Author Archives: Jimmy Maher

The Game of Everything, Part 1: Making Civilization

If my gravestone says, “Sid Meier, developed Civilization,” I’m happy with that. It’s a game I’m happy to be known for.

— Sid Meier

Sid Meier

During Sid Meier’s astonishingly productive first ten years as a designer and programmer, games poured out of him in such a jumble that even his colleagues at MicroProse Software could have trouble keeping straight what all he was working on at any given time. At the beginning of 1990, for instance, he had no fewer than three ambitious projects on the boil. He and his protege Bruce Shelley were finishing up Railroad Tycoon with justifiable enthusiasm. The same pair was, with considerably less enthusiasm, returning to Covert Action, one of the rare Meier designs that he could just never quite get to work to his satisfaction. And then — because what else should a recently married game designer spend his evenings doing? — Meier had embarked on a third project on his own time, a game he was already calling Civilization.

Like Railroad Tycoon before it, Civilization was born out of Meier’s abiding fascination with SimCity. The programmer and simulation designer inside him recognized Will Wright’s so-called “software toy” to be a stunning achievement, yet the purer game designer within him was always a bit frustrated by the aimlessness of the experience. Thus Railroad Tycoon had attempted to take some of the appeal of SimCity and “gamify” it by adding computerized opponents and a concrete ending date. It had succeeded magnificently on those terms, but Meier wasn’t done building on what Wright had wrought. In fact, his first conception of Civilization cast it as a much more obvious heir to SimCity than even Railroad Tycoon had been. Whereas SimCity had let the player build her own functioning city, Civilization would let her build a whole network of them, forming a country — or, as the game’s name would imply, a civilization.

This, then, was the first of three conceptual layers which would eventually make up the game of Civilization that the world would come to know. Meier abstracted away most of the details of the individual cities, letting the player decide only on which key buildings were built, whilst boiling each city down to a handful of numbers detailing its population, its economy, and its quality of life. This being a country rather than a city simulator, the spaces between the cities were just as important as the urban centers themselves. Meier thus made it possible to irrigate the countryside, to build roads to facilitate commerce, to build mines for digging up the raw materials needed by the centers of industry. At this early stage, Civilization, later to be hailed as the most iconic exemplar of turn-based grand-strategy games, ran in real time, like SimCity and Railroad Tycoon before it.

Around March of 1990, after working on Civilization for some months completely alone, Meier began to include Bruce Shelley in the role of sounding board. Shelley worked a standard eight-to-five day at MicroProse most of the time, while Meier hewed to a typical hacker’s schedule, showing up at noon or shortly before and working late into the evening. Each night, before he went home, he’d leave a disk on Shelley’s chair with the latest version of Civilization. The next morning, when Shelley arrived at work, he’d play it for an hour or so in order to give Meier his feedback. For perhaps as long as a year, Shelley was literally the only person allowed to play the nascent Civilization, under strict instructions to ignore the pleas of his colleagues peering over his shoulder. It was, to say the least, an unorthodox model of game development, but it somehow worked for these two unique personalities. Far from remaining just a glorified play-tester for very long, Shelley got deeper and deeper into the design. As he did so, Civilization started to become something else entirely.

The switch from a real-time to a turn-based approach was made quite early on, possibly even before those disks started appearing on Bruce Shelley’s chair. It would be wonderful to know the details behind the decision, but neither Meier nor Shelley can recall much of the specifics. It’s likely, however, that the change was made when Meier and Shelley — or Meier alone — started mulling over how to prevent Civilization from falling into the SimCity trap of becoming more of a software toy than a game in the traditional sense. The obvious way to gameify the experience was to include competing civilizations, just as Railroad Tycoon had included competing robber barons. But conflicts between civilizations, unlike conflicts between business interests, always have looming over them the prospect of that ultimate diplomatic arbiter: war. So, including competing civilizations seemed to demand that a whole new layer of wargame strategy be mated to the existing game of city and country development.

Meier, who somehow found time to remain an avid player of strategy games when he wasn’t developing them, had for years been playing one called Empire, a design so old that it had been born on a big DEC PDP-10 rather than a microcomputer. Empire has a complicated pre-commercial history, which is complicated further by the fact that at least three mostly or entirely separate games were given the name over the course of the 1970s. But the most relevant version for our purposes was created by Walter Bright, a 20-year-old student at the California Institute of Technology, in 1977. Bright himself later ported it to microcomputers, efforts which culminated in him selling the game to a small publisher called Interstel, who made something of a specialty out of pulling hoary old classics out of the dustbin of 1970s institutional computing, giving them a coat of spit and polish, and introducing them to the home-computer-owning public. (Their first game, 1984’s Star Fleet I: The War Begins!, had done the same thing for the old mainframe Star Trek game.) It was Interstel’s version of Empire, published in 1987 with the subtitle Wargame of the Century, that Sid Meier knew best.

At a time when companies like SSI were publishing bafflingly complicated wargames in the name of faithfulness to history, Empire stood out for its elegant simplicity; it was more Risk than Squad Leader. A world on which to play is chosen or, more commonly, generated randomly for each game. You begin in possession of a single city surrounded by just eight visible squares of the 5684 of them that make up the map; the rest of the world remains a mystery. Each city can be assigned to build one of a handful of armies, aircraft, and ships, each of which demands a set number of turns to bring to completion. Your first objective must be to build a unit in your first city and set out to explore the map as quickly as possible, taking possession of any neutral cities you discover. But eventually you run into the units and cities of your competitors, whereupon you all duke it out, leaving the last person left standing as the winner. Simplicity really is the watchword throughout. The military units, for instance, have their capabilities abstracted into just a handful of numbers: a movement speed, an attack rating, a defense rating, a damage rating describing the number of hits required to destroy it. Combat occurs when one player drives a unit into a square occupied by an enemy unit, whereupon the computer throws a virtual die, runs the result through an equation, and announces the outcome of the battle. A certain kind of player lauds Empire as a pure strategy game, a balanced challenge which rewards purely strategic thinking instead of muddying the issue with the superiority of Nazi optics versus the better armor of Allied tanks and all the rest. (Of course, another kind of player, of a more experiential bent, finds it utterly uninteresting for the same reason.)

Issuing orders to a unit in Empire

…and doing the same thing in Civilization.

There’s really no delicate way to put this: confirming the old adage that good artists borrow while great ones steal, Sid Meier pretty much ripped off Empire wholesale and transported it into his burgeoning Civilization. The unknown map just begging to be revealed, the combat system, even many of the specific commands a player could issue to her units… all arrived virtually unchanged in Civilization, to such an extent that anyone who had played Empire — and Bruce Shelley, for one, certainly had — would immediately know what to do. Where Meier did make changes, it was generally to simplify Empire‘s already hugely abstracted approach to wargaming yet further. For example, he removed the damage rating from his units altogether in favor of a one-hit-and-you’re-done model. (This would lead to one of the more indelible images of Civilization in the cultural memory: that of a Greek phalanx destroying, thanks to a lucky roll of the virtual die, a platoon of modern tanks.)

By this point, Meier and Shelley had a fairly credible game already, a version of Empire grafted to a city-building game of economic development which determined how many and what sorts of military units the player could produce and support. Said units were confined to the ancient era: legions, phalanxes, chariots, cavalry. Shelley remembers the two of them discussing the fact that, should worse come to worst, they could probably just polish up what they had and release it as a beer-and-pretzels strategy game of the Punic Wars or something. Yet neither one was at all inclined to do so; to turn Civilization into a just another conquer-the-world game would be to lose some palpable if unarticulated sense of otherness that had been lurking within the project from the very beginning.

Civilization‘s Advances Chart is one of the most awe-inspiring documents I’ve ever encountered in my life. Colloquially referred to as the “tech tree,” it actually encompasses much more than that name would imply. It’s rather an endlessly fascinating chronicle of human progress, of what begot what, not just in the realm of technology but in those of art, culture, thought… in everything. I love it so much that I very nearly started another blog just to explore its interconnections. Yes, really.

The moment when they discovered their game’s true reason for existing came when they conjured up the “Advances Chart,” a timeline of scientific, technological, and cultural advancements up which the player could guide her civilization. With this idea, the third and most defining layer of the game fell into place. Not only did it change the game, it also changed the nature of the design process. The pair’s afternoons were soon filled by discussions — and occasional arguments — ranging back and forth across the timeline of progress. Others inside MicroProse’s cramped offices found these discussions so fascinating that they couldn’t help listening in, to the detriment of their own productivity. Shelley remembers making one proposal that wouldn’t ultimately make it into the game, for introducing a technology no less plebeian than the stirrup to the Advances Chart. “Why the stirrup?” asked a baffled Meier. Well, explained Shelley, horse-borne warfare didn’t instantly begin when people began riding horses; if you hit someone with a lance while riding without stirrups you’d wind up pushing yourself right off the horse. Knights in shining armor, massed cavalry charges, cowboys and Indians… the humble stirrup, just as much as the domestication of horses, had been the key to all of it. These were the sorts of insights Civilization was now giving its designers, as it soon would its players as well.

Beyond the starting slate of seven possibilities for research, the Advances Chart was based on prerequisites: to research Mysticism required one to already have discovered Ceremonial Burial, to research Chivalry required one to have Horseback Riding and Feudalism. The prerequisites were partially based on gameplay considerations, but at least as often teased out real, sometimes subtle linkages between the great achievements of humanity. Why, for instance, should Democracy require Literacy? Because a functioning democracy requires a literate population able to read for themselves and make responsible decisions from a position of knowledge, that’s why. Why should Labor Unions require Mass Production? Because the awful working conditions in factories provided the impetus for organizing and collectively demanding better conditions from the moneyed interests who owned the factories, that’s why.

In order to form such connections, Meier and Shelley spent hours poring over history books, trying to understand what begot what and why. They were undoubtedly punching above their weight in trying to wrestle into place so all-encompassing a document as the Civilization Advances Chart — who wouldn’t be? — but they were helped by the fact that both had been dedicated readers of history for years, amassing substantial personal libraries.1 And when said personal libraries failed them, they could take advantage of the location of MicroProse’s offices in suburban Baltimore by making the short drive to one of the Smithsonian museums or the Library of Congress.

Meier and Shelley didn’t, as would have been all too easy for two old grognards like them, limit their research to the realm of the military, nor for that matter to the military-industrial complex. As some of the examples I’ve already named illustrate, they really did try to encompass everything on their Advances Chart, including philosophy, the arts, even the slow march of human rights toward true equality. They resisted the natural urge to dismiss or belittle those things which fell outside the compass of their usual interests. Here, another Shelley anecdote is telling. Very late in the game’s development, he asked one of MicroProse’s artists, who given the company’s usual product portfolio was accustomed to drawing pictures of soldiers, tanks and airplanes, to draw a picture of Michelangelo’s David statue for the Civilization manual. Why on earth do you want a picture of that, asked the artist. Shelley admitted that he was no great art historian or even art enthusiast. But, he said, people who are those things have told me via their books that this statue is very, very important — even, some of them might say, one of the great achievements of human civilization — and I respect their point of view. That noble broad-mindedness became an essential part of Civilization‘s personality, keeping it from becoming just another min-max-ing exercise in conflict management. I recently praised the Dr. Brain series of educational games from Sierra for their unwillingness to be confined to a single topic, for the implicit argument they make that all fields of human endeavor are equally worthy. Vastly different though it is as a game, Civilization manifests the same spirit.

By the time the Advances Chart extended to roughly the present day, the simple mechanisms Meier and Shelley had built the game around were finally beginning to break down. Meier remembers the introduction of aircraft units, which demanded that some ugly special rules be grafted onto the heretofore beautifully simple Empire-derived military layer, as a particular inflection point, a sign to the two designers that it was about time to wrap things up. He recalls introducing pollution to the game at least partly as a way of sending the same signal to the player.

Still, the spirit of the Advances Chart would clash horribly with a game which could be won only by conquering the world. What could become an alternative endgame for the player who preferred building to conquering? It was Shelley who suggested the perfect builder’s path to victory: advancing all the way to the end of the Advances Chart would allow you to build and launch a spaceship for Alpha Centauri, thus inaugurating the next great phase of humanity’s existence. Granted, it didn’t quite make sense in the context of the rest of the advances chart, which otherwise confined itself to things that had already been discovered or that hopefully would be in the fairly near future. Civilization would offer no explanation of how humanity would go from Robotics, (Apollo-style) Space Flight, and Plastics to bridging the 4.37 light years that separate our solar system from its closest neighbor — a leap that could require a whole other Advances Chart at least as big as the one Meier and Shelley already had to actually bring to fruition in any sort of grounded way. One could argue that a voyage to Mars might have made a better final goal, but Meier and Shelley clearly wanted something audacious, and audacious a trip to Alpha Centauri certainly is.

Now it only remained for the two designers to glue their three layers of gameplay into a coherent whole. On the surface, this seemed far from a simple task. The issues of scaling they faced would have defeated many a designer: military operations took place on a scale of days and weeks, construction projects played out on a scale of months and years, while cultures moved up the Advances Chart only over a time frame of decades and centuries.

My regular readers may recall that this same pair of designers had faced an only slightly less extreme version of this clash of time and scale with Railroad Tycoon. There the question had been how to integrate the operational aspect of the game — also known as the “model-railroading” aspect — with the business of running a real railroad over a period of years and decades. They solved the problem, you may recall, by effectively ignoring it, by running the entire game on the macro time scale of the business layer and just letting the operational layer deal with it. This meant that individual trains could take months between leaving one station and arriving at another, and that major transportation corridors like Boston to New York might be served by just two or three train departures per year. You could rationalize all of this as an abstraction of the hundreds of trains that were really running over these tracks, or you could just not think about it at all. The point was that it led to a fun game that captured the spirit of its subject matter.

Faced with the same problem in Civilization, Meier and Shelley took the exact same approach. The game would run on a time frame appropriate to the theme of human progress on the grand scale. Each turn would represent fully twenty years from 4000 BC to 1000 AD, followed by ten years until 1500, five years until 1750, two years until 1850, and one year thereafter; the shortening spans of time would depict the steadily accelerating pace of progress as the world lurched toward modernity. This had some extremely weird implications for the Empire-derived military game in particular: it meant that battles could conceivably span centuries —  the Trojans and the Greeks had nothing on this lot! — and wars could potentially span millennia. For that matter, it meant that just marching a phalanx from one side of one’s country to the other could require a couple of centuries in itself. You can, once again, choose to rationalize this as an abstraction of reality, or you can just not think about it. Yet again, the point is that it’s fun and that it works for the game.

With the three layers of the design thus welded together, the rest of the game we’ve come to know as Civilization fell into place. Meier and Shelley turned to the history books again to select fifteen current or historical cultures for inclusion, from the Americans to the Zulus, one of which the player could choose to play, the others of which would serve as potential rival civilizations. Fairly rudimentary artificial intelligence came in for this last group, with the behavior of each rival civilization’s leader defined on an axis of three values, from “militaristic” to “civilized,” from “aggressive” to “friendly,” from “expansionist” to “perfectionist.” An extremely rudimentary diplomatic model came in, with geopolitical relations boiled down to make war or make peace, demand tribute or pay tribute.

The final indelible piece of the Civilization experience arrived in the form of “Wonders of the World,” special structures which only one civilization would be allowed to build in one city in the course of an entire game. Each would confer some tangible benefit, but just as important would be the bragging rights of having constructed the Pyramids of Giza or the Great Wall of China. While the idea and the name were obviously inspired by the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Meier and Shelley wound up using only four of the Seven. The balance of the list was filled out with seventeen other landmark achievements, many of them not actually physical structures at all: Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, Darwin’s theory of evolution, the United Nations, the Apollo moon landings, even — reaching now into the realm of wishful thinking — a cure for cancer. Just as had happened with the Advances Chart, the list of Wonders became far more wide-ranging than one would have any right to expect. How many other grognards would have taken the time to single out women’s suffrage as one of the Wonders of the World?

Other designers — some of them great ones — had occasionally dreamed about a game of this scale and scope, but none had ever come close to bringing the dream to fruition. At the very same time that Meier and Shelley were working on Civilization, two other hugely admired designers were coincidentally each working on a similarly themed project of their own, only to be forced to scale it back dramatically. Dan Bunten2 wound up with Global Conquest, a competent but less than earth-shaking conquer-the-world strategy game, while Chris Crawford wound up with a game every bit as unfun as its title would imply: The Global Dilemma: Guns or Butter.

Why, we might ask, did Civilization turn out differently? A big piece of the reason must be Sid Meier’s unwavering commitment to fun as the final arbiter in game design, as summed up in his longstanding maxim of “Fun trumps history.” Meier, Bunten, and Crawford actually met on at least one occasion to discuss the games of everything they each had in progress. Crawford’s recollections of that meeting are telling, even if they’re uttered more in a tone of condemnation than approbation: “Sid had a very clear notion: he was going to make it fun. He didn’t give a damn about anything else; it was going to be fun. He said, ‘I have absolutely no reservation about fiddling with realism or anything, so long as I can make it more fun.'”

But another, less obvious piece of the puzzle is inherent to the way that Civilization was developed. Imagine yourself in the shoes of a designer who’s just decided to make a game about everything. How do you even begin? What rules, what mechanics, what interface can you possibly employ? It is, needless to say, a daunting prospect. Game design being an art of the possible, you inevitably begin to pare away at your grand vision, trying to arrive at some core which you can actually hope to implement. In the process, though, you also begin cutting into the soul of the idea, until you arrive at a dispiriting shadow of it like Global Conquest or The Global Dilemma. Sid Meier, by contrast, never really decided to make a game about everything at all; his design just kind of went there on its own. Thus while Bunten and Crawford were cutting back on their ambitions, Meier was expanding on his. Rather than arriving as an immaculate conception, Civilization was allowed to grow into itself, employing rules, mechanics, and interfaces which had already been proven on smaller scales.

A persistent question surrounding Civilization the computer game — and one that has come to have urgent legal relevance — has been the influence of an earlier game with the same name, a board game designed by Francis Tresham and self-published by him in 1980, then re-published under the Avalon Hill imprint in 1982. The theme of the board game matches that of the computer game — the advancement of human civilization from its formative stages — and the two share other eyebrow-raising similarities. An Advances Chart not at all far removed from the one in the computer game is implemented in the board game as well via a deck of cards, and even some of the individual advances in the board game lend their names to those in the computer game. On the other hand, the board game ends in approximately 250 BC, while, as already noted, the computer game stretches into the near future.

