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A Time of Endings, Part 2: Epyx

On a beautiful May day in 1987, Epyx held a party behind their offices to celebrate the completion of California Games, the fifth and latest in their hugely popular Games line of sports titles. To whatever extent their skills allowed, employees and their families tried to imitate the athletes portrayed in the new game, riding skateboards, throwing Frisbees, or kicking around a Hacky Sack. Meanwhile a professional BMX freestyler and a professional skateboarder did tricks to show them how it was really done. The partiers dressed in the most outrageous beachwear they could muster — typically for this hyper-competitive company, their outfits were judged for prizes — while the sound of the Beach Boys and the smell of grilling hamburgers and hotdogs filled the air. Folks from the other offices around Epyx’s came out to look on a little wistfully, doubtless wishing their company was as fun as this one. A good time was had by all, a memory made of one of those special golden days which come along from time to time to be carried along with us for the rest of our lives.

Although no one realized it at the time, that day marked the high-water point of Epyx. By 1990, their story would for all practical purposes be over, the company having gone from a leading light of its industry to a bankrupt shell at the speed of business.

In the spring of 1987, Epyx was the American games industry’s great survivor, the oldest company still standing this side of Atari and the one which had gone through the most changes over its long — by the standards of a very young industry, that is — lifespan. Epyx had been founded by John Connelly and Jon Freeman, a couple of tabletop role-players and wargaming grognards interested in computerizing their hobbies, way back in 1978 under the considerably less exciting name of Automated Simulations. They hit paydirt the following year with Temple of Apshai, the most popular CRPG of the genre’s primordial period. Automated Simulations did well for a while on the back of that game and a bevy of spinoffs and sequels created using the same engine, but after the arrival of the more advanced Wizardry and Ultima their cruder games found it difficult to compete. In 1983, a major management shakeup came to the moribund company at the behest of a consortium of investors, who put in charge the hard-driving Michael Katz, a veteran of the cutthroat business of toys. Katz acquired a company called Starpath, populated by young and highly skilled assembly-language programmers, to complete the transformation of the stodgy Automated Simulations into the commercially aggressive Epyx. In 1984, with the release of the huge hits Summer Games and Impossible Mission, the company’s new identity as purveyors of slick action-based entertainments for the Commodore 64, the most popular gaming platform of the time, was cemented. One Gilbert Freeman (no relation to Jon Freeman) replaced Katz as Epyx’s president and CEO shortly thereafter, but the successful template his predecessor had established remained unchanged right through 1987.

By 1987, however, Freeman was beginning to view his company’s future with some trepidation despite the commercial success they were still enjoying. The new California Games, destined for yet more commercial success though it was, was ironically emblematic of the long-term problems with Epyx’s current business model. California Games pushed the five-year-old Commodore 64’s audiovisual hardware farther than had any previous Epyx game — which is to say, given Epyx’s reputation as the absolute masters of Commodore 64 graphics and sound, farther than virtually any other game ever released for the platform, period. This was of course wonderful in terms of this particular game’s commercial prospects, but it carried with it the implicit question of what Epyx could do next, for even their most technically creative programmers were increasingly of the opinion that they were reaching an end point where they had used every possible trick and simply couldn’t find any new ways to dazzle. For a company so dependent on audiovisual dazzle as Epyx, this was a potentially deadly endgame.

Very much in tandem with the question of how much longer it would be possible to continue pushing the audiovisual envelope on the Commodore 64 ran concerns about the longevity of the platform in general. Jack Tramiel’s little computer for the masses had sold more and longer than anyone could ever have predicted, but the ride couldn’t go on forever. While Epyx released their games for other platforms as well, they remained as closely identified with the Commodore 64 as, say, Cinemaware was with the Commodore Amiga, with the 64 accounting for well over half of their sales most quarters. When that market finally took the dive many had been predicting for it for years now, where would that leave Epyx?

Dave Morse

It was for these big-picture reasons that Freeman brought a man with a reputation for big-picture vision onto Epyx’s board in January of 1987. All but unknown though he was to the general public, among those working in the field of home computers Dave Morse had the reputation of a veritable miracle worker. Just a few years before, he had found ways to let the brilliant engineering team at Amiga, Incorporated, create a computer as revolutionary in its way as the Apple Macintosh on a budget that would barely have paid Steve Jobs’s annual salary. And then, in a coup worthy of The Sting, he’d proceeded to fleece Atari of the prize and sail the ship of Amiga into the (comparatively) safe harbor of Commodore Business Machines. If, as Freeman was starting to suspect, it was going to become necessary to completely remake and remodel Epyx for a second time in the near future, Morse ought to be a darn good man to have on his team.

And indeed, Morse didn’t fail to impress at his first Epyx board meetings. In fact, he impressed so much that Freeman soon decided to cede much of his own power to him. He brought Morse on full-time as CEO to help run the company as an equal partner in May of 1987, the very month of the California Games cookout. But California Games on the Commodore 64 was the present, likely all too soon to be the past. For Freeman, Morse represented Epyx’s future.

Morse had a vision for that future that was as audacious as Freeman could possibly have wished. In the months before coming to Epyx, he had been talking a lot with RJ Mical and Dave Needle, two of his star engineers from Amiga, Incorporated, in the fields of software and hardware respectively. Specifically, they’d been discussing the prospects for a handheld videogame console. Handheld videogames of a sort had enjoyed a brief bloom of popularity in the very early 1980s, at the height of the first great videogame boom when anything that beeped or squawked was en vogue with the country’s youth. Those gadgets, however, had been single-purpose devices capable of playing only one game — and, because it was difficult to pack much oomph into such a small form factor, said game usually wasn’t all that compelling anyway. But chip design and fabrication had come a long way in the past five years or so. Mical and Needle believed that the time was ripe for a handheld device that would be a gaming platform in its own right, capable of playing many titles published on cartridges, just like the living-room-based consoles that had boomed and then busted so spectacularly in 1983. For that reason alone, Morse faced an uphill climb with the venture capitalists; this was still the pre-Nintendo era when the conventional wisdom held videogame consoles to be dead. Yet when he joined the Epyx board he found a very sympathetic ear for his scheme in none other than Epyx President Gilbert Freeman.

In fact, Freeman was so excited by the idea that he was willing to bet the company on it; thus Morse’s elevation to CEO. The plan was to continue to sell traditional computer games while Mical and Needle, both of whom Morse hired immediately after his own appointment, got down to the business of making what everybody hoped would be their second revolutionary machine of the decade. It would all happen in secret, while Morse dropped only the vaguest public hints that “it is important to be able to think in new directions.” This was by any measure a very new direction for Epyx. Unlike most game publishers, they weren’t totally inexperienced making hardware: a line of high-end joysticks, advertised as the perfect complement to their games, had done well for them. Still, it was a long way from making joysticks to making an entirely new game console in such a radically new form factor. They would have to lean very heavily on Morse’s two star engineers, who couldn’t help but notice a certain ironic convergence about their latest situation: Amiga, Incorporated, had also sold joysticks among other gaming peripherals in an effort to fund the development of the Amiga computer.

R.J. Mical and Dave Needle in a very… disturbing picture. Really, perhaps it’s best if we don’t know any more about what’s going on here.

RJ Mical and Dave Needle were a pair of willfully eccentric peas in a pod; one journalist called them the Laurel and Hardy of Silicon Valley. While they had worked together at Amiga for quite some time by June of 1984, the two dated the real genesis of their bond to that relatively late date. When Amiga was showing their Lorraine prototype that month at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, they found themselves working together really closely for the first time, doing some jerry-rigging to get everything working for the demonstrations. They discovered that they understood each other in a way that “software guys” and “hardware guys” usually do not. “He was the first software guy I ever met,” remembered Needle in a joint 1989 interview, “who had more than an inkling of the real purpose of my work, which is building hardware platforms that you can launch software from.” “I could never get hardware guys to understand what I was doing,” interrupted Mical at this point in the same interview. “Dave couldn’t get software guys to understand what the guts could handle. We found ourselves a great match.” From that point forward, they were inseparable, as noted for their practical jokes and wacky antics as for their engineering brilliance. It was a true meeting of the minds, the funny bones, and, one might even say, the hearts. As illustrated by the exchange I’ve just quoted, they became the kind of friends who freely complete each other’s thoughts without pissing each other off.

The design they sketched for what they liked to call the “Potato” — for that was envisioned as its rough size and shape — bore much the same philosophical stamp as their work with Amiga. To keep the size and power consumption down, the Potato was to be built around the aged old 8-bit 6502, the chip at the heart of the Commodore 64, rather than a newer CPU like the Amiga’s 68000. But, as in the Amiga, the chip at the Potato’s core was surrounded with custom hardware designed to alleviate as much of the processing burden as possible, including a blitter for fast animation and a four-channel sound chip that came complete with digital-to-analog converters for playing back sampled sounds and voices. (In the old Amiga tradition, the two custom chips were given the names “Suzy” and “Mikey.”) The 3.5-inch LCD display, with a palette of 4096 colors (the same as the Amiga) and a resolution of 160 X 102, was the most technologically cutting-edge and thus for many months the most problematic feature of the design; Epyx would wind up buying the technology to make it from the Japanese watchmaker Citizen, who had created it as the basis for a handheld television but had yet to use it in one of their own products. Still, perhaps the Potato’s most innovative and impressive feature of all was the port that let you link it up with your mates’ machines for multiplayer gaming. (Another visionary proposed feature was an accelerometer that would have let you play games by tilting the entire unit rather than manipulating the controls, but it would ultimately prove just too costly to include. Ditto a port to let you connect the Potato to your television.)

While few would question the raw talent of Mical and Needle and the small team they assembled to help them make the Potato, this sort of high-wire engineering is always expensive. Freeman and Morse estimated that they would need about two years and $4 million to bring the Potato from a sketch to a finished product ready to market in consumer-electronics stores. Investing this much in the project, it seemed to Freeman and Morse, should be manageable based on Epyx’s current revenue stream, and should be a very wise investment at that. Licking their chops over the anticipated worldwide mobile-gaming domination to come, they publicly declared that Epyx, whose total sales had amounted to $27 million in 1987, would be a $100 million company by 1990.

At first, everything went according to plan. Upon its release in the early summer of 1987, California Games became the hit everyone had been so confidently anticipating. Indeed, it sold more than 300,000 copies in its first nine months and then just kept on selling, becoming Epyx’s biggest hit ever. But after that nothing else ever went quite right for Epyx’s core business. Few inside or outside of the company could have guessed that California Games, Epyx’s biggest hit, would also mark the end of the company’s golden age.

From the time of their name change and associated remaking up through California Games, Epyx had been almost uniquely in touch with the teenage boys who bought the vast majority of Commodore 64 games. “We don’t simply invent games that we like and hope for the best,” said Morse, parroting Epyx’s official company line shortly after his arrival there. “Instead, we pay attention to current trends that are of interest to teenagers. It’s similar to consumer research carried out by other companies, except we’re aiming for a very specific group.” After California Games, though — in fact, even as Morse was making this statement — Epyx lost the plot of what had made the Games line so successful. Like an aging rock star grown fat and complacent, they decided to join the Establishment.

When they had come up with the idea of making Summer Games to capitalize on the 1984 Summer Olympics, Epyx had been in no position to pay for an official Olympic license, even had Atari not already scooped that up. Instead they winged it, producing what amounted to an Olympics with the serial numbers filed away. Summer Games had all the trappings — opening and closing ceremonies; torches; national anthems; medals of gold, silver, and bronze — alongside the Olympic events themselves. What very few players likely noticed, though, was that it had all these things without ever actually using the word “Olympics” or the famous (and zealously guarded) five-ring Olympic logo.

Far from being a detriment, the lack of an official license had a freeing effect on Epyx. Whilst hewing to the basic templates of the sports in question, they produced more rough-and-ready versions of same — more the way the teenage boys who dominated among their customers would have liked the events to be than the somewhat more staid Olympic realities. Even that original Summer Games, which looked itself a little staid and graphically crude in contrast to what would follow, found room for flashes of wit and whimsy. Players soon learned to delight in an athlete — hopefully not the one they were controlling — landing on her head after a gymnastics vault, or falling backward and cracking up spectacularly instead of clearing the pole vault. Atari, who had the official Olympic license, produced more respectful — read, boring — implementations of the Olympics that didn’t sell particularly well, while Summer Games blew up huge.

Seeing how postively their players responded to this sort of thing, Epyx pushed ever further into the realm of the fanciful in their later Games iterations. World Games and California Games, the fourth and fifth title in the line respectively, abandoned the Olympics conceit entirely in favor of gathering up a bunch of weird and wild sports that the designers just thought would be fun to try on a computer. In a final act of Olympics sacrilege, California Games even dropped the national anthems in favor of having you play for the likes of Ocean Pacific or Kawasaki. As California Games so amply demonstrated, the Games series as a whole had never had as much to do with the Olympics or even sports in general as it did with contemporary teenage culture.

But now Epyx saw another Olympics year fast approaching (during this period, the Winter and Summer Olympics were still held during the same year rather than being staggered two years apart as they are today) and decided to come full circle and then some, to make a pair of Games games shrouded in the legitimacy that the original Summer Games had lacked. Epyx, in other words, would become the 1988 Olympics’s version of Atari. In October of 1987, they signed a final contract of over 40 pages with the United States Olympic Committee (if ever a gold medal were to be awarded in legalese and bureaucratic nitpicking, the Olympic Games themselves would have to be prime contenders). Not only would Epyx have to pay a 10 percent royalty to the Olympic Committee for every copy of The Games: Winter Edition and The Games: Summer Edition that they sold, but the same Committee would have veto rights over every aspect of the finished product. Giving such authority to such a famously non-whimsical body inevitably spelled the death of the series’s heretofore trademark sense of whimsy. While working on the luge event a developer came up with the idea of sending the luger hurling out of the trough and into outer space after a major crash. The old Epyx would have been all over it with gusto. But no, said the stubbornly humorless Committee in their usual literal-minded fashion, lugers don’t ever exit the trough when they crash, they only spill over inside it, and that’s how the computer game has to be as well.

When The Games: Winter Edition appeared right on schedule along with the Winter Olympics themselves in February of 1988, it did very well out of the gate, just like any other Games game. Yet in time the word spread through the adolescent grapevine that this latest Games just wasn’t as much fun as the older ones. In addition to the stifling effect of the Olympic Committee’s bureaucracy, its development had been rushed; because of the need to release the Winter Edition to coincide with the real Winter Olympics, it had had to go from nothing to boxed finished product in just five months. The Summer Edition, which appeared later in the year to coincide with the Summer Olympics, was in some ways a better outing, what with Epyx having had a bit more time to work on it. But something was still missing. California Games, a title Epyx’s core teenage demographic loved for all the reasons they didn’t love the two stodgy new officially licensed Games, easily outsold both of them despite being in its second year on the market. That was, of course, good in its way. But would the same buyers turn out to buy the next big Games title in the wake of the betrayal so many of them had come to see the two most recent efforts to represent? It wasn’t clear that they would.

The disappointing reception of these latest Games, then, was a big cause of concern for Epyx as 1988 wore on. Their other major cause for worry was more generalized, more typical of their industry as a whole. As we’ve seen in an earlier article, 1988 was the year that the Nintendo Entertainment System went from being a gathering storm on the horizon to a full-blown cyclone sweeping across the American gaming landscape. Epyx was hardly alone among publishers in feeling the Nintendo’s effect, but they were all too well positioned to get the absolute worst of it. While they had, generally with mixed results, made occasional forays into other genres, the bulk of their sales since the name change had always come from their action-oriented games for the Commodore 64 — the industry’s low-end platform, one whose demographics skewed even younger than the norm. The sorts of teenage and pre-teen boys who had once played on the Commodore 64 were exactly the ones who now flocked to the Nintendo in droves. The Christmas of 1988 marked the tipping point; it was at this point that the Nintendo essentially destroyed the Commodore 64 as a viable platform. “Games can be done better on the 64 than on a Nintendo,” insisted Morse, but fewer and fewer people were buying his argument. By this point, many American publishers and developers had begun to come to Nintendo, hat in hand, asking for permission to publish on the platform, but this Epyx refused to do, being determined to hold out for their own handheld console.

