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Games on the Net Before the Web, Part 2: MUD

You are stood on a narrow road between The Land and whence you came. To the north and south are the small foothills of a pair of majestic mountains, with a large wall running round. To the west the road continues, where in the distance you can see a thatched cottage opposite an ancient cemetery. The way out is to the east, where a shroud of mist covers the secret path by which you entered The Land.

— the first text players saw upon entering the University of Essex MUD 


During the time when the original PDP-10 Zork was the hottest game in institutional computing, a fair number of overseas visitors managed to access the machine that ran it at MIT’s Dynamic Modeling Group. One day in 1980, one such visitor, from the University of Essex in Britain, left a strange message on the Zork mailing list: “You haven’t lived ’til you’ve died in MUD.”

When the folks inside MIT investigated, they learned that the spirit of hacker oneupsmanship which had caused them to beget Zork as a response to Crowther and Woods’s Adventure had finally come back around to bite them. Zork had perfected the Adventure formula at the same time that it exploded it, applying a much more advanced parser and a much more detailed and coherent world model to a game that was several times as big. Now, MUD — the Multi-User Dungeon — was taking the next step, applying the innovations of its predecessors to the world’s first shared persistent virtual world. The creators of MUD had first encountered Zork in the form of an unauthorized port which bore the name of Dungeon; thus the name of Multi-User Dungeon made the challenge to the existing state of the art in text adventures all too plain.

Later in 1980, Dave Lebling of the Dynamic Modeling Group penned an article for Byte magazine about Zork which, not coincidentally, included this musing about possible future directions:

Another area where experimentation is going on is that of multiplayer CFS [computerized fantasy simulation] games. Each player (possibly not even aware how many others are playing) would see only his own view of the territory. He would be notified when other players enter or leave the room, and could talk to them.

This would not, however, be the road which Lebling and his colleagues would ultimately choose to go down. Instead they would focus their energies on crafting the most polished, compelling single-player text adventures they possibly could, forming the company known as Infocom to publish them on the microcomputers of the time — a story regular readers of this blog already know well.

And yet the idea of the multi-player text adventure — and with it the idea of a text adventure that was a persistent world to be visited again and again rather than a single game to be solved and set aside — wasn’t going to go away either. On the contrary: a direct line can be traced from Adventure and Zork through MUD and its many antecedents, and on to the functioning virtual societies, with populations in some cases bigger than many small countries here on our real planet, that are the persistent online worlds of today.


As has been the case for more seminal developments in computing history than some might like to admit, MUD was spawned less by a grand theoretical vision than a technical quirk in the computer which ran it. In fact, it was the very same quirk as that which would lead Sandy Trevor over at CompuServe in the United States to create the equally seminal CB Simulator, the world’s first real-time chat program.

The big DEC PDP-10 computer, a staple of institutional computing and with it of hacker culture during the 1970s, might host dozens of simultaneous users, many of whom might be running the same program. It would be absurdly wasteful of precious memory to copy this program’s code over and over into each individual user’s private memory space. Therefore each user was given access to two pools of memory. One, used for program code, was shared among all users on the system — so that if, say, many of them were running the same text editor then the code for that text editor would have to exist in the computer’s memory in only one place. The other area was reserved for the unique data — in this example, the actual file being edited — that each user was working with; this private space could only be accessed by her. In itself, none of this constituted a quirk; it was just good system design, and as such is still used by most computers today.

Roy Trubshaw

But something that was a little quirky about the PDP-10 was noticed by a University of Essex student named Roy Trubshaw in 1977: the fact that nothing absolutely demanded that only static program code, as opposed to dynamic data of other sorts, reside in the shared memory space. With a bit of trickery, the PDP-10 could be convinced to use the shared space to facilitate real-time communications between users who would otherwise be isolated inside their own bubbles. Trubshaw’s first experiments along these lines were as basic as could be: he wrote a couple of programs to cause one user’s terminal to echo text being typed into another’s. “It might seem odd to someone who wasn’t there,” he remembers, “but the feeling of achievement when the line of text on one teletype appeared as typed on the second teletype was just awesome.” From such experiments would eventually spring MUD — for, Trubshaw would realize, there was nothing preventing the shared memory space from containing an entire virtual world rather than just lines of typed text.

The road from typed text to virtual world would, like so much else in gaming history, pass through Adventure. The year of 1977 was also the year of Will Crowther and Don Woods’s pioneering creation, which fascinated Trubshaw as much as it did all of the other hackers who encountered it. The source code to Adventure fortuitously popped up on the University of Essex’s PDP-10 the following year, while Trubshaw was still tinkering with his shared-memory experiments. Taking inspiration from Crowther and Woods’s code — but not too much; he considered the game’s implementation “by and large a giant kludge” — Trubshaw developed a markup language for describing a shared world, to be brought to life by an interpreter program. He named his new language MUDDL, for Multi-User Dungeon Implementation Language. (MUDDL was an amusing if coincidental echo of MDL — pronounced “muddle” — the language the Dynamic Modeling Group at MIT had used to implement Zork. Ditto Infocom’s later MDL-based in-house language, ZIL: the Zork Implementation Language.) The first MUDDL-built shared world to go online modeled, in the grand tradition of countless other first text-adventure creations, the house where Trubshaw had grown up and where his parents still lived. While it’s difficult to anchor these developments precisely in time, the project may have reached this point as early as late 1978, and certainly by 1979.

Richard Bartle

Trubshaw’s most enthusiastic fan and assistant was an undergraduate named Richard Bartle with a taste for Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons, and the single-player text adventures, like Adventure and Zork, which echoed them. With that perfect resume to hand, Bartle began to function as the world designer for the nascent MUD. In the spring of 1980, shortly after Trubshaw and Bartle together had posted that cryptic message to the Zork mailing list, Trubshaw graduated from university — he blamed the time spent working on MUD for having finished with a second rather than a first — and moved to Belgium, bequeathing all of his old code unto Bartle. Trubshaw wouldn’t do any more serious work on MUD for the next several years, and would only very rarely visit it as a player. From this point on, it would be Richard Bartle’s baby. (There is an interesting parallel here with the original Adventure, which was started by Will Crowther largely as a coding experiment, only to be abandoned by him and developed into a full-fledged game later by Don Woods. The notable difference is that Trubshaw and Bartle, unlike Crowther and Woods, did know one another, and actually worked together on the project for a while.)

Bartle was now working earnestly on making the world of MUD, which he called simply The Land, into a place worth visiting. From its modest beginnings as a facsimile of Trubshaw’s parents’ house it would grow over the course of years to become an immense place, with some 600 rooms, encompassing everything from the expected Tolkienesque fantasy to an area based — without authorization, of course — on Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock television program.

At first, The Land was inhabited only by a select group of University of Essex students who could locally access the PDP-10 on which it ran. The same PDP-10 was, however, also accessible by a privileged few outside the university who had managed to finagle, by means legal or extra-legal, access to the early Internet. One of the first such outsiders to drop by was a precocious 17-year-old named Jeremy San who spent his days prowling the Internet, looking for interesting things. MUD, he knew immediately, was very interesting indeed. He became its greatest propagandist among the tiny British modem fraternity of the time; a huge percentage of the people who wound up playing MUD did so thanks to his encouragement. (Jeremy San took the handle of “Jez” on MUD, a nickname which leaked out of its virtual context to become his professional name. As Jez San, he would go on to become a major figure in British game development, responsible for Starglider among other hits.)

Enough outsiders like San were soon playing MUD to prompt the division of players into “internals,” meaning people playing from within the university itself, and “externals,” meaning people logging on from outside its hallowed halls. The university’s administrators proved rather astonishingly generous with their computing resources, allowing players from all over the country and, eventually, all over the world to log on and play during evenings and weekends. But make no mistake: doing so was a tall order in the Britain of the early 1980s, where electronic communications in general were still in a far more primitive state than the United States of the period, where even simple local phone calls were still charged by the minute and modems were rarer than hen’s teeth among home-computer owners. To add to the logistical difficulties, MUD didn’t even become available on the university’s PDP-10 until 1:00 AM, after everyone else had presumably finished doing their real work on the machine. Nevertheless, enough people combined the requisite privilege, cleverness, and dedication that the software’s limitation of no more than 36 simultaneous players quickly began to frustrate.

A typical MUD session

For all that even MUD‘s very name implied it to be nothing more than a multiplayer version of Zork/Dungeon, the move from a single-player game to be solved and set aside to a persistent world to be inhabited by the same players for months or years changed everything. The designs questions which confronted Bartle were completely different from those being debated contemporaneously inside the early Infocom. In fact, they had far more in common with those still being debated by the makers of the massively-multiplayer games of today than they did with those surrounding the single-player games of their own time. In a single-player game, the player is the star of the show; the (virtual) world revolves around her. Not so inside The Land. Most traditional text-adventure puzzles made no sense at all there. The first person to come along and solve a puzzle might have fun with it, but after that the shared world meant that what was solved for one was solved for all: the door remained unlocked, the drawbridge remained lowered, etc. This was not, needless to say, a good use of a designer’s energy. MUD did include some set-piece puzzles which could be solved by simply typing an answer, without affecting the environment — riddles, number sequences, etc. — but even these became mere pointless annoyances to a player after she had solved them once, and tended to be so widely spoiled by the first player to solve them that they too hardly seemed a good use of a designer’s time.

The most innovative puzzles in The Land were those which took advantage of this being a multiplayer text adventure to demand cooperation; think of a heavy portcullis which can only be lifted by several players straining together. Perhaps the cleverest example of this species of puzzle was The Swamp, a huge maze with an immensely valuable crown hidden at its center. Because it was a swamp, the tried-and-true drop-and-plot technique for solving mazes was a nonstarter; items dropped would just disappear below the surface. The only way to defeat the maze was rather with a team of a dozen or more players, leaving one player behind in each room to mark its identity.

Yet puzzles — even brilliant puzzles like this one — were never really the heart of MUD‘s appeal; even the Swamp maze became a fairly rote exercise as soon as the first group figured out how to approach it. Although it presented itself in the guise of a text adventure, MUD often played more like a CRPG. Replacing the deterministic behavior of Adventure and Zork was a focus on emergent behavior. Each player had scores for strength, stamina, and dexterity, which determined the outcome of many actions, including combat with the many creatures which dotted the landscape. These attributes increased as one’s in-game accomplishments grew.

Like most traditional text adventures, MUD had a system of points for measuring the player’s achievements. Less typically, but very much in keeping with the CRPG side of the game’s personality, this score translated into levels, which among other things allowed players to attach honorifics (“Hero,” etc.) to their names. Points became a sort of currency within The Land; it was possible to transfer some of your points to another player by “hugging” or “kissing” her, and this was often done in exchange for goods and services.

The most straightforward way of scoring points, however, was at first glance lifted straight from Adventure and Zork: treasures were scattered about The Land, which players could retrieve and drop into a designated location. But this scheme alone was obviously unsuitable to a multiplayer context, at least if Bartle didn’t want to spend all his time hiding new treasures for players to discover. Instead he came up with a scheme, always more tolerated than liked by even the most dedicated players, by which The Land was periodically “reset,” with all treasures moved back to their original starting locations. Such resets, besides being something of a blight on MUD‘s very identity as an allegedly persistent online world, were an imperfect solution in that the more experienced players were the ones who knew where the treasures lay after a reset; they thus could rush over to claim them before the newbies had a chance. It would often take the veterans no more than five minutes to scarf up all the treasures during a “reset rush hour,” an exercise as unchallenging for them as it was baffling for the newbies.

But then, the same newbies who were left nonplussed by the reset rush hour soon found much worse to complain about. Not only did MUD feature permadeath, but it allowed its experienced players to kill the new ones. Indeed, it even encouraged such behavior by rewarding the griefers with one-twenty-forth of the points their victims had accumulated over the course of their careers. Combined with the cliquey nature of MUD‘s culture, it could make The Land a hugely off-putting place to visit for the first time.

Tormenting the newbies was a favorite pastime among the regulars. Richard Bartle tells the sad story of one of MUD‘s first two externals, who managed to connect from all the way over in the United States in 1980 and got nothing but grief for his trouble:

Also in the game was Niatram, one of the system operators (who can’t spell his name backwards). He decided to loom up on this [newbie] character, follow him around a bit, then kill him. This he repeated several times, gaining plenty of points in the process. Finally, the newcomer was at his wits’ end.

“Who’s this Niatram character?” he asked. “He keeps following me around and killing me!” “Yes, he’s done that to me before,” came the reply. “I think he may be dungeon-generated!” At this point Niatram appeared, and out of despair his victim quit, rather than be killed yet again by this “artificial person.”

Today’s virtual worlds are generally wise enough to prevent this sort of thing by one means or another.

Player agency was another area where MUD was dramatically different from the massively-multiplayer games of today, but in this case the difference was, at least from some points of view, a more positive one. Once ordinary players, or “mortals” in MUD speak, reached a certain level, they became “wizards” and “witches” — known by the unisex term of “wizzes” — who were perhaps better described as gods, given that they were granted a stunning degree of control over The Land. “Wiz mode” was originally simply the debug mode used by Trubshaw and Bartle themselves, but it wound up becoming a key part of the game, Bartle’s answer to the expert player’s question of “Well, what now?”

Becoming a wiz required one to amass 76,800 points without getting killed, no mean feat in the cheerfully genocidal realm of The Land. The powers wiz mode conveyed extended to the point of being able to crash the game at will. Tired of watching wizzes invent ways to do so to prove their cleverness, Bartle actually added the verb “crash” to the wizzes’ vocabulary in order to convey the message that, yes, you have the power to do this; you therefore don’t have to bother inventing more convoluted methods for doing so, like, say, plucking the rain from the sky of two separate rooms and mashing the lot together. Safe in the knowledge that they could crash the game at will, effortlessly, most wizzes did indeed see no reason to bother actually doing so. Which didn’t, of course, prevent all the accidental crashes: it was always a sure sign that someone new had attained wiz status and was experimenting with her powers when the game just kept going down over and over.

Once mastered, though, the wizzes’ powers truly were extraordinary. They could snoop on mortals, watching the commands they typed and what appeared on their screens in response; could move objects from any room to any other room without touching them; could move themselves or other players from any room to any other room; could use a “finger of death” spell to instantly kill any mortal, permanently; could grant instant wiz status to any non-wiz they chose.

It seemingly defies all logic — defies everything we know about human nature — that a game willing to grant some of its players such powers could have sustained itself for a week, much less the years during which MUD ran at the University of Essex. It was all indicative of what a different sort of game MUD really was. Running on a university’s computer, free to access by anyone with the wherewithal to make a connection, MUD was a very different proposition from a commercial game, more a joint creative experiment than a product. Bartle:

MUD is an evolving game, and so indeed it should be. It has been incremented gradually, with new ideas put in to be instantly tested by a horde of willing wizzes, or mortals if it was something that they could use (the various “injury” spells — BLIND, DEAFEN, CRIPPLE, DUMB, and CURE — for example). This is one of the great strengths of doing MUD at a university; it’s all research. If a commercial company were to put up a game riddled with bugs, the players would be justifiably upset when it crashed on them. Here, though, it’s free for them to play and they actually like finding mistakes, because it gets them one over on me (and occasionally gets them some points for their honesty!). And it’s also good because we don’t have to pay people to play-test, either — plenty will do it willingly in their spare time for free!

So there will always be a place for MUDs at universities, simply so that research into them can proceed. Universities can have “programs,” whereas commercial companies must have “products.” Products don’t crash (well, not often!) and they are nice and stable. Programs crash like nobody’s business and you never know from one day to the next whether some terrible new command has been added which you don’t know about, but which someone who does is about to use on you. Products are fun, but they don’t change until everything has been thoroughly tested; programs are exciting in their volatility.

Perhaps there is a place for the “not fully tested” system. Even if I as a player did have to put up with a crash every 20 minutes (MUD needs to be reset once a night on average), I think that experiencing the excitement of seeing things evolving and of being among the first to use the novel commands would make me happy to play the program, not the product. Fortunately, enough people think the same way to make debugging that much easier, and to encourage new additions to make the game even more fun for generations of adventurers to come.

Every rule in the game existed, it seemed, to be exploited; mechanically, the place was a leaky sieve that poor Richard Bartle was constantly rushing around to patch. MUD‘s players were endlessly creative when it came to finding exploits. One of Bartle’s favorite anecdotes involves two players who were each about halfway to wiz status. Deciding they’d had enough incrementalism, they hatched a plan to put themselves over the top. First, one of the players kissed the other some 1400 times in succession to transfer all of his points to her, giving her enough to make wiz. Then the newly minted wiz used her special powers to grant instant wiz status to her helper. In response to that, Bartle had to add a rule that players could only use hugs and kisses to transfer points to those with a smaller point total than their own. Just another day at the office…

For all that exploits were a way of life among The Land’s denizens, the absolute power granted to the wizzes proved not to corrupt absolutely. In fact, just the opposite. For all that there was a definite hierarchy in place among the inhabitants of The Land, for all that tormenting the newbies was regarded as such good sport by virtually everyone, a certain attenuated but real code of fair play which Bartle himself did nothing to institute took hold within MUD. And it was the wizzes, the players with the ability to wreck The Land almost beyond redemption if they chose to do so, who came to regard the code as most sacred. Bartle:

The wizzes were once mortals themselves. Wizzes know all too well what it’s like to be summoned to a cold, dark room and left alone with the word “hehehe” ringing in your ears. They know the disappointment in forging through the swamp for half an hour only to find that someone has swapped the incredibly valuable crown in the centre for a fake one. They’ve felt the pangs of outrage when you’ve been attacked by a souped-up bunny rabbit which took you 15 minutes to kill. In short, they know when to stop.

Wizzes make the game. They rule it, they stamp their personalities on it, and they give mortals something to aim for, a goal, a purpose, something which explains why they’re in there hacking and slaying. If MUD does nothing else for multi-user adventure games, for evolving the concept of a wiz it should always be remembered.