Seasoned grognards that they were, Meier and Shelley could hardly not have been acquainted with the Avalon Hill game, which enjoyed considerable popularity in its day among the hardcore wargame crowd who were willing to devote the five or six hours that a complete playthrough of it usually required. Yet Meier — who, it should be noted, has always been very transparent about the inspirations for his games — has claimed to have played the board game only once in his life, and not to have had it in mind at all when he started making the computer game. Shelley, who worked at Avalon Hill prior to coming to MicroProse, admits to considerably more familiarity, but likewise dismisses the notion of having borrowed anything more than certain themes and a name, the latter apparently with no regard to what had come before. Sid Meier could be, much to MicroProse head “Wild” Bill Stealey’s chagrin, extremely naive about matters of business and intellectual property, and simply stuck the obvious name on his own game without ever thinking about what conflicts it might create.

Stealey was no grognard, and thus had no idea about the name’s history until MicroProse had already begun advance promotion of their take on Civilization. It was at this point that a very unhappy Eric Dott, the president of Avalon Hill, called him up and said, “Wild Bill, Civilization is my game. You’re stealing it.” Further complicating the situation was the fact that the same two men had had very nearly same conversation barely a year before, when MicroProse had published Railroad Tycoon. Dott had been convinced then that the game in question bore suspicious similarities to the Avalon Hill board game 1830: Railways & Robber Barons, ironically also a Francis Tresham design, and one on which Bruce Shelley had done some work during his time at the company. Stealey had been able to smooth things over then, but now here they were again, and with what seemed a much more clear-cut case of trademark infringement at that. To make matters that much worse, Avalon Hill was about to unveil a set of expanded rules for the original Civilization board game under the name of Advanced Civilization, and was thus particularly unenthused about having a computer game with the same name confusing the issue at this of all junctures.

Wild Bill can best explain what happened next in his own inimitable style:

So, I had lunch with Eric. I bought him lunch because I was buttering him up. I said, “Eric, I apologize. I didn’t know Sid was doing this, but I think it’s going to be a good game. I think we won’t sell near as many as you sell as boxed games.” You know, one of those games you buy in a box and play on a table — tabletop games. “What if I put a card in every one of the games that says, ‘Get $5 off Civilization from Avalon Hill,’ and you do the same for me?'” After two or three glasses of wine, he agreed — one of his bigger mistakes. He would have made a lot more money if he had said, “Okay, give me 10 percent of it.” All he got was a card in the game box. If he had 10 percent of Civilization, Avalon Hill would still be around today, right?

Of course, the presence of those cards in the boxes did nothing to ease the confusion surrounding these two very different games with the same name. To this day, there are many who believe Sid Meier’s Civilization to be merely a computerized version of the board game.

Stealey and Dott’s gentleman’s agreement wouldn’t keep the lawyers at bay forever; the issue would be revisited again, with major consequences for all involved. But that would be only years in the future, and thus must be fodder for a much later article of mine.

By the time Stealey and Dott had their tête-à-tête, the duo of Meier and Shelley had long since begun including their colleagues in the Civilization development and play-testing process. The game had a split reputation inside MicroProse. The technical and creative staff, almost to a person, loved it, was convinced that this was not just another game, not even just another very good Sid Meier game, but a true landmark in the offing for their company and for their industry. And yet the more businesslike side of the company, taking their cue from the man at the top of the food chain, was rather less enthused.

The fact of the matter was that Wild Bill Stealey wasn’t capable of getting truly, personally enthused over any game that wasn’t a military flight simulator. Just as had happened with Pirates! and Railroad Tycoon, Sid Meier’s two earlier masterpieces, he never quite seemed to grasp what his star designer was on about with Civilization, couldn’t seem to understand why he preferred to spend his time on a high-falutin’ project like this one instead of, say, F-15 Strike Eagle III. Yet Meier, whose confidence in himself had grown with every game of his that MicroProse published, was no longer a designer to whom Stealey could dictate directions; the last gasp of that had been his reluctantly finishing up Covert Action at Stealey’s insistence. Faced with that reality, Stealey duly provided Civilization with the artists and other resources Meier and Shelley needed to finish it, announced the game to the press (thus leading to that fateful lunchtime truce with Eric Dott), and even ran some modest pre-release advertisements. But he wasn’t overly generous with the Civilization development team; certainly the finished game is no graphical feast, with a look that verges at times on amateurish. Shelley in particular has described his frustration with feeling perpetually under-appreciated by MicroProse’s management. The final insult came when, after shipping their staggeringly ambitious game in December of 1991, he and Meier saw their bonuses cut because they had done so six weeks late, missing the bulk of the Christmas buying season.

Whatever Stealey personally thought of Civilization, his ambivalence is by no means the only explanation for the relative lack of resources at his star designer’s disposal. Meier, who had co-founded MicroProse with Stealey back in 1982, had seven years later made a conscious decision to step back from the roller-coaster ride that running a company alongside Wild Bill was always doomed to be. In 1989, he had convinced Stealey to buy him out so he could focus strictly on designing games, becoming a “super contractor” for what had once been his own company. Still, nothing could entirely insulate him and Shelley and their latest game from an unstable situation around them. The fact was that MicroProse was in a rather precarious position as Meier and Shelley were finishing their latest masterpiece. The problems reached back to 1988, when Stealey, having seen his company clear $1 million in profit the previous year, embarked on two major new initiatives that pushed them well outside their comfort zone of military simulations for American home computers. Neither of them would have a happy ending.

One of the new initiatives was an aggressive expansion into the European market, including a new branch office in Britain and the purchase of the Firebird and Rainbird labels from British Telecom. In principle, opening a MicroProse subsidiary in Britain was a smart, even visionary move to get in on the second biggest computer-game market in the world, but the move was horribly mismanaged from the start, collapsing into chaos in the summer of 1989, when Stealey flew to Britain to personally accuse a managing director of embezzling £200,000 from the company coffers. The purchase of Firebird and Rainbird, on the other hand, didn’t make much sense even at the time as anything other than expansion for expansion’s sake — their collection of action games and old-school text adventures didn’t sit terribly well beside the MicroProse catalog — and quickly turned out to be a bust, with both labels, which had enjoyed considerable respect at the time of the purchase, disappearing entirely by 1991 under a cloud of yet more transatlantic miscommunication.

Wild Bill Stealey with his ill-fated F-15 Strike Eagle arcade game.

But it was the other big initiative of 1988 that was closest to Wild Bill Stealey’s flyboy heart. Frustrated by the limitations of the personal computers which ran his beloved flight simulators, he concocted a scheme to build his own hardware in order to do them justice. Gene Lipkin, a former executive with the original Atari, took charge of a project to build coin-op versions of MicroProse’s games for arcades, beginning with F-15 Strike Eagle, their most successful game of all. The arcade version of that game, which was unveiled in 1990, could draw 60,000 polygons per second to its huge 27-inch screen at a time when the average PC-based MicroProse simulator was pushing about 1500. But, impressive though the hardware may have been, the whole project was profoundly ill-conceived from a business perspective. Like its microcomputer equivalent, the arcade version of F-15 Strike Eagle was a deep, fairly realistic game that would require some time even to fully understand, much less master. That was fine for home-computer software, but totally at odds with the quick thrills typically offered by arcade quarter-munchers. The extended play time, the complex missions which the player had to earn the right to play… none of it made any sense whatsoever as an arcade game. Even the First Gulf War, which was being televised live every night on CNN and creating a voracious appetite for flight simulators on home computers, couldn’t save it. It flopped.

As all of these misbegotten ventures ran their course, the losses piled up at MicroProse: $1.4 million in 1988, $300,000 in 1989, $600,000 in 1990. In 1991, Stealey decided that the best way to clear all of his failed ventures off the books and start moving forward again was to launch an IPO. On October 3, 1991, just as Meier and Shelley and their helpers were in the midst of the final mad scramble to finish Civilization, MicroProse issued 2 million shares at an initial price of $9 each. It was, to say the least, an unconventional move; companies normally launch IPOs when things are going well, not when they’re going poorly.3 For MicroProse, it would prove only the most short-lived of bandages on a series of financial wounds Stealey would only continue to inflict on his company.


Nevertheless, Civilization did come out that December, in a nice-looking box, with a fat manual (largely written by Shelley) and a pull-out insert for that magnificent Advances Chart. No one, of course — not even the game’s designers or its most zealous devotees among MicroProse’s creative staff — had any idea of what it would ultimately come to mean for its industry or its art form. Certainly no one could have dreamed that Civilization would still be going strong as I write these words more than a quarter of a century later, that it would become the sort of game quite likely to go on for as long as our own civilization exists to sustain it. “We knew it was a fun game,” remembers Meier, “but there had been no historical example of a [computer] game that had that kind of longevity at that point. We didn’t have a sense that this was going to be so different from the other games we had made. We thought it was good and creative and had new ideas in it, but had it flopped we would not have been shocked.”

Following the lead of its designers, gamers at large for the most part regarded Civilization as merely the latest release from the highly respected Sid Meier, albeit perhaps one with an unusually intriguing premise. Most of the initial reviews showed no inkling of the game’s ultimate importance, although they were universally positive. The one reviewer who did seem to grasp the game’s timeless quality was Alan Emrich. Writing in his usual affected style for Computer Gaming World, the journal of record for hardcore strategy gamers, he concluded his review by saying that “a new Olympian in the genre of god games has truly emerged, and Civilization is likely to prove itself the greatest discovery in computer entertainment since the wheel.”

But most importantly, Civilization sold quite well following its release, spending several months among the top ten sellers in the industry, rising once or twice as high as the number-three spot. Whatever he personally thought of Sid Meier’s recent esoteric project choices, Wild Bill Stealey couldn’t complain about the commercial performance of this, his latest effort, which earned back all of the money it had cost to make it in fairly short order.

And then, something else started to happen. After those first several months were over, when sales of any other computer game could normally be expected to fall off a cliff, they did no such thing in the case of Civilization. Month after month, Civilization kept right on selling. It became that rarest of beasts in what was becoming an ever more ephemeral, hits-driven industry: a perennial. Over the course of its first four and a half years on the market, it sold 850,000 copies, while becoming a huge influence on a whole new generation of ambitious turn-based grand-strategy games. Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley had never made a sequel in their careers, and never had any inkling that this latest game of theirs would spawn a franchise, much less a genre — much less, for some players, a veritable lifestyle. But when MicroProse bowed to their customers’ demands and belatedly returned to the well in 1996 with Civilization II, the die was well and truly cast. Publishers, designers, and technology might come and go, but Civilization was forever.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, Game Design: Theory & Practice by Richard Rouse III, and Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Game People Play by Morgan Ramsay; PC Review of August 1992; A.C.E. of May 1990; Computer Gaming World of January 1988, June 1989, September 1990, December 1990, November 1991, December 1991, and April 1992; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from October 25 1991, March 27 1992, June 5 1992, and August 14 1992; Soren Johnson’s interviews with Bruce Shelley and Sid Meier. My huge thanks go to Soren for providing me with the raw audio of his Sid Meier interview months before it went up on his site, thus giving me a big leg up on my research.)

  1. Soren Johnson, who many years later worked as co-designer of Civilization III and lead designer of Civilization IV, remembers Meier loaning him some reference books near the beginning of his involvement with the franchise, telling him that they might be good resources to use in refining or expanding the Advances Charts of the earlier games. Flipping through the books, he noticed underlined phrases like “ceremonial burial.” With a start, he realized that he had in his hands a history book that had itself become a piece of history: one of Sid Meier’s original sources for the original Civilization

  2. Dan Bunten began living as the woman Danielle Bunten Berry shortly after the publication of Global Conquest. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

  3. MicroProse had become a distributor of “affiliated labels,” smaller publishers who paid for access to their distribution network, in the late 1980s. In the run-up to the IPO, trying to make their bottom line look better, they abruptly stopped paying such labels for the games they sold. Among the publishers that were nearly undone by this move was Legend Entertainment. In light of episodes like this, it’s perhaps not a big surprise that, while Sid Meier was universally liked and respected, Bill Stealey’s reputation within his industry was, at best, mixed. 


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Wing Commander II

If there was ever any doubt inside Origin Systems that Chris Roberts’s Wing Commander was destined to join Ultima as the company’s second great franchise, it was banished the moment the first game in the new series was released on September 26, 1990, and promptly sold by some accounts 100,000 copies in its first month on the market. Previously known as a maker of highly demanding CRPGs that were devoured by an exclusive audience of loyalists, Origin was suddenly the proud publisher of the game that absolutely everybody was talking about, regardless of what genre they usually favored. It was a strange turn of events, one that surprised Origin almost as much as it did the rest of their industry. Nevertheless, the company wouldn’t be shy about exploiting the buzz.

The first dribble in what would become a flood of additional Wing Commander product was born out of a planned “special edition” of the original game, to be sold only via direct mail order. Each numbered copy of the special edition was to be signed by Roberts and would include a baseball cap sporting the Wing Commander logo. To sweeten the deal, Roberts proposed that they also pull together some of the missions and spaceships lying around the office that hadn’t made the cut for the original game, string some story bits between them using existing tools and graphic assets, and throw that into the special-edition box as well.

But the commercial potential for the “mission disk” just kept growing as customers bought the original game, churned through the forty or so missions included therein, and came clamoring for more. Roberts, for one, was certain that mission disks should be cranked out in quantity and made available as widely as possible, likening them to all of the “adventure modules” he had purchased for tabletop Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. And so the profile of the so-called Secret Missions project kept growing, becoming first a standalone product available by direct order from Origin, and then a regular boxed product that was sold at retail, just like all their other games. “When I make the decision to purchase a product,” Roberts noted in his commonsense way, “I want to go to the store and buy it immediately. I don’t want to make a phone call and wait for someone to ship it to me.”

The add-on disk’s mission design wasn’t as good as that of the original game, which had already done a pretty good job of digging all of the potential out of the space-combat engine’s fairly limited bag of tricks. With no way of making the missions more interesting, the add-on settled for making them more difficult, throwing well-nigh absurd quantities of enemy spacecraft at the player. But it didn’t matter: players ate it up and kept right on begging for more. Origin obliged them again with Secret Missions 2, a somewhat more impressive outing that employed the engine which was in development for a standalone Wing Commander II, and was thereby able to add at least a few new wrinkles to the mission formula along with a more developed plot.

It was Wing Commander II itself, however, that everyone — not least among them Origin’s accountants — was really waiting for. Origin hoped to get the sequel out by June of 1991, just nine months after the first game. Chris Roberts, now installed as Origin’s “Director of New Technologies,” had been placed in charge of developing a true next-generation engine from scratch for use in the eventual Wing Commander III, and thus had a limited role in this interim step. Day-to-day responsibility for Wing Commander II passed into the hands of its “director” Stephen Beeman,1 who had just finished filling the same role on Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire.

Beeman’s team of coders improved the space-combat engine in welcome ways. They properly accounted for the speed of the computer running the game, thus mostly fixing the speed issues which have dogged the first Wing Commander to this day. They added an innovative layer of adaptive artificial intelligence on the part of enemy ships, so that if the player flew and shot better the enemy did as well and vice versa, in an effort to remedy one of the primary complaints players had made about the Secret Missions disks in particular: that too many of the missions were just too darn hard. And they also created a whole new slate of ships to fight and to fly; most notable among them was the Broadsword, a lumbering torpedo bomber of a spaceship with rear- and side-facing gun turrets which the player could jump into and control.

Wing Commander II‘s most obvious new gameplay wrinkle is the Broadsword torpedo bomber, in which you can control gun turrets that shoot to the sides and behind. But it doesn’t work out all that well because your ship just keeps flying straight ahead, a clay pigeon for the Kilrathi, while you’re busy in the turret. I tend to ignore the existence of the turrets, and I suspect I’m not alone.

With Wing Commander II, Origin’s artists began using Autodesk 3D Studio. Jake Rodgers, the first 3D artist they hired to work with the new tool, had learned how to do so at an architecture firm. “After talking with Origin, I decided that creating spaceships sounded a lot more interesting than working on buildings,” he remembers. The actual game engine remained only psuedo-3D, but Rodgers and the artists he trained were able to use 3D Studio to make the sprites which represented the ships more detailed than ever, both in the game proper and in some very impressive animated cut scenes. The 3D revolution that was destined to have as huge an impact on the aesthetics of games as it would on the way they played was still a couple of years away from starting in earnest, but with the arrival of 3D Studio in Origin’s toolbox the first tentative steps were already being taken.

Wing Commander II introduces the possibility of good Kilrathi, thus softening some of xenophobia of the first game. And yes, it remains completely impossible to take these flying Tony the Tigers seriously.

Most of all, though, Origin poured their energy into the story layer of the game — into all the stuff that happened when you weren’t actually sitting in the cockpit blowing up the evil Kilrathi. Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi took an approach to game design that could best be summed up as “give the people what they want.” With barely six months to bring the project to completion, Origin combed through all of the feedback they had received on the first game, looking to punch up the stuff that people had liked and to minimize or excise entirely the stuff they seemingly didn’t care so much about.

And they found out that what the people had really liked, alongside the spectacular graphics and sound, had been the feeling of playing the starring role in a rollicking science-fiction film. The people liked the interactions in the bar with their fellow pilots, the briefing scenes before each mission, and the debriefs afterward. They liked the characters of their fellow pilots, to whom they claimed an emotional bond that surprised even Chris Roberts. And they liked the idea of all of the missions they flew finding their context within a larger unfolding narrative of interstellar war — even if, taken on its own terms, the story of the first game was so vague as to barely exist at all. Faced with such a sketchy story, alongside a collection of characters that were often little more than ethnic stereotypes, players had happily spun more elaborate fictions in their minds, reading between lines the game’s developers had never drawn in the first place. For instance, some of them were convinced that Angel, the female French pilot, secretly had the hots for the hero, something that came as news to everyone at Origin.

But there were other innovative aspects of the first game which, equally to Origin’s surprise, their customers were less keen on. The most noteworthy of these, and a consistent sore point with Chris Roberts in particular, was the lovingly crafted branching mission tree, in which the player’s success or failure affected the course of the war and thus what later missions she would be assigned. Despite all of Origin’s admonitions to the contrary, overwhelming evidence suggested that the vast majority of players replayed each mission until they’d managed to complete it successfully rather than taking their lumps and moving on. Roberts and his colleagues found this so frustrating not least because they had poured a lot of energy and money into missions which the majority of players were never even seeing. Yes, one might argue that this state of affairs was to a large extent Origin’s own fault, the natural byproduct of a design which assigned harder rather than easier missions as a consequence of failure, thus sending the honest but not terribly proficient player into a downward spiral of ever-increasing futility. Still, rather than remedy that failing Origin chose to prune their mission tree; while limited branching would still be possible, the success and failure paths would be merely slightly modified versions of the same narrative arc, and failing two mission series in a row would abruptly end the game. Origin wanted to tell a real story this time around, and that would be hard enough; they didn’t have time to make a bunch of branching stories.