It’s not as if the Commodore 64’s collapse entirely sneaked up on Epyx. As I noted earlier, Gilbert Freeman had been aware it might be in the offing even before he had hired Dave Morse as CEO. Over the course of 1987 and 1988, Epyx had set up a bulwark of sorts on the higher-end platforms with a so-called “Masters Collection” of more high-toned and cerebral titles, similar to the ones that were continuing to sell quite well for some other publishers despite the Nintendo onslaught. (The line included a submarine simulator, an elaborate CRPG, etc.) They also started a line of personal-creativity software similar to Electronic Arts’s “Deluxe” line, and began importing ever more European action games to sell as budget titles to low-end customers. All told, their total revenues for 1988 actually increased robustly over that of the year before, from $27 million to $36 million. Yet such figures can be deceiving. Because this total was generated from many more products, with all the extra expenses that implied, the ultimate arbiter of net profits on computer software plunged instead of rising commensurately. Other ventures were truly misguided by any standard. Like a number of other publishers, Epyx launched forays into the interactive VCR-based systems that were briefly all the rage as substitutes for Phillips’s long-promised but still undelivered CD-I system. They might as well have just set fire to that money. The Epyx of earlier years had had a recognizable identity, which the Epyx of 1988 had somehow lost. There was no thematic glue binding their latest products together.

R.J. Mical with a work-in-progress version of the Handy.

Meanwhile Epyx was investing hugely in games for the Potato — investing just about as much money in Potato software, in fact, as they were pouring into the hardware. Accounts of just how much the Potato’s development ended up costing Epyx vary, ranging from $4 million to $8 million and up. I suspect that, when viewed in terms of both hardware and software development, the figure quite likely skews into the double digits.

Whatever the exact numbers, as the curtain came up on 1989 Dave Morse, RJ Mical, and Dave Needle found themselves in a position all too familiar from the old days with Amiga, Incorporated. They had another nascent revolution in silicon in the form of the Potato, which had reached the prototype stage and was to be publicly known as the Epyx Handy. Yet their company’s finances were hopelessly askew. If the Handy was to become an actual product, it looked like Morse would need to pull off another miracle.

So, he did what he had done for the Amiga Lorraine. In a tiny private auditorium behind Epyx’s public booth at the January 1989 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, the inventors of the Handy showed it off to a select group of representatives from other companies, all of whom were required to sign a strict non-disclosure agreement before seeing what was still officially a top-secret project, even though rumors of the Handy’s existence had been spreading like wildfire for months now. The objective was to find a partner to help manufacture and market the Handy — or, perhaps better, a buyer for the entire troubled company. Nintendo had a look, but passed; they had a handheld console of their own in the works which would emerge later in the year as the Nintendo Game Boy. Sega also passed. In fact, just about everyone passed, as they had on the Amiga Lorraine, until Morse was left with just one suitor. And, incredibly, it was the very same suitor as last time: Atari. Déjà vu all over again.

On the positive side, this Atari was a very different company from the 800-pound gorilla that had tried to seize the Lorraine and carve it up into its component parts five years before. On the negative, this Atari was run by Jack Tramiel, Mr. “Business is War” himself, the man who had tied up Commodore in court for years after Atari’s would-be acquisition of the Amiga Lorraine had become Commodore’s. From Tramiel’s perspective, getting a stake in a potential winner like the Handy made a lot of sense; his Atari really didn’t have that much going for it at all at that point beyond a fairly robust market for their ST line in Europe and an ongoing trickle of nostalgia-fueled sales of their vintage game consoles in North America. Atari had missed out almost entirely on the great second wave of videogame consoles, losing the market they had once owned to Nintendo and Sega. If mobile gaming was destined to be the next big thing, this was the perfect way to get into that space without having to invest money Atari didn’t have into research and development.

For his part, Morse certainly knew even as he pulled the trigger on the deal that he was getting into bed with the most devious man in consumer electronics, but he didn’t see that he had much choice. He could only shoot from the hip, as he had five years before, and hope it would all work out in the end. The deal he struck from a position of extreme weakness — nobody could smell blood in the water quite like Jack Tramiel — would see the Handy become an Atari product in the eyes of the marketplace. Atari would buy the Handy hardware design from Epyx, put their logo on it, and would take over responsibility for its manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. Epyx would remain the “software partner” only, responsible for delivering an initial suite of launch titles and a steady stream of desirable games thereafter. No one at Epyx was thrilled at the prospect of giving away their baby this way, but, again, the situation was what it was.

At this point in our history, it becomes my sad duty as your historian to acknowledge that I simply don’t know precisely what went down next between Atari and Epyx. The source I’ve been able to find that dates closest to the events in question is the “Roomers” column of the December 1989 issue of the magazine Amazing Computing. According to it, the deal was structured at Tramiel’s demand as a series of ongoing milestone payments from Atari to Epyx as the latter met their obligations to deliver to the former the finished Handy in production-ready form. Epyx, the column claims, was unable to deliver the cable used for linking two Handys together for play in the time frame specified in the contract, whereupon Atari cancelled a desperately needed $2 million payment as well as all the ones that were to follow. The Handy, Atari said, was now theirs thanks to Epyx’s breach of contract; Epyx would just have to wait for the royalties on the Handy games they were still under contract to deliver to get more money out of Atari. In no condition to engage Atari in a protracted legal battle, Epyx felt they had no choice but to concede and continue to play along with the company that had just stolen their proudest achievement from them.

Dave Needle, who admittedly had plenty of axes to grind with Atari, told a slight variation of this tale many years later, saying that the crisis hinged on Epyx’s software rather than hardware efforts. It seems that Epyx had sixty days to fix any bugs that were discovered after the initial delivery of each game to Atari. But, according to Needle, “Atari routinely waited until the end of the time period to comment on the Epyx fixes. There was then inadequate time for Epyx to make the fixes.” Within a few months of inking the deal, Atari used a petty violation like this to withhold payment from Epyx, who, of course, needed that money now. At last, Atari offered them a classic Jack Tramiel ultimatum: accept one more lump-sum payout — Needle didn’t reveal the amount — or die on the vine.

A music programmer who went by the name of “Lx Rudis” is perhaps the closest thing to an unbiased source we can hope to find; he worked for Epyx while the Handy was under development, then accepted a job with Atari, where he says he was “close” with Jack Tramiel’s sons Sam and Leonard, both of whom played important roles within their father’s company. “The terms [of the contract] were quite strict,” he says. “Epyx was unable to meet all points, and Atari was able to withhold a desperately needed milestone payment. In the chaos that ensued, everyone got laid off and I guess Atari’s lawyers and Epyx’s lawyers worked out a ‘compromise’ where Atari got the Handy.”

No smoking gun in the form of any actual paperwork has ever surfaced to my knowledge, leaving us with only anecdotal accounts like these from people who weren’t the ones signing the contracts and making the deals. What we do know is that Epyx by the end of 1989 was bankrupt, while Atari owned the Handy outright — or at least acted as if they did. Although it’s possible that Tramiel was guilty of nothing more than driving a hard bargain, his well-earned reputation as a dirty dealer does make it rather difficult to give him the benefit of too much doubt. Certainly lots of people at Epyx were left feeling very ill-served indeed. Dave Morse had tried to tweak the tiger’s tail a second time, and this time he had gotten mauled. As should have been part of the core curriculum at every business school by this point: don’t sign any deal, ever, with Jack Tramiel.

Dave Morse, RJ Mical and Dave Needle walked away from the whole affair disgusted and disillusioned, having seen their baby kidnapped by the man they had come to regard as Evil incarnated in an ill-fitting pinstriped suit. Their one bitter consolation was that the Handy development system they’d built could run only on an Amiga. Thus Atari would have to buy dozens of specimens of the arch-rival platform for internal use, and suffer the indignity of telling their development licensees that they too would need to buy Amigas to make their games. It wasn’t much, but, hey, at least it was something to hold onto.

The erstwhile Epyx Handy made its public debut at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1989 as the Atari Portable Entertainment System. But when someone pointed out that that name would inevitably get abbreviated to “APES,” Atari moved on from it, finally settling on the name of “Lynx,” a sly reference to the ability to link the machines together via cable for multiplayer action. Thus christened, the handheld console shipped on September 1, 1989. Recent unpleasantness aside, Mical and Needle had good cause to be proud of their work. One far-seeing Atari executive said that the Lynx had the potential to become a revolutionary hit on the level of the Sony Walkman of 1979, the product which largely created the idea of personal portable electronics as we think of them today. Now it was up to Atari to realize that potential.

The Nintendo Game Boy and the Atari Lynx

That part of the equation, alas, didn’t go as well as Atari had hoped. Just one month before the Lynx, Nintendo of America had released the Game Boy, their own handheld console. Purely as a piece of kit, the black-and-white-only Game Boy wasn’t a patch on the Lynx. But then, Nintendo has always thrived by transcending technical specifications, and the Game Boy proved no exception to that rule. Like all of their products, it was laser-targeted to the needs and desires of the burgeoning Generation Nintendo, with a price tag of just $90, battery life long enough to get you through an entire school week of illicit playing under the desk, a size small enough to slip into a coat pocket, and a selection of well-honed launch games designed to maximize its strengths. Best of all, every Game Boy came bundled with a copy of Tetris, an insanely addictive little puzzle game that became a veritable worldwide obsession, the urtext of casual mobile gaming as we’ve come to know it today; many a child’s shiny new Game Boy ended up being monopolized by a Tetris-addled parent.

The Lynx, by contrast, was twice as expensive as the Game Boy, ate its AA batteries at a prodigious rate, was bigger and chunkier than the Game Boy, and offered just three less-than-stellar games to buy beyond the rather brilliant Epyx port of California Games that came included in the box. Weirdly, its overall fit and finish also lagged far behind the cheap but rugged little Game Boy. Atari struggled mightily to find suppliers who could deliver the Lynx’s components on time and on budget with acceptable quality control. According to RJ Mical — again, not the most unbiased of sources — this was largely a case of Jack Tramiel’s chickens coming home to roost. “The new ownership of the Lynx had really bad reputations with hardware manufacturers in Asia and with software developers all over the world,” says Mical. “Suddenly all those sweet deals we’d made for low-cost parts for the Lynx dried up on them. They’d be like, ‘We remember you from five years ago. Guess what — the price just doubled!'” Mical claims that a “magnificent library” of Lynx games, the result of many deals Epyx had made with outside developers, fell by the wayside as soon as the developers in question learned that they’d have to deal from now on with Jack Tramiel instead of Dave Morse.

California Games on the Lynx’s (tiny) screen.

In the face of these disadvantages, the Lynx wasn’t the complete failure one could so easily imagine it becoming. It remained in production for more than five years, over the course of which it sold nearly 3 million units to buyers who wanted a little more from their mobile games than what the Game Boy could offer. By most measures, the Atari Lynx was a fairly successful product. It suffers only by comparison with the Game Boy, which spent an astonishing total of almost fifteen years in production and sold an even more astonishing 118.69 million units, becoming in the process Nintendo’s biggest single success story of all; in the end, Nintendo sold nearly twice as many Game Boys as they did of the original Nintendo Entertainment System that had done such a number on Epyx’s software business. So, a handheld game console did become worthy of mention in the same breath as the Sony Walkman, but it wasn’t the Atari Lynx; it was the Nintendo Game Boy.

Needless to say, Dave Morse’s old plan to make Epyx a $100 million company by 1990 didn’t come to fruition. In addition to all their travails with Atari, the Commodore 64 market, the old heart of their strength, had imploded like a pricked balloon. After peaking at 145 employees in 1988, when work on the Handy as well as games for it was buzzing, frantic layoffs brought Epyx’s total down to less than 20 by the end of 1989, at which point the firm, vowing to soldier on in spite of it all, went through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Just to add insult to the mortal injury Jack Tramiel had done them, they came out of the bankruptcy still under contract to deliver games for the Lynx. Indeed, doing so offered their only realistic hope of survival, slim though it was, and so they told the world they were through developing for computers and turned what meager resources they had left entirely to the Lynx. They wouldn’t even be a publisher in their own right anymore, relying instead on Atari to sell and distribute their games for them. Tramiel had, as the kids say today, thoroughly pwned them.

This zombie version of Epyx shambled on for a disconcertingly long time, plotting always for ways to become relevant to someone again without ever quite managing it. It finally lay down for the last time in 1993, when the remnants of the company were bought up by Bridgestone Media Group, a Christian advocacy organization with ties to one of Epyx’s few remaining employees. By this time, the real “end of the Epyx era,” as Computer Gaming World editor Johnny Wilson put it, had come long ago. In 1993, the name “Epyx” felt as much like an anachronism as the Commodore 64.

What, then, shall we say in closing about Epyx? If Cinemaware, the subject of my last article, was the prototypical Amiga developer, Epyx has a solid claim to the same title in the case of the Commodore 64. As with Cinemaware, manifold and multifarious mistakes were made at Epyx that led directly to the company’s death, mistakes so obvious in hindsight that there seems little point in belaboring them any further here. (Don’t try to design, manufacture, and launch an entirely new gaming platform if you don’t have deep pockets and a rock-solid revenue stream, kids!) They bit off far more than they could chew with the Handy. Combined with their failure to create a coherent identity for themselves in the post-Commodore 64 computer-games industry, it spelled their undoing.

And yet, earnest autopsying aside, when all is said and done it does feel somehow appropriate that Epyx should have for all intents and purposes died along with their favored platform. For a generation of teenage boys, the Epyx years were those between 1984 and 1988, corresponding with the four or five dominant years which the Commodore 64 enjoyed as the most popular gaming platform in North America. It seems safe to say that as long as any of that generation remain on the planet, the name of Epyx will always bring back memories of halcyon summer days of yore spent gathered with mates around the television, joysticks in hand. Summer Games indeed.

(Sources: Questbusters of November 1989; ACE of May 1990; Retro Gamer 18 and 129; Commodore Magazine of July 1988 and August 1989; Small Business Report of February 1988; San Francisco Business Times of July 25 1988; Amazing Computing of June 1988, November 1988, March 1989, April 1989, June 1989, August 1989, November 1989, December 1989, January 1990, and February 1990; Info of November/December 1989; Games Machine of March 1989 and January 1990; Compute!’s Gazette of April 1988; Compute! of November 1987 and September 1988; Computer Gaming World of November 1989, December 1989, and November 1991; Electronic Gaming Monthly of September 1989. Online sources include articles on US Gamer, Now Gamer, Wired, and The Atari Times. My huge thanks to Alex Smith, who shared his take on Epyx’s collapse with me along with some of the sources listed above.)

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Evolution of the (Epyx) Games

The American home-computer industry entered 1987 feeling more optimistic than it had in several years. With the bloodletting of 1985 now firmly in the past, there was a sense amongst the survivors that they had proved themselves the fittest and smartest. If the ebullient a-computer-for-every-home predictions of 1983 weren’t likely to be repeated anytime soon, it was also true that the question on everybody’s lips back in 1985, of whether there would even still be a home-computer industry come 1987, felt equally passé. No, the home-computer industry wasn’t going anywhere. It was just too much an established thing now. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as mainstream as television, but it had built a base of loyal customers and a whole infrastructure to serve them. And with so many companies having dropped by the wayside, there was now again the potential to make a pretty good living there. The economic correction to a new middle way was just about complete. The industry, in other words, was beginning to grow up — and thank God for it. Even Atari and Commodore, the two most critical hardware players in the field of low-cost computing, had seemingly gotten their act together after being all but left for dead a couple of years ago; both were beginning to post modest profits again.

The mood of the industry was, as usual, reflected by the trade shows. The second of the two big shows that served as the linchpin of every year on the circuit, the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago in June, was a particularly exciting place to be, with more and more elaborate displays than had been seen there in a long, long time. Compute! magazine couldn’t help but compare it to “the go-go days of 1983,” but also was quick to note that “introductions are positioned to avoid any repeat of the downturn.” “Excited but wiser” could have served as the slogan of the show. But an even better slogan for entertainment-software publishers in particular might have been, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I’ve been writing quite a lot in recent articles about the new generation of 68000-based machines that were causing so much excitement. Yet the fact is that the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga were little more than aspirational dreams for the majority of the mostly young people actually buying games. The heart of that market remained the cheaper, tried-and-true 8-bit machines which continued to outsell their flashier younger brothers by factors of five or ten to one. And the most popular 8-bit machine had remained the same since 1983: the Commodore 64. A chart published in the December 1986 Compute! gives a sense of the state of the industry at the time.