By 1984, 53 players had made wiz status: 40 from England, 5 from Scotland, 4 from Wales, 1 from Ireland, 1 from the United States, 1 from Czechoslovakia(!), 1 from Malaysia(!!). The creative powers granted to them made MUD a self-sustaining community. After Bartle built The Land and made it available, he needed do no more. The place was perfectly capable of evolving without him.

“The people,” Bartle noted, “are the game” of MUD. The sense of shared ownership could make The Land a downright cozy place when the inhabitants took a break from killing one another. There was a bizarre craze for Trivial Pursuit for a while, with wizzes shouting out questions which mortals could answer for in-game rewards. And there was at least one MUD wedding, between Frobozz the Wizard and Kate the Enchantress, with the happy couple taking up honeymoon residence in the coveted “Wizard’s Chamber.” (“What interaction occurred thereafter is unknown,” wrote the journalist covering the story.)

Christmas was always a special time of the year, when the wizzes would institute a strictly enforced ban on player-versus-player combat, scatter the landscape with holly, snowmen, wreaths, and plum puddings, and plant Christmas trees in the forests, where one was now apt to encounter a wandering Santa Claus with his reindeer in lieu of the usual monsters. The wizzes desisted from sporting with the newbies to vicariously enjoy their surprise and delight when they logged on to find The Land transformed into a winter wonderland, complete with snow. (“What’s all this snow?” “I don’t know. I just saw Father Christmas go by, and someone has given me this cracker…”) Players would band together to sing Christmas carols, swigging all the while from a shared bottle of rum and diligently role-playing their resulting intoxication.

But who, you might wonder, were all these people who flocked to The Land every night? Like the CB Simulator fraternity on CompuServe, it was a diverse demographic who enjoyed this glimpse of an online future, ranging from teenage hacker whiz kids like Jeremy San to academics in their forties. Perhaps the most dedicated player of all was Sue, the first woman to make wiz, who slept for just three hours or so each night before MUD went online, then played for the full six hours it was available every morning before heading off to her ordinary office job.

Just as on CB Simulator, some of the other people on MUD who claimed to be women weren’t really women at all. Among this group was one Felicity, who was eventually found to be the avatar of a dude named Mark. (Felicity had the reputation, for what it’s worth, of being the “kindest, most responsible wiz of all time.”) Once Felicity/Mark’s deception was uncovered, players claiming to be women were routinely greeted with suspicion. A favorite tactic was to enlist bona-fide females like Sue to engage the latest suspect into a discussion of, say, dress sizes. Thereby were the imposters generally discovered quite quickly.

A wiz called simply Evil gained the reputation of being the most eccentric of all time — quite an achievement with this group. Bartle:

If you wanted to get to any room from any other, no matter how far away, he could give you the shortest route instantly. This was despite the fact that he laboured under a tremendous disability: east-west dyslexia.

It is for this that Evil is best known. His entire in-the-head map of MUD, and all those he wrote down on paper, were flipped east for west. His misapprehension extended to commands, so if he wanted to go west from the start, which is to the left, he’d think it was to the right, and that the command for going to the right was west. So he’d get it correct, but in the wrong way! So absolutely everything was inverted, in a kind of “Evil through the looking glass”. Indeed, when I finally found out about his error I put a looking glass in MUD to celebrate!

He didn’t realise his mistake for years after he’d made it to wiz, and if people used left/right descriptions instead of west/east, he just thought they were barmy. Only when I drew a map of MUD on a blackboard did he finally discover his gaffe, and to this day he thinks a subtle change in the physics of the universe caused everyone in the world to swap east for west in their heads except for him, who remained unaffected due to his enormous and obvious intelligence…

While MUD‘s personality as a game may have been molded more by the cast of eccentrics who inhabited The Land than by Richard Bartle himself, the latter would always remain by far the most important person associated with the game. MUD was, after all, his baby at the end of the day. Even after finishing his degree, he remained at the University of Essex as an artificial-intelligence researcher, with the ulterior motive of continuing to further the cause of MUD. And indeed, from the standpoint of publicity as from so many others, he continued to prove himself to be its greatest asset. As charming and articulate in person as he was an easy and prolific writer, Bartle was able to attract far more press attention for his odd experiment running in the middle of the night on an academic computer than one might expect. He became a fixture in the British computing press of the 1980s, penning long articles about life in The Land for magazines like Practical Computing and Micro Adventurer. His efforts in this regard have proved a goldmine to modern historians, who have come to recognize in the way that his contemporary peers couldn’t possibly be expected to what a landmark creation this first persistent multi-player virtual world really was. It’s largely Bartle’s old articles that form the basis of this new article of mine. With so much in online-gaming history already lost to the ephemerality of the digital medium, we can be thankful that Bartle was as prolific as he was.

Still, preserving MUD culture for posterity wasn’t Richard Bartle’s main motivation for writing these articles. This academic researcher didn’t want MUD to remain a tiny research project at a second-tier university forever; he had a keen interest in moving it beyond the confines of the University of Essex. Early on he gave copies of the software to universities in Portugal, Sweden, Norway, and Scotland, sparking the transformation of the name MUD from a designation for a specific virtual world to a generic tag applied to all parser-driven textual virtual worlds. Despite the identical mechanics, the people who played each incarnation of the software which Bartle shared so freely gave each version of The Land a distinctive character. The MUDs in Scotland and Norway, for instance, were much more easygoing than the one at the University of Essex; delegations from the former expressed horror at the sheer amount of killing that went on in the latter when they came for a visit.

Bartle had no doubt that MUDs represented a better model for adventure gaming, the direction the entire genre by all rights ought to be going:

Like it or not, in the next few years multiplayer games like MUD are going to become the dominating factor in adventure games. The reason for this is quite simple — MUDS are absolutely fantastic to play! The fact that it’s You against Them, rather than You against It, adds an extra electricity you just can’t experience in a single-player game. If you like adventure games already, MUD will absolutely slay you (often literally!).

This quote dates from 1984. As it would imply, Bartle by that year had decided the time was right to start commercializing his research experiment. He made a deal to bring MUD to Compunet, a pioneering online service for British owners of Commodore computers, initially funded largely by Commodore’s own innovative United Kingdom branch. The first service of its kind in Britain, Compunet would muddle along for years without ever achieving the same success as QuantumLink, its nearest equivalent in the United States. The tiny staff’s efforts were constantly undone by the sheer expense of telecommunications in Britain, along with a perpetual lack of funding to set up a proper infrastructure for their service; Compunet had, for instance, only a single access number for the entire country, meaning that the vast majority of potential customers had to pay long-distance surcharges just to access it. Although it was available on Compunet for several years, MUD too just never managed to make much of an impression there.

MUSE hosted a gathering of wizs from the University of Essex MUD to mark the launch of BT MUD. Richard Bartle is the mustachioed fellow standing near the center of the group.

But even as the Compunet MUD was failing to set the world on fire, the game had attracted an important patron. Simon Dally was a longtime gamer, first of tabletop and later of computer games, who had done very well for himself in the book-publishing trade.  When he stumbled across MUD for the first time, it was love at first sight. Dally was certain that MUD could change the world, and that it could make him and its creators very rich in the process. He, Bartle, and Roy Trubshaw — the last had recently returned to England from Belgium — formed Multi-User Entertainments, or MUSE (not to be confused with the American software publisher of the same name), to exploit what Dally, even more so than the always-enthusiastic Bartle, believed to be the game’s immense commercial potential. (Trubshaw was more skeptical, and seemed to have agreed to work on MUD once again more for the programming challenge than for its supposed potential to make him rich or to change the world.)

The first project MUSE undertook was to completely rewrite MUD, with Trubshaw once again doing the low-level architecture and Bartle building a world upon these technical underpinnings. Whereas the old MUD had been inextricably tied to the rapidly aging DEC PDP-10, what became known as MUD2 was designed to “run on just about any minicomputer or mainframe in the world” with a minimum of porting; its first incarnation ran on a DEC VAX, a much newer and more powerful piece of kit than the PDP-10. Among many other improvements came the inevitable increases in scale: the old limit of 36 active players on the original MUD became 100 on MUD2, and The Land itself could now be twice as large. As befitted his day job as an artificial-intelligence researcher, Bartle was particularly proud of his new non-player creatures — known as “mobiles” in MUD speak — which were able to talk and trade with human players whilst pursuing goals of their own.

A proud Simon Dally announces the BT MUD.

Dally took the new-and-improved MUD to British Telecom and convinced them to make it available as a standalone dial-up service. Playing MUD in its latest commercial incarnation wouldn’t be cheap: it cost £20 to buy the starter pack, plus £2 per hour to play, all on top of the cost of the phone call needed to dial in. With prices like these, the new MUD endeavored to shed its scruffy hacker origins and project an upscale image, beginning with a gala launch at The London Dungeon. Dally used his connections to get a glossy book published:  An Introduction to MUD, penned by one Duncan Howard. “I know the BT venture is the just the start of something truly enormous,” Dally said. “Our MUD development language — MUDDL — will allow anyone to come to us with an idea for an interactive type of game, and allow us to implement it quickly and cheaply. We are certainly ahead of the States, where MegaWars III, a rather limited interactive game, is going down well, and we have high hopes of selling MUD to the Americans.” Those hopes would come to fruition in remarkably short order.

But in neither country would the game achieve the “truly enormous” status Dally had so confidently predicted. The BT venture proved particularly disappointing. One step Bartle took which may not have been terribly wise was to convince much of the Essex MUD old guard to migrate over to the new game, pulling strings to get them online at reduced or free rates. Thus he imported the old game’s murderous culture and set up an upper class and a lower class of players at a stroke. A writer for Acorn User magazine who surveyed the newbies found that they “don’t much like MUD. They can’t find any treasure, don’t know what to do, and spend their time waiting for the next reset or chatting to each other in the bar. Typical answers to my inquiries included phrases like ‘bored’ or ‘where’s all the T?'”

In addition to the culture clashes, the BT MUD was also a victim, like the Compunet MUD before it, of all the difficulties inherent in telecommunicating in Britain at the time. MUSE could measure their falling status within British Telecom by the people they were assigned as account managers. “It was a gradual decline,” remembers Bartle, “from speaking to board-level directors to being signed off by a youth-opportunities employee.” The next wave of adventure games in Britain the BT MUD most definitely didn’t become. It continued to run for years, but, after the initial publicity blitz puttered out, it existed as little more than another hangout for the same old small in-group it had attracted at the University of Essex. The BT MUD was finally closed down in early 1991, when British Telecom decided they’d had enough of an exercise that had long since become pointless from their perspective.

MUSE’s efforts did fare significantly better in the United States. Dally convinced no less of an online player than CompuServe to take the game as an offering on their service. It went up there in the spring of 1986 under the name of British Legends. Perhaps assuming that what had worked for Lord British of Ultima fame could work equally well for them, CompuServe’s marketers emphasized the Anglo connection at every opportunity. They declared over-optimistically that “in England, the game is a sensation,” with “thousands of players.” A couple of years after British Legends made its debut, CompuServe began offering their service in Britain as well the United States, facilitating the first meetings between large numbers of British and American players in the very same MUD. “I’ve learned more about the United Kingdom from the British players than I learned in all my college courses,” enthused one American player.

Mechanically, British Legends remained unchanged from its other incarnations, including the wizzes running roughshod over the place. Still, it tended to be a less cutthroat world than had the Essex MUD, with more time given over to socializing and cooperating and less to fighting. And of course it was blessed with an initial group of players who were all starting alike from scratch, and thus largely avoided the class conflicts which plagued the BT MUD. It would remain available on CompuServe for more than thirteen years, becoming by far the most long-lived of all the MUD incarnations licensed by MUSE. It was successful enough that virtually all of CompuServe’s competitors either made their own licensing deals with MUSE or came up with an alternative MUD of their own — or, in some cases, did both. Some of the latter were very innovative in their own right. GEnie’s Imagine Nation, for example, strained to be a kindler, gentler sort of MUD, eschewing combat and even goals entirely in favor of providing an environment for its denizens just to hang out and socialize, or to invent their own games in the form of scavenger hunts and trivia contests. In later years MUDs in general would increasingly go in this direction. (See, for instance, the modern interactive-fiction community’s longstanding, beloved IF MUD, where people congregate to play text adventures together, to discuss game design, and just to chitchat rather than to chase one another around with virtual swords.)

Yet the relative commercial success MUDs enjoyed in the United States shouldn’t be overstated. Even British Legends, probably the most popular single MUD incarnation ever, was always a niche product even within that small niche of the public with the money and the interest to access a service like CompuServe in the first place. The online services made MUDs available because they could do so fairly cheaply, and because, once they were up, they tended to produce a self-sustaining community of hardcore players which required virtually no nurturing — that is to say, they required virtually no further financial investment whatsoever, thanks to the self-sustaining genius of wiz mode.

But in the big picture, Richard Bartle and Simon Dally’s mutual passion was destined to be far more influential than it would be profitable. The death of the dream of MUDs as the dominant adventure-game form of the future came in a tragically literal fashion in 1989, when Dally killed himself. It’s impossible to say to what extent his suicide was prompted by his disappointment at the failure of MUD to achieve the world domination he had predicted and to what extent it was a product of the other mental-health issues from which he had apparently been suffering, as manifested in behavior his friends and colleagues later described as “erratic.” There can be no doubt, however, that his death marked the definitive end of the MUD’s flirtation with mainstream prominence.

Any attempt to explain why MUDs remained a niche interest must begin with their textual nature. MUSE had been formed just after the text adventure had reached its commercial peak and was about to enter its long decline, over the course of which it would gradually be replaced on store shelves by the graphic adventure. A game that consisted of nothing but text was doomed to become a harder and harder sell after 1985. But MUDs had their problems even in comparison to single-player text adventures — problems which Richard Bartle was always a bit too eager to overlook. Many players of adventure games loved puzzles, but, as we’ve seen, puzzles didn’t really work all that well in MUDs. Many craved the experience of seeing a story through from beginning to end, knowing all the while that they were the most important character in that story; MUDs couldn’t provide this either. Ask many who had tried to like MUDs, and they’d tell you that they were just too capricious, too unstructured, too difficult to get into, even before you started wrestling with a parser that sometimes seemed willfully determined not to understand you. MUDs had invented the idea of the persistent online virtual world, but the millions and millions of players who would later come to live a good chunk of their lives in such places would have a very different technological window onto them.

The way forward, in commercial terms at least, would be through more structured designs attached to cleaner interfaces, eventually using graphics instead of text wherever possible. While the hardcore who loved MUDs for the very things the casual dabblers hated about them complained — and by no means entirely without justification — that something precious was being lost, game developers would increasingly push in this more accessible direction. Instead of making multi-player text adventures with CRPG elements, they would build their persistent worlds on the framework of the traditional CRPG — full stop.

(Sources: the books MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle and Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Byte of December 1980; Micro Adventurer of September 1984, October 1984, November 1984, December 1984, January 1985, February 1985, and March 1985; Practical Computing of June 1982 and December 1983; Popular Computing Weekly of December 20 1984, February 28 1985, and May 23 1985; Commodore Disk User of November 1987; Your Computer of September 1985; Sinclair User of November 1985; Computer and Video Games of November 1985; Commodore User of February 1986; Acorn User of July 1985, October 1985, April 1987, and June 1987; New Computer Express of March 9 1991; Online Today of February 1986, January 1988, and March 1988; The Gamer’s Connection of September/October 1988; Questbusters of October 1989. Online sources include the article “CNET — Moving with the Times” from Commodore Apocalypse and Gamespy’s history of MUDs.

You can still play MUD1 today by telnetting to british-legends.com, port 27750. You can play MUD2 by telnetting to mud2.com, port 27723.)

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A Net Before the Web, Part 1: The Establishment Man and the Magnificent Rogue

On July 9, 1979, journalists filtered into one of the lavish reception halls in Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel to witness the flashy roll-out of The Source, an online service for home-computer owners that claimed to be the first of its kind. The master of ceremonies was none other than the famous science-fiction and science-fact writer Isaac Asimov. With his nutty-professor persona in full flower, his trademark mutton-chop sideburns bristling in the strobe of the flashbulbs, Asimov said that “this is the beginning of the Information Age! By the 21st century, The Source will be as vital as electricity, the telephone, and running water.”

Actually, though, The Source wasn’t quite the first of its kind. Just eight days before, another new online service had made a more quiet official debut. It was called MicroNET, and came from an established provider of corporate time-shared computing services called CompuServe. MicroNET got no splashy unveiling, no celebrity spokesman, just a typewritten announcement letter sent to members of selected computer users groups.

The contrast between the two roll-outs says much about the men behind them, who between them would come to shape much of the online world of the 1980s and beyond. They were almost exactly the same age as one another, but cut from very different cloths. Jeff Wilkins, the executive in charge of CompuServe, could be bold when he felt it was warranted, but his personality lent itself to a measured, incremental approach that made him a natural favorite with the conservative business establishment. “The changes that will come to microcomputing because of computer networks will be evolutionary in nature,” he said just after launching MicroNET. Even after Wilkins left CompuServe in 1985, it would continue to bear the stamp of his careful approach to doing business for many years.

But William Von Meister, the man behind The Source and its afore-described splashier unveiling, preferred revolutions to evolutions. He was high-strung, mercurial, careless, sometimes a little unhinged. Described as a “magnificent rogue” by one acquaintance, as a “pathological entrepreneur” by another, he made businesses faster than he made children — of whom, being devoted to excess in all its incarnations, he had eight. His businesses seldom lasted very long, and when they did survive did so without him at their helm, usually after he had been chased out of them in a cloud of acrimony and legal proceedings. A terrible businessman by most standards, he could nevertheless “raise money from the dead,” as one investor put it, thereby moving on to the next scheme while the previous was still going down in flames. Still, whatever else you could say about him, Bill von Meister had vision. Building the online societies of the future would require cockeyed dreamers like him just as much as it would sober tacticians like Jeff Wilkins.


Had an anonymous salesman who worked for Digital Equipment Corporation in 1968 been slightly less good at his job, CompuServe would most likely never have come to be.

The salesman in question had been assigned to a customer named John Goltz, fresh out of the University of Arizona and working now in Columbus, Ohio, for a startup. But lest the word “startup” convey a mistaken impression of young men with big dreams out to change the world, Silicon Valley-style, know that this particular startup lived within about the most unsexy industry imaginable: life insurance. No matter; from Goltz’s perspective anyway the work was interesting enough.

He found himself doing the work because Harry Gard, the founder of the freshly minted Golden United Life Insurance, wanted to modernize his hidebound industry, at least modestly, by putting insurance records online via a central computer which agents in branch offices could all access. He had first thought of giving the job to his son-in-law Jeff Wilkins, an industrious University of Arizona alumnus who had graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and now ran a successful burglar-alarm business of his own in Tucson. “The difference between electrical engineering and computing didn’t occur to him,” remembers Wilkins. “I told him that I didn’t know anything about computing, but I had a friend who did.” That friend was John Goltz, whose degree in computer science made him the more logical candidate in Wilkins’s eyes.

Once hired, Goltz contacted DEC to talk about buying a PDP-9, a sturdy and well-understood machine that should be perfectly adequate for his new company’s initial needs. But our aforementioned fast-talking salesman gave him the hard up-sell, telling him about the cutting-edge PDP-10 he could lease for only “a little more.” Like the poor rube who walks into his local Ford dealership to buy a Focus and drives out in a Mustang, Goltz’s hacker heart couldn’t resist the lure of DEC’s 36-bit hot rod. He repeated the saleman’s pitch almost verbatim to his boss, and Gard, not knowing a PDP-10 from a PDP-9 from a HAL 9000, said fine, go for it. Once his dream machine was delivered and installed in a former grocery store, Goltz duly started building the online database for which he’d been hired.

The notoriously insular life-insurance market was, however, a difficult nut to crack. Orders came in at a trickle, and Goltz’s $1 million PDP-10 sat mostly idle most of the time. It was at this point, looking for a way both to make his computer earn its keep and to keep his employer afloat, that Goltz proposed that Golden United Life Insurance enter into the non-insurance business of selling time-shared computer cycles. Once again, Gard told him to go for it; any port in a storm and all that.

At the dawn of the 1970s, time-sharing was the hottest buzzword in the computer field. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, the biggest institutions in the United States — government bureaucracies, banks, automobile manufacturers and other heavy industries — had all gradually been computerized via hulking mainframes that, attended by bureaucratic priesthoods of their own and filling entire building floors, chewed through and spat out millions of records every day. But that left out the countless smaller organizations who could make good use of computers but had neither the funds to pay for a mainframe’s care and upkeep nor a need for more than a small fraction of its vast computing power. DEC, working closely with university computer-science departments like that of MIT, had been largely responsible for the solution to this dilemma. Time-sharing, enabled by a new generation of multi-user, multitasking operating systems like DEC’s TOPS-10 and an evolving telecommunications infrastructure that made it possible to link up with computers from remote locations via dumb terminals, allowed computer cycles and data storage to be treated as a commodity. A business or other organization, in other words, could literally share time on a remote computer system with others, paying for only the cycles and storage they actually used. (If you think that all this sounds suspiciously like the supposedly modern innovation of “cloud computing,” you’re exactly right. In technology as in life, a surprising number of things are cyclical, with only the vocabulary changing.)

Jeff Wilkins

John Goltz possessed a keen technical mind, but he had neither the aptitude nor the desire to run the business side of Golden United’s venture into time-sharing. So, Harry Gard turned once again to his son-in-law. “I liked what I was doing in Arizona,” Jeff Wilkins says. “I enjoyed having my own company, so I really didn’t want to come out.” Finally, Gard offered him $1.5 million in equity, enough of an eye-opener to get him to consider the opportunity more seriously. “I set down the ground rules,” he says. “I had to have complete control.” In January of 1970, with Gard having agreed to that stipulation, the 27-year-old Jeff Wilkins abandoned his burglar-alarm business in Tuscon to come to Columbus and run a new Golden Life subsidiary which was to be called Compu-Serv.

With time-sharing all the rage in computer circles, it was a tough market they were entering. Wilkins remembers cutting his first bill to a client for all of $150, thinking all the while that it was going to take a lot of bills just like it to pay for this $1 million computer. But Compu-Serv was blessed with a steady hand in Wilkins himself and a patient backer with reasonably deep pockets in his father-in-law. Wilkins hired most of his staff out of big companies like IBM and Xerox. They mirrored their young but very buttoned-down boss, going everywhere in white shirt and tie, lending an aura of conservative professionalism that belied the operation’s small size and made it attractive to the business establishment. In 1972, Compu-Serv turned the corner into a profitability that would last for many, many years to come.

In the beginning, they sold nothing more than raw computer access; the programs that ran on the computers all had to come from the clients themselves. As the business expanded, though, Compu-Serv began to offer off-the-shelf software as well to suit the various industries they found themselves serving. They began, naturally enough, with the “Life Insurance Data Information System,” a re-purposing of the application Goltz had already built for Golden United. Expanding the reach of their applications from there, they cultivated a reputation as a full-service business partner rather than a mere provider of a commodity. Most importantly of all, they invested heavily into their own telecommunications infrastructure that existed in parallel with the nascent Internet and other early networks, using lines leased from AT&T and a system of routers — actually, DEC minicomputers running software of their own devising — for packet-switching. From their first handful of clients in and around Columbus, Compu-Serv thus spread their tendrils all over the country. They weren’t the cheapest game in town, but for the risk-averse businessperson looking for a full-service time-sharing provider with a fast and efficient network, they made for a very appealing package.

In 1975, Compu-Serv was spun off from the moribund Golden United Life Insurance, going public with a NASDAQ listing. Thus freed at last, the child quickly eclipsed the parent; the first stock split happened within a year. In 1977, Compu-Serv changed their name to CompuServe. By this point, they had more than two dozen offices spread through all the major metropolitan areas, and that one PDP-10 in a grocery store had turned into more than a dozen machines filling two data centers near Columbus. Their customer roll included more than 600 businesses. By now, even big business had long since come to see the economic advantages time-sharing offered in many scenarios. CompuServe’s customers included Fortune 100 giants like AMAX (the largest miner of aluminum, coal, and steel in the country), Goldman Sachs, and Owens Corning, along with government agencies like the Department of Transportation. “CompuServe is one of the best — if not the best — time-sharing companies in the country,” said AMAX’s director of research.

Inside one of CompuServe’s data centers.

The process that would turn this corporate data processor of the 1970s into the most popular consumer online service of the 1980s was born out of much the same reasoning that had spawned it in the first place. Once again, it all came down to precious computer cycles that were sitting there unused. To keep their clients happy, CompuServe was forced to make sure they had enough computing capacity to meet peak-hour demand. This meant that the majority of the time said capacity was woefully underutilized; the demand for CompuServe’s computer cycles was an order of magnitude higher during weekday working hours than it was during nights, evenings, and weekends, when the offices of their corporate clients were deserted. This state of affairs had always rankled Jeff Wilkins, nothing if not a lover of efficiency. Yet it had always seemed an intractable problem; it wasn’t as if they could ask half their customers to start working a graveyard shift.

Come 1979, though, a new development was causing Wilkins to wonder if there might in fact be a use for at least some of those off-hour cycles. The age of personal computing was in the offing. Turnkey microcomputers were now available from Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack. The last company alone was on track to sell more than 50,000 TRS-80s before the end of the year, and many more models from many more companies were in the offing. The number of home-computer hobbyists was still minuscule by any conventional standard, but it could, it seemed to Wilkins, only grow. Might some of those hobbyists be willing and able to dial in and make use of CompuServe’s dearly bought PDP-10 systems while the business world slept? If so, who knew what it might turn into?

It wasn’t as if a little diversity would be a bad thing. While CompuServe was still doing very well on the strength of their fine reputation — they would bill their clients for $19 million in 1979 — the time-sharing market in general was showing signs of softening. The primary impetus behind it — the sheer expense of owning one’s own computing infrastructure — was slowly bleeding away as minicomputers like the DEC PDP-11, small enough to shove away in a closet somewhere rather than requiring a room or a floor of its own, became a more and more cost-effective solution. Rather than a $1 million proposition, as it had been ten years ago, a new DEC system could now be had for as little $150,000. Meanwhile a new piece of software called VisiCalc — the first spreadsheet program ever, at least as the modern world understands that term — would soon show that even an early, primitive microcomputer could already replace a time-shared terminal hookup in a business’s accounting department. And once entrenched in that vital area, microcomputers could only continue to spread throughout the corporation.

Still, the consumer market for online services, if it existed, wasn’t worth betting CompuServe’s existing business model on. Wilkins entered this new realm, as he did most things, with cautious probity. The new service would be called MicroNET so as to keep it from damaging the CompuServe brand in the eyes of their traditional customers, whether because it became a failure or just because of the foray into the untidy consumer market that it represented. And it would be “market-driven” rather than “competition-driven.” In Wilkins’s terminology, this meant that they would provide some basic time-sharing infrastructure — including email and a bulletin board for exchanging messages, a selection of languages for writing and running programs, and a suite of popular PDP-10 games like Adventure and Star Trek — but would otherwise adapt a wait-and-see attitude on adding customized consumer services, letting the market — i.e., all those hobbyists dialing in from home — do what they would with the system in the meantime.

Even with all these caveats, he had a hard time selling the idea to his board, who were perfectly happy with the current business model, thank you very much, and who had the contempt for the new microcomputers and the people who used them that was shared by many who been raised on the big iron of DEC and IBM. They took to calling his idea “schlock time-sharing.”

Mustering all his powers of persuasion, Wilkins was able to overrule the naysayers sufficient to launch a closed trial. On May 1, 1979, CompuServe quietly offered free logins to any members of the Midwest Affiliation of Computer Clubs, headquartered right there in Columbus, who asked for them. With modems still a rare and pricey commodity, it took time to get MicroNET off the ground; Wilkins remembers anxiously watching the connectivity lights inside the data center during the evenings, and seeing them remain almost entirely dimmed. But then, gradually, they started blinking.

After exactly two months, with several hundred active members having proved to Wilkins’s satisfaction that a potential market existed, he made MicroNET an official CompuServe service, open to all. To the dissatisfaction of his early adopters, that meant they had to start paying: a $30 signup charge, followed by $5 per hour for evening and weekend access, $12 per hour if they were foolish enough to log on during the day, when CompuServe’s corporate clients needed the machines. To the satisfaction of Wilkins, most of his early adopters grumbled but duly signed up, and they were followed by a slow but steady trickle of new arrivals. The service went entirely unadvertised, news of its existence spreading among computer hobbyists strictly by word of mouth. MicroNET was almost literally nothing in the context of CompuServe’s business as a whole — it would account for roughly 1 percent of their 1979 revenue, less than heaps of their larger individual corporate accounts — yet it marked the beginning of something big, something even Wilkins couldn’t possibly anticipate.

But MicroNET didn’t stand alone. Even as one online service was getting started in about the most low-key fashion imaginable, another was making a much more high-profile entrance. It was fortunate that Wilkins chose to see MicroNET as “market-driven” rather than “competition-driven.” Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been happy to see his thunder being stolen by The Source.

Bill von Meister

Like Jeff Wilkins, Bill von Meister was 36 years old. Unlike Wilkins, he already had on his resume a long string of entrepreneurial failures to go along with a couple of major successes. An unapologetic epicurean with a love for food, wine, cars, and women, he had been a child not just of privilege but of aristocracy, his father a godson of the last German kaiser, his mother an Austrian countess. His parents had immigrated to New York in the chaos that followed World War I, when Germany and Austria could be uncomfortable places for wealthy royalty, and there his father had made the transition from landed aristocrat to successful businessman with rather shocking ease. Among other ventures, he became a pivotal architect of the storied Zeppelin airship service between Germany and the United States — although the burning of the Hindenburg did rather put the kibosh on that part of his portfolio, as it did passenger-carrying airships in general.

The son inherited at least some of the father’s acumen. Leveraging his familial wealth alongside an unrivaled ability to talk people into giving him money — one friend called him the best he’d ever seen at “taking money from venture capitalists, burning it all up, and then getting more money from the same venture capitalist” — the younger von Meister pursued idea after idea, some visionary, some terrible. By 1977, he had hit pay dirt twice already in his career, once when he created what was eventually branded as Western Union’s “Mailgram” service for sending a form of electronic mail well before computer email existed, once when he created a corporate telephone service called Telemax. Unfortunately, the money he earned from these successes disappeared as quickly as it poured in, spent to finance his high lifestyle and his many other, failed entrepreneurial projects.

Late in 1977, he founded Digital Broadcasting Corporation in Fairfax County, Virginia, to implement a scheme for narrow-casting digital data using the FM radio band. “Typical uses,” ran the proposal, “would include price information for store managers in a retail chain, bad-check information to banks, and policy information to agents of an insurance company.” Von Meister needed financing to bring off this latest scheme, and he needed a factory to build the equipment that would be needed. Luckily, a man who believed he could facilitate both called him one day in the spring of 1978 after reading a description of his plans in Business Week.

Jack Taub had made his first fortune as the founder of Scott Publishing, known for their catalogs serving the stamp-collecting hobby. Now, he was so excited by von Meister’s scheme that he immediately bought into Digital Broadcasting Corporation to the tune of $500,000 of much-needed capital, good for a 42.5 percent stake. But every bit as important as Taub’s personal fortune were the connections he had within the federal government. By promising to build a factory in the economically disadvantaged inner city of Charlotte, North Carolina, he convinced the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration to guarantee 90 percent of a $6 million bank loan from North Carolina National Bank, under a program meant to channel financing into job-creating enterprises.

Unfortunately, the project soon ran into serious difficulties with another government agency: the Federal Communications Commission, who noted pointedly that the law which had set aside the FM radio band had stipulated it should be reserved for applications “of interest to the public.” Using it to send private data, many officials at the FCC believed, wasn’t quite what the law’s framers had had in mind. And while the FCC hemmed and hawed, von Meister was fomenting chaos within the telecommunications and broadcasting industries at large by claiming his new corporation’s name gave him exclusive rights to the term “digital broadcasting,” a modest buzzword of its own at the time. His legal threats left a bad taste in the mouth of many a potential partner, and the scheme withered away under the enormous logistical challenges getting such a service off the ground must entail. The factory which the Commerce Department had so naively thought they were financing never opened, but Digital Broadcasting kept what remained of the money they had received for the purpose.

They now planned to use the money for something else entirely. Von Meister and Taub had always seen business-to-business broadcasting as only the first stage of their company’s growth. In the longer term, they had envisioned a consumer service which would transmit and even receive information — news and weather reports, television listings, shopping offers, opinion polls, etc. — to and from terminals located in ordinary homes. When doing all this over the FM radio band began to look untenable, they had cast about for alternative approaches; they were, after all, still flush with a fair amount of cash. It didn’t take them long to take note of all those TRS-80s and other home computers that were making their way into the homes of early adopters. Both Taub and von Meister would later claim to have been the first to suggest a pivot from digital broadcasting to a microcomputer-oriented online information utility. In the beginning, they called it CompuCom.

The most obvious problem CompuCom faced — its most obvious disadvantage in comparison to CompuServe’s MicroNET — was the lack of a telecommunications network of its own. Once again, both Taub and von Meister would later claim to have been the first to see the solution. One or the other or both took note of another usage inequality directly related to the one that had spawned MicroNET. Just as the computers of time-sharing services like CompuServe sat largely idle during nights and weekends, traffic on the telecommunications lines corporate clients used to connect to them was also all but nonexistent more than half of the time. Digital Broadcasting came to GTE Telenet with an offer to lease this idle bandwidth at a rate of 75¢ per connection per hour, a dramatically reduced price from that of typical business customers. GTE, on the presumption that something was better than nothing, agreed. And while they were making the deal to use the telecommunications network, von Meister and Taub also made a deal with GTE Telenet to run the new service on the computers in the latter’s data centers, using all that excess computing power that lay idle along with the telecommunications bandwidth on nights and weekends. Because they needed to build no physical infrastructure, von Meister and Taub believed that CompuCom could afford to be relatively cheap during off-hours; the initial pricing plan stipulated just $2.75 per hour during evenings and weekends, with a $100 signup fee and a minimum monthly charge of $10.

For all the similarities in their way of taking advantage of the time-sharing industry’s logistical quirks, not to mention their shared status as the pioneers of much of modern online life, there were important differences between the nascent MicroNET and CompuCom. From the first, von Meister envisioned his service not just as a provider of computer access but as a provider of content. The public-domain games that were the sum total of MicroNET’s initial content were only the beginning for him. Mirroring its creator, CompuCom was envisioned as a service for the well-heeled Playboy– and Sharper Image-reading technophile lounge lizard, with wine lists, horoscopes, entertainment guides for the major metropolitan areas, and an online shopping mall. In a landmark deal, von Meister convinced United Press International, one of the two providers of raw news wires to the nation’s journalistic infrastructure, to offer their feed through CompuCom as well — unfiltered, up-to-the-minute information of a sort that had never been available to the average consumer before. The New York Times provided a product-information database, Prentice Hall provided tax information, and Dow Jones provided a stock ticker. Von Meister contracted with the French manufacturer Alcatel for terminals custom-made just for logging onto CompuCom, perfect for those wanting to get in on the action who weren’t interested in becoming computer nerds in the process. For the same prospective customers, he insisted that the system, while necessarily all text given the state of the technology of the time, be navigable via multiple-choice menus rather than an arcane command line.

In the spring of 1979, just before the first trials began, CompuCom was renamed The Source; the former name sounded dangerously close to “CompuCon,” a disadvantage that was only exacerbated by the founder’s checkered business reputation. The service officially opened for business, eight days after MicroNET had done the same, with that July 9 press conference featuring Isaac Asimov and the considerable fanfare it generated. Indeed, the press notices were almost as ebullient as The Source’s own advertising, with the Wall Street Journal calling it “an overnight sensation among the cognoscenti of the computing world.” Graeme Keeping, a business executive who would later be in charge of the service but was at this time just another outsider looking in, had this to say about those earliest days:

The announcement was made with the traditional style of the then-masters of The Source. A lot of fanfare, a lot of pizazz, a lot of sizzle. There was absolutely no substance whatsoever to the announcement. They had nothing to back it up with.

Electronic publishing was in its infancy in those days. It was such a romantic dream that there never had to be a product in order to generate excitement. Nobody had to see anything real. People wanted it so badly, like a cure for cancer. We all want it, but is it really there? I equate it to Laetrile.

While that is perhaps a little unfair — there were, as we’ve just seen, several significant deals with content providers in place before July of 1979 — it was certainly true that the hype rather overwhelmed the comparatively paltry reality one found upon actually logging into The Source.

Nevertheless, any comparison of The Source and MicroNET at this stage would have to place the former well ahead in terms of ambition, vision, and public profile. That distinction becomes less surprising when we consider that what was a side experiment for Jeff Wilkins was the whole enchilada for von Meister and Taub. For the very same reason, any neutral observer forced to guess which of these two nascent services would rise to dominance would almost certainly have gone with The Source. Such a reckoning wouldn’t have accounted, however, for the vortex of chaos that was Bill von Meister.

It was the typical von Meister problem: he had built all this buzz by spending money he didn’t have — in fact, by spending so much money that to this day it’s hard to figure out where it could all possibly have gone. As of October of 1979, the company had $1000 left in the bank and $8 million in debt. Meanwhile The Source itself, despite all the buzz, had managed to attract at most a couple of thousand actual subscribers. It was, after all, still very early days for home computers in general, modems were an even more exotic species, and the Alcatel terminals had yet to arrive from France, being buried in some transatlantic bureaucratic muddle.

Jack Taub

By his own later account, Jack Taub had had little awareness over the course of the last year or so of what von Meister was doing with the company’s money, being content to contribute ideas and strategic guidance and let his partner handle day-to-day operations. But that October he finally sat down to take a hard look at the books. He would later pronounce the experience of doing so “an assault on my system. Von Meister is a terrific entrepreneur, but he doesn’t know when to stop entrepreneuring. The company was in terrible shape. It was not going to survive. Money was being spent like water.” With what he considered to be a triage situation on his hands, Taub delivered an ultimatum to von Meister. He would pay him $3140 right now — 1¢ for each of his shares — and would promise to pay him another dollar per share in three years if The Source was still around then. In return, von Meister would walk away from the mess he had created, escaping any legal action that might otherwise become a consequence of his gross mismanagement. According to Taub’s account, von Meister agreed to these terms with uncharacteristic meekness, leaving his vision of The Source as just one more paving stone on his boulevard of broken entrepreneurial dreams, and leaving Taub to get down to the practical business of saving the company. “I think if I had waited another week,” the latter would later say, “it would have been too late.”

As it was, Digital Broadcasting teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for months, with Taub scrambling to secure new lines of credit to keep the existing creditors satisfied and, when all else failed, injecting more of his own money into the company. Through it all, he still had to deal with von Meister, who, as any student of his career to date could have predicted, soon had second thoughts about going away quietly — if, that is, he’d ever planned to do so in the first place. Taub learned that von Meister had taken much of Digital Broadcasting’s proprietary technology out the door with him, and was now shopping it around the telecommunications industry; that sparked a lawsuit on Taub’s behalf. Von Meister claimed his ejection had been illegal; that sparked another, going in the opposite direction. Apparently concluding that his promise not to sue von Meister for his mismanagement of the company was thus nullified, Taub counter-sued with exactly that charge. With a vengeful von Meister on his trail, he said that he couldn’t afford to “sleep with both eyes closed.”

By March of 1980, The Source had managed to attract about 3000 subscribers, but the online citizens were growing restless. Many features weren’t quite as advertised. The heavily hyped nightlife guides, for instance, mostly existed only for the Washington Beltway, the home of The Source. The email system was down about half the time, and even when it was allegedly working it was anyone’s guess whether a message that was sent would actually be delivered. Failings like these could be attributed easily enough to the usual technical growing pains, but other complaints carried with them an implication of nefarious intent. The Source’s customers could read the business pages of the newspaper as well as anyone, and knew that Jack Taub was fighting for his company’s life on multiple fronts. In that situation, some customers reasoned, there would be a strong incentive to find ways to bill them just that little bit more. Thus there were dark accusations that the supposedly user-friendly menu system had been engineered to be as verbose and convoluted as possible in order to maximize the time users spent online just trying to get to where they wanted to go. On a 110- or 300-baud connection — for comparison purposes, consider that a good touch typist could far exceed the former rate — receiving all these textual menus could take considerable time, especially given the laggy response time of the system as a whole whenever more than a handful of people were logged on. And for some reason, a request to log off the system in an orderly way simply didn’t work most of the time, forcing users to break the connection themselves. After they did so, it would conveniently — conveniently for The Source’s accountants, that is — take the system five minutes or so to recognize their absence and stop charging them.

A sampling of the many error messages with which early users of The Source became all too familiar.

The accusations of nefarious intent were, for what it’s worth, very unlikely to have had any basis in reality. Jack Taub was a hustler, but he wasn’t a con man. On the contrary, he was earnestly trying to save a company whose future he deeply believed in. His biggest problem was the government-secured loan, on which Digital Broadcasting Corporation had by now defaulted, forcing the Commerce Department to pay $3.2 million to the National Bank of North Carolina. The government bureaucrats, understandably displeased, were threatening to seize his company and dismantle it in the hope of getting at least some of that money back. They were made extra motivated by the fact that the whole affair had leaked into the papers, with the Washington Post in particular treating it as a minor public scandal, an example of Your Tax Dollars at Waste.

Improvising like mad, Taub convinced the government to allow him to make a $300,000 down payment, and thereafter to repay the money he owed over a period of up to 22 years at an interest rate of just 2 percent. Beginning in 1982, the company, now trading as The Source Telecomputing Corporation rather than Digital Broadcasting Corporation, would have to repay either $50,000 or 10 percent of their net profit each year, whichever was greater; beginning in 1993, the former figure would rise to $100,000 if the loan still hadn’t been repaid. “The government got a good deal,” claimed Taub. “They get 100 cents on the dollar, and get their money back faster if I’m able to do something with the company.” While some might have begged to differ with his characterization of the arrangement as a “good deal,” it was, the government must have judged, the best it was likely to get under the circumstances. “The question is to work out some kind of reasonable solution where you recover something rather than nothing,” said one official familiar with the matter. “While it sounds like they’re giving it away, they already did that. They already made their mistake with the original loan.”

With the deal with the Commerce Department in place, Taub convinced The Readers Digest Association, publisher of the most popular magazine in the world, who were eager to get in on the ground floor of what was being billed in some circles as the next big thing in media, to buy 51 percent of The Source for $3 million in September of 1980, thus securing desperately needed operating capital. But when a judge ruled in favor of von Meister on the charge that he had been unlawfully forced out of the company shortly thereafter, Taub was left scrambling once again. He was forced to go back to Readers Digest, convincing them this time to increase their stake to 80 percent, leaving only the remaining 20 percent in his own hands. And with that second capital injection to hand, he convinced von Meister to lay the court battle to rest with a settlement check for $1 million.

The Source had finally attained a measure of stability, and Jack Taub’s extended triage could thus come to an end at last. Along the way, however, he had maneuvered himself out of his controlling interest and, soon, out of a job. Majority ownership having its privileges, Readers Digest elected to replace him with one of their own: Graeme Keeping, the executive who had lobbied hardest to buy The Source in the first place. “Any publisher today, if he doesn’t get into electronic publishing,” Keeping was fond of saying, “is either going to be forced into it by economic circumstances or will have great difficulty staying in the paper-and-ink business.”

The Source’s Prime computer systems, a millstone around their neck for years (although the monkey does seem to be enjoying them).

The Source may have found a safe harbor with one of the moneyed giants of American media, but it would never regain its early mojo. Keeping proved to be less than the strategic mastermind he believed himself to be, with a habit of over-promising and under-delivering — and, worse, of making terrible choices based on his own overoptimistic projections. The worst example of the tendency came early in his tenure, in the spring of 1981, when he was promising the New York Times he would have 60,000 subscribers by 1982. Determined to make sure he had the computing capacity to meet the demand, he cancelled the contract to use GTE Telenet’s computing facilities, opening his own data center instead and filling it with his own machines. At a stroke, this destroyed a key part of the logistical economies which had done so much to spawn The Source (and, for that matter, CompuServe’s MicroNET) in the first place. The Source’s shiny new computers now sat idle during the day with no customers to service. Come 1982, The Source had only 20,000 subscribers, and all those expensive computers were barely ticking over even at peak usage. This move alone cost The Source millions. Meanwhile, the deal with Alcatel for custom-made terminals having fallen through during the chaos of Taub’s tenure, Keeping made a new one with Zenith to make “a semi-intelligent terminal with a hole in the back through which you can turn it into a computer.” That impractical flight of fancy also came to naught, but not before costing The Source more money. Such failures led to Keeping’s ouster in June of 1982, to be replaced by another anodyne chief from the Readers Digest executive pool named George Grune.

Soon after, Control Data Corporation, a maker of supercomputers, bought a 30 percent share of The Source for a reported $5 million. But even this latest injection of capital, technical expertise, and content — Control Data would eventually move much of their pioneering Plato educational network onto the service — changed little. The Source went through three more chief executives in the next two years. The user roll continued to grow, finally reaching 60,000 in September of 1984 — some two and a half years after Graeme Keeping’s prediction, for those keeping score — but the company perpetually lost money, was perpetually about to turn the corner into mainstream acceptance and profitability but never actually did. Thanks not least to Keeping’s data-center boondoggle, the hourly rate for non-prime usage had risen to $7.75 per hour by 1984, making this onetime pioneer that now felt more and more like an also-ran a hard sell in terms of dollars and cents as well. Neither the leading name in the online-services industry nor the one with the deepest pockets — there were limits to Readers Digest’s largess — The Source struggled to attract third-party content. A disturbing number of those 60,000 subscribers rarely or never logged on, paying only the minimum monthly charge of $10. One analyst noted that well-heeled computer owners “apparently are willing to pay to have these electronic services available, even if they don’t use them regularly. From a business point of view, that’s a formula for survival, but not for success.”

The Source was fated to remain a survivor but never a real success for the rest of its existence. Back in Columbus, however, CompuServe’s consumer offering was on a very different trajectory. Begun in such a low-key way that Jeff Wilkins had refused even to describe it as being in competition with The Source, CompuServe’s erstwhile MicroNET — now re-branded as simply CompuServe, full stop — was going places of which its rival could only dream. Indeed, one might say it was going to the very places of which Bill von Meister had been dreaming in 1979.

(Sources: the book On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks and Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner by Alec Klein; Creative Computing of March 1980; InfoWorld of April 14 1980, May 26 1980, January 11 1982, May 24 1982, and November 5 1984; Wall Street Journal of November 6 1979; Online Today of July 1989; 80 Microcomputing of November 1980; The Intelligent Machines Journal of March 14 1979 and June 25 1979; Washington Post of May 11 1937, July 10 1978, February 10 1980, and November 4 1980; Alexander Trevor’s brief technical history of CompuServe, which was first posted to Usenet in 1988; interviews with Jeff Wilkins from the Internet History Podcast and Conquering Columbus.)

 
 

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The Faery Tale Life of MicroIllusions

MicroIllusions

With the notable exception of Electronic Arts, the established American software industry was uncertain what to make of the Amiga in the wake of its initial release. Impressive as the machine was, it was also an expensive proposition from a parent company best known for much cheaper computers — and a parent company that was in a financial freefall to boot. Thus most publishers confined their support to inexpensive ports of existing titles that wouldn’t break the bank if, as so many expected, neither Commodore nor their Amiga were still around in a year or so.

Disappointing as this situation was to many early Amiga adopters, it spelled Opportunity for many an ambitious would-be Amiga entrepreneur. Just as early issues of Amazing Computing, the Amiga’s most respected technical magazine, carry with them some of the spirit of the original Byte magazine, of smart people joining together to figure out what this new thing is and what they can do with it, the early Amiga software scene represents the last great flowering of the Spirit of ’76 that had birthed the modern software industry. Like their peers of a decade before, the early Amiga developers were motivated more by love and passion than by money, and often operated more as a collective of friends and colleagues working toward a shared purpose than as competitors — i.e., as what Doug Carlston had once dubbed a “brotherhood” of software. Cinemaware became the breakout star of this group who committed themselves to the Amiga quickly and completely; that company was soon known to plenty of people who had never actually touched an Amiga for themselves. But there were plenty of others whose distinctly non-focus-group-tested names speak to their scruffy origins: companies like Aegis, Byte by Byte, and the one destined to be the great survivor of this pioneering era, NewTek. That NewTek would be just about the only one of these companies still in business in six or seven years does say something about the trajectory of the Amiga in North America, but perhaps says just as much about the nature of the companies themselves. Once again like their peers in the early 8-bit software industry, these early Amiga publishers carried along with their commitment to relentless innovation an often shocking ineptitude at executing fundamentals of running a business like writing marketing copy, keeping books, drawing up contracts, and paying taxes.

The story of our company of choice for today, MicroIllusions, is typical enough to almost stand in for that of the early Amiga software industry as a whole. At the same time, though, “typical” in this time of rampant innovation meant some extraordinarily original software. That’s particularly true of the works of MicroIllusions’s highest profile programmer, David Joiner (or, as he was better known by his friends then and still today, “Talin,” his online handle). Joiner, who describes his view of the universe as of “some giant art project,” has dedicated his life to being “compulsively creative,” in both the digital and analog worlds. His vacuum-forming costumes, which transform him into alien space-bugs or knights in armor, have been the hit of many a science-fiction convention. He’s also an enthusiastic painter — “for a long time I thought my career was going to be in art” — as well as a musician and composer.

Joiner was first exposed to computers during the four years he spent at the end of the 1970s in the Air Force, programming the big mainframes of the Strategic Air Command in Omaha. He spent the several years following his discharge kicking around the margins of the burgeoning PC industry, writing amateur and semi-professional games for the Radio Shack Color Computer among other models and working briefly for DataSoft before they went bankrupt in the industry’s great mid-decade shakeout. That left him in the state in which a Los Angeles-area computer-store owner named Jim Steinert first met him: 27 years old, sleeping on friends’ couches, picking up contract programming work when he could get it, and spending much of the rest of his time hanging out at Steinert’s store — KJ Computer, located in the suburb of Granada Hills — drooling over their new Amigas.

The seeds of MicroIllusions were planted during one day’s idle conversation when Steinert complained to Joiner that, while the Amiga supposedly had speech synthesis built into its operating system, he had never actually heard his machines talk; in the first releases of AmigaOS, the ability was hidden within the operating system’s libraries, accessible only to programmers who knew how to make the right system calls. Seeing an interesting challenge, not to mention a chance to get more time in front of one of Steinert’s precious Amigas, Joiner said that he could easily write a program to make the Amiga talk for anyone. He proved as good as his word within a few hours. Impressed, Steinert asked if he could sell the new program in his store for a straight 50/50 split. Given his circumstances, Joiner was hardly in a position to quibble. When the program sold well, Steinert decided to get into Amiga software development in earnest with the help of his wunderkind.

He leased an office for his new venture MicroIllusions a few blocks from his store, and also picked up the lease on a small house to form a little software-development commune consisting of Joiner and three of his friends, talented artists and/or programmers all. Joiner describes the first year or two he spent creating inside that little house as “probably the best time of my life. We really felt like we were building the future.”

In these heady days when the Amiga was fondly imagined by its zealots as likely to become the new face of mainstream family-friendly computing, Steinert pushed Joiner to make as his first project an edutainment title similar to a Commodore 64 hit called Cave of the Word Wizard, in which the player must explore a cave whilst answering occasional spelling questions to proceed. Joiner’s response was Discovery, which replaced the cave with a spaceship and allowed for the creation of many additional data disks covering subjects from math to history to science to simple trivia for adult players. Setting a pattern that would hold for the remainder of his time with MicroIllusions, Joiner brought all his creative skills to bear on the one-man project, drawing all of the art himself in Deluxe Paint and also writing a music soundtrack in addition to the game’s code — and all in just four months. Because the Amiga would never quite conquer North America as Steinert had anticipated, the market for the Discovery line would always be a limited one, but it would prove a consistent if modest seller for MicroIllusions for years to come.

Having proved himself with Discovery, Joiner was allowed to embark on his dream project: a hybrid game — part action, part adventure, part CRPG — that would harness the Amiga’s capabilities in the service of something different from anything that had come before. He wanted to incorporate two key ideas, one involving the game’s fiction, the other its presentation. In the case of the former, he wanted to push past the oh-so-earnest high-fantasy pastiches typical of CRPG fictions in favor of something more whimsical, more Brothers Grimm than J.R.R. Tolkien. This territory was hardly completely unexplored in gaming — Roberta Williams in particular had built a career around her love of fairy tales — but it was unusual to see in a game that owed as much to action games and CRPGs as it did to the adventure games for which she was known. Joiner’s other big idea, meanwhile, really was something entirely new under the sun: he wanted to create a world that the player would traverse not in discrete steps or even screens but as a single scrolling, contiguous landscape of open-ended, real-time possibility.

The Faery Tale Adventure

The Faery Tale Adventure is the story of three brothers who set out to save their village of Tambry from an evil necromancer. Their quest will require one or more of them — if you get one of them killed, you automatically take the reins of another — to traverse the vast world of Holm from end to end, a process that by itself could take you the player hours of real time if journeying entirely on foot. Whilst traveling, you must also fight monsters and assemble the clues necessary to complete your quest.

It’s difficult to convey using words just how lovely and lyrical your journeys around Holm can be. Even screenshots don’t do The Faery Tale Adventure justice; this is a game that really must be seen and heard in action. Here, then, is just a little taste, in which I take a magical ride on the back of a giant turtle to visit a sorceress in her crystalline lair.


If it’s difficult to fully describe the experience of playing The Faery Tale Adventure using words, it’s doubly difficult to explain just how stunning it was in its day. Note the depth-giving isometric perspective, still a rarity in games of the mid-1980s. Note the way that characters and things cast subtle shadows. And note how the entirety of the world is presented at the same scale. Gone is the wilderness/town dichotomy of the Ultima games, in which the latter blow up from tiny spots on the map to self-contained worlds of their own when you step into them. In The Faery Tale Adventure, if it’s small (or big) on the outside, it’s small (or big) on the inside. I’d also tell you to note the wonderful music, except that I’m quite sure you already have (assuming you have the sound turned on, of course). Seldom has music made a game what it is to quite the extent it does this one.

Leaving aside the goal of actually solving the game, which is kind of hopeless — we’ll get to that in a moment — The Faery Tale Adventure is all about the rhythm of wandering, following roadways and peeking into hidden corners as the music plays and day turns to night and back again. Like another early Amiga landmark, Defender of the Crown, and unlike far too many other games on this platform and others, it has a textured aesthetic all its own that’s much more memorable than the bloody action-movie pyrotechnics so typical of games then and now. Play it just a little, and you’ll never, ever forget it.

That every bit of this vast world and all that makes it up — code, art, and music alike — was created virtually unaided by David Joiner in about seven months never ceases to amaze me. This Leonardo had found his niche at last:

It’s ironic because when I was growing up I was never able to focus on one single creative outlet and ignore the others — and this was considered a disadvantage. People would tell me that I had to learn to focus on one thing. Otherwise I would never be successful, just be a dilettante. I struggled to find a profession which would use all of my skills, not just some of them.

Still, stunning technical and aesthetic achievement that it is, there’s no denying that The Faery Tale Adventure is kind of a mess as a piece of game design. Its problem are all too typical of a game designed and implemented by a single idiosyncratic individual with, at best, limited external input. Some of the mechanical wonkiness I can live with. For instance, I’m not too bothered by the fact that, if you don’t get killed in one of the first few extremely difficult fights, you level up enough inside of an hour or so to the point that fighting becomes little more than a trivial annoyance for the rest of the game. The broken character-building aspect is forgivable in light of the fact that that doesn’t feel like what the game really wants to be about anyway. (That said, CRPG addicts should certainly approach this one with caution.)

But we can’t so easily wave aside the broken main spine of the game, the fact that it’s all but insoluble on its own terms. The Faery Tale Adventure presents itself as a breadcrumb-following game like the Ultimas, but its breadcrumbs are so scattered at some stages, so literally nonexistent at others, that it’s all but impossible to piece together where to go or what to do. After exploring Holm for a while, the charm of the music and the colorful graphics begins to fade and you begin to realize what a dismayingly empty place it really is. Almost every building is vacant, virtually every hotly anticipated new voyage of discovery proves ultimately underwhelming. Moments of wonder, like the first time you hitch a ride on that turtle you see above — or, even better, on a majestic swan — do crop up from time to time, but far too infrequently. The final impression is of nothing so much as a beautiful world running inside a marvelous engine that’s now just waiting for a designer to come along and, you know, write an actual game for it all. You can see contemporaneous reviewers struggling with this impression whilst giving the game the benefit of every possible doubt; The Faery Tale Adventure is nothing if not a game that makes you want to love it. Computer Gaming World‘s Roy Wagner, for instance, felt compelled to attach a rough walkthrough to try to make it actually playable to his very positive critical take on the game. Later, when the game was ported to the Sega Genesis, Sega found its design so intractable that they demanded that a similar walkthrough be included in the very manual. (One could wish that they had demanded that the design be properly fixed instead.) Joiner notes that his approach was to “start with a basic engine and then add detail like crazy,” which does rather sound like code for “write a game engine and then try to shoehorn an actual semblance of game in there at the last minute, when you realize your deadline is looming.”

David Joiner all dressed up in his armor for the Faery Tale Adventure package.

David Joiner all dressed up in his armor for the Faery Tale Adventure package.

Yet the fact remains that technical game-changers and audiovisual charmers like The Fairy Tale Adventure can usually get away with a multitude of design sins in the face of the gaming public’s insatiable appetite for the new. Knowing he had a potential hit on his hands, Steinert determined to make a veritable Electronic Arts-style rock star out of its creator. Joiner strapped himself into his knightly armor for a inadvertently hilarious photo shoot; the end results look tacky and painfully nerdy in exactly the way that the game itself doesn’t. But no matter: The Faery Tale Adventure became a hit on the Amiga after its release in early 1987 — just in time for a new influx of unabashed Amiga gamers in the form of new Amiga 500 owners — whereupon Steinert took advantage of his favored platform’s halo effect by selling less compelling ports for the Commodore 64 and MS-DOS and, years later, that rather more impressive Sega Genesis translation. The game’s success led to Activision signing MicroIllusions on as an “affiliated publisher,” a real shot at the big time.

For better or for worse, though, Steinert just couldn’t bring himself to leave behind his scruffy roots in the Amiga hacking community. Games remained only one aspect of MicroIllusions, who also developed and published such only-Amiga-makes-it-possible software as Photon Paint, the first program to let one draw and edit pictures directly in the Amiga’s 4096-color HAM mode, and Cel Animator, a classical animation package crafted with the aid of Heidi Turnipseed, a veteran of Disney and Don Bluth Productions. The high-water point for MicroIllusions unsurprisingly corresponded with that of the Amiga itself in North America: 1988, when sales were trending upward and the big breakthrough seemed just around the corner. MicroIllusions was known during this period for their lavish trade-show displays — in truth, probably more lavish than they could realistically afford even then — that made them among the most prominent of the Amiga-centric software houses not named Cinemaware. That summer MicroIllusions products took up almost half of a Computer Chronicles television feature on the Amiga scene.

The MicroIllusions booth at the January 1988 AmiExpo show in Los Angeles, which filled half on one wall inside the Westin Bonaventure's convention space.

The MicroIllusions booth at the January 1988 AmiExpo show in Los Angeles, which filled half of one wall inside the Westin Bonaventure’s convention space.

David Joiner demonstrated his latest project-in-progress on-air on that program: Music-X, a MIDI music sequencer that he’d created largely out of concern that the hated Atari ST was getting ahead of the Amiga when it came to music software (never underestimate the motivation provided by good old platform jingoism). By the time that Music-X appeared at last to rave reviews at the tail end of 1989, MicroIllusions was already in dire straits, their phones perpetually coming on- and off-line and rumors swirling about their alleged demise. That situation would remain largely unchanged for another two desperate years. Their plight must to some extent be linked to that of the Amiga itself, which had failed to ever take off as Steinert had confidently expected when purchasing all that lavish trade-show floor space. It also didn’t help that, while they released a number of other modestly well-reviewed games, they never managed another transformative hit to come close to The Faery Tale Adventure. Thanks to that failure, Activision humiliatingly dropped them as an affiliated publisher barely a year after signing them up, citing the low sales of their latest games as just not making it worth anyone’s while anymore. Even an unexpected high-profile deal with Hanna-Barbera to produce games based on cartoon franchises like Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, and The Jetsons — truly a lifeline if ever there was one — collapsed amid allegations of breached contracts and botched schedules.

One suspects that the real cause behind these failures and so many others was a nemesis of MicroIllusions’s own making that also plagued many others in the Amiga’s home-grown software industry: a simple lack of business acumen, and with it an associated tendency to place dreams before ethics. Rather than belabor the point too much more personally, I’ll deliver David Joiner’s take on Jim Steinert’s idea of running a business:

My financial relationship with MicroIllusions was long and complicated. Jim wasn’t a good businessman. That was not unusual for the software industry at the time, but there was so much wide-open opportunity that any half-competent person could start a software business and be moderately successful.

Jim and I also differed in our approach to business ethics. He imagined himself to be a sharp dealer, and once boasted to me how he “saved money” in dealing with disk-duplication companies. You see, at the time there were companies which would do all the duplication work — that is, make copies of the floppy disks, print the packaging, and assemble the boxes. And many of these companies offered ninety-day terms — that is, you didn’t have to pay for ninety days, so you could use the money you made selling the product to pay back the duplicators. This made it possible to be an entrepreneur with very little startup capital, other than the sweat equity of writing software.

Well, Jim’s idea was that when the ninety days come up you simply refuse to pay — and then, eight months later when the duplicators eventually get around to suing you, you settle out of court for like one-third of the money. This same kind of playing fast and loose with the rules is what caused him to lose the Hasbro [sic. — I believe he means Hanna-Barbera] contract, which up to that point had been an incredibly valuable asset to the company.

Many years later, I went over all the royalty statements I had gotten from MicroIllusions, and discovered that there were lots of basic arithmetic errors in them — and not always in Jim’s favor.

The story of MicroIllusions is hardly unique among the companies we’ve encountered in this history, having much in common with that of many pioneers of the immediately preceding generation of software pioneers: companies like California Pacific, Muse, and Adventure International. Enthusiasm and programming talent can only make up for a lack of basic business acumen for so long. Despite it all, MicroIllusions somehow survived, at least nominally, through 1991, when their remaining assets, including The Faery Tale Adventure, were acquired by a new company called HollyWare who used the contracts they had purchased to launch a fruitless $10 million lawsuit against a now sorely ailing Activision for allegedly mishandling that old distribution deal. As an Amazing columnist wrote as the suit went into discovery, “The really interesting thing to discover is how MicroIllusions expects to get ten megabucks out of a company with a negative net worth.” HollyWare, needless to say, didn’t last very long.

By then Joiner had long since moved on to greener pastures in games and other forms of software development, although he would never again helm quite so impactful a project as The Faery Tale Adventure. The writing had been on the wall for software Leonardos even as he was creating his masterwork. Working with a new development team who called themselves The Dreamer’s Guild, he did belatedly create Halls of the Dead: The Faery Tale Adventure II in 1997. In the tradition of its predecessor, it looked and initially seemed to play great, but showed itself over time to be half-finished and well-nigh uncompleteable.

In the end, then, the business legacy of MicroIllusions is a bit of a tawdry one, one more example of a phenomenon that would always plague the Amiga: the platform seemed to attract idealists and shysters in equal numbers — and, somehow, often in the same individual. Yet it’s because its story is both so groundbreaking and so typical that the company makes such a worthwhile case study for anyone wishing to understand the oft-dirty life and times of the Amiga in its heyday. During MicroIllusion’s brief existence they produced some visionary software that, like so much else that came out of the Amiga scene, gave the world an imperfect glimpse of its multimedia future. That’s as true of Photon Paint, the progenitor of photographic-quality visual editors like PhotoShop, as it is of Music-X, a forerunner of easy-to-use music packages like GarageBand. And, most importantly for our purposes, it’s true of The Faery Tale Adventure, a rough draft of what games might come to be in the future. It’s a game that’s perhaps best appreciated in the context of its time, as I’m so able to do thanks to all of the research — okay, playing of old games — I do for this blog. It stands out so dramatically from its contemporaries that it gave me a catch in my throat when I first saw it again that wasn’t that different from the one I felt when I saw it for the first time back in 1987. That’s a feeling that may be hard for you to entirely duplicate if you’re not a really — I mean, really — dedicated reader who’s playing all these games right along with me. But no matter. If you have an hour or two to kill, give it a download,1 fire up an Amiga emulator, and just have a little wander through Holm. Never did a bad game feel — and sound — so good.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of February 1988 and October 1991; Commodore Magazine of September 1989; Amazing Computing of August 1987, April 1988, June 1988, August 1989, October 1989, March 1990, April 1990, October 1991, December 1991, and April 1992; Info of April 1992. The home page of David Joiner (Talin) hasn’t been updated since 2000, but was nevertheless very useful. Still more useful was an interview with Joiner done by Amiga Lore.)


  1. The music at the beginning of the game is a distorted mess in this version, the only otherwise working one I could find. This is down to one of the few differences between the Amiga 1000, for which the game was originally designed, and later Amiga models — a sound pointer doesn’t get automatically set in the latter. If you just give it a moment, the music will resolve from dissonance to consonance and will play as it should henceforward. I think it’s kind of a cool effect, actually — but then I occasionally blast Sonic Youth, much to my wife’s chagrin, so take that with a grain of salt.</p> <p>Note that you will need to answer a few copy-protection questions at the beginning by using the map included in the zip.</p> <p>For those of you who are hopeless completionists, I’ve also included with this zip the <em>Computer Gaming World</em> review that gives much valuable guidance on how to pursue your (otherwise almost certainly futile) quest.</p> <p>By far the easiest way to get started in Amiga emulation and to play this game and the other Amiga games I’ll be featuring in this blog for quite some time to come is by purchasing Cloanto’s <a href="http://www.amigaforever.com/">Amiga Forever</a> package. It makes the whole process pretty painless. 

 
 

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This Tormented Business, Part 3

In the June 1985 issue of Compute! magazine, in an otherwise innocuous editorial about font sizes and page layouts and column lengths, Richard Mansfield casually dropped a bombshell: that the number of companies in the PC industry had shrunk by 80% over the past year. Now, the reality was not quite so apocalyptic as that number (not to mention lots of fevered pundits) would make it seem. Many of the people and companies included within it were doubtless dabblers, who saw a chance to jump on a hot new trend, then saw the money wasn’t going to come so easily after all and walked away again. But still… 80%. Let’s look at some more numbers to try to unpack what that figure means.

Home computer installed base, 1978-1982

The chart above shows the numbers of actively used computers in American homes between 1978 and 1982. The first big spike came in the latter year, when cheap machines like the Commodore VIC-20, the Texas Instruments 99/4A, and the Timex Sinclair came online in a big way just as the videogame console market began to go soft. Home computers, the pundits said, were the logical successors to that fad, and consumers seemed to agree by almost quintupling their numbers in the space of a single year.

Actual and projected installed base of home computers, 1982-1987

The chart above shows the actual and forecasted installed base of active home-computer users between 1982 and 1987. As you can see, things continued to go swimmingly through 1983 — the peak of the home-computer wars, Jack Tramiel and Commodore’s year of triumph. By year’s end, following the most spectacular Christmas of the 1980s for the home-computer industry, the number of computers in American homes was over 250% of what it had been at the beginning of the year. With millions upon millions of American homes still unconverted, everyone assumed that this was only the beginning of the beginning, that growth by leaps and bounds was inevitable until the end of the decade at least.

Things didn’t work out that way. Not only did 1984 fall short of projections by more than 50%, but sales to first-time buyers weren’t even sufficient to make up for those who got bored with their balky toys from the previous year or two and relegated them to closets, first step on their long, gradual journeys to the dumpster. (One research firm would later estimate that consumers threw out 1.5 million home computers in 1985 alone.) I’ve talked in earlier articles about the many perfectly good, sensible reasons that consumers grew so quickly disillusioned with their purchases, a list which includes a complete lack of killer apps — beyond games, that is — for the average household, the pain of actually using these primitive machines, and hidden costs in the form of all of the extra hardware and software needed to do much of anything with one of them. Home computers just didn’t live up to the hype; at least the old Atari VCS really was cheap and simple and fun, exactly as advertised. Most Americans found home computers to be none of these things. Their experience of 1982 and 1983 was bad enough to sour many of them on computers for a decade or more.

As bad as the chart above looks, it took a surprising amount of time for the industry to realize just how far off-track things had gone. 1984 was a paradoxical year of mixed messages in many respects, one that saw for instance the Apple II and Infocom both enjoy their biggest sales years ever. It wasn’t until 1984 became 1985, and the industry counted its dollars and woke up to the realization that the Christmas just past had been a deeply disappointing one, that the full scale of the problems set in and the dying-home-computer-industry became as big a media meme as the home-computer-as-social-revolution had been just a year or two before.

Still, some knew long before that something was very, very wrong. The bellweather of virtually any consumer-facing industry has always been — prior, at least, to the Internet age — its magazines. A healthy, growing industry means lots of readers buying at newsstands and signing up for subscriptions, as well as lots of vigorous new companies eager to advertise, to tell the public about all the new stuff they have to sell them. Conversely, when interest and sales begin to flag the newsstands start to reduce their magazine selection to make more room for other subjects, subscriptions are allowed to lapse, and advertising budgets are the quickest and least immediately painful things to cut. And as the first companies start to fold, those with whom they’ve signed advertising contracts tend to be about the last creditors to get paid. Woe betide the magazine that’s let itself go too far out on a limb — like, you know, one assuming it’s a part of an industry likely to grow almost exponentially for years to come — when that happens. The carnage in the magazines, those engines of excitement and advice and community, was appalling during the eighteen months between mid-1984 and the end of 1985.

The period was bookended by two particularly painful losses. Softalk, the de facto voice of the Apple II community, simply never appeared again after an apparently business-as-usual August 1984 issue. An even sadder loss was that of Creative Computing, which at least got to say goodbye in a last editorial (“Great While It Lasted”) in its last issue in December of 1985. The first newsstand magazine devoted to personal and, well, creative computing, it had been founded by David Ahl, a visionary if ever there was one, in October of 1974, months before the Altair. Ahl sold the magazine to the big conglomerate Ziff-Davis in 1982, but remained on as editor-in-chief right through to that last editorial. Throughout its run Creative Computing remained relentlessly idealistic about the potential for personal computing, always thinking about next year and of what the products they reviewed meant in the context of the ongoing PC revolution as a whole. Just to take one example: in response to the arrival of the first prototype laser-disc players in 1976, the magazine laid out a manifesto for what would come to be known as multimedia computing well over ten years later.

