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Author Archives: Jimmy Maher

Life on the Grid

I’ve long been interested in the process by which new games turn into new gaming genres or sub-genres.

Most game designers know from the beginning that they will be working within the boundaries of an existing genre, whether due to their own predilections or to instructions handed down from above. A minority are brave and free enough to try something formally different from the norm, but few to none even of them, it seems safe to say, deliberately set out to create a new genre. Yet if the game they make turns into a success, it may be taken as the beginning of just that, even as — and this to me is the really fascinating part — design choices which were actually technological compromises with the Platonic ideal in the designer’s mind are taken as essential, positive parts of the final product.

A classic example of this process is a genre that’s near and dear to my heart: the text adventure. Neither of the creators of the original text adventure — they being Will Crowther and Don Woods — strikes me as a particularly literary sort. I suspect that, if they’d had the technology available to them to do it, they’d have happily made their game into a photorealistic 3D-rendered world to be explored using virtual-reality glasses. As it happened, though, all they had was a text-only screen and a keyboard connected to a time-shared DEC PDP-10. So, they made do, describing the environment in text and accepting input in the form of commands entered at the keyboard.

If we look at what happened over the ten to fifteen years following Adventure‘s arrival in 1977, we see a clear divide between practitioners of the form. Companies like Sierra saw the text-only format as exactly the technological compromise Crowther and Woods may also have seen, and ran away from it as quickly as possible. Others, however — most notably Infocom — embraced text, finding in it an expansive possibility space all its own, even running advertisements touting their lack of graphics as a virtue. The heirs to this legacy still maintain a small but vibrant ludic subculture to this day.

But it’s another, almost equally interesting example of this process that’s the real subject of our interest today: the case of the real-time grid-based dungeon crawler. After the release of Sir-Tech’s turn-based dungeon crawl Wizardry in 1981, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the ideal next step would be: a smooth-scrolling first-person 3D environment running in real time. Yet that was a tall order indeed for the hardware of the time — even for the next generation of 16-bit hardware that began to arrive in the mid-1980s, as exemplified by the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga. So, when a tiny developer known as FTL decided the time had come to advance the state of the art over Wizardry, they compromised by going to real time but holding onto a discrete grid of locations inside the dungeon of Dungeon Master.

Gamers of today have come to refer to dungeon crawls on a grid as “blobbers,” which is as good a term as any. (The term arises from the way that these games typically “blob” together a party of four or six characters, moving them in lockstep and giving the player a single first-person — first-people? — view of the world.) The Dungeon Master lineage, then, are “real-time blobbers.”

By whatever name, this intermediate step between Wizardry and the free-scrolling ideal came equipped with its own unique set of gameplay affordances. Retaining the grid allowed you to do things that you simply couldn’t otherwise. For one thing, it allowed a game to combine the exciting immediacy of real time with what remains for some of us one of the foremost pleasures of the earlier, Wizardry style of dungeon crawl: the weirdly satisfying process of making your own maps — of slowly filling in the blank spaces on your graph paper, bringing order and understanding to what used to be the chaotic unknown.

This advertisement for the popular turn-based dungeon crawl Might and Magic makes abundantly clear how essential map-making was to the experience of these games. “Even more cartography than the bestselling fantasy game!” What a sales pitch…

But even if you weren’t among the apparent minority who enjoyed that sort of thing, the grid had its advantages, the most significant of which is implied by the very name of “blobber.” It was easy and natural in these games to control a whole party of characters moving in lockstep from square to square, thus retaining another of the foremost pleasures of turn-based games like Wizardry: that of building up not just a single character but a balanced team of them. In a free-scrolling, free-moving game, with its much more precise sense of embodied positioning, such a conceit would have been impossible to maintain. And much of the emergent interactivity of Dungeon Master‘s environment would also have been impossible without the grid. Many of us still recall the eureka moment when we realized that we could kill monsters by luring them into a gate square and pushing a button to bash them on the heads with the thing as it tried to descend, over and over again. Without the neat order of the grid, where a gate occupying a square fills all of that square as it descends, there could have been no eureka.

So, within a couple of years of Dungeon Master‘s release in 1987, the real-time blobber was establishing itself in a positive way, as its own own sub-genre with its own personality, rather than the unsatisfactory compromise it may first have seemed. Today, I’d like to do a quick survey of this popular if fairly brief-lived style of game. We can’t hope to cover all of the real-time blobbers, but we can hit the most interesting highlights.


Bloodwych running in its unique two-player mode.

Most of the games that followed Dungeon Master rely on one or two gimmicks to separate themselves from their illustrious ancestor, while keeping almost everything else the same. Certainly this rule applied to the first big title of the post-Dungeon Master blobber generation, 1989’s Bloodwych. It copies from FTL’s game not only the real-time approach but also its innovative rune-based magic system, and even the conceit of the player selecting her party from a diverse group of heroes who have been frozen in amber. By way of completing the facsimile, Bloodwych eventually got a much more difficult expansion disk, similar to Dungeon Master‘s famously difficult Chaos Strikes Back.

The unique gimmick here is the possibility for two players to play together on the same machine, either cooperatively or competitively, as they choose. A second innovation of sorts is the fact that, in addition to the usual Amiga and Atari ST versions, Bloodwych was also made for the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, and Sinclair Spectrum, much more limited 8-bit computers which still owned a substantial chunk of the European market in 1989.

Bloodwych was the work of a two-man team, one handling the programming, the other the graphics. The programmer, one Anthony Taglioni, tells an origin story that’s exactly what you’d expect it to be:

Dungeon Master appeared on the ST and what a product it was! Three weeks later we’d played it to death, even taking just a party of short people. My own record is twelve hours with just two characters. I was talking with Mirrorsoft at the time and suggested that I could do a DM conversion for them on the C64. They ummed and arred a lot and Pete [the artist] carried on drawing screens until they finally said, “Yes!” and I said, “No! We’ve got a better design and it’ll be two-player-simultaneous.” They said, “Okay, but we want ST and Amiga as well.”

The two-player mode really is remarkable, especially considering that it works even on the lowly 8-bit systems. The screen is split horizontally, and both parties can roam about the dungeon freely in real time, even fighting one another if the players in control wish it. “An option allowing two players to connect via modem could only have boosted the game’s popularity,” noted Wizardry‘s designer Andrew Greenberg in 1992, in a review of the belated Stateside MS-DOS release. But playing Bloodwych in-person with a friend had to be if anything even more fun.

Unfortunately, the game has little beyond its two-player mode and wider platform availability to recommend it over Dungeon Master. Ironically, many of its problems are down to the need to accommodate the two-player mode. In single-player mode, the display fills barely half of the available screen real estate, meaning that everything is smaller and harder to manipulate than in Dungeon Master. The dungeon design as well, while not being as punishing as some later entries in this field, is nowhere near as clever or creative as that of Dungeon Master, lacking the older game’s gradual, elegant progression in difficulty and complexity. As would soon become all too typical of the sub-genre, Bloodwych offered more levels — some forty of them in all, in contrast to Dungeon Master‘s twelve — in lieu of better ones.

So, played today, Bloodwych doesn’t really have a lot to offer. It was doubtless a more attractive proposition in its own time, when games were expensive and length was taken by many cash-strapped teenage gamers as a virtue unto itself. And of course the multiplayer mode was its wild card; it almost couldn’t help but be fun, at least in the short term. By capitalizing on that unique attribute and the fact that it was the first game out there able to satiate eager fans of Dungeon Master looking for more, Bloodwych did quite well for its publisher.


Captive has the familiar “paper doll” interface of Dungeon Master, but you’re controlling robots here. The five screens along the top will eventually be used for various kinds of telemetry and surveillance as you acquire new capabilities.

The sub-genre’s biggest hit of 1990 — albeit once again only in Europe — evinced more creativity in many respects than Bloodwych, even if its primary claim to fame once again came down to sheer length. Moving the action from a fantasy world into outer space, Captive is a mashup of Dungeon Master and Infocom’s Suspended, if you can imagine such a thing. As a prisoner accused of a crime he didn’t commit, you must free yourself from your cell using four robots which you control remotely. Unsurprisingly, the high-tech complexes they’ll need to explore bear many similarities to a fantasy dungeon.

The programmer, artist, and designer behind Captive was a lone-wolf Briton named Tony Crowther, who had cranked out almost thirty simple games for 8-bit computers before starting on this one, his first for the Amiga and Atari ST. Crowther created the entire game all by himself in about fourteen months, an impressive achievement by any standard.

More so even than for its setting and premise, Captive stands out for its reliance on procedurally-generated “dungeons.” In other words, it doesn’t even try to compete with Dungeon Master‘s masterful level design, but rather goes a different way completely. Each level is generated by the computer on the fly from a single seed number in about three seconds, meaning there’s no need to store any of the levels on disk. After completing the game the first time, the player is given the option of doing it all over again with a new and presumably more difficult set of complexes to explore. This can continue virtually indefinitely; the level generator can produce 65,535 unique levels in all. That should be enough, announced a proud Crowther, to keep someone playing his game for fifty years by his reckoning: “I wanted to create a role-playing game you wouldn’t get bored of — a game that never ends, so you can feasibly play it for years and years.”

Procedural generation tended to be particularly appealing to European developers like Tony Crowther, who worked in smaller groups with tighter budgets than their American counterparts, and whose target platforms generally lacked the hard drives that had become commonplace on American MS-DOS machines by 1990. Yet it’s never been a technique which I find very appealing as anything but a preliminary template generator for a human designer. In Captive as in most games that rely entirely on procedural generation, the process yields an endless progression of soulless levels which all too obviously lack the human touch of those found in a game like Dungeon Master. In our modern era, when brilliant games abound and can often be had for a song, there’s little reason to favor a game with near-infinite amounts of mediocre content over a shorter but more concentrated experience. In Captive‘s day, of course, the situation was very different, making it just one more example of an old game that was, for one reason or another, far more appealing in its own day than it is in ours.


This is the screen you’ll see most in Knightmare.

Tony Crowther followed up Captive some eighteen months later with Knightmare, a game based on a children’s reality show of sorts which ran on Britain’s ITV network from 1987 until 1994. The source material is actually far more interesting than this boxed-computer-game derivative. In an early nod toward embodied virtual reality, a team of four children were immersed in a computer-generated dungeon and tasked with finding their way out. It’s an intriguing cultural artifact of Britain’s early fascination with computers and the games they played, well worth a gander on YouTube.