U.S. Home Computer Market -- 1986

If anything, this chart undersells the importance of the Commodore 64 and its parent company to the games industry. Plenty of those IBMs and Apples, as well as the “Other” category, made up mostly of PC clones, were being used in home offices and the like, playing games if at all only as an occasional sideline. The vast majority of Commodores 64s, however, were being used primarily or exclusively as games machines. Many a publisher that dutifully ported their titles to each of the six or seven commercially viable platforms found that well over half of their sales were racked up by the Commodore 64 versions alone. No wonder so many made it their first and sometimes only target. Not all were thrilled about this state of affairs; with its antiquated BASIC, chunky 40-column text, and molasses-slow disk drives the Commodore 64 was far from a favorite of many programmers, so much so that a surprising number developed elaborate cross-compiler setups to let them write their 64 programs anywhere else but on an actual 64. Many others who had had personal dealings with Commodore, particularly in the double-crossing bad old days of Jack Tramiel, simply hated the company and by extension its products on principle. Yet you couldn’t hate them too much: fact was that the 64 was the main reason there still was any games industry to speak of in 1987.

Already the best-selling microcomputer in history well before 1987, the Commodore 64 just kept on selling, with sales hitting 7 million that year. Meanwhile sales of the newer Commodore 128 that could also play 64 games cruised past 1 million. This continued success was a tribute to the huge catalog of available games. As Bing Gordon of Electronic Arts put it, “The Commodore 64 is the IBM of home computing; no one thinks you’re dumb if you buy it.” Of course, this aberrational era when a full-fledged computer rather than a games console was the most popular way to play games in the country couldn’t last forever. Anyone sufficiently prescient could already see the writing on the wall by wandering to other areas of that Summer CES show floor, where an upstart console from Japan called the Nintendo Entertainment System was coming on strong, defying the conventional wisdom of just a year or two before that consoles were dead and buried. But for now, for just a little while longer, the Commodore 64 was still king, and Summer CES reflected also that reality with a final great flowering of games. Love it or hate it, programmers knew the 64 more intimately by 1987 than they possibly can the complex systems of today. They knew its every nook and cranny, its every quirk and glitch, and exploited all of them in the course of pushing the little breadbox to places that would have been literally unimaginable when it had made its debut five years before; plenty of games and other software stole ideas from the bigger, newer machines that simply didn’t yet exist to steal in 1982.

Starting today, I want to devote a few articles to chronicling the Commodore 64 at its peak, as represented by the games and companies on display at that 1987 Summer CES. We’ll start with Epyx, whose display was amongst the most elaborate on the show floor, an ersatz beach complete with sand, surfboards, Frisbees, and even a living palm tree. It was all in service of something called California Games, the fifth and newest entry in a series that would go down in history as the most sustainedly popular in the long life of the Commodore 64. If we were to try to name a peak moment for Epyx and their Games series, it would have to be the same as that for the platform with which they were so closely identified: Summer CES, June 1987.

You can get a pretty good sense of the advancement of Commodore 64 graphics and sound during its years as the king of North American gaming just by looking at the Games series. In fact, that’s exactly what we’re going to do today. We’re going to take a little tour of four of the five Games, hitting on just a couple of events from each that will hopefully give us a good overview of just how much Commodore 64 graphics and sound, along with gamer expectations of same, evolved during the years of the platform’s ascendency. These titles were so popular, so identified with the Commodore 64, that they strike me as the perfect choice for the purpose. And they also occupy a soft spot in my heart as games designed to be played with others; they’re really not that much fun played alone, but they can still be ridiculously entertaining today if you can gather one to seven friends in your living room. Any game that encourages you to get together in the real world with real people already has a huge leg up in my critical judgment. I just wish there were more of them.

Let’s start by taking another look at the original 1984 Summer Games, a game I already covered in considerable technical detail in an earlier article. Its graphics — particularly the fluid and realistic movements of the athletes themselves — were quite impressive in their day, but look decidedly minimalist in light of what would come later. Also notable is the complete lack of humor or whimsy or, one might even say, personality. Those qualities, allowed as they to a large extent are by better and richer audiovisuals, would arrive only in later iterations.

 
Few concepts in the history of gaming have lent themselves as well to almost endless iteration as the basic Games concept of a themed collection of sporting minigames. Thus after Summer Games turned into a huge hit more Games were inevitable, even if they wouldn’t be able to piggyback on an Olympics as Summer Games had so adroitly managed despite the lack of an official license. The first thought of Epyx’s programmers was, naturally enough, to follow Summer Games with a similar knock-off version of the Winter Olympics. By this time, however, it was late 1984, and Epyx’s marketing honcho Robert Botch said, probably correctly — he tended to be correct in most things — that a winter-sports game would be a hard sell when they finished it up in six or eight months; at that time, you see, it would be high summer. So they instead turned their attention to Summer Games II, consisting of eight more events, many of which had been proposed for the original collection but rejected for one reason or another. It proved to be if anything a better collection than its predecessor, with more variety and without the cheat of inserting two swimming events that were exactly the same but for their differing lengths. Graphics and sound were also modestly improved.

But the first really dramatic leap forward in those areas came with the next iteration, the long-awaited Winter Olympics-themed Winter Games that followed hot on the heels of Summer Games II. With Epyx’s in-house programmers and artists still busy with the latter, Winter Games was outsourced along with detailed specifications provided by Epyx’s own designers to another developer called Action Graphics. The partnership between the Silicon Valley-based Epyx and the Chicago-based Action Graphics was apparently a somewhat troubled one, with delays caused by poor communication threatening to scupper the planned Christmas 1985 launch. The project’s savior proved to be one Matt Householder, a recently arrived refugee from Atari who would play a huge role in the series going forward. Upon his hiring in July of 1985, his first role became that of Epyx’s official liaison to Action Graphics; he spent many weeks in Chicago pushing the game along to completion. A programmer himself with much experience with videogames, Householder suggested lots of extra little touches, sometimes helped out with technical problems, and, with the deadline ever looming, occasionally advanced the timetable via some artful deletion.

The bobsled was a particularly problem-plagued event. The original conception would have had the riders pushing the sled to get it started, just like in the real thing, but no one could quite figure out how to make it work. Householder made an executive decision to just excise that element entirely in favor of making the rest of the event as good as possible. Note in the video below how the clouds in the sky also move when the bobsled goes through a curve. This late Householder-prompted addition is a classic example of a little touch of the realistic whose presence might not be noticed but whose absence almost certainly would — perhaps not consciously, but only as a feeling that something is somehow “off” with the experience. Note also the music that now plays before this and all of the other Winter Games events to leaven the somewhat sterile feel of the original Summer Games.


The bobsled is actually quite graphically spare in contrast to some of the other events in Winter Games. See for example the biathlon, the most time-consuming single event to appear in any of the Games games and one of the most strategic. The speed of the targeting cursor in the shooting sections — and thus the difficulty of each shot — is determined by your heart rate when you arrive. Success is all about pacing yourself, setting up a manageable rhythm that keeps you moving along reasonably well but that also lets you make your shots. According to Householder, “It was put in there to make something completely different. It breaks up the pace of the other events, which are more tense, action/reaction type of things. You have to learn a different set of skills.” Barely a week before the deadline, Householder, bothered that the shooting just somehow didn’t feel right, suddenly suggested adding a requirement to eject the spent round and cock a new one before firing. They managed to shoehorn it in, and it does go a long way in adding verisimilitude to the experience. It’s not so important to make a game like this realistic per se, but to make the player feel like she’s really there, to capture the spirit of the event, if you will.


The original plan for the graphic depictions of this event was, as with the bobsled, somewhat more ambitious than the final version. The skier was to be shown from different angles on every screen, a scheme that Householder quickly excised in favor of a consistent if less graphically interesting side view. The lush backgrounds were inspired by photos of the actual event taken at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, recreated freehand by artist Steve Johnson. I must say that I love the winter-wonderland atmosphere this event and, indeed, much of Winter Games conjures up. Like the opening and closing ceremonies, the bobsled, and a couple of other events in Winter Games that clearly take inspiration from the Sarajevo Olympics, the biathlon is made bittersweet today by the knowledge of what was in store for so many of those sites and, more importantly, for the people who lived near them.

Having now covered most of the Olympics events that seemed practical to implement on a Commodore 64, there was some debate within Epyx on the best way to consider the series after Winter Games; it had turned into such a cash cow that no one was eager to bring it to a close. Marketing director Robert Botch suggested that Epyx effectively create their own version of the Olympics using interesting non-Olympic sports from all over the world, under the title of World Games. Householder ran with the idea, proposing turning the game into a sort of globe-trotting travelogue that would not only let the player participate in the unique sports of many nations but also get a taste of their cultures.

World Games

You’ll notice in the World Games screenshot above an advertisement for Continental Airlines, perhaps the first of its kind in a game that wasn’t itself blatant ad-ware and yet another example of Botch’s prescience as a marketer. If the times were changing, though, they were still changing slowly: Continental was able to buy this exposure in a game that would end up selling hundreds of thousands of copies by providing Epyx with nothing more than a handful of free tickets to Disney World for use in contests. On the other hand, perhaps Continental paid a fair price when one starts to consider demographic realities; the young people who made up the vast majority of Epyx’s customers generally weren’t much in the market for airline tickets quite yet.

Much as the documentary tone of the travelogue-style descriptions might lead you to believe otherwise, the Epyx design team was made up of a bunch of young American males who weren’t exactly well-traveled themselves, nor much versed in global sporting culture. They chose the majority of the sports in World Games by flipping through books and magazines, looking for things that seemed interesting and implementable. They then designed the events without ever having actually seen them in real life. This led to some bizarre decisions and outright mistakes, like their choice of barrel-jumping (on ice skates!) as the supposed national sport of Germany; absolutely no one in Germany had any idea what they were on about when the game came out. Their original plan to make soccer penalty kicks Germany’s national sport would have hit closer to home, even if a love for soccer is hardly confined to that country. But it proved to be technically infeasible.

With Epyx’s in-house programming team once again too busy with other projects to take it up, World Games was again contracted to outside programmers. This time a company called K-Byte did the honors, albeit under much closer supervision, with the art and music supplied by Epyx’s own people. Freed as they were from the rigid strictures of traditional Olympic disciplines and a certain fuddy-duddy air of solemnity that always accompanies them, the designers, artists, and programmers were able to inject much more creative whimsy, even humor. See for example what happens when you screw up badly in Scotland’s caber toss.


Speaking of screwing up: Epyx’s designers managed to completely miss the point of the caber toss. Athletes participating in the real sport are judged on aesthetics, on how cleanly and straightly they toss the caber. The objective is not, as in World Games, to simply chunk the bloody thing as far as possible.

The music tries its best — if, again, only within the limits of Epyx’s international awareness —  to echo the “national music” of each country represented. The bagpipe sound is quite impressive in its way; listen for the initial “squawk” each time the instrument changes pitch, so like the real thing.

But Mexico’s cliff-diving provides perhaps the best illustration of how far Epyx had come already by the time of World Games. It’s superficially similar to the diving event from Summer Games, as seen in my very first video above, but the difference is night and day. I speak not just of the heightened drama inherit in jumping off a rocky cliffside as opposed to a diving board, although that’s certainly part of it. Look also at the improved graphics, the addition of music, all of the little juicy touches that add personality and interest: the way the diver fidgets nervously as he waits to take the plunge, the way you can send him careening off the rocks in various viscerally painful ways, the seagull at the bottom of the cliff who will turn and fly off if you wait long enough. (Rumor has it that it’s possible to hit the seagull somehow if you botch a dive badly enough, but I’ve never succeeded in doing so.)


California Games, the fifth entry in the series and the culmination of the audiovisual progression we’ve been charting, was done completely in-house at Epyx. Indeed, it was also inspired much closer to home than any of the games that had come before. Walking through Golden Gate Park one weekend, watching bicyclists and skateboarders doing tricks for the crowds, Matt Householder’s wife Candi suggested that Epyx should use those sorts of sports in their next Games game.

But there’s a bit more than that to be said about California Games‘s origins, in terms of both universals and the specific context of the mid-1980s. In the case of the former, there’s the eternal promised land of California itself that’s been a part of the collective mythical landscape of Americans and non-Americans alike almost from the moment that California itself existed as a term of geography: Hollywood, Route 66, Disneyland, the Sunset Strip, the Beach Boys, palm trees, hot rods, surfboards, and of course bikinis and the sun-kissed beach bunnies who fill them out so fetchingly. (Botch wouldn’t be shy about incorporating the latter elements in particular into his marketing campaign.) “Go west, young man!” indeed. California Games combined this eternal California with a burgeoning interest amongst the young in what would come to be called “extreme sports” that saw many a teenager picking up BMX or half-pipe skateboarding. The first proposal that Householder submitted actually skewed much more extreme than the eventual finished product, including wind-surfing, hang-gliding, and parachuting events that were all excised in favor of some more sedate pursuits like Frisbee and Hacky Sack. He also proposed for the collection the almost instantly dating appellation of Rad Games; thankfully, Botch soon settled on the timeless California Games instead.

Which is not to say that California Games itself is exactly “timeless”; this is about as clearly a product of 1987 as it’s possible for a game to be. At that time the endlessly renewable California Dream was particularly hot. Even the name California Games, timeless or no, also managed to evoke the zeitgeist of 1987, when California Coolers and the California Raisins were all the rage. The manual includes a helpful dictionary of now painfully dated surfer and valley-girl slang.

LIKE (lik) prep. Insert anywhere you like, like, in any sentence, in, like, any context. Used most effectively when upset: “it’s, like, geez…” Or the coolest way to use “like” is with “all” (for more description). “It’s, like — I’m all — duuude, you’ve got sand in your jams.”

Replacing the chance to represent a country, Olympics-style, that had persisted through World Games are a bunch of prominent 1987 brands, some of which have survived (Costa Del Mar, Kawasaki, Ocean Pacific, Casio), some of which have apparently not (Auzzie Surfboards and Ray-D-O BMX, my favorite for its sheer stupidity). All paid Epyx to feature their logos in the game, with those willing to invest a bit more getting more prominent placement. Yes, Botch was figuring out this in-game-advertising thing fast. See for instance the logos plastered behind the skateboarding half pipe.


California Games was the first title in the series for which Epyx could draw on a fair amount of direct personal experience. Enthusiasts of the various sports inside the company demonstrated their skills for the cameras, the resulting video used as models for their onscreen versions. Some of the less athletic programmers and designers also had a go by way of getting into the spirit of the thing. Householder notes that “I nearly broke my skull a couple of times” on a skateboard in the Epyx parking lot.

To see how far Commodore 64 games came in less than four years, look at the colorful-in-both-senses-of-the-word surfing video below, with its gags like the shark. (A cute dolphin also shows up from time to time, albeit not so often as the shark and never, alas, when you’re trying to make a video.) Notice how the music, a rock song this time, plays during the action now to elevate the whole experience. The bagpipes and the like may have been impressive, but rock and roll was to be the sound of California Games, with Botch even managing to officially license “Louie Louie” for the title screen. And notice how the little surfer dude is an individual with his own look and, one might even say, personality, in comparison to the faceless (literally!) papier-mâché silhouettes of Summer Games.


California Games became an even bigger international hit than the previous four games in the series, one more symbol of the power of the California Dream. Epyx now had 200 employees, and was possessed of an almost unblemished record of commercial success that made them the envy of the industry, their catalog including not only hit games but also their Fast Load cartridge that many Commodore 64 owners considered indispensable and a very popular “competition-quality” joystick. But California Games would mark the end of an era. The downfall of this company and series that had been able to do no wrong for years would happen with stunning speed.

Nor could the Commodore 64 itself keep going forever. Having reached its peak at last in mid-1987, with programmers beginning to get a sense that it just wasn’t possible to push this little machine, extraordinarily flexible as it had proved to be, much further, the downward slope loomed. We, however, will stay perched here a little longer, to appreciate in future articles some more of the most impressive outpouring of games ever to grace the platform.

(Sources: Family Computing of September 1987; Commodore Magazine of July 1988 and August 1989; Commodore User of February 1986; Compute!’s Gazette of December 1986; Compute! of December 1986 and August 1987; Retro Gamer 46 and 49.