Who would ever have guessed that the black pilot would be the one named Downtown?

Given the new emphasis on story, Stephen Beeman was fortunate to have at his disposal Ellen Guon, the very first professional writer ever to be hired by Origin. Guon came to the company from Sierra, where she had polished up the text in remakes of the first King’s Quest game and the educational title Mixed-Up Mother Goose. Before that, she had written for Saturday-morning cartoons, working for a time with Christy Marx, another cartoon veteran who would later wind up at Sierra, on Jem and the Holograms. She’d also seen some of her science-fiction and fantasy stories published in magazines and anthologies, and her first novel, a collaboration with the more established fantasy novelist Mercedes Lackey, was being published just as she was settling in at Origin. Beeman and Guon developed the initial script for Wing Commander II together, learning in the process that they had more in common than game development; Ellen Guon would eventually become Ellen Beeman.

Chris Roberts badly wanted not just a more developed story for the second game but a darker one, an Empire Strikes Back to contrast with the original game’s Star Wars. Beeman and Guon obliged him with a script that sees the Tiger’s Claw, the ship from which the player had flown and fought in the first game, destroyed in the opening moments of the second one by a Kilrathi strike force that, thanks to the secret stealth technology the flying tigers have developed, seems to come out of nowhere. The hero of the original game, who sported whatever name the player chose to give him but was universally known to the developers as “Bluehair” after the tint Origin’s artists gave to his coiffure, is flying a mission when it happens, and through a not-entirely-sensical chain of logic winds up being blamed for the tragedy. But the prosecution fails to prove his negligence or treasonous intent beyond a reasonable doubt at the court martial, and instead of winding up in prison he gets demoted and assigned to fly routine patrols with “Insystem Security” from a station way out in the middle of nowhere. Finally, after years of this boring duty, the Kilrathi unexpectedly come to his quiet little corner of the galaxy, and the “Coward of K’Tithrak Mang” — that being Bluehair — gets his shot at redemption, under circumstances that see him reunited with many of his old comrades-in-arms from Wing Commander I and its mission disks.

A rule of war movies applies here. If someone starts talking about her family…

The increased emphasis on storytelling — on cinematic storytelling — is all-pervasive. The original game played out in a predictable sequence: conversations in the bar would be followed by a mission briefing, which would be followed by the actual mission, which would be followed by the debrief. Now, the “movie” takes place anywhere and everywhere. In order to inject some cinematic drama into the mission themselves, Origin introduced cut scenes that can play at literally any time as they unfold.

Wing Commander II really is all about the story. It doesn’t want you to spend a lot of time working out how to beat each of the missions; it just wants to keep the plot train chugging down the track. Thus the new adaptive artificial intelligence, which keeps you from ever getting stuck on a mission you just can’t crack. At the same time, however, the selfsame artificial intelligence contrives to make sure that none of your victories are ever routine. “If you meet eight enemies and manage to take out the first seven,” noted Beeman, “the last ship’s intelligence is increased by a few notches. Engaging the last ship results in a really tough dogfight.” Wing Commander II is meant to be a relentless thrill ride like the movies that inspired it, and is always willing to put a thumb on either side of the scale to make sure it meets that ideal.

…and then starts talking about her impending retirement…

From a business standpoint — from that of making games that make money — Wing Commander II could serve as something of a role model even today. There was no trace of the indecision, over-ambition, and bets-hedging that so often lead projects astray. Stephen Beeman had a crystal-clear brief, and he achieved his goals with the same degree of clarity, bringing the project in only slightly over time and over budget — not a huge sin, considering that Origin’s original timing and budget had both been wildly overoptimistic. The important thing was that the game was done in plenty of time for Christmas, shipping on August 30, 1991, whereupon Origin was immediately rewarded with smashing reviews. Writing for Computer Gaming World, Alan Emrich optimistically said that the plot had begun “bridging the chasm from ‘genre pulp fiction’ to something that could be more accurately regarded as ‘art.'” Even more importantly, Wing Commander II became another smash hit. It sold its first 100,000 units in the United States in less than two months, and a truly remarkable 500,000 copies worldwide in its first six months.

…it can only end one way for her.

Yet in my opinion Wing Commander II hasn’t aged nearly as well as its predecessor. Today, the two games stand together as an object lesson in the ever-present conflict between narrative and interactivity. In gaining so much of the former, Wing Commander II loses far too much of the latter. Speaking at the time of the game’s release, Origin’s Warren Spector noted that “we’re still learning how to tell stories on the computer. We’re figuring out where we can be cinematic, and where trying to be cinematic just flat doesn’t work. We’re finding out where you want interaction, and where you want the player to sit back and watch the action.” It’s at these intersections between “being cinematic” and not being cinematic, between interaction and “sitting back and watching the action,” that Wing Commander II kind of falls apart for me.

I’m no fan of bloated, shaggy game designs, and generally think that a keen editor’s eye is one of the best attributes a designer can possess, yet I would hardly describe the original Wing Commander as over-complicated. In the second game, I miss the many things that have been excised as superfluous. I miss the little ersatz arcade game that lets you practice your skills; I miss winning medals and promotions as a result of my performance in the missions; I miss climbing the squadron leader board as I collect more and more kills. In the first game, your wingman could get killed in battle if you didn’t watch out for him properly, resulting in a funeral ceremony, a “KIA” next to his name on the leader board, and your having to fly all by yourself those subsequent missions that should have been earmarked for the two of you. This caused you, for both emotional and practical reasons, to care about the person you were flying with like any good wing leader should. In the second game, however, this too has been carved away. Your wingmen will now always bail out and be rescued if they get too badly shot up. They die only when the railroaded plot demands that they do so, accompanied by a suitably heroic cut scene, and there’s isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. Wing Commander II thus robs you of any real agency in what is supposed to be your story. Even the idea of a branching narrative, though poorly executed in the first game, could have been done better here instead of being tossed aside as just one more extraneous triviality.

After I published my articles on the first Wing Commander, commenter Jakub Stribrny described his experience with that game:

I decided to do one true honest playthrough. Just one life. If I got shot down, there was no loading the state. I had to start from the very beginning.

And that was when I discovered what the simulator was good for. Since I had only one life I had to make sure I was really prepared before each mission. So I devised a training plan for myself. An hour in the simulator before even attempting the first mission and then two simulator sessions between each subsequent mission. This proved very effective and I was able to clear almost the whole game. In the end I died just a few missions from the end when attempting to attack a group of Jalthi – fighters with extreme firepower – head-on. Stupid.

But I never got so much fun from gaming as when I really had to focus on what’s happening around me, cooperate with my wingman, carefully manage missile use, plan optimal routes between navigation points, and choose whether it’s still safe to ignore the blinking EJECT! light or it’s time to call it a day and survive to fight the battles of tomorrow. Or when I was limping to the home base with both cannons shot up and anxiously awaiting whether the badly damaged and glitching comms system would hold at least long enough for me to ask the carrier for landing clearance. My fighter failed me then and I had to eject in the end, but boy was that an experience.

Wing Commander II obviously pleased many players in its day, but it could never deliver an experience quite like this one. Nor, of course, was it meant to.

In the years that followed Wing Commander II‘s release, a cadre of designers and theorists would unite under the “games are not movies” banner, using this game and its successors as some of their favorite examples of offenders against all that is good and holy in ludology. But we need not become overly strident or pedantic, as so many of them have been prone to do. Rather than continuing to dwell on what was lost, we can try to judge Wing Commander II on its own terms, as the modestly interactive cinematic thrill ride it wants to be. I’m by no means willing to reject the notion that a game can succeed on these terms, provided that the story is indeed catching.

This is hands-down the funniest picture in Wing Commander II, almost as good as the Kilrathi helmets with the ears on top from the first game.

The problem for Wing Commander II from this perspective is that the story winds up being more Plan 9 from Outer Space than The Empire Strikes Back. No one — with, I suppose, the possible exception of Computer Gaming World‘s Mr. Emrich — is looking for deathless cinematic art from a videogame called Wing Commander II. Yet there is a level of craftsmanship that we ought to be able to expect from a game with this one’s stated ambitions, and Wing Commander II fails to clear even that bar.

Put bluntly, the story we get just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What exactly did Bluehair do to cause the destruction of the Tiger’s Claw, a tragedy for which only he among the carrier’s entire air group was blamed? Why was everyone so quick to believe that a decorated war hero had suddenly switched sides? Why on earth — excuse me, on Terra — would the Terran Confederation reassign someone widely suspected of high treason to even an out-of-the-way posting? And once the game proper gets going, why does Bluehair’s commander persist in believing that he’s a traitor even after he’s saved the life of said commander and everyone aboard his ship half a dozen times? And if the commander does still believe Bluehair is a traitor, why does he keep assigning him to vital missions in between bitching about what a traitor he is and how much it sucks to have him on his ship? Etc., etc.

Now, you could accuse me of over-analyzing the game’s action-movie screenplay, and you’d perhaps have a point. After all, Wing Commander‘s inspiration of Star Wars is hardly the most grounded narrative in the world. What I would also say in response, however, is that there’s a craft — a sleight of hand, if you will — to keeping the reader or viewer from focusing too much on a story’s incongruities. The writer or screenwriter accomplishes this by offering up compelling characters that are easy to root for or against and by keeping the excitement ever on the boil.

This game’s story makes me feel like Bluehair looks in this picture.

And here too Wing Commander II drops the ball. At the center of the action is the charisma vacuum that is Bluehair. The first game held back on characterizing him, letting the player imagine him to be the person she wished him to be. That can no longer work in the more developed narrative of the second game, but Origin still seems reluctant to fill in the lines of his character, with the result that he falls smack into an uncanny valley between the two classic models of the adventure-game protagonist: the fully fleshed-out individual whose personality the player is expected to assume, and the proverbial “nameless, faceless adventurer” that she can imagine to be herself. Bluehair becomes what my dear old dad would call a “lunk,” a monosyllabic non-presence who rarely has much to say beyond “Yes, Sir,” and “No, Sir.” It feels like a veritable soliloquy when he can manage to muster up an “I’m not guilty, sir. I won’t sign it!” or a “Go to hell, Jazz!” And when the romance subplot kicks in — duly following the stated desires of their players in this as in all things, Origin made Angel the love interest — it starts to get really painful. One does have to wonder why everyone is getting so hot and bothered over this guy of all people. Luke Skywalker — much less Han Solo — he definitely ain’t.

So, we might ask, how did we wind up here? How did one of the first Origin games to take advantage of real, professional writers not turn out at least a little bit better? A strong clue lives in a document that’s been made public by the website Wing Commander Combat Information Center. It’s the initial script for the game, as prepared by Ellen Guon and Stephen Beeman and completed on November 29, 1990, before production got underway in earnest. The version of the story found herein differs considerably from that found in the completed game. The story is more detailed, better explained, and richer all the way around, including a much more dynamic and assertive Bluehair. It might be instructive to compare the opening of the story as it was originally conceived with what that of the finished game. Here’s how things started back in November of 1990:

Establishing shot — Tiger’s Claw floating in space.

Narration: CSS Tiger’s Claw, six months after the Vega Sector Campaign…

Establishing shot — Tiger’s Claw briefing room. We can’t tell yet who the commander is.

Bluehair: Okay, everyone, settle down…

Cut to Bluehair. Now we see that Bluehair is in Colonel Halcyon’s familiar position.

Bluehair: Pilots, I’d like to welcome you to the Tiger’s Claw. I’m Lieutenant Colonel Bluehair Ourhero, your new commanding officer. I hope everyone’s recovered from the farewell party for Paladin, Angel, Spirit, Iceman, and General Halcyon.

Hunter: An’ don’t forget that bloody lunatic, Maniac! They finally transferred ‘im to the psych ‘ospital.

Bluehair: Sad but true, Hunter. Now, pay close attention, pilots. We’ve just been assigned a top-priority mission, to spearhead a major raid deep into Kilrathi space to their sector command post in the K’Tithrak Mang system. The plan is to jump in with a few carriers and Marine transports, hit the starbase hard, then jump out.

Hunter: ‘nother bleedin’ starbase, eh?

Bluehair: (smiles) You got it, mate. Let’s just hope it’s as easy as the last one. Now, listen close, everyone. Knight and Bossman are Alpha Wing — check for enemy fighters at Nav 2 and 3. Kilroy and Sabra are Beta Wing…

Narration: You assign all the wings. All but one.

Bluehair: I saved the most important wing for last. Computer, display Kappa. On our way to the starbase, the Claw will pass close to the asteroid field at Nav 1. We don’t know what’s out there, so Hunter and I are going to sweep the rocks as the Claw begins its approach. We’ll either take out whatever we find or hightail it back here to warn the Claw. Any questions, pilots? Good. The Claw will complete her last jump in approximately seven minutes. Get ready for immediate launch. Dismissed.

Animation of crowd rising — different backs! Animation of Tiger’s Claw jumping.

Narration: K’Tithrak Mang system, deep within Kilrathi space.

Animation of launch-tube sequence.

Mission 0. This really should be a basically easy mission. However, just as Bluehair is returning to the action sphere that contains the Claw, we cut to a canned scene.

Bluehair: No!

The Tiger’s Claw floats in the medium distance. Close to us, three Kilrathi stealth fighters in a chevron uncloak, launch missiles, then peel off in different directions. The missiles impact the Claw and blow it to kingdom come.

Dust motes are zooming past us, as if we were headed into the starfield. Now a space station appears in the far distance, rapidly getting closer. We zoom in on this until we start moving around the station. As we do so, the planet Earth comes into view on one edge of the screen. The station itself remains center frame.

Narration: Confederation High Command, Terra system, six months after the destruction of the Tiger’s Claw.

Admiral Tolwyn presides over Bluehair’s court martial. A very formal-looking bench with seven dress-uniformed figures, Tolwyn in the middle, is in the back pane. Bluehair and his counsel are sitting at a table. Spot animations of camera drones with Klieg lights will help convey the information that this trial is based more on media image than justice.

Tolwyn: Lieutenant Colonel Ourhero, stand at attention. Lieutenant Colonel Ourhero, you stand accused of negligence, incompetence, and cowardice under fire. Your actions resulted in the death of 61,000 Confederation defenders. Despite your plea of not guilty and your ridiculous claim that the Kilrathi used some non-existent stealth technology, flying invisible ships past your position…

Bluehair: It’s true, sir.

Tolwyn: …you are obviously guilty of these crimes against the Confederation. But, fortunately for you, this court cannot prove your guilt. Our primary evidence, your black-box flight recorder, is missing from the Confed Security offices. Because of the lack of physical evidence, this court is required by law to dismiss your case. We find you not guilty of crimes against the Confederation. This court is adjourned. Lieutenant Colonel Ourhero, report to my office at once.

Establishing shot — Tolwyn’s office

Tolwyn: I wanted to talk to you in private, Bluehair. The court couldn’t convict you because of a technicality, but we all know the truth, Ourhero. You’re a coward and a traitor, and I’ll personally guarantee that you’ll never fly again. Your career with the Navy is over. As I assumed that you have some small amount of honor left, my secretary has drawn up your resignation papers…

Bluehair: I won’t resign, Admiral.

Tolwyn: What??

Bluehair: I’m not guilty, sir. I refuse to resign.

Tolwyn: Then I’ll offer you one more option, just because I never want to see your face again. I have a request from Insystem Security for a mid-ranked pilot. If you’ll accept a demotion to captain, it’s yours. Otherwise, pilot, you’re grounded for life.

Bluehair: I’ll accept the demotion, sir.

Tolwyn: Very well. Get out of here… and you’d better hope we never meet again, traitor.

Below you can see the finished game’s interpretation of the story’s opening beats.

Some of the choices made by the finished game, such as the decision to introduce the villain of the piece from the beginning rather than wait until some eight missions in, are valid enough in the name of punching up the anticipation and excitement. (One could, of course, still wish that said introduction had been written a bit better: “Speak of your plans, not of your toys.” What does that even mean?) In other place, however, the cuts made to the story have, even during this opening sequence, already gone deeper than trimming fat. Note, for instance, how the off-hand epithet of “traitor” which Admiral Tolwyn hurls at Bluehair in the initial script is taken to mean literal treason by the final game. And note how the shot showing the court martial to be a media circus, thus providing the beginning of an explanation as to why the powers that be have chosen to scapegoat one decorated pilot for a disastrous failure of a military operation, gets excised. Much more of that sort of subtlety — the sort of subtly that makes the story told by the first draft a credible yarn within its action-movie template — will continue to be lost as the game progresses.

There’s no single villain we can point to who decided that Wing Commander II should be gutted, much less a smoking gun we can identify in the form of a single decision that made all the difference. The closest we can come to a money quote is this one from Chris Roberts, made just after the game’s release: “We learned some lessons. We tried to do too much in too little time. None of us had any idea that the game had grown so large.” Like politics, commercial game development has always been the art of the possible. Origin did the best they could with the time and money they had, and if what they came up with wasn’t quite the second coming of The Empire Strikes Back which Roberts had so wished for, it served its purpose well enough from a business perspective, giving gamers a much more concentrated dose of what they had found so entrancing in the first game and giving Origin the big hit which they needed in order to stay solvent.

Origin, you see, had a lot going on while Wing Commander II was in production, and this provides an explanation for the pressure to get it out so quickly. Much of the money the series generated was being poured into Ultima VII, a CRPG of a scale and scope the likes of which had never been attempted before, a project which became the first game at Origin — and possibly the first computer game ever — with a development budget that hit $1 million. Origin’s two series made for a telling study in contrasts. While Wing Commander II saw its scope of interactivity pared back dramatically from that of its predecessor, Ultima VII remained as formally as it was audiovisually ambitious. Wing Commander had become the cash cow, but it seemed that, for some at Origin anyway, the heart and soul of the company was still Ultima.