The computer game of Knightmare, however, is less intriguing. Using the Captive engine, but featuring hand-crafted rather than procedurally-generated content this time around, it actually hews far closer to the Dungeon Master template than its predecessor. Indeed, like so many of its peers, it slavishly copies almost every aspect of its inspiration without managing to be quite as good — much less better — at any of it. This lineage has always had a reputation for difficulty, but Knightmare pushes that to the ragged edge, in terms of both its ridiculously convoluted environmental puzzles and the overpowered monsters you constantly face. Even the laddish staff of Amiga Format magazine, hardly a bastion of thoughtful design analyses, acknowledged that it “teeters on unplayably tough.” And even the modern blogger known as the CRPG Addict, whose name ought to say it all about his skill with these types of games, “questions whether it’s possible to win it without hints.”

Solo productions like this one, created in a vacuum, with little to no play-testing except by a designer who’s intimately familiar with every aspect of his game’s systems, often wound up getting the difficulty balance markedly wrong. Yet Knightmare is an extreme case even by the standards of that breed. If Dungeon Master is an extended explication of the benefits of careful level design, complete with lots of iterative feedback from real players, this game is a cautionary tale about the opposite extreme. While it was apparently successful in its day, there’s no reason for anyone who isn’t a masochist to revisit it in ours.


Eye of the Beholder‘s dependence on Dungeon Master is, as the CRPG Addict puts it, “so stark that you wonder why there weren’t lawsuits involved.” What it does bring new to the table is a whole lot more story and lore. Multi-page story dumps like this one practically contain more text than the entirety of Dungeon Master.

None of the three games I’ve just described was available in North America prior to 1992. Dungeon Master, having been created by an American developer, was for sale there, but only for the Amiga, Atari ST, and Apple IIGS, computers whose installed base in the country had never been overly large and whose star there dwindled rapidly after 1989. Thus the style of gameplay that Dungeon Master had introduced was either completely unknown or, at best, only vaguely known by most American gamers — this even as real-time blobbers had become a veritable gaming craze in Europe. But there was no reason to believe that American gamers wouldn’t take to them with the same enthusiasm as their European counterparts if they were only given the chance. There was simply a shortage of supply — and this, as any good capitalist knows, spells Opportunity.

The studio which finally walked through this open door is one I recently profiled in some detail: Westwood Associates. With a long background in real-time games already behind them, they were well-positioned to bring the real-time dungeon crawl to the American masses. Even better, thanks to a long-established relationship with the publisher SSI, they got the opportunity to do so under the biggest license in CRPGs, that of Dungeons & Dragons itself. With its larger development team and American-sized budget for art and sound, everything about Eye of the Beholder screamed hit, and upon its release in March of 1991 — more than half a year before Knightmare, actually — it didn’t disappoint.

It really is an impressive outing in many ways, the first example of its sub-genre that I can honestly imagine someone preferring to Dungeon Master. Granted, Westwood’s game lacks Dungeon Master‘s elegance: the turn-based Dungeons & Dragons rules are rather awkwardly kludged into real time; the environments still aren’t as organically interactive (amazingly, none of the heirs to Dungeon Master would ever quite live up to its example in this area); the controls can be a bit clumsy; the level design is nowhere near as fiendishly creative. But on the other hand, the level design isn’t pointlessly hard either, and the game is, literally and figuratively, a more colorful experience. In addition to the better graphics and sound, there’s far more story, steeped in the lore of the popular Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Personally, I still prefer Dungeon Master‘s minimalist aesthetic, as I do its cleaner rules set and superior level design. But then, I have no personal investment in the Forgotten Realms (or, for that matter, in elaborate fantasy world-building in general). Your mileage may vary.

Whatever my or your opinion of it today, Eye of the Beholder hit American gamers like a revelation back in the day, and Europe too got to join the fun via a Westwood-developed Amiga port which shipped there within a few months of the MS-DOS original’s American debut. It topped sales charts in both places, becoming the first game of its type to actually outsell Dungeon Master. In fact, it became almost certainly the best-selling single example of a real-time blobber ever; between North America and Europe, total sales likely reached 250,000 copies or more, huge numbers at a time when 100,000 copies was the line that marked a major hit.

Following the success of Eye of the Beholder, the dam well and truly burst in the United States. Before the end of 1991, Westwood had cranked out an Eye of the Beholder II, which is larger and somewhat more difficult than its predecessor, but otherwise shares the same strengths and weaknesses. In 1993, their publisher SSI took over to make an Eye of the Beholder III in-house; it’s generally less well-thought-of than the first two games. Meanwhile Bloodwych and Captive got MS-DOS ports and arrived Stateside. Even FTL, whose attitude toward making new products can most generously be described as “relaxed,” finally managed to complete and release their long-rumored MS-DOS port of Dungeon Master — whereupon its dated graphics were, predictably if a little unfairly, compared unfavorably with the more spectacular audiovisuals of Eye of the Beholder in the American gaming press.


Black Crypt‘s auto-map.

Another, somewhat more obscure title from this peak of the real-time blobber’s popularity was early 1992’s Black Crypt, the very first game from the American studio Raven Software, who would go on to a long and productive life. (As of this writing, they’re still active, having spent the last eight years or so making new entries in the Call of Duty franchise.) Although created by an American developer and published by the American Electronic Arts, one has to assume that Black Crypt was aimed primarily at European players, as it was made available only for the Amiga. Even in Europe, however, it failed to garner much attention in an increasingly saturated market; it looked a little better than Dungeon Master but not as good as Eye of the Beholder, and otherwise failed to stand out from the pack in terms of level design, interface, or mechanics.

With, that is, one exception. For the first time, Black Crypt added an auto-map to the formula. Unfortunately, it was needlessly painful to access, being available only through a mana-draining wizard’s spell. Soon, though, Westwood would take up and perfect Raven’s innovation, as the real-time blobber entered the final phase of its existence as a gaming staple.


Black Crypt may have been the first real-time blobber with an auto-map, but Lands of Lore perfected the concept. Like every other aspect of the game, the auto-map here looks pretty spectacular.

Released in late 1993, Westwood’s Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos was an attempt to drag the now long-established real-time-blobber format into the multimedia age, while also transforming it into a more streamlined and accessible experience. It comes very, very close to realizing its ambitions, but is let down a bit by some poor design choices as it wears on.

Having gone their separate ways from SSI and from the strictures of the Dungeons & Dragons license, Westwood got to enjoy at last the same freedom which had spawned the easy elegance of Dungeon Master; they were free to, as Westwood’s Louis Castle would later put it, create cleaner rules that “worked within the context of a digital environment,” making extensive use of higher-math functions that could never have been implemented in a tabletop game. These designers, however, took their newfound freedom in a very different direction from the hardcore logistical and tactical challenge that was FTL’s game. “We’re trying to make our games more accessible to everybody,” said Westwood’s Brett Sperry at the time, “and we feel that the game consoles offer a clue as to where we should go in terms of interface. You don’t really have to read a manual for a lot of games, the entertainment and enjoyment is immediate.”

Lands of Lore places you in control of just two or three characters at a time, who come in and out of your party as the fairly linear story line dictates. The magic system is similarly condensed down to just seven spells. In place of the tactical maneuvering and environmental exploitation that marks combat within the more interactive dungeons of Dungeon Master is a simple but satisfying rock-paper-scissors approach: monsters are more or less vulnerable to different sorts of attacks, requiring you adjust your spells and equipment accordingly. And, most tellingly of all, an auto-map is always at your fingertips, even automatically annotating hidden switches and secret doors you might have overlooked in the first-person view.

Whether all of this results in a game that’s better than Dungeon Master is very much — if you’ll excuse the pun! — in the eye of the beholder. The auto-map alone changes the personality of the game almost enough to make it feel like the beginning of a different sub-genre entirely. Yet Lands of Lore has an undeniable charm all its own as a less taxing, more light-hearted sort of fantasy romp.

One thing at least is certain: at the time of its release, Lands of Lore was by far the most attractive blobber the world had yet seen. Abandoning the stilted medieval conceits of most CRPGs, its atmosphere is more fairy tale than Tolkien, full of bright cartoon-like tableaux rendered by veteran Hanna-Barbera and Disney animators. The music and voice acting in the CD-ROM version are superb, with none other than Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame acting as narrator.

Sadly, though, the charm does begin to evaporate somewhat as the game wears on. There’s an infamous one-level difficulty spike in the mid-game that’s all but guaranteed to run off the very newbies and casual players Westwood was trying to attract. Worse, the last 25 percent or so is clearly unfinished, a tedious slog through empty corridors with nothing of interest beyond hordes of overpowered monsters. When you get near the end and the game suddenly takes away the auto-map you’ve been relying on, you’re left wondering how the designers could have so completely lost all sense of the game they started out making. More so than any of the other games I’ve written about today, Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, despite enjoying considerable commercial success which would lead to two sequels, feels like a missed opportunity.


Real-time blobbers would continue to appear for a couple more years after Lands of Lore. The last remotely notable examples are two 1995 releases: FTL’s ridiculously belated and rather unimaginative Dungeon Master II, which was widely and justifiably panned by reviewers; and Interplay’s years-in-the-making Stonekeep, which briefly dazzled some reviewers with such extraneous bells and whistles as an introductory cinematic that by at least one employee’s account cost ten times as much as the underwhelming game behind it. (If any other anecdote more cogently illustrates the sheer madness of the industry’s drunk-on-CD-ROM “interactive movie” period, I don’t know what it is.) Needless to say, neither game outdoes the original Dungeon Master where it counts.

At this point, then, we have to confront the place where the example I used in opening this article — that of interactive fiction and its urtext of Adventure — begins to break down when applied to the real-time blobber. Adventure, whatever its own merits, really was the launching pad for a whole universe of possibilities involving parsers and text. But the real-time blobber never did manage to transcend its own urtext, as is illustrated by the long shadow the latter has cast over this very article. None of the real-time blobbers that came after Dungeon Master was clearly better than it; arguably, none was ever quite as good. Why should this be?

Any answer to that question must, first of all, pay due homage to just how fully-realized Dungeon Master was as a game system, as well as to how tight its level designs were. It presented everyone who tried to follow it with one heck of a high bar to clear. Beyond that obvious fact, though, we must also consider the nature of the comparison with the text adventure, which at the end of the day is something of an apples-and-oranges proposition. The real-time blobber is a more strictly demarcated category than the text adventure; this is why we tend to talk about real-time blobbers as a sub-genre and text adventures as a genre. Perhaps there’s only so much you can do with wandering through grid-based dungeons, making maps, solving mechanical puzzles, and killing monsters. And perhaps Dungeon Master had already done it all about as well as it could be done, making everything that came after superfluous to all but the fanatics and the completists.