Such was the popularity of the first five of the Games that the property still holds some nostalgia value to this day, seeing periodic re-releases and revivals. The latest of these is from the German publisher Magnussoft, who have versions available for Windows, Macintosh, and Android. I must say, however, that there’s little left of the original feel in such efforts. I prefer to just play them in an emulator on the old Commodore 64. An intrepid fan who calls himself “John64” has packaged all five titles onto a cartridge image who loads and plays almost instantly in an emulator like VICE. I take the liberty of providing the cartridge here as well along with all of the manuals.)

 

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From Automated Simulations to Epyx

When Robert Botch joined Automated Simulations as director of marketing just as 1982 expired, it wasn’t exactly the sexiest company in the industry. They were still flogging their Dunjonquest line, which now consisted of no less than eleven sequels, spinoffs, and expansions to Temple of Apshai. More than a year after co-founder Jon Freeman had left in frustration over partner Jim Connelley’s refusal to update Automated’s technology, the entire line was still derived from the same BASIC-based engine that had first been designed to run on a 16 K TRS-80 back in 1979. It was hard for anyone to articulate why someone would choose to play a Dunjonquest game in a world that contained Ultima and Wizardry. And, indeed, Automated’s sales numbers were not looking very good, and the company had stopped making money almost from the moment that the Ultima and Wizardry series debuted. Still, that hadn’t prevented them from benefiting from the torrents of venture capital that entered the young industry in 1982, courtesy of the pundits who were billing home computers as the next big thing to succeed the game consoles. But now the investors were getting worried, wondering if this stodgy company and their somewhat pedantic approach to gaming had really been such a good risk after all. Thus Botch, whom Connelley hired under pressure to remake Automated’s image.

Botch’s first assignment was to visit the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that January, with Dunjonquest titles in tow to display to the crowd on a big-screen television rented for the occasion. Botch, who knew nothing about computers or computer games, didn’t much understand the Dunjonquest concept. He could hardly be blamed, for just trying to figure out which one you could play was confusing as hell: you needed to already have Temple of Apshai to play these additional games, but needed Hellfire Warrior to play those, etc. He was therefore relieved when another employee handed him a disk containing a straightforward, standalone action/puzzle game for the Atari home-computer line called Jumpman, a sort of massively expanded version of the arcade classic Donkey Kong with thirty levels to explore. Unusually for Automated, who usually developed games in-house, its presence was the result of an unsolicited third-party submission from a hacker named Randy Glover.

Randy Glover, developer of Jumpman

Randy Glover, developer of Jumpman

Botch was such a computer novice that he couldn’t figure out how to boot the game; his colleague had to tell him to “put it in that little slot over by the computer.” But when he finally got it working he fell in love. The rest of the show turned into an extended battle of wills between Botch and Connelley. The latter, who was determined to showcase the Dunjonquest games, would “come over, yell a lot, and tell me to take the disk out. Whenever he left the room, I’d load the program in again.” The crowd seemed to agree with Botch: he left CES with a notebook full of orders for the as yet unreleased Jumpman, convinced that in it he had seen the only viable future for his new employers.

The embattled Connelley saw his power further eroded the following month, when the investors brought in Michael Katz, an unsentimental, hard-driving businessmen with an eye for mainstream appeal. He had spent the past four years at Coleco, where he had masterminded the launch of some very successful handheld electronic games as well as the ColecoVision console, which had just sold more than 500,000 units in its first Christmas on the market. It was first agreed that Connelley and Katz would co-lead the company, but this was obviously impractical and untenable. In a scenario that could have easily happened to Ken Williams at Sierra if he had been less strong-willed and business-savvy, Connelley was being eased out of his own company by the monied interests he had welcomed with open arms. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, he left within months, taking a number of his loyalists with him to form a development studio he named The Connelley Group, which would release a couple of games through Automated before becoming free agents and eventually fading away quietly.

Katz, Botch, and the other newcomers were thus left alone to literally transform Automated Simulations into a new company. Automated had for some time now been branding many of their games with the label of “Epyx,” arrived at because their first choice, “Epic,” was already taken by a record label. No matter; “Epyx” was a better name anyway, proof that even a blind-to-PR squirrel like Connelley could find a nut every now and again. Katz and Botch now made it the official name of the reborn company, excising all trace of the stodgy old “Automated Simulations” name. Gone also would be the nerdy old Dunjonquest line which positively reeked of Dungeons and Dragons sessions in parents’ basements. They would instead strive to make Epyx synonymous with colorful, accessible games like Jumpman, aimed straight at the heart of the mass market. The old slogan of “Computer Games Thinkers Play” now became “Strategy Games for the Action-Game Player,” and they hired Chiat Day, Apple’s PR firm and the hottest such in Silicon Valley, to remake Epyx’s image entirely.

Epyx

Jumpman itself made a good start toward that goal. It was a huge hit, especially once ported to the Commodore 64. One of first games to really take proper advantage of the 64’s audiovisual capabilities, it hit that platform like a nova at mid-year, topping the sales charts for months and probably becoming the bestselling single Commodore 64 game of 1983. It alone was enough to return Epyx to profitability. Unsurprisingly given commercial returns like that, from now on Epyx would develop first and most for the 64. They also hired Glover to work in-house. Before the end of the year he had already delivered a cartridge-based pseudo-sequel, Jumpman Junior, to reach ultra-low-end systems without a disk drive.

But now Katz had a problem. Other than Glover, he lacked the technical staff to make the Jumpmans of the future. Most of them had left with Connelley — and anyway games like their old Dunjonquests were exactly what the new Epyx didn’t want to be making. Then Starpath caught Katz’s eye.

Back in 1981, two former Atari engineers, Bob Brown and Craig Nelson, had founded Arcadia, Inc., eventually to be renamed Starpath after the release of the Arcadia 2001, an ill-conceived and short-lived games console from Emerson Radio Corporation. Drawing from friends, family, and former colleagues, Brown and Nelson put together a crack team of hardware and software hackers to make their mark in the Atari VCS market. Their flagship product was the marvelously Rube Goldberg-esque Supercharger, which plugged into the VCS’s cartridge port and added 6 K of memory (which may not sound like much until you remember that the VCS shipped with all of 128 bytes), new graphics routines in ROM, and a cable to connect the console to a cassette player. Starpath developed and released half a dozen games on cassette for use with the Supercharger, most of them apparently quite impressive indeed. But problems dogged Starpath. The company lived in constant fear of legal action by Atari, whom Brown and Nelson had not left on particularly good terms, in response to their unauthorized expansion. It did eventually become clear that Starpath had little to fear from Atari, but for the worst possible reason: the videogame market was collapsing, and Atari had far bigger problems than little Starpath. By late 1983 Starpath was floundering. Katz swooped, buying the entire company for a song and moving them lock, stock, and barrel from Santa Clara, California, into Epyx’s headquarters in nearby Sunnyvale.

Katz had no interest in any of Starpath’s extant products for a dead Atari VCS market. No, he wanted the programming talent and creative flair that had led to the Supercharger and its games in the first place. If they could do work like that on the Atari VCS, imagine what they could do with a Commodore 64. The Starpath folks would prove to be the final, most essential piece in his remaking of Epyx.

One of Starpath’s programmers, Dennis Caswell, had been playing around with ideas for a platforming action-adventure game before the acquisition. Indeed, he was already at work trying to animate the running man who would be the star. It was decided to let Caswell, who had three Supercharger games under his belt, run with his idea on the Commodore 64. He says his elation at the platform change was so great that “I unplugged my [Atari] 2600 and threw it out of my office and into the hall.” Working essentially alone, Caswell crafted one of the iconic Commodore 64 games and one of the bestselling in the history of Epyx: Impossible Mission.

Starpath had also been working on a decathlon simulation. In fact, it was far enough along to be basically playable. They discussed porting it to the 64, but the capabilities of that machine quickly led them to think about something more than just a simulation of track and field. Why not use the luxury of 64 K of memory and disk-based storage to simulate a broader cross-section of Summer Olympic events? With the 1984 Summer Olympics coming to Los Angeles, it seemed the perfect game for the zeitgeist, with exactly the sort of mass-market appeal Katz wanted from his new titles. He thought it a brilliant idea, and even went so far as to approach the Olympic Committee about making it an officially licensed product. He found, however, that Atari had long before sewn up the rights, back when they had been the fastest growing company in America. Epyx therefore decided to do everything possible to associate the game with the Olympics without outright declaring it to be an official Olympics simulation. They pushed the envelope pretty far: the game would be called Summer Games, would begin with an opening ceremony and a runner lighting a flame to the strains of “Bugler’s Dream,” would offer medals, would (as its advertising copy proclaimed) let you “go for the gold!” representing the country of your choice. Such legal boundary-pushing became something of a habit; witness Impossible Mission, which plainly hoped to benefit from an association with Mission: Impossible. (This in spite of the fact that Scott Adams had already been forced by the lawyers to change the name of his third adventure from Mission Impossible to Secret Mission.) In the case of Summer Games, Epyx likely got away with it because Atari was in no financial shape to press the issue and the Olympic Committee, never the most progressive institution, was barely aware of home-computer games’ existence. To this day many people are shocked to realize that Summer Games is not actually an official Olympics game. It all speaks to Katz’s determination to create games that felt up-to-date and relevant to the times. Yes, sometimes that could backfire, leading to trying-way-too-hard titles like Break Dance. Much of the time, however, it was commercial gold.

The original design brief for Summer Games called for ten events. The team also very much wished to include head-to-head, real-time competition wherever the nature of the sport being simulated allowed it. Beyond that, they would pretty much make it up on the fly; even the events themselves were largely chosen in the moment. The Starpath programmers’ talents were augmented by Randy Glover of Jumpman fame and Epyx’s first full-time artist, Erin Murphy. They were all under the gun from the start, for Katz wanted them to have something ready to show at the 1984 Winter CES, barely six weeks away when the project was officially green-lit. They worked through the holidays to deliver. Epyx arrived at CES with a very impressive albeit non-interactive opening-ceremonies sequence, fairly playable 4 X 400-meter relay and 100-meter dash races (both partially adapted from Starpath’s old decathlon project), and a diving event. At the show they learned that they had more competition in the (pseudo-)Olympics genre beyond Atari. HESWare, an aggressive up-and-comer not that dissimilar to Epyx who were about to sign Leonard Nimoy as their spokesman, showed HES Games. The prospect pushed Epyx to make sure Summer Games both met its planned pre-Summer Olympics release date and was as good as they could make it. To help with the former, the original plan for ten events was reduced to eight, principally via the sacrifice of weight lifting (fans of which sport would have to wait until 1986’s World Games to get their due). To help with the latter, more resources and personnel were poured into the project.

Even as this happened, attrition, a constant at Epyx, also became a concern. Katz’s new Epyx could be a rewarding place, but also an unrelentingly intense and competitive one, full of mathematical athletes convinced they were the smartest people in the room and all too happy to demonstrate it at their rivals’ expense. The spirit of competition extended beyond working hours; hundreds of dollars changed hands weekly in epic games of poker. Even some of Epyx’s brightest stars eventually found the company’s testoserone-and brainpower-fueled culture too much to take. Thus Starpath co-founder Bob Brown, finding Starpath’s new masters not to his liking, left quite soon after the acquisition, and Randy Glover, who had been assigned to the swimming events, abruptly left not long after CES. The swimming events were taken up by Stephen Landrum, the biggest single contributor to the project as a whole, who also did the opening ceremonies and the diving and pole-vaulting events.

It had been decided early on that Summer Games would let you compete as the representative of any of a variety of nations, complete with flags and national anthems to play during the medal ceremonies. Since it obviously would not be possible to include all of the 140 countries who would participate in the real Olympics, Epyx was left with the question of which ones should make the cut. Beyond the big, obvious powerhouses of the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, commercial considerations once again reigned supreme here. Katz had begun signing deals with foreign distributors, pushing hard to get Epyx’s games into the vibrant British and steadily emerging Western European software markets. Epyx reasoned that players in these countries would want the opportunity to represent their own nation. Thus relative Summer-Olympic non-factors like Norway and Denmark were included in the game, while potent teams from parts of the world that didn’t buy computer games, like East Germany, Romania, and Yugoslavia, were omitted. Most of the countries included had never been visited by anyone at Epyx. They sourced the flag designs from a world atlas, and called consulates and sales connections in Europe to drum up sheet music for the various anthems. Many of those anthems had never been heard by anyone working on the game; if some sound a bit “off” in tone or tempo, perhaps that’s the reason. For the coup de grâce, Epyx couldn’t resist including their own company as one of the “nations,” complete with a national anthem that was actually the Jumpman theme.

Summer Games was nearing the final crunch time on May 8, 1984, when the Soviet Union initiated a boycott of the Los Angeles Games in a rather petty quid pro quo for the West’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. (The people who were really hurt by both gestures were not the governments of the boycotees but a generation of athletes on both sides of the political divide, who lost what was for many literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete against the true best of their peers on the biggest stage their sports could offer them.) Epyx quickly decided to leave the Soviet Union in their version of the Olympics. After the game’s release, they reached out a bit cheekily to the Soviets in real life. Botch:

We sent the Russian [read: Soviet] embassy (in Washington, D.C.) several copies of Summer Games for the Commodore 64. An enclosed letter stated since they would not be competing in the regular Olympics, at least they could participate in our version of the Games. This package was eventually returned to us with a thank-you note, because they only had access to Atari home computers. Our marketing people quickly replaced the Commodore software with Atari material and sent it back. I always wondered if they enjoyed the game, because we never heard from them again.

Epyx’s bigger concern was the same as that of everyone involved with the Los Angeles Games, whether directly or tangentially: what commercial impact would the boycott have? It seemed it must inevitably tarnish the Games’ luster somewhat. In the case of both Summer Games and the Olympic Games themselves, the impact would turn out to be less than expected. The latter has gone down in history as the most financially successful Olympics of modern times, while Summer Games would become — and this probably comes as anything but a spoiler to most of you — one of the bestselling computer games of the year, and the first entry of the bestselling series in the history of the Commodore 64.

Katz was determined to get Summer Games out in June, to beat HES Games to the market and to derive maximum advantage from the pre-Olympics media buildup. The team worked frantically to finish the final two events (gymnastics and skeet shooting) and swat bugs. They worked all but straight through the final 72 hours. Disks went into production right on schedule, the morning after the code they contained had been finalized.

Summer Games

Summer Games went on to sell in the hundreds of thousands across North America and Europe, thoroughly overshadowing the less impressive Olympian efforts of HESWare and Atari, the latter of whose games were at any rate only available on their own faltering lines of game consoles and home computers. It would be ported to a variety of platforms, although it would always remain at its best on the Commodore 64. Together with Impossible Mission and a racing game developed by the indefatigable Landrum and Caswell called Pitstop II, both also huge worldwide smashes, Summer Games completed the remaking of Epyx’s image and made of them a worldwide commercial powerhouse. Being for the most part conceptually simple games without much dependence on text, most of Epyx’s games were ideally suited to do well in non-English-speaking countries. Combined with Katz’s aggressive distributional push, this was key to making Epyx one of the first big entertainment-software publishers that could be said to be truly international. With so many potential customers to serve in emerging new markets and several new hits in addition to the still popular Jumpman, sales in 1984 soared as Epyx enjoyed almost exponential growth in earnings as the months passed.

We’ll continue the story of Epyx later, but for now I’m not quite done with Summer Games. Next time I’d like to do something I haven’t done in a while: dig into the technology a bit and explain how some of the magic that wowed so many back in 1984 actually works. It will also give us a chance to get to know the Commodore 64, a computer whose importance to gaming during the middle years of the 1980s can hardly be overstated, just a little bit better.

(The bulk of this article is drawn from two lengthy retrospectives published in the July 1988 and August 1989 issues of Commodore Magazine. The pictures of Randy Glover comes from the April 1984 K-Power.)

 
 

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Life Off the Grid, Part 1: Making Ultima Underworld

The 1980s was the era of the specialist in game development, when many of the most successful studios did just one or two things, but did them very, very well. For Infocom, that meant text adventures; for Sierra, graphic adventures; for MicroProse, military simulations; for SSI, strategic wargames and Dungeons & Dragons; for Epyx, joystick-twiddling sports and action games; for Origin, Ultima. When such specialists stepped outside of their comfort zones, the results were occasionally a triumph, but more often merely served to reemphasize their core competencies.