Origin thus continued to monetize Wing Commander like crazy to pay for their latest Ultima. In a cash grab that feels almost unbelievably blatant today, they shipped a separate “Speech Accessory Pack” simultaneously with the core game. It added digitized voices to a few cut scenes, such as the opening movie above, and let your wingmen and your Kilrathi enemies shout occasional canned phrases during missions. “You want to buy our new game?” said Origin. “Okay, that will be $50. Oh… you want to play the game with all of the sound? Well, that will cost you another $25.” Like so much else about Wing Commander II, the speech, voiced by members of the development team, is terminally cheesy today, but in its day the Speech Pack drove the purchase of the latest Sound Blaster cards, which were adept at handling such samples, just as the core game drove the purchase of the hottest new 80386-based computers. And then two more add-on mission disks, known this time as Special Operations 1 and 2, joined the core Wing Commander II and the Speech Pack on store shelves. Well before the second anniversary of the first game’s release, Origin had no fewer than seven boxes sporting the Wing Commander logo on said shelves: the two core games, the four add-on mission packs, and the Speech Pack. Few new gaming franchises have ever generated quite so much product quite so quickly.

Where it really counted, Wing Commander II delivered.

Of course, all this product was being generated for one reason only: because it sold. In 1991, with no new mainline Ultima game appearing and with the Worlds of Ultima spin-offs having flopped, the Wing Commander product line alone accounted for an astonishing 90 percent of Origin’s total revenue. Through that year and the one that followed, it remained undisputed as the biggest franchise in computer gaming, still the only games out there scratching an itch most publishers had never even realized that their customers had. The lessons Origin’s rivals would draw from all this success wouldn’t always be the best ones from the standpoint of games as a form of creative expression, but the first Wing Commander had, for better or for worse, changed the conversation around games forever. Now, Wing Commander II was piling on still more proof for the thesis that a sizable percentage of gamers really, really loved a story to provide context for game play — even if it was a really, really bad story. After plenty of false starts, the marriage of games and movies was now well and truly underway, and a divorce didn’t look likely anytime soon.

(Sources: the book Wing Commander I & II: The Ultimate Strategy Guide by Mike Harrison; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from June 21 1991, August 7 1991, October 11 1991, October 25 1991, November 8 1991, January 17 1992, March 13 1992, and May 22 1992; Retro Gamer 59; Computer Gaming World of November 1991. Online sources include documents hosted at the Wing Commander Combat Information Center, US Gamer‘s profile of Chris Roberts, The Escapist‘s history of Wing Commander, Paul Dean’s interview with Chris Roberts, and an interview with Richard Garriott that was posted to Usenet in 1992.

Wing Commander I and II can be purchased in a package together with all of their expansion packs from

  1. Stephen Beeman now lives as the woman Siobhan Beeman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 


The Worlds of Ultima

Proud papa Warren Spector with a copy of Worlds of Ultima II: Martian Dreams.

In the very early days of Ultima, Richard Garriott made a public promise which would eventually come back to haunt him. Looking for a way to differentiate his CRPG series from its arch-rival, Wizardry, he said that he would never reuse an Ultima engine. Before every new installment of his series, he would tear everything down to its component parts and rebuild it all, bigger and better than ever before. For quite some time, this policy served Garriott very well indeed. When the first Ultima had appeared in 1981, it had lagged well behind the first Wizardry in terms of sales and respect, but by the time Ultima III dropped in 1983 Garriott’s series had snatched a lead which it would never come close to relinquishing. While the first five Wizardry installments remained largely indistinguishable from one another to the casual fan, Ultima made major, obvious leaps with each new release. Yes, games like The Bard’s Tale and Pool of Radiance racked up some very impressive sales of their own as the 1980s wore on, but Ultima… well, Ultima was simply Ultima, the most respected name of all in CRPGs.

And yet by 1990 the promise which had served Richard Garriott so well was starting to become a real problem for his company Origin Systems. To build each new entry in the series from the ground up was one thing when doing so entailed Garriott disappearing alone into a small room containing only his Apple II for six months or a year, then emerging, blurry-eyed and exhausted, with floppy disks in hand. It was quite another thing in the case of a game like 1990’s Ultima VI, the first Ultima to be developed for MS-DOS machines with VGA graphics and hard drives, a project involving four programmers and five artists, plus a bureaucracy of others that included everything from producers to play-testers. Making a new Ultima from the ground up had by this point come to entail much more than just writing a game engine; it required a whole new technical infrastructure of editors and other software tools that let the design team, to paraphrase Origin’s favorite marketing tagline, create their latest world.

But, while development costs thus skyrocketed, sales weren’t increasing to match. Each new entry in the series since Ultima IV had continued to sell a consistent 200,000 to 250,000 copies. These were very good numbers for the genre and the times, but it seemed that Origin had long ago hit a sales ceiling for games of this type. The more practical voices at the company, such as the hard-nosed head of product development Dallas Snell, said that Origin simply had to start following the example of their rivals, who reused their engines many times as a matter of course. If they wished to survive, Origin too had to stop throwing away their technology after only using it once; they had to renege at last on Richard Garriott’s longstanding promise. Others, most notably the original promise-maker himself, were none too happy with the idea.

Origin’s recently arrived producer and designer Warren Spector was as practical as he was creative, and thus could relate to the concerns of both a Dallas Snell and a Richard Garriott. He proposed a compromise. What if a separate team used the last Ultima engine to create some “spin-off” games while Garriott and his team were busy inventing their latest wheel for the next “numbered” game in the series?

It wasn’t actually an unprecedented idea. As far back as Ultima II, in the days before Origin even existed, a rumor had briefly surfaced that Sierra, Garriott’s publisher at the time, might release an expansion disk to connect a few more of the many pointlessly spinning gears in that game’s rather sloppy design. Later, after spending some two years making Ultima IV all by himself, Garriott himself had floated the idea of an Ultima IV Part 2 to squeeze a little more mileage out of the engine, only to abandon it to the excitement of building a new engine of unprecedented sophistication for Ultima V. But now, with the Ultima VI engine, it seemed like an idea whose time had truly come at last.

The spin-off games would be somewhat smaller in scope than the core Ultimas, and this, combined with the reuse of a game engine and other assets from their big brothers, should allow each of them to be made in something close to six months, as opposed to the two years that were generally required for a traditional Ultima. They would give Origin more product to sell to those 200,000 to 250,000 hardcore fans who bought each new mainline installment; this would certainly please Dallas Snell. And, as long as the marketing message was carefully crafted, they should succeed in doing so without too badly damaging the Ultima brand’s reputation for always surfing the bleeding edge of CRPG design and technology; this would please Richard Garriott.

But most of all it was Warren Spector who had good reason to be pleased with the compromise he had fashioned. The Ultima sub-series that was born of it, dubbed Worlds of Ultima, would run for only two games, but would nevertheless afford him his first chance at Origin to fully exercise his creative muscles; both games would be at bottom his babies, taking place in settings created by him and enacting stories outlined by him. These projects would be, as Spector happily admits today, “B” projects at Origin, playing second fiddle in terms of internal resources and marketing priority alike to the mainline Ultima games and to Wing Commander. Yet, as many a Hollywood director will tell you, smaller budgets and the reduced scrutiny that goes along with them are often anything but a bad thing; they often lend themselves to better, more daring creative work. “I actually liked being a ‘B’ guy,” remembers Spector. “The guys spending tons of money have all the pressure. I was spending so little [that] no one really paid much attention to what I was doing, so I got to try all sorts of crazy things.”

Those crazy things could only have come from this particular Origin employee. Spector was almost, as he liked to put it, the proud holder of a PhD in film studies. Over thirty years old in a company full of twenty-somethings, he came to Origin with a far more varied cultural palette than was the norm there, and worked gently but persistently to separate his peers from their own exclusive diets of epic fantasy and space opera. He had a special love for the adventure fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and this love came to inform Worlds of Ultima to as great a degree as Lord of the Rings did the mainline Ultima games or Stars Wars did Wing Commander. Spector’s favored inspirations even had the additional advantage of being out of copyright, meaning he could plunder as much as he wanted without worrying about any lawyers coming to call.

The Savage Empire, the first Worlds of Ultima, is thus cribbed liberally from The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic 1912 adventure novel about a remote region of South America where dinosaurs have survived extinction. The novel’s narrator, an opportunistic journalist named Edward Malone, becomes Jimmy Malone in the game, a companion of yours who bends his journalistic talents to the task of becoming a sort of walking, talking quest log. As in the book, your ultimate goal in the game is to unite the feuding native tribes who live in the lost valley in order to defeat a threat to them all — said threat being a race of ape-men in the book, a race of giant insects in the game. (The closest thing to the ape-men in the game is a tribe of Neanderthals who actually fight on your side.) And yes, as in the book, there are dinosaurs in The Savage Empire — dinosaurs of all types, from harmless herbivores to the huge, ferocious, and deadly tyrannosaurus rex. Along with the insect race, who are known as the Myrmidex, they’re your primary enemies when it comes to combat.

The Savage Empire does add to the book’s plot the additional complication of a mad scientist who has already arrived in the Valley of Eodon. He isn’t bad by nature, but has been driven to his current insanity by a mysterious stone found there. Now, he plots to use the stone to take over the world. In an affectionate tribute to their guiding light, he was named by the development team Dr. Johann Spector, with a dead ringer of a portrait to match.

Evil Warren… err, Johann Spector.

Arthur Conan Doyle was an enthusiastic proponent of much of the flawed pseudo-science of his day, from eugenics to phrenology and craniometry to, late in his life, the spiritualist movement. He was likewise afflicted with most of the prejudices of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It’s thus not hard to imagine how The Savage Empire could have gone horribly off the rails, what with the leather-bikini-clad princess who serves as your romantic interest and the many “savage” dark-skinned tribes — each modeled on (stereotypes of) an example of same from real-world history — waiting for your party of white men to swoop in and save the day. One might feel especially worried upon learning that Warren Spector wasn’t even around very much to oversee his young charges. After laying out the setting, characters, and basic plot in the form of a twenty-page outline, he moved on to act as producer on the first Wing Commander game, leaving The Savage Empire in the hands of its producer Jeff Johanningman — the source of Dr. Spector’s first name — its designer Aaron Allston, and its “director” Stephen Beeman.1

The Savage Empire‘s cover art marks a major departure from Richard Garriott’s noble policy of refusing to fill his Ultima covers with the buxom women in chainmail bikinis that dominated among the series’s peers. The Avatar’s companion here isn’t dressed in chainmail, but the leather bikini she is wearing is positively straining to keep her naughty bits under wraps. On the other hand, the cover art is right in keeping with the pulpy adventure stories the game evokes, so we can perhaps forgive it.
Note also that “Lord British” takes first-writer credit for a game he had nothing to do with. Cheeky fellow, isn’t he? Royalty evidently did have its privileges. Meanwhile the contributions of poor Warren Spector, whose 20-page treatment got the whole project started, went completely unacknowledged, not only on the box but in the credits list found in the manual.

But I’m happy to say that Johanningman, Allston, Beeman, and the others on their team did a surprisingly good job of skirting a fine line. The Savage Empire is definitely pulpy — it was always intended to be — but it never spills over into the offensive. Origin paid a dedicated researcher named Karen E. Bell, holder of a completed PhD, to help them get the feeling of the times right. The various tribes are handled, if not quite with nuance — this just isn’t a very nuanced game — with a degree of respect. At the same time, the game manages to absolutely nail the homage it was aiming for. The manual, for instance, takes the form of an issue of Ultimate Adventures magazine, and can stand proudly alongside the best feelies of Infocom. Clearly the development team embraced Spector’s vision with plenty of passion of their own.

The worst failing of the fiction — a failing which this game shares with its sequel — is the attempt to integrate the pulpy narrative with that of Britannia in the mainline Ultima games; Origin was still operating under the needless stipulation that the hero of every successive Ultima, going all the way back to the first, was the same “Avatar.” For The Savage Empire, this means among other things that the game has to take place in our time rather than in that of Arthur Conan Doyle — albeit a version of our time full of weird anachronisms, like the big box camera with the big magnesium flash that’s carried around by Jimmy Malone.

Origin may have hired a PhD to help with their research, but they don’t take their commitment to anthropology to seriously. I don’t think any real native people had a Larry, Moe, and Curly of their own.

The game design proper, on the other hand, is impressively nonlinear in the best Ultima tradition. Once you’ve figured out that your mission is to convince all of the eleven tribes to make common cause against the Myrmidex, you can begin negotiating with whichever of them you please. Naturally, the negotiations will always boil down to your needing to accomplish some task for the tribe in question. These quests are interesting and entertaining to see through, forcing you to employ a variety of approaches — and often, for that matter, admitting themselves of multiple approaches — and giving you good motivation for traipsing through the entirety of the Valley of Eodon.

The Savage Empire stands out for the superb use it makes of the “living world” concept which had been coming more and more to the fore with every iteration of the mainline Ultima series. Indeed, it does even more with the concept than Ultima VI, the game whose engine it borrowed. The Savage Empire is a game where you can make charcoal by pulling a branch from a tree and burning it in a native village’s fire pit. Then make a potassium-nitrate powder by collecting special crystals from a cave and grinding them down with a mortar and pestle. Then get some sulfur by sifting it out of a pit with a wire screen. Combine it all together, and, voila, gunpowder! But, you ask, what can you actually do with the gunpowder? Well, you can start by borrowing a digging stick from the villagers, taking it down to a riverbank, and pulling up some fresh clay. Fire the clay in the village kiln to make yourself a pot. Put your gunpowder in the pot, then cut a strip off your clothing using some handy scissors you brought along and dip it in the local tar pit to make a fuse. Stuff the cloth into the top of the pot, and you’ve got yourself a grenade; just add fire — luckily, you also brought along some matches — at the appropriate time. This is just one example of the many intriguing science experiments you can indulge in. Don’t try this at home, kids.

Yet for all its strengths, and enjoyable as it is in its own right, The Savage Empire is just the warm-up act for Martian Dreams, the real jewel of the Worlds of Ultima series. This time around, Spector got to do more than just write an outline of the game: he was in charge of this project from beginning to end, thus making Martian Dreams the first game published by Origin — and, for that matter, the first computer game period — that was a Warren Spector joint from beginning to end.

Martian Dreams‘s version of Ultima‘s gypsy is none other than Sigmund Freud. It’s evidently been a hard life so far for Sigmund, who would have turned 39 years old the year the game begins. More seriously, my cursory research would indicate that about 90 percent of players misread the intent of his initial question. He’s not really asking you which parent you felt closer to; he’s trying to find out what gender you are. Many a player, myself included, has gone through the character-creation process trying to answer the questions honestly, only to be confused by arriving in the game as the opposite gender. Call it all those distant fathers’ revenge…

Martian Dreams‘s premise is certainly unique in the annals of CRPGs. In fact, it’s kind of batshit insane. Are you ready for this? Okay, here goes…

Our story begins with the historical character Percival Lowell, the amateur astronomer who popularized the idea of “canals” on Mars, and along with them the fantasy of a populated Mars whose people had built the canals in an effort to recover water from the icecaps of a doomed planet slowly dying of drought. It’s 1893, and Lowell has built a “space cannon” capable of traveling to Mars. He’s showing it off at the Chicago World’s Fair to many of the “leaders of the Victorian era” when a saboteur ignites the cannon’s propellant, sending the whole gang rocketing off to Mars. In addition to Lowell himself, the unwilling crew includes names like Sarah Bernhardt, Calamity Jane, Andrew Carnegie, Marie Curie, Wyatt Earp, Thomas Edison, William Randolph Hearst, Robert Peary, and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Fast-forward two years. Signals from Mars indicate to the folks back on Earth that the gang survived the trip and landed safely. Now you’re to try to rescue them in a second space cannonball, accompanied by — because why not? — Nellie Bly, Sigmund FreudNikola Tesla, and a dodgy doctor named C.L. Blood (the most obscure historical figure of the lot but one of the most interesting). Also along for the ride is your old friend Dr. Johann Spector, now freed from the insanity that led to megalomania in The Savage Empire and happy just to be your genial boon companion in adventure.

The good Johann Spector.

Upon arriving on the red planet, you find that the air is breathable, if a bit thin, and that sentient — and often deadly — plants roam the surface. You soon begin to make contact with the previous ship’s crew, who are now scattered all over the planet, and the game coalesces around the interrelated goals of learning about the Martian civilization that once existed here and figuring out a way to get your own lot back to Earth; in what can only be described as a grave oversight on your part, it seems that you neglected to devise a means of returning when you set off on your “rescue” mission.

Your reaction to Martian Dreams will hinge on your willingness to get behind a premise as crazy as this one. If the idea of getting fired out of a cannon and winding up on Mars doesn’t put you off, the million smaller holes you can poke in the story very well might; suffice to say that the fact that you boarded a cannonball headed for Mars without any semblance of a return plan is neither the only nor even perhaps the most grievous of the plot holes. Chet Bolingbroke, better known to his readers as The CRPG Addict and a critic whose opinion I respect within his favorite genre, dismisses the game’s whole premise with one word: “stupid.”

In defense of the game, I will note that this is very much a period piece, and that within that context some of the stupider aspects of the overarching concept may begin to seem slightly less so. Jules Verne, a writer who always strove for scientific accuracy according to the lights of his time, published in 1865 From the Earth to the Moon, in which a trio of Victorian astronauts flies to the Moon rather than Mars using the technique described in Martian Dreams. The same technique then cropped up again in Georges Méliès’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. (Méliès, a French illusionist who became the father of cinematic special effects through that film and others, is another of the historical figures who make it into Martian Dreams.) And then, too, the question of whether there might be an oxygen atmosphere and an alien civilization to breathe it on Mars was by no means settled until well after the turn of the twentieth century; Percival Lowell went to his deathbed in 1916 still a devout believer in his Martian canals, and he was by no means alone in his belief.

Other incongruities may be more difficult to dismiss with a hand-wave to the nineteenth century, but the fact remains that vanishingly few CRPGs have ever made much sense as coherent fictions. Players who love running around inside fantasy worlds in the character of dwarves and elves, casting spells at dragons, might want to be just a little careful when throwing around adjectives like “stupid.” After all, what do all those monsters in all those dungeons actually eat when there aren’t any adventurers to hand? And wouldn’t the citizens of all these assorted fantasy worlds do better to put together a civil-defense force instead of forever relying on a “chosen one” to kill their evil wizards? Martian Dreams‘s premise, I would submit, isn’t really all that much stupider than the CRPG norm. It’s merely stupid in a very unique way which highlights incongruities that long exposure has taught us to overlook in the likes of Dungeons & Dragons. One might say that just about all CRPG stories are pretty stupid at bottom; we forgive them an awful lot because they make for a fun game.

