball Construction Set, now seems a good moment to take a step back and look at what made Budge such a star.

Budge was always a tinkerer, always fascinated by the idea of construction sets. As a young kid, he played with blocks, tinker toys, erector sets. As an older kid, he moved on to fiddling with telescopes and model rockets. (“It’s amazing we didn’t kill ourselves.”) After moving about the country constantly when Budge was younger, his family finally ended up in the San Francisco Bay area by the time Budge began high school in the late 1960s. It was a fortuitous move. With the heart of the burgeoning Silicon Valley easily accessible, Budge’s family had found the perfect spot for a boy who liked to tinker with technology. A teacher at his school named Harriet Hungate started a class in “computer math” soon after Budge arrived. The students wrote their programs out by hand, then sent them off to a local company that had agreed to donate some time on their IBM 1401 minicomputer. They then got to learn whether their programs had worked from a printout sent back to the school. It was a primitive way of working, but Budge was immediately smitten. He calls the moment he discovered what a loop is one of the “transcendent moments” in his life. He “just programmed all the time” during his last two years of high school. Hungate was eventually able to finagle a deal with another local business to get a terminal installed at the school with a connection to an HP 2100 machine hosting HP Time-Shared BASIC. Budge spent hours writing computer versions of Tic-tac-toe, checkers, and Go.

But then high school was over. Without the ready access to computers that his high school had afforded him, Budge tried to put his programming behind him. He entered the University of California Santa Cruz as an English major, with vague aspirations toward becoming a novelist. Yet in the end the pull of programming proved too strong. After two years he transferred to Berkeley as a computer-science major. He got his Bachelor’s there, then stayed on to study for a PhD. He was still working on that in late 1978 when the Apple II first entered his life.

As you might expect, the arrival of the trinity of 1977 had prompted considerable discussion within Berkeley’s computer-science department. Budge dithered for a time about whether to buy one, and if so which one. At last friend and fellow graduate student Andy Hertzfeld convinced him to go with the local product of nearby Apple Computer. It wasn’t an easy decision to make; the Commodore PET and the TRS-80 were both much cheaper (a major consideration for a starving student), and the TRS-80 had a vastly larger installed base of users and much more software available. Still, Budge decided that the Apple II was worth the extra money when he saw the Disk II system and the feature that would make his career, the bitmapped hi-res graphics mode. He spent half of his annual income on an Apple II of his own. It was so precious that he would carefully stow the machine away back in its box, securely swaddled in its original protective plastic, whenever he finished using it.

As he explored the possibilities of his treasure, Budge kept coming back again and again to hi-res mode. He worked to divine everything about how it worked and what he might do with it. His first big programming project became to rewrite much of Steve Wozniak’s original game of Breakout which shipped with every early Apple II. He replaced Woz’s graphics code with his own routines to make the game play faster and smoother, more like its arcade inspiration. When he had taken that as far as he could, he started thinking about writing a game of his own. He was well-acquainted with Pong from a machine installed at the local pizza parlor. Now he recreated the experience on the Apple II. He names “getting my first Pong ball bouncing around on the screen” as another of his life’s transcendent moments: “When I finished my version of Pong, it was kind of a magical moment for me. It was night, and I turned the lights off in my apartment and watched the trailing of the ball on the phosphors of my eighty-dollar black and white TV.” He added a number of optional obstacle layouts to the basic template for variety, then submitted the game, which he named Penny Arcade, to Apple themselves. They agreed to trade him a printer for it, and earmarked it for The Apple Tapes, a cassette full of “introductory programs” to be included with every specimen of the new Apple II Plus model they were about to release. In the manual for the collection they misattributed the game to “Bob Budge,” but it mattered little. Soon enough everyone would know his name.

Penny Arcade

Penny Arcade

With his very first game shipping with every Apple II Plus, Budge was naturally happy to continue with his new hobby. He started hanging around the local arcades, observing and taking careful notes on the latest games. Then he would go home and clone them. Budge had little interest in playing the games, and even less in playing the role of game designer. For him, the thrill — the real game, if you will — was in finding ways to make his little Apple II produce the same visuals and gameplay as the arcade machines, or at least as close as he could possibly get. In a few years Atari would be suing people for doing what Budge was doing, but right now the software industry was small and obscure enough that he could get away with it.

Budge’s big breakthrough came when a friend of his introduced him to a traveling sales rep named Al Remmers, who went from store to store selling 8″ floppy disk drives. He and Budge made a deal: Remmers would package the games up in Ziploc baggies and sell them to the stores he visited on his treks, and they would split the profits fifty-fifty. Budge was shocked to earn $7000 for the first month, more than his previous annual income. From this relationship was born Remmers’s brief-lived but significant software-publishing company, California Pacific, as well as Budge’s reputation as the dean of Apple II graphics programmers. His games may not have been original, but they looked and played better than just about anything else out there. To help others who dreamed of doing what he did, he packaged some of his routines together as Bill Budge’s 3-D Graphics System. His reputation was such that this package sold almost as well as his games. This was how easily fame and fortune could come to a really hot programmer for a brief window of a few years, when word traveled quickly in a small community aching for more and better software for their machines.

In fact, his reputation soared so quickly that Apple themselves came calling. Budge, who had been putting less and less effort into his studies as his income from his games increased, dropped out of Berkeley to join his old buddy Andy Hertzfeld in Cupertino. He was made — what else? — a graphics specialist working in the ill-fated Apple III division. He ended up spending only about a year at Apple during 1980 and 1981, but two experiences there would have a huge impact on his future work, and by extension on the field of computer gaming.

While Budge was working at Apple much of the engineering team, including Hertzfeld and even Woz himself, were going through a hardcore pinball phase: “They were students of the game, talking about catches, and how to pass the ball from flipper to flipper, and they really got into it.” Flush with cash as they were after the IPO, many at Apple started filling their houses with pinball tables.

Budge's first pinball game, from Trilogy of Games

Budge’s first pinball game, from Trilogy of Games

Budge didn’t find pinball intrinsically all that much more interesting than he did purely electronic arcade games. Still, one of the first games Budge sold through Remmers had been a simple pinball game, which was later included in his very successful Trilogy of Games package published by California Pacific. Pinball was after all a fairly natural expansion of the simple Pong variants he started with. Now, witnessing the engineers’ enthusiasm led him to consider whether he could do the game better justice, create something on the Apple II that played and felt like real pinball, with the realistic physics that are so key to the game. It was a daunting proposition in some ways, but unusually susceptible to computer simulation in others. A game of pinball is all about physics, with no need to implement an opponent AI. And the action is all centered around that single moving ball while everything else remains relatively static, meaning it should be possible to do on the Apple II despite that machine’s lack of hardware sprites. (This lack made the Apple II less suited for many action games than the likes of the Atari 8-bit computers or even the Atari VCS.) After some months of work at home and after hours, Budge had finished Raster Blaster.

Raster Blaster

Raster Blaster was the best thing Budge had yet done — so good that he decided he didn’t want to give it to California Pacific. Budge felt that Remmers wasn’t really doing much for him by this point, just shoveling disks into his homemade-looking packaging, shipping them off to the distributor SoftSel, and collecting 50% of the money that came back. The games practically sold themselves on the basis of Budge’s name, not California Pacific’s. Budge was a deeply conflict-averse personality, but his father pushed him to cut his ties with California Pacific, to go out on his own and thereby double his potential earnings. And anyway, he was getting bored in his job at Apple. So he quit, and along with his sister formed BudgeCo. He would write the games, just as he always had, and she would handle the business side of things. Raster Blaster got BudgeCo off the ground in fine form. It garnered rave reviews, and became a huge hit in the rapidly growing Apple II community, Budge’s biggest game yet by far. Small wonder — it was the first computer pinball game that actually felt like pinball, and also one of the most graphically impressive games yet seen on the Apple II.

But next came the question of what to do for a follow-up. It was now 1982, and it was no longer legally advisable to blatantly clone established arcade games. Budge struggled for weeks to come up with an idea for an original game, but he got nowhere. Not only did he have no innate talent for game design, he had no real interest in it either. Out of this frustration came the brilliant conceptual leap that would make his legacy.

Above I mentioned that two aspects of Budge’s brief time at Apple would be important. The other was the Lisa project. Budge did not directly work on or with the Lisa team, but he was fascinated by their work, and observed their progress closely. Like any good computer-science graduate student, he had been aware of the work going on at Xerox PARC. Yet he had known the Alto’s interface only as a set of ideas and presentations. When he could actually play with a real GUI on the Lisa prototypes, it made a strong impression. Now it provided a way out of his creative dilemma. He was disinterested in games and game design; what interested him was the technology used to make games. Therefore, why not give people who actually did want to become designers a set of tools to let them do that? Since these people might be no more interested in programming than he was in design, he would not just give them a library of code like the old 3-D Graphics System he had published through California Pacific. No, he would give them a visual design tool to make their own pinball tables, with a GUI interface inspired by the work of the Lisa team.

The original Pinball Construction Set box art, featuring pieces of the pinball machine that Budge disassembled to plan the program

The original Pinball Construction Set box art, featuring pieces of the pinball machine that Budge disassembled to plan the program

Budge had resisted buying a pinball table of his own while at Apple, but now he bought a used model from a local thrift shop. He took it apart carefully, cataloging the pieces that made up the playfield. Just as the Lisa’s interface used a desktop as its metaphor, his program would let the user build a pinball machine from a bin of iconographic spare parts. The project was hugely more ambitious than anything he had tackled before, even if some of the components, such as a simple paint program that let the user customize the look of her table, he had already written for his personal use in developing Raster Blaster. Budge was determined to give his would-be creator as much scope as he possibly could. That meant fifteen different components that she could drag and drop anywhere on the surface of her table. It meant letting her alter gravity or the other laws of physics if she liked. It meant letting her make custom scoring combinations, so that bumping this followed by that gave double points. And, because every creator wants to share her work, it meant letting the user save her custom table as a separate program that her friends could load and play just like they did Budge’s own Raster Blaster. That Budge accomplished all of this, and in just 48 K of memory, makes Pinball Construction Set one of the great feats of Apple II programming. None other than Steve Wozniak has called it “the greatest program ever written for an 8-bit machine.”

Pinball Construction Set

Pinball Construction Set

Amazing as it was, when BudgeCo released Pinball Construction Set at the end of 1982 its sales were disappointing. It garnered nowhere near the attention of Raster Blaster. The software industry had changed dramatically over the previous year. A tiny operation like BudgeCo could no longer just put a game out — even a great, groundbreaking game like PCS — and wait for sales. It was getting more expensive to advertise, harder to get reviews and get noticed in general. Yet when Trip Hawkins came to him a few months later asking to re-release PCS through his new publisher Electronic Arts, Budge was reluctant, nervous of the slick young Hawkins and his slick young company. But Hawkins just wouldn’t take no for an answer; he said he would make Budge and his program stars, said that only he could find PCS the audience its brilliance deserved — and he offered one hell of a nice advance and royalty rate to boot. And EA did have Woz himself on the board of directors, and Woz said he thought signing up would be a smart move. Budge agreed at last; thus BudgeCo passed into history less than two years after its formation.

As good as PCS was, it’s very possible that Hawkins had another, ulterior motive in pursuing Budge with such vigor. To understand how that might have been, we need to understand something about what Budge was like personally. Given the resume I’ve been outlining — spent his best years of high school poring over computer code; regarded his Apple II as his most precious possession; had his most transcendent moments programming it; etc. — you’ve probably already formulated a shorthand picture. If the Budge of that picture is, shall we say, a little bit on the nerdy, introverted side, you can be forgiven. The thing was, however, the real Budge was nothing like what you might expect; as he himself put it, he “didn’t quite fit the mold.” He had a tall, rangy build and handsome features beneath a luxurious head of hair, with striking eyes that a teenage girl might call dreamy. At 29 (although he looked perhaps 22), he was comfortable in his own skin in a way that some people never manage, with an easy grace about him that made others as glad to talk to him as they were to listen. His overall persona smacked more of enlightened California beach bum than hardcore programmer. And he took a great picture. If there was one person amongst Hawkins’s initial crew of developers who could actually pull off the rock star/software artist role, it was Budge; he might even attract a groupie or two. He was a dream come true for the PR firm Hawkins had inherited from his time at Apple, Regis McKenna, Inc. Thus the EA version of PCS was designed to look even more like a contemporary rock album than any of the other games. The name of Bill Budge, the man EA planned to make their very own rock star, was far larger on it than the name of his game.