The most respected studios of the 1990s, however, tended toward more eclecticism. Developers like Dynamix and Westwood may have had their roots in the previous decade, but they really came into their own in this one, and did so with games of very diverse types. Westwood, for example, was happily making CRPGs, graphic adventures, real-time-strategy games, and Monopoly, for Pete’s sake, all virtually at the same time. Even the holdover specialists from the 1980s — those who were still standing — aggressively tried to diversify in the 1990s: Sierra moved into strategy games, MicroProse into CRPGs and graphic adventures, Origin into Wing Commander.

Still, if we look harder at many 1990s developers, we can find themes that bind together their output. In the case of Dynamix, we might posit that to be an interest in dynamic simulation, even when working in traditionally static genres like the graphic adventure. In that of Westwood, we can identify an even more pronounced interest in bringing the excitement of real time to traditionally turn-based genres like the CRPG and the wargame. And in the case of the studio we’ll be meeting for the first time today — Looking Glass Technologies, arguably the most respected and beloved 1990s studio of all — the binding thread is crystal clear. From beginning to end, they used the flexibility of 3D graphics to bring virtual environments to life in unprecedentedly immersive ways. Whether making a CRPG or a flight simulator, a first-person shooter or a first-person sneaker, this was their constant.


3D graphics were, one might say, baked right into Looking Glass’s DNA. Paul Neurath and Ned Lerner, its two eventual founders, met one another in 1978 in a computer-science course at Wesleyan University, where Neurath was studying environmental science, Lerner physics. For the course’s final project, they teamed up to make a 3D space game rendered in ASCII text. They got a B-minus on it only because their professor considered games to be beneath his course’s dignity.

After university, the two New England boys remained friends as they started their professional careers. When the home-computer craze got rolling in earnest, each bought an Apple II. They started experimenting, together and apart, on games much like the one they had written for that computer-science class, only implemented in real bitmap graphics, with a real joystick as a controller. These efforts culminated in a joint game known as Deep Space: Operation Copernicus, which they sold in 1985 to the publisher Sir-Tech, purveyors of the Wizardry CRPG series. Sir-Tech didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Neurath and Lerner’s very different sort of game, and it never escaped Wizardry‘s long shadow. Nevertheless, the experience of making a game and getting paid for it — however modestly — lit a fire in both partners. Each went off to pursue his own agenda, but they remained in touch, keeping one another updated on their progress and often sharing code and technical tricks.

Initially, it was Ned Lerner who made the most determined effort to become a real commercial game developer. He formed a little company called Lerner Research, and started gathering like-minded souls around him. As fixated as ever on 3D graphics, he decided that an at least semi-realistic flight simulator would be a good application for the technology. The leading product of that type on the market, subLOGIC’s generically titled Flight Simulator, he considered akin to a “textbook lesson”; he envisioned a flight simulator of his own that would be more accessible and fun. He hired an aerodynamic engineer to design a flight model for his game, which would focus on high-performance military aircraft like the legendary SR-71 Blackbird rather than the little Cessna that was forever tooling around from airport to airport in subLOGIC’s simulator. In fact, his game would let you fly any of fourteen different airplanes, in contrast to its rival’s one, and would concentrate on goal-oriented activities — “Flight Instruction,” “Test Flight,” “Formation Flying,” or “Airplane Racing” — instead of just expecting you to choose a starting airport and do whatever tickled your fancy.

Chuck Yeager and Ned Lerner discuss the vagaries of aerodynamics.

Electronic Arts, who lacked a competitive flight simulator and were eager to get in on one of the industry’s fastest-growing segments, signed on as publisher. Unlike Sir-Tech, they knew the appeal of snazzy packaging and celebrity endorsements. They convinced Chuck Yeager to put his name on the product. This was quite the coup; Yeager, a World War II fighter ace and the first man to break the sound barrier, was by far the most famous pilot in the country, after having been brought to indelible life by the actor Sam Shepard in the recent hit movie The Right Stuff. It was a decidedly nervous group of nerds and businessmen who met this aerospace legend for the first time in March of 1987. Lerner:

As we were sitting there in the office, listening to the rain outside, Rich Hilleman, associate producer at EA, was first to spot the Blazer entering the parking lot (license plate “BELL X1”). A few minutes later, we heard the unmistakable West Virginia drawl outside the door, as pure and easygoing as the man on TV who sells spark plugs with a shotgun. For a brief second, I remembered the opening scene of Patton where George C. Scott steps forward, dressed to the teeth in full military regalia. The door suddenly opened, and there he was: wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a polo shirt under his racing-style jacket. General Yeager had a trim figure, and his face was tan, well-weathered, as if he had spent a lot of time outdoors. The general stepped forward, shaking hands with the members of the group, but I sensed a certain degree of reservation in his actions.

To get past this awkward beginning, we loaded in the current version of Advanced Flight Trainer. I flew the simulator for a while, then offered to let General Yeager take over. “I never fooled with these things,” he said. “That’s because, you know, the damned things are so…” — he searched for the word — “…insignificant. If you want to really scorch something, hell, you can program the X-31 in there, the aerospace plane. Now, see, you got some kid who can say, ‘Man, this thing is smoking along at mach 25.'”

The ice had finally been broken, and we all began contributing to the conversation. After discussing the subjects of liquid-oxygen fuel and the current type of aircraft that are touching the edge of space, the day was practically over. “This thing’s pretty dang realistic,” he told us. “You’ve got a lot of goodies in there.”

Released about six months later with much publicity, Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer became by far EA’s biggest hit of the year, and one of their biggest of the whole decade. With that push to get them off and running, Lerner Research continued their work on the frontiers of 3D graphics, giving EA a substantially revised version 2.0 of their flagship game in 1989.

Even as Ned Lerner was hobnobbing with famous test pilots, Paul Neurath was making his own inroads with the games industry. Shortly after finishing Deep Space, he had heard that Origin Systems of Ultima fame was located in New Hampshire, not all that far from him at all. On a lark, he drove down one day to introduce himself and take the temperature of the place. He hit it off immediately with Richard Garriott and the rest of the crew there. While he never became a full-fledged employee, he did become a regular around the Origin offices, contributing play-testing, design ideas, and occasional bits of code to their games on a contract basis.

In early 1987, Richard Garriott, who loathed New England with every fiber of his being, packed up and moved back to Austin, Texas, with most of Origin’s technical and creative staff. He left behind his older brother and business manager Robert, along with the latter’s support staff of accountants, secretaries, and marketers. A few developers who for one reason or another didn’t want to make the move also stayed behind. Neurath was among this group.

At about this same time, Neurath got the green light to make a game all his own for Origin. Space Rogue began as another 3D space shooter — another Deep Space, enhanced with some of the latest graphics technology from his friends at Lerner Research. To this template Neurath grafted a trading economy, a customizable spaceship, and a real plot. The player was even able to exit her spaceship and wander around the space stations she visited, talking to others and taking on quests. There was a surprising amount of ambition in this fusion of Deep Space, Elite, and Ultima, especially considering that Neurath designed, wrote, and programmed it all almost single-handedly from New Hampshire while most of his friends at Origin pursued other projects down in Austin. Although its disparate parts don’t ever gel quite well enough to make it a true classic, it’s remarkable that it works as well as it does.

Space Rogue sold in moderate numbers upon its release in 1989. More importantly in terms of gaming history, Chris Roberts of Origin spent a lot of time with it. Its melding of a space shooter with an adventure-game-like plot became one of the inspirations behind Wing Commander, the first Origin game to fully escape the shadow of Ultima — and, indeed, the beginning of one of the blockbuster franchises of the 1990s.

Space Rogue‘s hilarious cover art, with its artfully pouting male model who looks better suited to a Harlequin-romance cover. Paul Neurath remembers Origin’s marketing department asking him about his packaging preferences for his game. He said he would prefer a “non-representational” cover picture. Naturally, the marketers delivered about the most representational thing imaginable.

By the time of Space Rogue‘s release, Paul Neurath was a lonelier game developer than ever. In January of 1989, the last remnants of Origin’s New Hampshire operation had moved to Austin, leaving Neurath stranded in what Richard Garriott liked to call “the frozen wastes of New England.” For him, this was a crossroads of life if ever there was one. Did he want to continue to make games, and, if so, how? Sure, he could probably move down to Austin and get a job with Origin, but, truth be told, he had no more desire to live in Texas than Garriott had to live in New England. But how else could he stay in games?

At last, Neurath decided to take a page from Ned Lerner’s book. He would put together his own little company and try to establish it as an independent studio; after all, it had worked out pretty well for Ned so far. He registered his company under the name of Blue Sky Productions.

Neurath had always loved the CRPG genre, ever since Wizardry had become one of the first games he bought for his new Apple II. That love had once led him to publish Deep Space through Sir-Tech, and sent him out to Origin’s New Hampshire offices for that fateful visit. Now, he dreamed of taking the first-person dungeon crawl beyond the turn-based Wizardry, even beyond the real-time but still grid-based Dungeon Master, the state of the art in the genre as the 1980s expired. On a visit to Lerner Research, he saw the technology that he believed would make the genre’s next step possible — the foundation, one might even say, for everything he and his fabled studio Looking Glass would do in the 1990s. What he saw was the first 3D texture mapper that was suitable for use in an ordinary computer game.

3D graphics were hardly unknown on personal computers of the 1980s, as can be seen not least through the early careers of Ned Lerner and Paul Neurath. Yet, being enormously taxing to implement in the context of an interactive game, they demanded a lot of aesthetic compromise. Some early 3D games, such as Elite and the first versions of subLogic’s Flight Simulator, didn’t draw in the surfaces of their polygons at all, settling for wire frames. With the arrival of more powerful 16-bit computers in the mid-1980s, filled surfaces became more common in 3D games, but each side of a polygon was drawn in a single color. Combine this fact with the low polygon count that was still necessitated by the hardware of the time — resulting in big, fairly crude polygons — and you had a recipe for blotchy landscapes made up of garishly clashing primary colors.

A few clever developers were able to turn the limitations of 3D graphics into an aesthetic statement in its own right. But most of those who used them — among them makers of flight simulators and space shooters, such as Lerner and Neurath — suffered with their limitations because there just wasn’t any practical alternative for the sorts of games they were making. For an out-the-cockpit view from an airplane, the aesthetic compromises necessitated by going 3D were just about acceptable, given the way the distant landscape below tends to blur into hazy abstractions of color even in real life. But for a more personal, embodied experience, such as a first-person dungeon crawl, real-time 3D graphics were just too crude, too ugly. You couldn’t render the grain of a wooden door or the patina of a stone wall as one uniform splotch of color and expect to get away with it — not with the way that gamers’ audiovisual expectations were increasing every year.

A screenshot from Dungeon Master, the state of the art in dungeon crawls at the end of the 1980s. Notice how the walls, floor, and ceiling are textured. This was possible because movement in Dungeon Master was still based on a grid, giving the computer plenty of time to draw each view. A free-scrolling, truly 3D version would have had to replace all those lovely textures with great uniform slabs of gray. The result, needless to say, would not have been pretty.

None of these problems were unknown to academic computer-graphics researchers; they’d been wrestling with them since well before the first personal computer hit the market. And they’d long since come up with a solution: texture mapping. The texture in question takes the form of an ordinary image file, which might be drawn by hand or digitized from a real-world photograph. A texture suitable for a wooden door, for example, could be an extreme closeup of any slab of wood. The texture is “glued” onto a polygon’s face in lieu of a solid color. Just like that, you suddenly have doors that look like real doors, slimy dungeon walls that look like real slimy dungeon walls.

The problem with texture mapping from the perspective of game development was the same one that haunted the whole field of 3D graphics: the problem of performance. Simple though the basic concept is, a lot of tricky math comes into play when one introduces textures; figuring out how they should wrap and fit together with one another over so many irregular polygonal surfaces is much more complicated than the lay observer might initially believe. At a time when just managing to paint the sides of your polygons in solid colors while maintaining a respectable frame rate was a real achievement, texture mapping was hopeless. Maybe it could be used in another decade or so, said the conventional wisdom, when Moore’s Law put a supercomputer on every desk.

But one recent arrival at Lerner Research wasn’t so sure that texture mapping was impossible using extant PC hardware. Chris Green had considerable experience with interactive 3D graphics, having spent several years at subLogic working on products like Flight Simulator and Jet. He arrived at Lerner Research knowing that texture mapping couldn’t be done on the likes of an 8-bit Apple II, the computer on which Neurath and Lerner among so many others had gotten their start. On the latest 16- and 32-bit MS-DOS hardware, however… he suspected that, with the right compromises, he could make it work there.

There was doubtless much efficient code in the texture mapper Green created, but it was indeed an unabashed compromise that made it feasible to attempt at all. The vertices of the polygons in a 3D graphics system are defined with an X, a Y, and a Z coordinate; it’s this last, of course, that makes such a system a 3D system at all. And it’s also the Z coordinate that is the source of all of the complications relating to 3D graphics in general. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of texture mapping. To do it correctly, textures have to be scaled and transformed to account for their position in relation to the viewing location, as largely defined by their Z coordinate. But Green didn’t bother to do texture mapping correctly; he effectively threw away the Z coordinate and glued his textures onto their polygons as if they were in a 2D space. This technique would come to be known inside the industry as “affine texture mapping.” It yielded an enormous increase in rendering speed, balanced by a degree of distortion that was almost unnoticeable in some situations, very noticeable indeed in others. Still, an imperfect texture mapper, Green decided, was better than no texture mapper at all.

The video clip above, from the finished game of Ultima Underworld, shows some of the spatial distortion that results from affine texture mapping, especially when viewing things from a very short distance. Moving through the game’s virtual space can look and feel a bit like moving through real space after having drunk one beer too many. Nonetheless, the environment is far more realistic, attractive, and immersive than any first-person 3D environment to appear in any game before this one.

Ned Lerner had recently signed a contract with EA to make a driving game bearing the name of Car and Driver magazine. Knowing the technology’s limitations, he planned to use Chris Green’s texture mapper in a somewhat constrained fashion therein, to draw onto the faces of billboards and the like. Yet he wasn’t averse to sharing it with Paul Neurath, who as soon as he saw it wanted to use it to take the next step beyond Dungeon Master.

To do so, however, he’d need more programmers, not to mention artists and all the rest; if there was one thing the two years or so he had spent making Space Rogue had taught him, it was that the days of the one-man development team were just about over. Luckily, a friend of his had a nephew who had a friend who was, as Neurath would be the first to admit, a far better programmer than he would ever be.

Doug Church was an MIT undergraduate who had let himself get so consumed by the fun going on inside the university’s computer labs that it had all but derailed his official education. He and his buddies spent hours every day hacking on games and playing them. Their favorite was a 3D tank game called Xtank, written by one of their number, a fellow student named Terry Donahue. They tinkered with its code endlessly, producing variations that departed radically from the original concept, such as a Frisbee simulator. When not coding or playing, they talked about what kinds of games they would like to make, if only they had infinite amounts of money and time and no hardware limitations whatsoever. They envisioned all sorts of little simulated worlds, rendered, naturally, in photo-realistic 3D graphics. Thus when Neurath introduced himself to Church in early 1990 and asked if he’d like to work on a free-scrolling, texture-mapped 3D dungeon crawl running in real time, he dropped his classes and rushed to get in on the chance. (Terry Donahue would doubtless have been another strong candidate to become lead programmer on the project, but he felt another calling; he would go on to become a priest.)

Neurath also found himself an artist, a fellow named Doug Wike who had worked on various projects for Origin in New Hampshire before those offices had been shuttered. Together the three men put together a crude non-interactive demo in a matter of weeks, showing the “player” moving up a texture-mapped dungeon corridor and bumping into a monster at the end of it. At the beginning of June, they took the demo to the Summer Consumer Electronics Show, where, behind all of the public-facing hype, many of the games industry’s most important deals got made.

As Neurath tells the story, the response from publishers was far from overwhelming. The demo was undeniably crude, and most were highly skeptical whether this unproven new company could get from it to a real, interactive game. It turned out that the only publisher willing to give the project any serious consideration at all was none other than Neurath’s old friends from Origin.

