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Myst (or, The Drawbacks to Success)

Robyn Miller, one half of the pair of brothers who created the adventure game known as Myst with their small studio Cyan, tells a story about its development that’s irresistible to a writer like me. When the game was nearly finished, he says, its publisher Brøderbund insisted that it be put through “focus-group testing” at their offices. Robyn and his brother Rand reluctantly agreed, and soon the first group of guinea pigs shuffled into Brøderbund’s conference room. Much to its creators’ dismay, they hated the game. But then, just as the Miller brothers were wondering whether they had wasted the past two years of their lives making it, the second group came in. Their reaction was the exact opposite: they loved the game.

So would it be forevermore. Myst would prove to be one of the most polarizing games in history, loved and hated in equal measure. Even today, everyone seems to have a strong opinion about it, whether they’ve actually played it or not.

Myst‘s admirers are numerous enough to have made it the best-selling single adventure game in history, as well as the best-selling 1990s computer game of any type in terms of physical units shifted at retail: over 6 million boxed copies sold between its release in 1993 and the dawn of the new millennium. In the years immediately after its release, it was trumpeted at every level of the mainstream press as the herald of a new, dawning age of maturity and aesthetic sophistication in games. Then, by the end of the decade, it was lamented as a symbol of what games might have become, if only the culture of gaming had chosen it rather than the near-simultaneously-released Doom as its model for the future. Whatever the merits of that argument, the hardcore Myst lovers remained numerous enough in later years to support five sequels, a series of novels, a tabletop role-playing game, and multiple remakes and remasters of the work which began it all. Their passion was such that, when Cyan gave up on an attempt to turn Myst into a massively-multiplayer game, the fans stepped in to set up their own servers and keep it alive themselves.

And yet, for all the love it’s inspired, the game’s detractors are if anything even more committed than its proponents. For a huge swath of gamers, Myst has become the poster child for a certain species of boring, minimally interactive snooze-fest created by people who have no business making games — and, runs the spoken or unspoken corollary, played by people who have no business playing them. Much of this vitriol comes from the crowd who hate any game that isn’t violent and visceral on principle.

But the more interesting and perhaps telling brand of hatred comes from self-acknowledged fans of the adventure-game genre. These folks were usually raised on the Sierra and LucasArts traditions of third-person adventures — games that were filled with other characters to interact with, objects to pick up and carry around and use to solve puzzles, and complicated plot arcs unfolding chapter by chapter. They have a decided aversion to the first-person, minimalist, deserted, austere Myst, sometimes going so far as to say that it isn’t really an adventure game at all. But, however they categorize it, they’re happy to credit it with all but killing the adventure genre dead by the end of the 1990s. Myst, so this narrative goes, prompted dozens of studios to abandon storytelling and characters in favor of yet more sterile, hermetically sealed worlds just like its. And when the people understandably rejected this airless vision, that was that for the adventure game writ large. Some of the hatred directed toward Myst by stalwart adventure fans — not only fans of third-person graphic adventures, but, going even further back, fans of text adventures — reaches an almost poetic fever pitch. A personal favorite of mine is the description deployed by Michael Bywater, who in previous lives was himself an author of textual interactive fiction. Myst, he says, is just “a post-hippie HyperCard stack with a rather good music loop.”

After listening to the cultural dialog — or shouting match! — which has so long surrounded Myst, one’s first encounter with the actual artifact that spurred it all can be more than a little anticlimactic. Seen strictly as a computer game, Myst is… okay. Maybe even pretty good. It strikes this critic at least as far from the best or worst game of its year, much less of its decade, still less of all gaming history. Its imagery is well-composited and occasionally striking, its sound and music design equally apt. The sense of desolate, immersive beauty it all conveys can be strangely affecting, and it’s married to puzzle-design instincts that are reasonable and fair. Myst‘s reputation in some quarters as impossible, illogical, or essentially unplayable is unearned; apart from some pixel hunts and perhaps the one extended maze, there’s little to really complain about on that front. On the contrary: there’s a definite logic to its mechanical puzzles, and figuring out how its machinery works through trial and error and careful note-taking, then putting your deductions into practice, is genuinely rewarding, assuming you enjoy that sort of thing.

At same time, though, there’s just not a whole lot of there there. Certainly there’s no deeper meaning to be found; Myst never tries to be about more than exploring a striking environment and solving intricate puzzles. “When we started, we wanted to make a [thematic] statement, but the project was so big and took so much effort that we didn’t have the energy or time to put much into that part of it,” admits Robyn Miller. “So, we decided to just make a neat world, a neat adventure, and say important things another time.” And indeed, a “neat world” and “neat adventure” are fine ways of describing Myst.

Depending on your preconceptions going in, actually playing Myst for the first time is like going to meet your savior or the antichrist, only to find a pleasant middle-aged fellow who offers to pour you a cup of tea. It’s at this point that the questions begin. Why does such an inoffensive game offend so many people? Why did such a quietly non-controversial game become such a magnet for controversy? And the biggest question of all: why did such a simple little game, made by five people using only off-the-shelf consumer software, become one of the most (in)famous money spinners in the history of the computer-games industry?

We may not be able to answers all of these whys to our complete satisfaction; much of the story of Myst surely comes down to sheer happenstance, to the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings somewhere on the other side of the world. But we can at least do a reasonably good job with the whats and hows of Myst. So, let’s consider now what brought Myst about and how it became the unlikely success it did. After that, we can return once again to its proponents and its detractors, and try to split the difference between Myst as gaming’s savior and Myst as gaming’s antichrist.


Rand Miller

Robyn Miller

If nothing else, the origin story of Myst is enough to make one believe in karma. As I wrote in an earlier article, the Miller brothers and their company Cyan came out of the creative explosion which followed Apple’s 1987 release of HyperCard, a unique Macintosh authoring system which let countless people just like them experiment for the first time with interactive multimedia and hypertext. Cyan’s first finished project was The Manhole. Published in November of 1988 by Mediagenic, it was a goal-less software toy aimed at children, a virtual fairy-tale world to explore. Six months later, Mediagenic added music and sound effects and released it on CD-ROM, marking the first entertainment product ever to appear on that medium. The next couple of years brought two more interactive explorations for children from Cyan, published on floppy disk and CD-ROM.

Even as these were being published, however, the wheels were gradually coming off of Mediagenic, thanks to a massive patent-infringement lawsuit they lost to the Dutch electronics giant Philips and a whole string of other poor decisions and unfortunate events. In February of 1991, a young bright spark named Bobby Kotick seized Mediagenic in a hostile takeover, reverting the company to its older name of Activision. By this point, the Miller brothers were getting tired of making whimsical children’s toys; they were itching to make a real game, with a goal and puzzles. But when they asked Activision’s new management for permission to do so, they were ordered to “keep doing what you’ve been doing.” Shortly thereafter, Kotick announced that he was taking Activision into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. After he did so, Activision simply stopped paying Cyan the royalties on which they depended. The Miller brothers were lost at sea, with no income stream and no relationships with any other publishers.

But at the last minute, they were thrown an unexpected lifeline. Lo and behold, the Japanese publisher Sunsoft came along offering to pay Cyan $265,000 to make a CD-ROM-based adult adventure game in the same general style as their children’s creations — i.e., exactly what the Miller brothers had recently asked Activision for permission to do. Sunsoft was convinced that there would be major potential for such a game on the upcoming generation of CD-ROM-based videogame consoles and multimedia set-top boxes for the living room — so convinced, in fact, that they were willing to fund the development of the game on the Macintosh and take on the job of porting it to these non-computer platforms themselves, all whilst signing over the rights to the computer version(s) to Cyan for free. The Miller brothers, reduced by this point to a diet of “rice and beans and government cheese,” as Robyn puts it, knew deliverance when they saw it. They couldn’t sign the contract fast enough. Meanwhile Activision had just lost out on the chance to release what would turn out to be one of the games of the decade.

But of course the folks at Cyan were as blissfully unaware of that future as those at Activision. They simply breathed sighs of relief and started making their game. In time, Cyan signed a contract with Brøderbund to release the computer versions of their game, starting with the Macintosh original.

Myst certainly didn’t begin as any conscious attempt to re-imagine the adventure-game form. Those who later insisted on seeing it in almost ideological terms, as a sort of artistic manifesto, were often shocked when they first met the Miller brothers in person. This pair of plain-spoken, baseball-cap-wearing country boys were anything but ideologues, much less stereotypical artistes. Instead they seemed a perfect match for the environs in which they worked: an unassuming two-story garage in Spokane, Washington, far from any centers of culture or technology. Their game’s unique personality actually stemmed from two random happenstances rather than any messianic fervor.

One of these was — to put it bluntly — their sheer ignorance. Working on the minority platform that was the Macintosh, specializing up to this point in idiosyncratic children’s software, the Miller brothers were oddly disengaged from the computer-games industry whose story I’ve been telling in so many other articles here. By their own account, they had literally never even seen any of the contemporary adventure games from companies like LucasArts and Sierra before making Myst. In fact, Robyn Miller says today that he had only played one computer game in his life to that point: Infocom’s ten-year-old Zork II. Rand Miller, being the older brother, the first mover behind their endeavors, and the more technically adept of the pair, was perhaps a bit more plugged-in, but only a bit.

The other circumstance which shaped Myst was the technology employed to create it. This statement is true of any game, but it becomes even more salient here because the technology in question was so different from that employed by other adventure creators. Myst is indeed simply a HyperCard stack — the “hippie-dippy” is in the eye of the beholder — gluing together pictures generated by the 3D modeler StrataVision. During the second half of its development, a third everyday Macintosh software package made its mark: Apple’s QuickTime video system, which allowed Myst‘s creators to insert snippets of themselves playing the roles of the people who previously visited the semi-ruined worlds you spend the game exploring. All of these tools are presentation-level tools, not conventional game-building ones. Seen in this light, it’s little surprise that so much of Myst is surface. At bottom, it’s a giant hypertext done in pictures, with very little in the way of systems of any sort behind it, much less any pretense of world simulation. You wander through its nodes, in some of which you can click on something, which causes some arbitrary event to happen. The one place where the production does interest itself in a state which exists behind its visuals is in the handful of mechanical devices found scattered over each of its landscapes, whose repair and/or manipulation form the basis of the puzzles that turn Myst into a game rather than an unusually immersive slideshow.

In making Myst, each brother fell into the role he was used to from Cyan’s children’s projects. The brothers together came up with the story and world design, then Robyn went off to do the art and music while Rand did the technical plumbing in HyperCard. One Chuck Carter helped Robyn on the art side and Rich Watson helped Rand on the programming side, while Chris Brandkamp produced the intriguing, evocative environmental soundscape by all sorts of improvised means: banging a wrench against the wall or blowing bubbles in a toilet bowl, then manipulating the samples to yield something appropriately other-worldly. And that was the entire team. It was a shoestring operation, amateurish in the best sense. The only thing that distinguished the boys at Cyan from a hundred thousand other hobbyists playing with the latest creative tools on their own Macs was the fact that Cyan had a contract to do so — and a commensurate quantity of real, raw talent, of course.

Ironically given that Myst was treated as such a cutting-edge product at the time of its release, in terms of design it’s something of a throwback — a fact that does become less surprising when one considers that its creators’ experience with adventure games stopped in the early 1980s. A raging debate had once taken place in adventure circles over whether the ideal protagonist should be a blank slate, imprintable by the player herself, or a fully-fleshed-out role for the player to inhabit. The verdict had largely come down on the side of the latter as games’ plots had grown more ambitious, but the whole discussion had passed the Miller brothers by.

So, with Myst we were back to the old “nameless, faceless adventurer” paradigm which Sierra and LucasArts had long since abandoned. Myst actively encourages you to think of it as yourself there in its world. The story begins when you open a mysterious book here on our world, whereupon you get sucked into an alternate dimension and find yourself standing on the dock of a deserted island. You soon learn that you’re following a trail first blazed by a father and his two sons, all of whom had the ability to hop about between dimensions — or “ages,” as the game calls them — and alter them to their will. Unfortunately, the father is now said to be dead, while the two brothers have each been trapped in a separate interdimensional limbo, each blaming the other for their father’s death. (These themes of sibling rivalry have caused much comment over the years, especially in light of the fact that each brother in the game is played by one of the real Miller brothers. But said real brothers have always insisted that there are no deeper meanings to be gleaned here…)

You can access four more worlds from the central island just as soon as you solve the requisite puzzles. In each of them, you must find a page of a magical book. Putting the pages together, along with a fifth page found on the central island, allows you to free the brother of your choice, or to do… something else, which actually leads to the best ending. This last-minute branch to an otherwise unmalleable story is a technique we see in a fair number of other adventure games wishing to make a claim to the status of genuinely interactive fictions. (In practice, of course, players of those games and Myst alike simply save before the final choice and check out all of the endings.)

For all its emphasis on visuals, Myst is designed much like a vintage text adventure in many ways. Even setting aside its explicit maze, its network of discrete, mostly empty locations resembles the map from an old-school text adventure, where navigation is half the challenge. Similarly, its complex environmental puzzles, where something done in one location may have an effect on the other side of the map, smacks of one of Infocom’s more cerebral, austere games, such as Zork III or Spellbreaker.

This is not to say that Myst is a conscious throwback; the nature of the puzzles, like so much else about the game, is as much determined by the Miller brothers’ ignorance of contemporary trends in adventure design as by the technical constraints under which they labored. Among the latter was the impossibility of even letting the player pick things up and carry them around to use elsewhere. Utterly unfazed, Rand Miller coined an aphorism: “Turn your problems into features.” Thus Myst‘s many vaguely steam-punky mechanical puzzles, all switches to throw and ponderous wheels to set in motion, are dictated as much by its designers’ inability to implement a player inventory as by their acknowledged love for Jules Verne.

And yet, whatever the technological determinism that spawned it, this style of puzzle design truly was a breath of fresh air for gamers who had grown tired of the “use this object on that hotspot” puzzles of Sierra and LucasArts. To their eternal credit, the Miller brothers took this aspect of the design very seriously, giving their puzzles far more thought than Sierra at least tended to do. They went into Myst with no experience designing puzzles, and their insecurity  about this aspect of their craft was perhaps their ironic saving grace. Before they even had a computer game to show people, they spent hours walking outsiders through their scenario Dungeons & Dragons-style, telling them what they saw and listening to how they tried to progress. And once they did have a working world on the computer, they spent more hours sitting behind players, watching what they did. Robyn Miller, asked in an interview shortly after the game’s release whether there was anything he “hated,” summed up thusly their commitment to consistent, logical puzzle design and world-building (in Myst, the two are largely one and the same):

Seriously, we hate stuff without integrity. Supposed “art” that lacks attention to detail. That bothers me a lot. Done by people who are forced into doing it or who are doing it for formula reasons and monetary reasons. It’s great to see something that has integrity. It makes you feel good. The opposite of that is something I dislike.

We tried to create something — a fantastic world — in a very realistic way. Creating a fantasy world in an unrealistic way is the worst type of fantasy. In Jurassic Park, the idea of dinosaurs coming to life in the twentieth century is great. But it works in that movie because they also made it believable. That’s how the idea and the execution of that idea mix to create a truly great experience.

Taken as a whole, Myst is a master class in designing around constraints. Plenty of games have been ruined by designers whose reach exceeded their core technology’s grasp. We can see this phenomenon as far back as the time of Scott Adams: his earliest text adventures were compact marvels, but quickly spiraled into insoluble incoherence when he started pushing beyond what his simplistic parsers and world models could realistically present. Myst, then, is an artwork of the possible. Managing inventory, with the need for a separate inventory screen and all the complexities of coding this portable object interacting on that other thing in the world, would have stretched HyperCard past the breaking point. So, it’s gone. Interactive conversations would have been similarly prohibitive with the technology at the Millers’ fingertips. So, they devised a clever dodge, showing the few characters that exist only as recordings, or through one-way screens where you can see them, but they can’t see (or hear) you; that way, a single QuickTime video clip is enough to do the trick. In paring things back so dramatically, the Millers wound up with an adventure game unlike any that had been seen before. Their problems really did become their game’s features.

For the most part, anyway. The networks of nodes and pre-rendered static views that constitute the worlds of Myst can be needlessly frustrating to navigate, thanks to the way that the views prioritize aesthetics over consistency; rotating your view in place sometimes turns you 90 degrees, sometimes 180 degrees, sometimes somewhere in between, according to what the designers believed would provide the most striking image. Orienting yourself and moving about the landscape can thus be a confusing process. One might complain as well that it’s a slow one, what with all the empty nodes which you must move through to get pretty much anywhere — often just to see if something you’ve done on one side of the map has had any effect on something on its other side. Again, a comparison with the twisty little passages of an old-school text adventure, filled with mostly empty rooms, does strike me as thoroughly apt.

On the other hand, a certain glaciality of pacing seems part and parcel of what Myst fundamentally is. This is not a game for the impatient. It’s rather targeted at two broad types of player: the aesthete, who will be content just to wander the landscape taking in the views, perhaps turning to a walkthrough to be able to see all of the worlds; and the dedicated puzzle solver, willing to pull out paper and pencil and really dig into the task of understanding how all this strange machinery hangs together. Both groups have expressed their love for Myst over the years, albeit in terms which could almost convince you they’re talking about two entirely separate games.