David H. Ahl

David H. Ahl

Creative Computing also published books, the best selling, most important, and most beloved of which was titled simply BASIC Computer Games, a compendium of type-in listings featuring games that had been making the rounds of The People’s Computer Company and the pages of Creative Computing itself for years. BASIC Computer Games sold a staggering one-million copies in English and in translations to French and German, years before any pre-packaged computer game would come close to such a feat. Many a young hacker pecked out its listings and then started to experiment by changing a variable here or a statement there, learning in the process the wonderful quality that separates computers from game consoles and just about every other form of electronic entertainment: that you can use the same device you play games on to also make games, or just about anything else you want. Creative computing indeed. The voice of Ahl, every bit as much a pioneer as a Steve Wozniak or Steve Jobs, would be sorely missed in the years to come. Ironically, his magazine’s end came just as machines like the Macintosh and Amiga were arriving to begin to bring to fruition some of his more expansive predictions of earlier years. (One of Creative Computing‘s last issues featured a gushing review of the Amiga which called it nothing less than “a new medium of expression.”) It’s a sign of the immense respect with which Ahl and his magazine were still viewed in the industry that several competing magazines took the time to remark the loss of Creative Computing and offer a warm eulogy — an act of graciousness unusual indeed in the increasingly cutthroat world of computer publishing. As Info magazine noted, “There could be no better history of personal computing than a complete collection of Creatives.”

In 1985 the pain spread in earnest to the software industry. Many pioneering companies, including some we’ve met in earlier articles on this blog, collapsed during the year. Any company that hadn’t shed its old crufty hacker’s skin and learned to start behaving like professionals was doomed, as were many who had listened a bit too much to the professionals and pundits and over-expanded and over-borrowed in the expectation of the perpetually-exploding industry that had been promised them. Also doomed was anyone whose creations just weren’t good enough; those users who had chosen to stick with this computer thing were far savvier and more demanding than the neophytes of earlier years. Muse Software of Castle Wolfenstein fame was amongst the victims, as was our more recent acquaintance Synapse Software, who were shuttered by Brøderbund barely a year after they acquired them. The Carlstons may have been nice folks, but their company didn’t survive by throwing good money after bad, and neither of Synapse’s principal assets — their expertise with the fading Atari 8-bit line and their Electronic Novel line — were worth much of anything in the evolving industry order.

Indeed, adventure-game makers were if anything hit even harder than the rest of the industry. By mid-1985 it was becoming clear that bookware had been a blind alley; virtually nothing in the category, excepting only Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, did much of anything commercially. Companies like Spinnaker (owner of the Telarium and Windham Classics brands) and Brøderbund now began to divest themselves of their bookware assets almost as eagerly as they had acquired them. So much for the dream of a new interactive literature. Other expectations were also dramatically tempered. Trip Hawkins, for instance, was finally forced to give up on his dream of game designers as the rock stars of the 1980s and a shelf of games joining a shelf of records inside every hip living room. Electronic Arts now retrenched and refocused on becoming a big, highly respected fish in the relatively tiny pond of hardcore gaming (the only kind of gaming there was in this window between the Atari VCS’s collapse and the arrival of Nintendo). Yes, computer games were just computer games again.

Almost unremarked amidst all of the bankruptcies and retractions and cancellations was the collapse of Scott Adams’s Adventure International, one of the oldest of all the companies we’ve met on this site. Whether due to stubbornness or lack of funds or failure of vision or simple loyalty to what had brung’em, Adams had refused for years to upgrade his core technology, continuing to sell the same little 16 K, two-word-parser games he had started writing back in 1978. Their revamp into the SAGA line added crude graphics to the equation, but little else. Thus Infocom had long since stolen Adams’s crown as the king of adventure-gaming, not so much by besting him as by Adams not even trying to compete. Adams instead fed — and, for a time, quite well — on the ultra-low-end market, those machines like the Commodore VIC-20 and Texas Instruments 99/4A that weren’t a whole lot more capable than the original TRS-80 on which he’d first written Adventureland. These machines, unfortunately, were exactly the ones which found their way into closets and attics with the most frequency after the home-computer boom passed its heyday. Therein lay the root of AI’s troubles.

By 1984 much or most of Adventure International’s revenue was coming from Britain, thus belatedly justifying the company’s name, chosen in a fit of optimism when Adams and his wife were still making packaging out of baby-bottle liners and struggling to grasp the vagaries of wholesale pricing; expansion across an ocean must have seemed far-fetched indeed at that time. With their more modest cassette-based computers, their absolute mania for adventures, and their accompanying willingness to forgive faults and limitations Americans no longer were, Britons offered Adams a more hospitable market all around. An independent quasi-subsidiary, Adventure International UK, offered not just the classic dozen original Scott Adams games and the OtherVentures titles, but also many more games written in Britain by British authors like the prolific Brian Howarth using Adams’s engine. Adams himself was a celebrity amongst British adventurers. Everyone knew him for his crazy Afro that made him easy to spot across a crowded trade-show floor, and the magazines jostled for quotes and interviews and the fans for autographs whenever he made one of his occasional trips across the pond.

Scott Adams hams it up for the British press

Scott Adams hams it up for the British press

In late 1983 or early 1984 a tremendous opportunity to improve Adventure International’s standing on both continents virtually fell into Adams’s lap. Joe Calamari, an executive vice president with Marvel Comics, called Adams out of the blue to propose that Marvel and AI collaborate on a line of games and accompanying comic books starring the Marvel superheroes. While it would take many years for Marvel to catch up to their perpetual arch-rivals DC Comics in bringing their brand to the masses via the multiplexes, Marvel at this time was making a modest but in its way innovative push into trans-media storytelling via deals like this one and the one they inked around the same time with TSR of Dungeons and Dragons fame to do a Marvel tabletop RPG. Their choice of Adventure International for the computer-game license could be read as surprising; AI was hardly at the cutting edge of the game industry, and given the huge demographic overlap between gamers and comics readers the Marvel license would certainly have been appealing to other, slicker publishers. Perhaps AI’s support for the cheap low-end machines, not to mention their games’ typical price of $12 or so as opposed to $30 or more, led Marvel to consider them a better fit for their generally younger readers. (As with science fiction, the golden age for superheroes is about twelve.) As possible evidence of exactly this thought process, consider that Commodore, who may have suggested AI to Marvel and apparently did play some sort of intermediary role in the negotiations, had been doing very well with cartridge versions of the first five Scott Adams adventures on the VIC-20 throughout the peak years of the home-computer boom.

It’s hard not to compare this early, crude experiment in trans-media storytelling with the Marvel of today, whose characters feature in cinematic extravaganzas costing hundreds of millions to produce. We’ve certainly come a long way. (Whether it’s a change for the better is of course in the eye of the beholder.) It’s also yet another sign of just how huge text adventures were for a few years there that Marvel chose this format for the games at all. The cerebral pleasures of text and puzzles hardly feel like an obvious fit for the “Wham! Bam! Pow!” action of a superhero comic — not that this marks the strangest mismatch between form and content of the bookware era.

Marvel's Hulk QuestProbe issue

Adams signed a deal to make a dozen games with Marvel, one that gave him a crazy amount of creative freedom. He gave the series its truly awful name, the uncomfortably medicinal-sounding QuestProbe. (It’s choices like this that distinguish companies like AI, who couldn’t afford PR firms and image advisers or just couldn’t be bothered, from companies like Infocom who could. As for Marvel, who knows what they were thinking…) He also got a pleasure that would turn any superhero-loving kid — and more than a few superhero-loving adults — a Hulk-like green with envy: he outlined a story to accompany each game, then gave it to Marvel to be turned into a full-blown comic book to be sold as part of a “Scott Adams/Marvel Comics Limited Series.”

The Human Torch and The Thing

The Human Torch and The Thing

Alas, the Marvel deal, AI’s last, best chance to live and possibly even prosper, turned into an opportunity squandered. The QuestProbe games are painfully, shamefully bad by just about every criterion. The graphics are crude and ugly, the prose strangled, the situations all but incomprehensible (especially if you aren’t lucky enough to have the accompanying comic to hand), and the puzzles a hopeless mix of the inane and the inscrutable. They are, in other words, pretty much like all the other Scott Adams games after the first half-dozen or so, and that just wasn’t good enough anymore, even for the patience of twelve-year-olds. After the first game, which featured the Hulk, was roundly panned even by the forgiving gaming press (the making of a game bad enough to achieve that was something of a feat in itself), Adams did begin to include some modest innovations: the next game, featuring Spider-Man, debuted at last a parser capable of understanding more than two words (not that it was otherwise up to much); and the third and as it turned out final game, featuring the Human Torch and the Thing, had you controlling both characters, able to switch between them at will — an interesting idea badly executed. By the time that third game trickled out in mid-1985, AI was already collapsing.

Adams today notes the immediate cause of AI’s failure, no doubt accurately, as a rash of returned product from distributors who had over-ordered in anticipation of a big Christmas rush that never materialized. AI, which had never attracted the injections of venture capital and the accompanying professional financial oversight of fellow pioneers like Sierra, found themselves unable to pay back their distributors. With no one willing to extend them credit given conditions in the industry as a whole, there was no viable recourse but bankruptcy. Yet the deeper cause was Adams’s inability or unwillingness to change his games with the times. He’s stated many times in interviews that he virtually never looked at any of the games produced by his rivals; for instance, he never played an Infocom game after Zork. His logic was that he didn’t want to have his designs “polluted” by ideas and puzzles of others. This is, at best, an odd stance to take; try to imagine a novelist who refuses to read books, or a musician who doesn’t listen to music. It perhaps does much to explain the time-warp quality of the QuestProbe games. It’s strange that the man who had the vision and the technical chops to get viable adventures working on 16 K microcomputers in the first place should prove so unable to further iterate on that first masterful leap, but there you have it. Adams went on with his professional life as a programmer outside of the games industry, and Adventure International passed quietly into history.

Nigel Bamford, Michael Woodroffe, and Patricia Woodroffe of Adventure International UK

Nigel Bamford, Michael Woodroffe, and Patricia Woodroffe of Adventure International UK

One part of the brief-lived AI empire did survive. Mike Woodroffe, head of the still-viable Adventure International UK, disentangled that organization from its erstwhile namesake and renamed it Adventure Soft. The company would go on to a long if only sporadically active life as a developer of graphic adventures, whose biggest games became the Simon the Sorcerer series, The Feeble Files, and two Elvira-themed pseudo-CRPGs. Adventure Soft continues as an at least nominally going concern today, although their website is little more than a storefront for sometimes decades-old titles.

All told, then, 1985 was a brutal year in American software and particularly games software, one that weeded out the weak sisters like Adventure International, Muse, Synapse, and countless others without remorse — not to mention the casualties in publishing and hardware and still other, ancillary areas. Old timers who had grown up as hackers with many of the year’s casualties can be forgiven for seeing it in terms as apocalyptic as did the more hyperbole-prone members of the media. David Ahl, from his final Creative Computing editorial:

The personal-computing industry is largely composed of adolescent companies and inexperienced managers being forced to grow up much too fast by market forces that they themselves created. The big guys are sailing in with battleships, and the friendly competition of a few years ago has become all-out war with no holds barred. The media smells blood and death, which makes for interesting reading (and sales). Their alarmist disaster stories have simply exacerbated the situation.

Still, if we’re seeking silver linings they aren’t that hard to come by. Just to take the obvious: another look at the chart above will show that, if the home-computer user base wasn’t growing much, it also — that one brief blip in 1984 aside — wasn’t shrinking either. There was still a very viable, even vibrant market there. It was just a market that had reached an equilibrium far, far sooner than anyone had anticipated. The pain of 1985 was the pain of adjusting expectations to match that reality — the reality that numbers of computers in homes wouldn’t increase in big jumps again until the arrival of the Internet and cheap multimedia PCs in the early 1990s gave everyone a good reason to own one. The generation of microcomputers sandwiched between those and the old 8-bits — the Apple Macintosh, the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga, the Tandy 1000 and a rash of other ever cheaper and more capable MS-DOS-based machines — would seldom be sold to complete neophytes. They would rather go to people looking to upgrade their old Apple IIs, Commodore 64s, Atari 800s, and TRS-80s. A tempering of expectations, especially for hardware makers, would be necessary. Not everyone would upgrade, after all, meaning home-computer sales wouldn’t come close to their 1983 peak for many years to come. As David Thornburg noted in a perceptive article for Compute! magazine, computers were and would for years remain a hobby, not an everyday home appliance.

If you go to someone’s house and see a computer sitting in the den, I’ll bet you say, “Hey, I see you’re into computers. How about that!”

Have you ever gone into someone’s house and said, “Hey! I see you’re into refrigerators. Wow! Automatic ice-cube maker too! I was going to get one of those myself — thought I’d get a 16-cube model, but then I heard that the 32-cubers were going to come out soon.”

If the home computer was an appliance, we would talk about it like one.

David Ahl offered another comparison to explain why the home computer hadn’t yet achieved appliance status and wasn’t likely to for some time to come.

People who don’t have computers are looking for user friendliness of a sort that just isn’t available today. You can rent a car virtually anywhere in the world and in a minute or two be familiar enough with the vehicle and local traffic laws to drive off with a reasonable degree of confidence. When it is that easy to use a computer, then manufacturers can legitimately speak of user friendliness. We are a long way from that point today.

When a reeling software industry proved unable to fill the space allocated for it at the 1985 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, a big chunk was instead given over to pornographic videos, an industry that was thriving on the back of booming VCR sales in exactly the way the software industry wasn’t on lukewarm home-computer sales. Game consoles and home computers may come and go, but some interests are eternal.

If you were a committed gamer in for the long haul, however, the outcome of all this chaos was arguably at least as positive as it was negative. With computer owners an ever savvier and more experienced lot unwilling to suffer bad or even mediocre games anymore, with publishers all competing frantically for a big enough slice of a fixed pie to keep them alive, games in general just kept getting better at a prodigious rate. By 1986 developers would be taking the Commodore 64 in particular to places that would have been simply unimaginable when the machine debuted back in 1982. And as for the next-generation machines… well, even more splendid work was in the offing there. Everything was improving: not just graphics and sound but also the craft of design.

But before we can revel too much in the positives we have more pain to address. Next time we’ll look at Infocom’s disastrous 1985, the year that came within a whisker of cutting off the most beloved canon in interactive fiction at the halfway mark.

(My huge thanks to C. David Seuss, former CEO of Spinnaker Software, who answered my questions about this era, pointed me to a useful Harvard Business School Case Study, and provided the charts shown above and other documents. The usual thanks also to Jason Scott, whose interview with Scott Adams for Get Lamp was also invaluable. Useful magazine sources this time included: Compute! of March 1985, June 1985, and January 1986; Your Computer of November 1985; Creative Computing of December 1985; Computer Gaming World of January 1985; Computer and Video Games of May 1986; Info of December 1985/January 1986. Finally, if you don’t believe me that the QuestProbe games are really, really bad, feel free to download them in their Commodore 64 incarnations and see for yourself.)

 
 

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Elite (or, The Universe on 32 K Per Day)

BBC Micro Elite

Sometimes great works go unappreciated during their time. Other times their time knows exactly what they’re on about. The latter was the good fortune of Elite, Ian Bell and David Braben’s epic game of space combat, trading, and exploration. Arriving at a confused and confusing time in the British games industry, Elite caused a rush of excitement the likes of which had never been seen before even in an industry that seemed to live and die on hype, becoming a bestseller several times over despite being initially released on a platform, the BBC Micro, that was not generally considered much of a gaming machine. Bell and Braben became recognizable stars, their names tripping off the tongues of a generation of British gamers the way that those of Lennon and McCartney had their parents’. It was about as close as the industry would ever get to Trip Hawkins’s dream of game designers as the rock stars of the 1980s. As for the game they created… well, that’s gone down into history as just possibly the most remembered and respected single computer game of the 1980s. But we’re beginning with the ending, which isn’t our usual way around here. Let’s go back to the beginning and see how it all began.

Bell and Braben first met one another during the autumn of 1982, when both arrived at Cambridge University as first-year undergraduates. Bell was to read math, Braben physics. More importantly, both were avid hackers. Bell brought a BBC Micro to university with him, Braben an example of that machine’s predecessor, the Atom, which he had expanded and soldered on and generally hacked at enough to make Dr. Frankenstein proud. Bell had real professional programming experience, at least of a sort: he’d gotten his version of Reversi published by a tiny company called Program Power, and would soon see an original action game, Freefall, published by Acornsoft, software arm of the company that made the computers on his and Braben’s desks. Braben had just passion and aptitude. The two bonded quickly.

Not that they became precisely bosom buddies. As their later story would demonstrate to anyone’s satisfaction, they were very different personalities. If I may strain an analogy just one more time, Bell was the John Lennon of the pair, pessimistic, introverted, and perhaps just a little bit tortured, while Braben was the Paul McCartney, an optimistic charmer with one eye on the market to go with one eye on his art. If not for their passion for Acorn computers, they would have likely had little to say to one another. Both, however, had programming talent to burn, along with a less obvious but at least as important instinct for visionary game design.

But then in the era of Elite even more so than today technological innovation and design innovation were often inextricably linked, with the latter most often flowing from the former. Thus the design that would become Elite stemmed directly from a routine Braben wrote in June of 1983 which could draw four different static 3D spaceships using wire-frame graphics. To understand what made those spaceships so different, and so fraught with potential, we should look to the state of game graphics in general circa 1983.