That Neurath hadn’t taken his idea to Origin straight away was down to his awareness of a couple of strategic decisions that had recently been made there, part of a whole collection of changes that were being made to greet the new decade’s challenges. Origin had, first of all, decided to stop giving contracts to outside developers, taking all development in-house so as to have complete control over the products they released. And secondly, they had decided, for the time being anyway, to make all of their output fit into one of two big franchises, Ultima and Wing Commander. Both of these decisions would seem to exclude Blue Sky’s proposed dungeon crawler, which they were calling simply Underworld, from becoming an Origin product. Nor did it help that a sexy public demonstration of the first Wing Commander game1 had become the hit of the show, making it difficult for Origin to focus on anything else; they could practically smell the money they were about to make from their new franchise.

Luckily, Blue Sky and Underworld found a champion at Origin even amidst all the distractions. Warren Spector was a relatively recent arrival at the company, but Neurath knew him pretty well; as his very first task for Origin, Spector had spent about a month expanding and polishing the text in Space Rogue just before its release. Now, looking at Underworld, he was sure he saw not just a game with real commercial potential but a technologically and aesthetically important one. “I was blown away,” he says today. “I remember thinking as I watched that demo that the world had just changed.” Spector convinced his colleagues to take a chance, to violate their rule of in-house development and sign a contract with Blue Sky, giving them a modest advance of $30,000. If the game worked out, they might be in on the ground floor of something major. It might also be something they could brand with the Ultima name, make into the beginning of a whole new sub-series in the franchise — a revival of the first-person (albeit turn-based) dungeons that had been in every Ultima through Ultima V. And if it didn’t work out, the $30,000 they’d lose on the flier was far from a fortune. The deal was done.

With that mission accomplished, Neurath’s little team returned to the office space he’d rented for them in New Hampshire. They spent almost a year there trying to understand the new set of technical affordances which Chris Green’s texture mapper had put at their disposal. They didn’t invent anything fundamentally new in terms of 3D graphics technology during that time. Like the texture mapper which spawned the project, everything they put into Underworld could be found in any number of books and journals at the MIT library, many of them dating well back into the 1970s and even 1960s. It was just a matter of adapting it all to the MS-DOS architecture. As it happened, the hardware they had to work with was about equal to the cutting-edge research workstations of ten years ago, so the old journal articles they pored over actually made a pretty good fit to it.

They kept coming back to the theme of embodiment, what Neurath called “a feeling of presence beyond what other games give you.” None of the earlier dungeon crawlers — not even those in the Dungeon Master tradition that ran in real time — had been able to deliver this. They could be exciting, stressful, even terrifying, but they never gave you the feeling of being physically embodied in their environments. It was the difference between reading a book or watching a movie and really being someplace.

It went without saying that Underworld must place you in control of just one character rather than the usual party of them. You needed to be able to sense the position of “your” body and limbs in the virtual space. Neurath:

We wanted to get a feeling that you were really in this dungeon. What would you expect to do in a dungeon? You might need to jump across a narrow chasm. You might expect to batter down a wooden door. You might expect to look up if there was a precipice above you. All these sorts of physical activities. And we tried to achieve, at least to a reasonable degree, that kind of freedom of motion and freedom of action. That really extended the R&D stage. It was about nine months, even a year, before we had all the underlying technology in place that allowed us to visualize this fantasy universe in a manner that we felt was appropriate and would work well and would allow the player the freedom to maneuver around and perform different kinds of actions.

Over the course of this time, Neurath hired only one more programmer, one Jonathan “J.D.” Arnold, who had previously worked on Infocom’s Z-Machine technology in that company’s twilight years. But finally, in the late spring of 1991, with the basic interface and the basic technical architecture all in place, Neurath decided it was time to hire some more people and make a real game out of it all. Doug Church immediately thought of his old friends back at MIT, and Neurath had no objections to recruiting from that pool; they were smart and passionate and, just as importantly, they were all happy to work for peanuts. Given the time of year it was, Church’s old buddies were all either graduating or finishing up their semester of coursework, leaving them free to come to Blue Sky.

None of these people had ever worked on a commercial computer game before. In fact, most of them hadn’t even played any commercial computer games recently, having been ensconced for the last several years inside the ivory tower of MIT, where the nature of gaming was markedly different, being a culture of creation rather than strictly one of consumption. And yet, far from being a disadvantage, the team’s sheer naivete proved to be the opposite, making them oblivious to the conventional wisdom about what was possible. Doug Church:

I had actually played Space Rogue because one of my friends had a Mac, but the clusters [at MIT] were all Unix boxes so I ran X-Trek and NetHack and things, but I hadn’t played a PC game in five years or something. So we just said, “Let’s do a really cool dungeon game in 3D, let’s go.” It’s interesting because a lot of people talk about how we were doing such a Dungeon Master game, but as far as I know none of us had ever played Dungeon Master. We didn’t have any idea we were doing anything that wasn’t just obvious in some sense because we had no context and the last time any of us had played a [commercial] game was back when we were fourteen. We played games in college, but they were very different; you’re playing networked X-Trek or something, it doesn’t feel like a home-computer game.

At first, the new arrivals all crowded into the New Hampshire office Neurath was renting. But most of them were actually living together in a rambling old three-story house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it struck them as silly to make the drive out to New Hampshire every day. They soon convinced Neurath to let them work on the game from home. From dawn until night, seven days a week, they ate, drank, slept, and breathed Underworld there.

At a time when most studios had begun to systematize the process of game development, dividing their employees into rigid tiers of specialists — programmers, artists, designers, writers — Blue Sky made a virtue of their complete lack of formal organization. It was an org-chart-wielding middle manager’s nightmare; just about everybody wound up doing a little bit of everything. There was nothing like a designer giving instructions to a technical team. Instead, Blue Sky’s method of working was more akin to the way that things got done among the hackers at MIT — a crowd of equals pulling together (and occasionally pulling apart) to work toward a common goal. Anyone could contribute absolutely anywhere, knowing his ideas would be judged only on their intrinsic worth.

When it became clear that it was time to start making the actual dungeon the Underworld player would have to explore, the team divided up this design work in the most democratic manner imaginable: everybody made one level, then they were all combined together to make the eight-level final dungeon. Dan Schmidt, who had officially been hired for the role of “AI programmer,” agreed to take on the mantle of “writer,” which really meant coordinating with everyone to merge the levels into a seamless whole.

For most of the time the game was in development, Origin’s role and overall interest — or, rather, lack thereof — was a consistent sore spot. It often seemed to Blue Sky that the folks in Austin had entirely forgotten their existence way off in the frozen wastes of New England. This was good in the sense that they got to make exactly the game they wanted to make, but it didn’t do much for their confidence that a committed publisher would be ready and eager to market it properly when they were done. Warren Spector was busy with Wing Commander and, later, with an Ultima spinoff called Martian Dreams, so Origin initially assigned Jeff Johannigman to Blue Sky in the role of producer. Communication with him was nothing short of terrible. After going two full months without hearing a peep from him, Neurath tried to call him down in Austin, only to be told that he had left the company. A second producer was finally selected, but he wasn’t much more engaged. Blue Sky believed they were making a great, groundbreaking game, but it seemed that Origin really couldn’t care less.

In many ways, Underworld was at odds with the prevailing trends inside Origin, not to mention in much of the games industry at large. Following the huge success of the first Wing Commander, Origin was banking heavily on cinematic games with big, set-piece storylines. The company’s org chart reflected the new impetus, with film-making terminology — producer, director, screenwriter — shoehorned in absolutely everywhere. Blue Sky, on the other hand, was making something very different, an immersive, emergent, non-linear experience without cut scenes or chapter breaks. Yes, there was a plot of sorts — the player got cast into a dungeon to rescue a princess or die trying — along with puzzles to be solved, quests to be fulfilled, and other characters to be spoken to, but it was all driven by the player, not by any relentlessly unspooling Hollywood-style script. Origin, it seemed, wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, wasn’t quite sure where it fit. And certainly it’s easy enough, given Blue Sky’s unorthodox working methods, to understand why so many at Origin were skeptical of their ability to deliver a finished game at all.

The danger of Blue Sky’s approach was that they would keep iterating endlessly as they kept having better and better ideas. This tendency among hackers to never be able to finish something and walk away from it had already derailed more than one promising games studio — not least among them FTL, the makers of the storied Dungeon Master, who had yet to release a proper followup after some four years. (Dungeon Master II wouldn’t finally arrive until 1995.) The need to finish games on a timetable was, one might say, the reason that industry executives had begun to impose the very organizational structures that Blue Sky was now so happily eschewing. Doug Church remembers creating “four movement systems and three combat systems because we’d just write something: ‘Oh, this seems cool, go for it.'” Would they just continue chasing whatever shiny objects struck their fancy until the money ran out? That wouldn’t take much longer, given that Paul Neurath was largely financing the whole effort out of his pocket, with some help from his ever-loyal friend Ned Lerner, whose success with his Chuck Yeager flight simulators had left him with a bit of money to spare.

Thus they were all fortunate that Warren Spector, their once and future savior, suddenly returned on the scene late in 1991. Virtually alone among his colleagues down in Austin, Spector had been watching Blue Sky’s progress with intense interest. Now, having finished up Martian Dreams, he got himself assigned as Underworld‘s third producer. He had considerable clout inside the bigger company; as soon as he started to press the issue there, things started to happen on Origin’s side to reassure Blue Sky that their game would in fact be released if they could only deliver it.

Indeed, after almost eighteen months of uncertainty on the question, Origin finally made it official that, yes, Underworld would be released as an Ultima game. As usual, the star would be the Avatar, who was becoming quite a busy fellow between this game, the mainline Ultima games, and the recent pair of Worlds of Ultima spinoffs. The dungeon in question, meanwhile, would be none other than the Stygian Abyss, where the Avatar had found the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom at the end of Ultima IV. Underworld‘s backstory would need to be bent and hammered enough to make this possible.

Blue Sky soon discovered that becoming an official Ultima game, while great for marketing purposes and for their own sense of legitimacy, was something of a double-edged sword. Origin demanded that they go back through all the text in the game to insert Ultima‘s trademark (and flagrantly misused) “thees” and “thous,” provoking much annoyance and mockery. And Origin themselves made a cinematic introduction for the game in Austin, featuring Richard Garriott, one of the industry’s worst voice actors of all time — and that, friends, is really saying something — in the leading role, bizarrely mispronouncing the word “Stygian.” It seems no one at Origin, much less at Blue Sky, dared to correct Lord British’s diction… (The British magazine PC Review‘s eventual reaction to the finished product is one for the ages: “I had to listen to it two or three times before I fully grasped what was going on because for the first couple of times I was falling about laughing at the badly dubbed Dick Van Dyke cockney accents that all these lovable Americans think we sound like. You know: ‘Awlright, Guv’noor, oop the happle un stairs!'”)

While Origin made the dodgy intro in Texas, Warren Spector got everybody in New England focused on the goal of a finished, shipped game. Doug Church:

Not only was he [Spector] great creatively to help us put finishing touches on it and clean it up and make it real, but he also knew how to finish projects and keep us motivated and on track. He had that ability to say, “Guys, guys, you’re focused in totally the wrong place.” He had that ability to help me and the rest of the guys reset, from the big-picture view of someone who has done it before and was really creative, but who also understood getting games done. It was a huge, huge win.

It’s very easy in hacker-driven game development to wind up with a sophisticated simulation that’s lots of fun for the programmers to create but less fun to actually play. Spector was there to head off this tendency as well at Blue Sky, as when he pared down an absurdly complex combat system to something simple and intuitive, or when he convinced the boys not to damage the player’s character every time he accidentally bumped into a wall. That, said Spector, “doesn’t sound like fun to me” as a player — and it was the player’s fun, he gently taught Blue Sky, that had to be the final arbitrator.

At Spector’s behest, Neurath rented a second office near Boston — officially known as the “Finish Underworld Now” office — and insisted that everyone leave the house and come in to work there every day during the last two months of the project. The more businesslike atmosphere helped them all focus on getting to the end result, as did Spector himself, who spent pretty much all of those last two months in the office with the team.

Spector did much to make Blue Sky feel like a valued part of the Origin family, but the relationship still remained rocky at times — especially when the former learned that the latter intended to release Ultima Underworld just two weeks before Ultima VII, the long-awaited next title in the franchise’s main series. It seemed all but certain that their game would get buried under the hype for Ultima VII, would be utterly forgotten by Origin’s marketers. Certainly marketing’s initial feedback hadn’t been encouraging. They were, they said, having trouble figuring out how to advertise Ultima Underworld. Its graphics were spectacular when seen in motion, but in still screenshots they didn’t look like much at all compared to a Wing Commander II or an Ultima VII. Blue Sky seethed with frustration, certain this was just an excuse for an anemic, disinterested advertising campaign.

In Origin’s defense, the problem their marketers pointed to was a real one. And it wasn’t really clear what they could have done about the release-date issue either. The original plan had been, as they didn’t hesitate to remind Blue Sky, to release Ultima Underworld in time for the Christmas of 1991, but the protracted development had put paid to that idea. Now, Blue Sky themselves needed Ultima Underworld to come out as quickly as possible because they needed the royalties in order to survive; for them, delaying it was simply impossible. Meanwhile Origin, who had cash-flow concerns of their own, certainly wasn’t going to delay Ultima VII, quite possibly the most expensive computer game ever made to that point, for a mere spinoff title. The situation was what it was.

The balloons fly as Doug Church, Paul Neurath, and Warren Spector celebrate Ultima Underworld‘s release.

Whatever was to happen in terms of sales, Blue Sky’s young hackers did get the satisfaction in late March of 1992 of seeing their game as a boxed product on store shelves, something more than one of them has described as a downright surreal experience. Dan Schmidt:

We were a bunch of kids straight out of school. This was the first professional project we’d ever done. We felt lucky that anyone would see it at all. We’d go into a games store and see our game there on the shelf. Someone would walk up to it, and we’d want to say, “No! No! You don’t want to buy that! We just hacked that together. It’s not, like, a real game.”

In the beginning, sales went about as expected. A snapshot from Origin’s in-house newsletter dated July 31, 1992, shows 71,000 copies of Ultima VII shipped, just 41,000 copies of Ultima Underworld. But, thanks to ecstatic reviews and strong word of mouth — Origin may have struggled to see how groundbreaking the game really was, but gamers got it immediately — Ultima Underworld kept on selling, getting stronger every month. “It was the first game that ever gave me a sense of actually being in a real place,” wrote one buyer in a letter to Origin, clear evidence that Blue Sky had absolutely nailed their original design goal. Soon industry scuttlebutt had it outselling Ultima VII by two to one. Paul Neurath claims that Ultima Underworld eventually sold more than half a million copies worldwide, an extraordinary figure for the time, and considerably more than Ultima VII or, indeed, any previous Ultima had managed.

Shortly after Ultima Underworld‘s release, Paul Neurath and Ned Lerner finally did the obvious: they merged their two companies. They had recently discovered that another, slightly older company was already operating under the name of “Blue Sky Software,” making educational products. So, they named the merged entity Looking Glass Technologies. Their first release under the name would be Ultima Underworld II.

Two months after the first Ultima Underworld appeared, a tiny company out of Dallas, Texas, who called themselves id Software released Wolfenstein 3D, another first-person game set in a 3D environment. Their game, however, had none of the complexity of Ultima Underworld, with its quests and puzzles and magic spells and its character to develop and even feed. In id’s game, you ran through the environment and killed things — period.

For the remainder of the 1990s, 3D games would exist on a continuum between the cool, high-concept innovation of Looking Glass and the hot, visceral action of id, who were interested in innovation in the area of their graphics technology but somewhat less so in terms of their basic gameplay template. id would win the argument in terms of sales, but Looking Glass would make some of the most fascinating and forward-looking games of the decade. “We were thinking, ‘Why don’t we just run around and shoot?’” says Austin Grossman, another early Looking Glass employee. “But we were interested in simulation and depth. We were driven by this holy grail of simulated worlds, by that enabled choice and creativity of the player.”

We’ll be following the two companies’ artistic dialog for a long time to come as we continue with this history. First, though, we need to give Ultima Underworld a closer look, from the perspective of the player this time, to understand why it’s not just an example of groundbreaking technology but a superb example of pure game design as well.