If we can see our way clear to bestowing the same courtesy upon Martian Dreams, there’s a hell of a lot to like about its premise. Certainly the historical period it evokes is a fascinating one. Much of what we think of as modern life has its origins in the 1800s, not least the dizzying pace of progress in all its forms. For the first time in human history, the pace of technological change meant that the average person could expect to die in a very different world from the one she had been born into. Many of the changes she could expect to witness in between must have felt like magic. The invention of the railroad transformed concepts of distance almost overnight, turning what had been arduous journeys, requiring a week or more of carriage changes and nights spent in inns, into day trips; just like that, a country like England became a small place rather than a big one. And if the railroad didn’t shrink the world enough for you, telegraph cables — aptly described by historian Tom Standage as the “Victorian Internet” — were being strung up around the world, making it possible to send a message to someone thousands of miles away in seconds.

Much of modern entertainment as well has its roots in the nineteenth century, with the genre literatures arriving to greet a new mass audience of readers. While the mystery novel was being invented by Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle, science fiction was being invented by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (the latter of whom we meet on our trip to Mars). Meanwhile the soap opera was being invented by Charles Dickens and his contemporaries, who published monthly installments of their novels for a fan base who gathered around the nineteenth century’s version of the office water cooler, obsessing over what would happen next to Little Nell or Oliver Twist. Celebrity too as we know it today has its origins in this period. When Dickens would give public readings of his novels, his female fans would scream and swoon in the throes of a sort of proto-Beatlemania, while Buffalo Bill Cody’s globe-trotting Wild West Show made his face by some accounts the most recognizable in the world by the turn of the century. (Buffalo Bill too is to be found on Mars.) And modern consumer culture begins here, with the first shopping malls opening in Paris and then spreading around the world. I could go on forever, but you get the point.

Martian Dreams proves adept at capturing the spirit of the age, conveying the boundless optimism that surrounded all of this progress in a period before the world wars and the invention of the atomic bomb revealed the darker sides of modernity. The Ultima VI engine’s look has been reworked into something appropriately steampunky, and a period-perfect music-hall soundtrack accompanies your wanderings. The writing too does its job with aplomb. To expect deep characterizations of each of the couple of dozen historical figures stranded on Mars along with you would be to ask far, far too much of it. Still, the game often does manage to deftly burrow underneath the surface of their achievements in ways that let you know that Spector and his team extended their research further than encyclopedia entries.

Theodore Roosevelt is portrayed as an awkwardly self-conscious mix of bravado and insecurity rather than the heroic Rough Rider and Trust Buster of grade-school history textbooks. Martian Dreams‘s take on the man seems to hew rather close to that of Gore Vidal, who in one of his more hilarious essays labelled Roosevelt “an American sissy.”

Martian Dreams‘s portrayal of Vladimir Lenin manages in a single sentence of dialog to foreshadow everything that would go wrong with Karl Marx’s noble dream of communism as soon as it took concrete form in the Soviet Union.

Some of the more obscure historical figures have the most amazing and, dare I say it, inspiring stories of all to share. Do you know about Nellie Bly, the young woman who checked herself into a psychiatric hospital to report first-hand the abuses suffered there by patients? Do you know about George Washington Carver, a black man who was born into slavery and became the foremost expert of his era on the techniques of sustainable farming, publishing research that has saved literally millions of lives? Even the travelers who wind up being the antagonists of the group — Grigori Rasputin, the infamous “mad monk” of late Czarist Russia, and Emma Goldman, an American anarchist activist and occasional terrorist — have intriguing things to say.

Thanks to some technology left behind by the Martians, you’ll eventually get a chance to visit many of these people inside their dreams — or nightmares. These sequences, the source of the game’s name, illuminate their personalities and life stories still further. In the case of Mark Twain, for instance, you’ll find yourself riding down a river on a paddle wheeler, trying to collect the pieces of his latest manuscript and get them to the publisher before the money runs out — about as perfect an evocation of the life the real Twain lived, writing works of genius in order to remain always one step ahead of the creditors dogging his heels, as can be imagined.

A Gallery of Eminent Victorians


The purely fictional story of the apparently dead Martian civilization is crafted with equal love. Over the course of the game, you’ll slowly revive the technology the Martians left behind, restoring power to the planet and getting the water flowing once again through Percival Lowell’s beloved canals. In the process, you’ll learn that some of the Martians still live on, at least after a fashion. I won’t say more than that so as to preserve for you the pleasure I got out of Martian Dreams. I approached the game completely cold, and found myself highly motivated to make the next discovery and thereby set into place the next piece of a mystery I found genuinely tantalizing. The story that gradually emerges fits right in with the classic lore of the red planet, with echoes of Lowell’s pseudo-science, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s tales of John Carter on Mars. By the time of Martian Dreams, Origin was at long last beginning to hire dedicated people for the role of writer, instead of handing the task to whatever programmer or artist happened to not have much else going on at the moment. Games like this one were the happy result. Notably, Martian Dreams is the first Origin game to credit one Raymond Benson, a veteran of musical theater who would go on to make a profound impact as the head writer on Ultima VII, the next entry in the mainline series.

The worst aspect of the storytelling is, once again, Origin’s insistence that Martian Dreams fit into the overall story of Ultima‘s Avatar. With this Worlds of Ultima installment being explicitly rather than implicitly set in the past of our own Earth, the contortions the writing must go through to set up the game are even more absurd than those of The Savage Empire. This game whose premise already had the potential to strain many gamers’ credibility past the breaking point was forced to introduce a layer of time travel in order to send the Avatar and his companion Dr. Spector back to 1895, then to engage in yet more hand-waving to explain why our historians haven’t recorded trips to Mars in the 1890s. It’s all thoroughly unnecessary and, once again, best ignored. The game works best as alternate history with no connection to any other Ultima except perhaps The Savage Empire.

The dust storms evidently did one hell of a number on Mars…

I prefer Martian Dreams to The Savage Empire largely thanks to better writing and a richer theme; it doesn’t play all that radically different from its predecessor. It makes somewhat less use of the Ultima VI engine’s crafting potential — there’s nothing here close to the complexity of making grenades in The Savage Empire — but it is a longer game. Thanks to its more developed story, it can’t avoid being a bit more linear than its predecessor over the course of that length, but it never feels unduly railroaded. In my book, then, The Savage Empire is a very good game, while Martian Dreams is a great one.

I must admit that I enjoy both of these games more than any of the mainline Ultima games that preceded them. The latter by the dawn of the 1990s had accumulated a lot of cruft in the form of fan service that just had to be in each new installment. These games, by contrast, were able to start with clean slates — aside from the dodgy attempts to insert the Avatar into them, that is — and the results are tighter, more focused designs. And what a relief it is to escape for a little while from Renaissance Fair fantasy and all that excruciating faux-Elizabethan English! In an uncharacteristic fit of bravado, Warren Spector a few years after Martian Dreams‘s release called it “the best Ultima game ever.” On some days, I’m sorely tempted to agree. Only Ultima Underworld and Ultima VII — both released after Martian Dreams — make the debate at all complicated for me.

The biggest single improvement Worlds of Ultima made to the Ultima VI engine was to move conversations from the corner of the screen, as show above…

…and into the main display.

Still, it wouldn’t do just to praise these two games that I like so very much without pointing out some significant weaknesses. I wasn’t overly kind to the Ultima VI engine in my review of that game, and most of the criticisms I levied there apply to one degree or another here as well. The Worlds of Ultima teams did take some steps to improve the engine, most notably by moving the text that accompanies conversations into the main window instead of cramming it into a tiny space in the corner of the screen. At bottom, however, the Ultima VI engine remains caught out in an uncertain no man’s land between the keyboard-based “alphabet soup” interface of the earlier Ultima games and the entirely mouse-driven interfaces that were yet to come. Some things are much easier to do with the keyboard, some with the mouse — an awkward arrangement that’s only made more frustrating by the way that the divisions between the two categories are so arbitrary. You can get used to it after an hour or two, but nobody would ever accuse the interface of being elegant or intuitive. I’m sure that plenty of players over the years have found it so bafflingly opaque that they’ve given up in disgust without ever getting a whiff of the real joy of the game hidden underneath it.

The Ultima VI engine has a peculiar problem conveying depth. What looks like a stair step here is actually meant to represent an unscaleable cliff. As it is, it looks like we’ve joined the long tradition of videogame characters who can walk and run hundreds of miles but can’t hop up two feet.

In light of this reality, I’ve often seen the Worlds of Ultima games called, in reviews both from their own day and from ours, good games trapped inside a bad game engine. It’s a pithy formulation, but I don’t feel like it quite gives the whole picture. The fact is that some of the problems that dog these games have little or nothing to do with their engine. The most pernicious design issue is the fact that there just isn’t quite enough content for the games’ geographies. It’s here that one fancies one can really start to feel their status as “B” projects at Origin. The Savage Empire sports an absolutely massive abandoned underground city — as big as the entire jungle valley above it — that’s for all intents and purposes empty, excepting only a couple of key locations. I don’t know the full story behind it, but it certainly seems like a map that’s still waiting for the development team to come back and fill it up with stuff. Martian Dreams has nothing quite this egregious, but points of interest on the vast surface of Mars can nevertheless feel few and far between. Coupled with a strange lack of the alternative modes of transport that are so typical in other Ultima games — one teleportation mechanism does eventually arise, but even it’s very limited in its possible destinations — it means that you’ll spend a major percentage of your time in Martian Dreams trekking hither and yon in response to a plot that demands that you visit — and then revisit, sometimes multiple times — locations scattered willy-nilly all over the planet. Warren Spector himself put his finger on what he cogently described as “too much damn walking around” as the biggest single design issue in this game of which he was otherwise so proud.

Mars is mostly just a whole lot of nothing.

Another description that’s frequently applied to these games — sometimes dismissively, sometimes merely descriptively — is that they aren’t really CRPGs at all, but rather adventure games with, as Computer Gaming World‘s adventure critic Scorpia once put it, “a thin veneer of CRPG.” Once again, I don’t entirely agree, yet I do find the issues raised by such a description worthy of discussion.

Proponents of this point of view note that combat is neither terribly important nor terribly interesting in Worlds of Ultima, that magic has been reduced to a handful of voodoo-like spells in The Savage Empire and removed altogether from Martian Dreams, and that character development in the form of leveling-up is neither all that frequent nor all that important. All of which is true enough, but does it really mean these games aren’t CRPGs at all? Where do we draw the lines?

The Savage Empire‘s limited graphics and uninspiring combat manages to make the idea of encountering dinosaurs — dinosaurs, for Pete’s sake! — feel kind of ho-hum.

A long time ago, when I was going through a taxonomical phase, I tried to codify the differences between the adventure game and the CRPG. The formulation I arrived at didn’t involve combat, magic, or experience levels, but rather differing philosophical approaches. Adventure games, I decided, offered a deterministic, bespoke experience, while CRPGs left heaps of room for emergent, partially randomized behavior. Or, to put it more shortly: the adventure game is an elaborate puzzle, while the CRPG is a simulation. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether it’s possible to write a walkthrough listing every single action a player should take in a game, knowing the game will always respond in the same way every time and that said walkthrough will thus be guaranteed to get the player to the winning screen. If you can, you certainly have an adventure game. If you can’t, you may very well be looking at a CRPG.

When I first made my little attempt at taxonomy, I was thinking of early text adventures and the earliest primitive CRPGs. Yet the distinctions I identified, far from fading over time, had become even more pronounced by the time of Worlds of Ultima. Early text adventures had a fair number of logistical challenges — limited light sources, inventory limits, occasional wandering creatures, even occasional randomized combat — which were steadily filed away concurrent with the slow transition from text to graphics, until the genre arrived at 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island, perhaps the most iconic exemplar of the classic point-and-click graphic adventure. CRPGs, meanwhile, remained much more simulation-oriented, emergent experiences.

So, where does this leave us with the Worlds of Ultima? Well, these definitely aren’t games that can be played by rote from a walkthrough. They sport monsters and people wandering of their own free will, a day-to-night cycle, character attributes which have a significant effect on game play, emergent logistical concerns in the form of food (The Savage Empire), oxygen rocks which allow you to breathe more easily (Martian Dreams), and ammunition (both). Many of the problems you encounter can be dealt with in multiple ways, most or all of which arise organically from the simulation. All of these qualities hew to the simulational focus of the CRPG. Sometimes they can be a bit annoying, but in general I find that they enhance the experience, making these games feel like… well, like real adventures, even if they aren’t the sorts of things that are generally found in adventure games.

Yet I do agree that these games aren’t quite CRPGs in the old-school 1980s sense either. Layered on top of the foundation of emergent simulation is a determinstic layer of narrative, dialog, and even set-piece puzzles. The closest philosophical sibling I can find among their contemporaries is Sierra’s Quest for Glory series, although the latter games have radically different looks and interfaces and were generally purchased, one senses, by a different audience.

Some of the infelicities that can arise in the course of playing the Worlds of Ultima games have at their root a failure of the two layers to account for one another properly. When I played The Savage Empire, I broke the narrative completely by exploiting the simulation layer in a way that the game’s developers apparently never anticipated. Well into the game, after recruiting eight of the eleven tribes onto my team, I got confused about what my next goal should be in a way that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say that, instead of uniting the rest of the tribes and leading them in a coordinated attack on the Myrmidex lair, I went after the murderous insects on my own, accompanied only by an indestructible robot I’d befriended. I devised a strategy for hiding behind the robot when the insects attacked, and thereby made it at last to the heart of the nest, destroying the mystical stone that was the source of the Myrmidex’s power (and of Dr. Spector’s insanity). Just like that, and much to my shock, the finale started to play; I had thought I was just solving another quest. In its way, this anecdote is an impressive testament to the emergent possibilities of the game engine — although it would have been even more impressive had the narrative layer recognized what had happened and accounted for my, shall we say, alternative solution to the problem of the Myrmidex. As it was, I saw an endgame movie that assumed I’d done a whole bunch of stuff I hadn’t done, and thus made no sense whatsoever.

Exterminating bugs with the help of my trusty (and indestructible) robot pal.

Whatever else you can say about it, it’s hard to imagine something like this happening in The Secret of Monkey Island. As CRPGs in general received ever more complex stories in the years that followed the Worlds of Ultima games, they took on more and more of the traditional attributes of adventure games, without abandoning their dedication to emergent simulation. Sometimes, as in Worlds of Ultima, the layers chafe against one another in these more modern games, but often the results are very enjoyable indeed. Largely forgotten by gaming history though they have been, the Worlds of Ultima games can thus be read as harbingers of games to come. In their day, these games really were the road not taken — in terms of adventure games or CRPGs, take your pick. Indeed, I’m kind of blown away by what they managed to achieve, and not even bothered unduly by my rather unsatisfying final experience in The Savage Empire; somehow the fact that I was able to break the narrative so badly and still come out okay in the end counts for more than a final movie that didn’t make much sense.

Unfortunately, gamers of the early 1990s were rather less blown away. Released in October of 1990, The Savage Empire was greeted with a collective shrug which encompassed nonplussed reviews — Computer Gaming World‘s reviewer bizarrely labeled it a “caricature” of Ultima — and lousy sales. With the release of Martian Dreams in May of 1991, Origin re-branded the series Ultima Worlds of Adventure — not that that was an improvement in anything other than word count — but the results were the same. CRPG fans’ huge preference for epic fantasy was well-established by this point; pulpy tales of adventure and Victorian steampunk just didn’t seem to be on the radar of Origin’s fan base. A pity, especially considering that in terms of genre too these games can be read as harbingers of trends to come. In the realm of tabletop RPGs, “pulp” games similar in spirit to The Savage Empire have become a welcome alternative to fantasy and science fiction since that game’s release. Steampunk, meanwhile, was just coming to the fore as a literary sub-genre of its own at the time that Martian Dreams was published; the hugely popular steampunk novel The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling was published less than a year before the game.

For all that the games were thus ahead of their time in more ways than one, Worlds of Ultima provided a sobering lesson for Origin’s marketers and accountants by becoming the first games they’d ever released with the Ultima name on the box which didn’t become major hits. The name alone, it seemed, wasn’t — or was no longer — enough; the first chink in the series’s armor had been opened up. One could of course argue that these games should never have been released as Ultimas at all, that we should have been spared all the plot contortions around the Avatar and that they should have been allowed simply to stand on their own. Yet it’s hard to believe that such a move would have improved sales any. There just wasn’t really a place in the games industry of the early 1990s for these strange beasts that weren’t quite adventure games and weren’t quite CRPGs as most people thought of them. Players of the two genres had sorted themselves into fairly distinct groups by this point, and Origin dropped Worlds of Ultima smack dab into the void in between them. Nor did the lack of audiovisual flash help; while both games do a nice job of conveying the desired atmosphere with the tools at their disposal, they were hardly audiovisual standouts even in their day. At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1991, Martian Dreams shared Origin’s booth with Wing Commander II and early previews of Ultima VII and Strike Commander. It’s hard to imagine it not getting lost in that crowd in the bling-obsessed early 1990s.

So, Origin wrote off their Worlds of Ultima series as a failed experiment. They elected to stop, as Spector puts it, “going to weird places that Warren wants to do games about.” A projected third game, which was to have taken place in Arthurian England, was cancelled early in pre-production. The setting may sound like a more natural one for Ultima fans, but, in light of the way that Arthurian games have disappointed their publishers time and time again, one has to doubt whether the commercial results would have been much better.

The Worlds of Ultima games will occasionally reward major achievements with a lovely graphic like the one above, but it’s clear that their audiovisual budgets were limited.

I’m a little sheepish to admit that I very nearly overlooked these games myself. In light of the awkward engine that powers them, I was totally prepared to dismiss them in a passing paragraph or two, but several commenters urged me to give them a closer look after I published my article on Ultima VI. I’m grateful to them for doing so. And I have a final bit of wonderful news to share: both The Savage Empire and Martian Dreams have been officially re-released as free downloads on Whether you’re a fan of Ultima and/or old-school CRPGs in general or not, I can only suggest as strongly as I know how that you give these games the chance they were denied in their own time, promising yourself beforehand that you’ll make a good solid effort to get used to the interface before you drag them back over to the trashcan of history that’s sitting there on your computer’s desktop. You might just find that your perseverance is amply rewarded.

(Sources: the book Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show: An American Legend by R.L. Wilson; New York Review of Books of August 13, 1981; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of May 17 1991, June 21 1991, and August 7 1991; Computer Gaming World of March/April 1983, March 1986, March 1991 and September 1991; Questbusters of August 1990, January 1991, and August 1991. Online sources include an interview with Warren Spector published in the fanzine Game Bytes in 1993 and republished on The Wing Commander Combat Information Center; RPG Codex‘s 2013 interview with Spector.)

