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Mindwheel (or, The Poet and the Hackers)

Mindwheel

Excepting only Adventure and a handful of works by Infocom, Robert Pinsky’s Mindwheel has received far more academic attention than any other work of interactive fiction’s commercial era. If you’re of a practical — not to say cynical — turn, you can posit a pretty good theory as to why that should be without ever looking to the game itself. Pinsky, you see, is by far the most respectable and respected literary figure ever to turn his hand to the humble text adventure. His resume is impressive to say the least: United States Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000; author of nineteen books, nine of them full of poems; translator of Dante; professor of literature at Berkeley and Boston University amongst other places; editor of literary magazines and anthologies; scholar of the Biblical David and Shakespeare. For any graduate student looking to justify a thesis or article about interactive fiction, Pinsky is a riposte to die for when colleagues and advisers ask whether text adventures are really all that significant as literary works. If they were good enough for Pinsky, they should be good enough for anyone.

Mindwheel is the product of a strange historical moment; it’s hard to imagine it appearing more than a year before or after its February 1985 release date. This was the era of bookware, when interactive fiction was seen as the future of the book and the future of computerized entertainment all rolled into one; when action games were seen as relics of the recently passed age of the Atari VCS; when a company called Synapse Software, known already as the makers of some of the slickest and most graphically impressive action games on the Atari 8-bit line, could decide to stake much of their future on textual interactive fiction not out of some suicidal artistic impulse but because doing so seemed a perfectly reasonable commercial calculation. Strange, strange times.

Ihor Wolosenko

Ihor Wolosenko

The story of Synapse Software is largely the story of Ihor Wolosenko, whose family had immigrated to the United States from Ukraine when he was still a toddler and who had filled the nearly forty years that elapsed in his life before Synapse with a bewildering array of activities and avocations. He had studied drama at the City University of New York; been a professional photographer; worked as a physical therapist; counseled and conducted personal workshops using a combination of Tibetan Buddhism and the controversial branch of psychology known as neuro-linguistic programming; delved deeply into linguistics and hypnosis. By 1980, the year he bought an Atari 800, he had ended up like so many other drifting dreamers in Berkeley, California. He chose the Atari because it could play Star Raiders and the Apple II couldn’t.

Wolosenko soon made a more technical friend, a vice president in charge of data processing at the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank named Ken Grant who had been toying with an Atari 800 database application in his spare time. The two worked on it together for nearly a year, then founded Synapse out of Wolosenko’s apartment to release it in August of 1981. It wasn’t an auspicious start; the first hundred or so copies of FileManager 800 that they shipped were so buggy that they had to recall the whole production run. But by the end of the year Synapse was truly up and running at last, with not just FileManager but a game or two as well.

Wolosenko was already putting together the team of crack programmers whose games would make Synapse’s reputation. Games like Shamus, Blue Max, The Pharaoh’s Curse, and their most beloved title of all Alley Cat mixed superb graphics with addictive playability and a welcome sense of whimsy. Little extra touches distinguished Synapse’s games from the competition. In Alley Cat, for instance, if you don’t do anything for a few seconds your avatar will start to move around on his own and meow impatiently to you, decades before such “juicy” touches would become a widely accepted requirement for casual games.

It wouldn’t be out of line to compare Synapse’s mystique in North America with that of Ultimate Play the Game in Britain. Both developed all of their games in-house, insuring that they all shared a similar look and design sensibility. Both were absolute masters of their chosen platforms (the Spectrum for Ultimate, the Atari 8-bits for Synapse) and consistently delivered games that were far slicker than virtually anything the competition had to offer. Synapse, like Ultimate, did write for other platforms, but their core competency and core loyalty remained with the Atari machines. Atari users in turn loved them. Because Synapse’s games were born on Ataris, they could take full advantage of the best graphics and sound in the industry, capabilities matched only (and if you listen to Atari loyalists only arguably) by those of the Commodore 64.

While Wolosenko usually refused formal credit on his programmers’ designs, much of the character of Synapse’s games was down to him. His company may have been making relatively simple action games, but he nevertheless thought seriously about the nature of the medium, the relationship between player and avatar, the standard approach of graduated difficulty levels (bad) and the alternative of adaptive gameplay (good). He shepherded every game and every programmer through the process of development, giving a little nudge here, a little tweak there to make the end result that much better. Synapse programmer Steve Hales called Wolosenko the Steve Jobs of games: “Every product that Synapse produced had Ihor’s touch. I believe that because of Ihor our quality was better, the designs were more unique, and I was pushed beyond what I thought was possible.”

According to Hales, it was he and another of Wolosenko’s favorite programmers, William Mataga, who planted the idea of doing adventure games in Wolosenko’s head in late 1983. (William Mataga now lives as Cathryn Mataga. I refer to her by her previous name and gender in this article only to avoid historical anachronisms.) Hales and Mataga believed that Infocom had “old technology,” and Synapse could do better. Wolosenko didn’t take much convincing. Showing his usual enthusiasm, he laid out an ambitious if not entirely cogent manifesto for Synapse’s engine, which would be the work largely of Mataga.

The problem with these adventure games thus far, even the more interactive ones, is that you have the feeling of being in a corral. You go this way and someone says, “You can’t go that way.” If I say, “Toss something,” and it says, “I don’t understand that word,” when it just used that word in a description it drives me up the wall. It totally stops the experience for me. We’re going to have to work with some of those obstructions until we can solve some of the problems: not processing time, just putting the computer’s power to better use.

The most intricate puzzle is not a Rubik’s Cube, it’s a person. And it’s a character that changes. When you read bad fiction, the character comes in, he interacts with a lot of people, and he goes out exactly the way he came in. When you read a Tolstoy novel, the character is totally different at the end of the novel than when he came in at the beginning. And that’s what we’re trying to do. There is no reason why you have to be the same person during a game either. You could have a changeling-type game, where you’re a person at one point, you’re a dog at another, a bat at another.

Mataga dubbed his system BTZ — “Better than Zork” — to keep the end goal inescapable for everyone. Crucially, the vision was for pure text from the outset. Whereas rivals like Telarium sought to one-up Infocom by adding graphics and sound and even occasional action games to the mix to hopefully distract from their less than Infocom-quality parsers, prose, and world models, Synapse would go against them head to head, strength against strength. The games themselves Wolosenko first wanted to call “Microworlds” in light of the freedom and sense of realism they would offer. That soon changed, however, when he had his next brain storm: to hire the best outside writers he could find — real writers — to craft the worlds and write the text. His Microworlds thus became Electronic Novels.

There is some evidence that the poet Robert Pinsky was far from Wolosenko’s first choice to craft the first Electronic Novel. In an interview published in the February 1984 issue of Ahoy! magazine, he claimed that, while the contracts were not yet all signed, Synapse hoped to be employing the services of “top, top novelists [emphasis mine].” But Telarium and many others, some with pockets and connections much deeper than Synapse’s, were already trolling these waters. Wolosenko apparently soon decided that, if he couldn’t sign “top” writers in terms of sales and commercial appeal, he could hire the most prestigious, thereby underscoring the literary credibility of Synapse’s line. Somehow he jumped to the inspired choice of targeting not novelists but poets; perhaps he figured that, what with the term “popular poet” having been largely an oxymoron for decades already, they’d be more likely to jump at the chance for any sort of recognition. Surveying the possibilities, he came across the name of Robert Pinsky, who was teaching at UC Berkeley and thus an easy mark logistically. The resume of Pinsky, then about the same age as Wolosenko, was nowhere near as impressive as it is today, but he nevertheless had a burgeoning literary reputation, with two well-received books of poetry already published and a third in the galley stage. (Wolosenko would soon also tap another respected young poet, Jim Paul, for another game in the line.)

Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky

One day as Pinsky was sitting in his office in Berkeley’s English department having spent the last several hours dealing with some of the more tedious administrative details that come with being a professor, his phone rang. It was Ihor Wolosenko on the line.

He said, “Are you familiar with computer text adventures?”

I said, “No.”

He asked whether I owned a computer.

I said, “No.”

Had I ever heard of Zork?

“No.”

Would I be interested in writing the text for an interactive computer work?

I said, “Yes, I might be.”

Pinsky drove out to visit Synapse’s offices. Wolosenko introduced him to some of his programmers and also to the concept of text adventures.

I liked it. My romantic idea was that it was like those first guys figuring out what movies were going to be on Long Island — playing with movie cameras. I didn’t see any reason that you couldn’t make a work of art. Art is alternate realities — realities that are in some ways like the reality we experience and in some ways quite unlike it. This was that. And it was clear to me from my small experience of adventures — the description of Zork, the stuff I saw on those monochrome monitors — that this was largely about the quest plot, one of the basic plots of great works. The Gilgamesh epic is a quest for the nature of immortality — or the nature of death, the nature of mortality. “KILL DWARF,” “GET SWORD,” etc., was completely in that line. Indeed, the imagery was very traditional.

It was agreed that Pinsky would come up with five or six ideas for possible games. Then Synapse would decide which one might be the most intriguing and realizable. The one that Pinsky himself considered the “silliest” sent the player on a journey through four minds: an assassinated rock star with a messiah complex, clearly modeled on John Lennon; a bloody dictator inspired by Hitler and Stalin and the rest of the twentieth century’s sad litany; a brilliant scientist reminiscent of Marie Curie; and a poet, a nod to the game’s creator himself. Much to Pinsky’s surprise, this treatment was the one that Wolosenko and company opted for.

One of the loveliest aspects of the Mindwheel project is the genuinely warm, respectful relationship that developed between Pinsky and the young hackers at Synapse, these men who normally inhabited what might as well have been separate planets. Pinsky worked most closely with Steve Hales, who did the actual coding for the game in Mataga’s BTZ language. Hales, who had never voluntarily read a line of verse in his life, slowly discovered through the soft-spoken, thoughtful Pinsky a new respect for the written word and the power of literature: “He changed the way I read and write words forever.” For his part, Pinsky found the youthful can-do spirit at Synapse a relief from the “oppressive” corridors of academia; he was soon “making up excuses” to visit Synapse and “hang out.” Hales endeared himself to Pinsky from his first words: “I’d like to talk to you about your world,” a turn of phrase Pinsky found almost inexpressibly fresh and exciting. He took to using — and often charmingly misusing — the fascinating jargon, a delight to his poet’s soul, that was always flying through the air at Synapse. He accepted what he wryly refers to as his “assignments” from Hales and company with cheerful equanimity: write a “dialog table” for a given character for queries involving a given set of topics; write responses in which each of these fifty verbs is used successfully and unsuccessfully. The terms attached to even the framework of the game took a poetic turn under Pinsky’s influence, with “drivel” coming to mean amusing incidental messages that were essentially random, not germane to the plot or puzzles, and “weather” those that were.

While the experience of actually developing Mindwheel was by everyone’s account an almost entirely positive one, its story is also one of crossed purposes between Pinsky and Wolosenko. Wolosenko clearly wanted to create a work of art that transcended the notion of a mere computer game. Thus the involvement of Pinsky in the first place, as well as the term “Computer Novel” and his plan to package each title in the line inside a hardcover book of at least a hundred pages. (This latter was also, of course, a challenge to Infocom’s superb packaging, yet another reflection of a determination to do “everything that Infocom does, plus one.”) Pinsky, meanwhile, took the project as a chance to let his hair down and maybe reach the sort of popular readership that had inevitably eluded him thus far despite his stellar reputation inside the ivory tower. He was teaching a class about Shakespeare at the time, and thinking a lot about how the Bard had become the greatest writer in the history of the English language not by appealing to the highbrows but by writing popular entertainments for the masses. (Pinsky still remains admirably free of literary snobbery today, listing for example South Park as one of the “tremendous works of our time,” its creators amongst our “leading moralizers.”)

The idea of making the package for Mindwheel into a hardcover book was very much Ihor Wolosenko’s idea. I didn’t like it; I resisted it. I happened to refer to what we were doing as “the game.” To me, that was fresh and exciting. The guys at Synapse who were promoting it wanted to call it an “Electronic Novel,” because from their viewpoint that was fresh and interesting.