(Sources: the books Game Design: Theory & Practice 2nd edition by Richard Rouse III, Ultima VII and Underworld: More Avatar Adventures by Caroline Spector, Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, and Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation: Modeling, Rendering, and Animating with 3D Computer Graphics by Michael O’Rourke; Questbusters of February 1992 and September 1992; PC Review of June 1992; Game Developer of April/May 1995, June/July 1995, August/September 1995, December 1995/January 1996, and April/May 1996; Commodore Magazine of January 1988; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from January 17 1992, March 27 1992, May 8 1992, August 28 1992, and December 18 1992. Online sources include “Ahead of Its Time: A History of Looking Glass” on Polygon, an interview with Paul Neurath and Doug Church on the old Ultima Online site, Gambit Game Lab’s interviews with Paul Neurath and Dan Schmidt, and Matt Barton’s interview with Paul Neurath. My thanks to Dan Schmidt and Ned Lerner for making the time to talk with me personally about their careers.

Ultima Underworld and its sequel can be purchased from GOG.com.)


  1. Wing Commander was actually still known as Wingleader at this time

 
 

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Star Control II

In this vaguely disturbing picture of Toys for Bob from 1994, Paul Reiche is at center and Fred Ford to the left. Ken Ford, who joined shortly after Star Control II was completed, is to the right.

There must have been something in the games industry’s water circa 1992 when it came to the subject of sequels. Instead of adhering to the traditional guidelines — more of the same, perhaps a little bigger — the sequels of that year had a habit of departing radically from their predecessors in form and spirit. For example, we’ve recently seen how Virgin Games released a Dune II from Westwood Studios that had absolutely nothing to do with the same year’s Dune I, from Cryo Interactive. But just as pronounced is the case of Accolade’s Star Control II, a sequel which came from the same creative team as Star Control I, yet which was so much more involved and ambitious as to relegate most of what its predecessor had to offer to the status of a mere minigame within its larger whole. In doing so, it made gaming history. While Star Control I is remembered today as little more than a footnote to its more illustrious successor, Star Control II remains as passionately loved as any game from its decade, a game which still turns up regularly on lists of the very best games ever made.



Like those of many other people, Paul Reiche III’s life was irrevocably altered by his first encounter with Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s. “I was in high school,” he remembers, “and went into chemistry class, and there was this dude with glasses who had these strange fantasy illustrations in front of him in these booklets. It was sort of a Napoleon Dynamite moment. Am I repulsed or attracted to this? I went with attracted to it.”

In those days, when the entire published corpus of Dungeons & Dragons consisted of three slim, sketchy booklets, being a player all but demanded that one become a creator — a sort of co-designer, if you will — as well. Reiche and his friends around Berkeley, California, went yet one step further, becoming one of a considerable number of such folks who decided to self-publish their creative efforts. Their most popular product, typed out by Reiche’s mother on a Selectric typewriter and copied at Kinko’s, was a book of new spells called The Necromican.

That venture eventually crashed and burned when it ran afoul of that bane of all semi-amateur businesses, the Internal Revenue Service. It did, however, help to secure for Reiche what seemed the ultimate dream job to a young nerd like him: working for TSR itself, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. He contributed to various products there, but soon grew disillusioned by the way that his own miserable pay contrasted with the rampant waste and mismanagement around him, which even a starry-eyed teenage RPG fanatic like him couldn’t fail to notice. The end came when he spoke up in a meeting to question the purchase of a Porsche as an executive’s company car. That got him “unemployed pretty dang fast,” he says.

So, he wound up back home, attending the University of California, Berkeley, as a geology major. But by now, it was the 1980s, and home computers — and computer games — were making their presence felt among the same sorts of people who tended to play Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, Reiche had been friends for some time already with one of the most prominent designers in the new field: Jon Freeman of Automated Simulations, designer of Temple of Apshai, the most sophisticated of the very early proto-CRPGs. Reiche got his first digital-game credit by designing The Keys of Acheron, an “expansion pack” for Temple of Apshai‘s sequel Hellfire Warrior, for Freeman and Automated. Not long after, Freeman had a falling-out with his partner and left Automated to form Free Fall Associates with his wife, programmer Anne Westfall. He soon asked Reiche to join them. It wasn’t a hard decision to make: compared to the tabletop industry, Reiche remembers, “there was about ten times the money in computer games and one-tenth the number of people.”

Freeman, Westfall, and Reiche made a big splash very quickly, when they were signed as one of the first group of “electronic artists” to join a new publisher known as Electronic Arts. Free Fall could count not one but two titles among EA’s debut portfolio in 1983: Archon, a chess-like game where the pieces fought it out with one another, arcade-style, under the players’ control; and Murder on the Zinderneuf, an innovative if not entirely satisfying procedurally-generated murder-mystery game. While the latter proved to be a slight commercial disappointment, the former more than made up for it by becoming a big hit, prompting the trio to make a somewhat less successful sequel in 1984.

After that, Reiche parted ways with Free Fall to become a sort of cleanup hitter of a designer for EA, working on whatever projects they felt needed some additional design input. With Evan and Nicky Robinson, he put together Mail Order Monsters, an evolution of an old Automated Simulations game of monster-movie mayhem, and World Tour Golf, an allegedly straight golf simulation to which the ever-whimsical Reiche couldn’t resist adding a real live dinosaur as the mother of all hazards on one of the courses. Betwixt and between these big projects, he also lent a helping hand to other games: helping to shape the editor in Adventure Construction Set, making some additional levels for Ultimate Wizard.

Another of these short-term consulting gigs took him to a little outfit called Binary Systems, whose Starflight, an insanely expansive game of interstellar adventure, had been in production for a couple of years already and showed no sign of being finished anytime soon. This meeting would, almost as much as his first encounter with Dungeons & Dragons, shape the future course of Reiche’s career, but its full import wouldn’t become clear until years later. For now, he spent two weeks immersed in the problems and promise of arguably the most ambitious computer game yet proposed, a unique game in EA’s portfolio in that it was being developed exclusively for the usually business-oriented MS-DOS platform rather than a more typical — and in many ways more limited — gaming computer. He bonded particularly with Starflight‘s scenario designer, an endlessly clever writer and artist named Greg Johnson, who was happily filling his galaxy with memorable and often hilarious aliens to meet, greet, and sometimes beat in battle.

Reiche’s assigned task was to help the Starflight team develop a workable conversation model for interacting with all these aliens. Still, he was thoroughly intrigued with all aspects of the project, so much so that he had to be fairly dragged away kicking and screaming by EA’s management when his allotted tenure with Binary Systems had expired. Even then, he kept tabs on the game right up until its release in 1986, and was as pleased as anyone when it became an industry landmark, a proof of what could be accomplished when designers and programmers had a bigger, more powerful computer at their disposal — and a proof that owners of said computers would actually buy games for them if they were compelling enough. In these respects, Starflight served as nothing less than a harbinger of computer gaming’s future. At the same, though, it was so far out in front of said future that it would stand virtually alone for some years to come. Even its sequel, released in 1989, somehow failed to recapture the grandeur of its predecessor, despite running in the same engine and having been created by largely the same team (including Greg Johnson, and with Paul Reiche once again helping out as a special advisor).

Well before Starflight II‘s release, Reiche left EA. He was tired of working on other people’s ideas, ready to take full control of his own creative output for the first time since his independent tabletop work as a teenager a decade before. With a friend named Fred Ford, who was the excellent programmer Reiche most definitely wasn’t, he formed a tiny studio — more of a partnership, really — called Toys for Bob. The unusual name came courtesy of Reiche’s wife, a poet who knew the value of words. She said, correctly, that it couldn’t help but raise the sort of interesting questions that would make people want to look closer — like, for instance, the question of just who Bob was. When it was posed to him, Reiche liked to say that everyone who worked on a Toys for Bob game should have his own Bob in mind, serving as an ideal audience of one to be surprised and delighted.

Reiche and Ford planned to keep their company deliberately tiny, signing only short-term contracts with outsiders to do the work that they couldn’t manage on their own. “We’re just people getting a job done,” Reiche said. “There are no politics between [us]. Once you start having art departments and music departments and this department and that department, the organization gets a life of its own.” They would manage to maintain this approach for a long time to come, in defiance of all the winds of change blowing through the industry; as late as 1994, Toys for Bob would permanently employ only three people.

Yet Reiche and Ford balanced this small-is-beautiful philosophy with a determination to avoid the insularity that could all too easily result. They made it a policy to show Toys for Bob’s designs-in-progress to many others throughout their evolution, and to allow the contractors they hired to work on them the chance to make their own substantive creative inputs. For the first few years, Toys for Bob actually shared their offices with another little collective who called themselves Johnson-Voorsanger Productions. They included in their ranks Greg Johnson of Starflight fame and one Robert Leyland, whom Reiche had first met when he did the programming for Murder on the Zinderneuf — Anne Westfall had had her hands full with Archon — back in the Free Fall days. Toys for Bob and Johnson-Voorsanger, these two supposedly separate entities, cross-pollinated one another to such an extent that they might almost be better viewed as one. When the latter’s first game, the cult-classic Sega Genesis action-adventure ToeJam & Earl, was released in 1991, Reiche and Ford made the credits for “Invaluable Aid.” And the influence which Leyland and particularly Johnson would have on Toys for Bob’s games would be if anything even more pronounced.

Toys for Bob’s first game, which they developed for the publisher Accolade, was called Star Control. With it, Reiche looked all the way back to the very dawn of digital gaming — to the original Spacewar!, the canonical first full-fledged videogame ever, developed on a DEC PDP-1 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology circa 1962. In Star Control as in Spacewar!, two players — ideally, two humans, but potentially one human and one computer player, or even two computer players if the “Cyborg Mode” is turned on — fight it out in an environment that simulates proper Newtonian physics, meaning objects in motion stay in motion until a counter-thrust is applied. Players also have to contend with the gravity wells of the planets around them — these in place of the single star which affects the players’ ships in Spacewar! — as they try to blow one another up. But Star Control adds to this formula a wide variety of ships with markedly differing weaponry, defensive systems, sizes, and maneuvering characteristics. In best rock-paper-scissors fashion, certain units have massive advantages over others and vice versa, meaning that a big part of the challenge is that of maneuvering the right units into battle against the enemy’s. As in real wars, most of the battles are won or lost before the shooting ever begins, being decided by the asymmetries of the forces the players manage to bring to bear against one another. Reiche:

It was important to us that each alien ship was highly differentiated. What it means is, unlike, say, Street Fighter, where your characters are supposedly balanced with one another, our ships weren’t balanced at all, one on one. One could be very weak, and one could be very strong, but the idea was, your fleet of ships, your selection of ships in total, was as strong as someone else’s, and then it came down to which match-up did you find. One game reviewer called it, “Rock, Scissors, Vapor,” which I thought was a great expression.

Of course, even the worst match-ups leave a sliver of hope that a brilliant, valorous performance on the field of battle can yet save the day.

You can play Star Control in “Melee” mode as a straight-up free-for-all. Each player gets seven unique ships from the fourteen in the game, from which she gets to choose one for each battle. First player to destroy all of her opponent’s ships wins. But real strategy — that is to say, strategy beyond the logic of rock-paper-scissors match-ups — comes into play only with the full game, which takes the form of a collection of scenarios where each player must deploy her fleet over a galactic map. In the more complex scenarios, controlling more star systems means more resources at one’s disposal, which can be used to build more and better ships at a player’s home starbase; this part of the game draws heavily from the beloved old Atari 8-bit classic Star Raiders. A scenario editor is also included for players who get bored with the nine scenarios that come with the game.

Star Control strains nobly to accommodate many different play styles and preferences. Just as it’s possible to turn on Cyborg Mode in the strategy game and let the computer do the fighting, it’s also possible to turn on “Psytron Mode” and let the computer do the strategy while you concentrate on blowing stuff up.

Star Control in action. The red ship is the infamous Syreen Penetrator.

Yet the aspect of Star Control that most players seem to remember best has nothing to do with any of these efforts to be all things to all players. At some point in the development process, Reiche and Ford realized they needed a context for all this interstellar violence. They came up with an “Alliance of Free Stars” — which included Earthlings among its numbers — fighting a war against the evil “Ur-Quan Hierarchy.” Each group of allies/thralls conveniently consists of seven species, each with their own unique model of spaceship. Not being inclined to take any of this too seriously, Toys for Bob let their whimsy run wild in creating all these aliens, enlisting Greg Johnson — the creator of the similarly winsome and hilarious aliens who inhabit the galaxy of Starflight — to add his input as well. The rogue’s gallery of misfits, reprobates, and genetic oddities that resulted can’t help but make you smile, even if they are more fleshed-out in the manual rather than on the screen.

Reiche on the origins of the Illwrath, a race of arachnid fundamentalists who “receive spiritual endorsement in the accomplishment of vicious surprise attacks”:

The name “Illwrath” comes from an envelope I saw at the post office, which was being sent to a Ms. McIlwrath in Glasgow, Scotland. I didn’t see the “Mc” at first, and I swear, my first thought was that they must be sending that envelope to an alien. I am sure that somewhere there is a nice little Scottish lady laughing and saying, “Oh, those crazy Americans! Here’s one now calling me an evil, giant, religiously-intolerant space spider — ha, ha, ha, how cute!” Hmm… on second thought, if I am ever found beaten with bagpipes or poisoned with haggis, please contact the authorities.

Around the office, Fred Ford liked to say that the Illwrath had become so darn evil by first becoming too darn righteous, wrapping right around the righteousness scale and yielding results akin to all those old computer games which suddenly started showing negative statistics if you built up your numbers too far. (Personally, I favor this idea greatly, and, indeed, even believe it might serve as an explanation for certain forces in current American politics.)

Reiche on the Mmrnmhrm, an “almost interesting robot race” who “fear vowels almost as much as they do a Dreadnought closing in at full bore”:

When I first named the Mmrnmhrm, they actually had a pronounceable name, with vowels and everything. Then, in a sketch for the captain’s window illustration, I forgot to give them a mouth. Later, someone saw the sketch and asked me how they talked, so I clamped my lips shut and said something like, “Mrrk nsss,” thereby instituting a taboo on vowels in anything related to the race. Though the Mmrnmhrm ended up looking more like Daleks than Humans, the name stuck.

Reiche on the Syreen, a group of “humanoid females” who embody — knowingly, one likes to believe — every cliché about troglodyte gamers and the fairer sex, right down to their bulbous breasts that look like they’re filled with sand (their origin story also involves the San Francisco earthquake of 1989):

It was an afternoon late last October in San Francisco when Fred Ford, Greg Johnson, and I sat around a monitor trying to name the latest ship design for our new game. The space vessel on the computer screen looked like a copper-plated cross between Tin Tin’s Destination Moon rocketship and a ribbed condom. Needless to say, we felt compelled to christen this ship carefully, with due consideration for our customers’ sensibilities as well as our artistic integrity. “How about the Syreen Penetrator?” Fred suggested without hesitation. Instantly, the ground did truly rise up and smite us! WHAM-rumble-rumble-WHAM! We were thrown around our office like the bridge crew of the starship Enterprise when under fire by the Klingons. I dimly remember standing in a doorframe, watching the room flex like a cheap cardboard box and shouting, “Maybe that’s not such a great name!” and “Gee, do you think San Francisco’s still standing?” Of course, once the earth stopped moving, we blithely ignored the dire portent, and the Syreen’s ship name, “The Penetrator,” was graven in code.

Since then, we haven’t had a single problem. I mean, everyone has a disk crash two nights before a program is final, right? And hey, accidents happen. Brake pads just don’t last forever! My limp is really not that bad, and Greg is almost speaking normally these days.

Star Control was released in 1990 to cautiously positive reviews and reasonable sales. For all its good humor, it proved a rather polarizing experience. The crazily fast-paced action game at its heart was something that about one-third of players seemed to take to and love, while the rest found it totally baffling, being left blinking and wondering what had just happened as the pieces of their exploded ship drifted off the screen about five seconds after a fight had begun. For these people, Star Control was a hard sell: the strategic game just wasn’t deep enough to stand on its own for long, and, while the aliens described in the manual were certainly entertaining, this was a computer game, not a Douglas Adams book.

Still, the game did sufficiently well that Accolade was willing to fund a sequel. And it was at this juncture that, as I noted at the beginning of this article, Reiche and Ford and their associates went kind of nuts. They threw out the less-than-entrancing strategy part of the first game, kept the action part and all those wonderful aliens, and stuck it all into a grand adventure in interstellar space that owed an awful lot to Starflight — more, one might even say, than it owed to Star Control I.