And why, you ask, had game developers largely stopped even trying to better Dungeon Master by the middle of the 1990s?1 As it happens, there’s no mystery whatsoever about why the real-time blobber — or, for that matter, the blobber in general — disappeared from the marketplace. Even as the format was at its absolute peak of popularity in 1992, with Westwood’s Eye of the Beholder games selling like crazy and everything else rushing onto the bandwagon, an unassuming little outfit known as Blue Sky Productions gave notice to anyone who might have been paying attention that the blobber’s days were already numbered. This they did by taking a dungeon crawl off the grid. After that escalation in the gaming arms race, there was nothing for it but to finish whatever games in the old style were still in production and find a way to start making games in the new. Next time, then, we’ll turn our attention to the great leap forward that was Ultima Underworld.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1987, February 1991, June 1991, February 1992, March 1992, April 1992, November 1992, August 1993, November 1993, October 1994, October 1995, and February 1996; Amiga Format of December 1989, February 1992, March 1992, and May 1992; Questbusters of May 1991, March 1992, and December 1993; SynTax 22; The One of October 1990, August 1991, February 1992, October 1992, and February 1994. Online sources include Louis Castle’s interview for Soren Johnson’s Designer Notes podcast and Matt Barton’s interview with Peter Oliphant. Devotees of this sub-genre should also check out The CRPG Addict’s much more detailed takes on Bloodwych, Captive, Knightmare, Eye of the Beholder, Eye of the Beholder II, and Black Crypt.

The most playable of the games I’ve written about today, the Eye of the Beholder series and Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, are available for purchase on GOG.com.)


  1. If one takes the really long view, they didn’t, at least not forever. In 2012, as part of the general retro-revival that has resurrected any number of dead sub-genres over the past decade, a studio known as Almost Human released Legend of Grimrock, the first significant commercial game of this type to be seen in many years. It got positive reviews, and sold well enough to spawn a sequel in 2014. I’m afraid I haven’t played either of them, and so can’t speak to the question of whether either or both of them finally managed the elusive trick of outdoing Dungeon Master

 
 

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Star Control II

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Quick Scheduling Update — and Season’s Greetings

My apologies to those of you who missed getting a new article on Friday. I’m afraid we have to briefly adopt a biweekly schedule, just for the next month. This is down to a new project I have in the works, about which I’m very excited. More on that soon. (No, it doesn’t mean this blog is ending.) For now, feel free just to ascribe the slower pace to the usual yuletide sloth.

Since I’m here, let me take the opportunity to thank all of you for being the best readers in the world and for supporting this work in your various ways. I wish you a wonderful holiday season and a joyous 2019. I’ll see you back here this coming Friday!

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

 

Controlling the Spice, Part 3: Westwood’s Dune

Brett Sperry and Louis Castle

Louis Castle first became friends with Brett Sperry in 1982, when the two were barely out of high school. Castle was selling Apple computers at the time at a little store in his native Las Vegas, and Sperry asked him to print out a file for him. “I owned a printer, so I invited him over,” remembers Castle, “and he looked at some animation and programming I was working on.”

They found they had a lot in common. They were both Apple II fanatics, both talented programmers, and both go-getters accustomed to going above and beyond what was expected of them. Through Castle’s contacts at the store — the home-computer industry was quite a small place back then — they found work as contract programmers, porters who moved software from one platform to another. It wasn’t the most glamorous job in the industry, but, at a time when the PC marketplace was fragmented into close to a dozen incompatible platforms, it was certainly a vital one. Sperry and Castle eventually came to specialize in the non-trivial feat of moving slick action games such as Dragonfire and Impossible Mission from the Commodore 64 to the far less audiovisually capable Apple II without sacrificing all of their original appeal.

In March of 1985, they decided to give up working as independent contractors and form a real company, which they named Westwood Associates. The “Westwood” came from the trendy neighborhood of Los Angeles, around the UCLA campus, where they liked to hang out when they drove down from Las Vegas of a weekend. “We chose Westwood as the company name,” says Castle, “to capture some of the feeling of youthful energy and Hollywood business.” The “Associates,” meanwhile, was nicely non-specific, meaning they could easily pivot into other kinds of software development if the games work should dry up for some reason. (The company would become known as Westwood Studios in 1992, by which time it would be pretty clear that no such pivot would be necessary.)

The story of Westwood’s very first project is something of a harbinger of their future. Epyx hired them to port the hoary old classic Temple of Apshai to the sexy new Apple Macintosh, and Sperry and Castle got a bit carried away. They converted the game from a cerebral turn-based CRPG to a frenetic real-time action-adventure, only to be greeted with howls of protest from their employers. “Epyx felt,” remembers Castle with no small sense of irony, “that gamers would not want to make complicated tactical and strategic decisions under pressure.” More sensibly, Epyx noted that Westwood had delivered not so much a port as a different game entirely, one they couldn’t possibly sell as representing the same experience as the original. So, they had to begrudgingly switch it back to turn-based.

This blind alley really does have much to tell us about Westwood’s personality. Asked many years later what common thread binds together their dizzily eclectic catalog of games, Louis Castle hit upon real-time gameplay as the one reasonable answer. This love of immediacy would translate, as we’ll soon see, into the invention of a whole new genre known as real-time strategy, which would become one of the most popular of them all by the end of the 1990s.

But first, there were more games to be ported. Having cut their teeth making Commodore 64 games work within the constraints of the Apple II, they now found themselves moving them in the other direction: “up-porting” Commodore 64 hits like Super Cycle and California Games to the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. Up-porting was in its way as difficult as down-porting; owners of those more expensive 16-bit machines expected their capabilities to be used to good effect, even by games that had originated on more humble platforms, and complained loudly at straight, vanilla ports that still looked like they were running on an 8-bit computer. Westwood became one of the best in the industry at a very tricky task, not so much porting their source games in any conventional sense as remaking them, with dramatically enhanced graphics and sound. They acquired a reputation for technical excellence, particularly when it came to their compression systems, which allowed them to pack their impressive audiovisuals into very little space and stream them in quickly from disk. And they made good use of the fact that the Atari ST and Amiga were both built around the same Motorola 68000 CPU by developing a library for the Amiga which translated calls to the ST’s operating system into their Amiga equivalents on the fly; thus they could program a game for the ST and get the same code running on the Amiga with very few changes. If you wanted an 8-to-16-bit port done efficiently and well, you knew you could count on Westwood.

Although they worked with quite a number of publishers, Westwood cultivated a particularly close relationship with SSI, a publisher of hardcore wargames who badly needed whatever pizazz Sperry and Castle’s flashier aesthetic could provide. When SSI wanted to convince TSR to give them the hugely coveted Dungeons & Dragons license in 1987, they hired Westwood to create some of the graphics demos for their presentation. The pitch worked; staid little SSI shocked the industry by snatching the license right out from under the noses of heavier hitters like Electronic Arts. Westwood remained SSI’s most trusted partner thereafter. They ported the  “Gold Box” line of Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs to the Atari ST and Amiga with their usual flair, adding mouse support and improving the graphics, resulting in what many fans consider to be the best versions of all.

Unfortunately, Westwood’s technical excellence wasn’t always paired with equally good design sense when they occasionally got a chance to make an original game of their own. Early efforts like Mars Saga, Mines of Titan, Questron II, and BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception all have a lot of ideas that aren’t fully worked through and never quite gel, along with third acts that fairly reek of, “We’re out of time and money, and now we just have to get ‘er done.” Ditto the first two original games they did for SSI under the Dungeons & Dragons license: the odd California Games/Gold Box mashup Hillsfar and the even odder dragon flight simulator Dragon Strike.

Still, Brett Sperry and Louis Castle were two very ambitious young men, and neither was willing to settle for the anonymous life of a strict porting house. Nor did such a life make good business sense: with the North American market at least slowly coalescing around MS-DOS machines, it looked like porting houses might soon have no reason to exist. The big chance came when Sperry and Castle convinced SSI to let them make a full-fledged Dungeons & Dragons CRPG of their own — albeit one that would be very different from the slow-paced, turn-based Gold Box line. Westwood’s take on the concept would run in — you guessed it — real time, borrowing much from FTL’s Dungeon Master, one of the biggest sensations of the late 1980s on the Atari ST and Amiga. The result was Eye of the Beholder.

At the time of the game’s release in February of 1991, FTL had yet to publish an MS-DOS port of Dungeon Master. Eye of the Beholder was thus the first real-time dungeon crawl worth its salt to become available on North America’s computer-gaming platform of choice, and this fact, combined with the Dungeons & Dragons logo on the box, yielded sales of 130,000 copies in the United States alone — a sales figure far greater than that of any previous original Westwood game, greater even than all but the first two of SSI’s flagship Gold Box line. The era of Westwood as primarily a porting house had passed.


Over at Virgin Games, the indefatigable Martin Alper, still looking to make a splash in the American market, liked what he saw in Westwood, this hot American developer who clearly knew how to make the sorts of games Americans wanted to buy. And yet they were also long-established experts at getting the most out of the Amiga, Europe’s biggest gaming computer; Westwood would do their own port of Eye of the Beholder to the Amiga, in which form it would sell in considerable numbers in Europe as well. Such a skill set made the little Las Vegas studio immensely attractive to this executive of Virgin, a company of truly global reach and vision.

Alper knew as soon as he saw Eye of the Beholder that he wanted to make Westwood a permanent part of the Virgin empire, but, not wanting to spook his target, he approached them initially only to ask them to develop a game for him. As far as Alper or anyone else outside Virgin’s French subsidiary knew at this point, the Cryo Dune game was dead. But Alper hadn’t gone to all the trouble of securing the license not to use it. In April of 1991 — just one month before the departure of Jean-Martial Lefranc from Virgin Loisirs, combined with a routine audit, would bring the French Dune conspiracy to light — Alper signed Westwood to make a Dune game of their own. It wasn’t hard to convince them to take it on; it turned out that Dune was Brett Sperry’s favorite novel of all time.

Even better, Westwood, perhaps influenced by their association with the turn-based wargame mavens at SSI, had already been playing around with ideas for a real-time (of course!) game of military conflict. “It was an intellectual puzzle for me,” says Sperry. “How can we take this really small wargame category, bring in some fresh ideas, and make it a fun game that more gamers can play?” The theme was originally to be fantasy. But, says Louis Castle, “when Virgin offered up the Dune license, that sealed our fate and pulled us away from a fantasy theme.”