I was disappointed that the package would be a book. They wanted me to write the stuff for the book. I declined. It was produced by committee; I wound up sort of editing it. The book was the least interesting part for me. I’ve written books; I’ve published lots of books; I wasn’t particularly excited by the romance of having a book. Ihor’s marketing idea was that this would be somehow “highbrow.” I liked the idea that it was an entertainment, that it was a game. I wanted to get away from the “literary” genre. I wanted to write a really exciting, artistic game.

Pinsky noted in a contemporary interview that he didn’t particularly care if Mindwheel got a writeup in The Partisan Review because his name had already appeared there many times. Wolosenko, of course, would have killed for such a marker of literary status.

The book, which is credited to BTZ project manager Richard Stanford, is a rather labored piece; it’s quite clear that Synapse struggled to come up with material to fill its pages, resorting to leaving dozens of pages entirely blank in the name of an “Adventurer’s Diary” for note taking. Those pages which are filled strain to set up a believable science-fictional reason for the mind-delving you do in the game proper. It seems that the social order on Earth is about to collapse thanks to humankind’s ongoing irresponsibility and the sheer inertia of thousands of years of petty human history. The only hope for salvation rests, for reasons poorly defined at best, in the science of “neuro-electronic matrix research” (the terminological similarity to Wolosenko’s personal interest of neuro-linguistic programming is interesting), which will allow a traveler to visit “four minds of unusual power” whose echoes still persist in the very atmosphere — shades of Carl Jung’s ideas about a collective unconscious. The four minds will eventually lead you to the “Cave Master,” “the mysterious prehistoric, apelike being who apparently invented the lever, the flint blade, cave paintings, and the rhythmical group chant” and who holds the “Wheel of Wisdom” that can save humankind. The winning passage of Mindwheel, after the Wheel has been retrieved, indicates about how seriously Pinsky took this earnest frame.

"This formula," says Virgil through happy tears, "can disable every weapon of mass destruction on the planet! And that is only the first benefit. Your courage and brains have given us a glorious new chance!

"Already, the planet's magnetic field is changed, so that any politician who lies on television will be afflicted with instant, debilitating diarrhea, and immediate, spectacular skin blemishes!"

He beams and detaches your electrodes.

Exalted but a little drained, you wish only to rest a while, and then unwind, maybe by playing some harmless game.

No, Mindwheel is more electronic poem than electronic novel. The world of the four minds is a surrealistic, impressionistic riot of emotional imagery. The premise and that very description raise immediate warning flags to a jaded old IFer like me; the history of amateur interactive fiction is strewn with surrealistic explorations of the inner consciousness, generally from younger writers with a wide streak of overwrought self-indulgence. They’re almost uniformly awful. But — to state the obvious — the authors of these works are (presumably) not future Poet Laureates. Pinsky’s prose is bracing, his imagery consistently surprising and consistently as right as it is bizarre. To play Mindwheel is an overwhelming sensory experience — even as all of its sensations are evoked through pure text.

The Concert

The first mind you enter is that of Bobby Clemons, the rock star.

You stand on an immense stage. In front of you, a crowd roars like thunder. Someone has thrown a rose and a Baby Ruth candy bar onto the stage. High overhead, a huge video screen displays, over and over, the film of Bobby Clemons' assassination. In tight, sequined costumes, a chorus of singers writhes, imitating the gestures of the fatally wounded figure on the screen.

A ramp juts south into the crowd that pleads for you to come forward. A keyboard is on the east part of the stage, while to the west, some thugs seem about to overpower your bodyguard. They have clubs, and you hold only your harmonica; your pockets are empty. While the crowd screams for more, one of the singers beckons you to come offstage by the door northward behind you.

The scene is vaguely hilarious and vaguely disturbing. As you stalk the stage panties are flying, dancers are grinding, bodyguards and thugs are brawling, and the crowd is baying for your love or your blood, or more likely both. It’s rock and roll in all its Dionysian danger and splendor. The other minds are only slightly less crowded and just as evocative: the poet’s full of more wistful imagery of sex and love and life and death; the dictator’s, a barren, ugly place of stunted growth and pathetic posturing; the scientist’s, an immense chess board of cool, classical beauty.

The obvious literary antecedent of the whole endeavor is Dante’s The Divine Comedy, particularly its first part The Inferno. Pinsky makes his homage about as explicit as homages can be by naming the scientist who sends you on your journey into the minds Doctor Virgil, a reference to the Roman poet who served as Dante’s guide to humanity in all its facets. Other more subtle references are sprinkled throughout Mindwheel. More importantly, the feel of the environment is similar. Dante has been a long-term fixation of Pinsky, resulting most notably in the popular translation of The Inferno which he published a decade after Mindwheel, and which has led Nick Montfort to cheekily note Mindwheel as “the first work of interactive fiction to have influenced The Inferno.”

Like The Divine Comedy, Mindwheel manages to be personal as well as epic. Amidst all the other imagery you’ll find within it a brief homage to Pinsky’s early mentor, the iconoclastic poet Yvor Winters, as well as a more extended one to the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, those “boys of summer” who are the subject of the best book ever written about baseball. Indeed, the final puzzle of the game is a technically unfair one which requires you to do a bit of outside research into the only Brooklyn team to win the World Series. But go ahead and do the research; it’s good for you, and it’s trivial in the age of the Internet. Pinsky, who grew up in neighboring New Jersey, obviously followed the Brooklyn Bums and loved them dearly, obviously was as heartbroken as the rest of their fans when the team upped and moved to Los Angeles.

But the most personal of all parts of Mindwheel is, as you might expect, your excursion into the mind of the poet. Pinsky has since noted that one of the few sources of occasional tension between him and Hales stemmed from the former’s desire to just keep piling on more crazy world to explore while the latter insisted that there needed to be puzzles, pacing, the structure that would result in a real game with a score of sorts — presented as a summarized list of your achievements rather than a numerical value — and the possibility for victory. (Yes, this would seem to suddenly put Pinsky and Synapse on the opposite sides of the positions they had already staked in the novel/game dialectic. What can I say, other than that few philosophical positions survive contact with practicality.) Still, and for all that they were apparently a somewhat grudging addition on Pinsky’s part, Mindwheel‘s puzzles are mostly pretty good, managing to serve the themes with an emphasis on poetics, dialog, and symbolism rather than a bunch of mechanistic operations. Occasionally they’re more than pretty good, as in the case of the most intricate, rewarding, and personal puzzle of all: the completion of a sonnet using words gathered from the environment around you. The sonnet in question originated with the Renaissance poet Fulke Greville. The lines were, however, too long to fit on the 40-column screens used by many of Synapse’s customers, so Pinsky converted the poem from pentameter to tetrameter. The puzzle is brilliant because it so perfectly connects with the daily labors of the mind you’re exploring. You’re counting beats, looking at the rhyme scheme, seeking that word that fits mechanically and also just, well, fits. Pinsky, who labored always to find ways to make poetry relevant in people’s lives, was delighted when he saw a group of playtesting high-school kids “just trying to figure them [the sonnet and some other poetry-related puzzles] out because they’re having fun and want to do it.”

The Wheel

The central image of the Mindwheel itself is one that also appears in “The Figured Wheel,” a poem Pinsky published almost contemporaneously with the game. It’s another element that has continued to recur in Pinsky’s later work.

Imagine a wheel — a colossal, rotating wheel into which is drawn all of the images of a culture: every experience, every event, every object, every person’s mind and body. This wheel is a vortex which you must try to manipulate and understand.

It involves the idea of striving for control and mastery, and the world being so complicated that every time you strive you’re creating another system that becomes part of this big whirling thing which is everything everybody’s ever known or thought or dreamed up to amuse themselves. Jokes and technologies and mythologies and religions and roads and… just everything.

Such heady concepts aside, the question of what Mindwheel ultimately all means is a fraught one. There’s a telling moment near the end of the game where in order to progress you have to cold-bloodedly sacrifice a certain frog who’s been your loyal companion through most of the game. Trinity, Brian Moriarty’s masterpiece which we’ll be getting to in a future article, has a similar moment which is among its most moving and important, serving as a critique of the whole atomic doctrine of mutually assured destruction and the idea of sacrificing the few for the needs of the many which led to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Before you rush to comment, do know that the decision to drop those bombs is one with which I must unhappily agree.) But then Trinity is a work with some very clear messages to impart. In Mindwheel the sacrifice is played almost for laughs; the frog returns in the finale as a happy zombie.

Does this make Mindwheel a lesser work than Trinity? Well, it certainly takes itself less seriously, but we need not condemn it for that. There was a time when poets would compete to do their patrons proud by taking a well-known vignette out of the Bible or mythology and embellishing it over hundreds or thousands of lines of verse, adding layer after layer of pathos and sensuality and imaginative gilding, like a literary version of a guitar-shredding contest; see Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” for spectacular examples of the genre. There’s some of that same spirit to Mindwheel. Pinsky is having fun here. Poetry should be, whatever else it is, fun.

Pinsky was never more delighted by Mindwheel than when it managed to surprise him, which it did more often than you might expect thanks to the rather loosy-goosy and free-association-inclined BTZ parser.

I was playing the game with my fifteen-year-old son, and we got up a tree. There was a lizard at the base of the tree that would repeatedly kill us. I knew that it was random, but we were on a bad run. We also had our friend the frog with us in the tree. So we gave the disk to the frog and said, “Frog, go down and kill the lizard.” By God, he did it. And the message appeared that the lizard died spewing blood and pus. The creators of the game didn’t know what was going to happen.

One of his favorite anecdotes is that of the beautiful lady to which a friend typed, “You look like my mother.” “I will look the way you want me to” was her alleged reply. (Unfortunately, the published version of the game yields the far less satisfying “Okay, I’ll look.” The problem with a parser like Synapse’s is that it might deliver something unexpected and brilliant from time to time in response to some unusual input, but nine times out of ten it just delivers gibberish or takes your command as meaning something that you really, really didn’t want to do.)

The period of Mindwheel‘s development was a happy and fulfilling one for Pinsky, but a difficult one for Synapse. In addition to the Electronic Novel line, the company had just launched another bold new initiative: to develop a line of business applications — SynFile, SynCalc, and SynTrend — to be marketed and distributed by Atari themselves. In July of 1984, however, Jack Tramiel bought Atari (a story we’ll be getting to in detail in a future article), and promptly told Synapse that he didn’t want their applications and didn’t intend to pay for them. Synapse, who had invested heavily in the work, became just the latest of a long line of Tramiel suppliers to be double-crossed and financially destroyed by the old business warrior. Meanwhile the rest of the Atari 8-bit market, still Synapse’s bread and butter, was in increasingly dire straits, being pummeled by the Commodore 64. Flying high barely six months before, Synapse suddenly faced bankruptcy before they could release a single one of the Electronic Novels that they hoped would stake out for them a new place in the industry. A savior appeared in the form of Brøderbund, who agreed to buy Synapse and take them under their wing in October. The Carlstons knew and liked Wolosenko and the rest of the Synapse folks, and wanted their expertise in action-game programming as well as the promising Electronic Novel line; it was still the era of bookware, after all, with Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the talk of the industry.

Mindwheel

The release date for Mindwheel slipped a bit amidst all the chaos, from the planned late 1984 to February of 1985. It generated the last big wave of the already dying bookware storm, with some images that can seem as surreal today as anything in the game proper: Pinsky blinking amidst the strobe lights at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show; Pinsky waxing philosophical in those noted literary magazines Compute!’s Gazette and A.N.A.L.O.G. (“The #1 Magazine for Atari Computer Owners!”). It’s questionable, though, to what degree the press buzz translated into sales, although Mindwheel undoubtedly became by far the best selling of the Electronic Novel line as a whole — not, alas, a high bar to clear.

I’ve long since made my peace with the fact that traditional parser-driven interactive fiction is, due to various irresistible forces, just an intriguing blip in the histories of literature and/or gaming (take your pick) that will quite likely die entirely with my generation. In general, I think that’s fine; Shakespeare is still as beautiful and relevant as ever despite the fact that modern theater has as little in common with the Elizabethan stage as does textual interactive fiction with a modern graphical game. Certainly elaborate counter-factuals, whether in life or in history, are seldom all that productive. Yet it’s hard not to feel just a little bit wistful reading those old interviews with Pinsky where he throws out ideas of what he’d like to try in his next game whenever someone “asks me to do another of these”; wistful for that world, widely accepted as inevitable for a brief instant in the mid-1980s, when major writers — good writers — would be routinely asked whether their next work would be interactive or non-interactive.

Ah, well, at least we have Mindwheel. The Apple II version I’m providing for download here is probably your best bet, being very playable and also quite easy to get up and running in any number of slick Apple II emulators like AppleWin; be sure to answer “yes” to 80 columns and to turn on faster disk-drive emulation. It’s worth the effort. (Edit: Steve Hales has now made a web page that hosts Mindwheel for play online in a browser. You unfortunately can’t save, but this is by far the easiest way to get a taste of the experience.) Whatever the reasons for Mindwheel‘s academic reputation today, it’s definitely not undeserved.

(This article draws heavily from Jason Scott’s interview with the ever thoughtful and articulate Robert Pinsky for Get Lamp. Magazine sources this time were: A.N.T.I.C. of April 1983, November 1984, and July 1985; Ahoy! of February 1984; Compute!’s Gazette of June 1985; Analog of December 1985; QuestBusters of March 1985. There’s an interesting discussion of Mindwheel in Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages and also in an article Pinsky himself wrote for the Autumn 1987 New England Review. Finally, Steve Hales’s brief recollections of working with Pinsky can be found in two places online.)

 
 

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Seven Cities of Gold

Seven Cities of Gold

Shortly after completing M.U.L.E., Ozark Softscape held a week-long brainstorming retreat with their producer from Electronic Arts, Joe Ybarra, inside the Little Rock house that served as their offices. Dan Bunten ((Dan Bunten began living as the woman Danielle Bunten Berry in the early 1990s, and had sexual reassignment surgery in November of 1992. She died five years later.

In preparing this article, I of course reviewed what I had already written about Dani. I confess it made me cringe a bit. I have long been annoyed by the habit of people who know nothing of her games of using Dani as some generic representative of her sexuality, and wanted to move the focus firmly to her work as a game designer, to leave the politics of gender identity alone and focus on why she was a such a giant in her chosen field. I now realize that in doing so I seemed to dismiss and disrespect the other parts of her story, although I genuinely didn’t intend to do so. A couple of angry commenters who, it seemed to me, wanted to force me into the very narrative template I had been trying to avoid only hardened my position. I continue to want to avoid the standard structure of the genre of “Dani Bunten Berry stories” — but I also realize that they had some points as well. I particularly regret that I never referred to Dani by her female name even in my note at the end of the article. I literally never realized I had done this until my recent rereading, and now understand some objections about how I allegedly considered her unworthy of being referred to by her real name and the like a bit better. I won’t edit the article, as doing so could only make those who commented look unreasonable in ways they really weren’t. Anyway, it perhaps serves as a better lesson just as it is. Know, however, that if I was writing it today I would handle the issue somewhat differently.

That said, you’ve surely noticed that I continue to refer to Dani as “Dan” and “he” in the article above. I understand the logic of those who would say that Dani was always a woman, merely one who was by an accident of birth born into a man’s body. Certainly this is the argument most advocates for transsexual rights would make. For myself, I am all for transsexual rights, but also believe that gender and sexual identity may be more fluid than much transsexual rhetoric would have it. In the end, I have continued to opt for clarity and reality as all of Dani’s friends and colleagues knew it in the 1980s: of her being the man Dan Bunten. Referring to “Dani” and “she” in these articles would be confusing to the reader and at least at some level anachronistic, opposed to the consensus reality shared by everyone around her. I understand that this decision may not seem ideal to everyone, and even that it runs counter to some journalistic style guidelines. If you disagree with it, I can only ask you to believe me when I say it was made in good faith, with no intention to slight. For what it’s worth, reports are that post-op Dani was never offended in the least by being referred to as a man when conversations came around to her years of living as Dan.)) arrived with a pretty good idea of the game he wanted to make next already in hand. He had recently become fascinated with a monster board game released by those famed purveyors of monster board games, Avalon Hill. Civilization places each player in charge of a single tribe at the dawn of history, about 8000 BCE, and lets her guide it down through the millennia as far as the time of the dawning of the glory that was Rome, about 230 BCE. Warfare plays a role, but Civilization isn’t really a traditional war game; equally important are exploration, culture, economics, and technological advancement. (Of course, all of these factors are inevitably interlinked.) With a scope like that, Civilization is just about as complicated and time consuming as board gaming gets. A full game generally consumes about eight hours even once you’ve learned how to play.

Dan’s colleagues dutifully set aside a day to play the game with him, to see what he was on about. They emerged blinking and befuddled, and not at all sure about the idea of a computerized version. How, after all, were they going to pack all of that complexity and grandeur into their little 48 K Atari 800s? Ybarra was likely motivated by another practical consideration: Civilization belonged to Avalon Hill, who were trying (with somewhat mixed results) to make a go of it in computer games, the place to which a dismaying quantity of their old customers were migrating. They weren’t likely to make it easy or cheap for a competitor to release a computer version of one of their big board-game titles. Better, Dan’s colleagues all argued, to make a more modest original game with some of the spirit of Civilization. This sort of conversation wasn’t that new to Ozark. Dan’s three partners, as well as Ybarra, freely acknowledged him to be a creative genius far beyond their own lights. Geniuses, however, occasionally need to be gently steered down practical roads, lest their Big Ideas overwhelm their sense of proportion; this they saw as part of their own modest contributions to Ozark.

Also in Ozark’s collection of board games was another Avalon Hill effort called Conquistador, a game of “The Age of Exploration: 1495-1600.” In it each player takes control of one of the great European powers as they explore, conquer, and eventually colonize the New World. Late in the game, wars among the players can develop as virgin territory gets harder to come by. It’s only slightly less daunting than Civilization; a complete game usually lasts five hours or so. Still, it felt like a concept that could be more readily pared down to something manageable on the Atari 800, and like one that could inspire a computer game original enough — particularly with a designer of Dan’s creativity on the project — that licensing wouldn’t become an issue. It also dealt with a subject that Dan and his brother Bill had found genuinely fascinating from an early age, when an uncle had given them their first book about the Conquistadors. And so Ozark’s next project was decided by the time the week was out.

Dan, still pining for Civilization, was initially not hugely enthusiastic. After he and Bill collected a tall stack of history books and dove in, however, he started to come around. Once again the Big Ideas started to come thick and fast. He envisioned a game played in three stages, like Conquistador. In the first, you would be exploring and dealing with the natives you encountered, which basically meant either trading and trying to establish peaceful alliances or doing a full-on Cortés and charging through their villages with swords swinging. The second stage would have you founding colonies, establishing permanent settlements and institutions in the New World rather than rushing back to Europe with each new shipful of gold. Finally, these emerging and expanding nations would have to deal with one another. Diplomacy and the results of its breakdown, wars, would ensue. Diplomacy being pretty difficult terrain for a computer opponent to navigate, Dan envisioned a game that, like M.U.L.E., would emphasize multiplayer play while offering computerized opponents merely as practice and fillers for empty human seats around the virtual table.

It was all very ambitious. Inevitably, the heartless hand of practicality — largely in the usual form of his partners — started to pare away at it pretty quickly. Stages two and three were excised entirely; this would be a game of exploration and conquest only, not politics or consolidation. You would also be restricted to playing as a representative of Spain and to exploring the lands of South and Central America that were historically conquered by Spain. The name Seven Cities of Gold was chosen as a reflection of this new emphasis on Conquistadors seeking after the wealth of exotic legends to bring home to Spain. Most painfully, it was decided to make the game single-player only, as it was ambitious enough as it was and no one knew quite how to make multiplayer work anyway. Besides, as Ybarra and everyone else at EA — not to mention the failure of M.U.L.E. — were able to attest, for whatever reason there just wasn’t a big market for multiplayer-focused strategy games. With EA and Ybarra sticking so loyally with Ozark despite M.U.L.E.‘s fate, there was perhaps a sense that Ozark owed them the best stab they could make at giving them a hit. At any rate, they owed it to themselves if they wanted to stay in this business; it was doubtful that even EA would continue to fund them if they delivered another under-performer like M.U.L.E. And so Seven Cities of Gold became the first single-player-only game Dan had ever made.

If that was a hard compromise to accept, there were consolations. The overarching Big Idea of Seven Cities, to be emphasized if necessary at the expense of everything else, would be Discovery. Dan had quickly realized when he first played Conquistador that it could not be a true recreation of the experience of exploring an uncharted continent for one very simple reason: the player came into it with a knowledge of the geography of the Americas, and with a bit of cursory outside research could know even the location of the capital of the Inca Empire. To remedy this, he proposed making a random map available in addition to the historical one. The historical map would be there out of obligation and for learning purposes; the real game would have you exploring New Worlds that were truly new to you.

The map generator turned into the most technically challenging element of the entire project. To be worthwhile, the random maps had to be as believable and logical as the historical. They couldn’t, in other words, just scatter landscape and natives about willy-nilly. From the manual:

There is a plate-tectonics model consulted for each creation. Mountain ranges are generated where the plates bump into each other. And secondary ranges (like the Allegheny Mountains on the historical map) may be created as well.

The program also consults a cultural dissemination model for its work. The influences of major civilizations are presumed to spread outward. Consequently, pueblo dwellers generally will be found between city-states and primitive agriculturalists. The model will allow for varying levels of this influence and can thus produce occasional continent arrangements which have no Incan-level civilizations. Alternately, it can make very rich and powerful arrangements, one which, like 16th-century Japan, are highly civilized from coast to coast.

The random-map generator was assigned to Jim Rushing, the purest coding mind at Ozark, who spent some four months struggling with it. It was quite a task for the little Atari; each map took a solid ten minutes of processing to generate. Frustratingly, the end result from early versions was always the same, a continent shaped like a giant peanut. Finally, Rushing found a bug in his random-number generator. Ybarra still recalls vividly the day that Dan called him to tell him that they had generated a believable alternate New World: “The energy and excitement was terrific. Dan was both elated and burnt out, but you could ‘hear’ him grinning on the other side of the phone.” Ybarra now firmly believed they were “creating another masterpiece.”

Seven Cities of Gold Seven Cities of Gold

Indeed, the game is nothing if not elegant. Like in M.U.L.E., you are always embodied in the game by an onscreen avatar who visits shipyards, the pub, and the royal palace, and of course wanders through the New World as your surrogate. This can make it feel as much adventure game as strategy game; Seven Cities is anything but dry or abstract. The overland exploration which forms the heart of the game was inspired as much by Dan’s own experiences hiking the backwoods of Arkansas as his readings in history. He had particularly vivid memories of getting himself lost on occasion, and the relief engendered by coming upon a road or other familiar landmark. Seven Cities can prompt similar feelings as you press ever deep into this vast, unknown continent. The feeling of relief at finding your trusty ship sitting right there where you left it as you stumble out of the jungle with food supplies dwindling is almost indescribable.

Seven Cities of Gold

But maybe the supreme achievement in verisimilitude is your interaction with the native tribes, as brilliant an abstraction of real-world experience into interface as the auctions of M.U.L.E. When you enter a new village, the inhabitants gather around you, surround you disconcertingly. You can give them gifts or try to “amaze” them by acting the part of one of their gods, but it’s always an uncertain, tentative communication that could erupt into violence at any time. Many times you will find yourself all but forced into massacring a village — or being massacred by them — by an inadvertent push of the joystick or a single panicked shot by a member of your own army who goes out of your control. It’s a superb simulation of how these encounters between two utterly alien cultures without a single word in common between them must have actually felt to the participants, and a lesson in just why they so often ended in violence even when both parties entered them with the best of intentions. Incredibly for a game of this vintage, the natives remember and communicate with one another. Attack one tribe in a region and the others will be much more suspicious. Try to “amaze” a group of natives too many times and it starts to become old hat — and they start to become suspicious.

For the desperately idealistic Dan, who was always eager to instil “a meaningful message,” the moral dimension of these encounters and the impact they would make on the player’s psyche were key not only to his game but to his very sense of his own worthiness as a person:

“The people I admire are the people who went to jail instead of Vietnam, or who go to India to do some good, or who are really committed to the environment. Those are the people who are really admirable. What I’m doing seems less important. I want to make a significant impact in a person’s life.”

Yet Seven Cities doesn’t preach; it leaves you to your conscience. Unquestionably, violence in Seven Cities often does pay, just as in real history, and the problematic nature of this was not lost on Dan:

“Many of the Conquistadors treated the natives horribly. Theirs was an arrogant and prideful approach to a society that had its own history and roots. But to be historically accurate required that we had to include violence. I don’t like the idea of players hurting other things, but there’s no alternative or you’re forcing your own moral decisions on an audience that ought to have a choice themselves.

“Bill and I were real Indian sympathizers when we were growing up. We always sided with the Indians instead of the cowboys. It just seems like such a neat, romantic culture to us, so in tune with the earth. Then to write a game where at least part of the game is wiping out Indians — that’s problematic.”

Seven Cities of Gold

Seven Cities comments on your behavior toward the natives in only one way: if you get truly savage, the king will eventually tell you to please stop killing so many of them. But these words are never backed by any action, and the priority always remains to keep the gold flowing. The crown refuses to acknowledge that the gold and the killing that produces it are often inseparable. Such halfhearted carping is, as Dan noted, lifted straight from history, where it provided a way for those back in Spain to feel morally absolved while still benefiting from the killing and plundering of their countrymen.

Brilliant as its individual elements are, I do tend to have a problem appreciating Seven Cities of Gold as a holistic game. There is no competitor to play against, unless you count the natives you encounter — and the power imbalance between you and them is ultimately so great that, even if you choose the warlike approach, it’s hard to think of them in that role. Nor is there any in-game way to really lose or win. There isn’t even a definite end-point; you begin in 1495 and receive a rank based on your performance in 1540, but can continue to play on after that as long as you like. After a while the thrill of filling in the map and adding to my counts of missions and ships and rivers and other landmarks discovered starts to fade, and I start wishing for some goals, some sort of more specific direction. Dan himself delivered the following answer to the question, “How do I win?”

However you want. Seven Cities is a process-type game. You go along like real life. Life doesn’t have ends and wins and things like that. It has processes that you go through, and at times you stand back and say, “Hey, I’ve done pretty good so far.” Set your own goals really high and say, “That’s how I win.” Then go for it.

All of which is fine on the face of it, but Seven Cities just doesn’t feel to me like an intentional sandbox game in the mold of the (much later) SimCity. It rather feels like a design which is missing something it was originally intended to have, a possible legacy of the process of paring it down to a manageable project. On the other hand, I’m also willing to accept that this may just be down to a failure of imagination on my part, as the game received stellar reviews in its day and is still loved by many today.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that Seven Cities of Gold is still not so significant as a game in itself as for the frontiers it opened and the new things it dared to try. Its custom worlds, randomly generated at heart but meticulously terra-formed to be as believable as our own, became a staple of grand strategy games to come. Its consistent prioritizing of friendliness and elegant playability — the entire game is controlled, simply and intuitively, with a single joystick, and its manual consumes a scant 8 pages that spend as much time on historical background as game mechanics — served as an object lesson to games that used every key on the keyboard. The random maps, the native-encounter sequences, and the way that the whole game is played in “real time” rather than discrete turns also demonstrated how to take advantage of the unique abilities of the computer, rather than just encoding the rules of what could otherwise be a board game. And of course the moral ambiguity of this whole exercise, in which even peaceful alliances are ultimately made for the purpose of conquer and plunder, is never swept under the rug. Seven Cities has something to teach us about politics and history and perhaps even human nature. It goes well beyond the equipment lists and purely tactical concerns of a typical war game of the sort being pumped out by companies like SSI by the handful by 1984. Trip Hawkins declared that Ozark had pioneered a whole new genre of computer software: “edutainment.”

M.U.L.E. offered many of the same design lessons, but few others were thinking on this level at the time of Seven Cities‘s mid-1984 release. Troy Goodfellow goes so far as to call it “the most influential strategy game ever made.” That’s a bold statement even if we assume he’s implicitly restricting the field to computerized strategy games, but just the fact that Seven Cities is in the running in a world that contains games like Civilization (the computer version) says volumes.

Speaking of Civilization: one of those entranced by Seven Cities‘s innovations was a 30-year-old programmer and designer named Sid Meier, co-owner of a small publisher called MicroProse. Seven Cities and its determination to make strategy and history attractive and approachable became the inspiration for his breakthrough title, 1987’s Pirates!. The embodied interface of that game, which blurred the lines between strategy, adventure, and RPG while always making you feel that you are there, is lifted straight from Seven Cities; even the fonts and whole visual looks of the two games are similar. If Pirates!, generally acknowledged as one of the best computer games ever created, is even better than Seven Cities of Gold, it’s also true that it never could have existed without it, as Meier himself would happily admit. Later still, of course, Meier would manage what Dan never quite could, bringing all the complexity and grandeur — and then some — of the board game Civilization to the computer in an amazingly accessible way. Again, the road to Sid Meier’s Civilization could only have passed through Seven Cities of Gold.

While it may be most notable for the games it influenced, it’s also possible to say something about Seven Cities of Gold that is all too unusual in Dan Bunten’s career: the game was a hit in its own right. EA’s faith in their backwoods savants paid off at last, as Seven Cities sold at least 150,000 copies, five times the numbers done by M.U.L.E. and enough to make it EA’s biggest new game of 1984, in versions for the Atari 8-bit (the original and always the one that Dan himself saw as definitive), Commodore 64, Apple II, IBM PC, and eventually the Macintosh and the Amiga. Most of these ports were done by Ozark themselves or people within their circle. The Apple II version, for instance, came courtesy of a young University of Arkansas student named Mark Botner who spent the summer of 1984 working with them. He makes those days in the big house by the lake sound like an idyllic summer romance:

“What fun we had that summer. We would take a walk every day around Broadmoore Lake while our programs assembled for 15 minutes or so. We flew model airplanes, floated model boats in the lake, and played many different games. And, we actually got Seven Cities Of Gold ported to the Apple II!”

They were good times indeed. Suddenly the world was onto Dan Bunten and Ozark Softscape, as they (and particularly he) found themselves in constant demand for interviews, mentioned among the elites of the game industry.

While we leave our friends to enjoy a welcome taste of fame and fortune, you might want to try Seven Cities of Gold for yourself. If so, feel free to download the definitive Atari 800 version for use in the emulator of your choice.

(Finally, sources, which are largely the same as that last article: Dan wrote a column for Computer Gaming World from the July/August 1982 issue through the September/October 1985 issue. Those are a gold mine for anyone interested in understanding his design process. Particularly wonderful is his detailed history of Seven Cities of Gold‘s development in the October 1984 issue. Other interesting articles and interviews were in the June 1984 Compute!’s Gazette, the November 1984 Electronic Games, and the January 1985 Antic. Online, you’ll find a ton of historical information on World of M.U.L.E. Salon also published a good article about Dani ten years ago. The sadly now defunct Dani Bunten Berry Memorial Site is full of anecdotes and tributes, including the quote from Mark Botner which I used above. And see the site of the (apparently stalled) remake Alpha Colony for some nice — albeit somewhat buried — historical tidbits.)

 
 

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Free Fall, Part 2: Murder on the Zinderneuf

Murder on the Zinderneuf

Mystery stories have been a staple of adventure gaming since 1978’s Mystery Mansion. That’s little surprise; no other form of traditional static literature so obviously sees itself as a form of game between reader and writer, and thus is so obviously amenable to adaptation into other ludic forms. Said adaptations existed well before the computer age, in such forms as the Baffle Books of the 1920s, the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers of the 1930s, and the perennial board game Cluedo (Clue in North America) of 1949.

The early computerized mystery games had the superficial trappings of classic mystery literature but little of the substance. Games like Mystery Mansion and Mystery House were essentially standard Adventure-style treasure hunts, full of mazes and static puzzles, that happened to play out on the stage set of a mystery story. It really wasn’t possible to implement much else with, say, On-Line’s primitive Hi-Res Adventure engine.

That, of course, is why Infocom’s Deadline came as such a revelation. Unlike virtually everyone else making adventure games as of 1982, Infocom had the tools to do a mystery right, to capture the spirit and substance of classic mystery stories in addition to the window dressing. With such a proof of concept to examine (and one which proved to be a major hit at that), combined with a recent uptick in interest in the mystery genre within ludic culture in general following the republication of the old Dennis Wheatley dossiers and an elaborate new board game called Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, other developers started diving into mysteries with similar earnestness. Some of them worked in the text-adventure form, but others branched out into other paradigms. For instance, Spinnaker’s two child-oriented Snooper Troops games and CBS Software’s two adult-oriented Mystery Master games replaced parsers and a single complex story with a more casual form of crime solving. Each contains a series of shorter cases to solve by traveling around a graphical city map, ferreting out clues at each location using a menu-driven interface. A top rating is achieved by solving the crime quickly, using a minimum of clues.

And then there was the game that would become known mostly as that other Free Fall game after the huge success of Archon: Murder on the Zinderneuf. It’s that most interesting anomaly that pops up more than you might expect, an adventure game designed by someone who didn’t much like adventure games.

Jon Freeman laid out his objections to traditional adventure games in an article in the December 1980 issue of Byte, contrasting the form and its limitations with those of the CRPG form he was then working with in crafting Automated Simulations’s DunjonQuest games. An adventure game, he says, is so static that it’s hardly a game at all. It’s “really a puzzle that, once solved, is without further interest.” The former part of this claim became increasingly less true as more dynamic, responsive game worlds like that of Deadline were developed, but the latter part… well, it’s hard to deny that point. The real question is to what extent this bothers you. One remedy to this fundamental failing is perhaps to create longer, deeper works that take as long to play once as it might take you to exhaust the interest of another type of game over many, many plays. Another, of course, is to simply say so what, to note that no one ever criticizes other forms of art, like books, for not being infinitely re-readable (not that Shakespeare doesn’t come close). But still, a re-playable adventure (or for that matter re-readable book) would, all else being held equal, be superior to a non-re-playable version of the same game. After all, people playing these games in the early 1980s were (presumably, if they were honest sorts) buying them, and for prices that can seem insane today when measured against the complexity and amount of actual content found in the average product; the average $.99 app-store download today has far more of both than most boxed $30 or $40 AAA-level productions of the early 1980s. All of these considerations led to the dynamic, re-playable Murder on the Zinderneuf, which generates a brand new mystery to solve every time you play it. Freeman, who still lists Cluedo amongst his favorite games of all time, recycled that game’s concept on the computer, but fleshed out the suspects, the setting, the randomly generated stories behind the murders themselves, to make something more in line with the expectations of adventure gamers.

The mystery may change, but the setting and the actors, the raw materials of these little computer-generated dramas, must inevitably remain the same. Luckily, they’re pretty inspired. The game takes place in 1936, the heyday of the rigid airship, surely one of the most romantic and just plain cool methods of travel ever invented. On a trans-Atlantic voyage aboard the fictional German airship Zinderneuf, a murder has been committed. Which of the sixteen passengers was killed, and which did the killing, and why… these are the elements that are generated anew each time. As a whole genre of pulp-action tabletop RPGs have taught us, the 1930s are a wonderful period for fans of intrigue and derring-do, and Zinderneuf uses that well. Freeman and Reiche work in a lot of the era’s touchstones: old Hollywood, action serials, the Berlin Olympics, the Spanish Civil War, the mob, Amelia Earhart, spiritualism, adventurous archaeologists (Raiders of the Lost Ark was still huge while they worked on the game), and of course Communists and Nazis. It’s an effervescent, pulpy version of history. (That said, our libertarian friend Freeman just can’t restrain himself from taking a political shot at Franklin Delano Roosevelt that strikes a weird sourpuss note amongst all the fun: “Roosevelt was still offering his own version of ‘bread and circuses’ as he ‘guided’ the United States through an unprecedented four terms of depression and war.”) The Zinderneuf itself, meanwhile, proves perfect for a Murder on the Orient Express-style whodunnit. Playing as one of eight detectives drawn from literature or television — including homages to Mike Hammer, Miss Marple, Columbo, and the inevitable Sherlock Holmes among others — you have twelve hours to solve the case before the Zinderneuf touches down in New York and the suspects all scatter to the winds.