  1. Stephen Beeman now lives as the woman Siobhan Beeman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 


Posted by on February 23, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Adventure-Game Rock Stars Live in Conference

On August 24, 1990, CompuServe hosted an online discussion on adventure-game design which included Ron Gilbert, Noah Falstein, Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Dave Lebling, Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa. This is, needless to say, an incredible gathering of adventuring star power. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard of its like in any other (virtual) place. Bob Bates, who has become a great friend of this blog in many ways, found the conference transcript buried away on some remote corner of his hard drive, and was kind enough to share it with me so that I could share it with you today.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably recognize all of the names I’ve just listed, with the likely exception only of Khalsa. But, just to anchor this thing in time a bit better, let me take a moment to describe where each of them was and what he or she was working on that August.

Ron Gilbert and Noah Falstein were at Lucasfilm Games (which was soon to be renamed LucasArts). Gilbert had already created the classic Maniac Mansion a few years before, and was about to see published his most beloved creation of all, one that would have as great an impact among his fellow designers as it would among gamers in general: The Secret of Monkey Island. Falstein had created Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for Lucasfilm in 1989. Their publisher had also recently released Brian Moriarty’s Loom, whose radically simplified interface, short length, and relatively easy puzzles were prompting much contemporaneous debate.

Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, and Dave Lebling had all written multiple games for the now-defunct Infocom during the previous decade. Bates had recently co-founded Legend Entertainment, where he was working on his own game Timequest and preparing to publish Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, Meretzky’s first post-Infocom game and Legend’s first game ever, in a matter of weeks. Berlyn had been kicking around the industry since leaving Infocom in 1985, creating perhaps most notably Tass Times in Tonetown for Interplay; he was just finishing up a science-fiction epic called Altered Destiny for Accolade, and would shortly thereafter embark on the Les Manley games, a pair of Leisure Suit Larry clones, for the same publisher. Lebling was at something of a loose end after the shuttering of Infocom the previous year, unsure whether he even wanted to remain in the games industry; he would eventually decide that the answer to that question was no, and would never design another game.

Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa were all working at Sierra. Williams was in the latter stages of making her latest King’s Quest, the first to use 256-color VGA graphics and a point-and-click interface, and the first to be earmarked for CD-ROM as a “talkie.” Al Lowe was, as usual, hard at work on the latest Leisure Suit Larry game, which also utilized Sierra’s newer, prettier, parser-less engine. The Coles were just finishing up Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, which would become the last Sierra game in 16-color EGA and the last with a parser.

Khalsa is the only non-designer here, and, as already noted, the only name here with which longtime readers are unlikely to be familiar. He was another of those unsung heroes to be found behind the scenes at so many developers. At Sierra, he played a role that can perhaps best be compared to that played by the similarly indispensable Jon Palace at Infocom. As the “producer” of Sierra’s adventure games, he made sure the designers had the support they needed, acted as a buffer between them and the more business-oriented people, and gently pushed his charges to make their games just a little bit better in various ways. In keeping with his unsung status, he answers only one question here.

We find all of our participants grappling with the many tensions that marked their field in 1990: the urgent need to attract new players in the face of escalating development budgets; the looming presence of CD-ROM and other disruptive new technologies just over the horizon; the fate of text in this emerging multimedia age; the frustration of not always being able to do truly innovative or meaningful work, thanks to a buying public that largely just seemed to want more of the same old fantasy and comedy. It’s intriguing to see how the individual designers respond to these issues here, just as it is to see how those responses took concrete form in the games themselves. By no means is the group of one mind; there’s a spirited back-and-forth on many questions.

I’ve cleaned up the transcript that follows for readability’s sake, editing out heaps of extraneous comments, correcting spelling and grammar, and rejiggering the flow a bit to make everything more coherent. I’ve also added a few footnotes to clarify things or to insert quick comments of my own. Mostly, though, I’ve managed resist the urge to pontificate on any of what’s said here. You all already know my opinions on many of the topics that are raised. Today, I’m going to let the designers speak for themselves. I hope you’ll find their discussion as interesting and enjoyable as I do.


Let’s plunge right into the questions. Before I start, I’d like to thank Eeyore, Flying Gerbil, Steve Horton, Tsunami, Hercules, Mr. Adventure, and Randy Snow for submitting questions… and I apologize for mangling their questions with my editing. And now — drum roll! — on to the first question!

Imagine ourselves five years down the road, with all the technological developments that implies: CD-ROMs, faster machines, etc. Describe what, for you, the “ideal” adventure will look like. How will it be different from current adventures?

Roberta Williams: I think that “five years down the road” is actually just a year or two away. Meaning that a year or two from now, adventure games are going to have a very slick, sophisticated, professional look, feel, and sound to them, and that that’s the way they’re going to stay for a while — standardization, if you will. I mean, how can you improve on realistic images that look like paintings or photographs? How can you improve on CD-quality voices and music? How can you improve on real movement caught with a movie camera, or drawn by a professional animator? That’s the kind of adventure game that the public is going to start seeing within a year or two. Once adventure games reach a certain level of sophistication in look and feel, standardization will set in, which will actually be a boon for all concerned, both buyers and developers alike. After that, the improvements will primarily be in the performance on a particular machine, but the look will stay essentially the same for a while.

Dave Lebling: But if those wonderful pictures and hi-fi sound are driven by a clunky parser or a mythical “parser-less interface,” is this a big improvement? I think not. We can spend $2 million or $5 million developing a prettier version of Colossal Cave. Let’s improve the story and the interface! That doesn’t have to mean text adventures, but there’s more to adventure games than pictures.

Steve Meretzky: I think that in the future the scope of games won’t be limited by hardware but by the marketplace. Unless the market for adventure games expands, it won’t be economical to create super-large environments, even though the hardware is there to support them.

Mike Berlyn: Well, I think that technology can create products which drive the market and create end users — people who need or want to experience something they could experience only on a computer. In the future, I would like to explore “plot” as a structure, something which is currently impossible due to the state of the current technology. Plot cannot be a variable until storage increases and engines get smarter. I can easily see a plot that becomes a network of possibilities.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We hope as well that the improvements will be in story and design as well as flash: richer stories, more realistic character interaction, etc. Technology, beyond a certain point which we’ve already reached, really isn’t a big deal. Creativity, and an understanding of the differences between “interactive movies” and games is! The move to professional writers and game designers in the industry is helping.

Ron Gilbert: I think that plot has nothing to do with technology. They are almost unrelated. It’s not CD-ROM or VGA that is going to make the difference, it’s learning how to tell a story. Anyone who is any good can tell a great story in 160 X 200-resolution, 4-color graphics on two disks.

Roberta Williams: It’s not that I don’t think a good plot is important! Obviously it is.

Dave Lebling: I didn’t mean to accuse you of not caring about plot. You of all people know about that! I just think the emphasis on flash is a symptom of the fact that we know how to do flash. Just give us a bigger machine or CD-ROM, and, wham, flash! What we don’t know how to do is plot. I don’t think today’s plots feel more “real” than those of five or eight years ago. Will they be better in five years? I hope so, but I’m not sure. We can’t just blindly duplicate other media without concentrating on the interactivity and control that make ours special. If we work on improving control and the illusion that what we interact with is as rich as reality, then we can do something that none of those other media can touch.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We have never really used the computer as a medium in own right.

Steve Meretzky: You haven’t used it to contact the spirit world?1

Corey and Lorin Ann Cole: There are things that can be done on a computer that can’t be done with other mediums. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be away from the computer and towards scanned images and traditional film and animation techniques.2 If this trend continues, it may be a long time before we truly discover what can be done uniquely with the computer medium. One small example: the much-chastised saved game is a wonderful time- and mind-travel technique that can be a rich tool instead of an unfortunate necessity.

Bob Bates: I agree. You can’t ask a painter at the Art Institute of Chicago to paint you a different scene. You can’t ask a singer at the Met to sing you a different song. (Well, I guess you could, but they frown on requests.) The essence of a computer game is that the player controls the action. The point is to make beautiful music and art that helps the player’s sense of involvement in the game.

I have noticed that a lot of games coming out now are in 256 colors. Does this mean that 256-color VGA is going to be the standard? Has anyone thought about 256 colors in 640 X 480 yet? And how does anyone know who has what?

Bob Bates: The market research on who has what is abominable. As for us, we are releasing our titles with hi-res EGA, which gives us really good graphics on a relatively popular standard, as well as very nice text letters instead of the big clunky ones.

Steve Meretzky: I often get big clunky letters from my Aunt Matilda.

Guruka Singh Khalsa: We’ve been doing a bit of research on who has what hardware, and an amazing number of Sierra customers have VGA cards. Looks like around 60 percent right now. As for 640 X 480 in 256 colors: there’s no hardware standard for that resolution since it’s not an official VGA mode. You won’t see games in that resolution until the engines are more powerful — got to shove them pixels around! — and until it’s an official mode. All SVGA cards use somewhat different calls.

Dave Lebling: The emerging commercial standard is a 386 with VGA and 2 to 4 megs of memory, with a 40-meg hard drive. The home standard tends to lag the commercial one by a few years. But expect this soon, with Windows as the interface.

Does anyone have any plans to develop strictly for or take advantage of the Windows environment?

Dave Lebling: Windows is on the leading edge of the commercial-adoption wave. The newest Windows is the first one that’s really usable to write serious software. There are about 1 million copies of Windows out there. No one is going to put big bucks into it yet. But in a few years, yes, because porting will be easier, and there is a GUI already built, virtual memory, etc., etc. But not now.

With the coming parser-less interfaces and digitized sound, it seems as if text may eventually disappear completely from adventures. Once, of course, adventures were all text. What was gained and what was lost by this shift? Are adventures still a more “literate” form of computer game?

Bob Bates: Well, of course text has become a dirty word of sorts in the business. But I think the problem has always been the barrier the keyboard presents as an input device for those who can’t type. Plus the problems an inadequate or uncaring game designer can create for the player when he doesn’t consider alternate inputs as solutions to puzzles. I think there will always be words coming across the screen from the game. We hope we have solved this with our new interface, but it’s hard for people to judge that since our first game won’t be out for another month…

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Text will not disappear. Nor should it. We will see text games, parser-less games, and non-text games. And who cares about being “literate”; fun is what matters! I like words. Lori likes words. But words are no longer enough if one also likes to eat — and we do. We also like graphics and music and those other fun things too, so it’s not too big a loss.

Roberta Williams: It’s true that in books stories can be more developed, involving, and interesting than in movies. I believe that there is still room for interactive books. Hopefully there is a company out there who will forget about all the “video” stuff and just concentrate on good interactive stories in text, and, as such, will have more developed stories than the graphic adventure games. But as we progress adventure games in general are going to become more like interactive movies. The movie industry is a larger and more lucrative business than the book industry. For the most part, the adventure-game business will go along with that trend. Currently adventure games are the most literate of computer games, but that may change as more and more text will be lost in the coming years, to be replaced by speech, sound effects, and animation. But I do predict that some company out there will see a huge opportunity in bringing back well-written, high-quality interactive books. It will be for a smaller audience, but still well worth the effort.

Dave Lebling: I think you’re too  optimistic about “some company” putting out text products. We are moving from interactive books to interactive movies. I’m not optimistic about the commercial survival of text except in very small doses.3 Unlike in science fiction, you don’t have to follow a trend until it goes asymptotic. Text won’t go away, but its role will be reduced in commercial adventures. Graphics and sound are here to stay.

Al Lowe: With the coming of talkies, it seems as if all those wonderful dialog cards disappeared! You know, the ones that make silent movies so literate? It’s a visual medium! No one asks for silent movies; most Americans won’t even watch a black-and-white movie. Yes, text-only games are more “literate.” So?

Mike Berlyn: As far as the future of text is concerned, my money is on it sticking around. But I’m not sure it’s at all necessary in these kinds of games. The adventure I’m just finishing up has a little bit of text that reiterates what is obvious on the screen, and manages to add to the player’s inputs in other ways to a create fuller experience. But I still don’t think it’s necessary. I’ve done two completely text-less designs, though neither made it to the market.

Bob Bates: I don’t think it’s the loss of text as output that creates a problem for the designer; I think it’s text as input. It’s hard to design tough puzzles that can be solved just by pointing and clicking at things. And if there are no puzzles — tough puzzles — you’re just watching a movie on a very small screen. The days of the text-only adventure are over. Graphics are here to stay, and that’s not a bad thing, as long as they supplement the story instead of trying to replace it.

We’ve seen fantasy adventures, science-fiction adventures, mystery adventures, humorous adventures. Are there any new settings or themes for adventures? Is there any subject or theme that you’ve always wanted to put in an adventure but never had the chance?

Al Lowe: I’ve had ideas for a Wall Street setting for a game, but somehow I can’t get out of this Larry rut. I’d also like to do a very serious game — something without one cheap laugh, just to see if I could. Probably couldn’t, though. A serious romance would be good too.

Roberta Williams: There should be as many settings or themes for adventure games as there are for fictionalized books and movies. After all, an adventure game is really just an interactive story with puzzles and exploration woven into it. There are many themes that I personally would like to do, and hopefully will someday: an historical or series of historical adventure games; a horror game; an archaeological game of some sort; possibly a western. In between King’s Quests, of course.

Noah Falstein: I’ve always wanted to do a time-travel game with the following features: no manual save or load, it’s built automatically into the story line as a function of your time-travel device; the opportunity to play through a sequence with yourself in a later — and then earlier — time; and the ability to go back and change your changes, ad infinitum. Of course, the reason I’m mentioning all this is that I — and others here — have fried our brains trying to figure out how this could be accomplished. We’d rather see someone else do it right. Or die trying.

Ad infinitum? Won’t that take a lot of memory?

Noah Falstein: Recursion!

Dave Lebling: Gosh, my fantasy is your fantasy! I’ve always wanted to do a game based on Fritz Leiber’s Change War stories — you know, “tomorrow we go back and nuke ancient Rome!” Funny thing is, I’ve always run up against the same problem you ran up against.

Mike Berlyn: My fantasy is to finish a game that my wife Muffy and I were working on for the — sniff! — dead Infocom. It was a reality-based game that had a main character going through multiple/parallel lives, meeting people he’d met before but who were different this time through. In that way, the relationships would be different, the plot would be different, and their lives would interact differently.

Steve Meretzky: In my fantasy, I answer the door and Goldie Hawn is standing there wearing… oh, we’re talking adventure games now, aren’t we? A lot of the genres I was going to mention have already been mentioned. But one is historical interactive nonfiction. I know that Stu Galley has always wanted to do a game in which you play Paul Revere in April of 1775. And before I die I’m going to do a Titanic game.4 Also, in my ongoing effort to offend every man, woman, and child in the universe, someday I’d like to write an Interactive Bible, which would be an irreverent comedy, of course. Also, I’d like to see a collection of “short story” adventure games for all those ideas which aren’t big enough to be a whole game.5

Bible Quest: So You Want to Be a God?. I like it, I like it.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Ah, but someone will sue over the trademark…6

Bob Bates: The problem of course is marketing. The kinds of games we want to write aren’t always the kinds of games that will sell. This presents something of a quandary for those of us who like to eat.

This question was submitted by Tsunami, and I’ll let him ask in his own words: “Virtually every game I have played on my computer is at least partially tongue-in-cheek. What I am interested in is games with mature themes, or at least a more mature approach to their subjects. Games that, like good movies or plays, really scare a player, really make them feel a tragedy, or even make them angry. What are each of you doing to try to push games to this next level of human interaction?”

Steve Meretzky: Well, I think I already did that with A Mind Forever Voyaging, and it did worse commercially speaking than any other game I’ve ever done. As Bob just said, we have to eat. I’d much rather write a Mind Forever Voyaging than a Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but unless I become independently wealthy, or unless some rich benefactor wants to underwrite such projects, or unless the marketplace changes a lot, I don’t think I’ll be doing a game like A Mind Forever Voyaging in the near future. Sigh.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Computers are so stupid that even the smartest game tends to do silly things. So, it’s easier to write a silly game. And the development process on a humorous game tends to be more fun. Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire is fundamentally a very serious game in terms of story line, but we kept lots of silly stuff in to break up the tension. I call it the “roller-coaster effect.” We want the player to get extremely intense about the game at points, but then have a chance to catch his or her breath with comic relief and plain fun.

Bob Bates: My games are usually fairly “mature,” but when 90 percent of what a player tries to do in a game is wrong, you have to keep him interested when he is not solving a puzzle. The easiest way to do this is with humor; you don’t want him mad at you, after all. But I agree that we all should strive to create emotions in the player like what we all felt when Floyd died in Planetfall.

Roberta Williams: I agree with the sentiment that most adventure games, at least up to now, have been not quite “serious” in their approach to the subject matter at hand. I think the reason for that, for the most part, is that professional writers or storytellers have not had their hands in the design of a game. It’s been mostly programmers who have been behind them. I’m not a professional writer either, but I’m trying to improve myself in that area. With The Colonel’s Bequest, I did attempt a new theme, a murder mystery, and tried to make it more mature in its subject matter — more “plot” oriented. I attempted to put in classic “scare” tactics and suspense. I tried to put in different levels of emotion, from repulsion to sadness to hilarity. Whether I accomplished those goals is up to the player experiencing the game. At least I tried!

Noah Falstein: I venture to predict that we all intend to push games this way, or want to but can’t afford it — or can’t convince a publisher to afford it. But I’ll toot the Lucasfilm horn a bit; imagine the Star Wars fanfare here. One way we’re trying to incorporate real stories into games is to use real storytellers. Next year, we have a game coming out by Hal Barwood, who’s been a successful screenwriter, director, and producer for years. His most well-known movies probably are the un-credited work he did on Close Encounters and Dragonslayer, which he co-wrote and produced. He’s also programmed his own Apple II games in 6502 assembly in his spare time. I’ve already learned a great deal about pacing, tension, character, and other “basic” techniques that come naturally — or seem to — to him. I highly recommend such collaborations to you all. I think we’ve got a game with a new level of story on the way.7

Mike Berlyn: I disagree with the idea that hiring professional storytellers from other media will solve our problems for us. Creating emotions is the goal here, if I understood the question. It isn’t whether we write humor or horror, it’s how well we do it. This poses a serious problem. Interactivity is the opposite of the thing that most… well, all storytellers, regardless of medium, require to create emotion. Emotion is created by manipulation. And it is impossible to manipulate emotions when you don’t know where the player has been and you don’t know where the player is going. In linear fiction, where you know what the “player” has just experienced; you can deliberately and continuously set them up. This is the essence of drama, humor, horror, etc. Doing this in games requires a whole different approach. Utilizing an experienced linear writer only tends to make games less game-ish, less interactive, and more linear. In a linear game like Loom, you’re not providing an interactive story or an adventure game. All you’re doing is making the player work to see a movie.