Defender Pac-Man

Almost all action games of 1983 or earlier show their world from either directly overhead or sideways (like Defender) or some odd hybrid of the two that doesn’t quite make sense in the real world (like Pac-Man). They employ a third-person perspective; you see and control an onscreen avatar from a distance, rather than viewing the world through his eyes. He, his enemies, and perhaps some other elements like laser fire move over a relatively static background image. This approach makes life much easier for programmers in at least a couple of ways. Updating big chunks of screen is very expensive in terms of the computing power available to early PCs and stand-up arcade games. Therefore many of them implemented hardware sprites, little movable chunks of graphics that exist separately from the rest of the screen inside the computer, to be overlaid onto it by the video hardware at no cost to the CPU only on the physical monitor screen. A game like Defender or Pac-Man is an ideal fit for such technology; I trust it won’t be difficult to figure out which parts of the screens above are implemented as sprites and which as background graphics. (In the early days all of the work could be left to sprites: a few early games, such as Boot Hill, consist of only sprites which are sometimes projected over a painted background image.)

There’s also another, more subtle advantage to the traditional arcade-game perspective. If you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that the worlds shown on the screens above don’t correspond to any recognizable version of our reality even postulating that it could contain invading aliens or munching heads being pursued through a maze of food pellets by ghosts. These worlds are strictly 2D; they lack any notion of depth. Pac-Man and his friends are living in a computerized version of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland; if we were to see this world through his perspective, it would be a very strange one indeed. Similarly, your spaceship in Defender can go up and down and left and right, but not in and out. This is very convenient for the programmer because the computer screen also happens to be flat, possessed of an X- and a Y-dimension but no Z-dimension. Thus the coordinates of any object in this flat world being simulated correspond nicely to its coordinates on the physical screen.

But what if you aren’t satisfied with a Flatland-esque world shown from a locked vertical or horizontal perspective? What if you want to immerse your player in your world good and proper, and to make it one that corresponds to our own of three dimensions while you’re at it? Well, now your job just got a whole lot more difficult. As it happened, however, that was exactly what Bell and Braben were soon trying to do. The crux of the problem, the crux of a huge body of 3D graphics theory as well as lots and lots of specialized hardware that is probably a part of the computer you’re using to read this and for which if you’re a hardcore gamer you may have paid hundreds of dollars, is disarmingly simple: how to translate the X, Y, and Z of a world that lives inside the computer to the X and Y of the computer screen. The starting point must be the rules of visual perspective, well understood by artists since at least the Renaissance. But that well-trodden path opens into a thicket of complications when applied to the computer. Lacking as it does an artist’s intuitive understanding of the real world, a computer has to be laboriously instructed on how not to draw objects that are behind other objects on top of them, how to figure out which surfaces of an object are visible and which are not, etc. Just to make the challenges even greater, sprites aren’t of any real use for 3D graphics: the entire screen is necessarily changing all the time when moving a first-person perspective through a 3D world.

Bell and Braben were hardly the first to enter into this territory. Indeed, the field of 3D graphics isn’t all that much younger than the field of computer graphics itself. Academic researchers during the 1960s and especially the 1970s laid down much of the work that still grounds the field today. One minor contributor to this growing body of work was a graphics researcher and aviation enthusiast named Bruce Artwick, who finished a Master’s degree at the University of Illinois (home of PLATO) in 1976. For his thesis project, he combined his two interests. “A Versatile Computer-Generated Dynamic Flight Display” described a flight simulator featuring a first-person, out-the-cockpit view of a 3D world. In 1980, Artwick with his new company SubLogic brought to market the aptly titled Flight Simulator for the Apple II and TRS-80. Running in as little as 16 K of memory, it marked microcomputer gamers’ first encounter with the format that now dominates the industry: interactive, animated 3D graphics. The Flight Simulator line, whether sold under the imprint of SubLogic or Microsoft, went on to become a computing institution spanning some three decades.

SubLogic Flight Simulator on the Apple II (1980)

Groundbreaking as they were, however, the early versions of Flight Simulator were also, as their name would imply, much more simulator than game. They provided no story, no goals, no sense of progression — just an empty world to fly through. Yes, they did include a mode called “British Ace 30 Aerial Battle,” which transformed your little Cessna into a World War I biplane and let you fly around trying to shoot other planes out of the sky, but, well, let’s just say that it was always clear when playing it that Artwick’s real priorities lay elsewhere. Mostly you were expected to make your own fun refining your piloting technique and, of course, marveling that this 3D world could exist at all on a 16 K 8-bit microcomputer.

Battlezone

A more traditionally gamelike application of 3D came to arcades that same year in the form of Atari’s Battlezone. In it you control a tank in battle against other tanks. You view the action from a first-person perspective, through a screen made to resemble the periscope of a real tank. Battlezone eventually made it to home computers and consoles as well, albeit not until 1983. While their awareness of Flight Simulator is questionable (it was an American product made for American platforms in a very bifurcated computing world), Bell and Braben were aware of and had played Battlezone in the arcades. It was the impetus for Braben’s rotating 3D spaceships and for the combat game Bell and Braben would soon be designing around them.

They were determined to bring 3D to a 2 MHz 8-bit computer with 32 K of memory, and to do it in the context of a real game with real things to do. At least they didn’t have to bemoan the uselessness of sprites to this new paradigm: having been created with educational and “practical” uses in mind rather than gaming, the BBC Micro didn’t have any anyway. Programming, like politics, being the art of the possible, compromises would be needed if they were to have a prayer. Braben had already made the wise choice to set his 3D demo in space. Space is full of, well, space. It’s almost entirely empty, thus dramatically reducing the amount of stuff their game would have to draw. One other obvious decision was to perform only the first part of the full two-part rendering process, drawing in the outlines of objects in their 3D world but not going back and filling in their surfaces, an even more complicated and expensive process. (As the screens above illustrate, Artwick and Atari had already made the same compromise in their own initial implementations of 3D.)

BBC Micro Elite. Note that the rendering is far from perfect, with lots of line breakage. Luckily, this isn't so obvious when the ships are in motion.

BBC Micro Elite. Note that the rendering is far from perfect, with lots of line breakage. Luckily, this isn’t so obvious when the ships are in motion.

Thus Braben made his first spaceships as simple as possible, with just enough lines and points to make of each a recognizable shape. This turned out to be wise for another reason: complex designs shown in wireframe tend to turn into a confusing mishmash of lines. To simplify rendering, all objects were also made convex, meaning that any given line will only pass in and out of the object once; as Braben himself put it in a talk at a recent Game Designers Conference, a block of cheddar cheese is convex but a block of Swiss is not. Later in the game’s development, when Bell and Braben has managed to considerably accelerate the original rendering code, more complex ships, like Bell’s Transporter, were added.

Another area of concern must be your control of your own spaceship, the one through whose cockpit you would be viewing this 3D universe. A spaceship, like an airplane, can change its orientation in six ways, being able to yaw, pitch, or roll in either direction. Yet a joystick can be moved in only four cardinal directions — perfect for a 2D world but problematic for their 3D world. Bell and Braben soon realized, however, that being in space saved them. With no ground, and thus no real notion of up and down with which to contend, turns could be accomplished by simply rolling to the desired orientation and pitching up or down; no need for a yaw control at all. While they took full advantage of the good parts of being in space, they also wisely decided not to try to make the game a remotely realistic simulation of spaceflight. Like Star Wars, their game would be one of dogfights in space, with ships inexplicably subject to a law of inertia that should have been left planetside. Anything else would just feel too disorienting, they judged. Most people would prefer to be Luke Skywalker rather than David Bowman anyway.

So, yes, this would be a game of space combat. That was always a given. But what should it be beyond that? How should that combat be structured, framed? With a workable 3D engine running at last after some months of concerted effort, it was time to ask these questions seriously. One alternative would be to make a traditional arcade-style game, complete with three lives, a score, and ever-escalating waves of enemy ships to gun down. To make, in other words, Battlezone with spaceships. Certainly what they already had was more than impressive enough to sell lots of copies.

Instead, Bell and Braben made their next visionary decision, to make their game something much more than just an arcade-style shooter. They would embed the shooting within a long-form experience that would give it a context, a purpose beyond high-score bragging rights. This was not, as effervescent popular histories of Elite‘s birth have often implied, completely unprecedented. Long-form experiences were not hard to find in computer games years before Bell and Braben — in adventures, in CRPGs, in strategy and war games. It was, however, rather more unusual to see this approach combined with action elements. Taken on their own, the action elements of Bell and Braben’s game were groundbreaking enough to go down as an important moment in gaming history. By refusing to stop there, they would ensure that their game would break ground in multiple directions, and go down as not just important but one of the most important ever.

The inspiration came from tabletop RPGs, a pastime both Bell and Braben indulged in from time to time, although, perhaps tellingly, usually not together. They liked the way an RPG campaign could span many, many sessions, could turn into an ongoing long-form narrative. And they liked the process of building up a character from a low-level nothing to a veritable god over weeks, months, or years. Of course, your “character” in their game was really your spaceship. Fair enough; your goal would be to upgrade that with ever better weapons and defenses that not coincidentally bore a strong resemblance to those in Bell’s favorite RPG: Traveller, the first popular tabletop RPG to replace swords and sorcery with rockets and rayguns. From here the rest of the design seemed to unspool almost of its own accord.

BBC Micro Elite BBC Micro Elite

They needed a mechanism for upgrading the ship, something more interesting than just adding the next piece to the ship automatically every time a certain score threshold was reached. The natural choice was money; every option would have a cost, letting players prioritize and truly make their spaceships their own.

Okay, but how to earn money? Drawing again from Traveller (a game whose imprint would be all over the finished Elite not just in mechanics but in its overall feel), you could be a trader plying the spaceways, buying low in one system in the hopes of selling high in another — a whole new strategic dimension.

But then how would that involve combat? Well, the ships attacking you could be pirates. This would also go a long way to explain why they were so chaotic and kind of random in their behavior, an inevitable result of limited memory and horsepower to devote to their artificial intelligence. Pirates, after all, were chaotic and kind of random by their very nature.

But actually landing on all those trading planets obviously wasn’t going to be workable; avoiding those complications was the reason for setting the game in space in the first place. No problem; you could just dock at space stations in orbit around them. Bell and Braben came up with a new challenge to make this more interesting: in a bit inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, you would have to carefully guide your spaceship into the rotating station’s docking bay at the end of every voyage. Of course, over time this could get tedious as well as frustrating (a botched approach generally means instant death). No problem; for a mere 1000 credits, you could buy a docking computer to do it for you. Other non-combat-oriented ship upgrades were also added to the catalog, like a fuel scoop to gather fuel by skimming the surface of a sun instead of buying it at a station.

If those spaceships attacking you really were pirates, thought Bell and Braben, the authorities would probably be quite pleased with you for shooting them down. Why not put bounties on them, so you could make your living as a bounty hunter if you got bored with trading? Now the possibilities really started rolling. If you could shoot pirates for money, you could also attack peaceful traders — become a pirate yourself, in other words, if you felt you could outduel the police Vipers that would attack you from time to time once your reputation became known. They came up with an alternative use for the fuel scoop: use it to scoop up the cargo of ships you’d destroyed to sell on the stations. The fuel scoop also became key to yet another way of making money: buy a special mining laser, break up asteroids with it, and scoop up the alloys they contained to sell stationside. If only they’d had more than 32 K of memory, they could have gone on like this forever.

But 32 K was all they had, and that was a constant challenge to their growing ambitions. For this grand game of trading to work, there had to be a big, varied galaxy to explore. There should be planets with a variety of economies and governments, from safe, established democracies for the conservative, peaceful trader to visit to anarchies home to hordes of pirates for the brave or foolhardy looking to make a big score. They came up with a scheme to let them pack all of the vital information about a star system with a single inhabited planet — its location, its economy, its type of government, its technology level, its population, its dominant species, its GDP, its size, even its name and a bit of flavor text — into just six bytes. Even so, a modest galaxy of 100 star systems would still require 600 bytes that they just couldn’t seem to find. Now came their most storied stroke of inspiration.

In 1202 an Italian mathematician named Fibonacci described a simple construct that became known as the Fibonacci sequence. In its classic form, you begin with two numbers, either 1 and 1 or 0 and 1. To get the third number in the sequence, you add the first two together. You then add the second and third number together to get the fourth. Etc., etc. A common and very useful variation is to drop all but the least significant digit of each number that is generated. It’s also common to begin the sequence not with 1 and 1 or 0 and 1 but some other, arbitrary pair. So, a sequence that begins with 2 and 7 would look like this:

2 7 9 6 5 1 6 7 3 0 3 3 6 9 5 4 9 3 …

The sequence appears random, but is actually entirely predictable for any given starting pair. This variation, however, is only a starting point. You can apply any rules you care to specify to a sequence of numbers with entirely predictable results, as long as you are consistent about it. Bell and Braben realized that they could seed their galaxy with any sequence they wished of six hexadecimal numbers to represent the starting system. Then they could manipulate those numbers in a predetermined way to generate the next; manipulate those to generate the next; etc. They decided that 256 systems was a good size for their galaxy. They needed just those initial six bytes to “store” all 256 planets. In addition to the memory savings, this method of generating their galaxy also saved Bell and Braben many hours spent designing it from scratch. Indeed, growing new galaxies from different starting seeds soon became a game of its own for them. They went through many iterations before finding the one that made it into the final game. Some they had to throw out right away for obvious reasons, such as the one with a system called “Arse” and the ones that had unreachable systems, outside of the player’s ship’s seven-light-year range from any other stars. Others just didn’t feel right.

After a few months of steady work, the basics of what would become Elite were all in place in their heads if not entirely in their code. They decided it was time to see if anyone would be interested in publishing it. Braben believed they should try to find the biggest publisher possible, one with the reach to properly support and promote this game like no other. He accordingly secured them an appointment at the London offices of Thorn EMI, the recently instantiated software division of one of the largest media conglomerates in the world. Very much a sign of this heady period in British computing, Thorn EMI had been founded in the expectation that computer games were destined to be the next big thing in media. Like their colleagues over in EMI’s music division looking for the next big hit single, they weren’t looking for deathless art or niche audiences; they were looking for big, mainstream hits. They had developed a checklist of sorts, a list of what they thought would appeal to the general public that wasn’t all that far removed from Trip Hawkins’s guidelines for American “consumer software.” Their games should be simple, intuitive, colorful, and not too demanding. Bell and Braben’s complicated game — while it was a technical wonder; anyone could see that — was none of these things. They said it was nothing for them, although Bell and Braben were welcome to come back any time to show a reworked — i.e., simplified — version. (In the end, Thorn EMI would find that technology wasn’t ready for casual consumer software, and wouldn’t be for years. The hardcore was all they had to sell to. Unwilling or unable to adapt to this reality as Hawkins’s Electronic Arts eventually did, they faded away quietly without ever managing to find the breakout mainstream hit they sought.)

Bell suggested they try Acornsoft, who had already published his game Freefall. In many ways Acornsoft should have been the logical choice from the start. Bell already had connections there, they knew the BBC Micro better than anyone, and they were located right there in Cambridge practically next door to the university proper, an institution with which they had deep and abiding links. (Regular readers will remember that it was Acornsoft and Cambridge oceanography professor Peter Killworth who provided a commercial outlet for the adventure games created on Cambridge’s Phoenix mainframe.) Yet Braben was reluctant. Always the more commercially minded of the pair, he knew that Acornsoft was hardly at the forefront of the British games industry. Their modest lineup of adventure games, educational software, and utilities had some very worthy members, yet the operation as a whole, like most software adjuncts to hardware companies, always felt like a bit of an afterthought. With their limited advertising and doughtily minimalist packaging, no Acornsoft title had ever sold more than a few tens of thousands of copies, and most never cracked 5000 — a far cry from the numbers Braben fondly imagined for their game. Acornsoft’s association with Acorn also concerned him in that it would necessarily limit the game to only Acorn computers. He and Bell weren’t hugely fond of the Commodore 64 or especially the Sinclair Spectrum, but he knew that their game would have to be ported to those more prominent gaming platforms at some point if it was to realize its commercial potential. In short, Acornsoft was… provincial.

Still, he agreed to accompany Bell to Acornsoft’s offices. It was, to say the least, a place very different from Thorn EMI’s posh digs in central London. From Francis Spufford’s Backroom Boys:

[Acornsoft] operated from one room of a warren of offices above the marketplace. You got there by sidling around the dustbins next to the Eastern Electricity showroom. Past the window display of cookers and fridge-freezers, up a steep little staircase, and into a cramped maze that would remind one employee, looking back, of a level from Doom. “Very back bedroom,” remembered David Braben, approvingly. In Acornsoft’s office they found a rat’s nest of desks and cables, and four people not much older than themselves.

Two of those four people, managing director David Johnson-Davies and chief editor Chris Jordan, would become the unsung heroes of Elite. Both got the game immediately, grasping not just its technical wizardry but also Bell and Braben’s larger vision for the whole experience. They both realized that this thing had the potential to be huge, bigger by an order of magnitude than anything Acornsoft had done before. Of course, it also represented a risk. Bell and Braben looked and acted like the couple of headstrong kids they still were. What if they flaked out? Nor was Acornsoft accustomed to issuing contracts and advances on unfinished software. Acornsoft had been conceived as an outlet for moonlighters and hobbyists, who sold them their homegrown software only once it was finished. Their normal policy was to not even look at programs that weren’t done; Bell and Braben were there at all only as a favor to Bell, a fellow with whom Acornsoft had a history and whom they liked personally. Still, Acorn as a whole was doing well; there was enough money to try something new, and this was too big a chance to pass up. They offered Bell and Braben a contract and an advance.

Now Braben made a move that would be as critical to Elite‘s success as anything in the game itself. Still concerned about Acornsoft’s provinciality, he negotiated a non-exclusive license which would allow them to develop and market versions for other machines after the versions for the Acorn machines were finished. Not quite sure what he was on about, Johnson-Davies agreed. With his share of the advance, Braben bought his own BBC Micro, retiring his hacked and abused old Atom at last.

As Bell and Braben worked to finish their game, Acornsoft provided essential playtesting while Johnson-Davies and Jordan served as an invaluable source of guidance and a certain adult wisdom. Sometimes the latter was needed to keep their ambitions in check, as when Bell and Braben burst into the Acornsoft office one day having had an epiphany. They had realized that, if all they needed to grow a galaxy was a starting seed of six numbers, they could have an infinite number of them — well, okay, about 282 trillion of them — in the game. They could let the player buy a “galactic hyperdrive” to jump between them, whereupon they would just generate a new random seed and let it rip. Johnson-Davis now showed a sharp design instinct of his own in walking them back a bit. Having more galaxies sounds like a great idea, he said, but having so many will actually spoil the illusion of a real persistent universe you’ve worked so hard to create. It will all just start to feel like what it really is: random. Nor will many of these new galaxies be pleasing places to explore, since you won’t be able to look at them and reject the ones with unreachable systems and the like. Bell and Braben agreed to settle for just eight galaxies, with a total of 2048 star systems to visit. That should be more than enough for anyone. Perhaps too many for Bell and Braben and Acornsoft’s testers: a planet Arse sneaked into one of these later galaxies and made it into the released version of the game.

Even as they gently squashed some of Bell and Braben’s more outlandish ideas, Johnson-Davies and Jordan still felt like something was missing. For all its technical and formal innovations, for all its scope of possibility, the game lacked any sort of real goal. Now, to some extent that was just the nature of the beast Bell and Braben had created. They would have dearly loved to have a real story to give context, had even planned on it at some stage (Braben says that “trading was originally going to be a very minor aspect”), but they now had to accept the fact that they weren’t going to be able to wedge some elaborate plot along with everything else into 32 K. Still, suggested Johnson-Davies and Jordan, maybe they could add something simple, something to mark progress and give bragging rights. Thus was born the system of ranks, based on the number of kills you’ve achieved. You start Harmless. After notching eight kills you become Mostly Harmless (a nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Each rank thereafter is exponentially more difficult to achieve, until, after some 6400 kills, you become Elite. There was the goal, one that should keep players playing a good long time.

It was also in a backhanded sort of way a political statement. Cambridge University was awash with indignation over the policies of Margaret Thatcher; a major coal-miner’s strike which would become the battlefield for Thatcher’s final vanquishing of organized labor had the university’s liberal-arts wings all in a tumult from March of 1984. Bell and Braben bucked the university conventional wisdom to side with Thatcher. The player’s goal of becoming Elite was meant as a subtle nod toward the libertarian ideal of the self-made man, and a little poke in the eye of their leftist acquaintances. It also emphasized their view of their game as fundamentally about space combat, not trading. It gave players a compelling motivation to engage with what Bell and Braben still regarded as the most compelling part of the experience. You can make a lot of money as a peaceful, law-abiding trader who prudently runs from pirates when they show up, but you’ll never make Elite that way.

In finding an overarching goal they also found the title they’d been searching for for some time. They first planned to call the game The Elite, a name to celebrate the group that much of Cambridge was railing against. But the filenames used for the game just said “Elite.” In time, they dropped the article from the official title as well. Elite it became — shorter, punchier, and with fewer political ramifications for Acornsoft to deal with.

Similarly subtle swipes at Cambridge’s liberal-arts students, whom in the long tradition of hard-science students Bell and Braben regarded as mushy-minded prima donnas, made it into the text tables that Bell developed to describe the planets in the game. After the Fibonacci sequence had done its work, some were populated by “edible poets”; others by “carnivorous arts graduates.” Ah, youth.

Bell and Braben had disk drives on their BBC Micros. After compressing their code as much as they possibly could, they finally began to make use of their capabilities within the game. They split the game into two parts: the trading program, loaded in when you docked at a station, and the program handling travel and combat, loaded as soon as you left one. This concerned Acornsoft greatly because most BBC Micro owners still had only cassette drives, which didn’t allow such loading on the fly. What good was the game of the decade if most people couldn’t play it? So they convinced the two to fork the game three ways. One version, the definitive one with all the goodies, would indeed require a BBC Micro with a disk drive. Another, for a tape-equipped BBC Micro, would be similar but would offer a smaller variety of ships to encounter along with simplified trading and a bit less detail to planets you visited and to the overall experience. Finally, Acorn convinced them to create a third version, stripped down even more, for the BBC Micro’s little brother, the Acorn Electron, an attempt to compete with the cheap Sinclair Spectrum that Acorn had introduced the previous year.

Bell and Braben were naturally most excited about the disk-based version, particularly when they realized they had enough space still to add a little something extra. They made a couple of hand-crafted “missions” that pop up when you’ve been playing for a while: one to hunt down and destroy a stolen prototype of a new warship, another to courier some secret documents from one end of the galaxy to the other. These gave at least a taste of the more prominent story elements they wished they had space for.

Elite's packaging

While Bell and Braben finished up the coding, Johnson-Davies and Jordan worked to give the game the packaging and the launch it deserved. Acornsoft figured they needed to do all they could to justify the price they’d chosen to charge for the thing: from £12.95 to £17.65 depending on version, well over twice the typical going rate for a hot new game. They prepared a box of goodies the likes of which had never been seen before, not just from bland little Acornsoft but from anyone in the British games industry. Only some of the more lavish American packages, like those for the Ultimas and various Infocom games, could even begin to compare, and even by their standards Elite was grandiose. To a 63-page instruction manual Johnson-Davies and Jordan added The Dark Wheel, a separate scene-setting novella they commissioned from Robert Holdstock, an author just about to come into his own with the publication of his novel Mythago Wood. And they still weren’t done. They also added a ship-identification poster, a quick-reference guide, a keyboard overlay, some stickers, and a postcard to send to Acornsoft to tell them about it and get your certificate of achievement when you achieved the rank of Competent (an onscreen code revealed at that point would serve as proof).

Acornsoft stepped in and froze further development during the summer of 1984. The packaging was just about ready, and work on the game, while it would never be truly finished in the eyes of Bell and Braben, struck Acornsoft as about to reach a point of diminishing returns. And everyone was a little bit paranoid that something similar to Elite, even if it was nowhere near as good, might come out and steal their thunder. Bell and Braben grudgingly agreed that the time for release had come. But then, just as Acornsoft was about to send the master disk for duplication, Braben called Chris Jordan in a frenzy. They’d solved a niggling problem that had been bothering everyone for months, that of a “radar” scope to show where enemy ships are in relation to your own. The problem was, again, that of trying to map three dimensions onto two. Bell and Braben had done the best they could by providing two complementary scanners that had to be read in conjunction to get the full picture, but it always felt, in contrast to just about everything else about the game, kind of clunky and un-ideal. Now they had come up with a way to pack everything onto a single screen. It was beautiful. Showing a commitment few publishers then or now could match, Acornsoft agreed to take the new version of the game, which brought with it the painful task of having the manual edited and re-typeset to describe the new radar scope. Now, two years after Braben had first started playing with 3D spaceship models, they were done.

Buzz about Acornsoft’s secret “Project Bell” had been high for months. Acornsoft rented for launch day Thorpe Park, a small amusement park (nowadays a much bigger one) near London. In a darkened room, with suitably portentous music playing, the world got its first glimpse of Elite — and of its two creators, who for the next few years would be the face of the young British games industry. In their picture from the launch party they look much as the British public would come to know them: Braben in the foreground, glib and personable; Bell a bit more uncertain and stereotypically nerdy and, much to Acornsoft’s occasional chagrin, more liable to go off-script.

David Braben and Ian Bell

Elite itself, needless to say, became a hit. Acorn and Acornsoft were making a big play for the home-computer market that Christmas, trying to challenge Sinclair and Commodore on their own turf, and Elite became a big part of that push. Advertising was shockingly frequent and grandiose for anyone who remembered the Acornsoft of old. The £50,000 campaign even included some television spots. Acornsoft Elite eventually sold almost 150,000 units between the BBC Micro and the Electron, a huge number for an absurdly expensive game on platforms not particularly popular with gamers. And most of those customers seemed to play Elite with an enthusiasm bordering on the obsessive. The first person known to become Elite was one Hal Bertram, on November 3, 1984, about five weeks after the game’s release. By the end of the year he had many companions in glory, while Acornsoft was positively flooded with postcards sent in by those attaining at least Competent status; they could barely make the badges they sent back to these folks fast enough. Many were doubtless aided by a bug in the ship-equipping code that had slipped through testing and was soon making the rounds amongst players: you could make infinite cash by trying to buy a laser you already had, whereupon the game would reward you with a generous cash credit in addition to the expected refusal. Undeterred, Acornsoft fixed the bug and sponsored a series of live monthly contests culminating in a grand showdown at the Acorn Users Show.

Still, it was clear to Braben that the really big numbers would come only when Elite came to the Speccy and the Commodore 64. The game was the talk of the industry, with owners of those more popular platforms, who had not even been aware of Acornsoft’s existence a few months ago, clamoring to play it after it — along with its creators — began appearing in places like Channel 4 News.

And now we see the significance of that non-exclusive license Braben had negotiated. He heard through the grapevine about a former literary agent named Jacquie Lyons, who had recently become the first agent representing game developers in Britain. Lyons:

A friend rang up and told me about Ian Bell and David Braben. Elite had just happened and Ian and David had retained all rights other than for the BBC, which was extremely bright of them. They wanted me to represent the rest of those rights.

With virtually every publisher in Britain dying to publish Elite for the other, more popular gaming platforms, Lyons decided that there was one foolproof way to find out who really wanted it, and to make sure her new clients got served as well as possible in the process — i.e., paid as well as possible. At the beginning of December she held an auction, which, in her own words, “caused a lot of trouble in the industry — I was told this was an appalling way to go about it.” Lyons responded that such an approach was common in the publishing world from which she hailed. And what better way to ensure that your publisher would put everything they had into a game than to make them pay as dearly as possible for it? The deep pockets of British Telecom won the day amidst a flurry of media interest. Having just entered the software market with a new imprint called Firebird and eager to make a big splash with the highest-profile game in the industry, BT paid an undisclosed but “substantial” sum — Bell and Braben each got six figures up-front — for publishing rights to Elite on all platforms other than the Acorn machines. Suddenly Bell and Braben, who had yet to receive their first royalty checks from Acornsoft, were very wealthy young men.

For their part, Acornsoft allowed Bell and Braben to move on without fighting at all to retain Elite as a desperately needed platform exclusive. Indeed, they handled Bell and Braben’s departure with almost incomprehensibly good grace, even working out agreements to allow Firebird to reuse most of the wonderful supplemental materials they had stuffed into that bursting box. Perhaps they just had bigger fish to fry. Elite, you see, was the sole bright spot in a disastrous Christmas for Acorn as a whole, one rife with miscalculations which effectively wrecked the company. A desperate Acorn was purchased by the Italian firm Olivetti in 1985, and became thereafter a very different sort of place. The Acornsoft label was retired barely a year after the Elite launch, with Johnson-Davies and Jordan and all of their colleagues going on to other things.

But the game they had introduced to the world was just getting started. Bell and Braben themselves ported it to the Commodore 64. That version is not quite as fast and smooth as the BBC version — the 64’s 6502 is clocked at just 1 MHz instead of the BBC’s 2 MHz — but took advantage of the 64’s better graphics and its positively cavernous 64 K of memory to add in compensation more color and a welcome touch of whimsy to undercut its otherwise uncompromisingly dog-eat-dog world. There’s a third special mission, this one a bit of silliness drawn from the beloved Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” When the tribble — excuse me, “trumble” — population aboard your ship has mushroomed to the point that the little buggers start crawling around the screen in front of you, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, even if it is just about impossible to figure out how to get rid of them absent spoilers. But best of all is the new music which plays during the automated docking sequence: Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube,” a tribute to everyone’s favorite part of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It comes as a complete surprise (if you haven’t read an article like this, that is…) when you first flip the switch to try out your hard-won docking computer and are greeted with this unexpected note of easy beauty. Soon your travels assume an addictive rhythm: the calculus of buying and selling, followed by the tension and occasional excitement of the voyage itself, followed by the grace notes of “The Blue Danube,” when you know you’ve survived another voyage and can sit back and enjoy a few minutes of peace before starting the process over again. Life in a microcosm?


The Commodore 64 Elite established a tradition of each port being largely hand-coded all over again; this gives each its own feel. Scottish developers Torus took on the challenging task of converting Elite to the Spectrum, which is built around a Z80 rather than the 6502 microprocessor at the heart of the BBC Micro and Commodore 64. Speccy Elite arrived several months after the Commodore 64 version and about a year after the original, touching off another huge wave of sales. Amidst the usual slate of added and lost features, it added yet more special missions, for a total of five. Missions became the most obvious way for the many individual developers who worked on Elite over the years to put their own creative stamp on the game, a trend actively encouraged by Bell and Braben; “just have your own fun” with the missions was always their response to requested advice. About the same time as the Spectrum Elite arrived in Britain, Firebird brought the Commodore 64 Elite to the United States, where it — stop me if you’ve heard this before — became a huge hit, one of relatively few games of the 1980s to make a major impact in both the European and North American markets. It served to establish Firebird as an important publisher in the U.S., the first such to be based in Britain and one which would give many other British games deserved exposure in that bigger market.

The ball was now well and truly rolling. For almost a decade the existing versions just kept on selling and the ports just kept on coming: to big players of the era like the IBM PC, the Apple II, the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga, and the Amstrad CPC as well as occasional also-rans like the Tatung Einstein. Even the Nintendo Entertainment System got a surprisingly faithful and enjoyable version in 1991. In the end Elite made it to 17 separate platforms. Ian Bell has guessed in one place that it sold about 600,000 copies. David Braben claims that Elite surpassed 1 million copies worldwide, but this claim is much more dubious. Regardless of the final tally, Elite was certainly amongst the most commercially successful born-on-a-PC games of the 1980s.

Bell and Braben’s mainstream fame proved to be almost as enduring — in September of 1991 The One magazine could still write about the latter as “the most famous developer in Britain” — but their partnership less so. The two tried for some time to make Elite II for the BBC Micro and the Commodore 64, but never got close to completing it for reasons which vary with the teller. In Bell’s version, the game was just too ambitious for the hardware; in Braben’s, Bell was more interested in enjoying his new wealth and practicing his new hobby of martial arts than buckling down to work. Braben alone finally made and released Frontier: Elite II, a hugely polarizing sequel, in 1993. The erstwhile partners then spent the rest of the decade in ugly squabbles and petty lawsuits. To the best of my knowledge, the two still refuse to speak to one another. While both agreed to give talks upon the game’s 25th anniversary at the GameCity Festival in Nottingham in 2009, they agreed to do so only if they didn’t have to share a stage together. Like most people who have studied their history, I have my opinions about who is the more difficult partner and who is more at fault. In truth, though, neither one comes out looking very good.

Bell retired quietly to the country many years ago to tinker with mathematics, martial arts, and mysticism. He hasn’t released a game since the original Elite. Braben, in contrast, has built himself a prominent career as a designer and executive in the modern games industry. If he’s no longer quite the most famous developer in Britain, he’s certainly not all that far out of the running. He recently Kickstarted a new iteration of the Elite concept called Elite: Dangerous to the tune of more than £1.5 million, proof of the game’s enduring place in even the contemporary gaming zeitgeist and its enduring appeal as well as the cachet Braben’s name still carries.

And what is the source of that appeal? As with any great game for which it all just seemed to come together somehow, that can be a difficult question to fully answer. I could talk about how it was one of the first games to show the immersive potential of even the most primitive of 3D graphics, prefiguring the direction the entire industry would go a decade later. I could talk about how it was one of the first to graft a larger context to its core action-based gameplay, giving players a reason to care beyond wanting to run up a high score. I could talk about how perfectly realized its universe is, how it absolutely nails atmosphere; its cold beauty is just that, beautiful. Those minimalist wireframe spaceships are key here. I never quite felt that later iterations for more advanced platforms, which fill in the spaceships with color, felt quite like Elite. But then I suspect that for most folks the definitive version of Elite is the one they played first…

Maybe the most impressive thing that Elite evokes is a sense of possibility. You really do feel when you start playing, even today, even when you’ve read articles like this one and know most of its tricks, that you can go anywhere (as, given time and patience, you can), and that anything might happen there (okay, not so much). Yes, over time, especially over these jaded times, that sense fades, this Fibonacci universe starts to lose some of its verisimilitude, and it all starts to feel kind of samey. I must confess that when I played again recently for this article that point came for me long before I got anywhere close to becoming Elite. I think for the game to last longer for me I’d need some more of those story elements Bell and Braben originally hoped to include. But just the fact that that feeling is there, even for a little while, is amazing, the sort of amazing that makes Elite one of the most important computer games ever released. In addition to being a great play in its own right, it represents a fundamental building block of the virtual worlds of today and those still to come.

(In addition to being such a huge hit and such a seminal game historically, Elite comes equipped with a very compelling origin story. Together these factors have caused it to be written and talked about to a degree to which almost no other game of its era compares. Thus my challenge with this article was not so much finding information as sorting through it all and trying to decide which of various versions of events were most likely to be correct.

The lengthiest and most detailed print chronicle of all is that in the book Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford. More cursory histories have been published by Edge Online and IGN. Vintage sources used for this article include: Your Computer of December 1984; The One of January 1991 and September 1991; Micro Adventurer of January 1985; Home Computing Weekly of December 11, 1984; Personal Computing Weekly of August 23, 1984. David Braben’s talk at the 2011 Game Developers Conference was a goldmine, while Ian Bell’s home page has a lot of information in its archives. Other useful fan pages included FrontierAstro and The Acorn Elite Pages. And when you get bored with serious research, check out the Elite episode of Brits Who Made the Modern World, which in its first ten seconds credits the game with starting the British games industry and goes on to indulge in several other howlers before it’s a minute old. It makes a great example of the hilariously hyperbolic press coverage that always clings to Elite.

Finally, rather than provide a playable version of Elite here I’ll just point you once again to Ian Bell’s pages, where you’ll find versions for many, many platforms.

Updated June 14, 2014 and July 14, 2014: I heard from Chris Jordan, who set me straight on more than a few facts and figures found in the original version of this article. Edits made.)

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

 

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