Murder on the Zinderneuf

Those twelve hours translate to just 36 minutes of game time — yes, this is a real-time game. The idea here was to replace a 40-hour adventure game with a half-hour game that “can be replayed 100 times.” Also replaced are the text and parser, with a top-down graphical display and an entirely joystick-driven interface.

Murder on the Zinderneuf

Each game begins by telling you who has been murdered from among the cast of characters, each of whom receives a capsule bio in the manual. And then, as Holmes would say (and the manual happily quotes), the game is afoot. You collect evidence in two ways. First, you can search the cabins of the victim and any of the other passengers to see what connections you can discover.

Murder on the Zinderneuf

In the case above, I now know that the murderer of Oswald Stonemann is most likely someone with black hair; the victim is always assumed to have been killed in his cabin. This immediately narrows the suspect list down to five. A logical next step may be to search the cabins of those five suspects, to see what further connections I can turn up. Eventually, however, I will want to start questioning suspects. I can choose the approach I take to each. Various approaches are more or less favorable to different combinations of detective and suspect, something that must be deduced with play. If I choose wisely, perhaps I get a clue.

Murder on the Zinderneuf

Murder on the Zinderneuf

When I believe I have determined opportunity and motive (the game is oddly uninterested in the actual means of murder), I can accuse someone. A false accusation, or one based on insufficient evidence, doesn’t end the game, but does greatly affect your “detective rating” at the end, and prevents you from using that suspect as a source of information for the rest of the game. If you haven’t accused anyone by the time twelve hours (i.e., 36 minutes) have passed, you get one last chance to make an accusation, at some cost to your detective rating, before the game reveals the murderer for you.

There’s much that’s very impressive here. The randomly-generated cases go far beyond the likes of Colonel Mustard in the drawing room with the pistol. Most of the cases don’t even involve that most reliable standby of the mystery writer, love triangles. One time I discovered that Phillip Wollcraft, the archaeologist, had killed the young Natalia Berenski because he was in thrall to certain nameless be-tentacled somethings and needed a handy virgin to sacrifice. (Yes, even the H.P. Lovecraft mythos makes an appearance in this giddy pastiche of a setting, marking what may just be its first appearance in a computer game.) Another time I discovered that the beautiful pilot and all-around adventuress Stephie Hart-Winston had killed the Reverend Jeremiah Folmuth after learning he had in turn killed her beloved brother in a hit-and-run car accident years before. Other cases involve espionage (a natural given the time period), blackmail, even vampires. Most manage to tie the crime back to the period and setting and the specific persona of the characters involved with impressive grace.

But for all that, and despite its superficially easy joystick-driven interface and bright and friendly onscreen graphics that actually look much nicer (at least on the Atari) than those of Archon, Zinderneuf doesn’t quite work for me. Part of the problem derives from all of that rich background information existing only in the manual, not on the screen. The first half-dozen times you play you’re frantically flipping through the pages trying to figure out just who is who as the clock steadily ticks down, an awkward experience a million miles away from Trip Hawkins’s ethos for a new, more casual sort of consumer software. By the time you get over that hump, some of the seams in the narrative generator are already starting to show. You learn what combinations of clues generally lead where, and start to see the same motives repeat themselves. For all the game’s narrative flexibility, there are just eight master stories into which all of the other elements must be slotted. The shock of Wollcraft doing the deed diminishes considerably after you see the same story repeat itself again, with only the name of his victim changed. All of these limitations are of course easily understandable in light of the 48 K of memory the game has at its disposal. Still, things started feeling very shopworn for me long before Freeman’s ideal of a hundred plays.

I also found other elements of the design problematic. When you get down to it, there just isn’t that much to really do, and what there is is often more frustrating than it needs to be. Searching a cabin requires wandering about it trying to cover every square inch until the game beeps to inform you that you discovered a clue — or did not. And talking to suspects can be just as off-putting. Most will only answer a question or two before wandering off again; you then aren’t allowed to speak to them again without speaking to someone else first. Thus the game quickly devolves into a lot of sifting through denials and non-committals, struggling to figure out the right approach to use, while only being able to field one or two questions to your star witness (or suspect) at a time. The memory limitations so strangle the dialog that it’s impossible to pick up clues, as you might in a real conversation, about whether or why your current interrogation approach is failing, or which one might better suit. Murder on the Zinderneuf is fascinating and groundbreaking as a concept, but ultimately a game should be fun in addition to any other virtues it might possess, and here I’m just not sure how well it succeeds. Reading the manual with its cast of exaggerated characters was for me almost more entertaining than actually playing.

Zinderneuf‘s ideal of a narrative that is new every time is neat, and certainly interesting for someone like me to write about as the road almost entirely not taken in adventure games. But are there perhaps good reasons for it to be the road not taken? Maybe for someone primarily interested in games as experiential fictions a 40-hour story, crafted by a person, is more satisfying than 100 30-minute stories generated by the computer. At risk of making Freeman a straw man for my argument, it’s tempting to think again about the flaws that he believed he saw in existing adventures. I believe that designers who see games as rules systems to be carefully crafted and tweaked are often put off by adventure games, which are ultimately all about the fictional context, the lived experience of playing the protagonist in a story. Perhaps having the system itself generate the story could be seen, consciously or unconsciously, as a way to fix this perceived imbalance, to return the art of game design (as opposed to fiction-authoring) to the center of the equation. Yes, Murder on the Zinderneuf‘s narrative generator is clever, but it’s not as clever as, say, Marc Blank, the author of Deadline — and arguably not clever enough to sustain a genre whose appeal is so deeply rooted in its fiction. Zinderneuf is more interesting as a system than as a playable story, in a genre whose appeal is so rooted in story. That, anyway, is how this story lover sees it. Which isn’t to discount Zinderneuf‘s verve in trying something so new. We need our flawed experiments just as much as we do our masterpieces, for they push boundaries and give grist for future designers’ mill. (In that spirit, check out Christopher Huang’s An Act of Murder sometime, which does in text much of what Zinderneuf does in graphics, with results I find more satisfying.)

For several years after 1983, their landmark year of Archon and Murder on the Zinderneuf, Free Fall remained a prominent presence in the growing games industry. In 1984 they released Adept, a sequel to Archon that didn’t quite attract the same love or sales, but was nonetheless a solid success. Soon after they were given an early prototype of the Amiga, thanks to an arrangement Trip Hawkins, a great booster of that machine, worked out with Commodore. Their superb port of Archon became one of the first games available for the Amiga, and they followed it shortly after with a port of Adept of similar quality. Many players still consider these the definitive versions of both games.

Freeman also became a prominent voice in the emerging field of game-design theory, which was separating itself at last by the mid-1980s from the very different art of game programming. He, a defiant non-programmer who had written three books and numerous articles about the art of board-game design before founding Free Fall, was ideally suited to push that process along. Like the last designer I profiled, Dan Bunten, Freeman was given a soapbox of sorts via a column (“The Name of the Game”) in Computer Gaming World. Its ostensible purpose was to tackle tough, controversial subjects head-on. Yet there’s a thin line between delivering hard-hitting, unvarnished reality as one sees it and, well, just kind of sounding like a jerk, and I’m not sure Freeman always stays on the right side of it. His hilarious rant about the Commodore 64 proves that, whatever else he may be, he is no Nostradamus: “software developers will jump off the bandwagon even faster than they got on”; buyers “will think all computers are horrible and throw the whole idea out the window along with their 64.” The Commodore 64 has always evoked special rage from Atari 8-bit loyalists like Freeman. The Atari machines were the 64’s most obvious competitor as fellow low-cost home computers with excellent graphics and sound after weaker sisters like Texas Instruments left the market. They were also arguably the ones the 64 most damaged commercially. “There but for the 64 could have gone the Atari 8-bits,” Atari fans think when they see the 64’s huge success, and not without some justification. But Freeman’s, shall we say, strongly held opinions extended beyond the platform wars. Arcade clones are not just uncreative but morally bankrupt, “illegitimate,” “nasty little pieces of trash.” Programmers doing ports are people “who can’t come up with original subjects for games.” More generally, phrases like “colossal stupidity” and “I almost certainly know more — probably a lot more — about this than you do” creep in a bit too often.

Following the Amiga Archon ports, Free Fall worked for several years on a project that marked a return to Freeman’s roots with Automated Simulations and Temple of Apshai: Swords of Twilight, an ambitious RPG for the Amiga that finally appeared in 1989. It had the unique feature of allowing up to three players to inhabit its world at the same time, each with her own controller, adventuring cooperatively. Despite being released once again by EA, the game seemed to suffer from a dearth of distribution or promotion, and came and went largely without a trace, and without ever being ported beyond the Amiga, a relative minority platform in North America. Another five years elapsed before Free Fall released Archon Ultra, this time on the SSI label. That game was poorly received as adding little to the original, and once again sank quickly into obscurity. And, a few casual card games and the like aside, that’s largely been that from Free Fall. They are still officially a going concern, but seem to exist today largely to license their intellectual property (i.e., Archon) to interested developers. If their output after 1986 or so seems meager given the extraordinary productivity and energy of their first few years, know that my impression — and I must emphasize that this is only an impression, with little data to back it up — is that life has thrown its share of difficulties at Freeman and Westfall since their heydays as stars of Hawkins’s stable of software artists, difficulties that go beyond just some games that performed disappointingly in the marketplace.

If you’d like to try Murder on the Zinderneuf for yourself, I’ve prepared the usual care package for you, with an Atari 8-bit disk image and the (essential) manual. Next time we’ll say goodbye to EA’s Software Artists for a while and catch up with some Implementors again.

(A good interview with Freeman and Westfall can be found online at Halcyon Days, and one with Freeman alone at Now Gamer. Contemporary articles about Free Fall are in the January 1983 Softline, the November 1984 A.N.A.L.O.G., the February 1985 Family Computing, the July/August 1987 Info, and the November 1984 Compute!’s Gazette (Freeman must have been gritting his teeth through that interview, given his opinion of the Commodore 64). Freeman’s Computer Gaming World column ran from the May/June 1983 issue through the April/May 1985 issue.)

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

 

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Free Fall, Part 1: Archon

Jon Freeman and Anne Westfall

Jon Freeman and Anne Westfall

In the late 1970s Anne Westfall, a mother, housewife, and divorcee in her early thirties, started attending Santa Rosa Junior College. With her children “old enough to take care of themselves,” she was looking for a new direction in her life. She sampled a bit of everything on the college’s menu, but fell in love with computer programming via a course in BASIC. More programming courses followed. She became so good at it so quickly that when some members of the faculty were contacted by a local civil-engineering company that was looking to hire programmers for a new software division they hooked her up with a job. Just like that she had a career; she spent the next two years writing programs for surveyors and subdivision planners on the TRS-80.

At the West Coast Computer Faire of March 1980, fate placed her company’s booth next to that of Automated Simulations of Temple of Apshai and DunjonQuest fame. She got to talking with Automated’s co-founder and primary game designer, Jon Freeman, and a spark both creative and romantic was kindled. Before meeting Freeman computer games had never even occurred to her as an interest, much less a career. She vaguely knew of some housed on some large computer systems to which she had access, and had played Space Invaders a few times at a pizza parlor, but that was about it. Yet Freeman apparently made one hell of an advocate. Not only did she and he become an item, but just five months after meeting her he convinced her to quit her secure job to come program games for Automated Simulations. Soon after they were married.