As in Starflight, you roam the galaxy in Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters to avert an apocalyptic threat, collecting precious resources and even more precious clues from the planets you land on, negotiating with the many aliens you meet and sometimes, when negotiations break down, blowing them away. The only substantial aspect of the older game that’s missing from its spiritual successor is the need to manage a bridge crew who come complete with CRPG-style statistics. Otherwise, Star Control II does everything Starflight does and more. The minigame of resource collection on planets’ surfaces, dodging earthquakes and lightning strikes and hostile lifeforms, is back, but now it’s faster paced, with a whole range of upgrades you can add to your landing craft in order to visit more dangerous planets. Ditto space combat, which is now of the arcade style from Star Control I — if, that is, you don’t have Cyborg Mode turned on, which is truly a godsend, the only thing that makes the game playable for many of us. You still need to upgrade your ship as you go along to fight bigger and badder enemies and range faster and farther across space, but now you also can collect a whole fleet of support ships to accompany you on your travels (thus preserving the rock-paper-scissors aspect of Star Control I). I’m not sure that any of these elements could quite carry a game alone, but together they’re dynamite. Much as I hate to employ a tired reviewer’s cliché like “more than the sum of its parts,” this game makes it all but unavoidable.

And yet the single most memorable part of the experience for many or most of us remains all those wonderful aliens, who have been imported from Star Control I and, even better, moved from the pages of the manual into the game proper. Arguably the most indelible of them all, the one group of aliens that absolutely no one ever seems to forget, are the Spathi, a race of “panicked mollusks” who have elevated self-preservation into a religious creed. Like most of their peers, they were present in the first Star Control but really come into their own here, being oddly lovable despite starting the game on the side of the evil Ur-Quan. The Spathi owe more than a little something to the Spemin, Starflight‘s requisite species of cowardly aliens, but are based at least as much, Reiche admits a little sheepishly, on his own aversion to physical danger. Their idea of the perfect life was taken almost verbatim from a conversation about same that Reiche and Ford once had over Chinese food at the office. Here, then, is Reiche and the Spathi’s version of the American Dream:

I knew that someday I would be vastly rich, wealthy enough to afford a large, well-fortified mansion. Surrounding my mansion would be vast tracts of land, through which I could slide at any time I wished! Of course, one can never be too sure that there aren’t monsters hiding just behind the next bush, so I would plant trees to climb at regular, easy-to-reach intervals. And being a Spathi of the world, I would know that some monsters climb trees, though often not well, so I would have my servants place in each tree a basket of perfect stones. Not too heavy, not too light — just the right size for throwing at monsters.

“Running and away and throwing rocks,” explains Reiche, “extrapolated in all ways, has been one of my life strategies.”

The Shofixti, who breed like rabbits. Put the one remaining female in the galaxy together with the one remaining male, wait a couple of years… and poof, you have an army of fuzzy little warmongers on your side. They fight with the same enthusiasm they have for… no, we won’t go there.

My personal favorite aliens, however, are the bird-like Pkunk, a peaceful, benevolent, deeply philosophical race whose ships are nevertheless fueled by the insults they spew at their enemies during battle. They are, of course, merely endeavoring to make sure that their morality doesn’t wrap back around to zero and turn them evil like the Illwrath. “Never be too good,” says Reiche. “Insults, pinching people when they aren’t looking… that’ll keep you safe.”

In light of the aliens Greg Johnson had already created for Starflight, not to mention the similarities between Starflight‘s Spemin and Star Control‘s Spathi, there’s been an occasional tendency to perhaps over-credit his contribution — valuable though it certainly was — to Toys for Bob’s own space epic. Yet one listen to Reiche and Ford in interviews should immediately disabuse anyone of the notion that the brilliantly original and funny aliens in Star Control II are there entirely thanks to Johnson. After listening to Reiche in particular for a few minutes, it really is blindingly obvious that this is the sense of humor behind the Spathi and so many others. Indeed, anyone who has played the game can get a sense of this just from reading some of his quotes in this very article.

There’s a rich vein of story and humor running through even the most practical aspects of Star Control II, as in this report from a planet’s surface. The two complement one another rather than clashing, perhaps because Toys for Bob is clever enough to understand that less is sometimes more. Who are the Liebermann triplets? Who knows? But the line makes you laugh, and that’s the important thing. When a different development team took the reins to make a Star Control III, Reiche’s first piece of advice to them was, “For God’s sake, don’t try to explain everything.” Many a lore-obsessed modern game could afford to take the same advice to heart.

Long after every other aspect of the game has faded from memory, its great good humor, embodied in all those crazy aliens, will remain. It may be about averting a deadly serious intergalactic apocalypse, but, for all that, Star Control II is as warm and fuzzy a space opera as you’ll ever see.

Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t go in for plot. In fact, the sequel’s plot is as elaborate as its predecessor’s was thin; the backstory alone takes up some twenty pages in the manual. The war which was depicted in Star Control I, it turns out, didn’t go so well for the good guys; the sequel begins with you entering our solar system in command of the last combat-worthy craft among a shattered and defeated Alliance of Free Stars. The Ur-Quan soon get wind of your ship’s existence and the last spark of defiance against their rule that it represents, and send a battlefleet toward Earth to snuff it out. And so the race is on to rebuild the Alliance and assemble a fleet of your own before the Ur-Quan arrive. How you do so is entirely up to you. Suffice to say that Earth’s old allies are out there. It’s up to you to find the aliens and convince them to join you in whatever sequence seems best, while finding the resources you need to fuel and upgrade your spaceship and juggling a whole lot of other problems at the same time. This game is as nonlinear as they come.

Star Control II takes itself seriously in the places where it’s important to do so, but never too seriously. Anyone bored with the self-consciously “dark” fictions that so often dominate in our current era of media will find much to appreciate here.

When asked to define what makes a good game, Paul Reiche once said that it “has to have a fun core, which is a one-sentence description of why it’s fun.” Ironically, Star Control II is an abject failure by this standard, pulling in so many directions as to defy any such holistic description. It’s a strategy game of ship and resource management; it’s an action game of ship-versus-ship combat; it’s an adventure game of puzzle-solving and clue-tracking. Few cross-genre games have ever been quite so cross-genre as this one. It really shouldn’t work, but, for the most part anyway, it does. If you’re a person whose ideal game lets you do many completely different things at every session, this might just be your dream game. It really is an experience of enormous richness and variety, truly a game like no other. Small wonder that it’s attracted a cult of players who will happily declare it to be nothing less than the best game ever made.

For my part, I have a few too many reservations to go quite that far. Before I get to them, though, I’d like to let Reiche speak one more time. Close to the time of Star Control II‘s release, he outlined his four guiding principles of game design. Star Control II conforms much better to these metrics than it does to that of the “one-sentence description.”

First, [games should be] fun, with no excuses about how the game simulates the agony and dreariness of the real world (as though this was somehow good for you). Second, they [should] be challenging over a long period of time, preferably with a few ability “plateaus” that let me feel in control for a period of time, then blow me out of the water. Third, they [should] be attractive. I am a sucker for a nice illustration or a funky riff. Finally, I want my games to be conceptually interesting and thought-provoking, so one can discuss the game with an adult and not feel silly.

It’s in the intersection between Reiche’s first and second principles that I have my quibbles with Star Control II. It’s a rather complicated, difficult game by design, which is fair enough as long as it’s complex and difficult in a fun way. Some of its difficulty, however, really doesn’t strike me as being all that much fun at all. Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while know that I place enormous weight on fairness and solubility when it comes to the games I review, and don’t tend to cut much slack to those that can only be enjoyed and/or solved with a walkthrough or FAQ to hand. On this front, Star Control II is a bit problematic, due largely to one questionable design choice.

Star Control II, you see, has a deadline. You have about five years before Earth is wiped out by the Ur-Quan (more precisely, by the eviller of the two factions of the Ur-Quan, but we won’t get into that here). Fans will tell you, by no means entirely without justification, that this is an essential part of the game. One of the great attractions of Star Control II is its dynamic universe which just keeps evolving, with or without your intervention: alien spaceships travel around the galaxy just like yours is doing, alien races conquer others and are themselves conquered, etc.

All of this is undoubtedly impressive from a game of any vintage, let alone one as old and technologically limited as this one. And the feeling of inhabiting such a dynamic universe is undoubtedly bracing for anyone used to the more static norm, where things only happen when you push them to happen. Yet it also has its drawbacks, the most unfortunate of which is the crushing sense of futility that comes after putting dozens of hours into the game only to lose it irrevocably. The try-and-try-again approach can work in small, focused games that don’t take long to play and replay, such as the early mysteries of Infocom. In a sprawling epic like this, however… well, does anyone really want to put those dozens of hours in all over again, clicking through page after page of the same text?

Star Control II‘s interface felt like something of a throwback even in its own time. By 1992, computer games had almost universally moved to the mouse-driven point-and-click model. Yet this game relies entirely on multiple-choice menus, activated by the cursor keys and/or a joystick. Toys for Bob was clearly designing with possible console ports in mind. (Star Control was ported to the Sega Genesis, but, as it happened, Star Control II would never get the same honor, perhaps because its sales didn’t quite justify the expense and/or because its complexity was judged unsuited to the console market.) Still, for all that it’s a little odd, the interface is well thought-through, and you get used to it quickly.

There’s an undeniable tension between this rich galaxy, full of unusual sights and entertaining aliens to discover, and the need to stay relentlessly on-mission if you hope to win in the end. I submit that the failure to address this tension is, at bottom, a failure of game design. There’s much that could have been done. One solution might have been to tie the evolving galaxy to the player’s progress through the plot rather than the wall clock, a technique pioneered in Infocom’s Ballyhoo back in 1986 and used in countless narrative-oriented games since. It can convey the impression of rising danger and a skin-of-the-teeth victory every time without ever having to send the player back to square one. In the end, the player doesn’t care whether the exhilarating experience she’s just had is the result of a meticulous simulation coincidentally falling into place just so, or of a carefully manipulated sleight of hand. She just remembers the subjective experience.

But if such a step is judged too radical — too counter to the design ethos of the game — other remedies could have been employed. To name the most obvious, the time limit could have been made more generous; Starflight as well has a theoretical time limit, but few ever come close to reaching it. Or the question of time could have been left to the player — seldom a bad strategy in game design — by letting her choose from a generous, moderate, and challenging time limit before starting the game. (This approach was used to good effect by the CRPG The Magic Candle among plenty of other titles over the years.)

Instead of remedying the situation, however, Reiche and his associates seemed actively determined to make it worse with some of their other choices. To have any hope of finishing the game in time, you need to gain access to a new method of getting around the galaxy, known as “quasi-space,” as quickly as possible. Yet the method of learning about quasi-space is one of the more obscure puzzles in the game, mentioned only in passing by a couple of the aliens you meet, all too easy to overlook entirely. Without access to quasi-space, Star Control II soon starts to feel like a fundamentally broken, unbalanced game. You trundle around the galaxy in your truck of a spaceship, taking months to reach your destinations and months more to return to Earth, burning up all of the minerals you can mine just to feed your engines. And then your time runs out and you lose, never having figured out what you did wrong. This is not, needless to say, a very friendly way to design a game. Had a few clues early on shouted, “You need to get into quasi-space and you may be able to do so here!” just a little more loudly, I may not have felt the need to write any of the last several paragraphs.

I won’t belabor the point any more, lest the mob of Star Control II zealots I can sense lurking in the background, sharpening their pitchforks, should pounce. I’ll say only that this game is, for all its multifaceted brilliance, also a product of its time — a time when games were often hard in time-extending but not terribly satisfying ways, when serious discussions about what constituted fair and unfair treatment of the player were only just beginning to be had in some quarters of the industry.

Searching a planet’s surface for minerals, lifeforms, and clues. Anyone who has played Starflight will feel right at home with this part of the game in particular.

Certainly, whatever our opinion of the time limit and the game’s overall fairness, we have to recognize what a labor of love Star Control II was for Paul Reiche, Fred Ford, and everyone who helped bring it to fruition, from Greg Johnson and Robert Leyland to all of the other writers and artists and testers who lent it their talents. Unsurprisingly given its ambition, the project went way beyond the year or so Accolade had budgeted for it. When their publisher put their foot down and said no more money would be forthcoming, Reiche and Ford reached deep into their own pockets to carry it through the final six months.

As the project was being wrapped up, Reiche realized he still had no music, and only about $1500 left for acquiring some. His solution was classic Toys for Bob: he ran an online contest for catchy tunes, with prizes of $25, $50, and $100 — in addition to the opportunity to hear one’s music in (hopefully) a hit game, of course. The so-called “tracker” scene in Europe stepped up with music created on Commodore Amigas, a platform for which the game itself would never be released. “These guys in Europe [had] just built all these ricky-tink programs to play samples out,” says Reiche. “They just kept feeding samples, really amazing soundtracks, out into the net just for kicks. I can’t imagine any of these people were any older than twenty. It makes me feel like I’m part of a bigger place.”

Upon its release on November 30, 1992 — coincidentally, the very same day as Dune II, its companion in mislabeled sequels — Star Control II was greeted with excellent reviews, whose enthusiasm was blunted only by the game’s sheer unclassifiability. Questbusters called it “as funny a parody of science-fiction role-playing as it is a well-designed and fun-to-play RPG,” and named it “Best RPG of the Year” despite it not really being a CRPG at all by most people’s definitions. Computer Gaming World placed it on “this reviewer’s top-ten list of all time” as “one of the most enjoyable games to review all year,” and awarded it “Adventure Game of the Year” alongside Legend Entertainment’s far more traditional adventure Eric the Unready.

Sales too were solid, if not so enormous as Star Control II‘s staying power in gamers’ collective memory might suggest. Like Dune II, it was probably hurt by being billed as a sequel to a game likely to appeal most to an entirely different type of player, as it was by the seeming indifference of Accolade. In the eyes of Toys for Bob, the developer/publisher relationship was summed up by the sticker the latter started putting on the box after Star Control II had collected its awards: “Best Sports Game of 1992.” Accolade was putting almost all of their energy into sports games during this period, didn’t have stickers handy for anything else, and just couldn’t be bothered to print up some new ones.

Still, the game did well enough that Toys for Bob, after having been acquired by a new CD-ROM specialist of a publisher called Crystal Dynamics, ported it to the 3DO console in 1994. This version added some eight hours of spoken dialog, but cut a considerable amount of content that the voice-acting budget wouldn’t cover. Later, a third Star Control would get made — albeit not by Toys for Bob but by Legend Entertainment, through a series of intellectual-property convolutions we won’t go into in this article.

Toys for Bob themselves have continued to exist right up to the present day, a long run indeed in games-industry terms, albeit without ever managing to return to the Star Control universe. They’re no longer a two-man operation, but do still have Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford in control.

To this day, Star Control II remains as unique an experience as it was in 1992. You’ve never played a game quite like this one, no matter how many other games you’ve played in your time. Don’t even try to categorize it. Just play it, and see what’s possible when a talented design team throws out all the rules. But before you do, let me share just one piece of advice: when an alien mentions something about a strange stellar formation near the Chandrasekhar constellation, pay attention! Trust me, it will save you from a world of pain…

(Sources: Compute!’s Gazette of November 1984; Compute! of January 1992 and January 1993; Computer Gaming World of November 1990, December 1990, March 1993, and August 1993; InterActivity of November/December 1994; Questbusters of January 1993; Electronic Gaming Monthly of May 1991; Sega Visions of June 1992; Retro Gamer 14 and 15. Online sources include Ars Technica‘s video interview with Paul Reiche III and Fred Ford; Matt Barton’s interviews with the same pair in Matt Chat 95, 96, and 97; Grognardia‘s interview with Reiche; The Escapist‘s interview with Reiche; GameSpot‘s interview with Reiche.

There’s a rather depressing pitched legal dispute swirling around the Star Control intellectual property at the moment, which has apparently led to Star Control I and II being pulled from digital-download stores. Your best option to experience Star Control II is thus probably The Ur-Quan Masters, a loving open-source re-creation based on Toys for Bob’s 3DO source code. Or go hunt down the original on some shadowy corner of the interwebs. I won’t say anything if you don’t.)

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction