Monthly Archives: June 2022
Some time ago, in the midst of a private email discussion about the general arc of adventure-game history, one of my readers offered up a bold claim: he said that the best single year to be a player of point-and-click graphic adventures was 1996. This rings decidedly counterintuitive, given that 1996 was also the year during which the genre first slid into a precipitous commercial decline that would not even begin to level out for a decade or more. But you know what? Looking at the lineup of games released that year, I found it difficult to argue with him. These were games of high hopes, soaring ambitions, and big budgets. The genre has never seen such a lineup since. How poignant and strange, I thought to myself. Then I thought about it some more, and I decided that it wasn’t really so strange at all.
For when we cast our glance back over entertainment history, we find that it’s not unusual for a strain of creative expression to peak in terms of sophistication and ambition some time after it has passed its zenith of raw popularity. Wings won the first ever best-picture Oscar two years after The Jazz Singer had numbered the days of soundless cinema; Duke Ellington’s big band blew up a storm at Newport two years after “Rock Around the Clock” and “That’s All Right” had heralded the end of jazz music at the top of the hit parade. The same sort of thing has happened on multiple occasions in gaming. I would argue, for example, that more great text adventures were commercially published after 1984, the year that interactive fiction plateaued and prepared for the down slide, than before that point. And then, of course, we have the graphic adventures of 1996 — the year after the release of Phantasmagoria, the last million-selling adventure game to earn such sales numbers entirely on its own intrinsic appeal, without riding the coattails of an earlier game for which it was a sequel or any other pre-existing mass-media sensation.
There are two reasons why this phenomenon occurs. One is that the people who decide what projects to green-light always have a tendency to look backward at least as much as forward; new market paradigms are always hard to get one’s head around. The other becomes increasingly prevalent as projects grow more complex, and the window of time between the day they are begun and the day they are completed grows longer as a result. A lot can happen in the world of media in the span of two years or more — not coincidentally, the type of time span that more and more game-development projects were starting to fill by the mid-1990s. Toonstruck, our subject for today, is a classic example of what can happen when the world in which a game is conceived is dramatically different from the one to which it is finally born.
Let us turn the clock back to late 1993, the moment of Toonstruck‘s genesis. At that time, the conventional wisdom inside the established games industry about gaming’s necessary future hewed almost exclusively to what we might call the Sierra vision, because it was articulated so volubly and persuasively by that major publisher’s founder and president Ken Williams. It claimed that the rich multimedia affordances of CD-ROM would inevitably lead to a merger of interactivity with cinema. Popular movie stars would soon be vying to appear in interactive movies which would boast the same production values and storytelling depth as traditional movies, but which would play out on computer instead of movie-theater or television screens, with the course of the story in the hands of the ones sitting behind the screens. This mooted merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood — often abbreviated as “Siliwood” — would require development budgets exponentially larger than those the industry had been accustomed to, but the end results would reach an exponentially wider audience.
The games publisher Virgin Interactive, a part of Richard Branson’s sprawling media and travel empire, was every bit as invested in this prophecy as Sierra was. Its Los Angeles-based American arm was the straw that stirred the drink, under the guidance of a Brit named Martin Alper, who had been working to integrate games into a broader media zeitgeist for many years; he had first made a name for himself in his homeland as the co-founder of the budget label Mastertronic, whose games embraced pop-culture icons from Michael Jackson to Clumsy Colin (the mascot of a popular brand of chips), and were sold as often from supermarkets as from software stores. Earlier in 1993, his arm of Virgin had published The 7th Guest, an interactive horror flick which struck many as a better prototype for the Sierra vision than anything Sierra themselves had yet released; it had garnered enormous sales and adoring press notices from the taste-makers of mainstream media as well as those inside the computer-gaming ghetto. Now, Alper was ready to take things to the next level.
He turned for ideas to another Brit who had recently joined him in Los Angeles: a man named David Bishop, who had already worked as a journalist, designer, manager, and producer over the course of his decade in the industry. Bishop proposed an interactive counterpart of sorts to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the hit 1988 movie which had wowed audiences with the novel feat of inserting cartoon characters into a live-action world. Bishop’s game would do the opposite: insert real actors into a cartoon world. He urged Alper to pull out all the stops in order to make something that would be every bit as gobsmacking as Roger Rabbit had been in its day.
So far, so good. But who should take on the task of turning Bishop’s idea into a reality? The 7th Guest had been created by a then-tiny developer known as Trilobyte, itself a partnership between a frustrated filmmaker and a programming whiz. Taking the press releases that labeled them the avatars of the next generation of entertainment at face value, the two had now left the Virgin fold, signing a contract with a splashy new player in the multimedia sweepstakes called Media Vision. Someone else would have to make the game called Toonstruck.
In a telling statement of just how committed they already were to their interactive cartoon, Virgin USA, who had only acted as a publisher to this point, decided to dive into the development business. In October of 1993, Martin Alper put two of his most trusted producers, Neil Young and Chris Yates, in charge of a new, wholly owned development studio called Burst, formed just to make Toonstruck. The two were given a virtually blank check to do so. Make it amazing was their only directive.
So, Young and Yates went across town to Hollywood. There they hired Nelvana, an animation house that had been making cartoons of every description for over twenty years. And they hired as well a gaggle of voice-acting talent that was worthy of a big-budget Disney feature. There were Tim Curry, star of the camp classic Rocky Horror Picture Show; Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson (“D’oh!”); David Ogden-Stiers, who had played the blue-blooded snob Charles Emerson Winchester III on M*A*S*H; Dom Deluise of The Cannonball Run and All Dogs Go to Heaven fame; plus many other less recognizable names who were nevertheless among the most talented and sought-after voices in cartoon production, the sort that any latch-key kid worth her salt had listened to for countless hours by the time she became a teenager. In hiring the star of the show — the actor destined to actually appear onscreen, inserted into the cartoon world — Burst pulled off their greatest coup of all: they secured the signature of none other than Christopher Lloyd, a veteran character actor best known as the hippie burnout Jim from the beloved sitcom Taxi, the mad scientist Doc Brown from the Back to the Future films… and Judge Doom, the villain from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Playing in a game that would be the technological opposite of that film’s inserting of cartoon characters into the real world, Lloyd would become his old character’s psychological opposite, the hero rather than the villain. Sure, it was stunt casting — but how much more perfect could it get?
What happened next is impossible to explain in any detail. The fact is that Burst was and has remained something of a black box. What is clear, however, is that Toonstruck‘s designers-in-the-trenches Richard Hare and Jennifer McWilliams took their brief to pull out all the stops and to spare no expense in doing so as literally as everyone else at the studio, concocting a crazily ambitious script. “We were full of ideas, so we designed and designed and designed,” says McWilliams, “with a great deal of emphasis on what would be cool and interesting and funny, and not so much focus on what would actually be achievable within a set schedule and budget. [Virgin] for the most part stepped aside and let us do our thing.”
Their colleagues storyboarded their ever-expanding design document and turned it into hours and hours of quality cartoon animation — animation which was intended to meet or exceed the bar set by a first-string Disney feature film. As they did so, the deadlines flew by unheeded. Originally earmarked with the eternal optimism of game developers and Chicago Cubs fans for the 1994 Christmas season, the project slipped into 1995, then 1996. Virgin trotted it out at trade show after trade show, making ever more sweeping claims about its eventual amazingness at each one, until it became an in-joke among the gaming journalists who dutifully inserted a few lines about it into each successive “coming soon” preview. By 1996, the bill for Toonstruck was approaching a staggering $8 million, enough to make it the second most expensive computer game to date. And yet it was still far from completion.
It seems clear that the project was poorly managed from the start. Take, for example, all that vaunted high-quality animation. Burst’s decision to make the cartoon of Toonstruck first, then figure out how to make use of it in an interactive context later was hardly the most cost-effective way of doing things. It made little sense to aim to compete with Disney on a level playing field when the limitations of the consumer-computing hardware of the time meant that the final product would have to be squashed down to a resolution of 640 X 400, with a palette of just 256 shades, for display on a dinky 15-inch monitor screen.
There are also hints of other sorts of dysfunction inside Burst, and between Burst and its parent company. One Virgin insider who chose to remain anonymous alluded vaguely in 1998 to the way that “internal politics made the situation worse. Some of the project leaders didn’t get on with other senior staff, and some people had friendships to protect. So there was finger-pointing and back-slapping going on at the same time.”
During the three years that Toonstruck spent in development, the Sierra vision of gaming’s necessary future was challenged by a new one. In December of 1993, id Software, a tiny renegade company operating outside the traditional boundaries of the industry by selling its creations largely through the shareware model, released a little game called DOOM, which featured exclusively computer-generated 3D environments, gobs of bloody action, and, to paraphrase a famous statement by its chief programmer John Carmack, no more story than your typical porn movie. Not long after, a studio called Blizzard Entertainment debuted a fantasy strategy game called Warcraft which played like an action game, in hectic real time; not the first of its type, it was nevertheless the one that really caught gamers’ imaginations, especially after Blizzard perfected the concept with 1995’s Warcraft II. With these games and others like them selling at least as well as the hottest adventures, the industry’s One True Way Forward had become a proverbial fork in the road. Publishers could continue to plow money into interactive movies in the hope of cracking into the mainstream of mass entertainment, or they could double down on their longstanding customer demographic of young white males by offering them yet more fast-paced mayhem. Already by 1995, the fact that games of the latter stripe tended to cost far less than those of the former was enough to seal the deal in the minds of many publishers.
Virgin Interactive was given especial food for thought that year when they wound up publishing Trilobyte’s next game after all. Media Vision, the publisher Trilobyte had signed with, had imploded amidst government investigations of securities fraud and other financial crimes, and an opportunistic Virgin had swooped into the bankruptcy auction and made off with the contract for The 11th Hour, the sequel to The 7th Guest. It seemed like quite a clever heist at the time — but it began to seem somewhat less so when The 11th Hour under-performed relative to expectations. Both reviewers and ordinary gamers stated clearly that they were already becoming bored of Trilobyte’s rote mixing of B-movie cinematics with hoary set-piece puzzles that mostly stemmed from well before the computer age — tired of the way that the movie and the gameplay in a Trilobyte creation had virtually nothing to do with one another.
Then, as I noted at the beginning of this article, 1996 brought with it an unprecedentedly large lineup of ambitious, earnest, and expensive games of the Siliwood stripe, with some of them at least much more thoughtfully designed than anything Trilobyte had ever come up with. Nonetheless, as the year went by an alarming fact was more and more in evidence: this year’s crop of multimedia extravaganzas was not producing any towering hits to rival the likes of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective in 1992, The 7th Guest in 1993, Myst in 1994, or Phantasmagoria in 1995. Arguably the best year in history to be a player of graphic adventures, 1996 was also the year that broke the genre. Almost all of the big-budget adventure releases still to come from American publishers would owe their existence to corporate inertia, being projects that executives found easier to complete and hope for a miracle than to cancel outright and then try to explain the massive write-off to their shareholders — even if outright cancellation would have been better for their companies’ bottom lines. In short, by the beginning of 1997 only dreamers doubted that the real future of the gaming mainstream lay with the lineages of DOOM and Warcraft.
Before we rush to condemn the philistines who preferred such games to their higher-toned counterparts, we must acknowledge that their preferences had to do with more than sheer bloody-mindedness. First-person shooters and real-time-strategy games could be a heck of a lot of fun, and lent themselves very well to playing with others, whether gathered together in one room or, increasingly, over the Internet. The generally solitary pursuit of adventure gaming had no answer for this sort of boisterous bonding experience. And there was also an economic factor: an adventure was a once-and-done endeavor that might last a week or two at best, after which you had no recourse but to go out and buy another one. You could, on the other hand, spend literally years playing the likes of DOOM and Warcraft with your mates.
Then there is one final harsh reality to be faced: the fact is that the Sierra vision never came close to living up to its billing for the player. These games were never remotely like waking up in the starring role of a Hollywood film. Boosters like Ken Williams were thrilled to talk about interactive movies in the abstract, but these same people were notably vague about how their interactivity was actually supposed to work. They invested massively in Hollywood acting talent, in orchestral soundtracks, and in the best computer artists money could buy, while leaving the interactivity — the very thing that ostensibly set their creations apart — to muddle through on its own, one way or another.
Inevitably, then, the interactivity ended up taking the form of static puzzles, the bedrock of adventure games since the days when they had been presented all in text. The puzzle paradigm persisted into this brave new era simply because no one could proffer any other ideas about what the player should be doing that were both more compelling and technologically achievable. I hasten to add that some players really, genuinely love puzzles, love few things more than to work through an intricate web of them in order to make something happen; I include myself among this group. When puzzles are done right, they’re as satisfying and creatively valid as any other type of gameplay.
But here’s the rub: most people — perhaps even most gamers — really don’t like solving puzzles all that much at all. (These people are of course no better or worse than those who do — just different.) For the average Joe or Jane, playing one of these new-fangled interactive movies was like watching a conventional movie filmed on an ultra-low-budget, usually with terrible acting. And then, for the pièce de résistance, you were expected to solve a bunch of boring puzzles for the privilege of witnessing the underwhelming next scene. Who on earth wanted to do this after a hard day at the office?
All of which is to say that the stellar sales of Consulting Detective, The 7th Guest, Myst, and Phantasmagora were not quite the public validations of the concept of interactive movies that the industry chose to read them as. The reasons for these titles’ success were orthogonal to their merits as games, whatever the latter might have been. People bought them as technology demonstrations, to show off the new computers they had just purchased and to test out the CD-ROM drives they had just installed. They gawked at them for a while and then, satiated, planted themselves back in front of their televisions to spend their evenings as they always had. This was not, needless to say, a sustainable model for a mainstream gaming genre. By 1996, the days when the mere presence of human actors walking and/or talking on a computer monitor could wow even the technologically unsophisticated were fast waning. That left as customers only the comparatively tiny hardcore of buyers who had always played adventure games. They were thrilled by the diverse and sumptuous smorgasbord that was suddenly set before them — but the industry’s executives, looking at the latest sales numbers, most assuredly were not. Just like that, the era of Siliwood passed into history. One can only hope that all of the hardcore adventure fans enjoyed it while it lasted.
Toonstruck was, as you may have guessed, among the most prominent of the adventures that were released to disappointing results in 1996. That event happened at the very end of the year, and only thanks to a Virgin management team who decided in the summer that enough was enough. “The powers that be in management had to step in and give us a dose of reality,” says Jennifer McWilliams. “We then needed to come up with an ending that could credibly wrap the game up halfway through, with a cliffhanger that would, ideally, introduce part two. I think we did well considering the constraints we were under, but still, it was not what we originally envisioned.” Another, anonymous team member has described what happened more bluntly: “The team was told to ‘cut it or can it’ — it either had to be shipped real soon, or not at all.”
The former option was chosen, and thus Toonstruck shipped just before Christmas, on two discs that between them bore only about one third of the total amount of animation created for the game, and that in a severely degraded form. Greeted with reviews that ran the gamut from raves to pans, it wound up selling about 150,000 copies. For a normal game with a normal budget, such numbers would be just about acceptable; if the 100,000-copy threshold was no longer the mark of an outright hit in the computer-games industry of 1996, selling that many copies and then half again that many more wasn’t too bad either. Unfortunately, all of the usual quantifiers got thrown out for a game that had cost over $8 million to make. One Virgin employee later mused wryly how Toonstruck had been intended to “blow the public away. The only thing that got blown was vast amounts of cash, and the public stayed away.”
Bleeding red ink from the failure of Toonstruck and a number of other games, Virgin’s American arm was ordered by the parent company in London to downsize their budgets and ambitions drastically. After creating a few less expensive but equally commercially disappointing games, Burst Studios was sold in 1998 to Electronic Arts, who renamed it EA Pacific and shifted its focus to 3D real-time strategy — a sign of the times if ever there was one.
Such is one tale of Toonstruck, a game which could only have appeared in its own very specific time and place. But, you might be wondering, how does this relic of a fizzled vision of gaming’s future play?
Toonstruck‘s opening movie is not a cartoon. We instead meet Christopher Lloyd for the first time in the real world, in the role of Drew Blanc (get it?), a cartoonist suffering from writer’s block. He’s called into the office of his impatient boss Sam Schmaltz, who’s played by Ben Stein, an actor of, shall we say, limited range, but one who remains readily recognizable to an entire generation for playing every kid’s nightmare of a boring teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Wonder Years.
We learn that Drew is unhappy with his current assignment as the illustrator of The Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun Show, a piece of cartoon pablum with as much edge as a melting stick of butter. He rather wants to do something with his creation Flux Wildly, a hyperactive creature of uncertain taxonomy and chaotic disposition. Schmaltz, however, quickly lives up to his name; he’s having none of it. A deflated Drew resigns himself to an all-nighter in the studio to make up the time he’s wasted daydreaming about the likes of Flux. But in the course of that night, he is somehow drawn into his television — right into a cartoon.
There the bewildered Drew meets none other than Flux Wildly himself, finding him every bit as charmingly unhinged as he’d always imagined him to be. He learns that the cartoon world in which he finds himself is divided into three regions: Cutopia, where the fluffy bun bun bunnies and their ilk live; Zanydu, which anarchists like Flux call home; and Malevoland, where true evil lurks. Trouble is, Count Nefarious of Malevoland has gotten tired of the current balance of power, and has started making bombing raids on the other two regions in his Malevolator, using its ray of evil to turn them as dark and twisted as his homeland. King Hugh of Cutopia promises Drew that, if he first saves them all by collecting the parts necessary to build a Cutifier — the antidote to the Malevolator — he will send Drew back to his own world.
All of that is laid out in the opening movie, after which the plot gears are more or less shifted into neutral while you commence wandering around solving puzzles. And it’s here that the game presents its most welcome surprise: unlike so many other multimedia productions of this era that were sold primarily on the basis of their audiovisuals, this game’s puzzle design is clever, complex, and carefully crafted. I have no knowledge of precisely how this game was tested and balanced, but I have to assume these things were done, and done well. It’s not an easy game by any means — there are dozens and dozens of puzzles here, layered on top of one another in a veritable tangle of dependencies — but it’s never an unfair one. In the best tradition of LucasArts, there are no deaths or dead ends. If you are willing to observe the environment with a meticulous eye, experiment patiently, and enter into the cartoon logic of a world where holes are portable and five minutes on a weight bench can transform your physique, you might just be able to solve this one without hints.
The puzzles manage the neat trick of being whimsical without ever abandoning logic entirely. Take, for example, the overarching meta-puzzle you’re attempting to solve as you wander through the lands. Assembling the Cutifier requires combining matched pairs of objects, such as sugar and spice (that’s a freebie the game gives you to introduce the concept). Other objects waiting for their partners include a dagger, some stripes, a heart, some whistles, some polish, etc. If possible combinations have started leaping to mind already, you might really enjoy this game. If they haven’t, on the other hand, you might not, or you might have fallen afoul of the exception to the rule of its general solubility: it requires a thoroughgoing knowledge of idiomatic English, of the sort that only native speakers or those who have been steeped in the language for many years are likely to possess.
While you’re working out its gnarly puzzle structure, Toonstruck is doing its level best to keep you amused in other ways. Players who are only familiar with Christopher Lloyd from his scenery-chewing portrayals in Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit may be surprised at his relatively low-key performance here; more often than not, he’s acting as the straight man for his wise-cracking sidekick Flux Wildly and other gleefully over-the-top cartoon personalities. In truth, Lloyd was (and is) a more multi-faceted and flexible actor than his popular image might suggest, having decades of experience in film, television, and theater productions of all types behind him. His performance here, in what must have been extremely trying circumstances — he was, after all, constantly expected to say his lines to characters who weren’t actually there — feels impressively natural.
Drew Blanc’s friendship with Flux Wildly is the emotional heart of the story. Their relationship can’t help but bring to mind the much-loved LucasArts adventuring duo Sam and Max. Once again, we have here a subdued humanoid straight man paired with a less anthropomorphic pal who comes complete with a predilection for violence. Once again the latter keeps things lively with his antics and his constant patter. And once again you the player can use him like an inventory item from time to time on the problems you encounter, sometimes with productive and often with amusing results. Flux Wildly may just be my favorite thing in the game. I just wish he was around through the whole game; more on that momentarily.
Although Flux is a lot of fun, the writing in general is a bit of a mixed bag. As, for that matter, were contemporary reviews of the writing. Computer Gaming World found Toonstruck “hilarious”: “With humor that ranges from cutesy to risqué, Toonstruck keeps the laughter coming nonstop.” Next Generation, on the other hand, wrote that “the designers have tried desperately hard to make the game zany, wacky, crazy, twisted, madcap, and side-splittingly hilarious — but it just isn’t. The dialog, slapstick humor, and relentless ‘comedy’ situations are tired. You’ve seen most of these jokes done better 40 years ago.”
In a way, both takes are correct. Toonstruck is sometimes genuinely clever and funny, but just as often feels like it’s trying way too hard. There are reports that the intended audience for the game drifted over its three years in development, that it was originally planned as a kid-friendly game and only slowly moved in a more adult direction. This may explain some of the jarring tonal shifts inside its world. At times, the writing doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, veering wildly from the light and frothy to that depressingly common species of videogame humor that mistakes transgression for wit. The most telling example is also the one scene that absolutely no one who has ever played this game, or for that matter merely watched it being played, can possibly forget, even if she wants to.
While exploring the land of Cutopia, you come upon a sweet, matronly dairy cow and her two BFFs, a cute and fuzzy sheep and a tired old horse. Some time later, Count Nefarious arrives to zap their farm with his Malevolator. Next time you visit, you find that the horse has been turned into glue. Meanwhile the cow is spread-eagled on a “Wheel-O-Luv,” her udders dangling pendulously in a way that looks downright pornographic, cackling with masochistic delight while the leather-clad sheep gives her her delicious punishment. Words fail me… this is something you have to see for yourself.
Here and in a few other places, Toonstruck is just off, weird in a way that is not just unfunny or immature but that actually leaves you feeling vaguely uncomfortable. It demonstrates that, for all Virgin Interactive’s mainstream ambitions, they were still a long way from mustering the thematic, aesthetic, and writerly unity that goes into a slick piece of mass-market entertainment.
Toonstruck is at its best when it is neither trying to trangress for the sake of it nor to please the mass market, but rather when it’s delicately skewering a certain stripe of sickly sweet, creatively bankrupt, lowest-common denominator children’s programming that was all over television during the 1980s and 1990s. Think of The Care Bears, a program that was drawn by some of the same Nelvana animators who worked on Toonstruck; they must surely have enjoyed ripping their mawkish past to shreds here. Or, even better, think of Barney the hideous purple dinosaur, dawdling through excruciating songs with ripped-off melodies and cloying lyrics that sound like they were made up on the spot. Few media creations have ever been as easy to hate as him, as the erstwhile popularity of the Usenet newsgroup alt.Barney.dinosaur.die.die.die will attest.
Being created by so many insiders to the cartoon racket, Toonstruck is well placed to capture the very adult cynicism that oozes from such productions, engineered as they were mainly to sell plush toys to co-dependent children. It does so not least through King Hugh of Cutopia himself, who turns out to be — spoiler alert! — not quite the heroic exemplar of inclusiveness he’s billed as. Meanwhile Flux Wildly and his friends from Zanydu stand for a different breed of cartoons, ones which demonstrate a measure of respect for their young audience.
There does eventually come a point in Toonstruck, more than a few hours in, when you’ve unraveled the web of puzzles and assembled all twelve matched pairs that are required for the Cutifier. By now you feel like you’ve played a pretty complete game, and are expecting the end credits to start rolling soon. Instead the game pulls its next big trick on you: everything goes to hell in a hand basket and you find yourself in Count Nefarious’s dungeon, about to begin a second act whose presence was heretofore hinted at only by the presence of a second, as-yet unused CD in the game’s (real or virtual) box.
Most players agree that this unexpected second act is, for all the generosity demonstrated by the mere fact of its existence, considerably less enjoyable than the first. Your buddy Flux Wildly is gone, the environment darker and more constrained, and your necessary path through the plot more linear. It feels austere and lonely in contrast to what has come before — and not in a good way. Although the puzzle design remains solid enough, I imagine that this is the point where many players begin to succumb to the temptations of hints and walkthroughs. And it’s hard to blame them; the second act is the very definition of an anticlimax — almost a dramatic non sequitur in the way it throws the game out of its natural rhythm.
But a real ending — or at least a form of ending — does finally arrive. Drew Blanc defeats Count Nefarious and is returned to his own world. All seems well — until Flux Wildly contacts him again in the denouement to tell him that Nefarious really isn’t done away with just yet. Incredibly, this was once intended to mark the beginning of a third act, of four in total, all in the service of a parable about the creative process that the game we have only hints at. Laboring under their managers’ ultimatum to ship or else, the developers had to fall back on the forlorn hope of a surprise, sequel-justifying hit in the face of the marketplace headwinds that were blowing against the game. Jennifer McWilliams:
Toonstruck was meant to be a funny story about defeating some really weird bad guys, as it was when released, but originally it was also about defeating one’s own creative demons. It was a tribute to creative folks of all types, and was meant to offer encouragement to any of them that had lost their way. So, the second part of the game had Drew venturing into his own psyche, facing his fears (like a psychotically overeager dentist), living out his fantasies (like meeting his hero, Vincent van Gogh), and eventually finding a way to restore his creative spark.
It does sound intriguing on one level, but it also sounds like much, much too much for a game that already feels rather overstuffed. If the full conception had been brought to fruition, Toonstruck would have been absolutely massive, in the running for the biggest graphic adventure ever made. But whether its characters and puzzle mechanics could have supported the weight of so much content is another question. It seems that all or most of the animation necessary for acts three and four was created — more fruits of that $8 million budget — and this has occasionally led fans to dream of a hugely belated sequel. Yet it is highly doubtful whether any of the animation still exists, or for that matter whether the economics of using it make any more sense now than they did in the mid-1990s. Once all but completely forgotten, Toonstruck has enjoyed a revival of interest since it was put up for sale on digital storefronts some years ago. But only a small one: it would be a stretch to label it even a cult classic.
What we’re left with instead, then, is a fascinating exemplar of a bygone age; the fact that this game could only have appeared in the mid-1990s is a big part of its charm. Then, too, there’s a refreshing can-do spirit about it. Tasked with making something amazing, its creators did their honest best to achieve just that, on multiple levels. If the end result is imperfect in some fairly obvious ways, it never fails to be playable, which is more than can be said for many of its peers. Indeed, it remains well worth playing today for anyone who shivers with anticipation at the prospect of a pile of convoluted, deviously interconnected puzzles. Ditto for anyone who just wants to know what kind of game $8 million would buy you back in 1996.
(Sources: Starlog of May 1984 and August 1993; Computer Gaming World of January 1997; Electronic Entertainment of December 1995; Next Generation of January 1997, February 1997, and April 1998; PC Zone of August 1995, August 1996, and June 1998; Questbusters 117; Retro Gamer 174.
Toonstruck is available for digital purchase on GOG.com.)
Mosaic Communications was founded on $13 million in venture capital, a pittance by the standards of today but an impressive sum by those of 1994. Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark’s business plan, if you can call it that, would prove as emblematic of the era of American business history they were inaugurating as anything they ever did. “I don’t know how in hell we’re going to make money,” mused Clark, “but I’ll put money behind it, and we’ll figure out a way. A market growing as quickly as that [one] is going to have money to be made in it.” This naïve faith that nebulous user “engagement” must inevitably be transformed into dollars in the end by some mysterious alchemical process would be all over Silicon Valley throughout the dot-com boom — and, indeed, has never entirely left it even after the bust.
Andreessen and Clark’s first concrete action after the founding was to contact everyone at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications who had helped out with the old Mosaic browser, asking them to come to Silicon Valley and help make the new one. Most of their targets were easily tempted away from the staid nonprofit by the glamor of the most intensely watched tech startup of the year, not to mention the stock options that were dangled before them. The poaching of talent from NCSA secured for the new company some of the most seasoned browser developers in the world. And, almost as importantly, it also served to cut NCSA’s browser — the new one’s most obvious competition — off at the knees. For without these folks, how was NCSA to keep improving its browser?
The partners were playing a very dangerous game here. The Mosaic browser and all of its source code were owned by NCSA as an organization. Not only had Andreessen and Clark made the cheeky move of naming their company after a browser they didn’t own, but they had now stolen away from NCSA those people with the most intimate knowledge of how said browser actually worked. Fortunately, Clark was a grizzled enough veteran of business to put some safeguards in place. He was careful to ensure that no one brought so much as a line of code from the old browser with them to Mosaic Communications. The new one would be entirely original in terms of its code if not in terms of the end-user experience; it would be what the Valley calls a “clean-room implementation.”
Andreessen and Clark were keenly aware that the window of opportunity to create the accepted successor to NCSA Mosaic must be short. They made it clearer with every move they made that they saw the World Wide Web as a zero-sum game. They consciously copied the take-no-prisoners approach of Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, which had by now replaced IBM as the most powerful and arguably the most hated company in the computer industry. Marc Andreessen:
We knew that the key to success for the whole thing was getting ubiquity on the [browser] side. That was the way to get the company jump-started because that gives you essentially a broad platform to build off of. It’s basically a Microsoft lesson, right? If you get ubiquity, you have a lot of options, a lot of ways to benefit from that. You can get paid by the product that you are ubiquitous on, but you can also get paid on products that benefit as a result. One of the fundamental lessons is that market share now equals revenue later, and if you don’t have the market share now, you are not going to have revenue later. Another fundamental lesson is that whoever gets the volume does win in the end. Just plain wins. There has to be just one single winner in a market like this.
The founders pushed their programmers hard, insisting that the company simply had to get the browser out by the fall of 1994, which gave them a bare handful of months to create it from scratch. To spur their employees on, they devised a semi-friendly competition. They divided the programmers into three teams, one working on a browser for Unix, one on the Macintosh version, and one on the Microsoft Windows version. The teams raced one another from milestone to milestone, and compared their browsers’ rendering speeds down to the millisecond, all for weekly bragging rights and names on walls of fame and/or shame. One mid-level manager remembers how “a lot of times, people were there 48 hours straight, just coding. I’ve never seen anything like it, in terms of honest-to-God, no BS, human endurance.” Inside the office, the stakes seemed almost literally life or death. He recalls an attitude that “we were fighting some war and that we could win.”
In the meantime, Jim Clark was doing some more poaching. He hired away from his old company Silicon Graphics an ace PR woman named Rosanne Siino. She became the mass-media architect of the dot-com founder as genius, visionary, and all-around rock star. “We had this 22-year-old kid who was pretty damn interesting, and I thought, ‘There’s a story here,'” she says. She proceeded to pitch that story to anyone who would take her calls.
Andreeseen, for his part, slipped into his role fluidly enough after just a bit of coaching. “If you get more visible,” he reasoned, “it counts as advertising, and it doesn’t cost anything.” By the mid-summer of 1994, he was doing multiple interviews most days. Tall and athletically built, well-dressed and glib — certainly no one’s stereotype of a pasty computer nerd — he was perfect fodder for tech journals, mainstream newspapers, and supermarket tabloids alike. “He’s young, he’s hot, and he’s here!” trumpeted one of the last above a glamor shot of the wunderkind.
The establishment business media found the rest of the company to be almost as interesting if not quite as sexy, from its other, older founder who was trying to make lightning strike a second time to the fanatical young believers who filled the cubicles; stories of crunch time were more novel then than they would soon become. Journalists fixated on the programmers’ whimsical mascot, a huge green and purple lizard named Mozilla who loomed over the office from his perch on one wall. Some were even privileged to learn that his name was a portmanteau of “Mosaic” and “Godzilla,” symbolizing the company’s intention to annihilate the NCSA browser as thoroughly as the movie monster had leveled Tokyo. On the strength of sparkling anecdotes like this, Forbes magazine named Mosaic Communications one of its “25 Cool Companies” — all well before it had any products whatsoever.
The most obvious obstacle to annihilating the NCSA browser was the latter’s price: it was, after all, free. Just how was a for-profit business supposed to compete with that price point? Andreeseen and Clark settled on a paid model that nevertheless came complete with a nudge and a wink. The browser they called Mosaic Netscape would technically be free only to students and educators. But others would be asked to pay the $39 licensing fee only after a 90-day trial period — and, importantly, no mechanism would be implemented to coerce them into doing so even after the trial expired. Mosaic Communications would thus make the cornerstone of its business strategy Andreessen’s sanguine conviction that “market share now equals revenue later.”
Mosaic Netscape went live on the Internet on October 13, 1994. And in terms of Andreessen’s holy grail of market share at least, it was an immediate, thumping success. Within weeks, Mosaic Netscape had replaced NCSA Mosaic as the dominant browser on the Web. In truth, it had much to recommend it. It was blazing fast on all three of the platforms on which it ran, a tribute to the fierce competition between the teams who had built its different versions. And it sported some useful new HTML tags, such as “<center>” for centering text and “<blink>” for making it do just that. (Granted, the latter was rather less essential than the former, but that wouldn’t prevent thousands of websites from hastening to make use of it; as is typically the case with such things, the evolution of Web aesthetics would happen more slowly than that of Web technology.) Most notably of all, Netscape added the possibility of secure encryption to the Web, via the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). The company rightly considered SSL to be an essential prerequisite to online commerce; no one in their right mind was going to send credit-card numbers in the clear.
But, valuable though these additions (mostly) were, they raised the ire of many of those who had shepherded the Web through its early years, not least among them Tim Berners-Lee. Although they weren’t patented and thus weren’t proprietary in a legal sense — anyone was free to implement them if they could figure out how they worked — Mosaic Communications had rolled them out without talking to anyone about what they were doing, leaving everyone else to play catch-up in a race of their making.
Still, such concerns carried little weight with most users. They were just happy to have a better browser.
More pressing for Andreessen and Clark were the legal threats that were soon issuing from NCSA and the University of Illinois, demanding up to 50 percent of the revenue from Mosaic Netscape, which they alleged was by rights at least half theirs. These continued even after Jim Clark produced a report from a forensic software expert which stated that, for all that they might look and feel the same, NCSA Mosaic and Mosaic Netscape shared no code at all. Accepting at last that naming their company after the rival browser whose code they insisted they were not stealing had been terrible optics, Andreessen and Clark rechristened Mosaic Communications as Netscape Communications on November 14, 1994; its browser now became known as Netscape Navigator. Seeking a compromise to make the legal questions go away once and for all, Clark offered NCSA a substantial amount of stock in Netscape, only to be turned down flat. In the end, he agreed to a cash settlement instead; industry rumor placed it in the neighborhood of $2 million. NCSA and the university with which it was affiliated may have have felt validated by the settlement, but time would show that it had not been an especially wise decision to reject Clark’s first overture: ten months later, the stock NCSA had been offered was worth $17 million.
For all its exciting growth, the World Wide Web had made relatively few inroads with everyday Americans to this point. But all of that changed in 1995, the year when the Web broke through in earnest. There was now enough content there to make it an interesting place for the ordinary Joe or Jane to visit, as well as a slick, user-friendly browser for him or her to use in Netscape Navigator.
Just as importantly, there were for the first time enough computers in daily use in American homes to make something like the Web a viable proposition. With the more approachable Microsoft Windows having replaced the cryptic, command-line-driven MS-DOS as the typical face of consumer computing, with new graphics card, sound cards, and CD-ROM drives providing a reasonably pleasing audiovisual experience, with the latest word processors and spreadsheets being more powerful and easier to use than ever before, and with the latest microprocessors and hard drives allowing it all to happen at a reasonably brisk pace, personal computers had crossed a Rubicon in the last half-decade or so, to become gadgets that people who didn’t find computers themselves intrinsically fascinating might nonetheless want to own and use. Netscape Navigator was fortunate enough to hit the scene just as these new buyers were reaching a critical mass. They served to prime the pump. And then, once just about everyone with a computer seemed to be talking about the Web, the whole thing became a self-reinforcing virtuous circle, with computer owners streaming onto the Web and the Web in turn driving computer sales. By the summer of 1995, Netscape Navigator had been installed on at least 10 million computers.
Virtually every major corporation in the country that didn’t have a homepage already set one up during 1995. Many were little more than page or two of text and a few corporate logos at this point, but a few did go further, becoming in the process harbingers of the digital future. Pizza Hut, for example, began offering an online ordering service in select markets, and Federal Express made it possible for customers to track the progress of their packages around the country and the world from right there in their browsers. Meanwhile Silicon Valley and other tech centers played host to startup after startup, including plenty of names we still know well today: the online bookstore (and later anything-store) Amazon, the online auction house eBay, and the online dating service Match.com among others were all founded this year.
Recognizing an existential threat when they saw one, the old guard of circumscribed online services such as CompuServe, who had pioneered much of the social and commercial interaction that was now moving onto the open Web, rushed to devise hybrid business models that mixed their traditional proprietary content with Internet access. Alas, it would avail most of them nothing in the end; the vast majority of these dinosaurs would shuffle off to extinction before the decade was out. Only an upstart service known as America Online, a comparative latecomer on the scene, would successfully weather the initial storm, thanks mostly to astute marketing that positioned it as the gentler, friendlier, more secure alternative to the vanilla Web for the non-tech-savvy consumer. Its public image as a sort of World Wide Web with training wheels would rake in big profits even as it made the service and its subscribers objects of derision for Internet sophisticates. But even America Online would not be able to maintain its stranglehold on Middle America forever. By shortly after the turn of the millennium — and shortly after an ill-advised high-profile merger with the titan of old media Time Warner — it too would be in free fall.
One question stood foremost in the minds of many of these millions who were flocking onto the Web for the first time: how the heck were they supposed to find anything here? It was, to be sure, an ironic question to be asking, given that Tim Berners-Lee had invented his World Wide Web for the express purpose of making the notoriously confounding pre-Web Internet easier to navigate. Yet as websites bred and spawned like rabbits in a Viagra factory, it became a relevant one once again.
The idea of a network of associative links was as valid as ever — but just where were you to start when you knew that you wanted to, say, find out the latest rumors about your favorite band Oasis? (This was the mid-1990s, after all.) Once you were inside the Oasis ecosystem, as it were, it was easy enough to jump from site to site through the power of association. But how were you to find your way inside in the first place when you first fired up your browser and were greeted with a blank page and a blank text field waiting for you to type in a Web address you didn’t know?
One solution to this conundrum was weirdly old-fashioned: brick-and-mortar bookstore shelves were soon filling up with printed directories that cataloged the Web’s contents. But this was a manifestly inadequate solution as well as a retrograde one; what with the pace of change on the Web, such books were out of date before they were even sold. What people really needed was a jumping-off point on the Web itself, a home base from which to start each journey down the rabbit hole of their particular interests, offering a list of places to go that could grow and change as fast as the Web itself. Luckily, two young men with too much time on their hands had created just such a thing.
Jerry Yang and David Filo were rather unenthusiastic Stanford graduate students in computer science during the early 1990s. Being best friends, they discovered the Web together shortly after the arrival of the NCSA Mosaic browser. Already at this early date, finding the needles in the digital haystack was becoming difficult. Therefore they set up a list of links they found interesting, calling it “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” This was not unique in itself; thousands of others were putting up similar lists of “cool links.” Yang and Filo were unique, however, in how much energy they devoted to the endeavor.
They were among the first wave of people to discover the peculiar, dubiously healthy dopamine-release mechanism that is online attention, whether measured in page views, as in those days, or likes or retweets, as today. The more traffic that came their way, the more additional traffic they wanted. Instead of catering merely to their personal interests, they gradually turned their site into a comprehensive directory of the Web — all of it, in the ideal at least. They surfed tirelessly day after day, neglecting girlfriends, family, and personal hygiene, not to mention their coursework, trying to keep up with the Sisyphean task of cataloging every new site of note that went up on the Web, then slotting it into a branching hierarchy of hundreds of categories and sub-categories.
In April of 1994, they decided that their site needed a catchier name. Their initial thought was to combine their last names in some ingenious way, but they couldn’t find one that worked. So, they focused on the name of Yang, by nature the more voluble and outgoing of the pair. They were steeped enough in hacker culture to think of a popular piece of software called YACC; it stood for “Yet Another Compiler Compiler,” but was pronounced like the Himalayan beast of burden. That name was obviously taken, but perhaps they could come up with something else along those lines. They looked in a dictionary for words starting with “ya”: “yawn,” “yawp,” “yaw,” “y-axis”… “yahoo.” The good book told them that “yahoo” derived from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where it referred to “any of a race of brutish, degraded creatures having the form and all of the vices of man.” Whatever — they just liked the sound of the word. They racked their brains until they had turned it into an acronym: “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.” Whatever. It would do. A few months later, they stuck an exclamation point at the end as a finishing touch. And so Yahoo! came to be.
For quite some time after that, not much changed on the surface. Yang and Filo had by now appropriated a neglected camping trailer on one of Stanford’s back parking lots, which they turned into their squalid headquarters. They tried to keep up with the flood of new content coming onto the Web every day by living in the trailer, trading four-hour shifts with one another around the clock, working like demons for that sweet fix of ever-increasing page-view numbers. “There was nothing else in the world like it,” says Yang. “There was such camaraderie, it was like driving off a cliff.”
But there came a point, not long after the start of that pivotal Web year of 1995, when Yang and Filo had to recognize that they were losing their battle with new content. So, they set off in search of the funding they would need to turn what had already become in the minds of many the Web’s de-facto “front page” into a real business, complete with employees they could pay to do what they had been doing for free. They seriously considered joining America Online, then came even closer to signing on with Netscape, a company which had already done much for their popularity by placing their site behind a button displayed prominently by the Navigator browser. In the end, though, they opted to remain independent. In April of 1995, they secured $4 million in financing, thanks to a far-sighted venture capitalist named Mike Moritz, who made the deal in the face of enormous skepticism from his colleagues. “The venture community [had never] invested in anything that gave a product away for free,” he remembers.
Or had they? It all depended on how you looked at it. Yang and Filo noted that television broadcasters had been giving their product away for free for decades as far as the individual viewer was concerned, making their money instead by selling access to their captive audience to third-party advertisers. Why couldn’t the same thing work on the Web? The demographic that visited Yahoo! regularly was, after all, an advertiser’s dream, being largely comprised of young adults with disposable income, attracted to novelty and with enough leisure time to indulge that attraction.
So, advertising started appearing on Yahoo! very shortly after it became a real business. Adherents to the old, non-commercial Web ideal grumbled, and some of them left in a huff, but their numbers were dwarfed by the continuing flood of new Netizens, who tended to perceive the Web as just another form of commercial media and were thus unfazed when they were greeted with advertising there. With the help of a groundbreaking Web analytics firm known as I/PRO, Yahoo! came up with ways to target its advertisements ever more precisely to each individual user’s interests, which she revealed to the company whether she wanted to or not through the links she clicked. The Web, Yang and Filo were at pains to point out, was the most effective advertising environment ever to appear. Business journalist Robert H. Reid, who profiled Netscape, Yahoo!, I/PRO, and much of the rest of the early dot-com startup scene for a book published in 1997, summed up the advantages of online advertising thusly:
There is a limit to how targeted advertising can be in traditional media. [This is] because any audience that is larger than one, even a fairly small and targeted [audience], will inevitably have its diversity elements (certain readers of the [Wall Street] Journal’s C section surely do not care about new bond issues, while certain readers of Field and Stream surely do). The Web has the potential to let marketers overcome this because, as an interactive medium, it can enable them to target their messages with surgical precision. Database technology can allow entirely unique webpages to be generated and served in moments based upon what is known about a viewer’s background, interests, and prior trajectory through a site. A site with a diverse audience can therefore direct one set of messages to high-school boys and a wholly different one to retired women. Or it could go further than this — after all, not all retired women are interested in precisely the same things — and present each visitor with an entirely unique message or experience.
Then, too, on the Web advertisers could do more than try to lodge an impression in a viewer’s mind and hope she followed up on it later, as was the case with television. They could rather present an advertisement as a clickable link that would take her instantly to their own site, which she could browse to learn far more about their products than she ever could from a one-minute commercial, which she might even be able to use to buy their products then and there — instant gratification for everyone involved.
Unlike so many Web firms before and after it, Yahoo! became profitable right away on the strength of reasoning like that. Even when Netscape pulled the site from Navigator at the end of 1995, replacing it with another one that was willing to pay dearly for the privilege — another sign of the changing times — it only briefly affected Yahoo!’s overall trajectory. As far as the mainstream media was concerned, Yang and Filo — these two scruffy graduate students who had built their company in a camping trailer — were the best business story since the rise of Netscape. If anything, Jerry Yang’s personal history made Yahoo! an even more compelling exemplar of the American Dream: he had come to the United States from Taiwan at the age of ten, when the only word of English he knew was “shoe.” When Yang showed that he could be every bit as charming as Marc Andreessen, that only made the story that much better.
Declaring that Yahoo! was a media rather than a technology company, Yang displayed a flair for branding one would never expect from a lifelong student: “It’s an article of culture. This differentiates Yahoo!, makes it cool, and gives it a market premium.” Somewhat ironically given its pitch that online advertising was intrinsically better than television advertising, Yahoo! became the first of the dot-com startups to air television commercials, all of which concluded with a Gene Autry -soundalike yodeling the name, an unavoidable ear worm for anyone who heard it. A survey conducted in 1996 revealed that half of all Americans already knew the brand name — a far larger percentage than that which had actually ventured online by that point. It seems safe to say that Yahoo! was the most recognizable of all the early Web brands, more so even than Netscape.
Trailblazing though Yahoo!’s business model was in many ways, its approach to its core competency seems disarmingly quaint today. Yahoo! wasn’t quite a search engine in the way we think of such things; it was rather a collection of sanctioned links, hand-curated and methodically organized by a small army of real human beings. Well before television commercials like the one above had begun to air, the dozens of “surfers” it employed — many of them with degrees in library science — had been relieved of the burden of needing to go out and find new sites for themselves by their own site’s ubiquity. Owners of sites which wished to be listed were expected to fill out a form, then wait patiently for a few days or weeks for someone to get to their request and, if it passed muster, slot it into Yahoo!’s ever-blossoming hierarchy.
The alternative approach, which was common among Yahoo!’s competitors even at the time, is to send out automated “web crawlers,” programs that jump from link to link, in order to index all of the content on the Web into a searchable database. But as far as many Netizens were concerned in the mid-1990s, that approach just didn’t work all that well. A search for “Oasis” on one of these sites was likely to show you hundreds of pages dealing with desert ecosystems, all jumbled together with those dealing with your favorite rock band. It would be some time before search engines would be developed that could divine what you were really looking for based on context, that could infer from your search for “Oasis band” that you really, really didn’t want to read about deserts at that particular moment. Search engines like the one around which Google would later build its empire require a form of artificial intelligence — still not the computer consciousness of the old “giant brain” model of computing, but a more limited, context-specific form of machine learning — that would not be quick or easy to develop. In the meantime, there was Yahoo! and its army of human librarians.
And there were also the first Internet IPOs. As ever, Netscape rode the crest of the Web wave, the standard bearer for all to follow. On the eve of its IPO of August 9, 1995, it was decided to price the shares at $28 each, giving a total value to the company of over $1 billion, even though its total revenues to date amounted to $17 million and its bottom line to date tallied a loss of $13 million. Nevertheless, when trading opened the share price immediately soared to $74.75. “It took General Dynamics 43 years to become a corporation worth today’s $2.7 billion,” wrote The Wall Street Journal. “It took Netscape Communications about a minute.”
Yahoo!’s turn came on April 12, 1996. Its shares were priced at $13 when the day’s trading opened, and peaked at $43 over the course of that first day, giving the company an implied value of $850 million.
It was the beginning of an era of almost incomprehensible wealth generated by the so-called “Internet stocks,” often for reasons that were hard for ordinary people to understand, given how opaque the revenue models of so many Web giants could be. Even many of the beneficiaries of the stock-buying frenzy struggled to wrap their heads around it all. “Take, say, a Chinese worker,” said Lou Montulli, a talented but also ridiculously lucky programmer at Netscape. “I’m probably worth a million times the average Chinese worker, or something like that. It’s difficult to rationalize the value there. I worked hard, but did I really work that hard? I mean, can anyone work that hard? Is it possible? Is anyone worth that much?” Four of the ten richest people in the world today according to Forbes magazine — including the two richest of all — can trace the origins of their fortunes directly to the dot-com boom of the 1990s. Three more were already in the computer industry before the boom, and saw their wealth exponentially magnified by it. (The founders I’ve profiled in this article are actually comparatively small fish today. Their rankings on the worldwide list of billionaires as of this writing range from 792 in the case of David Filo to 1717 for Marc Andreessen.)
And what was Tim Berners-Lee doing as people began to get rich from his creation? He did not, as some might have expected, decamp to Silicon Valley to start a company of his own. Nor did he accept any of the “special advisor” roles that were his for the taking at a multitude of companies eager to capitalize on the cachet of his name. He did leave CERN, but made it only as far as Boston, where he founded a non-profit World Wide Web Consortium in partnership with MIT and others. The W3C, as it would soon become known, was created to lead the defense of open standards against those corporate and governmental forces which were already demonstrating a desire to monopolize and balkanize the Web. At times, there would be reason to question who was really leading whom; the W3C would, for example, be forced to write into its HTML standard many of the innovations which Netscape had already unilaterally introduced into its industry-leading browser. Yet the organization has undoubtedly played a vital role in keeping the original ideal of the Web from giving way completely to the temptations of filthy lucre. Tim Berners-Lee remains to this day the only director the W3C has ever known.
So, while Marc Andreessen and Jerry Yang and their ilk were becoming the darlings of the business pages, were buying sports cars and attending the most exclusive parties, Tim Berners-Lee was riding a bus to work every day in Boston, just another anonymous commuter in a gray suit. It was fall when he first arrived in his new home, and so, as he says, “the bus ride gave me time to revel in New England’s autumnal colours.” Many over the years have found it hard to believe he wasn’t bitter that his name had become barely a footnote in the reckoning of the business-page pundits who were declaring the Web — correctly, it must be said — the most important development in mass media in their lifetimes. But he himself insists — believably, it must be said — that he was not and is not resentful over the way things played out.
People sometimes ask me whether I am upset that I have not made a lot of money from the Web. In fact, I made some quite conscious decisions about which way to take in life. Those I would not change. What does distress me, though, is how important a question it seems to be for some. This happens mostly in America, not Europe. What is maddening is the terrible notion that a person’s value depends on how important and financially successful they are, and that that is measured in terms of money. This suggests disrespect for the researchers across the globe developing ideas for the next leaps in science and technology. Core in my upbringing was a value system that put monetary gain well in its place, behind things like doing what I really want to do. To use net worth as a criterion by which to judge people is to set our children’s sights on cash rather than on things that will actually make them happy.
It can be occasionally frustrating to think about the things my family could have done with a lot of money. But in general I’m fairly happy to let other people be in the Royal Family role…
Perhaps Tim Berners-Lee is the luckiest of all the people whose names we still recognize from that go-go decade of the 1990s, being the one who succeeded in keeping his humanity most intact by never stepping onto the treadmill of wealth and attention and “disruption” and Forbes rankings. Heaven help those among us who are no longer able to feel the joy of watching nature change her colors around them.
In 1997, Robert H. Reid wrote that “the inevitable time will come when the Web’s dawning years will seem as remote as the pioneering days of film seem today. Today’s best and most lavishly funded websites will then look as naïve and primitive as the earliest silent movies.” Exactly this has indeed come to pass. And yet if we peer beneath the surface of the early Web’s garish aesthetics, most of what we find there is eerily familiar.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the explosion of the Web into the collective commercial and cultural consciousness is just how quickly it occurred. In the three and one quarter years between the initial release of the NCSA Mosaic browser and the Yahoo! IPO, a new digital society sprang into being, seemingly from nothing and nowhere. It brought with it all of the possibilities and problems we still wrestle with today. For example, the folks at Netscape, Yahoo!, and other startups were the first to confront the tension between free speech and hate speech online. (Straining to be fair to everyone, Yahoo! reluctantly decided to classify the Ku Klux Klan under the heading of “White Power” rather than “Fascism,” much less booting it off their site completely.) As we’ve seen, the Internet advertising business emerged from whole cloth during this time, along with all of the privacy concerns raised by its determination to track every single Netizen’s voyages in the name of better ad targeting. (It’s difficult to properly tell the story of this little-loved but enormously profitable branch of business in greater depth because it has always been shrouded in so much deliberate secrecy.) Worries about Web-based pornography and the millions of children and adolescents who were soon viewing it regularly took center stage in the mass media, both illuminating and obscuring a huge range of questions — largely still unanswered today — about what effect this had on their psychology. (“Something has to be done,” said one IBM executive who had been charged with installing computers in classrooms, “or children won’t be given access to the Web.”) And of course the tension between open standards and competitive advantage remains of potentially existential importance to the Web as we know it, even if the browser that threatens to swallow the open Web whole is now Google Chrome instead of Netscape Navigator.
All told, the period from 1993 to 1996 was the very definition of a formative one. And yet, as we’ve seen, the Web — this enormous tree of possibility that seemed to so many to sprout fully formed out of nothing — had roots stretching back centuries. If we have learned anything over the course of the last eleven articles, it has hopefully been that no technology lives in a vacuum. The World Wide Web is nothing more nor less than the latest realization of a dream of instantaneous worldwide communication that coursed through the verse of Aeschylus, that passed through Claude Chappe and Samuel Morse and Cyrus Field and Alexander Graham Bell among so many others. Tellingly, almost all of those people who accessed the Web from their homes during the 1990s did so by dialing into it, using modems attached to ordinary telephone lines — a validation not only of Claude Shannon’s truism that information is information but of all of the efforts that led to such a flexible and sophisticated telephone system in the first place. Like every great invention since at least the end of prehistory, the World Wide Web stands on the shoulders of those which came before it.
Was it all worth it? Did all the bright sparks we’ve met in these articles really succeed in, to borrow one of the more odious clichés to come out of Silicon Valley jargon, “making the world a better place?” Clichés aside, I think it was, and I think they did. For all that the telegraph, the telephone, the Internet, and the World Wide Web have plainly not succeeded in creating the worldwide utopia that was sometimes promised by their most committed evangelists, I think that communication among people and nations is always preferable to the lack of same.
And with that said, it is now time to end this extended detour into the distant past — to end it here, with J.C.R. Licklider’s dream of an Intergalactic Computer Network a reality, and right on the schedule he proposed. But of course what I’ve written in this article isn’t really an end; it’s barely the beginning of what the Web came to mean to the world. As we step back into the flow of things and return to talking about digital culture and interactive entertainment on a more granular, year-by-year basis, the Web will remain an inescapable presence for us, being the place where virtually all digital culture lived after 1995 or so. I look forward to seeing it continue to evolve in real time, and to grappling alongside all of you with the countless Big Questions it will continue to pose for us.
(Sources: the books A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet by John Naughton, Communication Networks: A Concise Introduction by Jean Walrand and Shyam Parekh, Weaving the Web by Tim Berners-Lee, and Architects of the Web by Robert H. Reid. Online sources include the Pew Research Center’s “World Wide Web Timeline” and Forbes‘s up-to-the-minute billionaires scoreboard.)