The marriage has survived to this day, but the new job proved more problematic. Westfall was forced to work as a so-called “maintenance programmer,” tweaking and maintaining the DunjonQuest engine. She also found herself at the epicenter of a power struggle of sorts between Freeman and his founding partner, Jim Connelley. From the time of their first game, Starfleet Orion back in 1978, the two men had fallen into an equitable division of roles. Freeman, who had spent years studying and writing about tabletop-game design but did not program, designed the games; Connelley, a professional programmer for years before Automated’s founding, implemented them. Even as the company grew in the wake of Temple of Apshai‘s success and other designers and programmers came aboard, the basic division of labor remained: Freeman in charge of the creative, Connelley in charge of the technical. From the start Connelley had focused on developing a reusable engine for the DunjonQuest line, written in BASIC for maximum portability and maintainability and capable of running on virtually any computer with at least 16 K of memory. But now, inspired by Westfall’s talent, by newer machines like the Atari 400 and 800, and by newer iterations of the CRPG concept like Ultima and Wizardry, Freeman was getting antsy. Automated’s games were being left behind, he said. He pushed to abandon BASIC and rewrite everything from scratch in assembly language, and to stop targeting a one-size-fits-all lowest-common-denominator machine. Connelley flatly refused, preferring to continue churning out more scenarios using the same old engine. Finally, at the end of 1981, it all devolved into litigation, which ended with Freeman and Westfall, along with other partisans from their camp, walking away. (For what it’s worth, Freeman’s camp ultimately proved to be in the right. Plummeting sales of Automated’s increasingly archaic-looking games forced a major change in direction within a year of the split, including the adoption of the much catchier name Epyx and a new focus on flashy games for next-generation platforms like the Commodore 64. But that’s a story for another time…)

Freeman and Westfall decided to form their own little development group, the cleverly titled Free Fall Associates, to develop games and publish them through others. They would stay small to avoid a repeat of the power struggles at Automated, and write exactly the games they wanted for the platform they wanted: the Atari 800, the most audiovisually advanced 8-bit computer on the market. They would work as partners, as Freeman had in the beginning with Connelley — only now Westfall could assume the programmer’s role. Seeing a divide between slow-paced, ugly, off-putting strategy games and flashier but vapid action fare, they decided to try to make games that slotted in between: fast-paced and aesthetically pleasing but with an element of depth.

Tax Dodge

They took pride in making sure their first game was nothing like those Freeman had designed for Automated Simulations. Tax Dodge was a maze game that took advantage of the Atari’s graphics and sound — but don’t call it a Pac-Man clone or even variant lest Freeman, who railed against the unoriginal arcade clones that still littered the bestseller charts, get very huffy with you. The maze now spanned many screens, smoothly scrolling with the player, an effect that would have been very difficult to manage on the more limited hardware of, say, the Apple II. This gave a quality of exploration, of discovery as the player charted the maze. Rather than ghosts, the player must avoid five sinister IRS agents; rather than gobble pills, she collects cash. Finding an accountant in the maze yields a precious tax shelter. It was a theme near and dear to the heart of Freeman, whose capsule biographies in his games never failed to mention his belief in libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism. Indeed, Freeman was among if not the first designer to sneak political statements into his games. (You may remember his 1980 game Rescue at Rigel, which set players on a hostage-rescue mission against a thinly disguised Ayatollah Khomeini, from an earlier article on this site.)

Tax Dodge made little commercial impression, for which Freeman later blamed the fact that the Atari’s demographics skewed much younger than those of the Apple II and TRS-80, the machines on which Automated had largely concentrated their efforts. Most potential players, he argued, missed the satire that was so much of the fun. Still, it also couldn’t have helped that the game was distributed by a tiny publisher called Island Graphics, who lacked the wherewithal to get the game the sort of prominent advertising and feature reviews that were becoming increasingly important as the software industry steadily professionalized. Maybe this freelance-developer thing wasn’t going to be that easy after all. But then Trip Hawkins and Electronic Arts came calling.

Given that Freeman was one of the few prominent designers not bound by contract to another publisher at the moment, Free Fall was an obvious target for Hawkins in his quest for “software artists.” But they were also a good fit in other ways. If you were reminded of Hawkins’s mantra of “simple, hot, and deep” software when I mentioned Free Fall’s determination to bridge the gap between strategy and action, congratulations, you’ve been paying good attention to my recent articles. Clearly these people were all on the same page. Freeman and Westfall were so excited by Hawkins’s vision that they pitched him two radically different ideas for games. One was for a vaguely chess-like strategy game which would erupt into player-against-player action when two pieces met one another on the board; the other was for an infinitely replayable whodunnit mystery. Hawkins was in turn so impressed that he asked for them both for EA’s stable of launch titles, leaving Free Fall with barely six months to make two ambitious games from scratch.

Freeman and Westfall realized they would need some help. They hired a programmer with whom they had worked at Automated Simulations, Robert Leyland, to implement the mystery, freeing Westfall to just work on the strategy game. And they brought in another person they knew from their Automated days, Paul Reiche III, to work with Freeman on the design of both games.

Reiche was just 22, but had already had quite a career in both tabletop and computer games. While still teenagers, he and some friends had written and self-published a series of supplements for Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop RPGs. Soon after, TSR themselves came calling, to sweep him off to their Wisconsin headquarters to work for them, doing design, writing, illustrating, whatever was needed. He was undoubtedly talented, but it couldn’t have hurt that, being still a teenager at the time of his hiring, he was willing to work cheap. Regardless, it was a dream job for a young D&D nut; he got to share a byline with Gary Gygax himself on the first Gamma World adventure module while just 20 years old.

Reiche first met Freeman at a D&D convention in 1980, where Freeman was demonstrating the DunjonQuest line in an effort to attract the tabletop RPG crowd to this new computerized variant. The two hit it off, and Reiche soon agreed to design a DunjonQuest scenario for Automated, The Keys of Acheron. Then, around the time of Free Fall’s founding, Reiche got himself fired from TSR, according to his telling for raising a stink about the buying of a Porsche as company car for an executive; maybe working cheap was starting to seem less appetizing. He was back in California, studying geology at Berkeley, when Freeman offered him the chance to get back into game design, this time exclusively on the computerized side. He jumped at the chance. Amongst other advantages, it made good sense from a financial perspective. The tabletop RPG industry was already nearing its historical high-water mark by late 1982, but computer games were just getting started.

I’m going to talk in more detail about Archon, the strategy game, today; next time I’ll talk about Murder on the Zinderneuf, the mystery.

Like so much else, much of the fascination amongst gamers with more, shall we say, colorful variants of chess can be traced back to Star Wars — in this case, to the holographic game played between Chewbacca and R2-D2 aboard the Millennium Falcon. That scene, combined with the explosion in popularity of D&D and by extension fantasy of all stripes, led to a minor craze for new variants of chess. Sometimes that meant nothing more than standard chess sets which replaced pawns with goblins and bishops with dragons to give it all a bit of a different flavor. But other people were more ambitious. The movement reached a sort of absurd fruition when Gary Gygax published the rules for Dragonchess in Dragon magazine’s one-hundredth issue in 1985. It featured a three-level board filled with monsters drawn from D&D‘s Monster Manual, with all of the fiddly rules and exceptions you might expect from the man whose signature game (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) filled three hardbound rulebooks and hundreds of closely typed pages.

At SCA events and similarly minded gatherings, meanwhile, living chess tournaments became more common. These replaced inanimate chess pieces with real people decked out in appropriate costumes, standing on a board that filled an auditorium floor. When two pieces met in one of these games they battled it out there on the board for the crowd’s delight. Sometimes these battles were purely for show, but in other cases players were assigned roles based on their understood talent at fencing, from pawn to queen and king. In these cases the battles were for real — or as real as fake swords allow. The inevitable result, of course, was a very different sort of game, as suddenly a lucky or dogged pawn, or a tired knight, could alter the balance and ruin the most refined of traditional chess strategies. Freeman participated in such a game as a pawn, experiencing the new spontaneity firsthand. (He acquitted himself well, managing to kill a fellow pawn and then fight a knight to a draw — i.e., a mutual kill.) The experience got him thinking about doing something similar on the computer. It seemed like just the sort of mix of strategy and action Free Fall was after.

Which is not to say that Freeman and Reiche simply recreated the living-chess experience on the computer. If anything Archon‘s relationship to chess is rather overblown, for Archon is both simpler and more complicated. Movement falls into the former category. Every piece has a maximum number of squares it can move in a turn, and either moves on the ground (meaning it can move only horizontally or vertically and cannot jump pieces) or in the air (meaning it can also move diagonally, and can jump pieces). There is nothing like the complications of, say, the knight in traditional chess. On the other hand, there are more pieces to deal with in Archon, and more places to put them. The board is now 9 X 9 rather than 8 X 8, with the requisite additional two units per side. The larger size was chosen because it fit most neatly on the screen, provided the optimum balance between visibility and strategic possibility, and allowed for three power points to be neatly spaced across the middle of the board. Controlling these three spaces, plus the additional power point located at each edge of the board, wins the game instantly. Alternately, if less strategically, one can win by simply killing all of the opposing player’s units.

The Archon game board. Note the three power points running down the center. Two more are hidden under the wizard and sorceress on the center-left and center-right squares.

The Archon game board. Note the three power points running down the center. Two more are hidden under the wizard and sorceress on the center-left and center-right squares.

The two opposing forces are no longer mirror images of each other. The game is subtitled The Light and the Dark; the Light side (presumably good) has different units with different combat abilities from the Dark side (presumably evil). Some units use a melee attack; others shoot missles or fireballs; still others, like the banshee, have an area attack that spreads outward from their person; each side has one unit (the wizard or the sorceress) who can cast a handful of spells once each per game.

The board at the dark extreme of the luminosity cycle. Note the contrast with the picture above, which shows the cycle at its mid-point.

The board at the dark extreme of the luminosity cycle. Note the contrast with the picture above, which shows the cycle at its mid-point.

Of the squares on the board, 25 are always light, 25 always dark. However, the remaining 31, including the three central power points, constantly cycle from light to dark and back. This fact is critical to strategy, because light units gain a big advantage when fighting on light squares, and vice versa. Thus the wise player plans her attacks and retreats, her feints and thrusts, around the ever-changing board. Accidentally leaving a powerful piece exposed on the wrong color of square can lead to the worst sort of self-recrimination when your opponent pounces to take out your golem with her goblin. And yes, just as in the live chess match that inspired Freeman, double kills are possible.

A phoenix (Light) and dragon (Dark) battle. Because this fight is taking placing on a light square, the phoenix has a huge advantage; note the difference in the life bars at the edge of the screen.

A phoenix (Light) and basilisk (Dark) battle. Because this fight is taking placing on a light square, the phoenix has a huge advantage; note the difference in the life bars at the edge of the screen.

Still other elements of Archon would never have been possible on the tabletop. For instance, the health of each unit is tracked even outside of the combat screen. It takes a few turns to fully recover from a hard fight, meaning a stubborn opponent can kill your wizard just by throwing enough cannon fodder — i.e., goblins — at it turn after turn. The game clearly wants to be played more quickly, more urgently, even (dare I say it?) less strategically than a classic chess match. You find yourself tossing your units into the fray, not pausing to study every option and plan your next several turns in advance. What with the fast pace and the role that reflexes play, playing Archon with another human feels like really going at it, with little of the cool cerebral feel of chess. I have to believe this is intentional, and certainly it’s a more than valid design choice. Indeed, it’s the prime source of Archon‘s appeal in contrast to a game like chess.

That said, there’s one flaw in the strategic game that bothers me enough to really impact my appreciation for the game as a whole. When playing a relatively close game, it’s all too easy to find yourself in an ugly stalemate, in which each player has just a few units left and neither has any incentive to risk any of them by moving them off of favorably colored squares. At this point both sides are just stuck, until someone loses patience at last and attacks the enemy on one of her favorable squares in the face of long odds indeed, all but guaranteeing sacrificing that piece — and, eventually, losing the game — for the sake of just ending the damn thing already. I’m not sure I have any brilliant suggestion of how this could have been fixed — maybe begin to cycle more squares from light to dark as the number of pieces on the board is reduced, thus forcing more dynamism into the game?; maybe add conditions for a chess-style draw? — but I do know that it needed to have been for me to raise my judgment of Archon from “just” a fun and creative effort to the timeless classic many would have me label it. (Then again, it’s possible I’m just missing something strategically obvious. If you have a solution to this dilemma, by all means tell me about it.)

As you might imagine given the time constraints, Westfall, Freeman, and Reiche worked like dogs on Archon even as Freeman and Reiche also labored over Murder on the Zinderneuf. Free Fall had no offices; everything was done out of Freeman and Westfall’s home in Portola Valley, California. Westfall:

We had a tough schedule at first. For six months we didn’t even read a book or go to the movies, and that’s disaster in our house. We basically worked all the time. At meals we were always discussing the games. How to do this, and what to do about that. We worked from the time we got up until all hours of the night. Then we’d get up the next day, grab a cup of coffee, and go back to work.

Archon had been envisioned from the beginning as a two-player game. However, just a month before they had to turn over the game, EA begged them to add a single-player option, thus saddling Free Fall with the task of coding a complete AI, in addition to everything else that still had to be done, in one month. With so little time and eager to preserve the game’s fast-paced character, they focused on making an AI that was “fast and decent” rather than “slow and perfect.” As Ozark Softscape did for M.U.L.E., they also made it possible for the AI to play itself, a godsend for shop display windows. And then they added one additional groundbreaking feature that has been little remarked since the game’s release. Freeman:

There’s a built-in, self-adjusting difficulty factor in Archon so that if the computer keeps beating up on you, it will get easier and easier. But most people don’t know that because it goes in little tiny increments. By the time it really starts kicking in, players think, “Oh, I’m just getting better.” Well, they are, partly; but partly it’s because the computer is not being as good. But nobody knows that’s there. It’s not something we advertise, but we were aware of the problem.

Just like chess: how do two unequal players play chess? Well, not very well. And there’s not really a great deal you can do about it. If you start taking pieces away, you change the game so radically that you’re not playing chess anymore. Archon is the same way. So we said, we want to do a game in which we can do that without screwing it up.

This very likely marks the first example of adaptive AI in the commercial game industry, a radical step in the direction of friendlier, more accessible gameplay — and in the direction of Trip Hawkins’s vision of consumer software — that deserves to be celebrated more than it has been. It also kind of leaves you wondering whether any victory over the computer was truly earned, a dilemma familiar to many modern gamers. Ah, well… groundbreaking as Archon‘s adaptive AI is, the game is still best experienced with two players, where it all becomes moot anyway.

Released in a striking monochrome sleeve that beautifully presented the theme of Light and Dark, Archon struck a major chord with the public. It became the second-best-selling of those seven EA launch titles, behind only Pinball Construction Set. I strongly encourage you to play it, but I’m not going to provide a download here. Free Fall, you see, is still around as at least a semi-going concern and still licensing variants and remakes, and I don’t want to step on any toes. I’m sure you can find the original game on your own if you’re so inclined. The Atari 8-bit incarnation was the first developed and is thus the best reflection of the original vision for the game, although the Commodore 64 port does look nicer. If you do snag one of these versions from somewhere else, maybe think about buying the latest licensed incarnation as well, if for nothing else than to show your appreciation to Freeman and Westfall.

The other Free Fall game amongst those early titles, Murder on the Zinderneuf, didn’t attract anywhere near as much attention as Archon. Yet in its own way it’s every bit as interesting — perhaps even more so if, like me, you like a strong dose of story in your games. We’ll talk about that game, and wrap up the story of Free Fall, next time.

(I’ll include the main sources I used for researching Free Fall in the concluding article.)

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Dan Bunten and M.U.L.E.

Dan Bunten

Dan Bunten

As Electronic Arts got off the ground, Trip Hawkins hired three veterans from his time at Apple — Dave Evans, Pat Marriott, and Joe Ybarra — to become the first people with the job title of “producer” at EA. Their new careers began with a mock draft: Hawkins had them draw lots to determine the order in which they would get to pick the developers they would be working with. Naturally, the three experienced developers all went in the first round, and in the order of their status within established gaming circles. Evans picked first, and chose Bill Budge, the first and arguably still the greatest of the Apple II’s superstar game developers, with name recognition within that community that could be matched by very few others. Marriott chose next, and picked Free Fall Associates, whose Jon Freeman had been responsible for the landmark CRPG hit Temple of Apshai and the Dunjonquest line of sequels and spinoffs that had followed it from Automated Simulations. That left Ybarra with Dan Bunten and his new team Ozark Softscape.

Unlike the others, Bunten had no hits on his resume; his biggest game to date had sold all of 6000 copies. He had previously published through Strategic Simulations, Incorporated, which was the antithesis of Hawkins’s vision of casual consumer software, having been founded by a grognard named Joel Billings to release a series of almost aggressively off-putting computer wargames in the hardcore tabletop tradition. Still, Hawkins had fallen in love with one of Bunten’s SSI games, a business simulation called Cartels and Cutthroats. He had first tried to buy it outright from Billings. When his overtures were rejected, he turned to Bunten himself to ask if he would like to make a game kind of like it for EA. Thus the presence of this B-lister on EA’s rolls, complete with generous royalty and advance. To make things even worse, Ozark was located, as the name would imply, deep inside flyover country: Little Rock, Arkansas. Ybarra certainly didn’t relish the many trips he would have to make there. Little did he realize that the relationship would turn into one of the most rewarding of his career, or that the first game he would develop with Ozark, M.U.L.E., would become the most beloved of all the early titles inside the company, or that it would go on to be remembered as one of the greatest of the all-time classic greats.

Dan Bunten was an idealist from an early age. At university he protested the Vietnam War, and also started a bicycle shop, not to make money but to help save the world. According to his friend Jim Simmons, Bunten’s logic was simple: “If more people rode bikes, the world would be a better place.” When he watched Westerns, Bunten was an “Indian sympathizer”: “It just seems like such a neat, romantic culture, in tune with the earth.” A staunch anti-materialist, he drove a dented and battered old Volkswagen for years after he could afford better. “I felt like I sold out when I bought a 25-inch color TV,” he said. That 1960s idealism, almost quaint as it now can sound, became the defining side of Bunten the game designer. He campaigned relentlessly for videogames that brought people together rather than isolating them. As his most famous quote, delivered at an early Game Developers Conference, went, “No one on their death bed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer!'” M.U.L.E. positively oozes that idealistic sentiment. As such, it’s an easy game to fall in love with. Certainly your humble blogger here must confess to being a rabid fanboy.

The seeds of M.U.L.E. were planted back in 1978 when Bunten bought his first Apple II. Educated as an industrial engineer, he at that time was 29, married and with daughter, and seemingly already settled into running a consulting firm doing city planning under a National Science Foundation grant in Little Rock. The eldest of six children, Bunten and his siblings had played lots of board games growing up: “When I was a kid the only times my family spent together that weren’t totally dysfunctional were when we were playing games.” In fact, some of his fondest childhood memories had taken place around a Monopoly board. Dan and his brother Bill had also delved into the world of wargames; when the former was twelve and the latter ten they had designed a complete naval wargame of their own, drawing the map directly onto the basement floor. During a gig working at the National Science Foundation, he had spent some of his time tinkering on their Varian minicomputer with an elaborate football simulation he imagined might eventually become the heart of a Master’s thesis in systems simulation. Now he started working on a game for the Apple II. Right from the beginning his approach to game design was different from that of just about everyone else.

Bunten loved more than anything the social potential of gaming. Setting a precedent that would endure for the rest of his career, he determined to bring some of that magic to the computer. Working in BASIC with only 16 K, he wrote a simple four-player auction game called Wheeler Dealers. He designed a simple hardware gadget to let all four players bid at once. (The details of how this worked, as well as the game software, unfortunately appear to be lost to history.) Then he found a tiny Canadian mom-and-pop publisher called Speakeasy Software to sell the game and the gadget for $54. (Speakeasy’s founder Brian Beninger: “Dan called out of the blue one day and spoke to Toni [Brian’s wife]. She had never experienced an accent from the southern United States and had trouble understanding him…”) Legend has it that Wheeler Dealers was the first computer game ever sold in a box, a move necessitated by the inclusion of the hardware gadget. However, such a claim is difficult to substantiate, as other games, such as Temple of Apshai and Microsoft Adventure, were also beginning to appear in boxes in the same time frame. What is certain is that Bunten and Speakeasy took a bath on the project, managing to sell just 50 to 150 (sources vary) of the 500 they had optimistically produced. In retrospect that’s unsurprising given the game’s price and the limited reach of its tiny publisher, not to mention the necessity of gathering four people to play it, but it did set another, unfortunate precedent: Wheeler Dealers would not be the last Bunten game to commercially disappoint.

Computer Quarterback, in its 1981 incarnation

Computer Quarterback, in its 1981 incarnation

Still, Bunten had caught the design bug. For his next project, he dusted off the FORTRAN source to his old football simulation. As would befit a Master’s thesis project, that game was the “most thoroughly mathematically modeled” that he would ever do, the deepest he would ever delve into pure simulation. It was, in other words, a great fit for the hardcore grognards at SSI, who released Computer Quarterback as one of their first titles in an all-text version in 1980, followed by a graphical update that took advantage of the Apple II’s hi-res mode in 1981. Typically for SSI, the manual determinedly touts Bunten’s professional credentials in an attempt to justify him as a designer of “adult games.” There is even affixed his seal as a “state of Arkansas Registered Professional Engineer”:

By affixing my seal hereto, I certify that this product was developed in accord with all currently accepted techniques in the fields of operations research, systems simulation, and engineering design, and I further accept full responsibility for the professional work represented here.

It all seems a bit dreary, and an especially odd sentiment from a fellow who would become known for championing easy accessibility to everyday people in his designs. Yet simulation of the real world was in fact a deep, abiding fascination of Bunten, albeit one that would be more obscured by his other design tendencies in his later, mature games. In the meantime, SSI’s audience of the hardcore was big enough to make Computer Quarterback Bunten’s bestselling game prior to his signing with EA, the one that convinced him to quit his day job in city planning and dive into game development full time. Indeed, the aforementioned figure of 6000 sold at the time of EA’s founding would continue to increase afterward; SSI would continue to sell updated versions well into the late 1980s.

Cartels and Cutthroats Cartels and Cutthroats

Bunten’s next game was the one that caught Hawkins’s eye, Cartels and Cutthroats. Like Hawkins of the “Strategy and Applied Game Theory” degree, Bunten was fascinated by economic simulations. For help with the modeling of Cartels, an oddly abstracted simulation of the business world — you are told in the beginning only that your company produces either “luxury,” “mixed,” or “necessity goods” — he turned to his little brother Bill, who had recently finished his MBA. Apparently few other gamers of the time shared Hawkins’s and Bunten’s interest in economic simulation; Cartels did not even manage the sales that Computer Quarterback had. Bunten later wryly noted that “evidently folks interested in playing with the stock market or business, do it in real-life instead.” That may to some extent be true, but in my opinion the game’s abstractions do it no favors; it’s hard to get excited about your role as producer of a “luxury good.” Cartels today reads as a step on the road to M.U.L.E.. The later game would continue the economics focus while grounding itself in a much more specific context that the player can really get her hands around.

If these early SSI games can seem slightly anomalous to Bunten’s mature work in their unabashed focus on simulation, one thing did stay consistent: they were conceived primarily as multi-player affairs. SSI had to cajole him into putting together a rudimentary opponent AI and single-player mode for Computer Quarterback as a condition of acceptance for publication. Bunten named the computer’s team “The Robots,” which perhaps shows about how seriously he took them. Cartels and Cutthroats offers a number of ways for up to six people to play together, the most verisimilitudinous of which employs a printer to let each player grab her stock reports off the “teletype.” Here computer players, while once more optionally present, still don’t get no respect: now they are called “dummies.”

Cytron Masters

Bunten’s final game for SSI was a marked departure. Released on SSI’s short-lived Rapid Fire line of action-oriented titles, Cytron Masters plays like a prototype of the real-time strategy games that would become popular a decade later. Two players — the two-player mode was again the main focus; the computer opponent’s AI was predictably atrocious — face off on a battlefield of the future in real time, spawning and issuing orders to six types of units. Each player can have up to fifty units onscreen at once, all moving about semi-autonomously. Bunten’s first game to use large amounts of assembly-language code as opposed to BASIC, it was by far his most challenging programming project yet. Cytron had to juggle animations and sound effects while also running the simple AI routines for up to a hundred on-screen units and accepting input from two players, all without becoming so slow as to lose its status as an “action-strategy” game. This presented a huge challenge on the minimalist, aging hardware of the Apple II. As Bunten wrote in a Computer Gaming World article about the experience, “the Apple can’t do two things without a lot of effort (you have to time your clicks of the speaker with your graphic draw routine so that they take turns). It was a tough program to write [emphasis original].”