Dave Lebling: Well, emotion also comes from identification with the character in the story. You can’t easily identify in a serious way with a character who looks like a 16 X 16-pixel sprite.8 If he or she is silly-looking, he or she isn’t much more silly-looking than if he’s serious-looking: for example, Larry Laffer versus Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So, you are at a disadvantage being serious in graphical games. Better graphics will improve that eventually. But even so, I think Bob hit the point perfectly: the player does a lot of silly things, even if there is no parser — running into rocks in the graphic games, for example — and you can’t stay serious. The other thing is that, in my experience, serious games don’t sell. Infocom’s more serious games sold poorly. Few others have tried, and most of those have sold poorly too.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: A really good game — or story — elicits emotions rather than creating them. A good design opens up the player’s imagination instead of forcing them along a path. A frustrated player is too busy being angry at the computer to experience the wonder and mystery of his or her character and the game’s world. By having fair puzzles and “open” stories, we allow players to emote and imagine.

Okay, now we turn from software to hardware. One of the most striking developments over the last few years has been the growing use of MS-DOS machines for game development. This has led some Amiga and Mac owners to complain that there aren’t any good adventures out for their machines, or that the games that are out for those platforms don’t make good use of their full graphics and sound capabilities. How can this problem be solved?

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Well, I just about went broke trying to develop Atari ST software a few years ago. This was what made it possible to pull up roots and come to Sierra to do games. But I think the real value of all the alternative platforms has been to force IBM and the clone-makers to play catch-up. Myself, I’m waiting for ubiquitous CD-ROM and telecom. I’d really like to be doing multiplayer games in a few years. In the meantime, the cold hard reality is that IBM clones is where the money is — and money is a good thing.

Roberta Williams: Ha! We at Sierra, probably the most guilty of developing our games on MS-DOS machines, are trying to rectify that problem. This past year, we have put teams of programmers on the more important non-MS-DOS platforms to implement our new game-development system in the best way possible for those machines. Emphasis is on the unique capabilities of each machine, and to truly be of high quality on each of them. Our new Amiga games have been shipping for several months now, and have been favorably received — and our Mac games are nearly ready.

Dave Lebling: Get an installed base of 10 million Macs or Amigas and you’ll see plenty of games for them. Probably even fewer are needed, since programmers have the hots for those platforms. But in reality what you need is companies like Sierra that can leverage their development system to move to different platforms. As Windows and 386-based machines become the IBM standard, the differences among the platforms become less significant, and using an object-oriented development system lets you port relatively easily, just like in the old days. Graphics will still be a problem, as the transforms from one machine to another will still be a pain.

Al Lowe: Money talks. When Mac games outsell MS-DOS games, you’ll see Mac-designed games ported to PCs. When Amiga games are hot, etc. In other words, as long as MS-DOS sales are 80 percent or more of the market, who can afford to do otherwise?

Mike Berlyn: I think we all want our games on as many systems as possible, but in reality the publishers are the ones who make the decisions.

When you design a game, do you decide how hard it’s going to be first, or does the difficulty level just evolve?

Ron Gilbert: I know that I have a general idea of how hard I want the game to be. Almost every game I have done has ended up being a little longer and harder than I would have liked.

Noah Falstein: I agree. I’ve often put in puzzles that I thought were easy, only to find in play-testing that the public disagreed. But since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade I firmly believe that one good way to go is to put in multiple solutions to any puzzles that are showstoppers, and to make the remaining ones pretty easy. I think that’s the best for the players.

Dave Lebling: I think alternate solution are a red herring because you can’t make them radically different in difficulty or the easier one will always be found first.

Noah Falstein: But if you provide incentives to replay the game, you can make both beginners happy, who will find the easy alternative, and experienced gamers happy, who will want to find every solution…

Dave Lebling: Yes, but what percentage of people replay any game? What percentage even finish?

Steve Meretzky: Games that are intended for beginners — e.g., Wishbringer — are designed to be really easy, and games intended for veterans — e.g., Spellbreaker — are designed to be ball-busters. But since of course you end up getting both types for any game, my own theory is to start out with easy puzzles, have some medium-tough puzzles in the mid-game, and then wrap it up with the real whoppers. (Don’t ask me what the Babel-fish puzzle was doing right near the beginning of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

Roberta Williams: Usually the decision of how difficult the game is going to be is made about the time that the design actually begins. And that decision is based on who the main player of the game is going to be. In other words, if it’s an adventure game for children, then obviously the game will be easier. If it’s for families, the game will be harder than for children, but easier than a game strictly for adults. If it’s a game with adults in mind, then the difficulty level lies with the designer as he or she weaves the various puzzles into the plot of the story. I think even then, though, the decision of how difficult it’s going to be is made around the start of the design. Speaking personally, I usually have a good sense of which puzzles are going to be more difficult and which ones are easier to solve. There have been a few times when I miscalculated a puzzle. For instance, in King’s Quest II I thought the bridle-and-snake puzzle was fairly straightforward, but no, it wasn’t. And in The Colonel’s Bequest I didn’t think that discovering the secret passage in the house would be as difficult for some people as it turned out to be.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We try to keep the puzzles on the easy side in the sense of being fair; hints are somewhere in the game. But sometimes the best-laid plans of designers and developers go out the window when programming push-time comes, to mix several metaphors. But we definitely plan difficulty level in advance. The Quest for Glory series was intended to be somewhat on the easy side as adventure games go because we were introducing the concept of role-playing at the same time.

Dave Lebling: I think it’s relatively easy to make a game really hard or really easy. What’s tough is the middle-ground game. They tend to slop over to one extreme or the other, sometimes both in different puzzles, and you get a mishmash.

Mike Berlyn: I tend to design games that have various levels of difficulty within themselves, and so can appeal to a broad range of players. Like Steve, I like to open with an easy one and then mix up the middle game, saving the toughest stuff for the endgame.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We made a real effort to graduate the puzzles in Quest for Glory I, easier ones in the early phases.

Al Lowe: Does anyone else feel we should lighten up on our difficulty level so as to attract a broader audience and broaden our base of players?

Mike Berlyn: Making games easier isn’t going to attract more players. What will is designing and implementing them better.

Roberta Williams: Perhaps a parser-less interface would help. But I still think that each game should be thought out in advance as to who the target audience is, and then go from there on difficulty level.

Bob Bates: I agree that what is needed is not easier puzzles. I think that players want tough but fair puzzles. Where’s the rush that comes from solving an easy puzzle? What will keep them coming back for more?

Dave Lebling: One person’s easy puzzle is another’s never-solved brain-buster. There need to be a range of games and a range of puzzles in each game. Even Wishbringer, Infocom’s “easiest” game, had huge numbers of people stuck on the “easiest” puzzles.

Adventure designs have recently been criticized for becoming shorter and/or easier. Do you agree with this criticism, and, if so, how do you change a design to make a product longer and/or harder? And are harder games commercially viable?

Dave Lebling: Games are already too easy and not easy enough, and other paradoxes. Meaning that the intentional puzzles are getting too easy, and the unintentional ones — caused by size limitations, laziness, lousy parsers, bugs, etc. — are still too hard. Harder games are commercially viable, but only if the unintentional difficulty is reduced. We aren’t real good at that yet.

Roberta Williams: It may be true, to a certain extent, that adventure games have become shorter and/or easier than in the past. Four to ten years ago, adventure games were primarily text-oriented, and, as such, could be more extensive in scope, size, and complexity. Since the introduction of graphics, animation, and sound — and, coming up, speech — it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the same sort of scope that the earlier adventure games were able to accomplish. The reason for this is mainly limitations of memory, disk space, time, and cost. We adventure-game developers increasingly have to worry about cramming in beautiful graphics, realistic animation, wonderful sound, and absorbing plots, along with as many places to explore as possible, alternate paths or choices, and interesting puzzles. There is just so much space to put all that in. Something has to give. Even CD technology will not totally solve that problem. Though there is a very large disk capacity with CD, there is still a relatively small memory capacity. Also, the way the adventure-game program needs to be arranged on the CD creates problems. And as usual, with the new CD capabilities, we adventure-game developers are sure to create the most beautiful graphics you’ve ever seen, the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard, etc., etc. And that uses up disk space, even on CD.

Mike Berlyn: Shorter? Yeah, I suppose some of the newer games, whose names will remain untyped, are easier, shorter, etc. But unfortunately, they aren’t cheaper to make. I hate to tell you how much Altered Destiny is going to cost before it’s done. Accolade and myself have over ten man-years in this puppy, and a cast of many is creating it. When I created Oo-Topos or Cyborg or even Suspended, the time and money for development were a fraction of what this baby will cost. In addition, games like King’s Quest IV are larger, give more bang for the buck, and outshine many of the older games.

Steve Meretzky: A few years ago, I totally agreed with the statement that adventure games were getting too short and easy. Then I did Zork Zero, which was massive and ultimately quite hard. A good percentage of the feedback distilled down to “Too big!” It just took too long to play, and it was too hard to keep straight everything you had to do to win the game. Plus, of course, it was a major, major effort to design and implement and debug such a huge game. So, I’ve now come to the conclusion that a nice, average, 50-to-100-room, 20-to-30-hours-of-play-time, medium-level-of-difficulty game is just about right.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: There is plenty of room left for easier games, especially since most “hard” games are hard only because they are full of unfair outguess-the-designer — or programmer or parser — puzzles. Nobody wants to play a game and feel lost and frustrated. Most of us get enough of that in our daily lives! We want smaller, richer games rather than large, empty ones, and we want to see puzzles that further the story rather than ones that are just thrown in to make the game “hard.”

Al Lowe: I’ve been trying for years to make ’em longer and harder!


Al Lowe: But seriously, I have mixed emotions. I work hard on these things, and I hate to think that most people will never see the last half of them because they give up in defeat. On the other hand, gamers want meaty puzzles, and you don’t want to disappoint your proven audience. I think many games will become easier and easier, if only to attract more people to the medium. Of course, hard games will always be needed too, to satisfy the hardcore addicts. Geez, what a cop-out answer!

Bob Bates: You have to give the player his money’s worth, and if you can just waltz through a game, then all you have is an exercise in typing or clicking. The problem is that the definition of who the player is is changing. In trying to reach a mass market, some companies are getting away from our puzzle roots. The quandary here is that this works. The big bucks are in the mass market, and those people don’t want tough puzzles. The designers who stay behind and cater to the puzzle market may well be painting themselves into a niche.

Noah Falstein: Al and Bob have eloquently given the lead-in I was intending. But I’d like to go farther and say that we’re all painting ourselves into a corner if we keep catering to the 500,000 or so people that are regular players — and, more importantly, buyers — of adventure games. It’s like the saber-toothed tiger growing over-specialized. There are over 15 million IBM PC owners out there, and most of them have already given up on us because the games are too… geeky. Sorry, folks! Without mentioning that game that’s looming over this discussion, we’ve found that by making a very easy game, we’ve gotten more vehement, angry letters than ever before — as well as more raves from people who never played or enjoyed such games before. It seems to be financially worthwhile even now, and if more of us cater to this novice crowd, with better stories instead of harder puzzles, there will be a snowball effect. I think this is worth working towards, and I hope some of you will put part of your efforts into this. There’s always still some room for the “standard-audience” games. Interestingly enough, 60 to 100 rooms and 20 to 30 hours is precisely the niche we arrived at too! But let’s put out at least one more accessible game each year.

Dave Lebling: Most of the points I wanted to make have been made, and made well, but I’d like to add one more. What about those 20 million or more Nintendo owners out there? What kinds of games will hook them, if any? Have they written us off? I don’t think our fraction of the IBM market is quite as small as Noah’s figures make it look. Many of those IBM machines are not usable for games by policy, as they are in corporate settings. But all of the Nintendos are in home settings. Sure, they don’t have keyboards, but if there was a demand for our sort of game — a “puzzle” game, for want of a better word — there would be a keyboard-like interface or attachment, like the silly gun or the power glove. There isn’t. Why? Are we too geeky? Are puzzles and even the modicum of text that is left too much? We will have the opportunity to find out when the new game systems with keyboards start appearing in the US.

What do you all think about the idea of labeling difficulty levels and/or estimated playing time on the box, like Infocom used to do at one time?

Steve Meretzky: That was a pretty big failure. As was said earlier about puzzles, one person’s easy is another person’s hard.

Al Lowe: Heh, heh…

Steve Meretzky: For example, I found Suspended to be pretty easy, having a mind nearly as warped as Berlyn’s, but many people consider it one of Infocom’s hardest.

Bob Bates: The other Infocommies here can probably be more accurate, but my recollection is that labeling a game “advanced” scared off people, and labeling a game “easy” or “beginner” turned off lots of people too. So most of the games wound up being released as “standard,” until they dropped the scheme altogether. Still, I think some sort of indication on a very easy game, like the ones Noah was talking about, is in order. The customer has a right to know what he is purchasing.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: But Loom was rated as an easy game, and people who were stumped on a puzzle felt like this meant they were dumb or something.

Mike Berlyn: Good point! I’m not sure that labeling a product as being easy, medium, or difficult is a real solution. I know some games which were labeled “beginner” level were too tough for me. What we as designers need to do is write better, fairer, more rounded games that don’t stop players from exploring, that don’t close off avenues. It isn’t easy, but it’s sure my goal, and I like to think that others share this goal.

Okay, this is the last question. What is your favorite adventure game and why?

Noah Falstein: This will sound like an ad, but our audience constitutes a mass market. Ron Gilbert’s next game, The Secret of Monkey Island, is the funniest and most enjoyable adventure game I’ve ever played, including the others our company has done. I’ve laughed out loud reading and rereading the best scenes.

Steve Meretzky: Based simply on the games I’ve had the most fun playing, it’s a tie between Starcross — the first ever adventure game in my genre of choice, science fiction — and the vastly ignored and underrated Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It.

Roberta Williams: I hate to say it, but I don’t play many adventure games, including our own! I really love adventure games, though. It was this love of adventure gaming that brought me into this business. However, nowadays I’m so busy, what with working on games of my own, helping my husband run the company, taking care of the kids and the house, and doing other extracurricular activities, that I literally don’t have time to play adventure games — and we all know how much time it does take to play them! Of the adventure games that I’ve played and/or seen, I like the games that Lucasfilm produces; I have a lot of respect for them. And I also enjoy the Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series that my company, Sierra, produces. Of my own games, I always seem to favor the game I’m currently working on since I’m most attached to it at that given moment. Right now, that would be King’s Quest V. But aside from that, I am particularly proud of The Colonel’s Bequest since it was a departure for me, and very interesting and complicated to do. I am also proud of Mixed-Up Mother Goose, especially the new version coming out. And looking way back, I still have fond memories of Time Zone, for any of you who may remember that one.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Of adventure games, we liked the original mainframe Zork and Space Quest III. But our favorite games are Dungeon Master and Rogue, the only games we keep going back to replay. As for our favorite of all two games we’ve done, we’re particularly proud of what we are doing with Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire. We’re also proud of the first game, but we think Trial by Fire is going to be really great. Okay, end of commercial, at least as soon as I say, “Buy our game!” But seriously, we’re pleased with what we’ve done with the design.

Bob Bates: “You are standing outside a white house. There is a mailbox here.”

Mike Berlyn: This is my least favorite question in the world. (Well, okay, I could think up some I’d like less.) But it’s a toss-up between A Mind Forever Voyaging, Starcross, and the soon-to-be-forgotten masterpiece, Scott Adams’s Pirate Adventure. Yoho.

Dave Lebling: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Trinity. Both well thought-out, with great themes. But beyond those, the original Adventure. I just played it a little bit last night, and I still get a thrill from it. We owe a lot to Will Crowther and Don Woods, and I think that’s an appropriate sentiment to close with.

  1. One of my favorite things about this transcript is the way that Steve Meretzky and Al Lowe keep making these stupid jokes, and everybody just keeps ignoring them. I fancy I can almost hear the sighs… 

  2. It’s worth noting that the trend the Coles describe as “unfortunate” was exactly the direction in which Sierra, their employer, was moving in very aggressive fashion. The Coles thus found themselves blowing against the political winds in designing their games their way. Perhaps not coincidentally, they were also designing the best games coming out of Sierra during this period. 

  3. This was not what many participating in the conference probably wanted to hear, but it wins the prize of being the most prescient single statement of the evening. Note that Lebling not only predicted the complete commercial demise of text adventures, but he also predicted that they would survive as a hobbyist endeavor; the emphasis on the word “commercial” is original. 

  4. Steve Meretzky’s perennial Titanic proposal, which he pitched to every publisher he ever worked with, became something of an industry in-joke. There’s just no market for such a game, insisted each of the various publishers. When James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic became the first ever to top $1 billion at the box office, and a modest little should-have-been-an-obscurity from another design team called Titanic: Adventure Out of Time rode those coattails to sales of 1 million copies, the accusations flew thick and fast from Meretzky’s quarter. But to no avail; he still hasn’t gotten to make his Titanic game. On the other hand, he’s nowhere near death, so there’s still time to fulfill his promise… 

  5. Meretzky had pitched both of these ideas as well to Infocom without success. In the longer term, however, he would get one of his wishes, at least after a fashion. “Short stories” have become the norm in modern interactive fiction, thanks largely to the Interactive Fiction Competition and its guideline that it should be possible to play an entrant to completion within two hours. 

  6. Legal threats from the makers of the board game HeroQuest had recently forced the Coles to change the name of their burgeoning series of adventure/CRPG hybrids from the perfect Hero’s Quest to the rather less perfect Quest for Glory. Obviously the fresh wound still smarted. 

  7. After some delays, the game Falstein is talking about here would be released in 1992 as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It would prove to be a very good adventure game, if not quite the medium-changer Falstein describes. 

  8. It’s interesting to see Lebling still using the rhetoric from Infocom’s iconic early advertising campaigns


Posted by on February 16, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Dr. Brain

The line between entertainment and education at the Sierra of the early 1990s was much less clearly drawn among the design staff than it was in the company’s marketing materials. The exact same people who made the purely entertaining adventure games took up the task of making entries in Sierra’s new “Discovery Series” of educational games when that line made its debut in 1991.1 Discounting for obvious reasons only the early-education titles, the results of their efforts could be every bit as satisfying for adults as they were for children and adolescents. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that much of the very best work done at Sierra during this period was done for the Discovery Series. The fact that they were designing games for a theoretical audience of youngsters seemed to prompt some of the staff to show a bit more kindness and mercy, to think about issues of playability in ways they sometimes couldn’t be bothered to do when making their other games. It’s thus a real shame that the Discovery Series tends to be overlooked by even many of the most ardent Sierra fans of today, who shy away instinctively from the educational label which Sierra’s marketers placed upon it. More or less educational these games may very well be, but many or most of them are also a hell of a lot of fun, whether you happen to be young, old, or somewhere in-between.