Several months later, after Martin Alper reluctantly concluded that Cryo’s Dune had already cost too much money and had too much potential of its own to cancel, he found himself with quite a situation on his hands. Westwood’s Dune hadn’t been in development anywhere near as long as Cryo’s, but he was already loving what he had seen of it, and was equally unwilling to cancel that project. In an industry where the average game frankly wasn’t very good at all, having two potentially great ones might not seem like much of a problem. For Virgin’s marketers, however, it was a nightmare. Their solution, which pleased neither Cryo nor Westwood much at all, was to bill the latter’s game as a sequel to the former’s, naming it Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty.

Westwood especially had good reason to feel disgruntled. They were understandably concerned that saddling their fresh, innovative new game with the label of sequel would cause it to be overlooked. The fact was, the sequel billing made no sense whatsoever, no matter how you looked at it. While both games were, in whole or in part, strategy games that ran in real time, their personalities were otherwise about as different as it was possible for two games to be. By no means could one imagine a fan of Cryo’s plot-heavy, literary take on Dune automatically embracing Westwood’s action-heavy, militaristic effort. Nor did the one game follow on from the other in the sense of plot chronology; both games depict the very same events from the novel, albeit with radically different sensibilities.

The press too was shocked to learn that a sequel to Cryo’s Dune was due to be released the very same year as its predecessor. “This has got to be a new world record for the fastest ever followup,” wrote the British gaming magazine The One a few weeks after the first Dune‘s release. “Unlike the more adventure-based original, Dune II is expected to be more of a managerial experience comparable to (if anything) the likes of SimCity, as the two warring houses of Atreides and Harkonnen attempt to mine as much spice as possible and blow each other up at the same time.”

The Westwood Studios team who made Dune II. On the front row are Ren Olsen and Dwight Okahara; on the middle row are Judith Peterson, Joe Bostic, Donna Bundy, and Aaron Powell; on the back row are Lisa Ballan and Scott Bowen. Of this group, Bostic and Powell were the game’s official designers, and thus probably deserve the most credit for inventing the genre of real-time strategy. Westwood’s co-founder Brett Sperry also played a critical — perhaps the critical — conceptual role.

It was, on the whole, about as good a description of Dune II as any that appeared in print at the time. Not only was the new game dramatically different from its predecessor, but it wasn’t quite like anything at all which anyone had ever seen before, and coming to grips with it wasn’t easy. Legend has it that Brett Sperry started describing Dune II in shorthand as “real-time strategy” very early on, thus providing a new genre with its name. If so, though, Virgin’s marketers didn’t get the memo. They would struggle mightily to describe the game, and what they ended up with took unwieldiness to new heights: a “strategy-based resource-management simulation with a heavy real-time combat element.” Whew! “Real-time strategy” does have a better ring to it, doesn’t it?

These issues of early taxonomy, if you will, are made intensely interesting by Dune II‘s acknowledged status as the real-time-strategy urtext. That is to say that gaming histories generally claim, correctly on the whole in my opinion, that it was the first real-time strategy game ever.

Yet we do need to be careful with our semantics here. There were actually hundreds of computerized strategy games prior to Dune II which happened to be played in real time, not least among them Cryo’s Dune. The neologism of “real-time strategy” (“RTS”) — like, say, those of “interactive fiction” or even “CRPG” — has a specific meaning separate from the meanings of the individual words which comprise it. It has come to denote a very specific type of game — a game that, yes, runs in real time, but also one where players start with a largely blank slate, gather resources, and use them to build a variety of structures. These structures can in turn build military units who can carry out simple orders of the “attack there” or “defend this” stripe autonomously. The whole game plays on an accelerated time scale which yields bursts if not sustained plateaus of activity as frantic as any action game. This combination of qualities is what Westwood invented, not the abstract notion of a strategy game played in real time rather than turns.

Of course, all inventions stand on the shoulders of those that came before, and RTS is no exception. It can be challenging to trace the bits and pieces which would gel together to become Dune II only because there are so darn many of them.

Utopia

The earliest strategy game to replace turns with real time may have been Utopia, an abstract two-player game of global conquest designed and programmed by Don Daglow for the Intellivision console in 1982. The same year, Dan Bunten’s1 science-fiction-themed Cytron Masters and Chris Crawford’s Roman-themed Legionnaires became the first computer-based strategy games to discard the comfortable round of turns for something more stressful and exciting. Two years later, Brøderbund’s very successful Ancient Art of War exposed the approach to more players than ever before.

In 1989, journalists started talking about a new category of “god game” in the wake of Will Wright’s SimCity and Peter Molyneux’s Populous. The name derived from the way that these games cast you as a god able to control your people only indirectly, by altering their city’s infrastructure in SimCity or manipulating the terrain around them in Populous. This control was accomplished in real time. While, as we’ve seen, this in itself was hardly a new development, the other innovations of these landmark games were as important to the eventual RTS genre as real time itself. No player can possibly micromanage an army of dozens of units in real time — at least not if the clock is set to run at anything more than a snail’s pace. For the RTS genre as we’ve come to know it to function, units must have a degree of autonomous artificial intelligence, must be able to carry out fairly abstract orders and react to events on the ground in the course of doing so. SimCity and Populous demonstrated for the first time how this could work.

By 1990, then, god games had arrived at a place that already bore many similarities to the RTS games of today. The main things still lacking were resource collecting and building. And even these things had to some extent already been done in non-god games: a 1987 British obscurity called Nether Earth demanded that you build robots in your factory before sending them out against your enemy, although there was no way of building new structures beyond your starting factory. Indeed, even the multiplayer death matches that would come to dominate so much of the RTS genre a generation later had already been pioneered before 1990, perhaps most notably in Dan Bunten’s 1988 game Modem Wars.

Herzog Zwei

But the game most often cited as an example of a true RTS in form and spirit prior to Dune II, if such a thing is claimed to exist at all, is one called Herzog Zwei, created by the Japanese developer Technosoft and first published for the Sega Genesis console in Japan in 1989. And yet Herzog Zwei‘s status as an alternative RTS urtext is, at the very least, debatable.

Players each start the game with a single main base, and an additional nine initially neutral “outposts” are scattered over the map. Players “purchase” units in the form of Transformers-like flying robots, which they then use to try to conquer outposts; controlling more of them yields more revenue, meaning one can buy more units more quickly. Units aren’t completely out of the player’s direct control, as in the case of SimCity and Populous, but are ordered about in a rather general way: stand and fight here, patrol this radius, retreat to this position or outpost. The details are then left to the unit-level artificial intelligence. For this reason alone, perhaps, Herzog Zwei subjectively feels more like an RTS than any game before it. But on the other hand, much that would come to mark the genre is still missing: resource collection is still abstracted away entirely, while there’s only one type of unit available to build, and no structures. In my opinion, Herzog Zwei is best seen as another of the RTS genre’s building blocks rather than an urtext.

The question of whether and to what extent Herzog Zwei influenced Dune II is a difficult one to answer with complete assurance. Brett Sperry and Louis Castle have claimed not to even have been aware of the Japanese game’s existence prior to making theirs. In fact, out of all of the widely acknowledged proto-RTS games I’ve just mentioned, they cite only Populous as a major influence. Their other three stated inspirations make for a rather counter-intuitive trio on the face of it: the 1984 Apple II game Rescue Raiders, a sort of Choplifter mated to a strategic wargame; the 1989 NEC TurboGrafx-16 game Military Madness, an abstract turn-based strategy game; and, later in the development process, Sid Meier’s 1991 masterpiece Civilization (in particular, the tech tree therein).

Muddying these waters, however, is an anecdote from Stephen Clarke-Willson, an executive in Virgin’s American offices during the early 1990s. He says that “everyone at the office was playing Herzog Zwei” circa April of 1991: “I was given the task of figuring out what to do with the Dune license since I’d read the book a number of times. I thought from a gaming point of view the real stress was the battle to control the spice, and that a resource-strategy game would be good.” Clarke-Willson further claims that from the outset “Westwood agreed to make a resource-strategy game based on Dune, and agreed to look at Herzog Zwei for design ideas.” Sperry and Castle, by contrast, describe a far more open-ended agreement that called for them simply to make something interesting out of the license, allowing the specifics of their eventual Dune to arise organically from the work they had already started on their fantasy-themed real-time wargame.

For what it’s worth, neither Sperry nor Castle has a reputation for dishonesty. Quite the opposite, in fact: Westwood throughout its life stood out as a bastion of responsibility and stability in an industry not much known for either. So, whatever the true facts may be, we’re better off ascribing these contradictory testimonies to the vagaries of memories than to disingenuousness. Certainly, regardless of the exact influences that went into it, Dune II has an excellent claim to the title of first RTS in the modern neologism’s sense. This really was the place where everything came together and a new genre was born.

In the novel of Dune, the spice is the key to everything. In the Westwood game, even in the absence of almost everything else that makes the novel memorable, the same thing is true. The spice was, notes Louis Castle, “very adaptable to this harvest, grow, build for war, attack gambit. That’s really how [Dune II] came about.” Thus was set up the gameplay loop that still defines the RTS genre to this day — all stemming from a novel published in 1965.

The overarching structure of Dune II is also far more typical of the games of today than those of its peers in the early 1990s. You play a “campaign” consisting of nine scenarios, linked by snippets of narrative, that grow progressively more difficult. There are three of these campaigns to choose from, depicting the war for Arrakis from the standpoint of House Atreides, House Harkonnen, and House Ordos — the last being a cartel of smugglers who don’t appear in the novel at all, having been invented for a non-canonical 1984 source book known as The Dune Encyclopedia. In addition to a different narrative, each faction has a slightly different slate of structures and units at its command.

There’s the suggestion of a more high-level strategic layer joining the scenarios together: between scenarios, the game lets you choose your next target for attack by clicking on a territory on a Risk-like map of the planet. Nothing you do here can change the fixed sequence of scenario goals and opposing enemy forces the game presents, but it does change the terrain on which the subsequent scenario takes place, thus adding a bit more replayability for the true completionists.

You begin a scenario with a single construction yard, a handful of pre-built units, and a sharply limited initial store of spice, that precious resource from which everything else stems. Fog of war is implemented; in the beginning, you can see only the territory that immediately surrounds your starting encampment. You’ll thus want to send out scouts immediately, to find deposits of spice ripe for harvesting and to learn where the enemy is.

While your scouts go about their business, you’ll want to get an economy of sorts rolling back at home. The construction yard with which you begin can build any structure available in a given scenario, although it’s advisable to first build a “concrete slab” to serve as its foundation atop the shifting sands of Arrakis. The first real structure you’re likely to build is a “wind trap” to provide power to those that follow. Then you’ll want a “spice refinery,” which comes complete with a unit known as a “harvester,” able to collect spice from the surrounding territory and return it to the refinery to become the stuff of subsequent building efforts. Next you’ll probably want an “outpost,” which not only lets you see much farther into the territory around your base without having to deploy units there but is a prerequisite for building any new units at all. After your outpost is in place, building each type of unit requires its own kind of structure, from a “barracks” for light infantry (read: cannon fodder) to a “high tech factory” for the ultimate weapon of airpower. Naturally, more powerful units are more expensive, both in terms of the spice required to build the structures that produce them and that required to build the units themselves afterward.