So much for Myst the artifact. What of Myst the cultural phenomenon?

The origins of the latter can be traced to the Miller brothers’ wise decision to take their game to Brøderbund. Brøderbund tended to publish fewer products per year than their peers at Electronic Arts, Sierra, or the lost and unlamented Mediagenic, but they were masterful curators, with a talent for spotting software which ordinary Americans might want to buy and then packaging and marketing it perfectly to reach them. (Their insistence on focus testing, so confusing to the Millers, is proof of their competence; it’s hard to imagine any other publisher of the time even thinking of such a thing.) Brøderbund published a string of products over the course of a decade or more which became more than just hits; they became cultural icons of their time, getting significant attention in the mainstream press in addition to the computer magazines: The Print Shop, Carmen Sandiego, Lode Runner, Prince of Persia, SimCity. And now Myst was about to become the capstone to a rather extraordinary decade, their most successful and iconic release of all.

Brøderbund first published the game on the Macintosh in September of 1993, where it was greeted with rave reviews. Not a lot of games originated on the Mac at all, so a new and compelling one was always a big event. Mac users tended to conceive of themselves as the sophisticates of the computer world, wearing their minority status as a badge of pride. Myst hit the mark beautifully here; it was the Mac-iest of Mac games. MacWorld magazine’s review is a rather hilarious example of a homer call. “It’s been polished until it shines,” wrote the magazine. Then, in the next paragraph: “We did encounter a couple of glitches and frozen screens.” Oh, well.

Helped along by press like this, Myst came out of the gates strong. By one report, it sold 200,000 copies on the Macintosh alone in its first six months. If correct or even close to correct, those numbers are extraordinary; they’re the numbers of a hit even on the gaming Mecca that was the Wintel world, much less on the Mac, with its vastly smaller user base.

Still, Brøderbund knew that Myst‘s real opportunity lay with those selfsame plebeian Wintel machines which most Mac users, the Miller brothers included, disdained. Just as soon as Cyan delivered the Mac version, Brøderbund set up an internal team — larger than the Cyan team which had made the game in the first place — to do the port as quickly as possible. Importantly, Myst was ported not to bare MS-DOS, where almost all “hardcore” games still resided, but to Windows, where the new demographics which Brøderbund hoped to attract spent all of their time. Luckily, the game’s slideshow visuals were possible even under Windows’s sluggish graphics libraries, and Apple had recently ported their QuickTime video system to Microsoft’s platform. The Windows version of Myst shipped in March of 1994.

And now Brøderbund’s marketing got going in earnest, pushing the game as the one showcase product which every purchaser of a new multimedia PC simply had to have. At the time, most CD-ROM based games also shipped in a less impressive floppy-disk-based version, with the latter often still outselling the former. But Brøderbund and Cyan made the brave choice not to attempt a floppy-disk version at all. The gamble paid off beautifully, furthering the carefully cultivated aspirational quality which already clung to Myst, now billed as the game which simply couldn’t be done on floppy disk. Brøderbund’s lush advertisements had a refined, adult air about them which made them stand out from the dragons, spaceships, and scantily-clad babes that constituted the usual motifs of game advertising. As the crowning touch, Brøderbund devised a slick tagline: Myst was “the surrealistic adventure that will become your world.” The Miller brothers scoffed at this piece of marketing-speak — until they saw how Myst was flying off the shelves in the wake of it.

So, through a combination of lucky timing and precision marketing, Myst blew up huge. I say this not to diminish its merits as a puzzle-solving adventure game, which are substantial, but simply because I don’t believe those merits were terribly relevant to the vast majority of people who purchased it. A parallel can be drawn with Infocom’s game of Zork, which similarly surfed a techno-cultural wave a decade before Myst. It was on the scene just as home computers were first being promoted in the American media as the logical, more permanent successors to the videogame-console fad. For a time, Zork, with its ability to parse pseudo-natural-English sentences, was seen by computer salespeople as the best overall demonstration of what a computer could do; they therefore showed it to their customers as a matter of course. And so, when countless new computer systems went home with their new owners, there was also a copy of Zork in the bag. The result was Infocom’s best-selling game of all time, to the tune of almost 400,000 copies sold.

Myst now played the same role in a new home-computer boom. The difference was that, while the first boom had fizzled rather quickly when people realized of what limited practical utility those early machines actually were, this second boom would be a far more sustained affair. In fact, it would become the most sustained boom in the history of the consumer PC, stretching from approximately 1993 right through the balance of the decade, with every year breaking the sales records set by the previous one. The implications for Myst, which arrived just as the boom was beginning, were titanic. Even long after it ceased to be particularly cutting-edge, it continued to be regarded as an essential accessory for every PC, to be tossed into the bags carried home from computer stores by people who would never buy another game.

Myst had already established its status by the time the hype over the World Wide Web and Windows 95 really lit a fire under computer sales in 1995. It passed the 1 million copy mark in the spring of that year. By the same point, a quickie “strategy guide” published by Prima, ideal for the many players who just wanted to take in its sights without worrying about its puzzles, had passed an extraordinary 300,000 copies sold — thus making its co-authors, who’d spent all of three weeks working on it, the two luckiest walkthrough authors in history. Defying all of the games industry’s usual logic, which dictated that titles sold in big numbers for only a few months before fizzling out, Myst‘s sales just kept accelerating from there. It sold 850,000 copies in 1996 in the United States alone, then another 870,000 copies in 1997. Only in 1998 did it finally begin to flag, posting domestic sales of just 540,000 copies. Fortunately, the European market for multimedia PCs, which lagged a few years behind the American one, was now also burning bright, opening up whole new frontiers for Myst. Its total retail sales topped 6 million by 2000, at least 2 million of them outside of North America. Still more copies — it’s impossible to say how many — had shipped as pack-in bonuses with multimedia upgrade kits and the like. Meanwhile, under the terms of Sunsoft’s original agreement with Cyan, it was also ported by the former to the Sega Saturn, Atari Jaguar, 3DO, and CD-I living-room consoles. Myst was so successful that another publisher came out with an elaborate parody of it as a full-fledged computer game in its own right, under the indelible title of Pyst. Considering that it featured the popular sitcom star John Goodman, Pyst must have cost far more to make than the shoestring production it mocked.

As we look at the staggering scale of Myst‘s success, we can’t avoid returning to that vexing question of why it all should have come to be. Yes, Brøderbund’s marketing campaign was brilliant, but there must be more to it than that. Certainly we’re far from the first to wonder about it all. As early as December of 1994, Newsweek magazine noted that “in the gimmick-dominated world of computer games, Myst should be the equivalent of an art film, destined to gather critical acclaim and then dust on the shelves.” So why was it selling better than guaranteed crowd-pleasers with names like Star Wars on their boxes?

It’s not that it’s that difficult to pinpoint some of the other reasons why Myst should have been reasonably successful. It was a good-looking game that took full advantage of CD-ROM, at a time when many computer users — non-gamers almost as much as gamers — were eager for such things to demonstrate the power of their new multimedia wundermachines. And its distribution medium undoubtedly helped its sales in another way: in this time before CD burners became commonplace, it was immune to the piracy that many publishers claimed was costing them at least half their sales of floppy-disk-based games.

Likewise, a possible explanation for Myst‘s longevity after it was no longer so cutting-edge might be the specific technological and aesthetic choices made by the Miller brothers. Many other products of the first gush of the CD-ROM revolution came to look painfully, irredeemably tacky just a couple of years after they had dazzled, thanks to their reliance on grainy video clips of terrible actors chewing up green-screened scenery. While Myst did make some use of this type of “full-motion video,” it was much more restrained in this respect than many of its competitors. As a result, it aged much better. By the end of the 1990s, its graphics resolution and color count might have been a bit lower than those of the latest games, and it might not have been quite as stunning at first glance as it once had been, but it remained an elegant, visually-appealing experience on the whole.

Yet even these proximate causes don’t come close to providing a full explanation of why this art film in game form sold like a blockbuster. There are plenty of other games of equal or even greater overall merit to which they apply equally well, but none of them sold in excess of 6 million copies. Perhaps all we can do in the end is chalk it up to the inexplicable vagaries of chance. Computer sellers and buyers, it seems, needed a go-to game to show what was possible when CD-ROM was combined with decent graphics and sound cards. Myst was lucky enough to become that game. Although its puzzles were complex, simply taking in its scenery was disarmingly simple, making it perfect for the role. The perfect product at the perfect time, perfectly marketed.

In a sense, Myst the phenomenon didn’t do that other MystMyst the actual artifact, the game we can still play today — any favors at all. The latter seems destined always to be judged in relation to the former, and destined always to be found lacking. Demanding that what is in reality a well-designed, aesthetically pleasing game live up to the earth-shaking standards implied by Myst‘s sales numbers is unfair on the face of it; it wasn’t the fault of the Miller brothers, humble craftsmen with the right attitude toward their work, that said work wound up selling 6 million copies. Nevertheless, we feel compelled to judge it, at least to some extent, with the knowledge of its commercial and cultural significance firmly in mind. And in this context especially, some of its detractors’ claims do have a ring of truth.

Arguably the truthiest of all of them is the oft-repeated old saw that no other game was bought by so many people and yet really, seriously played by so few of its purchasers. While such a hyperbolic claim is impossible to truly verify, there is a considerable amount of circumstantial evidence pointing in exactly that direction. The exceptional sales of the strategy guide are perhaps a wash; they can be as easily ascribed to serious players wanting to really dig into the game as they can to casual purchasers just wanting to see all the pretty pictures on the CD-ROM. Other factors, however, are harder to dismiss. The fact is, Myst is hard by casual-game standards — so hard that Brøderbund included a blank pad of paper in the box for the purpose of keeping notes. If we believe that all or most of its buyers made serious use of that notepad, we have to ask where these millions of people interested in such a cerebral, austere, logical experience were before it materialized, and where they went thereafter. Even the Miller brothers themselves — hardly an unbiased jury — admit that by their best estimates no more than 50 percent of the people who bought Myst ever got beyond the starting island. Personally, I tend to suspect that the number is much lower than that.

Perhaps the most telling evidence for Myst as the game which everyone had but hardly anyone played is found in a comparison with one of its contemporaries: id Software’s Doom, the other decade-dominating blockbuster of 1993 (a game about which I’ll be writing much more in a future article). Doom indisputably was played, and played extensively. While it wasn’t quite the first running-around-and-shooting-things-from-a-first-person-perspective game, it did became so popular that games of its type were codified as a new genre unto themselves. The first-person shooters which followed Doom in the 1990s were among the most popular games of their era. Many of their titles are known to gamers today who weren’t yet born when they debuted: titles like Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Half-Life, Unreal. Myst prompted just as many copycats, but these were markedly less popular and are markedly less remembered today: AMBER: Journeys Beyond, Zork Nemesis, Rama, Obsidian. Only Cyan’s own eventual sequel to Myst can be found among the decade’s bestsellers, and even it’s a definite case of diminishing commercial returns, despite being a rather brilliant game in its own right. In short, any game which sold as well as Myst, and which was seriously played by a proportionate number of people, ought to have left a bigger imprint on ludic culture than this one did.

But none of this should affect your decision about whether to play Myst today, assuming you haven’t yet gotten around to it. Stripped of all its weighty historical context, it’s a fine little adventure game if not an earth-shattering one, intriguing for anyone with the puzzle-solving gene, infuriating for anyone without it. You know what I mean… sort of a niche experience. One that just happened to sell 6 million copies.

(Sources: the books Myst: Prima’s Official Strategy Guide by Rick Barba and Rusel DeMaria, Myst & Riven: The World of the D’ni by Mark J.P. Wolf, and The Secret History of Mac Gaming by Richard Moss; Computer Gaming World of December 1993; MacWorld of March 1994; CD-ROM Today of Winter 1993. Online sources include “Two Histories of Myst” by John-Gabriel Adkins, Ars Technica‘s interview with Rand Miller, Ryan Miller’s postmortem of Myst at the 2013 Game Developers Conference, GameSpot‘s old piece on Myst as one of the “15 Most Influential Games of All Time,” and Greg Lindsay’s Salon column on Myst as a “dead end.” Michael Bywater’s colorful comments about Myst come from Peter Verdi’s now-defunct Magnetic Scrolls fan site, a dump of which Stefan Meier dug up for me from his hard drive several years ago. Thanks again, Stefan!

The “Masterpiece Edition” of Myst is available for purchase from GOG.com.)

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2020 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Return to Zork

Where should we mark the beginning of the full-motion-video era, that most extended of blind alleys in the history of the American games industry? The day in the spring of 1990 that Ken Williams, founder and president of Sierra On-Line, wrote his latest editorial for his company’s seasonal newsletter might be as good a point as any. In his editorial, Williams coined the term “talkies” in reference to an upcoming generation of games which would have “real character voices and no text.” The term was, of course, a callback to the Hollywood of circa 1930, when sound began to come to the heretofore silent medium of film. Computer games, Williams said, stood on the verge of a leap that would be every bit as transformative, in terms not only of creativity but of profitability: “How big would the film industry be today if not for this step?”

According to Williams, the voice-acted, CD-based version of Sierra’s King’s Quest V was to become the games industry’s The Jazz Singer. But voice acting wasn’t the only form of acting which the games of the next few years had in store. A second transformative leap, comparable to that made by Hollywood when film went from black and white to color, was also waiting in the wings to burst onto the stage just a little bit later than the first talkies. Soon, game players would be able to watch real, human actors right there on their monitor screens.

As regular readers of this site probably know already, the games industry’s Hollywood obsession goes back a long way. In 1982, Sierra was already advertising their text adventure Time Zone with what looked like a classic “coming attractions” poster; in 1986, Cinemaware was founded with the explicit goal of making “interactive movies.” Still, the conventional wisdom inside the industry by the early 1990s had shifted subtly away from such earlier attempts to make games that merely played like movies. The idea was now that the two forms of media would truly become one — that games and movies would literally merge. “Sierra is part of the entertainment industry — not the computer industry,” wrote Williams in his editorial. “I always think of books, records, films, and then interactive films.” These categories defined a continuum of increasingly “hot,” increasingly immersive forms of media. The last listed there, the most immersive medium of all, was now on the cusp of realization. How many people would choose to watch a non-interactive film when they had the opportunity to steer the course of the plot for themselves? Probably about as many as still preferred books to movies.

Not all that long after Williams’s editorial, the era of the full-motion-video game began in earnest. The first really prominent exemplar of the species was ICOM Simulations’s Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective series in 1992, which sent you wandering around Victorian London collecting clues to a mystery from the video snippets that played every time you visited a relevant location. The first volume of this series alone would eventually sell 1 million copies as an early CD-ROM showcase title. The following year brought Return to Zork, The 7th Guest, and Myst as three of the five biggest games of the year; all three of these used full-motion video to a greater or lesser extent. (Myst used it considerably less than the other two, and, perhaps not coincidentally, is the member of the trio that holds up by far the best today.) With success stories like those to look to, the floodgates truly opened in 1994. Suddenly every game-development project — by no means only adventure games — was looking for ways to shoehorn live actors into the proceedings.

But only a few of the full-motion-video games that followed would post anything like the numbers of the aforementioned four games. That hard fact, combined with a technological counter-revolution in the form of 3D graphics, would finally force a reckoning with the cognitive dissonance of trying to build a satisfying interactive experience by mixing and matching snippets of nonmalleable video. By 1997, the full-motion-video era was all but over. Today, few things date a game more instantly to a certain window of time than grainy video of terrible actors flickering over a background of computer-generated graphics. What on earth were people thinking?

Most full-motion-video games are indeed dire, but they’re going to be with us for quite some time to come as we continue to work our way through this history. I wish I could say that Activision’s Return to Zork, my real topic for today, was one of the exceptions to the rule of direness. Sadly, though, it isn’t.

In fact, let me be clear right now: Return to Zork is a terrible adventure game. Under no circumstances should you play it, unless to satisfy historical curiosity or as a source of ironic amusement in the grand tradition of Ed Wood. And even in these special cases, you should take care to play it with a walkthrough in hand. To do anything else is sheer masochism; you’re almost guaranteed to lock yourself out of victory within the first ten minutes, and almost guaranteed not to realize it until many hours later. There’s really no point in mincing words here: Return to Zork is one of the absolute worst adventure-game designs I’ve ever seen — and, believe me, I’ve seen quite a few bad ones.

Its one saving grace, however, is that it’s terrible in a somewhat different way from the majority of terrible full-motion-video adventure games. Most of them are utterly bereft of ideas beyond the questionable one at their core: that of somehow making a game out of static video snippets. You can almost see the wheels turning desperately in the designers’ heads as they’re suddenly confronted with the realization that, in addition to playing videos, they have to give the player something to actually do. Return to Zork, on the other hand, is chock full of ideas for improving upon the standard graphic-adventure interface in ways that, on the surface at any rate, allow more rather than less flexibility and interactivity. Likewise, even the trendy use of full-motion video, which dates it so indelibly to the mid-1990s, is much more calculated than the norm among its contemporaries.

Unfortunately, all of its ideas are undone by a complete disinterest in the fundamentals of game design on the part of the novelty-seeking technologists who created it. And so here we are, stuck with a terrible game in spite of it all. If I can’t quite call Return to Zork a noble failure — as we’ll see, one of its creators’ stated reasons for making it so callously unfair is anything but noble — I can at least convince myself to call it an interesting one.


When Activision decided to make their follow-up to the quickie cash-in Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 a more earnest, better funded stab at a sequel to a beloved Infocom game, it seemed logical to find themselves a real Infocom Implementor to design the thing. They thus asked Steve Meretzky, whom they had just worked with on Leather Goddesses 2, if he’d like to design a new Zork game for them as well. But Meretzky hadn’t overly enjoyed trying to corral Activision’s opinionated in-house developers from a continent away last time around; this time, he turned them down flat.

Meretzky’s rejection left Activision without a lot of options to choose from when it came to former Imps. A number of them had left the games industry upon Infocom’s shuttering three years before, while, of those that remained, Marc Blank, Mike Berlyn, Brian Moriarty, and Bob Bates were all employed by one of Activison’s direct competitors. Activision therefore turned to Doug Barnett, a freelance artist and designer who had been active in the industry for the better part of a decade; his most high-profile design gig to date had been Cinemaware’s Lords of the Rising Sun. But he had never designed a traditional puzzle-oriented adventure game, as one can perhaps see all too well in the game that would result from his partnership with Activision. He also didn’t seem to have a great deal of natural affinity for Zork. In the lengthy set of notes and correspondence relating to the game’s development which has been put online by The Zork Library, a constant early theme on Activision’s part is the design’s lack of “Zorkiness.” “As it stands, the design constitutes more of a separate and unrelated story, rather than a sequel to the Zork series,” they wrote at one point. “It was noted that ‘Zork’ is the name of a vast ancient underground empire, yet Return to Zork takes place in a mostly above-ground environment.”

In fairness to Barnett, Zork had always been more of a state of mind than a coherent place. With the notable exception of Steve Meretzky, everyone at Infocom had been wary of overthinking a milieu that had originally been plucked out of the air more or less at random. In comparison to other shared worlds — even other early computer-game worlds, such as the Britannia of Richard Garriott’s Ultima series — there was surprisingly little there there when it came Zork: no well-established geography, no well-established history which everybody knew — and, most significantly of all, no really iconic characters which simply had to be included. At bottom, Zork boiled down to little more than a modest grab bag of tropes which lived largely in the eye of the beholder: the white house with a mailbox, grues, Flood Control Dam #3, Dimwit Flathead, the Great Underground Empire itself. And even most of these had their origin stories in the practical needs of an adventure game rather than any higher world-building purpose. (The Great Underground Empire, for example, was first conceived as an abandoned place not for any literary effect but because living characters are hard to implement in an adventure game, while the detritus they leave behind is relatively easy.)

That said, there was a distinct tone to Zork, which was easier to spot than it was to describe or to capture. Barnett’s design missed this tone, even as it began with the gleefully anachronistic, seemingly thoroughly Zorkian premise of casting the player as a sweepstakes winner on an all-expenses-paid trip to the idyllic Valley of the Sparrows, only to discover it has turned into the Valley of the Vultures under the influence of some pernicious, magical evil. Barnett and Activision would continue to labor mightily to make Return to Zork feel like Zork, but would never quite get there.

By the summer of 1992, Barnett’s design document had already gone through several revisions without entirely meeting Activision’s expectations. At this point, they hired one Eddie Dombrower to take personal charge of the project in the role of producer. Like Barnett, Dombrower had been working in the industry for quite some time, but had never worked on an adventure game; he was best known for World Series Major League Baseball on the old Intellivision console and Earl Weaver Baseball on computers. Dombrower gave the events of Return to Zork an explicit place in Zorkian history — some 700 years after Infocom’s Beyond Zork — and moved a big chunk of the game underground to remedy one of his boss’ most oft-repeated objections to the existing design.

More ominously, he also made a comprehensive effort to complicate Barnett’s puzzles, based on feedback from players and reviewers of Leather Goddesses 2, who were decidedly unimpressed with that game’s simple-almost-to-the-point-of-nonexistence puzzles. The result would be the mother of all over-corrections — a topic we’ll return to later.

Unlike Leather Goddess 2, whose multimedia ambitions had led it to fill a well-nigh absurd 17 floppy disks, Return to Zork had been planned almost from its inception as a product for CD-ROM, a technology which, after years of false promises and setbacks, finally seemed to be moving toward a critical mass of consumer uptake. In 1992, full-motion video, CD-ROM, and multimedia computing in general were all but inseparable concepts in the industry’s collective mind. Activision thus became one of the first studios to hire a director and actors and rent time on a sound stage; the business of making computer games had now come to involve making movies as well. They even hired a professional Hollywood screenwriter to punch up the dialog and make it more “cinematic.”

In general, though, while the computer-games industry was eager to pursue a merger with Hollywood, the latter was proving far more skeptical. There was still little money in computer games by comparison with movies, and there was very little prestige — rather the opposite, most would say — in “starring” in a game. The actors which games could manage to attract were therefore B-listers at best. Return to Zork actually collected a more accomplished — or at least more high-profile — cast than most. Among them were Ernie Lively, a veteran supporting player from television shows such as The Dukes of Hazzard; his daughter Robyn Lively, fresh off a six-episode stint as a minor character on David Lynch’s prestigious critic’s darling Twin Peaks; Jason Hervey, who was still playing older brother Wayne on the long-running coming-of-age sitcom The Wonder Years; and Sam Jones, whose big shot at leading-man status had come with the film Flash Gordon back in 1980 and gone with its mixed reception.

If the end result would prove less than Oscar-worthy, it’s for the most part not cringe-worthy either. After all, the cast did consist entirely of acting professionals, which is more than one can say for many productions of this ilk — and certainly more than one can say for the truly dreadful voice acting in Leather Goddess of Phobos 2, Activision’s previous attempt at a multimedia adventure game. While they were hampered by the sheer unfamiliarity of talking directly “to” the invisible player of the game — as Ernie Lively put it, “there’s no one to act off of” — they did a decent job with the slight material they had to work with.

The fact that they were talking to the player rather than acting out scenes with one another actually speaks to a degree of judiciousness in the use of full-motion video on Activision’s part. Rather than attempting to make an interactive movie in the most literal sense — by having a bunch of actors, one of them representing the protagonist, act out each of the player’s choices — Activision went for a more thoughtful mixed-media approach that could, theoretically anyway, eliminate most of the weaknesses of the typical full-motion-video adventure game. For the most part, only conversations involved the use of full-motion video; everything else was rendered by Activision’s pixel artists and 3D modelers in conventional computer graphics. The protagonist wasn’t shown at all: at a time when the third-person view that was the all but universal norm in adventure games, Activision opted for a first-person view.

The debate over whether an adventure-game protagonist ought to be a blank slate which the player can fill with her own personality or an established character which the player merely guides and empathizes with was a longstanding one even at the time when Return to Zork was being made. Certainly Infocom had held rousing internal debates on the subject, and had experimented fairly extensively with pre-established protagonists in some of their games. (These experiments sometimes led to rousing external debates among their fans, most notably in the case of the extensively characterized and tragically flawed protagonist of Infidel, who meets a nasty if richly deserved end no matter what the player does.) The Zork series, however, stemmed from an earlier, simpler time in adventure games than the rest of the Infocom catalog, and the “nameless, faceless adventurer,” functioning as a stand-in for the player herself, had always been its star. Thus Activision’s decision not to show the player’s character in Return to Zork, or indeed to characterize her in any way whatsoever, is a considered one, in keeping with everything that came before.

In fact, the protagonist of Return to Zork never actually says anything. To get around the need, Activision came up with a unique attitude-based conversation engine. As you “talk” to other characters, you choose from three stances — threatening, interested, or bored — and listen only to your interlocutors’ reactions. Not only does your own dialog go unvoiced, but you don’t even see the exact words you use; the game instead lets you imagine your own words. Specific questions you might wish to ask are cleverly turned into concrete physical interactions, something games do much better than abstract conversations. As you explore, you have a camera with which to take pictures of points of interest. During conversations, you can show the entries from your photo album to your interlocutor, perhaps prompting a reaction. You can do the same with objects in your inventory, locations on the auto-map you always carry with you, or even the tape recordings you automatically make of each interaction with each character.

So, whatever else you can say about it, Return to Zork is hardly bereft of ideas. William Volk, the technical leader of the project, was well up on the latest research into interface design being conducted inside universities like MIT and at companies like Apple. Many such studies had concluded that, in place of static onscreen menus and buttons, the interface should ideally pop into existence just where and when the user needed it. The result of such thinking in Return to Zork is a screen with no static interface at all; it instead pops up when you click on an object with which you can interact. Since it doesn’t need the onscreen menu of “verbs” typical of contemporaneous Sierra and LucasArts adventure games, Return to Zork can give over the entirety of the screen to its graphical portrayal of the world.

In addition to being a method of recapturing screen real estate, the interface was conceived as a way to recapture some of the sense of boundless freedom which is such a characteristic of parser-driven text adventures — a sense which can all too easily become lost amidst the more constrained interfaces of their graphical equivalent. William Volk liked to call Return to Zork‘s interface a “reverse parser”: clicking on a “noun” in the environment or in your inventory yields a pop-up menu of “verbs” that pertain to it. Taking an object in your “hand” and clicking it on another one yields still more options, the equivalent of commands to a parser involving indirect as well as direct objects. In the first screen of the game, for example, clicking the knife on a vulture gives options to “show knife to vulture,” “throw knife at vulture,” “stab vulture with knife,” or “hit vulture with knife.” There are limits to the sense of possibility: every action had to be anticipated and hand-coded by the development team, and most of them are the wrong approach to whatever you’re trying to accomplish. In fact, in the case of the example just mentioned as well as many others, most of the available options will get you killed; Return to Zork loves instant deaths even more than the average Sierra game. And there are many cases of that well-known adventure-game syndrome where a perfectly reasonable solution to a problem isn’t implemented, forcing you to devise some absurdly convoluted solution that is implemented in its stead. Still, in a world where adventure games were getting steadily less rather than more ambitious in their scope of interactive possibility — to a large extent due to the limitations of full-motion video — Return to Zork was a welcome departure from the norm, a graphic adventure that at least tried to recapture the sense of open-ended possibility of an Infocom game.

Indeed, there are enough good ideas in Return to Zork that one really, really wishes they all could have been tied to a better game. But sadly, I have to stop praising Return to Zork now and start condemning it.

The most obvious if perhaps most forgivable of its sins is that, as already noted, it never really manages to feel like Zork — not, at least, like the classic Zork of the original trilogy. (Steve Meretzky’s Zork Zero, Infocom’s final release to bear the name, actually does share some of the slapstick qualities of Return to Zork, but likewise rather misses the feel of the original.) The most effective homage comes at the very beginning, when the iconic opening text of Zork I appears onscreen and morphs into the new game’s splashy opening credits. It’s hard to imagine a better depiction circa 1993 of where computer gaming had been and where it was going — which was, of course, exactly the effect the designers intended.

Once the game proper gets under way, however, modernity begins to feel much less friendly to the Zorkian aesthetic of old. Most of Zork‘s limited selection of physical icons do show up here, from grues to Flood Control Dam #3, but none of it feels all that convincingly Zork-like. The dam is a particular disappointment; what was described in terms perfect for inspiring awed flights of the imagination in Zork I looks dull and underwhelming when portrayed in the cruder medium of graphics. Meanwhile the jokey, sitcom-style dialog that confronts you at every turn feels even less like the original trilogy’s slyer, subtler humor.

This isn’t to say that Return to Zork‘s humor doesn’t connect on occasion. It’s just… different from that of Dave Lebling and Marc Blank. By far the most memorable character, whose catchphrase has lived on to this day as a minor Internet meme, is the drunken miller named Boos Miller. (Again, subtlety isn’t this game’s trademark.) He plies you endlessly with whiskey, whilst repeating, “Want some rye? Course you do!” over and over and over in his cornpone accent. It’s completely stupid — but, I must admit, it’s also pretty darn funny; Boos Miller is the one thing everyone who ever played the game still seems to remember about Return to Zork. But, funny though he is, he would be unimaginable in any previous Zork.


Of course, a lack of sufficient Zorkiness need not have been the kiss of death for Return to Zork as an adventure game in the abstract. What really does it in is its thoroughly unfair puzzle design. This game plays like the fever dream of a person who hates and fears adventure games. It’s hard to know where to even start (or end) with this cornucopia of bad puzzles, but I’ll describe a few of them, ranked roughly in order of their objectionability.

The Questionable: At one point, you find yourself needing to milk a cow, but she won’t let you do so with cold hands. Do you need to do something sensible, like, say, find some gloves or wrap your hands in a blanket? Of course not! The solution is to light some of the hay that’s scattered all over the wooden barn on fire and warm your hands that way. For some reason, the whole place doesn’t go up in smoke. This solution is made still more difficult to discover by the way that the game usually kills you every time you look at it wrong. Why on earth would it not kill you for a monumentally stupid act like this one? To further complicate matters, for reasons that are obscure at best you can only light the hay on fire if you first pick it up and then drop it again. Thus even many players who are consciously attempting the correct solution will still get stuck here.

The Absurd: At another point, you find a bra. You have to throw it into an incinerator in order to get a wire out of it whose existence you were never aware of in the first place. How does the game expect you to guess that you should take such an action? Apparently some tenuous linkage with the 1960s tradition of bra burning and, as a justification after the fact, the verb “to hot-wire.” Needless to say, throwing anything else into the incinerator just destroys the object and, more likely than not, locks you out of victory.

The Incomprehensible: There’s a water wheel out back of Boos’s house with a chock holding it still. If you’ve taken the chock and thus the wheel is spinning, and you’ve solved another puzzle that involves drinking Boos under the table (see the video above), a trapdoor is revealed in the floor. But if the chock is in place, the trapdoor can’t be seen. Why? I have absolutely no idea.

Wait! Don’t do it!

The Brutal: In a way, everything you really need to know about Return to Zork can be summed up by its most infamous single puzzle. On the very first screen of the game, there’s a “bonding plant” growing. If you simply pull up the plant and take it with you, everything seems fine — until you get to the very end of the game many hours later. Here, you finally find a use for the plant you’ve been carting around all this time. Fair enough. But unfortunately, you need a living version of it. It turns out you were supposed to have used a knife to dig up the plant rather than pulling or cutting it. Guess what? You now get to play through the whole game again from the beginning.

All of the puzzles just described, and the many equally bad ones, are made still more complicated by the game’s general determination to be a right bastard to you every chance it gets. If, as Robb Sherwin once put it, the original Zork games hate their players, this game has found some existential realm beyond mere hatred. It will let you try to do many things to solve each puzzle, but, of those actions that don’t outright kill you, a fair percentage lock you out of victory in one way or another. Sometimes, as in the case of its most infamous puzzle, it lets you think you’ve solved them, only to pull the rug out from under you much later.

So, you’re perpetually on edge as you tiptoe through this minefield of instant deaths and unwinnable states; you’ll have a form of adventure-game post-traumatic-stress syndrome by the time you’re done, even if you’re largely playing from a walkthrough. The instant deaths are annoying, but nowhere near as bad as the unwinnable states; the problem there is that you never know whether you’ve already locked yourself out of victory, never know whether you can’t solve the puzzle in front of you because of something you did or didn’t do a long time ago.

It all combines to make Return to Zork one of the worst adventure games I’ve ever played. We’ve sunk to Time Zone levels of awful with this one. No human not willing to mount a methodical months-long assault on this game, trying every possibility everywhere, could possibly solve it unaided. Even the groundbreaking interface is made boring and annoying by the need to show everything to everyone and try every conversation stance on everyone, always with the lingering fear that the wrong stance could spoil your game. Adventure games are built on trust between player and designer, but you can’t trust Return to Zork any farther than you can throw it. Amidst all the hand-wringing at Activision over whether Return to Zork was or was not sufficiently Zorky, they forgot the most important single piece of the Infocom legacy: their thoroughgoing commitment to design, and the fundamental respect that commitment demonstrated to the players who spent their hard-earned money on Infocom games.  “Looking back at the classics might be a good idea for today’s game designers,” wrote Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia at the conclusion of her mixed review of Return to Zork. “Good puzzle construction, logical development, and creative inspiration are in rich supply on those dusty disks.” None of these, alas, is in correspondingly good supply in Return to Zork.

The next logical question, then, is just how Return to Zork‘s puzzles wound up being so awful. After all, this game wasn’t the quickie cash grab that Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 had been. The development team put serious thought and effort into the interface, and there were clearly a lot of people involved with this game who cared about it a great deal — among them Activision’s CEO Bobby Kotick, who was willing to invest almost $1 million to bring the whole project to fruition at a time when cash was desperately short and his creditors had him on a short leash indeed.

The answer to our question apparently comes down to the poor reception of Leather Goddesses 2, which had stung Activision badly. In an interview given shortly before Return to Zork‘s release, Eddie Dombrower said that, “based on feedback that the puzzles in Leather Goddesses of Phobos [2] were too simple,” the development team had “made the puzzles increasingly difficult just by reworking what Doug had already laid out for us.” That sounds innocent enough on the face of it. But, speaking to me recently, William Volk delivered a considerably darker variation on the same theme. “People hated Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 — panned it,” he told me. “So, we decided to wreak revenge on the entire industry by making Return to Zork completely unfair. Everyone bitches about that title. There’s 4000 videos devoted to Return to Zork on YouTube, most of which are complaining because the title is so blatantly unfair. But, there you go. Something to pin my hat on. I made the most unfair game in history.”

For all that I appreciate Volk sharing his memories with me, I must confess that my initial reaction to this boast was shock, soon to be followed by genuine anger at the lack of empathy it demonstrates. Return to Zork didn’t “wreak revenge” on its industry, which really couldn’t have cared less. It rather wreaked “revenge,” if that’s the appropriate word, on the ordinary gamers who bought it in good faith at a substantial price, most of whom had neither bought nor commented on Leather Goddesses 2. I sincerely hope that Volk’s justification is merely a case of hyperbole after the fact. If not… well, I really don’t know what else to say about such juvenile pettiness, so symptomatic of the entitled tunnel vision of so many who are fortunate enough to work in technology, other than that it managed to leave me disliking Return to Zork even more. Some games are made out of an openhearted desire to bring people enjoyment. Others, like this one, are not.

I’d like to be able to say that Activision got their comeuppance for making Return to Zork such a bad game, demonstrating such contempt for their paying customers, and so soiling the storied Infocom name in the process. But exactly the opposite is the case. Released in late 1993, Return to Zork became one of the breakthrough titles that finally made the CD-ROM revolution a reality, whilst also carrying Activision a few more steps back from the abyss into which they’d been staring for the last few years. It reportedly sold 1 million copies in its first year — albeit the majority of them as a bundled title, included with CD-ROM drives and multimedia upgrade kits, rather than as a boxed standalone product. “Zork on a brick would sell 100,000 copies,” crowed Bobby Kotick in the aftermath.

Perhaps. But more likely not. Even within the established journals of computer gaming, whose readership probably didn’t constitute the majority of Return to Zork‘s purchasers, reviews of the game were driven more by enthusiasm for its graphics and sound, which really were impressive in their day, than by Zork nostalgia. Discussed in the euphoria following its release as the beginning of a full-blown Infocom revival, Return to Zork would instead go down in history as a vaguely embarrassing anticlimax to the real Infocom story. A sequel to Planetfall, planned as the next stage in the revival, would linger in Development Hell for years and ultimately never get finished. By the end of the 1990s, Zork as well would be a dead property in commercial terms.

Rather than having all that much to do with its Infocom heritage, Return to Zork‘s enormous commercial success came down to its catching the technological zeitgeist at just the right instant, joining Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, The 7th Guest, and Myst as the perfect flashy showpieces for CD-ROM. Its success conveyed all the wrong messages to game publishers like Activision: that multimedia glitz was everything, and that design really didn’t matter at all.

If it stings a bit that this of all games, arguably the worst one ever to bear the Infocom logo, should have sold better than any of the rest of them, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that Quality does have a way of winning out in the end. Today, Return to Zork is a musty relic of its time, remembered if at all only for that “want some rye?” guy. The classic Infocom text adventures, on the other hand, remain just that — widely recognized as timeless classics, their clean text-only presentations ironically much less dated than all of Return to Zork‘s oh-so-1993 multimedia flash. Justice does have a way of being served in the long run.

(Sources: the book Return to Zork Adventurer’s Guide by Steve Schwartz; Computer Gaming World of February 1993, July 1993, November 1993, and January 1994; Questbusters of December 1993; Sierra News Magazine of Spring 1990; Electronic Games of January 1994; New Media of June 24 1994. Online sources include The Zork Library‘s archive of Return to Zork design documents and correspondence, Retro Games Master‘s interview with Doug Barnett, and Matt Barton’s interview with William Volk. Some of this article is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk for sharing his memories and impressions with me in a personal interview.)

 

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An Unlikely Savior

Activision Blizzard is the largest game publisher in the Western world today, generating a staggering $7.5 billion in revenue every year. Along with the only slightly smaller behemoth Electronic Arts and a few Japanese competitors, Activision for all intents and purposes is the face of gaming as a mainstream, mass-media phenomenon. Even as the gaming intelligentsia looks askance at Activision for their unshakeable fixation on sequels and tried-and-true formulas, the general public just can’t seem to get enough Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, World of Warcraft, and Candy Crush Saga. Likewise, Bobby Kotick, who has sat in the CEO’s chair at Activision for over a quarter of a century now, is as hated by gamers of a certain progressive sensibility as he is loved by the investment community.

But Activision’s story could have — perhaps by all rights should have — gone very differently. When Kotick became CEO, the company was a shambling wreck that hadn’t been consistently profitable in almost a decade. Mismanagement combined with bad luck had driven it to the ragged edge of oblivion. What to a large degree saved Activision and made the world safe for World of Warcraft was, of all things, a defunct maker of text adventures which longtime readers of this ongoing history have gotten to know quite well. The fact that Infocom, the red-headed stepchild a previous Activision CEO had never wanted, is directly responsible for Activision’s continuing existence today is one of the strangest aspects of both companies’ stories.



The reinvention of Activision engineered by Bobby Kotick in the early 1990s was actually the company’s third in less than a decade.

Activision 1.0 was founded in 1979 by four former Atari programmers known as the “Fantastic Four,” along with a former music-industry executive named Jim Levy. Their founding tenets were that Atari VCS owners deserved better games than the console’s parent was currently giving them, and that Atari VCS game programmers deserved more recognition and more money than were currently forthcoming from the same source. They parlayed that philosophy into one of the most remarkable success stories of the first great videogame boom; their game Pitfall! alone sold more than 4 million copies in 1982. It would, alas, be a long, long time before Activision would enjoy success like that again.

Following the Great Videogame Crash of 1983, Levy tried to remake Activision into a publisher of home-computer games with a certain high-concept, artsy air. But, while the ambitions of releases like Little Computer People, Alter Ego, and Portal still make them interesting case studies today, Activision 2.0 generated few outright hits. Six months after Levy had acquired Infocom, the preeminent maker of artsy computer games, in mid-1986, he was forced out by his board.

Levy’s replacement was a corporate lawyer named Bruce Davis. He nixed the artsy fare, doubled down on licensed titles, and tried to establish Activision 3.0 as a maker of mass-market general-purpose computer software as well as games. Eighteen months into his tenure, he changed the company’s name to Mediagenic to reflect this new identity. But the new products were, like the new name, mostly bland in a soulless corporate way that, in the opinion of many, reflected Davis’s own personality all too accurately. By decade’s end, Mediagenic was regarded as an important player within their industry at least as much for their distributional clout, a legacy of their early days of Atari VCS success, as for the games and software they published under their own imprint. A good chunk of the industry used Mediagenic’s network to distribute their wares as members of the company’s affiliated-labels program.

Then the loss of a major lawsuit, combined with a slow accretion of questionable decisions from Davis, led to a complete implosion in 1990. The piggy bank provided by Activision 1.0’s success had finally run dry, and most observers assumed that was that for Mediagenic — or Activision, or whatever they preferred to call themselves today.

But over the course of 1991, a fast-talking wiz kid named Bobby Kotick seized control of the mortally wounded mastodon and put it through the wringer of bankruptcy. What emerged by the end of that year was so transformed as to raise the philosophical question of whether it ought to be considered the same entity at all. The new company employed just 10 percent as many people as the old (25 rather than 250) and was headquartered in a different region entirely (Los Angeles rather than Silicon Valley). It even had a new name — or, rather, an old one. Perhaps the smartest move Kotick ever made was to reclaim the company’s old appellation of “Activision,” still redolent for many of the nostalgia-rich first golden age of videogames, in lieu of the universally mocked corporatese of “Mediagenic.” Activision 4.0, the name reversion seemed to say, wouldn’t be afraid of their heritage in the way that versions 2.0 and 3.0 had been. Nor would they be shy about labeling themselves a maker of games, full stop; Mediagenic’s lines of “personal-productivity” software and the like were among the first things Kotick trashed.

Kotick was still considerably short of his thirtieth birthday when he took on the role of Activision’s supreme leader, but he felt like he’d been waiting for this opportunity forever. He’d spent much of the previous decade sniffing around at the margins of the industry, looking for a way to become a mover and shaker of note. (In 1987, for instance, at the tender age of 24, he’d made a serious attempt to scrape together a pool of investors to buy the computer company Commodore.) Now, at last, he had his chance to be a difference maker.

It was indeed a grand chance, but it was also an extremely tenuous one. He had been able to save Activision — save it for the time being, that is — only by mortgaging some 95 percent of it to its numerous creditors. These creditors-cum-investors were empowered to pull the plug at any time; Kotick himself maintained his position as CEO only by their grace. He needed product to stop the bleeding and add some black to the sea of red ink that was Activision’s books, thereby to show the creditors that their forbearance toward this tottering company with a snot-nosed greenhorn at the head hadn’t been a mistake. But where was said product to come from? Activision was starved for cash even as the typical game-development budget in the industry around them was increasing almost exponentially year over year. And it wasn’t as if third-party developers were lining up to work with them; they’d stiffed half the industry in the process of going through bankruptcy.

To get the product spigot flowing again, Kotick found a partner to join him in the executive suite. Peter Doctorow had spent the last six years or so with Accolade (a company ironically founded by two ex-Activision developers in 1984, in a fashion amusingly similar to the way that restless Atari programmers had begotten Activision). In the role of product-development guru, Doctorow had done much to create and maintain Accolade’s reputation as a maker of attractive and accessible games with natural commercial appeal. Activision, on the other hand, hadn’t enjoyed a comparable reputation since the heyday of the Atari VCS. Jumping ship from the successful Accolade to an Activision on life support would have struck most as a fool’s leap, but Kotick could be very persuasive. He managed to tempt Doctorow away with the title of president and the promise of an opportunity to build something entirely new from the ground up.

Of course, building materials for the new thing could and should still be scrounged from the ruins of Mediagenic whenever possible. After arriving at Activision, Doctorow thus made his first priority an inventory of what he already had to work with in the form of technology and intellectual property. On the whole, it wasn’t a pretty picture. Activision had never been particularly good at spawning the surefire franchises that gaming executives love. There were no Leisure Suit Larrys or Lord Britishes lurking in their archives — much less any Super Marios. Pitfall!, the most famous and successful title of all from the Atari VCS halcyon days, might be a candidate for revival, but its simple platforming charms were at odds with where computer gaming was and where it seemed to be going in the early 1990s; the talk in the industry was all about multimedia, live-action video, interactive movies, and story, story, story. Pitfall! would have been a more natural fit on the consoles, but Kotick and Doctorow weren’t sure they had the resources to compete as of yet in those hyper-competitive, expensive-to-enter walled gardens. Their first beachhead, they decided, ought to be on computers.

In that context, there were all those old Infocom games… was there some commercial potential there? Certainly Zork still had more name recognition than any property in the Activision stable other than Pitfall!.

Ironically, the question of a potential Infocom revival would have been moot if Bruce Davis had gotten his way. He had never wanted Infocom, having advised his predecessor Jim Levy strongly against acquiring them when he was still a mere paid consultant. When Infocom delivered a long string of poor-selling games over the course of 1987 and 1988, he felt vindicated, and justified in ordering their offices closed permanently in the spring of 1989.

Even after that seemingly final insult, Davis continued to make clear his lack of respect for Infocom. During the mad scramble for cash preceding the ultimate collapse of Mediagenic, he called several people in the industry, including Ken Williams at Sierra and Bob Bates at the newly founded Legend Entertainment, to see if they would be interested in buying the whole Infocom legacy outright — including games, copyrights, trademarks, source code, and the whole stack of development tools. He dropped his asking price as low as $25,000 without finding a taker; the multimedia-obsessed Williams had never had much interest in text adventures, and Bates was trying to get Legend off the ground and simply didn’t have the money to spare.

When a Mediagenic producer named Kelly Zmak learned what Davis was doing, he told him he was crazy. Zmak said that he believed there was still far more than $25,000 worth of value in the Infocom properties, in the form of nostalgia if nothing else. He believed there would be a market for a compilation of Infocom games, which were now available only as pricey out-of-print collectibles. Davis was skeptical — the appeal of Infocom’s games had always been lost on him — but told Zmak that, if he could put such a thing together for no more than $10,000, they might as well give it a try. Any port in a storm, as they say.

As it happened, Mediagenic’s downfall was complete before Zmak could get his proposed compilation into stores. But he was one of the few who got to keep his job with the resurrected company, and he made it clear to his new managers that he still believed there was real money to be made from the Infocom legacy. Kotick and Doctorow agreed to let him finish up his interrupted project.

And so one of the first products from the new Activision 4.0 became a collection of old games from the eras of Activision 3.0, 2.0, and even 1.0. It was known as The Lost Treasures of Infocom, and first entered shops very early in 1992.

Activision’s stewardship of the legacy that had been bequeathed to them was about as respectful as one could hope for under the circumstances. The compilation included 20 of the 35 canonical Infocom games. The selection felt a little random; while most of the really big, iconic titles — like all of the Zork games, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Enchanter trilogy, and Planetfall — were included, the 100,000-plus-selling Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Wishbringer were oddly absent. The feelies that had been such an important part of the Infocom experience were reduced to badly photocopied facsimiles lumped together in a thick, cheaply printed black-and-white manual — if, that is, they made the package at all. The compilers’ choices of which feelies ought to be included were as hit-and-miss as their selection of games, and in at least one case — that of Ballyhoo — the loss of an essential feelie rendered a game unwinnable without recourse to outside resources. Hardcore Infocom fans had good reason to bemoan this ugly mockery of the original games’ lovingly crafted packaging. “Where is the soul?” asked one of them in print, speaking for them all.

But any real or perceived lack of soul didn’t stop people from buying the thing. In fact, people bought it in greater numbers than even Kelly Zmak had dared to predict. At least 100,000 copies of The Lost Treasures of Infocom were sold — numbers better than any individual Infocom game had managed since 1986 — at a typical street price of about $60. With a response like that, Activision wasted no time in releasing most of the remaining games as The Lost Treasures of Infocom II, to sales that were almost as good. Along with Legend Entertainment’s final few illustrated text adventures, Lost Treasures I and II mark the last gasps of interactive fiction as a force in mainstream commercial American computer gaming.

The Lost Treasures of Infocom — the only shovelware compilation ever to spark a full-on artistic movement.

Yet these two early examples of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous practice of the shovelware compilation constitute a form of beginning as well as ending.  By collecting the vast majority of the Infocom legacy in one place, they cemented the idea of an established Infocom canon of Great Works, providing all those who would seek to make or play text adventures in the future with an easily accessible shared heritage from which to draw. For the Renaissance of amateur interactive fiction that would take firm hold by the mid-1990s, the Lost Treasures would become a sort of equivalent to what The Complete Works of William Shakespeare means to English literature. Had such heretofore obscure but groundbreaking Infocom releases as, say, Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It and Plundered Hearts not been collected in this manner, it’s doubtful whether they ever could have become as influential as they would eventually prove. Certainly a considerable percentage of the figures who would go on to make the Interactive Fiction Renaissance a reality completed their Infocom collection or even discovered the company’s rich legacy for the first time thanks to the Lost Treasures compilations.

Brian Eno once famously said that, while only about 30,000 people bought the Velvet Underground’s debut album, every one of them who did went out and started a band. A similar bit of hyperbole might be applied to the 100,000-and-change who bought Lost Treasures. These compilations did much to change perceptions of Infocom, from a mere interesting relic of an earlier era of gaming into something timeless and, well, canonical — a rich literary tradition that deserved to be maintained and further developed. It’s fair to ask whether the entire vibrant ecosystem of interactive fiction that remains with us today, in the form of such entities as the annual IF Comp and the Inform programming language, would ever have come to exist absent the Lost Treasures. Their importance to everything that would follow in interactive fiction is so pronounced that anecdotes involving them will doubtless continue to surface again and again as we observe the birth of a new community built around the love of text and parsers in future articles on this site.

For Activision, on the other hand, the Lost Treasures compilations made a much more immediate and practical difference. What with their development costs of close to zero and their no-frills packaging that hadn’t cost all that much more to put together, every copy sold was as close to pure profit as a game could possibly get. They made an immediate difference to Activision’s financial picture, giving them some desperately needed breathing room to think about next steps.

Observing the success of the compilations, Peter Doctorow was inclined to return to the Infocom well again. In fact, he had for some time now been eyeing Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Infocom’s last genuine hit, with interest. In the time since it had sold 130,000 copies in 1986, similarly risqué adventure games had become a profitable niche market: Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry series, Legend’s Spellcasting series, and Accolade’s Les Manley series had all done more or less well. There ought to be a space, Doctorow reasoned, for a sequel to the game which had started the trend by demonstrating that, in games as just about everywhere else, Sex Sells. Hewing to this timeless maxim, he had made a point of holding the first Leather Goddesses out of the Lost Treasures compilations in favor of giving it its own re-release as a standalone $10 budget title — the only one of the old Infocom games to be accorded this honor.

Doctorow had a tool which he very much wanted to use in the service of a new adventure game. Whilst casting through the odds and ends of technology left over from the Mediagenic days, he had come upon something known as the Multimedia Applications Development Environment, the work of a small internal team of developers headed by one William Volk. MADE had been designed to facilitate immersive multimedia environments under MS-DOS that were much like the Apple Macintosh’s widely lauded HyperCard environment. In fact, Mediagenic had used it just before the wheels had come off to publish a colorized MS-DOS port of The Manhole, Rand and Robyn Miller’s unique HyperCard-based “fantasy exploration for children of all ages.” Volk and most of his people were among the survivors from the old times still around at the new Activision, and the combination of the MADE engine with Leather Goddesses struck Doctorow as a commercially potent one. He thus signed Steve Meretzky, designer of the original game, to write a sequel to this second most popular game he had ever worked on. (The most popular of all, of course, had been Hitchhiker’s, which was off limits thanks to the complications of licensing.)

But from the beginning, the project was beset by cognitive dissonance, alongside extreme pressure, born of Activision’s precarious finances, to just get the game done as quickly as possible. Activision’s management had decided that adventure games in the multimedia age ought to be capable of appealing to a far wider, less stereotypically eggheaded audience than the games of yore, and therefore issued firm instructions to Meretzky and the rest of the development team to include only the simplest of puzzles. Yet this prioritization of simplicity above all else rather belied the new game’s status as a sequel to an Infocom game which, in addition to its lurid content, had featured arguably the best set of interlocking puzzles Meretzky had ever come up with. The first Leather Goddesses had been a veritable master class in classic adventure-game design. The second would be… something else.

Which isn’t to say that the sequel didn’t incorporate some original ideas of its own; they were just orthogonal to those that had made the original so great. Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X really wanted to a be a CD-based title, but a critical mass of CD-ROM-equipped computers just wasn’t quite there yet at the time it was made. So, when it shipped in May of 1992 it filled 17 (!) floppy disks, using the space mostly for, as Activision’s advertisements proudly trumpeted in somewhat mangled diction, “more than an hour of amazing digital sound track!” Because a fair number of MS-DOS computer owners still didn’t have sound cards at this point, and because a fair proportion of those that did had older models of same that weren’t up to the task of delivering digitized audio as opposed to synthesized sounds and music, Activision also included a “LifeSize Sound Enhancer” in every box — a little gadget with a basic digital-to-analog circuit and a speaker inside it, which could be plugged into the printer port to make the game talk. This addition pushed the price up into the $60 range, making the game a tough sell for the bare few hours of content it offered — particularly if you already had a decent sound card and thus didn’t even need the hardware gadget you were being forced to pay for. Indeed, thanks to those 17 floppy disks, Leather Goddesses 2 would come perilously close to taking most gamers longer to install than it would to actually play.

That said, brevity was among the least of the game’s sins: Leather Goddesses 2 truly was a comprehensive creative disaster. The fact that this entire game was built from an overly literal interpretation of a tossed-off joke at the end of its predecessor says it all really. Meretzky’s designs had been getting lazier for years by the time this one arrived, but this game, his first to rely solely on a point-and-click interface, marked a new low for him. Not only were the brilliant puzzles that used to do at least as much as his humor to make his games special entirely absent, but so was all of the subversive edge to his writing. To be fair, Activision’s determination to make the game as accessible as possible — read, trivially easy — may have largely accounted for the former lack. Meretzky chafed at watching much of the puzzle design — if this game’s rudimentary interactivity can even be described using those words — get put together without him in Activision’s offices, a continent away from his Boston home. The careless writing, however, is harder to make excuses for.

In the tradition of the first Leather Goddesses, the sequel lets you choose to play as a man or a woman — or, this time, as an alien of indeterminate sex.

Still, this game is obviously designed for the proverbial male gaze. The real question is, why were all these attempts to be sexy in games so painfully, despressingly unsexy? Has anyone ever gotten really turned on by a picture like this one?

Earlier Meretzky games had known they were stupid, and that smart sense of self-awareness blinking through between the stupid had been their saving grace when they wandered into questionable, even borderline offensive territory. This one, on the other hand, was as introspective as one of the bimbos who lived within it. Was this really the same designer who just seven years before had so unabashedly aimed for Meaning in the most literary sense with A Mind Forever Voyaging? During his time at Infocom, Meretzky had been the Man of 1000 Ideas, who could rattle off densely packed pages full of games he wanted to make when given the least bit of encouragement. And yet by the end of 1992, he had made basically the same game four times in a row, with diminishing returns every time out. Just how far did he think he could ride scantily clad babes and broad innuendo? The shtick was wearing thin.

The women in many games of this ilk appear to be assembled from spare parts that don’t quite fit together properly.

Here, though, that would seem to literally be the case. These two girls have the exact same breasts.

In his perceptive review of Leather Goddesses 2 for Computer Gaming World magazine, Chris Lombardi pointed out how far Meretzky had fallen, how cheap and exploitative the game felt — and not even cheap and exploitative in a good way, for those who really were looking for titillation above all else.

The treatment of sex in LGOP2 seems so gratuitous, and adolescent, and (to use a friend’s favorite adjective for pop music) insipid. The game’s “explicit” visual content is all very tame (no more explicit than a beer commercial, really) and, for the most part, involves rather mediocre images of women in tight shirts, garters, or leather, most with impossibly protruding nipples. It’s the stuff of a Wally Cleaver daydream, which is appropriate to the game’s context, I suppose.

It appears quite innocuous at first, yet as I played along I began to sense an underlying attitude running through it all that can best be seen in the use of a whorehouse in the game. When one approaches this whorehouse, one is served a menu of a dozen or so names to choose from. Choosing a name takes players to a harlot’s room and affords them a “look at the goods.” Though loosely integrated into the storyline, it is all too apparent that it is merely an excuse for a slideshow of more rather average drawings of women.

You have to wonder what Activision was thinking. Do they imagine adults are turned on or, at minimum, entertained by this stuff? If they do, then I think they’ve misunderstood their market. And that must be the case, for the only other possibility is to suggest that their real target market is actually, and more insidiously, a younger, larger slice of the computer-game demographic pie.

On the whole, Lombardi was kinder to the game than I would have been, but his review nevertheless raised the ire of Peter Doctorow, who wrote in to the magazine with an ad hominem response: “It seems clear to me that you must be among those who long for the good old days, when films were black and white, comic books were a dime, and you could get an American-made gas guzzler with a distinct personality, meticulously designed taillights, and a grill reminiscent of a gargantuan grin. Sadly, the merry band that was Infocom can no longer be supported with text adventures.”

It seldom profits a creator to attempt to rebut a reviewer’s opinion, as Doctorow ought to have been experienced enough to know. His graceless accusation of Ludditism, which didn’t even address the real concerns Lombardi stated in his review, is perhaps actually a response to a vocal minority of the Infocom hardcore who were guaranteed to give Activision grief for any attempt to drag a beloved legacy into the multimedia age. Even more so, though, it was a sign of the extreme financial duress under which Activision still labored. Computer Gaming World was widely accepted as the American journal of record for the hobby in question, and their opinions could make or break a game’s commercial prospects. The lukewarm review doubtless contributed to Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2‘s failure to sell anywhere near as many copies as the Lost Treasures compilations — and at a time when Activision couldn’t afford to be releasing flops.

So, for more reasons than one, Leather Goddesses 2 would go down in history as an embarrassing blot on the CV of everyone involved. Sex, it seemed, didn’t always sell after all — not when it was done this poorly.

One might have thought that the failure of Leather Goddesses 2 would convince Activision not to attempt any further Infocom revivals. Yet once the smoke cleared even the defensive Doctorow could recognize that its execution had been, to say the least, lacking. And there still remained the counterexample of the Lost Treasures compilations, which were continuing to sell briskly. Activision thus decided to try again — this time with a far more concerted, better-funded effort that would exploit the most famous Infocom brand of all. Zork itself was about to make a splashy return to center stage.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1992, July 1992, and October 1992; Questbusters of February 1992 and August 1992; Compute! of November 1987; Amazing Computing of April 1992; Commodore Magazine of July 1989; .info of April 1992. Online sources include Roger J. Long’s review of the first Lost Treasures compilation. Some of this article is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk and Bob Bates for sharing their memories and impressions with me in personal interviews.)

 
 

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Living Worlds of Action and Adventure, Part 2: Mercenary, Fairlight, and Spindizzy

Before we begin in earnest today, I’d like to note that if I was writing this series of articles in isolation I would wind up covering a somewhat longer list of games. As it is, though, I’ve already written about what I would consider to be the next two logical suspects in the tradition I’m trying to chronicle here. Like all of the games I’ll be writing about from here on in this series, both are British creations.

First, we have Mike Singleton’s stately 1984 epic The Lords of Midnight. It stands out from the other games in this tradition in that it doesn’t run in real time — technically speaking, it’s actually a strategy-adventure rather than an action-adventure — but it has much in common with them in a thematic sense. Singleton too sought to explode the restricted possibility space of text adventures, refusing to let his expectations be tempered by the limited hardware at his disposal. Working on a 48 K Sinclair Spectrum equipped only with a cassette drive, he built his world as a 64 X 64 square “game board,” filled with multifarious terrain over which you can freely roam. You can look in any direction from any location in the world, seeing a dynamically generated picture of what lies there. Said picture can include friends, enemies, and neutral parties; the world contains dozens of other, computer-controlled actors moving about in pursuit of their own agendas. Despite its turn-based play and its stepped movement, The Lords of Midnight manages to achieve much the same sense of boundless freedom and emergent possibility that mark the best of the purer breed of British action-adventures. It was enormously popular, a perennial on the Spectrum for years, and its influence can be felt on most of the later games you’ll soon be reading about.

Then we have the action-adventures of the legendary development house Ultimate Play the Game. It was through Ultimate, who had connections to the wider international culture of videogames that almost all of their British peers lacked, that the innovations of Warren Robinett’s Adventure first reached Britain. Beginning with Atic Atac in 1984, their first game of the type, Ultimate’s action-adventures thus became the prerequisites for all of the British action-adventures that would follow. Later in 1984, they debuted Knight Lore, the first action-adventure to present its world from an isometric perspective, thus adding the third dimension of depth which Adventure had lacked. It would go on to become arguably the most influential Spectrum game of all time; in its wake, isometric games went from unheard of to absolutely everywhere in Britain in bare months. And then, barely a year on from those landmark games, Ultimate was gone, clearing the way for those who would build on their legacy.

So, have a look at my earlier articles on the aforementioned two topics if you feel the need to, and then let’s continue on to some other living worlds of action and adventure.

 

Mercenary: Escape from Targ (1985)


British game programmers of the 1980s had an insatiable appetite for vastness, driving them to find ways of making kilobytes of memory seem like megabytes. The canonical example of their peculiar form of programming genius is Ian Bell and David Braben’s 1984 game Elite, which packed a universe of eight galaxies and thousands of star systems into a BBC Micro’s 32 K of memory. Yet, extraordinary as Elite is, Paul Woakes’s 1985 game Mercenary: Escape from Targ deserves mention in the same breath whenever the conversation turns to making a big game using very little. Working within the only slightly more generous confines of a 48 K Atari 8-bit computer, Woakes mapped an entire planet’s surface into memory, creating a virtual space which one can spend hours and hours of real time traversing without ever treading over one’s previous footsteps. Eight years before Doom, on a computer with the merest fraction of the horsepower of the ones used to run that seminal title, Mercenary presented this living world in smooth-scrolling first-person three-dimensional graphics, running in real time. Its presentation was so revolutionary, going far beyond even the 3D graphics of Elite, that people struggled to come up with words to describe it. David Aubrey-Jones, who ported Woakes’s work from the Atari to the Sinclair Spectrum, took a stab at it by saying that Woakes alone among his contemporaries “writes in mathematics”:

The computer is continually evaluating your position, what is visible from your position, and how objects move in relation to you while still remaining in true 3D perspective. This sort of calculation is infinitely more complex than a game where a sprite is plopped down on the screen and just moved left and right.

The process Aubrey-Jones describes would of course come to be known as “3D rendering,” but at the time the necessary vocabulary literally didn’t exist in everyday diction.

Mercenary may not look like much today, but in 1985 its 3D world was nothing short of revolutionary. Here we’re standing near a flying machine which we can board and fly off in if we like.

Mercenary begins when your spaceship crashes on the planet of Targ. Your overriding goal is, as the game’s subtitle implies, that of simple escape from the planet. Several models of flying machine happen to be spread about the landscape; these you can climb into and use to joyride through the skies. But finding a flying machine capable of carrying you into orbit, where a space station beckons with spaceships bound for other worlds, is easier said than done. Before you can make your escape, you’ll need to explore a huge network of underground corridors that spreads out below the surface of the planet — just in case Woakes’s world wasn’t vast enough for you already. When you go underground, Mercenary takes on more of the characteristics of a conventional adventure game, with locked doors and keys, items to buy and sell, errands to run and corridors to map as best you can. While you’re at it all, you’ll have to reckon with a war that’s raging between the Palyars, the peaceful original inhabitants of Targ, and the Mechanoids, an invading army of robots. You can elect to ally yourself with one side or the other, try to insinuate yourself with both, or charge at all and sundry with guns blazing (although this last is not recommended as a viable long-term strategy).

One of the most extraordinary things about Mercenary is that there are no other embodied characters in its world — the closest it comes are the other flying craft on the surface who can pursue you — yet this world never feels empty. You can communicate with the Palyars and the Mechanoids only from a distance, through your trusty portable computer Benson and the trail of messages and clues left behind by others whom you never see. But somehow it works; the political choices you have to make feel thoroughly real.

Inside one of the underground complexes.

The game gives you absolute and thoroughgoing freedom right from the start. You gain control while standing on the surface of Targ next to the ruin of your just-crashed spaceship. In terms of next steps, you have only a hint from Benson to seek out a certain location underground — a long, long way off and underground. At least a flying machine is conveniently close by; you can buy it using most of your meager initial store of cash to get started in your travels. Still, while it seems pretty clear what the game wants you to do at this point, nothing forces you to do it. Instead of taking the flying machine, you can save your money and set off on foot to see what lies beyond the proverbial next hill. Or you can save your money by stealing the flying machine, which will send the police after you in hot pursuit. At that point, you could of course try to escape them through clever flying… or use a well-placed missile to eliminate the threat more quickly. Either way, you’ve just made your first enemies.

Nothing is out of bounds. Most of the appeal of the game, truth be told, has little to do with escaping from Targ: it’s seeing what you can find out there in its world, testing its boundaries, and seeing what you can get away with. More so than Doom, a better point of comparison to Mercenary is actually Grand Theft Auto, and not only because you’ll spend much of your time jumping in and out of different vehicles. Some players might choose to follow the plot, but others couldn’t care less about it — and if you don’t, neither does the game. Another point of comparison — one anchored much closer in time to Mercenary than Grand Theft Auto and, one might even say, closer to it in spirit as well — are the works of that famed virtual-world-builder Richard Garriott. Like his Ultima games, Mercenary was a world before it was a game; the puzzles and plot were the last ingredients to go into the mix. If this can make the mechanics of solving it feel beside the point at times, that seems to be by design. Almost uniquely among games of its era, Mercenary fully supports — even encourages — free-form play, whether you want to go all ultraviolent on it or you want to just stroll around quietly seeing what you can discover. It only emphasizes this spirit of laissez faire to note that it’s impossible to get yourself killed in Mercenary. Even if you power-dive into the ground at mach 5, you’ll always be thrown safely clear of the wreck. Coming in a time when games were infamously cruel, such a forgiving spirit defied every contemporary norm.

Approaching a building on the surface of the planet.

The world of Paul Woakes is also like those of Richard Garriott in that it’s a collision of the epic with the personal, its spaces littered with the flotsam and jetsam of its creator’s mind. People and places drawn from his real life abound, along with in-jokes galore. If you blow up a sign advertising Woakes’s previous game, a shoot-em-up called Encounter, you’ll be scolded and trapped on the planet until it’s repaired: “The author won’t let you leave until you fix his advert,” says the game. There’s a flyable block of cheese — a different kind of flying Kraft (groan…). There’s a hapless “Palyar commander’s brother-in-law,” a classic sitcom archetype who keeps getting in your way and getting screwed over in one way or another. (It’s been admitted that he stood in for someone known very well to Woakes in the real world, but in the interest of protecting the innocent and the guilty no more details have ever been allowed to slip out.) There’s a kitchen sink for when you’ve tried everything to solve a certain problem — all but the kitchen sink, that is (bigger groan…).

There are just so many secrets to discover on Targ that have nothing to do with the plot. When you come upon a box of something with the number 12939 printed nonsensically on the side, you might want to look at the letters from the other side, whereupon you’ll find that they spell out Woakes’s caffeine-delivery system of choice: “Pepsi.” (Now it makes sense that they say they need a supply of “12939” to get their work done over in the conference room.) Bruce Jordan, the man who ran Novagen, the little company Woakes founded to sell his games, noted that “this really is the fun part. All of the wacky ideas are Paul’s. He has this weird sense of humor that comes through in the game.”

An Atari logo craving protection (if you’re playing the Atari version) or destruction (if you’re playing the Commodore version). Shooting it in the former version results in being called a traitor; in the latter version, you’re told, “Good show!” And yes, a Commodore logo is found elsewhere in both versions, with the opposite message attached.

Mercenary is littered with secrets and Easter eggs like those I’ve just described, crying out to be cataloged and shared by the game’s many devoted fans. Not least because exploring this world could feel so much like exploring the mind of its creator, a cult of personality sprang up around Woakes which was unusual even by the standards of the British games industry, where the programmers of hit games were often not only known but treated like royalty by their fans. (In the Britain of the 1980s, in other words, Trip Hawkins’s dream of turning “electronic artists” into rock stars actually was to some extent realized.) Woakes, an introverted chap who loathed the spotlight, only magnified his status by refusing every interview and, indeed, rarely appearing to leave his Birmingham home. He thus gained the reputation of a reclusive genius. While Woakes remained in hiding, other programmers gradually ported his game beyond the minority Atari 8-bit platform to machines like the Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga, on all of which it did very well.

In light of all this British success, it’s more than a little amusing to consider the reaction Mercenary engendered when it was imported to the United States. The same game which British reviewers had gushed over as “one of the most exciting releases ever” or, even more extremely, “about the best computer game ever to be written” was roundly panned by American critics, who didn’t seem quite to know what to do with all the freedom they were being offered. “Avoid the unpleasantness of having to Escape from Targ by never getting stuck there in the first place,” wrote one. Another summed the situation up in two words emblazoned on the page in capital letters: “NOT RECOMMENDED.” Seldom have we seen a starker example of the differing expectation of two different gaming cultures. Indeed, many of the other games I’ll be writing about in this series never even got an American release. American publishers knew their customers, and knew that, for whatever reason, there simply wasn’t much of a domestic appetite for games like these.

Woakes followed up the original Mercenary with an expansion pack called The Second City, which added a new complex to explore on the other side of the planet. Then, over the course of the late 1980s and early 1990s, he made a couple of full-fledged standalone sequels, each with expansion packs of its own. Running on more advanced machines than the first game, the sequels replaced the wire-frame graphics of the original with filled solids — and all still well before Doom. Woakes worked for years on each new game at a time when the norm was a handful of months. He thus became the ultimate independent videogame auteur of his era, selling none of his fine wines before their time. Meanwhile his cult of personality analyzed every scant morsel of a clue about him which they could find in his games and awaited his next masterwork with bated breath.

Ever the recluse, Woakes dropped off the radar later in the 1990s, when a changing industry made his way of making games untenable. To my knowledge, he never sat down for a single interview prior to his death in July of 2017. He thus remains even today the subject of considerable speculation and fascination from his aging cult, a sort of ultra-nichey version of J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon.

The best way to get a taste of his eccentric genius today is to visit The Mercenary Site. There you’ll find the inauspiciously named MDDClone, a loving, pixel-perfect re-creation of Mercenary and all of its sequels and expansions for modern Windows and Linux computers.

Fairlight (1985)


Although Fairlight was created by a Swede named Bo Jangeborg, it nevertheless feels like a vital part of the great British action-adventure tradition in that it was hugely influenced by the earlier British hit Knight Lore, was published by a British software house, ran on the British Sinclair Spectrum, and enjoyed by far its greatest success in, you guessed it, Great Britain. But most importantly of all for our purposes, its living world is as amazing for managing to live in just 48 K as anything put together by the greatest British masters of compression. In a telling testament to where his priorities lay, Jangeborg named his game engine the Worldmaker.

His game was released in late 1985, almost simultaneously with Mercenary, and the two titles form a useful study in contrasts. Where Woakes emphasized breadth in his virtual world-building, Jangeborg emphasized depth. The castle in which Fairlight is played consists of just 80 rooms, a far cry from the planet-sized sprawl of Mercenary. In place of the contiguous space of Mercenary, each room in Fairlight is its own discrete place, as in Warren Robinett’s Adventure. And Fairlight replaces the first-person 3D perspective of Mercenary with the third-person isometric view that first took the world of British gaming by storm in Ultimate Play the Game’s Knight Lore.

These points may at first seem to paint a picture of a less ambitious game, but the depth which Fairlight gains in place of Mercenary‘s breadth is in its way every bit as stunning. Jangeborg built for his world an extraordinarily versimiltudious physics model, then populated its rooms with objects and creatures to take advantage of it. Well before Richard Garriott would begin pushing in a similar direction in the United States with Ultima V, Jangeborg, with a fraction of the resources at his disposal in terms of both computing potential and human helpers, made a world built of realistic things. Every object in the game has a size, a shape, and a weight which the program accounts for at every step, and the world model allows objects to be beneath, behind, or inside other objects. Throw a dagger against a wall and watch it bounce off and come sliding back toward you on the floor. Push a table over to the wall, set a chair on top, and climb onto a precarious perch to squeeze through that high window. Surround yourself with a barricade of barrels to fend off those soldiers who are attacking from several directions, or leap onto a table and do your best Errol Flynn routine on them. Unlike the turn-based Ultima games, Fairlight does all of this in real time. It’s a heavy task for the little Speccy, so much so that there’s a healthy wait every time you move to a new room, so much so that the whole simulation slows down noticeably for every additional creature other than yourself on the screen. But the incredible thing, of course, is that it works at all.

Due to the limitations of the Spectrum, Fairlight presents itself in monochrome graphics. Far from being a disadvantage, they give the game a certain classy look today in contrast to the garish, clashing colors of so many of its peers.

Almost as impressive as the game’s physics model are the other inhabitants of the castle. As in Robinett’s Adventure, each creature has its own “fears and desires,” and its own way of moving around the world and fighting. Trolls, as you would expect, are big, dumb, and slow, but hit with deadly force if you spend too long in their path. Other enemies are quicker and smarter, capable of lying in wait to ambush you or retreating to join up with comrades elsewhere when the odds start looking unfavorable. And their “desires” really do come into play; if you toss gold on the ground as you’re running away, there’s a good chance the greedy soldiers will stop to pick it up.

Fairlight presents a universe of emergent possibility to replace the static puzzles of standard adventure games. One contemporary reviewer, struggling to articulate differences he could feel but couldn’t quite put a finger on, noted that in other games “each room poses a problem that you’ve got to overcome. Fairlight is one big problem — but you’ll have one helluva time trying to solve it!” There are no single-solution puzzles in Fairlight. Instead there are merely situations — or, if you like, problems — admitting themselves of a multitude of approaches, depending on predilection and circumstance. When you come upon a door guarded by a soldier, you could try to kill him with your sword. Or, you could get him to chase you into the courtyard, then dash back through the door and lock it behind you. You can play the game as a stolid warrior or a slinking thief as it suits you, without ever having to choose a class in some dry character-creation system.

To an only slightly lesser extent than Mercenary, Fairlight encourages open-ended playful play alongside more focused attempts to solve it. (You accomplish the latter, by the way, by rescuing a certain wizard who’s been imprisoned in one of the castle’s towers). Among the castle’s fiendish inhabitants are soldiers who collapse down into their helmets when they die, then re-spawn from them after a certain amount of time has passed. In the spirit of “I wonder what will happen if,” players started piling the helmets together in a single room, making an informal contest out of seeing how many resurrected soldiers they could pack in thereby. The Worldmaker engine, for what it’s worth, seems to have no hard upper limit on the number of inhabitants allowed in a room, although the game gets extremely slow as the numbers grow. But the biggest problem by the time you have, say, eight soldiers packed into such a small space is just surviving long enough inside the resulting Cuisinart of whirling blades to make it to the door.

Fairlight is the rare game where even the title screen is important. Looking closely at the castle here can give vital clues about the location of potential secret doors leading to unexplored areas.

Played today, Fairlight has some clear-cut issues beyond the slowdowns. The interface can be awkward. It takes time to get a feel for how to line up your movements with the diagonal lines of the isometric display, while picking up and manipulating objects can be annoyingly fiddly, requiring you to be standing just so in relation to them. And for all that Fairlight‘s world is much smaller than that of Mercenary in absolute terms, its castle is still a big place, virtually requiring you to make a map if you’re not to get hopelessly lost inside, not to mention if you hope to find the likely location of secret areas. Yet making an accurate map is no mean feat in itself, what with the isometric view once again confusing the matter and things constantly happening all around you in real time. All of these factors can combine to make Fairlight extremely off-putting when you first pick it up. Still, it is worth exploring, if only for a little while, to gain an appreciation for the major feat of programming talent and sheer imagination that it is. Quite apart from all its other strengths, its physics model alone is a decade ahead of its time.

Like Paul Woakes of Mercenary fame, the auteur behind Fairlight was something of an enigma. Spending most of his time in his native Sweden, Bo Jangeborg seldom gave interviews to the British press even when his game was at the height of its success. In the end, his time as a game programmer proved even shorter than that of Woakes. He had a major falling-out with his publisher, a sketchy outfit known as The Edge,1 over two issues. The first was their release of a Commodore 64 port of Fairlight with a bug in it that made the game impossible to complete; this they refused to ever address or even acknowledge, an unconscionable breach of faith with their customers. But The Edge’s relationship with Jangeborg fell apart for good only when they pulled Fairlight II out of his hands before it was complete and released it, full of mysteriously disappearing objects, spontaneously appearing monsters, and rooms that seemed to wander about the castle of their own accord, in order to capitalize on the 1986 Christmas sales season. Jangeborg claims that The Edge forced him to sign a contract authorizing the sequel’s release by withholding payment on royalties due from the first game. After that bitter experience, he never made another game.

Fairlight is unfortunately not so convenient to play today as Mercenary; it must be played using a Spectrum emulator such as Fuse. But the hardy among you who are willing to go through the trouble can find everything you’ll need to play it on an emulator at The World of Spectrum.

Spindizzy (1986)


One of the biggest international arcade hits of 1984 was a game from Atari called Marble Madness. In it, you control a marble rolling along an obstacle course full of jumps, hairpin turns, and other, evil marbles trying to knock you off the edge of the course. Two years after its arcade debut, Marble Madness came to computers for the first time in the form of an exemplary conversion for the Commodore Amiga from Electronic Arts. It became one of the Amiga’s biggest early showpiece games.

Yet even as the Amiga, with the comparatively huge amount of computing power it had on tap, was being turned to the task of duplicating the straightforward level-based arcade game by American programmers, a British programmer named Paul Shirley was applying some of the mechanics of Marble Madness to something far more innovative and ambitious — and doing it all within the tight constraints of an 8-bit Amstrad CPC home computer at that. Inspired, like all those countless other young British programmers, by the example of Knight Lore, Shirley had already worked up the routines to display a network of rooms from an isometric viewpoint when he first saw Marble Madness in a local arcade. This, he says, gave him the “rollaround idea,” leading him to design an unlikely mashup of Marble Madness and Knight Lore, taking the core mechanics of the former and applying them to an open world awaiting free-form exploration — a huge difference from the constrained level progression of the arcade game. “Whereas Marble Madness is a race,” Shirley said, “Spindizzy is more of an adventure.”

For all that adventure games are often seen as the very first narrative-focused computer games, most early adventures are actually more about exploring their architectures of space than they are about plot. When you solve puzzles, your reward is more rooms to explore, and when you reach the last room, you’ve usually either won already or are very close to it. With Spindizzy, Shirley took this notion to its logical extreme by making entering as many “rooms” as possible your one and only goal. You play a “Trainee Assistant Cartographer for Unknown Worlds” assigned to explore the recently discovered Hangworld: a labyrinth hanging suspended in “inter-dimensional space.” If you manage to visit every one of the 386 screens which make up Hangworld, you’ve won. But doing so is a very tall order.

Spindizzy in action. The numbers at the left show seconds of fuel remaining, rooms remaining to explore, and how many fuel jewels have been collected so far. Gerald, your avatar — or rather your avatar’s vehicle — is the inverted pyramid toward the right. Atop the ledge is a fuel jewel. The problem, of course, is figuring out how to get Gerald up there to collect it…

Like so many classic puzzle games, Spindizzy builds seemingly endless variation out of a very limited supply of parts. This puzzle game, however, adds all the pressure of an action game to the mix. Getting from one screen to another in your little marble of a spacecraft, who in the game’s quirky fashion is unaccountably known as Gerald, requires reflexes and coordination as well as puzzle-solving skills. Tight squeezes and jumps abound, as do pressure plates which cause effects elsewhere that you’ll need to discover for yourself. The physics model is almost as impressive as that of Fairlight; momentum and conservation of energy are critical. Gerald can actually be transformed at will into any of three separate shapes — a ball, a tetrahedron, and a gyroscope — each with its own handling characteristics. He also comes equipped with a turbo unit, but it must be used sparingly, as it consumes fuel at a prodigious rate. Ditto falling off one of the sides of the maze due to a misjudged corner or an overshot jump. A timer counts down the seconds of fuel remaining in Gerald before he goes dead and you lose the game; you begin with only enough to last 107 seconds of normally aspirated play. You can pick up more fuel by passing over energy jewels, but there never seem to be as many of them as you need. And no, there is no save function.

It all makes of Spindizzy a brutally difficult game, one requiring anyone who hopes to see its victory screen to play it over and over again, hopefully getting just a little further each time. The number of players who have managed to complete it — who have even come anywhere close to finishing it — must be vanishingly rare. Yet the game has a way of drawing players who swear it off in frustration back again the very next day, determined despite themselves to pick up where they left off and try to see a few more rooms. Universally judged by reviewers to be as praise-worthy as it was confounding, it was a big hit in 1986.

Cruel though it otherwise is, Spindizzy does do you the favor of providing a map which you can reference at any time by pressing the “M” key. As you can see, Hangworld is a big, big place.

Thankfully for the less hardcore among us, Paul Shirley did return to the concept once more. After a couple of less notable games, he made a pseudo-sequel called Spindizzy Worlds for the Atari ST and Amiga in 1990. It’s much larger but in many ways more forgiving than its predecessor: more hints are on offer as to where you should be going next and what you should be doing there, and the game is saved when you finish off one of its many component “worlds.” The first round of reviews were superlative; the sequel seemed to be shaping up to be at least as big a hit as the original. But Spindizzy Worlds was released on the Activision label in Britain just as Mediagenic, the label’s American parent company, was collapsing. It appeared in British shops in only tiny quantities, then promptly vanished forever, thus becoming one of the great should-have-been-a-contenders of gaming history.

Spindizzy Worlds on the Amiga looks snazzier than its predecessor, and is an even better game to boot.

Shirley too then vanished from the games industry. He claims he was never consulted about nor paid for a Super Nintendo version of Spindizzy Worlds which the resurrected Activision released in 1993. Asked years later in a rare interview what he would do to improve the industry, his reply made it clear that his bitterness persisted: “Shoot the crooks and incompetents running most of it.”

As Spindizzy Worlds proved to the few who got a chance to play it in its day, there’s still a lot of life in the Spindizzy concept. Add save points and some other measures to make it more reasonable, and I can imagine it doing well today. Various projects have been launched to remake it, but to my knowledge none have yet come to fruition as a complete, playable game. As it stands today, then, your only option is to play it through an emulator. You can download Spindizzy for the Spectrum at World of Spectrum or, even better, Spindizzy Worlds for the Amiga from right here — to play the latter, you may want to invest in the Amiga Forever emulator package — and have at it.

(Sources: Amstrad Action of May 1987 and October 1993; A.N.A.L.O.G. of January 1987; Atari ST User of February 1987; Commodore User of May 1988; Crash of September 1985, May 1986, June 1986, and September 1987; Midnite Software Gazette 40; New Computer Express of July 29 1989; Page 6 of March 1986 and January 1987; Popular Computing Weekly of March 3 1983, March 17 1983, May 26 1983, December 26 1985, January 9 1986, and May 22 1986; The Games Machine of October 1987; The One of August 1989, May 1990, November 1990, June 1991 and February 1992; Zzap! of March 1986, June 1986, September 1986, and July 1991; Questbusters of January 1987; Sinclair User of September 1985, October 1986, November 1986, December 1986, and April 1987; Your Spectrum of November 1985; Amiga Computing of November 1989, December 1989, and January 1991; CU Amiga of November 1991; Game Developer of April 2010 and November 2010; Home Computing Weekly of June 21 1983; Amtix of March 1986; Retro Gamer 52. Online sources include Eurogamer’s Mercenary Retrospective,” Electron Dance‘s “The First Open World,” Sockmonsters‘s “The Making of Mercenary, Paul White’s interview of Bo Jangeborg, and Rock Paper Shotgun‘s “Tim Langdell Loses in Future ‘Edge’ Trial,” and Halycon Days‘s interview of Paul Shirley.)


  1. The Edge was run by one Dr. Tim Langdell — he has always insisted his name be prefixed with his title — who has been a vortex of conflict and controversy since at least 1983, when he caused a brouhaha in the young British microcomputer industry by threatening to sue several developers who had used a BASIC compiler made by his company Softek to write commercial software without his permission. Anecdotes about Langdell’s jerky behavior soon became common barroom fodder within the industry, only occasionally surfacing in public. Insider legend has it that one of The Edge’s programmers, who Dr. Langdell demanded create a slapdash X-Men game in a ridiculously short time before his license on the property expired, finally had a meltdown in response to the constant needling. He punched Dr. Langell in the face before walking out, thus fulfilling the fondest wish of many; the game, needless to say, was never released.

    One hilarious bit of snark that did make it out for public consumption was the magazine Amiga Computing‘s review of The Edge’s game Garfield: Winter’s Tail in 1989. It’s told from the perspective of the titular cartoon cat:

    Garfield has signed up with The Edge, but notices that Tim Langdell, the boss of the company, doesn’t quite smell right. A first inkling of the horror to come.

    Then Garfield notices that there are holes in Tim’s jumper, and that he’s wearing a tatty old hat. Odd, but it gets odder when Tim shows Garfield how the game is progressing some months later.

    There’s a scrolling section, a scene in a chocolate factory, and a skating part. But where’s the Garfield, the plump one asks. “Right where we want him,” snarls Tim, six-inch blades flashing across the office, glinting in the moonlight streaming through the window.

    Garfield meows in surprise and finds himself catapulted into the game… [cue an extended pan of the game]

    That’s it for poor Garfield. His alter ego returns to his captive computerised torso and shivers under the blanket. Garfield can only sit and wait, and hope that some talented individual with the patience of Job can finish the game and rescue him from this nightmare that The Edge created.

    The next issue contains a contrite apology, obviously dictated to the magazine’s staff by Dr. Langdell’s lawyers:

    In last month’s issue in the review of The Edge’s new game Winter’s Tail some personal remarks were directed at Dr. Tim Langdell. We accept that these remarks were totally uncalled for, and insofar as they might have been read to be a slight on Dr. Langdell’s character or on The Edge’s reasons for licensing the Garfield character, we unreservedly apologize to Dr. Langdell and all at The Edge for these remarks.

    Having thus so thoroughly worn out his welcome in Britain that he was being slagged off in everyday reviews of his company’s games, Dr. Langell moved his operation to the United States in the 1990s, where he occupied himself for many years with threatening anyone in the games industry who tried to use the word “edge” in pretty much any context. He won a hefty settlement from the videogame magazine Edge, but overreached himself by going after the giant Electronic Arts for releasing a game called Mirror’s Edge in 2008. In response to a petition from EA which noted that he wasn’t actually doing anything with them other than threatening lawsuits, a judge invalidated Langdell’s trademarks on “Edge,” “Cutting Edge,” “Gamers Edge,” and “The Edge.” Undaunted, he has apparently moved on to mount fresh legal attacks using other specious trademarks. His membership in the International Game Developers Association was terminated in 2010 due to “lack of integrity” and “unethical behavior.” 

 
 

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A Time of Endings, Part 3: Mediagenic (or, The Patent from Hell)

On August 31, 1966, a 44-year-old electrical engineer named Ralph Baer had an epiphany whilst waiting for a colleague outside a New York City bus terminal. For reasons he would never be able to explain, his thoughts turned to the potential of an interactive version of television. The next day, he sat down in his office at Sanders Associates, the defense contractor where he worked as a senior engineer, and wrote down his ideas in the form of a four-page proposal. Over the course of the next four years, amidst many other distracting priorities and much internal politicking, Baer gradually turned his proposal into the concrete reality of a “TV Game” system. Sanders, a company with no experience in marketing consumer electronics, licensed the system to Magnavox, an Indiana-based television manufacturer, in 1971. Magnavox’s engineers then turned the TV Game into the Magnavox Odyssey, which was released in September of 1972 at a price of $100. Thus was the first home videogame console in history born.

That said, the Odyssey lacked many of the things people would soon come to expect from such a beast. Technically, it wasn’t a computing device at all, as it lacked a programmable brain in the form of a CPU. Instead the Odyssey was a solid-state electrical device that was “programmed” by rewiring its innards. Game cartridges were little patch boards that connected its resistors and potentiometers together in different ways, leading to different behaviors. As you might imagine, the number of such viable configurations was decidedly limited. The Odyssey shipped with twelve games that encompassed most of what the system was realistically capable of, ranging from Simon Says to roulette to table tennis. Most of the games relied on external components like screen overlays, scoring pads, and even decks of cards to accompany their primitive onscreen graphical presentations. While Magnavox released a handful of other games for separate purchase, the Odyssey had neither the flexibility nor the sales numbers to create a real “software” market, whether consisting of games published by Magnavox or by others. Best estimates today are that Magnavox sold perhaps a few hundred thousand Odysseys over about a three-year period.

In 1974, Magnavox was acquired by the Dutch electronics giant Philips. Coincidentally or not, the Odyssey was discontinued soon after, having never been viewed as much more than a low-priority curiosity by either Magnavox’s management or the retailers who sold it. It’s since gone down into history in largely the same way — as an historical curiosity, a would-be Atari VCS that was just a little too far ahead of its time.

Or it would have, anyway, if not for a patent for which Baer applied on March 22, 1971. Granted on April 17, 1973, United States Patent 3,728,480 — one of several granted in connection with the Odyssey — would be a thorn in the side of the young videogame industry for more than twenty years. “Do [insert everyday activity here] on a computer” patents, endless debates over slide-to-unlock and rounded corners, billion-dollar judgments… all of the litigious insanity that greets us on the technology-news sites today began with what soon became known in videogame circles as simply the Baer patent — two little words which could terrify videogame executives like few others.

Before we proceed, we should take a moment to review the ostensible definition of a patent. The United States patent statutes in effect at the time of the Odyssey patents explain that they are meant to protect a person who “invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new [emphasis mine] and useful improvement thereof.” Patents accomplish this by securing for the inventor an exclusive license to the patented technology for a period of twenty years from the patent’s application date or seventeen years from its issuance date, whichever is longer. The adjective “new” in the statute is critical; a patented process must be a genuinely new process. The existence of “prior art” — whether known or unknown to the holder of the patent when the patent was applied for, and whether said prior art was itself ever patented or not — immediately invalidates a patent as soon as it’s proved to have existed. Just as critically, a patent does not protect ideas, only implementations. One can, in other words, patent a specific type of engine installed in a car, but one cannot patent the abstract idea of a horseless carriage itself.1 Both of these qualifications were well-established well before the advent of the computer age, yet for some reason courts have often struggled markedly to apply them correctly and consistently in the realm of digital technology. In the case of the famous — some would say infamous — Baer patent, there is good reason to question the courts’ decisions on both counts.

In 1974, shortly before Philips acquired them, Magnavox instituted an intermittent hobby of suing videogame makers over the Baer patent. They alleged that Atari had infringed on the patent with their Pong videogame. Although the Atari machine still didn’t have a CPU and only played the one game, internally at least it was a much more advanced piece of technology than the Odyssey, built using integrated circuits — i.e., chips — rather than the discrete components of Baer’s gadget. For this reason, there could be little question of Pong infringing on the specific implementation of a videogame console described in the Baer patent, a point Atari initially argued with gusto. In reply, Magnavox made the audacious argument that the implementation didn’t really matter in this case. In apparent defiance of the patent statutes themselves, they claimed the Baer patent really did apply to the idea of a videogame, evoking in their defense the fuzzy legal concept of a “pioneer patent”: a process or device so genuinely new and groundbreaking that it should be afforded an unusual amount of leeway by the court when it comes to determining what is abstract idea and what is concrete implementation. The pioneer patent is that most dangerous thing in law, an amorphous abstraction rather than an absolute stipulation. No patent is stamped with a “P” for “pioneer” when it’s granted, and the law has no clear mechanism for dividing patents into “pioneering” and “non-pioneering” categories thereafter. Officially, pioneering patents barely exist at all. Instead, the court system prefers to speak of, as legal scholar Alan L. Durham puts it, “a spectrum that embraces various degrees of inventiveness,” with the pioneer patent enjoying “a potentially broader scope of equivalence because it is not hemmed in by large numbers of similar inventions in the prior art.” In such vagueness lies potential madness.

After acquiring Magnavox, Philips continued to pursue patent-infringement cases against Atari and others. Supported enthusiastically by Ralph Baer, who now stood to gain millions from his old TV Game, Philips rode the nebulous concept of the pioneer patent hard. Baer’s own take on what his patent should cover was stunningly broad. “Our patents,” he would always insist, “dealt with the interaction between machine-controlled and manually-controlled symbols onscreen. If there was a change in the path, direction, or velocity of the machine-controlled symbol immediately after ‘contacting’ — i.e., coming into coincidence with — one of the manually-controlled symbols onscreen, then the game exhibiting these functions infringed our patents.” Not only would such a description have to encompass just about every graphical computer or videogame ever made, one could even imagine it being applied to the non-game GUI-based computer operating systems that began to appear in the 1980s, which relied on manipulating symbols on the screen through “contacting” them with the mouse cursor.

There was, however, a huge danger for Philips in claiming that essentially every videogame should be covered by the Baer patent. The painful fact was that the Magnavox Odyssey, while it was indisputably the first home videogame console, was far from the first videogame, full stop. The two most obvious and incontrovertible examples of prior art were Tennis for Two, a game built by American physicist William Higinbotham for play on an oscilloscope in 1958, and Spacewar!, a game programmed by a trio of MIT hackers for play on a DEC PDP-1 minicomputer equipped with a vector-graphics terminal in 1962. In other words, if Baer’s patent truly applied to every videogame ever then it should never have been granted at all. To head off this line of attack, Philips engaged in a careful exercise in triangulation. Having begun their argument by implying that the Baer patent should cover every videogame, regardless of the details of its technical implementation, they concluded it by stipulating that it should only apply to videogames that were played on ordinary television or monitor screens. Did they want to have their cake and eat it too? Perhaps, but they would be remarkably successful in court.

Atari elected to settle out of court before the case was decided, agreeing to pay Philips to license the patent. It’s very possible that Nolan Bushnell, Atari’s founder and president, may have seen the deal as counter-intuitively beneficial to his own company. Atari was established and doing very well, and could afford to pay off Philips. The many would-be competitors who were now attempting to get into the same videogame space, however, had shallower pockets and far less clout to negotiate a favorable deal of their own with Philips. And, indeed, a whole clutch of small companies which Philips elected to sue during this period were driven out of the business, unable to muster the resources to even begin to mount a defense against a company the size of Philips. Here we can already see in action one of the most nefarious effects of patent law as it too often gets applied in the modern economy: the way patents get used not, as originally intended, by the little guys to protect themselves against the rapaciousness of more powerful forces, but by said more powerful forces to keep said little guys out. From the date of Atari’s settlement forward, the only companies introducing new home-videogame consoles in the United States would be big, established one who could, like Atari, afford to reach an accommodation with Philips: companies like Coleco, Milton Bradley, and Mattel. (The last did try to fight the Baer patent in court on behalf of their Intellivision console, but legal precedent was now against them; they lost and agreed to pay up like the others.)

In September of 1982, Philips, now receiving payments from all of the makers of videogame consoles, decided to broaden the field further by suing for the first time a maker of videogame software. They chose for their first target Activision, the most famous and successful of all the third-party makers of Atari VCS cartridges. Activision conducted the most spirited and determined defense yet. Motions and counter-motions flew back and forth for years, while the industry surrounding the two warring parties changed greatly. The Great Videogame Crash of 1983 meant the end of most of Philips’s steady income from the patent licensees, leaving them more motivated than ever to wrangle as large a sum as possible out of Activision for their alleged transgressions of the boom years. At last, on March 17, 1986, the verdict came down in Philips’s favor; case-law precedent, which was well-established by now for the Baer patent, is a difficult thing to fight. Still, in a bid to buy some more time if nothing else, Activision filed their motion to appeal the very next day.

As the case continued to grind through the courts, much change came to Activision. In January of 1987, the company’s founder Jim Levy, after struggling for years to remake his erstwhile purveyor of Atari VCS action games into a purveyor of artsy and innovative computer games, was dismissed by a board that was frustrated by years of ugly losses. Stepping into his shoes was Bruce Davis, who promised the board a return to profitability by retrenching and refocusing on proven genres in proven markets.

We’ve already had considerable opportunity to observe Davis as head of Activision, especially in the context of his troubled relationship with Infocom, the text-adventure specialist whose acquisition had been one of his predecessor’s last major moves. In the beginning, Davis delivered on his promise to Activision’s board to start the company making money again. Activision announced their first profitable quarter in four years just six months after he took over, and continued to be modestly but consistently profitable for the two years that followed. Yet he accomplished the turnaround in ways that seemed almost willfully crafted to be as uninspiring as possible. Davis took to talking about Portal, the innovative “electronic novel” that this humble writer still considers one of the most interesting things any incarnation of Activision ever released, as his number-one exemplar of the sort of product Activision wouldn’t be green-lighting in the future. My fellow historian Alex Smith characterizes Davis’s strategy as the pursuit of “a steady stream of low-level successes rather than high-quality, high-risk, high-reward software.” In terms of games, this meant a series of middling titles, as often as not licensed from whatever media properties were reasonably trendy but not too expensive, that were often competent but seldom exciting — like, one might say, Bruce Davis himself. Like too many gaming executives before and after him, he thought of games as commodities, not creative works. To be fair, he did push his company into HyperCard applications and CD-ROM early enough to count as a pioneer, but in other areas his views were consistently regressive rather than progressive. His views on games for women read as particularly unfortunate today; he said women would never be a viable market due to vaguely defined “profound” differences he claimed to exist between the sexes. In much of this, Davis, lacking any personal engagement with his company’s products, was a slave to the conventional wisdom of the stock analysts and financiers.

While few found him as personally unpleasant as his growing reputation as the most soulless of chief executives might suggest, the aspect of Davis’s character that most consistently frustrated those who worked with and for him was his tendency to make sweeping unilateral decisions without consulting them. Combined with what often seemed a somewhat shaky grasp of basic human nature, it could make for a toxic brew. For instance, there was his unilateral decision to demand hundreds of thousands in reparations from some of the most important figures still working at Infocom for allegedly misrepresenting the value of their company before its sale to Activision. Davis seemed nonplussed when it was pointed out to him that this might affect morale and thus the performance of the already troubled subsidiary.

By far the most widely mocked of Davis’s unilateral decisions was that of changing the name of Activision in May of 1988 to Mediagenic. He claimed the new name would free the company of the baggage of its storied early years, would emphasize that this latest incarnation was far removed from the one that had so successfully sold videogame cartridges to Atari VCS owners in the early 1980s. After all, the newly christened Mediagenic now sold a much wider range of entertainment software for computers as well as consoles, and was moving beyond games as well into creativity and productivity software. Of course, what Davis labeled diversification, others might label a lack of any coherent focus. Seen in this light, the name change was emblematic of a company that did indeed seem to have lost its very identity, that was trying to do a little bit of everything without doing any of it particularly well. With few to no products worth getting really excited over, Mediagenic’s catalog was a dismayingly anonymous collective. “We have a lot of legs to stand on,” said Davis. Perhaps a few too many. The name change succeeded only in making him and his company the butt of constant jokes for the rest of his tenure. William Volk, who worked at Activision/Mediagenic at the time, told me that the consensus there among everyone not named Bruce Davis was that the name change was “the stupidest decision in the world”: “We hated the name, we called it Mediumgenitals.”

But perhaps an even more damaging manifestation of Davis’s unilateral tendencies was his handling of the Philips lawsuit, which continued to hover over Mediagenic throughout his tenure like a Sword of Damocles. Stan Roach, one of those who reported directly to Davis, believes that Davis felt his background as an intellectual-property attorney qualified him to take exclusive responsibility for the management of the case. In May of 1988, just days after the name change was announced, Mediagenic’s appeal of the Baer patent case was rejected by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the case moved on to the damages phase. Davis continued to play his cards so close to the vest thereafter that when the damages verdict arrived in March of 1990, everyone was shocked to discover it was more than large enough to constitute an existential threat. An atomic bomb no one had seen coming had just been dropped on them out of a clear blue sky.

The timing could hardly been much worse; at that point, Mediagenic’s bottom line was already looking pretty ugly. Although they were still roughly breaking even in terms of day-to-day sales, Mediagenic over the course of 1989 had written off a pile of Davis’s more unprofitable ventures, such as the TenPointO productivity line, whose name made “Mediagenic” sound like a stroke of marketing genius. And, most damagingly, they had finally closed the Infocom subsidiary Davis had never really wanted in the first place, a move which alone carried with it a hit to the bottom line of some $5 million. It all came as part of yet another of Bruce Davis’s unilateral moves. With all of Mediagenic’s products in the field of non-gaming software and, indeed, in the field of computer software in general under-performing, he had decided to return his company to its roots as a maker primarily of cartridge games. “PCs will never have the penetration into homes that videogames do,” he said, citing the cheaper price and greater ease of use of the consoles. While he wasn’t wrong to take note of those factors, which were indeed doing much to make the Nintendo Entertainment System one of the most successful consumer-electronics products in the history of the American consumer economy, Mediagenic’s tepid stable of games had little chance of seriously competing on the Nintendo against the likes of Zelda and Mario. Nevertheless, in October of 1989 Davis said that he intended to pull entirely out of all products other than games. That this move came less than eighteen months after the name change to Mediagenic that had been made to facilitate the exact opposite strategy — to establish a new identity as a maker of a wide range of software — must be one of the more damning indictments of his overall leadership.

In executing the pivot, Mediagenic would take the initial financial hit that must result from it in a single fiscal year, then hopefully be set to grow again thereafter. For fiscal 1990, which ended on March 31, 1990, Mediagenic was therefore set to register a loss of some $13 million, about three times as much as all of the profits Davis had so far managed to realize during his tenure. And then, with just days remaining in the fiscal year, the final verdict on damages in the Philips case came down. Mediagenic was punished resoundingly for their earlier refusal to settle. They were to pay a lump sum of $6.6 million to Philips for violating the Baer patent — money they simply didn’t have.