The inception of the Discovery Series was marked by a meeting of all of Sierra’s creative staff, aimed at drumming up ideas for educational games. One of the sample ideas which Ken Williams himself presented there was for something he called Mathemagical Mansion, a game whose player would have to solve math problems to explore ever deeper into the house in question. Programmer and game designer Corey Cole, who had recently created the first two titles in the adventure-game series Quest for Glory alongside his wife Lori Ann Cole, left the meeting having already decided to take the idea and run with it. He planned to expand on Ken Williams’s base by adding the character of a “Dr. Brain,” whom the player would need to impress in order to get a job working in his research laboratory. And he also planned to broaden the base of puzzle topics to include science, technology, and even a dash of culture to go along with the math problems. In additions to the merits of the original idea itself, practical and even political considerations prompted him to go this way. He knew that no new Quest for Glory game was in the cards for 1991, and he knew that, should his proposal not be accepted, he’d likely finding himself working as a programmer on one of the educational proposals that had been. And, most importantly, he knew that Ken Williams would have a natural affinity for a proposal based on his own germ of an idea. His political calculus proved correct; after he showed a prototype demonstrating the basic interface and a few puzzles, Castle of Dr. Brain got the green light. His wife Lori, meanwhile, was similarly politically clever in proposing the early-education game Mixed-Up Fairy Tales, a pseudo-sequel to Roberta Williams’s Mixed-Up Mother Goose, and was also rewarded with a gig as lead designer on her own Discovery Series project.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole didn’t need to up their design standards for their latest projects in the way that some of their colleagues would for other Discovery Series titles; the two Quest for Glory games they had already made were, in this reviewer’s opinion anyway, the absolute best adventures to come out of Sierra to this point. So, they only needed to continue to hew to the high standard they had already set.

Nevertheless, Castle of Dr. Brain represented a leap into unexplored territory in more ways than one for Corey. Lori had taken the lead on many aspects of the Quest for Glory games. The overall arc of the planned four-game series, drawn up before any implementation began on the first game, had been largely her vision, as had been much of the detail of plot and character within the two games that had been produced to date. While Lori had thus played the “artistic” role, Corey had been the puzzle guy, nailing down the details of what the player had to do and where she had to do it. But now, for the first time, he wouldn’t have Lori’s talents to lean on; Castle of Dr. Brain was all his baby. He comforted himself with the knowledge that it was to be at bottom just a big box of puzzles — and if there was one thing he felt he knew, it was puzzles. His attitude toward the project thus gradually moved from trepidation to exhilaration. By the time the game was finished, he would finally feel, as he put it to me many years later, “like a real game designer.”

Which isn’t to say that Castle of Dr. Brain was an easy game to make. The label on the box says that it’s designed for children aged twelve and up, implying that some sort of rigorous pedagogic methodology had gone into that formulation. In later years, certainly, any software from a major publisher daring to bill itself as “educational” would likely be approved if not designed by genuine educators, by people familiar with current age-appropriate curricula and theories of learning and all the rest. But Sierra back in those days just winged it. “While they aren’t intended to be hardcore educational products,” explained the brand manager for the Discovery Series, “they’re more than just games. They have legitimate academic content” — whatever “legitimate academic content” meant. Corey talked to exactly no education professionals in the course of making his educational game, unless you count his wife, who had worked as a schoolteacher years ago. Subject matter as well as pedagogic technique were left entirely up to him. He had promised Ken Williams a game that would have some math in it along with lots of other vaguely defined “educational” things. He got to decide what those things would be for himself.

Instead of some mythical stereotype of late childhood found only inside pedagogic textbooks, Corey aimed his game at the twelve-year-old self he remembered. Perhaps, he mused, he was unusually well-equipped to speak to bright kids of the sort he had once been. He remembered when, back at university, someone had passed an essay he had written through a computerized text analyzer, and the program had said that he wrote on a seventh-grade reading level. “That’s great!” said the analyzer’s programmer by way of comforting a Corey Cole whose first reaction was embarrassment. “You’ve written this so any adult or high-school student can understand it. Most people think they need to sound clever or sophisticated, but all they accomplish is to make their work inaccessible.” One of the worst sins would-be writers of children’s and young-adult fiction can commit is to write down to their target audience; youngsters can smell such condescension a mile away. It seemed that Corey would, at the very least, be free of that sin.

A staple of games like this one: the sliding-block puzzle.

All of which was well and good, but it still left the matter of the actual puzzles to be sorted out. Corey had always loved books of puzzles and brainteasers, and had had this love in mind when he first pitched his idea for Castle of Dr. Brain. Maybe, he had thought, such books could even provide him with most of the puzzles he would need. Yet that proved not to be the case when the time came to roll up his sleeves and start making his game. Corey:

The puzzle books were useless. A book advertising “over 60 puzzles and brainteasers” typically had four formats, and 15 puzzles in each format. They might have cryptograms, crossword puzzles, and grid puzzles (“Who lives in the purple house? What’s their job, hobby, and favorite food?”). Most of these are weak in a computer game, and I wanted to have a dozen or more unique puzzles.

Corey wound up creating groupings of puzzles on the various subjects he chose, clustering them together in rooms of Dr. Brain’s castle. First came three math problems, then three puzzles dealing with time. And so on and so on, incorporating among others a word-puzzle room, a robotics-and-computers room, even an astronomy room — all adding up to 24 multifarious puzzles in all. The puzzle books may have proved a dead end, but some of the puzzles that made their way into the game are nevertheless variations on old favorites of one type or another, such as Mastermind, Hangman, and Knights and Knaves. Roughly half of the puzzles, though, are indeed completely original. Unsurprisingly, these are the ones that tend to make the most impact, to the point of being at least vaguely remembered by some old players of Castle of Dr. Brain literally decades after they last saw them.

The robot maze that’s shown above, for instance, is a marvel of elegant, minimalist design, played in real time to make it exciting for youngsters (and oldsters) raised on videogames. You need to collect cards from all of the red “A” symbols by running the little blue robot over them, while avoiding the swirling red-and-purple vortexes, which will swallow it up. Running over the green crosses, meanwhile, will toggle various vortexes off, thus making them safe to travel over, and on, thus making them decidedly unsafe. The robot will always move straight ahead, until it encounters an obstacle in the form of a wall, which will cause it to turn around and go back whence it came. But there is one exception to this rule, an exception that also happens to be the only way you can interact with the puzzle: you can click on any of the intersections marked with four red dots to cause the robot to turn right when it reaches that intersection; click again to turn off this “traffic signal.” And that’s it. From one verb is created a hugely intriguing possibility space.

But most beloved of all might just be the robot-programming puzzle. You need to retrieve certain items out of a locked cabinet by writing a program to move a robot arm through the correct sequence of steps. Besides being a brilliantly original and entertaining puzzle in its own right, it’s also a fine introduction to the joy of programming.

Writing a program to control a robot arm…

…and running it.

To make Castle of Dr. Brain accessible to as wide an audience as possible, Corey Cole implemented three difficulty levels, which the player can change at any time to adjust for those types of puzzles she’s better or worse at. The “expert” level of any given puzzle should offer an enjoyable challenge to almost any adult, while the “novice” level is good even for many children who are younger than the game’s stated minimum age of twelve. Yet Corey didn’t settle for this form of adjustable difficulty alone. He also came up with a mechanic for “puzzle coins” which ties into your final score in the game. You earn coins by completing puzzles, and can then trade them in for hints if a later puzzle has you stumped. Your final score will take a hit in doing so, but this only adds a bit of replayability to a game that’s really not all that long.

The puzzle design constitutes much of what makes the finished game great, but the puzzles aren’t quite the sum total of the experience. Being made using an engine designed first and foremost for adventure games, and by a company and a designer known first and foremost for same, Castle of Dr. Brain is an embodied experience rather than an exercise in purely abstract puzzling. The plot isn’t up to much — “solve puzzles to move through the castle until you meet Dr. Brain and he gives you a job” is all it consists of from beginning to end — but, hey, it’s there. The charming old coot himself even pops up from time to time to offer encouragement. A stronger line connecting Castle of Dr. Brain to the Quest for Glory adventure games in particular comes in the form of the plethora of optional gags and Easter eggs in every area of the castle. You can click on almost anything and get a reaction. From the front door on which you can pound instead of ringing the doorbell to the telephone you can pick up in the good doctor’s inner sanctum, the game is a riot of interactivity, just as any good adventure game should be, paying full attention to what designer Bob Bates calls the “else” of the “if, then, else” logic of adventure design. And Castle of Dr. Brain is full of the same horrid puns and general good nature which mark the Quest for Glory games. I don’t believe Corey Cole is capable of making a game that’s less than thoroughly likable.

Within the framework of adventure lent by the SCI engine, however, Castle of Dr. Brain and its sequel are unique among the Discovery Series — in fact, unique among Sierra’s adventures in general — for a certain spirit of formal innovation. Those other Discovery games mostly look and play like standard Sierra adventures of their time; it’s just that their puzzles and plots are aimed at an ostensibly younger audience. But, perhaps because Corey was himself an experienced SCI programmer, Castle of Dr. Brain dared to shake up the status quo. Replacing the third-person view and visible onscreen avatar of the typical Sierra adventure is a first-person viewpoint. And then, too, the protagonist here goes unnamed and uncharacterized; the protagonist, in other words, is meant to be you. There is much to be said for both third-person and first-person approaches to the graphical adventure, just as there is for both the richly characterized adventure-game protagonist and the “nameless, faceless adventurer” of Zork. For today, I will only say that the choices Corey made here — both departing from the norm at Sierra — strike me as eminently correct for the game he wanted to make and the audience he wanted to reach. To be constantly switching between a third-person “exploration mode” and a series of screen-filling set-piece puzzles would have felt jarring. And then, too, children love nothing better than to imagine themselves inside their entertainments.

So, Corey Cole had good reason to feel proud of the finished game. Proud he was — and is: he still describes Castle of Dr. Brain as the most satisfying single project of his career. And Sierra too had reason to be pleased after the game was released: it became by far the most commercially successful of all the Discovery Series. Corey estimates that it sold over 100,000 copies in its initial full-price form, then another 150,000 copies as a budget re-release. Those numbers were almost comparable to what might be expected from a new Space Quest or Leisure Suit Larry — flashier games with much bigger development budgets. Sierra’s accountants thus couldn’t help but see Castle of Dr. Brain as a bargain, a relatively cheap investment that had made them quite a lot of money.

With numbers like those, and with the series-loving Ken Williams running Sierra, a sequel was inevitable. Corey was ready and eager to helm that project, but he wasn’t given a fair chance to do so. After Castle of Dr. Brain was finished, he was moved back to the programmer’s role he had been able to avoid for a while by making it, assigned the task of porting Sierra’s SCI engine to the Sega Genesis videogame console. He was offered the “opportunity” to design the sequel strictly as a moonlighting project, if he was willing to give up the 1-percent royalty he had received on the first game in favor of a small lump-sum payment. Understandably, he turned down an offer that would have consumed his nights and weekends for many months to come for very little financial reward. The task of designing the sequel was instead handed to one Patrick Bridgemon, a technical writer who had been responsible for many Sierra manuals and hint books, but whose only experience to date working on the games proper had consisted of a polishing-up of the writing in the first Police Quest game for a recent point-and-click remake of same.

Given these circumstances, one would rather expect the game that became known as The Island of Dr. Brain to disappoint. And, indeed, the general critical consensus over the years has tended to paint it as something of a pale shadow of its illustrious predecessor. In this case, though, I find myself in disagreement with the consensus; I don’t think that The Island of Dr. Brain fares badly at all in comparison to its predecessor. Yes, some of the puzzles are cribbed directly from the previous game, and, yes, more old chestnuts do make an appearance; the game’s lowlight is definitely the supremely tedious (is there any other kind?) Tower of Hanoi puzzle. Yet there are also a number of completely original puzzles here which can stand proudly alongside the best puzzles from the earlier game. And, once again, the vast majority of the puzzles, whether original or cribbed, are great fun to solve.

A chemistry puzzle.

There’s a bit more to the plot this time around. Someone has knocked the good doctor over the head — with a pink-flamingo lawn ornament, no less! — and absconded with his most powerful and dangerous invention. In practice, however, the plot still doesn’t really matter all that much. Now duly hired as Dr. Brain’s assistant, you’ve been sent to your boss’s private island to retrieve a vital battery that’s necessary to stop the evil one’s dastardly plan. But you can’t just walk in and pick it up; you have to solve puzzles in order to make your way to the center of the island where the battery lies waiting. As security systems go, this one doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there you go. The real point, of course, is the puzzles.

It should be amply clear by now that Bridgemon, doubtless responding to dictates from his managers, adopted a “don’t fix what isn’t broken” approach to the sequel. Still, he did manage to innovate modestly within the established framework. This time out, the puzzles and their solutions are all randomized to one degree or another, thus addressing the most obvious complaint customers who had spent $40 or more on the first game might have made: the fact that it just wasn’t very long at all. The Island of Dr. Brain even sets up a sort of meta-challenge for the truly hardcore. If you solve all 26 puzzles four times on each of the three difficulty levels (!), without using any of your hint coins, you earn the maximum of 1000 points, and are rewarded with a special picture. I can’t say that I can muster up that much dedication today, but it’s easy to imagine a patient youngster taking on the challenge, and thereby getting many, many hours out of the game.

Playing with polynominoes. Eat your heart out, Alexey Pajitnov.

Likewise, the sequel not only embraces its predecessor’s wide range of educational themes but actually expands upon it. Puzzles in The Island of Dr. Brain often deal with the expected: mathematics, spatial logic, computer programming (the logic-gates puzzle is every bit as good as Corey Cole’s programming puzzles from the previous game). At the same time, though, Bridgemon shows no fear of the humanities, despite the latter being a field of knowledge so much less obviously suited to puzzles. The Island of Dr. Brain finds clever ways to dive into foreign languages, musical notation, even masterpieces of literature and the visual arts. One of my favorite puzzles teaches you to identify the works of great artists, from Vincent van Gogh to Jackson Pollock, by their unique styles.

The sequel shipped with an “EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy” in the box, a 104-page book full of information that’s sometimes useful for solving the puzzles but is more often there just to add depth to the topics the puzzles cover. As its name would imply, it’s a glorious mess, a big splat of completely unrelated data — a random cross-section of some tiny portion of all the sheer stuff the human race has learned and done and achieved over the centuries. I love it.

The Island of Dr. Brain didn’t do quite as well as its predecessor had commercially, but sold well enough that these two games would not mark the end of Dr. Thaddeus Egghead Brain’s puzzling career. The second game would be, however, the last of the series to be developed by Sierra in-house. Later entries were given to Bright Star Technology, a developer specializing in educational software which Sierra acquired in 1992 as part of Ken Williams’s general educational push. Those Dr. Brain games — there were five more of them in all, stretching all the way to 1999 — are slicker productions in many ways, but lack their predecessors’ gonzo spirit. They’re just well-made educational products — no more, no less.

Which only leads me to emphasize once again what a pleasure these first two Dr. Brain games still are to play. The EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy nicely illustrates the overarching Dr. Brain take on education. In a world obsessed with specialists and specialties, these games dare to tell us that knowledge in general is a sumptuous banquet which is only made more exciting through variety. A person, they imply, should feel free to become a computer programmer and a poet, a geneticist and a musician. At the risk of offending the many hard-working pedagogues out there, I can’t help but think that much of the reason these particular educational games are so bracing is because of the lack of a formal disciplinarian to say, “No, you can’t follow up a mechanical-engineering problem with an art-appreciation exercise. The child will be confused by such an abrupt shift and will fail to internalize the lessons. Such disparate subject matters should be separated by a reasonable pause, and are best contained in separate software programs designed for the individual needs of disparate educational models….” blah, blah, blah. Just throw it all in there, I say, and let children (and adults) enjoy drinking from the fire hose. I often think that half the modern world’s dysfunction is due to the fact that we’ve all become so specialized — so segregated — that we don’t know how to talk to one another anymore. I believe that we desperately need more Renaissance people, more jacks of all trades, even if that means fewer masters of one. The Dr. Brain games, it would appear, agree with me.

If we set aside the educational aspect and consider the Dr. Brain games purely as puzzle collections, they do suffer in some ways in comparison to The Fool’s Errand, the game I still consider the standard by which all other puzzlers should be measured. The Dr. Brain games were created at the dawn of the age of multimedia computing, when Sierra even more so than most companies was determined to put in every bit of digitized sound and color they could fit onto a reasonable number of floppy disks. Such rather garish presentations perhaps haven’t aged as well as The Fool’s Errand‘s austere, elegant black-and-white look. And the Dr. Brain games lack anything like The Fool’s Errand‘s dazzling structural complexity; structurally, they’re just a collection of standalone puzzles, to be solved one at a time until you solve the last one and win. But of course, all of these alleged negatives could equally be read as positives. Certainly the audiovisuals of Dr. Brain have plenty of goofy charm of their own, and you may very well have more room in your life for a casual series of discrete puzzles than for the all-consuming obsession that The Fool’s Errand can become once you’ve fallen down its rabbit hole.

Unlike many of the Sierra titles from their era, the Discovery Series has never been officially re-released as digital downloads — doubtless thanks once again to that dreaded “educational” tag. Yet they richly deserve to be remembered and, most of all, to be played. I’m therefore going to take the liberty of offering Castle of Dr. Brain and The Island of Dr. Brain for download here. As usual, I’ve included a configuration file that will make them as easy as possible to get running with the aid of DOSBox, whether you’re using a Windows, Macintosh, or Linux machine. Happy puzzling!

(My huge thanks go to Corey Cole, who took the time to correspond with me at length on this phase of his career. Be sure to check out Hero-U: From Rogue to Redemption, a new game in the spirit of the Quest for Glory series which Corey and Lori Ann Cole have created. As of this writing, its release is expected in a matter of weeks.

Other sources include the issues of Sierra’s official magazine from Fall 1991, Fall 1992, and Winter 1992.)

  1. The name “Discovery Series” wasn’t actually used until 1992. Before then, the earliest games in the series were sold simply as educational titles, without any further branding. 


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