Your real goal, of course, is to attack and overwhelm the enemy — or, in some later scenarios, enemies — before he or they have the chance to do the same to you. There’s a balancing act here that one could describe as the central dilemma of the game. Just how long do you concentrate on building up your infrastructure and military before you throw your units into battle? Wait too long and the enemy could get overwhelmingly powerful before you cut him down to size; attack too soon and you could be defeated and left exposed to counterattack, having squandered the units you now need for defense. The amount of spice on the map is another stress point. The spice deposits are finite; once they’re gone, they’re gone, and it’s up to whatever units are left to battle it out. Do you stake your claim to that juicy spice deposit just over the horizon right now? Or do you try to eliminate that nearby enemy base first?

If you’ve played any more recent RTS games at all, all of this will sound thoroughly familiar. And, more so than anything else I could write here, it’s this sense of familiarity, clinging as it does to almost every aspect of Dune II, which crystallizes the game’s influence and importance. The only substantial piece of the RTS puzzle that’s entirely missing here is the multiplayer death match; this game is single-player only, lacking the element that for many is the most appealing of all about the RTS genre. Otherwise, though, the difference between this and more modern RTS games is in the details rather than the fundamentals. This anointed first example of an RTS is a remarkably complete example of the breed. All the pieces are here, and all the pieces fit together as we’ve come to expect them to.

So much for hindsight. As for foresight…

Upon its release in the fall of 1992, Dune II was greeted, like its predecessor from Cryo, with positive reviews, but with none of the fanfare one might expect for a game destined to go down in history as such a revolutionary genre-spawner. Computer Gaming World called it merely “a gratifying experience,” while The One was at least a bit more effusive, with the reviewer pronouncing it “one of the most absorbing games I’ve come across.” Yet everyone regarded it as just another fun game at bottom; no one had an inkling that it would in time birth a veritable new gaming subculture. It sold well enough to justify its development, but — very probably thanks in part to its billing as a sequel to a game with a completely different personality, which had itself only been on the market a few months — it never threatened Eye of the Beholder for the crown of Westwood’s biggest hit to date.

Nor did it prompt an immediate flood of games in the same mold, whether from Westwood or anyone else. The next notable example of the budding genre, Blizzard’s Warcraft, wouldn’t appear until late 1994. That title would be roundly mocked by the gaming intelligentsia for its similarities to Dune IIComputer Gaming World would call it “a perfect bit of creative larceny” — but it would sell much, much better, well and truly setting the flame to the RTS torch. To many Warcraft fans, Westwood would seem like the bandwagon jumpers when they belatedly returned to the genre they had invented with 1995’s Command & Conquer.

By the time that happened, Westwood would be a very different place. Just as they were finishing up Dune II, Louis Castle got a call from Richard Branson himself. “Hello, Louis, this is Richard. I’d like to buy your company.”

“I didn’t know it was for sale,” replied Castle.

“In my experience, everything is for sale!”

And, indeed, notwithstanding their unhappiness about Dune II‘s sequel billing, Brett Sperry and Louis Castle sold out to Virgin, with the understanding that their new parent company would stay out of their hair and let them make the games they wanted to make, holding them accountable only on the basis of the sales they generated. Unlike so many merger-and-acquisition horror stories, Westwood would have a wonderful relationship with Virgin and Martin Alper, who provided the investment they needed to thrive in the emerging new era of CD-ROM-based, multimedia-heavy gaming. We’ll doubtless be meeting Sperry, Castle, and Alper again in future articles.


Looked upon from the perspective of today, the two Dune games of 1992 make for an endlessly intriguing pairing, almost like an experiment in psychology or sociology. Not only did two development teams set out to make a game based on the same subject matter, but they each wound up with a strategy game running in real time. And yet the two games could hardly be more different.

In terms of historical importance, there’s no contest between the two Dunes. While Cryo’s Dune had no discernible impact on the course of gaming writ large, Westwood’s is one of the most influential games of the 1990s. A direct line can be traced from it to games played by tens if not hundreds of millions of people all over the world today. “He who controls the spice, controls the universe,” ran the blurb on the front cover of millions of Dune paperbacks and movie posters. Replace “spice” with the resource of any given game’s choice, and the same could be stated as the guiding tenet of the gaming genre Dune birthed.

And yet I’m going to make the perhaps-surprising claim that the less-heralded first Dune is the more enjoyable of the two to play today. Its fusion of narrative and strategy still feels bracing and unique. I’ve never seen another game which plays quite like this one, and I’ve never seen another ludic adaptation that does a better job of capturing the essential themes and moods of its inspiration.

Dune II, by contrast, can hardly be judged under that criterion at all, given that it’s just not much interested in capturing any of the subtleties of Herbert’s novel; it’s content to stop at “he who controls the spice controls the universe.” Judged on its own terms, meanwhile, strictly as a game rather than an adaptation, it’s become the ironic victim of its own immense influence. I noted earlier that all of the pieces of the RTS genre, with the exception only of the multiplayer death match, came together here for the first time, that later games would be left to worry only about the details. Yet it should also be understood that those details are important. The ability to give orders to groups of units; the ability to give more complex orders to units; ways to get around the map more quickly and easily; higher-resolution screens able to show more of the map at one time; a bigger variety of unit types, with greater variance between opposing factions; more varied and interesting scenarios and terrains; user-selectable difficulty levels (Dune II often seems to be stuck on “Brutal”)… later games would do all of this, and so much more besides. Again, these things do matter. Playing Dune II today is like playing your favorite RTS game stripped down to its most basic foundation. For a historian or a student of game design, that’s kind of fascinating. For someone who just wants to play a fun game, it’s harder to justify.

Still, none of this should detract from the creativity and sheer technical chops that went into realizing Dune II in its own time. Most gaming genres require some iteration to work out the kinks and hone the experience. The RTS genre in particular has been so honed by such a plethora of titles, all working within such a sharply demarcated set of genre markers, that Dune II is bound to seem like a blunt instrument indeed when we revisit it today.

So, there you have it: two disparate Dune games, both inspired and worthy, but in dramatically different ways. Dune as evocative storytelling experience or Dune as straightforward interactive ultra-violence? Take your pick. The choice seems appropriate for a novel that’s been pulled back and forth along much the same axis ever since its first publication in 1965. Does it have a claim to the mantle of High Literature or is it “just” an example of a well-crafted genre novel? Take your pick. The same tension shows itself in the troubled history of Dune as movie, in the way it could attract both filmmakers who pursued — or at least believed themselves to be pursuing — a higher artistic calling, like Alejandro Jodorowsky, and purveyors of the massiest of mass-market entertainments, like Arthur P. Jacobs. Dune as art film or Dune as blockbuster? Take your pick — but please, choose one or the other. Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis, the first people to get an actual Dune film made, tried to split the difference, making it through a mainstream Hollywood studio with a blockbuster-sized budget, but putting all those resources in the hands of a director of art films. As we’ve seen, the result of that collision of sensibilities was unsatisfying to patrons of multiplexes and art-house theaters alike.

In that light, perhaps it really was for the best that Virgin wound up accidentally releasing two Dune games. Cryo’s Dune locked down the artsier side of Dune‘s split media personality, while Westwood’s was just good fun, satisfying the timeless urge of gamers to blow stuff up in entertaining ways. Thanks to a colossal bureaucratic cock-up at Virgin, there is, one might say, a Dune game for every Dune reader. Which one really is “better” is an impossible question to answer in the end. I’ve stated my opinion, but I have no doubt that plenty of you readers could make an equally compelling case in the other direction. So, vive la différence! With all due apologies to Frank Herbert, variety is the real spice of life.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1993, August 1993, and January 1995; Game Developer of June 2001; The One of October 1992, January 1993, and July 1993; Retro Gamer 90; Westwood Studios’s customer newsletter dated Fall 1992. Online sources include Louis Castle’s interview for Soren Johnson’s Designer Notes podcast, “Retro Throwback: Dune 2 by Cole Machin on CGM, “Build, gather, brawl, repeat: The history of real-time strategy games” by Richard Moss on Ars Technica, “A New Dawn: Westwood Studios 15th Anniversary” by Geoff Keighly with Amer Ajami on GameSpot, and “The Origin of Realtime Strategy Games on the PC” by Stephen Clarke Willson on his blog Random Blts.

Feel free to download Dune II from right here, packaged so as to make it as easy as possible to get running using your chosen platform’s version of DOSBox.)


  1. Dan Bunten died in 1998 as the woman Danielle Bunten Berry. 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. 

 
 

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Controlling the Spice, Part 2: Cryo’s Dune

Philippe Ulrich

To hear him tell the story at any rate, Philippe Ulrich had always been destined to make a computer game out of Dune. On July 21, 1980, he was a starving young musician living in an attic closet in Paris without heat or electricity, having just been dropped by his tiny record label after his first album had stiffed. Threading his way through the tourists packing the Champs-Élysées that scorching summer day, he saw an odd little gadget called a Sinclair ZX80 in the window of an electronics shop. The name of the shop? Dune. His destiny was calling.

But a busy decade still lay between Ulrich and his Dune game. For now, he fell in love at first sight with the first personal computer he had ever seen. His only goal became to scrape together enough money to buy it. Through means fair or foul, he did so, and within a year he had sold his first game, a BASIC implementation of the board game Othello, to Sinclair’s French distributor. He soon partnered up with one Emmanuel Viau, a medical student eager to drop out of university and pursue his real love of programming games. The two pumped out arcade clones and educational drills to raise cash, and officially incorporated their own little software studio, ERE Informatique, on April 28, 1983.

Rémi Herbulot

ERE moved up from the ranks of regional developers and arcade-clone-makers to score their first big international hit thanks to one Rémi Herbulot, a financial controller at the automotive supplier Valeo who had learned BASIC to save his company money on accounting software, only to get himself hopelessly hooked on the drug that was programming to personalities like his. Without ever having seen the American Bill Budge’s landmark Pinball Construction Set, Herbulot wrote a program along the same lines: one that let you build your own pinball table from a box of interchangeable parts and then play and share it with your friends. As soon as Herbolut showed his pinball game to Ulrich, he knew that it had far more potential than anything ERE had made so far, and didn’t waste any time hiring the creator and publishing his creation. Upon its release in 1985, Macadam Bumper topped sales charts in both France and Britain, selling almost 100,000 copies in all. It was even picked up by the American publisher Accolade, who released it as Pinball Wizard and saw it get as high as number 5 on the American charts despite the competition from Pinball Construction Set. Just like that, ERE Informatique had made it onto the international stage. For a second act, Rémi Herbulot soon provided the action-adventure Crafton & Xunk — released as Get Dexter! in some places — and it too became a hit across Europe.