Mediagenic’s only alternative was to negotiate with Philips for leniency on the terms of payment, but the prospects for the latter’s forbearance looked to be decidedly limited. Offered an ownership stake in Mediagenic in lieu of cash, Philips refused. By this point, Philips had launched yet another patent lawsuit, this time against Nintendo, the new 800-pound gorilla of the videogame industry. Many inside Mediagenic believed that Philips was determined to play hardball, was willing to completely destroy Mediagenic if necessary, in order to set an example for Nintendo of what happened to those who didn’t reach an out-of-court settlement.2 At any rate, the best Mediagenic’s negotiating team could manage was to get Philips to let them defer payment for two years, until 1992, whereupon they could pay in installments of $150,000 per month. Yet even that act of mercy cast a huge pall over the company’s future; $150,000 was an awful lot of money for any business — much less a moribund one like Mediagenic — to give away for no return month after month. Lenders, already made skeptical by Bruce Davis’s strategic U-turns alongside his company’s stagnant sales, refused to grant the credit he needed to complete the restructuring necessary to finish implementing his latest plan. Caught out on a limb, Mediagenic went into free fall, defaulting on creditor after creditor as product development came to a virtual standstill. With little new to sell, their sales dropped from $64.1 million in fiscal 1990 to $28.8 million for the year ending March 31, 1991, leaving them worse off than ever even as the clock continued to tick down on the fateful day when they would have to start making payments to Philips.

When a company as large and important as Mediagenic had become to their industry collapses, it never does so in isolation. Among the people Mediagenic suddenly weren’t paying was their network of so-called “affiliated labels,” smaller publishers who sold their products through Mediagenic’s large, well-established distribution network. These publishers would deliver product to Mediagenic, who would then pay them for it — minus their fee, of course — after selling it on to retail stores. Amidst the chaos of 1990, the second part of that arrangement never happened. Brian Fargo of Interplay, one of Mediagenic’s affiliated labels, described to me the snowball effect that ensued for his company.

It was a double whammy. Imagine this. We ship $500,000 worth of product to Mediagenic, and they turn around and ship it to retail. Mediagenic doesn’t pay me the half a million; they may or may not have gotten paid by retail. Who knows, right? Then I go to the retailers and say, “Mediagenic’s going out of business, so we’re going to go direct now.” They say, “Great! We’ve got half a million dollars worth of your product here.” We say, “Yeah, we know, but we already didn’t get paid for that once.” They say, “Well, you’ve got to take it back from us if you want to continue to do business with us.” So I had to eat my product twice. That almost wiped us out.

Fargo says that Interplay almost certainly would have gone down as collateral damage if not for a new game called Castles, the first they released after leaving Mediagenic, which became a big hit: “Castles saved the company.” Other affiliated labels, such as the Amiga specialists MicroIllusions, weren’t so lucky, going under even as Mediagenic still straggled on, at least ostensibly alive.

Outside developers who created software for publication under Mediagenic’s own imprint were likewise caught in the undertow. When Mediagenic stiffed the Miller brothers of Cyan Software, it very nearly marked the end of their illustrious careers in game development when they had barely begun to show their potential. Thankfully, they would find a way to pull it together and make Myst, by some measures the most successful single computer game of the 1990s, for Brøderbund. Had that game come out on the Mediagenic label, it would single-handedly have solved the problem of the Philips judgment. But then, a Mediagenic Myst would have been unlikely under Bruce Davis; the Miller brothers have told of how they kept asking Mediagenic for permission to make an adult game instead of children’s titles long prior to Myst, only to be told to “stick to children’s games.”

By December of 1990, Mediagenic’s affiliated labels and outside developers were all gone along with most of the company’s other business relationships. Mediagenic was foundering in a sea of red ink, with a bottom-line loss for the year of $19.7 million, and was about to be de-listed from the stock exchange as a lost cause. Seemingly the only question remaining was when and how the inevitable liquidation would happen. It’s at this fraught point that there enters into our story an unexpected wildcard in the form of one Bobby Kotick.

In later years, Kotick would become perhaps the foremost living embodiment of modern mainstream gaming, with its play-it-safe big-bucks ethos of sequels, franchises, and established genres. Kotick’s habit of saying publicly what many other gaming executives are only thinking has made him a lightning rod for people who would like to see more innovation and thematic ambition in games. One might be tempted to lump him into the same category as Bruce Davis, with whom his general philosophy of business initially seems to have a lot in common, but to do so would be to ignore a very fundamental difference: Kotick, whatever one personally thinks of the games his company releases, has shown an undeniable knack for making games that huge masses of people want to buy. He’s as celebrated by the business press as he is vilified by the artsier corners of the gaming world; he could likely wallpaper his doubtless spacious house with all of his awards from the likes of Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and Inc. How could the business press not love him? He turned a $440,000 investment into a $4.5 billion company in 25 years.

When he trod unto the scene of the slow-motion Mediagenic car crash, however, Bobby Kotick was just a fast-talking 27-year-old go-getter with outsize ambitions. Tender though he was in years, he was already a hardened veteran of the technology business. He had kicked around the home-computer industry for much of the 1980s, using glibness, persistence, and sheer force of personality to win him access to people that would never have glanced twice at him on the basis of his paltry experience and education. In 1987, in a truly audacious move for a 24-year-old, he had tried to put together a package to buy Commodore in order to market the Amiga the way it deserved. Laudable though that goal was, Irving Gould, the crusty old Canadian financier who owned most of the stock at Commodore and ultimately called all the shots, soon sent the young interloper packing. Three years later, he had been involved in lots of small deals, but was still looking for that elusive big break. In the meantime, he and a pair of partners named Brian Kelly and Howard Marks had incorporated themselves under the name of BHK, and were making investments here and there. Observing Mediagenic’s sorry state, they decided to make their biggest one yet.

BHK bought up the 25 percent of Mediagenic’s shares owned by Imasco Venture Holdings, a consortium of investors who were now all too eager to sell, for a cost of just $440,000. The price they paid was as good a measure as any of just how far Mediagenic had fallen; it meant that the entire company was now theoretically worth less than $2 million. BHK’s initial plan for their investment is a little unclear. One reader has told me of sharing a car with Bobby Kotick on the way to an E3 event many years later when the latter was apparently in an unusually candid mood, even for him. Kotick, says my reader, confessed on that evening that he originally didn’t think there was much of anything left worth saving at Mediagenic, and that BHK first bought the shares strictly as a tax write-off. According to this version of events, only after looking more closely at the company they’d bought into and observing the allure that still clung to the old Activision name among gaming veterans did he begin to think that the planned tax write-off might in fact be the shot at the big time he’d been looking for for so long.

Regardless of the original motivation for the purchase, what happened next is better understood. BHK now constituted the largest single owner of Mediagenic stock, and decided to use that leverage in what amounted to a hostile-takeover bid. They showed the other shareholders that they could secure another $5 million in cash and credit, and that they had hammered out an agreement in principle with the major lenders to exercise some forbearance in their collections efforts. BHK was willing to use these things to keep Mediagenic’s doors open, at least for now, on one condition: Bruce Davis and the rest of his management team would have to go, to be replaced by BHK’s own, with Bobby Kotick in the CEO’s chair and Brian Kelly as CFO. The shareholders quickly agreed. After all, the only alternative that remained was immediate liquidation, which would net them virtually nothing, and they had little loyalty left to Bruce Davis, the man they accused — and not without cause — of having badly mismanaged Mediagenic from well before the patent judgment that had proved the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. On February 22, 1991, Davis stepped down and Kotick stepped up. He controlled Mediagenic; now he just needed to save it. “Given the company’s bleak and deteriorating financial condition, basically this is a turnaround situation,” he said to the press in the understatement of the year.

He knew that the turnaround was dead in the water if he couldn’t work out something with Philips. His first significant act as CEO was therefore to meet with them. The only way you can possibly get paid anything at all, Kotick told them, is if you agree to accept equity in lieu of cash. Once again, Philips flatly refused, whereupon Kotick dropped his key card for Mediagenic’s offices on the table and walked. “Good luck,” he said on his way out the door, convinced he would have to liquidate Mediagenic for the tax write-off after all. Less than thirty minutes later, Philips called him to tell him they would take the equity. (Bruce Davis believes that Philips agreed to the deal because Steve Wynn, a casino mogul who had been something of a mentor to Kotick, called in some favors with friends on Philips’s board, but this remains speculative.)

Kotick slashed the employees rolls, already down to 100 at the time of the takeover from a high of 250 a couple of years before, to just 25 by the end of 1991. He negotiated a lump-sum payout to get out of Mediagenic’s lease of a large Silicon Valley office park, taking a cramped hole of a place in Los Angeles instead. But he wouldn’t be able to cost-cut his way out of the crisis; the company remained fundamentally insolvent. “As much as I’d like to think I provided some grand vision,” Kotick later said, “our first year we were pretty much blocking and tackling.” He watched parts of the company literally disappearing around him each week, as creditors showed up to reclaim equipment that hadn’t been paid for.

So, it quickly became obvious, if it hadn’t been so from the beginning, that $5 million wasn’t going to be enough to set things right. There was only one possible way out of this mess. Using all of his considerable powers of persuasion, Kotick finalized the terms of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy — i.e., a bankruptcy constituting a reorganization rather than a liquidation — with Mediagenic’s creditors in November, getting most of them, as he earlier had Philips, to accept equity stakes in lieu of cash they would never see anyway if the company was allowed to fail entirely. (As “the Bandito,” Amazing Computing‘s rumor columnist, wryly put it, “You’re doing so bad they have to let you keep going.”) The previous stockholders would be left with just 4.2 percent of the company, the rest going into the hands of the likes of Philips, Nintendo (Mediagenic owed them millions for cartridges Nintendo had manufactured but never been paid for), and Sony Pictures (Bruce Davis’s mania for licenses had come home to roost in the form of huge outstanding bills for the licensed games). The company emerged from bankruptcy the next year, leaner and humbled but ready to make a go of it again under their dynamic young CEO. Best of all, the company emerged from the bankruptcy as Activision again rather than Mediagenic. Everyone preferred to forget that the ill-advised name change had ever happened. What with plenty of lenders willing to defer but not to forget much of the rest of what had happened during the Bruce Davis years, it was still going to be an uphill climb. Yet for the first time it was starting to look like they might just have a fighting chance.

In the most literal sense, then, Activision — we too can go back to using that name again! — never died at all, which perhaps makes this story a little out of place amidst this series of articles about endings. Yet the trauma the company went through was so extreme, and the remaking it would undergo under Bobby Kotick so complete, that I trust no one will look too askance at its inclusion here. The Kotick-led version of Activision — Activision 4.0, we might say — was headquartered in a different city entirely, and would employ only a handful of the same people. We’ll take up the continuing story of Activision 4.0, that most unlikely of phoenixes, later on.

In the meantime, what shall we say in closing about the pre-Kotick Activision? Certainly the final finanical reckoning isn’t terribly kind; the company ran a loss for six of its eleven years of existence. After those first few golden years when the Atari VCS was king and Activision 1.0 made the best games for the system, bar none, Activision could never seem to settle on an identity and make it stick. The occasional interesting title aside, neither Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0 nor Bruce Davis’s Activision 3.0 ever felt truly relevant in any holistic sense. Davis’s small-ball approach in particular only served to prove that you really do need to swing for the fences every once in a while.

But rather than continue to poke and prod the muddled history of Activisions 2.0 and 3.0, let’s consider one last time the patent judgment that — whilst giving due deference to all of Bruce Davis’s mistakes — ultimately did them in. It’s rather blackly amusing to consider that the lawsuit which took out Mediagenic and made collateral damage out of so many affiliated labels and outside developers should have come from Philips, who were busy at the same time screwing over another huge swathe of the American games industry with their vaporware CD-I platform. So, here we see yet more of the reasons that so many people who were around the industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s lapse into a stream of curses even today at the merest mention of the name of Philips. Philips couldn’t have done a better job of sowing chaos and discord had they been a double agent hired by Nintendo to complete the destruction of the last of their console’s competition on home computers. But, sadly, the fact that Philips also sued Nintendo rather puts paid to that rather delightful conspiracy theory, doesn’t it?

In the end, the Baer patent netted some $100 million for Philips by Ralph Baer’s own estimation — not a bad financial legacy for the Magnavox Odyssey, a commercially middling (at best) product they inherited and soon cancelled. Baer himself was rewarded with a substantial piece of each settlement negotiated or lawsuit won, and remained to the end of his life unapologetic, claiming what he had received was only his just rewards. While I respect the man’s huge achievements in the field of videogames as well as other areas of electrical engineering, I must say that I don’t agree with him on this point, and must admit that the legal ugliness does somewhat taint his legacy in my eyes. None of the home-videogame systems that followed the Magnavox Odyssey bore much of anything in common with it technically, while the evidence that it directly inspired to any appreciable degree anything that followed is uncertain at best. Of course, it’s also true that Bruce Davis, who had quite a wide litigious streak of his own, doesn’t necessarily make for the most sympathetic of victims. And yet it’s still worth asking whether he deserved to see his company ruined over a videogame console that hadn’t been sold in fifteen years, just as in the bigger picture it’s worth asking what the $100 million Philips made off the Baer patent was really rewarding them for. While we’re at it, it may also be worth asking how different a place the world would be today if, say, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn had chosen to go the route of Ralph Baer and Philips, had chosen to patent and aggressively protect their TCP/IP protocol that underpins the free and open modern Internet — or if Tim Berners-Lee had done the same to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol that sits atop it.

Unfortunately, questions like this these will continue to crop up with distressing frequency as we continue on this little voyage through computer history. And more’s the pity, my friends… more’s the pity.

(Sources: San Francisco Chronicle of May 18 1988, May 25 1988, October 4 1988, October 29 1988, November 14 1988, November 22 1988, January 17 1989, May 15 1989, November 2 1989, March 16 1990, May 5 1990, June 2 1990, September 29 1990, November 1 1990, January 11 1991, January 23 1991, February 27 1991, July 11 1991, October 5 1991, and December 2 1991; San Jose Mercury News of July 27 1987, January 8 1988, January 27 1988, May 14 1988, May 15 1988, May 18 1988, and October 20 1989; Sierra News Magazine of Autumn 1989; Questbusters of April 1991, July 1991, and August 1992; Compute! of January 1989; New York Times of January 25 2004; Amazing Computing of April 1989, August 1989, June 1990, July 1990, January 1991, December 1991, and April 1992; the books Patent Law Essentials: A Concise Guide by Alan L. Durham and Monopoly on Wheels: Henry Ford and the Seldon Automotive Patent by William Greenleaf. Online sources include an article on Gamasutra; the articles “By Any Other Name,” “The Baer Essentials,” and “A Magnavox Odyssey” on Alex Smith’s videogame-history blog; United States Patent 3,728,480; an archive of documents relating to the Baer patents and especially the Philips v. Magnavox suit at the University of New Hampshire School of Law; Robyn Miller’s GDC 2013 postmortem on the making of Myst. My thanks go to William Volk and Brian Fargo for very enlightening interviews about these times. My thanks to Yeechang Lee, an investment banker who told me about a very interesting conversation he had with Bobby Kotick. And my huge thanks once again go to Alex Smith, who shared the fruits of his own research in these subjects, among them Mediagenic’s 10K financial statements for fiscal 1990 and fiscal 1991, a summary of his interview with Bruce Davis, and his own valuable insights. The last notwithstanding, it should be understood that this article’s final judgments on the Ralph Baer patent, Bruce Davis, and everything and everyone else are my own alone, so don’t send your hate mail to Alex!)


  1. My choice of examples isn’t an entirely random one. There is in fact an interesting parallel to the Baer patent from the early days of the automotive industry. In 1895, one George Seldon was granted United States Patent 549,160, describing a “safe, simple, and cheap road locomotive, light in weight, easy to control, and possessing sufficient power to overcome any ordinary inclination.” He granted the rights to his patent to an organization called the Association of Licensed Automotive Manufacturers. ALAM in turn demanded a licensing fee from anyone attempting to make a gas-powered automobile, regardless of the others details of its engineering. The organization existed solely for the purpose of litigating and accepting these fees, never manufacturing any products of their own. ALAM thus has a good claim to being the world’s first patent troll.

    When Henry Ford began making cars of his own without paying ALAM, the latter went so far as to threaten to sue anyone who bought a Ford automobile. Ford replied that “the art [of the automobile] would have been just as far advanced today if Mr. Selden had never been born.” At last, the Ford Motor Company won their case against ALAM on appeal in 1911. The patent was due to expire the following year anyway, but the case did establish an important legal precedent that would sadly be often neglected with the coming of the computer age. 

  2. The story of the lawsuit Philips launched against Nintendo is a fascinating one in its own right, if a little far afield from my usual focus on computer rather than console games. It’s fairly well established, if largely only circumstantially, that Nintendo agreed to license their Zelda character to Philips for use on the Philips CD-I — an action that was so out of character for Nintendo as to read as inexplicable by any other light — as part of a settlement. (My fellow historian Alex Smith recently asked Howard Lincoln of Nintendo of America about this; Lincoln said the story does jibe with his recollection.) Even more interestingly, if also more speculatively, William Volk, formerly of Mediagenic/Activision, believes that the settlement barred Nintendo from making a CD-based product alone or in partnership with anyone other than Philips for a certain period of time. This in turn blew up a plan Nintendo and Sony had hatched to make a CD add-on for Nintendo’s consoles, leading Sony to make their standalone PlayStation console instead. It also explains why Nintendo in 1996 made the Nintendo 64 a cartridge-based console when everyone else had moved to CDs; the settlement barred them from following suit. 

 
 

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