EA's version of Pinball Construction Set

The down-to-earth Budge himself was rather bemused by EA’s approach, but he shrugged his shoulders and went along with it in his usual easygoing manner. When EA arranged for rock photographer Norman Seeff to do the famous “software artists” photo shoot, they asked that the subjects all wear appropriately bohemian dark clothing to the set. Budge went one better: he showed up with a single studded leather glove he’d bought for dressing up as a punk rocker for a party thrown by the Apple Macintosh team. He brought it simply as a joke, a bit of fun poked at all this rock-star noise. Imagine, then, how shocked he was when Seeff and the others demanded that he actually wear it. Thus Budge in his leather glove became the standout figure from that iconic image. As he later sheepishly admitted, “That’s not really me.” Soon after he got a software-artist photo shoot and advertisement all to himself, filled with vague profundities that may or may not have actually passed his lips beforehand. (“Programming for a microcomputer is like writing a poem using a 600-word vocabulary.”)

EA booked Budge into every gig they could find for him. He did a lengthy one-on-one interview with Charlie Rose for CBS News Nightwatch (“He knew absolutely nothing. He seemed like your typical blow-dried guy without a lot of substance. But I guess I was wrong about him.”); he demonstrated PCS alongside Hawkins on the influential show Computer Chronicles; he featured in a big segment on Japanese television, at a time when that country’s own designers were toiling in obscurity for their parent corporations; he had his photo on the cover of The Wall Street Journal; he was featured alongside the likes of Steve Jobs in an Esquire article on visionaries under the age of forty.

With his album out and the photo shoots done and the promotional spots lined up, it still remained for EA’s rock star to hit the road — to tour. If the highs just described were pretty intoxicating for a computer-game programmer, this part of the process kept him most assuredly grounded. Budge and EA’s Bing Gordon went on a series of what were billed as “Software Artists Tours,” sometimes accompanied by other designers, sometimes alone. The idea was something like a book tour, a chance to sign autographs and meet the adoring fans. Determined to break beyond the ghetto of traditional computer culture, EA booked them not only into computer stores but also into places like Macy’s in New York City, where they were greeted with confusion and bemusement. Even the computer stores sometimes seemed surprised to see them. Whether because of communications problems or flat disinterest, actual fans were often rare or nonexistent at the events. Hawkins’s dream of hordes of fans clutching their EA albums, fighting for an autograph… well, it didn’t happen, even though PCS became a major hit in its new EA duds (it would eventually sell over 300,000 copies across all platforms, a huge figure in those days). Often there seemed to be more press people eager to score an interview than actual fans at the appearances, and often the stores themselves didn’t quite know what to do with their software artists. One manager first demanded that Budge buy himself a new outfit (he was under-dressed in the manager’s opinion to be “working” in his store), then asked him if he could make himself useful by going behind the register and ringing up some customers. “That’s when I realized maybe I wouldn’t be a rock star,” a laconic Budge later said.

Budge wasn’t idle in the down-times between PR junkets. Privileged with one of the few Macintosh prototypes allowed outside of Apple, he used its bundled MacPaint application as the model for MousePaint, a paint program that Apple bundled with the first mouse for the Apple II. He also ported PCS to the Mac. Still, the fans and press were expecting something big, something as revolutionary as PCS itself had been — and small wonder, given the way that EA had hyped him as a visionary.

One of the most gratifying aspects of PCS had been the unexpected things people found to do with it, things that often had little obvious relationship to the game of pinball. Children loved to fill the entire space with bumpers, then watch the ball bouncing about among them like a piece of multimedia art. Others liked to just use the program’s painting subsections to make pictures, scattering the ostensible pinball components here and there not for their practical functions but for aesthetic purposes. If people could make such creative use of a pinball kit, what might they do with something more generalized? As uninterested as ever in designing a game in the traditional sense, Budge began to think about how he could take the concept of the construction set to the next step. He imagined a Construction Set Construction Set, a completely visual programming environment that would let the user build anything she liked — something like ThingLab, an older and admittedly somewhat obtuse stab at the idea that existed at Xerox PARC. His ideas about Construction Set Construction Set were, to say the least, ambitious:

“I could build anything from Pac-Man to Missile Command to a very, very powerful programming language. It’s the kind of a program that has a very wide application. A physics teacher, for example, could build all kinds of simulations, of little micro-worlds, set up different labs and provide dynamic little worlds that aren’t really videogames.”