Yet none of the free spirits who made up ERE Informatique was much of a businessman — least of all Philippe Ulrich — and the little collective lived constantly on the ragged edge of insolvency. Hoping to secure the funding needed to make more ambitious games to suit the new 16-bit computers entering the market, Ulrich and Viau sold their company to the Lyon-based Infogrames, the largest games publisher in France, in June of 1987. The plan was for ERE to continue making their games, still under their old company name, while Infogrames quietly took care of the accounting and the publishing.

For the past year already, much of ERE’s energy had been absorbed by Captain Blood, a game designed by Ulrich himself and a newer arrival named Didier Bouchon, a student of biology, interior design, film, and painting whom Ulrich liked to describe as his company’s very own “mad scientist.” And, indeed, Captain Blood was something of a Frankenstein’s monster of a game, combining a fractal-based space-flight simulator with a conversation engine that had you talking with the aliens you met in an invented symbolic language. With its Giger-inspired tangles of onscreen organics and technology and a color palette dominated by neon blues and deep purples, it was all extremely strange stuff, looking and playing more like a conceptual-art installation than a videogame. Not least strange was the plot, which cast the player as a programmer who got sucked into an alternate dimension inside his computer, then saw his identity fractured into six by a “hyperspace accident.” Now he must scour the galaxy to find and destroy his clones and reconstitute his full identity. In a major publicity coup, Ulrich managed to convince the famous composer and keyboardist Jean-Michel Jarre to license to ERE the piece of music that became the game’s main theme. Such a collaboration matched perfectly with the company’s public persona, which depicted their games not so much as commercial entertainments as an emerging artistic movement, in line with, as Ulrich liked to say, Impressionism, Dadaism, or surrealism: “Why should it not be the same with software?”

Captain Blood

Released for the Atari ST in France just in time for the Christmas of 1987, Captain Blood certainly was, whatever else you could say about it, a bold artistic gambit. The French gaming magazine SVM talked it up if anything even more than Ulrich himself, declaring it “a masterpiece,” “the most beautiful game in the world,” the herald of a new generation of games “where narrative sense and programming talent are at the service of a new art.” This sort of stilted grandiosity — sounding, at least when translated into English, a bit like some of the symbolic dialogs you had with the aliens in Captain Blood — would become one of the international hallmarks of a French gaming culture that was just beginning to break out beyond the country’s borders. Captain Blood became the first poster child for what Philippe Ulrich himself would later dub “the French Touch”: “Our games didn’t have the excellent gameplay of original English-language games, but graphically, their aesthetics were superior.”

It took some time to realize that, underneath its undeniable haunting beauty, Captain Blood wasn’t really much of a game. Playing it meant flying around to random planets, going through the same tedious flight-simulator bits again and again, and then — if you were lucky and the planet you’d arrived at wasn’t entirely empty — having baffling conversations with all too loquacious aliens, never knowing what was just gibberish for the sake of it and what was some sort of vital clue. As Ulrich’s own words above would indicate, he and some other French developers really did seem to believe that making beautiful and conceptually original games like Captain Blood should absolve them from the hard work of testing, tweaking, and balancing them. And perhaps he had a point, at least momentarily. What with owners of slick new 16-bit machines like the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga eager to see them put through their audiovisual paces, gameplay really could fall by the wayside with few obvious consequences. Captain Blood sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide despite its faults. For ERE Informatique, it felt like a validation of their new direction.

So, on June 12, 1988, they announced the formation of a new sub-label for artsy games like Captain Blood in an elaborate “happening” at the storied Maison de la Radio in Paris. The master of ceremonies was none other than Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean filmmaker who had spent $2 million in an abortive attempt to make a Dune movie back in the 1970s. The name of the sub-label, Exxos, was derived from the Greek prefix meaning “outward.” The conceit had it that Exxos was literally the god in the machines at ERE Informatique, the real mastermind of all their games. After Jodorowsky’s introduction, Ulrich stepped up to say his piece:

Ladies and gentlemen, the decision was not easy, but still, we have agreed to reveal to you the secret of our dynamism and creativity, which makes ERE Informatique a success. If there are sensitive people in the room, I ask them to be strong. They have nothing to fear if their vibrations are positive; the telluric forces will save them.

My friends, the inspiration does not fall from the sky, genius is not by chance. The inspiration and genius which designed Macadam Bumper is not the fabulous Rémi Herbulot. The inspiration and genius which led to Captain Blood is not the unquenchable Didier Bouchon nor your servant here.

It is Him! He who has lived hidden in our offices for months. He who comes from outside the Universe. He that we reveal today to the world, because the hour has come. I name Exxos. I ask you to say after me a few magic words to remind Him of His homeland: ata ata hoglo hulu, ata ata hoglo hulu…

A group chant followed, more worthy of an occult ceremony than a business presentation.

Some months later, Rémi Herbulot’s Purple Saturn Day became the first big game to premiere on the Exxos label. It was a sort of avant-garde take on the Epyx Games sports series, if you can imagine such a thing. “O Exxos, you who showed us the path to the global success of Captain Blood, you who inspired those fabulous colorful swirls of spacetime!” prayed Philippe Ulrich before a bemused crowd of ordinary trade-show attendees. “Today it is the turn of Rémi Herbulot and Purple Saturn Day. Exxos, thank you!”

The shtick got old quickly. When ERE promoted the next Exxos game, a poorly designed point-and-click adventure called Kult, by dismembering a life-sized latex alien in the name of their god and distributing the pieces to assembled journalists, you could almost see the collective shrug that followed even in the French gaming press. Neither Purple Saturn Day nor Kult (the latter of which was published under the name of Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Priestess in North America) sold in anything like the numbers of Captain Blood.

Meanwhile Infogrames, ERE’s parent company, had gotten into serious financial trouble through over-expansion and over-investment. After a near-acquisition by the American publisher Epyx fell through at the last minute, Infogrames stopped paying the bills at ERE Informatique. Thanks no doubt to such ruthless cost-cutting, Infogrames would escape by the skin of their teeth, and in time would recover sufficient to become one of the biggest games publishers in the world. ERE, however, was finished. Philippe Ulrich and his little band of followers had been cast adrift along with their god. But never fear; their second act would prove almost as surprising as their first. For Ulrich and company were about to meet Dune.



Given the enormous popularity of the novel, one might have expected a Dune computer game long before this point. Yet, thanks to the high-profile but failed Dune film, the rights had been in limbo for the past five years.

As we saw in my previous article, the Dino De Laurentiis Corporation licensed the media rights to Dune — which included game rights — from Frank Herbert in 1982. About six months prior to the film’s release in December of 1984, they made a deal with Parker Brothers — best known as the maker of such evergreen family board games as Monopoly, Clue, and Risk — for a Dune videogame. But said game never materialized; the failure of the film, coupled with a troubled American home-computer marketplace and an all but annihilated post-Great Videogame Crash console marketplace, apparently made them think better of the idea. The Dino De Laurentiis Corporation went bankrupt in 1985, and Frank Herbert died the following year. Despite the inevitable flurry of litigation which followed these events, no one seemed to be quite sure for a long time just where the game rights now resided. The person who would at last break this logjam at decade’s end was a dapper 47-year-old Briton named Martin Alper.

Martin Alper with a display rack of cheap games. These were to be found in all sorts of unlikely places in Britain, from corner shops to booksellers, during Mastertronic’s heyday.

Alper had gotten his start in software in 1983, when, already an established businessman and entrepreneur, he had invested in a tape-duplication facility. At this time, British computer games were distributed almost exclusively on cassette tapes. “I asked the guy how much it cost to duplicate a tape,” Alper later remembered. “He said about 30p. Then I asked him how much they sold the games for. About eight or nine pounds. I couldn’t understand the massive difference.” In his confusion he detected the scent of Opportunity. The result would be Mastertronic, the most internationally successful budget label of the 1980s.

Alper and two others launched Mastertronic in April of 1984 with several games priced at £1.99, about half the lowest price point typical in Britain at the time. The figure was no accident: a survey had revealed that £2 was the average amount of weekly pocket money given to boys of twelve years old or so by British parents. Thus, while the typical kid might have to save up for several weeks to buy a game from the competition, he could buy a new one every single weekend from Mastertronic if he was sufficiently dedicated. And dedicated the kids of Britain proved to be, to the tune of 130,000 Mastertronic games shipped in the first month.

The established powers in the British games industry, however, were less enthusiastic. Claiming that selling games at such prices would set everyone on the road to ruin, distributors flatly refused to handle Mastertronic’s products. Unfazed, Alper and his partners simply went around them, setting up their own distribution pipeline with the likes of the bookstore chain W.H. Smith and even supermarkets and convenience stores, who were advised to place the freestanding pillars of Mastertronic games, with “£1.99!” emblazoned in big digits across the top, right where parents and children passed by on their way to the cash register with their groceries. “The problem with the conventional retail outlets,” said Alper, “is [that] they don’t encourage the impulse purchase. Supermarkets are much better at that.”

Mastertronic’s simple action games weren’t great, but for the most part they weren’t as horrible as the rest of the industry liked to claim either. If they lacked the staying power of many of their higher-priced rivals, that could be rationalized away in light of the fact that a kid could buy a new one every week or two. And Alper proved hugely talented at tempting his target demographic in all sorts of ways that didn’t depend directly on the quality of the games themselves. One of Mastertronic’s biggest early hits was a knock-off of Michael Jackson’s extended “Thriller” video, renamed to Chiller. (Predictably enough, they were hauled into court by Jackson’s management company and wound up having to pay a settlement, but they still came out well-ahead financially.) Another game, Clumsy Colin Action Biker, starred the mascot from a popular brand of crisps, and was advertised right on the packages of said junk food. (“They showed us how they were made. It’s revolting. You know those little plastic chips you get in packing materials? They’re exactly the same, with added flavoring.”)

It was all pretty lowbrow stuff — about as far as you could get from the high-toned pretensions of ERE Informatique across the English Channel — but Mastertronic’s games-as-commodies business model proved very successful. Within eighteen months of their launch, Mastertronic alone owned 20 percent of the British computer-games market, was expanding aggressively across the rest of Europe, and had become the first British software house to launch a successful line in the United States. In fact, Martin Alper had already moved to California, the better to steer operations there.

But Mastertronic’s glory days of huge profits off cheap games were brief-lived. Just like Infogrames in France, they tried to do too much too soon. Losing sight of their core competencies, they funded a line of coin-operated arcade games that went nowhere and acquired the prestigious but troubled British/Australian publisher Melbourne House for way too much money. At the same time, the army of lone-wolf bedroom coders who provided their games proved ill-equipped to take full advantage of the newer 16-bit machines that began to capture many gamers’ hearts and wallets as the 1980s wore on. Already by 1987, Mastertronic’s bottom line had turned from black to red.

Meanwhile Virgin Games, one of the smaller subsidiaries of Richard Branson’s globe-spanning media empire, had been quietly releasing games in Britain since 1982. Now, though, Branson was eager to get into the games market in a more concentrated way. Mastertronic, possessed of excellent worldwide distribution and proven marketing savvy despite their current financial difficulties, seemed a great way to do that. In early 1988, Virgin bought Mastertronic.

Initially, the new subsidiary took the name of Virgin Mastertronic and simply continued on with business as usual. But as Martin Alper looked upon a changing industry, he saw those more powerful 16-bit platforms continuing to take over from the simple 8-bit machines that had fueled Mastertronic’s success, and he saw older demographics with more disposable income beginning to take an interest in more sophisticated, upmarket computer games. In short, he felt that he had already hit a ceiling with his cheap little games; what had been so right for 1984 was no longer such a great fit for 1988. And so Alper, a man of enormous charisma and energy, maneuvered himself into the leading role at Virgin Games proper, overseeing its worldwide operations from California, the entertainment capital of the world. After having fallen into exactly the decline Alper had foreseen, Virgin Mastertronic would be sold off in 1991 to the Japanese console maker Sega, with whom they had a longstanding distribution agreement.

Alper loved Dune, connecting with its mythical — mystical? — qualities on a deep-seated level: “It presents a parallel with Christianity or Judaism, including the idea of the messiah who comes to save a strange planet. Dune begs questions about other civilizations that could exist: will they have the same beliefs, worship the same supernatural beings?” He had always dreamed of publishing a Dune computer game, but had known it just wasn’t practical on a Mastertronic budget. Now, though, with the more prestigious name and deeper pockets of Virgin behind him, he started pursuing the license in earnest. Beginning in 1988, he worked through a long, fraught process of first identifying the proper holder of the media rights — as far as could be determined from all of the previous litigation and bankruptcies, they seemed to have reverted to Universal Pictures, the distributor of the film — and then of prying them away for Virgin. Alper saw a Dune game as announcing Virgin’s — and his own — arrival on the scene as a major industry player in an artistic as well as commercial sense, making games far removed from the budgetware of the Mastertronic years.

Even as Alper was trying to secure the Dune rights, Philippe Ulrich and his friends were trying to free themselves from their entanglements with Infogrames and continue making games elsewhere. They found a welcome supporter in Jean-Martial Lefranc, the head of Virgin Loisirs, Virgin Games’s French arm. Manifesting a touch of Gallic pride, he wanted to set up a homegrown studio, made up of French developers creating ambitious and innovative games which would be distributed all over the world under the Virgin label. And certainly no one could accuse Ulrich and friends of lacking either ambition or a spirit of innovation. Lefranc helped to negotiate a concrete exit agreement between the former ERE Informatique and Infogrames, and thereafter signed them up to become the basis of a new Virgin Loisirs subsidiary.

Ulrich and company named their new studio Cryo Interactive, a play on cryogenic chambers and the computer-assisted dreams people would presumably have in them in the future. They announced their existence with all the grandiosity the world had come to expect from this bunch, saying that their purpose would be to “open the way to the next generation of software designers, artists, programmers, and so on,” who would “create expanding horizons for our imagination in tomorrow’s fascinating technology world.” “Infinite travel, magic, beauty, technology, adventure, and mystery” were in the offing.

In August of 1989, Rémi Herbulot flew to California to have a more prosaic conversation with Martin Alper about potential Cryo projects that might be suitable for the international market. Alper told him then that he was trying to secure the rights to make a Dune game, a project for which he saw Cryo as the perfect development team, without elaborating as to why. “But,” he said, “there’s seems to be little chance of actually getting the rights.”

Herbulot wasn’t sure what to make of the whole exchange, but when he told his colleagues about it back in Paris, Ulrich, who loved the novel unconditionally, was convinced that the project had been ordained by fate. Not only had he bought his first computer in a shop called Dune, but the hotel in Las Vegas where they had all stayed during the last Winter Consumer Electronics Show had had the same name. And then there was his friendship with Alejandro Jodorowsky, the would-be Dune film director of yore. What another might have seen as a series of tangential coincidences, Ulrich saw as the mysterious workings of destiny. It was “obvious,” he said, that Cryo would end up making Dune into a computer game — and, indeed, he was proven correct. Three weeks after Herbulot’s return from California, Ulrich got a call at home from Jean-Martial Lefranc. Martin Alper had managed to secure the Dune license after all, said Virgin Loisir’s chief executive, and he wanted Cryo to start thinking immediately about what kind of game they could make out of it. Ulrich remembers running out of his apartment building and doing several laps around the block, feeling like he was levitating.

But his ecstasy would be short lived. Virgin assigned as Dune‘s producer David Bishop, a veteran British games journalist, designer, and executive. The language barrier and the distance separating London from Paris were just the beginning of the difficulties that ensued. In the eyes of his French charges, Bishop seemed to view himself as Dune‘s appointed designer, Cryo as the mere technical team assigned to implement his vision. Given the artistic aspirations of people like Philippe Urlich and Rémi Herbulot, who so forthrightly described themselves as the vanguard of nothing less than a new artistic movement, this was bound to cause problems. Meanwhile Bishop, for his part, was convinced that Cryo was being deliberately obtuse and oh so inscrutably Gallic just to mess with him. The cross-Channel working relationship started out strained and just kept getting more so.

Following what was, for better or for worse, becoming an accepted industry practice, Virgin told Cryo that they had to storyboard the game on paper and get that approved before they could even begin to implement anything on a computer. Cryo worked this way for months on end, abandoning their computers for pencil and paper.

Adapting a story as complex as that of Dune to another medium must be, as David Lynch among others had already learned, a daunting endeavor under any circumstances. “We reread the book several times, got hold of everything we could find on the subject, and watched the movie over and over again,” says Philippe Ulrich. “Whenever we came across somebody who had read the book, we asked them what had impressed them most and what their strongest memories were.” The centerpiece of the book and the movie, the struggle for control of Arrakis between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, must obviously be the centerpiece of the game as well. Yet Cryo didn’t want to lose all of the other textures of the story. How could they best capture the spirit of Dune? To boil it all down to yet another game of military strategy in an industry already flooded with such things didn’t seem right, but neither did a point-and-click adventure game. After much struggle, they decided to do both — to combine a strategic view of the battle for Arrakis with the embodied, first-person role of Paul Atreides.

David Bishop hated it. All of it. “The interface is too complex,” he said. “A mix of adventure and strategy is not desirable.” Others in Virgin’s British and American offices also piled on. Cryo’s design lacked “unity,” they said; it would require “fifty disks” to hold it; it had “too many cinematic sequences, at the risk of boring the player”; the time required to develop it would “exceed the average lifespan of a programmer.” One particular question was raised endlessly, if understandably in light of Cryo’s history: would this be a game that mainstream American gamers would want to play, or would it be all, well, French? And yes, it was a valid enough concern on the face of it. But equally valid was the counterpoint raised by Ulrich: if you didn’t want a French Dune, why did you hire arguably the most French of all French studios to make it? Or did Bishop feel that that decision had been a mistake? Certainly Cryo had long since begun to suspect that his real goal was to kill the project by any means necessary.

Matters came to a head in the summer of 1990. In what may very well still stand as an industry record, Dune had now been officially “in production” for almost a year without a single line of code getting written. Virgin invited the whole of Cryo to join them at their offices in London to try to hash the whole thing out. The meeting was marked by bursts of bickering over trivialities, interspersed with long, sullen silences. At last, Philippe Ulrich stood up to make a final impassioned speech. He said that Cryo was trying their level best to make a game that evoked all of the major themes of a book they loved (never mind for the moment that the license Virgin had acquired could more accurately be described as a license to the movie). The transformation of boy to messiah was in there; the all-importance of the spice was in there; even the ecological themes were in there. David Bishop just snorted in response; Virgin wanted a commercial computer game that was fun to play, he groused, not a work of fine literary art. Nothing got resolved.

Or perhaps in a way it did. On September 19, 1990, Cryo got a fax from London: “We do not believe that the Dune proposal is strong enough to publish under the Virgin Games label. Consequently, we do not wish that more work be undertaken on this title.”

And then, at this fraught juncture, a rather extraordinary thing happened. Ulrich went directly to Jean-Martial Lefranc of Virgin Loisirs to plead his case one final time, whereupon Lefranc told him to just go ahead and make his Dune his way — to forget about storyboards and David Bishop and all the rest of it. Virgin Loisirs was doing pretty well at the moment; he’d find some money in some hidden corner of his budget to keep the lights on at Cryo. If they made the Dune game a great one, he was sure he could smooth it all over with his superiors after the fact, when he had a fait accompli in the form of an amazing game that just had to be published already in his hands. And so Ulrich took a second lap or two around the block and then buckled down to work.

For some six months, Cryo beavered away at their Dune in secrecy. Then, suddenly, the jig was up. Lefranc — who, as his actions in relation to Dune would indicate, didn’t have an overly high opinion of Virgin Games’s international management — left to join the movie-making arm of the Virgin empire. His replacement, Christian Brécheteau, was a complete unknown quantity for Cryo. At about the same time, a routine global audit of the empire’s books sent word back to London about a significant sum being paid to Cryo every month for reasons that were obscure at best. Brécheteau called Ulrich: “Take the first plane to London and make your own case. I can’t do anything for you.”

As it happened, Martin Alper was in London at that time. If Ulrich hoped for a sympathetic reception from that quarter, however, he was disappointed. After pointedly leaving him to cool his heels in a barren waiting room most of the day, Alper and other executives, including Cryo’s arch-nemesis David Bishop, invited Ulrich in. The mood was decidedly chilly as he set up his presentation. “This is not a game!” scoffed Alper almost immediately, as soon as he saw the first, heavily scripted scenes. Yet as Ulrich demonstrated further he could sense the mood — even the mood of Bishop — slowly changing to one of grudging interest. Alper even pronounced some of what he saw “remarkable.”