It turned out to be a bridge too far. Budge tinkered with the idea for a couple of years, but never could figure out how to begin to really implement it. (Nor has anyone else in the years since.) In fact, he never made a proper follow-up to PCS at all. Ironically, Budge, EA’s software artist who best looked the part, was one of the least able to play the role in the long term. As becomes clear upon reading any interview with Budge, old or new, his passion is not for games; it’s for code. In the early days of computer gaming the very different disciplines of programming and game design had been conflated into one due to the fact that most of the people who owned computers and were interested in making games for them were programmers. During the mid-1980s, however, the two roles began to pull apart as the people who used computers and the way games were developed changed. Budge fell smack into the chasm that opened up in the middle. Lauded as a brilliant designer, he was in reality a brilliant programmer. People expected from him something he didn’t quite know how to give them, although he tried mightily with his Construction Set Construction Set idea.

Budge at home in early 1985, the beginning of his "years in the wilderness"

Budge at home in early 1985, the beginning of his “years in the wilderness”

So, he finally just gave up. After 1984 the interviews and appearances and celebrity petered out. His continuing royalties from PCS made work unnecessary for some years, so he all but gave up programming, spending most of his time wind-surfing instead (a sport that Bing Gordon, perhaps to his regret, had taught him). Most people would have a problem going back to obscurity after being on television and newspaper features and even having their own magazine column (in Softalk), but it seemed to affect Budge not at all: “I’m kind of glad when I don’t have anything new out and people forget about me.” Eventually EA quietly accepted that they weren’t going to get another game from him and quit calling. Budge refers to this period as his “years in the wilderness.” By 1990 the name of Bill Budge, such a superstar in his day, came up only when the old-timers started asking each other, “Whatever happened to….?”

In the early 1990s, Budge, now married and more settled, decided to return to the games industry, first to work on yet another pinball game, Virtual Pinball for the Sega Genesis console. Without the pressure of star billing to live up to and with a more mature industry to work in that had a place for his talents as a pure programmer’s programmer, he decided to continue his career at last. He’s remained in the industry ever since, unknown to the public but respected immensely by his peers within the companies for which he’s worked. For Budge, one of those people who has a sort of innate genius for taking life as it comes, that seems more than enough. Appropriately enough, he’s spent most of his revived careers as what’s known as a tools programmer, making utilities that others then use to make actual games. In that sense his career, bizarre as its trajectory has been, does have a certain consistency.

PCS, his one towering achievement as a software artist, deserves to be remembered for at least a couple of reasons. First of all there is of course its status as the first really elegant tool to let anyone make a game she could be proud of. It spawned a whole swathe of other “construction set” software, from EA and others, all aimed at fostering this most creative sort of play. That’s a beautiful legacy to have. Yet its historical importance is greater than even that would imply. PCS represents to my knowledge the first application of the ideas that began at Xerox PARC to an ordinary piece of software which ordinary people could buy at an ordinary price and run on ordinary computers. It proved that you didn’t need an expensive workstation-class machine like the Apple Lisa to make friendlier, more intuitive software; you could do it on a 48 K Apple II. No mouse available? Don’t let that stop you; use a joystick or a set of paddles or just the arrow keys. Thousands and thousands of people first saw a GUI interface in the form of Pinball Construction Set. Just as significantly, thousands of other designers saw its elegance and started implementing similar interfaces in their own games. The floating, disembodied hand of PCS, so odd when the game first appeared, would be seen everywhere in games within a couple of years of its release. And game manuals soon wouldn’t need to carefully define “icon,” as the PCS manual did. PCS is a surprising legacy for the Lisa project to have; certainly the likes of it weren’t anything anyone involved with Lisa was expecting or aiming for. But sometimes legacies are like that.

Next time we’ll look at another of those seminal early EA games. If you’d like to try to make something of your own in the meantime, here’s the Apple II disk image and manual for Pinball Construction Set.

(What with his celebrity in Apple II circles between 1979 and 1985, there’s a lot of good information on Budge available in primary-source documents from the period. In particular, see the November 1982 Softline, the December 1985 Compute!’s Gazette, the March 1985 Electronic Games, the March 1985 Enter, the September 1984 Creative Computing, and Budge’s own column in later issues of Softalk. Budge is also featured in Halcyon Days, and Wired magazine published a retrospective on his career when he was given a Pioneer Award by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences in 2011. Budge’s interview at the awards ceremony was videotaped and is available for viewing online.)


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