Ulrich was ushered out of the room while the jury considered his fate. When he was called back in, Alper pronounced their judgment: “You have five weeks to send me something more polished. If that doesn’t please me, I never want to hear about it again, and you can consider yourself fired.” A more formal statement of his position was faxed to Paris the next day:

Our opinion of the game has not changed. The graphics and aesthetic  presentation are impressive, but the overall design is still too confusing, especially if one takes into account the tastes of the American public. We are willing to support your work until July 15 [1991], by which date we expect to receive a playable version of the game in England and the United States. If the earlier concerns expressed by David Bishop prove unfounded, we will be happy to support your efforts to realize the finished game. However, we wish to point out that it will not under any circumstances be possible to transfer the Dune license to another publisher, and that no game of Frank Herbert’s novel will be published without our consent.1

Cryo bit their tongues and made the changes Virgin requested — changes designed to make the game more streamlined, more understandable, and more playable. On July 15, they packaged up what they had and sent it off. Three days later, they got a call from a junior executive in Virgin’s California office. His tone was completely different from that of the fax of five and a half weeks earlier: “What you have done is fantastic. Productivity has collapsed around here because people are all playing your game!”

Cryo originally planned to use this picture of Sting in their Dune game, but the rock star refused permission to use his likeness.

So, Feyd-Rautha, Sting’s character in the movie, had to get some plastic surgery for the game.

Work continued on the game for another nine months or so. Relations between Cryo and Virgin remained strained at times over that period, but cancellation was never again on the cards. At Virgin’s insistence, Cryo spent considerable time making the game look more like the movie, rather than their possibly idiosyncratic image of the book. Most of the characters, with the exception of only a few whose actors refused permission to have their likenesses reproduced — Sting and Patrick Stewart were among them — were redrawn to match the film. The media-savvy Martin Alper was well aware that Kyle MacLachlan, the star of the film, was currently starring in David Lynch’s much-talked-about television series Twin Peaks. He made sure that MacLachlan graced the front of the box as Paul Atriedes.

The game of Dune‘s cover art was a still from the movie.

Cryo’s Dune finally shipped worldwide in May of 1992, to positive reviews and healthy sales; one report claims that it sold 20,000 copies in its first week in the United States alone, a very impressive performance for the time. It did if anything even better in Europe; Cryo had been smart enough to develop and release it simultaneously for MS-DOS, the overwhelmingly dominant computer-game platform in North America, and for the Commodore Amiga, the almost-as-popular computer-gaming platform of choice in much of Europe. The game was successful enough that Virgin funded expanded MS-DOS and Sega Genesis CD-based versions, which appeared in 1993, complete with voice acting and additional animation sequences.



And what can we say about Cryo’s Dune today? I will admit that I didn’t have high hopes coming in. As must be all too clear by now, I’m not generally a fan of this so-called French Touch in games. While I love beauty as much as the next person and love to be moved by games, I do insist that a game work first and foremost as a game. This isn’t a standard that Philippe Ulrich’s teams tended to meet very often, before or after they made Dune. The combination of Ulrich’s love of weirdness with the famously weird filmmaker David Lynch would seem a toxic brew indeed, one that could only result in a profoundly awful game. Inscrutability can work at times in the non-interactive medium of movies; in games, where the player needs to have some idea what’s expected from her, not so much.

But, rather amazingly, Cryo’s Dune defies any knee-jerk prejudices that might be engendered by knowledge of Philippe Ulrich’s earlier or later output. While it’s every bit as unique a design concept as you might expect given its place of origin, in this case the concept works. For all that they spent the better part of three years at one another’s throats more often than not, Dune nevertheless wound up being a true meeting in the middle between the passionate digital artistes of Cryo and the more practical craftsmen in Virgin’s Anglosphere offices. For once, an exemplar of the French Touch has a depth worthy of its striking surface. Dune plays like a dispatch from an alternate reality in which Cryo cared as much about making good games in a design sense as they did about making beautiful and meaningful ones in an aesthetic and thematic sense — thus proving, should anyone have doubted it, that these things need not be mutually exclusive.

The game leads you by the nose a bit at the beginning, but it later opens up. The early stages function very well as a tutorial for the strategy game. Thanks to this fact and the simple, intuitive interface, the Dune player has little need for the manual.

You play the game of Dune as Paul Atreides, just arrived on Arrakis with his father and mother and the rest of House Atreides. From his embodied perspective, you fly around the planet in your ornithopter, recruiting the various Fremen clans to your cause, then directing them to mine the precious spice, to train in military maneuvers, to spy on House Harkonnen, and eventually to go to war against them. As you’re doing so, another form of plot engine is also ticking along, unfolding the experiences which transform the boy Paul Atriedes physically and spiritually into his new planet’s messiah. This “adventurey” side of the game is extremely assertive at first, to the point of leading you by the nose through the strategy side: go here and do this; now go there and do that. In time, however, it eases up and your goals become more abstract, giving much more scope for you to manage the war your way.

The fusion isn’t always perfect; it is possible to break the adventure side of the game if you obstinately pursue your own agenda in the strategy side. But it’s certainly one of the most interesting and successful hybrid designs I’ve ever seen. As the character you play is transformed by his experiences, so is the strategy game you’re playing; as Paul’s psychic powers grow, you no longer have to hop around the planet as much in your physical form, but can communicate with your followers over long distances using extra-sensory perception. Eventually your powers will expand enough to let you ride the fearsome sandworms into the final series of battles against the Harkonnen.

Dune is a strategy game inside an embodied adventure game.

Cryo’s Dune provides other ludic adaptations from non-interactive media with a worthy benchmark to strive for; it doesn’t always fuss overly much about the details of its source material, but it really does do a superb job of capturing its spirit. As an impassioned Philippe Ulrich noted at that pivotal meeting in London, there’s no theme in the book that isn’t echoed, however faintly, in the game. Even the ecological element of the book that made it such a favorite of the environmental movement is remembered, as you reclaim mined-out desert lands to begin a “greening” of Arrakis later in the game. Ditto that wind of utter alienness that blows through the book and, now, the game. This game looks and feels and, perhaps most of all, sounds like no other; its synthesized soundtrack has passed into gaming legend as one of the very best of its breed, so good that Cryo actually released it as a standalone audio CD.

An in-game encyclopedia is available for newcomers, but in truth it’s hardly needed. The game conveys everything you really need to know almost subliminally as you play.

The game manages to be so evocative of its source material while remaining as enjoyable for those who haven’t read the novel or seen the film as those who have. It does a great job of getting newcomers up to speed, even as its dynamic, emergent strategy element ensures that it never becomes a dull exercise in walking through a plot those who have read the book already know. Its interface is an intuitive breeze, and the difficulty as well is perfectly pitched for what the game wants to be, being difficult enough to keep you on your toes but reasonable enough that you have a good chance of winning on your first try; after all, who wants to play through a story-oriented game like this twice? I love to see innovative approaches to gameplay that defy the strict boundaries of genre, and love it even more when said approaches work as well as they do here. This game still has plenty to teach the designers of today.

The big picture…

Sadly, though, Cryo’s Dune, despite its considerable commercial success, has gone down in history as something of a curiosity rather than a harbinger of design trends to come, a one-off that had little influence on the games that came later — not even the later games that came out of Cryo, which quite uniformly failed to approach the design standard set here. Cryo would survive for the balance of the 1990s, churning out what veteran games journalist John Walker calls, in his succinct and hilarous summing up of their legacy, “always awful but ever so sincere productions.” They would become known for, as Walker puts it, “deadpan adventure games set in wholly ludicrous reinterpretations of out-of-copyright works of literature, in which nothing made sense, and all puzzles were unfathomable guesswork.” The biggest mystery surrounding them is just how the hell they managed to stay in business for a full decade. Just who was buying all these terrible games that all of the magazines ripped to shreds and no one you talked to would ever admit to even playing, much less enjoying?

Nor did anyone else emerge to take up the torch of games that were designed to match the themes, plots, and settings of their fictions rather than to slot into some arbitrary box of ludic genre. Instead, the lines of genre would only continue to harden as time went on. Interesting hybrids like Cryo’s Dune became a more and more difficult sell to publishers, for dismaying if understandable reasons: said publishers were continuing to look on as their customers segregated themselves into discrete pools, each of whom only played a certain kind of game to the exclusive of all others. And so Cryo’s Dune passed into history, just one more briefly popular, now obscure gem ripe for rediscovery…

But wait, you might be saying: I claimed at the end of the first article in this series that Dune left a “profound mark” on gaming. Well, as it happens, that is true of Dune in general — but not true of this particular Dune game. Those months during which Cryo and Virgin Loisirs took their Dune underground — months during which the rest of Virgin Games had no idea what their French arm was doing — had yet more ramifications than those I’ve already described. For, during the time when he believed the Cryo Dune to be dead, Martin Alper launched a new project to make another, very different sort of Dune game, using developers much closer to his home base in California. This other Dune would be far less inspiring than Cryo’s as an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel or even of David Lynch’s film, but its influence on the world of gaming in general would be far more pronounced.

(Sources: the book La Saga des Jeux Vidéo by Daniel Ichbiah; Home Computer of June 1984; CU Amiga of July 1991 and June 1992; Amiga Format of March 1990; Computer and Video Games of August 1985, November 1985, and April 1986; New Computer Express of February 3 1990; Amstrad Action of March 1986 and April 1986; Retro Gamer 90; The One of May 1991 and June 1992; Game Players PC Entertainment Vol. 5 No. 5; PC Review of June 1992; Aktueller Software Markt of August 1994; Home Computing Weekly of May 8 1984, July 17 1984, and September 18 1984; Popular Computing Weekly of July 19 1984; Sinclair User of January 1986; The Games Machine of October 1987; Your Computer of January 1986. Online sources include “I Kind of Miss Dreadful Adventure Developer Cryo” by John Walker on Rock Paper Shotgun and “How ‘French Touch’ Gave Early Videogames Art, Brains” by Chris Baker on Wired. Note that some of the direct quotations in this article are translated into English from the French.

Feel free to download Cryo Interactive’s Dune from right here, packaged so as to make it as easy as possible to get running using your platform’s version of DOSBox.)


  1. Virgin’s concern here was likely related to the fact that they had technically purchased the rights to the Dune movie. The question of whether separate rights to the novel existed and could be licensed had never really been resolved. They wanted to head off the nightmare scenario of Cryo/Virgin Loisirs truly going rogue by acquiring the novel rights and releasing the game under that license through another publisher. 

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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