By this time the Atari 800 was almost three years old, and Bunten had had one “collecting dust” for a pretty good portion of that time. He had remained committed to the Apple II as both the machine with the healthiest software market and the one he knew how to make “sing.” But now he decided to have a go at porting Cytron Masters to the 800. The experience proved to be something of a revelation. At first Bunten expected to just duplicate the game on the Atari. But when he showed the first version to Atari users, they scoffed. “It’s a neat game, but where’s the color? And what are those little noises?” they asked in response to the explosions.

Needless to say, I decided that if the program was to do well as an Atari version, it would have to use a few of the feature of that machine. But, during the conversion, I discovered that all the sophisticated hardware features of the Atari are useful! Cytron Masters uses the separate sound processor and four voices to make truly impressive sound effects (at least compared to the Apple); it uses the display list and display-list interrupts to change colors on the fly, and have character graphics, four-color text as well as hi-res graphics on one screen; it uses player/missile graphics for additional colors and fast animation; and most useful of all, it uses vertical-blank interrupts to allow two programs to (apparently) run at once!

Bunten became the latest of a long line of programmers to fall for the elegance of Jay Miner’s Atari 8-bit design, an elegance which the often developer-hostile antics of Atari itself could obscure but never quite negate. He would never develop another game on the Apple II, and the company he was already in the process of forming, Ozark Softscape, would be an Atari shop. (M.U.L.E. never even got a port to the Apple II.)

Cytron Masters was another relative commercial disappointment for Bunten and SSI. “Rather than appealing to both action gamers and strategy gamers,” he later said, “it seemed to fall in the crack between them.” But then, just as Bunten was finishing up the Atari port, Trip Hawkins came calling asking for that sequel to Cartels and Cutthroats and promising that EA could find him the commercial success that had largely eluded his SSI games.

By this point Bunten was already in the process of taking what seemed to him the next logical step in his new career, going from a lone-wolf developer and programmer to the head of a design studio. In a sense, Ozark Softscape was just a formalizing of roles that already existed. Of the three employees that now joined him in the new company, his little brother Bill had already helped a great deal with the design of Cartels and Cutthroats while also serving as a business adviser; Jim Rushing, a friend of Bill’s from graduate school, had offered testing and occasional programming input since the same time; and Alan Watson, formerly a salesman at a local stereo shop, had helped him with the technical intricacies of Cytron Masters and contributed his talents for Atari graphics programming to the port. Now the three came to Ozark largely in the roles they had already carved out. Bill Bunten, the only one to keep his day job (as a director of parks for the city of Little Rock) and the only non-programmer, would handle the administrative vagaries of running a business. Rushing would program, as would Watson in addition to serving as in-house artist. All three would offer considerable design input as well, but they all would ultimately defer to Dan, the reason they were all here. As Rushing later said, “We all knew Dan was a genius.” They were just happy to be along for the ride.

With their EA advantage they rented a big house across the street from the University of Arkansas to serve as office, studio, and clubhouse. Each took a bedroom as an office, and they filled the living room and den with couches, beanbag chairs, and of course more computers, making of them ideal spaces for brainstorming and playing. They filled the huge refrigerator in the kitchen with beer, which helped to lure in a crowd of outsiders to play and offer feedback virtually every evening. These were drawn mostly from the biggest local computer club, the Apple Addicts, of which Dan had been the first president back in the days of Wheeler Dealers. He may have defected to the Atari camp since, but no one seemed to mind; at least one or two were inspired by what they saw in the house to buy Ataris of their own. When they grew tired of creating and playing, the house’s regular inhabitants as well as the visitors could exit the back door to walk around an idyllic fourteen-acre lake, to sit under the trees talking or skip rocks across the water. The house and its environs made a wonderful space for creation as well as an ideal laboratory for Dan’s ideas about games as social endeavors to bring people together. It was here that Dan and his colleagues took M.U.L.E. from the germ of a concept to a shipping game in less than nine months.

Said germ was to create a game similar to the rather dryly presented, text-based Cartels and Cutthroats, only more presentable and more accessible, in line with Trip Hawkins’s credo of “simple, hot, and deep” consumer software. They would be writing for the Atari 8-bit line, which in addition to excellent sound and graphics offered them one entirely unique affordance: these machines offered four joystick ports rather than the two (or none) found on other brands. Dan thus saw a way to offer in practical form at last the vision that had caused him to get involved with game design in the first place back in the days of Wheeler Dealers. Four people could gather around the living room, each with her own controller, and really play together, in real time; no need for taking turns in front of the computer or any of the other machinations that had marked his earlier games. This would allow him to create something much breezier than Cartels and Cutthroats — a game to replace the old board-game standbys on family game nights, a game for parties and social occasions. With the opportunity to do those Wheeler Dealers real-time auctions right at last, Dan dusted the old idea off and made it the centerpiece of the new design.

Given their intention to create a family board game for the next generation, Dan and his colleagues started to look at the classic designs for other ideas with which to surround the auctions. The obvious place to look for inspiration for a game with an economic theme was the game that is still pretty much the board game as far as the masses are concerned: Monopoly. Monopoly gets a lot of grief amongst hardcore gamers these days for a multitude of very real flaws, from an over-reliance on luck in the early stages to the way it often goes on forever after it becomes totally obvious who is going to win to the way it can leave bankrupted players sitting around with nothing to do for an hour or more while everyone else finishes. Yet there’s something compelling about it as well, something more than sheer cultural inertia behind its evergreen appeal. The team now tried to tease out what those qualities were. Bill Bunten said, half facetiously, that his favorite thing about Monopoly was the iconic metal tokens representing each player — the battleship, the car, the top hat, the shoe, etc. Everyone laughed, but the input became an important part of the new game’s charm: every player in it gets to pick the avatar she “most resembles.”

M.U.L.E.

Looking more deeply for the source of Monopoly‘s appeal, the team realized that it was socially- rather than rules-driven. Unlike most board games, which reward the analytical thinker able to maximize the interactions of a rules set, Monopoly — at least if you’re playing it right — rewards the softer arts of negotiation and diplomacy. The personalities of the players and the relationships among them have as much effect on the way play proceeds as do the rolls of the dice. In the Bunten family, Mom would always let you out of paying rent if you couldn’t afford it; Bill would force you to mortgage a property if you came up a dollar short on your rent. Alliances and partnerships would form and shift as a result. The team decided that they wanted that human element in their game. It had never been seen in a computer game before, for the very simple reason that it was beyond the scope of possibility for an AI opponent living in 48 K of memory. But in their game, conceived primarily as a multi-player experience, it should be possible.

And yet more elements were drawn from Monopoly. Play would center around a “board” of properties which would be gradually acquired by the players, through a land grant that began each turn or through auctions or trades. They also built in equivalents to Monopoly‘s Chance and Community Chest cards to keep play from getting too comfortable and predictable. In keeping with Dan’s roots in simulation, however, the game would attempt to model real economic principles, making its theme more than just the window-dressing it largely was in Monopoly. Producing the same good in two adjacent plots would let the player take advance of economies of scale to produce more; having three plots in total producing the same good would also result in more production, thanks to the learning curve theory of production. In general, the computer allowed for a deeper, more fine-grained game model than was possible in dice and cardboard. For instance, normalized probability curves could be used in place of a six-sided die, and the huge sums of money the players would eventually accumulate could be tracked down to the dollar. It all would result in something more than just a computerized board game. It would be a real, functioning economy, a modest little virtual world where the rules of supply and demand played out transparently, effortlessly from the players’ perspective, just as they do in the real world.

But what should be the fictional premise behind the world? For obvious commercial reasons — Star Wars and Star Trek were huge in the early 1980s — they decided early on to give the game a science-fiction theme. Dan and Bill had both read Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein. Dating from the early stages of Heinlein’s dirty-old-man phase, there’s not much to recommend the book if you aren’t a fan of lots and lots of incestuous sex written in that uniquely clunky way of aging science-fiction writers who look around to realize that something called the Sexual Revolution has happened while they were hanging out at science-fiction conventions. Still, the brothers were inspired by one section of the book, “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter,” about a colony that settles on a distant planet. Provided with only the most meager materials for subsistence, they must struggle to survive and build a functioning economy and society by the time the colony ship returns years later to deliver more colonists and, more importantly, haul away the goods they produced to make a profit for everyone back in the more civilized parts of the galaxy. Sounds like a beautiful setup for a game, doesn’t it? To add a realistic wrinkle, the team decided that each of the four players would not only be working for herself, but must balance self-interest with the need to make the colony as a whole successful by the time the ship returned. Thus entered the balancing act people working in real economies must come to terms with, between self-interest and the needs of the society around them. A player who gets too cutthroat in her attempts to wring every bit of profit out of the others can bring the whole economy crashing down around her ears. (Perhaps some banking executives of recent years should have played more M.U.L.E. as youngsters.)

Among the most valuable tools that Heinlein’s colonists bring with them is is a herd of genetically modified mules that are not only possessed of unusual strength and endurance but also so intelligent that they can engage in simple speech. The fact that the mules are nevertheless bought and sold like livestock makes this just one more squicky aspect of a very squicky book; it feels uncomfortably like slavery. Obviously that wouldn’t quite do for the game. Then one day Alan Watson’s son came in with a toy model of an AT-AT Walker from The Empire Strikes Back. It only took the removal of the guns and the addition of a listlessly shambling gait to go from Imperial killing machine to cute mascot. A hasty backronym was created: mules were now M.U.L.E.s, Multi-Use Labor Elements programmable to perform any of several different roles. They provided the pivot around which the whole experience would revolve.

He [a M.U.L.E.] was born — if you can call it that — in an underground lab in the Pacific Northwest. A major defense contractor had gone out of its way to get the job and they were stoked.

Stoked, this is, until the detailing robots went on strike. Costs ran over. Senators screamed. And when the dust had cleared, the job was finished by a restaurant supply firm, a maker of preschool furniture, and the manufacturers of a popular electric toaster.

It shows.

The game itself was quickly renamed from the underwhelming Planet Pioneers to M.U.L.E., albeit not without some conflict with EA, who pushed for the name Moguls from Mars. Thankfully, M.U.L.E. won the day in the end.

AT-AT Walkers M.U.L.E.

Combined with the Monopoly-inspired player avatars, the M.U.L.E.s anchored the game in a concrete reality, offering it an escape from the abstraction that had limited the appeal of Cartels and Cutthroats. Now the player could be embodied in the economic simulation. She didn’t just assign one of her plots to produce, say, smithore (the colony’s main cash crop, which requires food and energy to produce) from some textual display. No, she had to walk into the village at the center of the colony, buy a M.U.L.E., outfit it for the right sort of work, then lead it back to her plot. And now auctions could be implemented as a unique combination of footrace and game of chicken involving all of the players’ avatars. All of this is done entirely with the joystick, forming a GUI interface of sorts perfectly in line with Trip Hawkins’s vision of a new generation of friendly consumer software. The new “visual, tactile relationship” (producer Joe Ybarra’s words) between player and game also allowed some modest action elements to keep players on their toes: they had only a limited amount of time to try to accomplish everything they needed to — buying M.U.L.E.s, reequipping and rearranging them to suit current production needs, etc. — during their turn. Running out of time or misplacing a M.U.L.E. (thus causing it to run off) could be disastrous; conversely, working quickly and efficiently, and thus finishing early, gave time to earn some extra money by gambling in the pub, or, in an homage to Gregory Yob’s classic, go hunting for the “mountain wampus.” The latter was just one of many elements of whimsy the team found room to include, one more drop in M.U.L.E.‘s bucket of charm.

A land auction in progress.

A land auction in progress.

About to buy a M.U.L.E. in the village.

About to buy a M.U.L.E. in the village.

Leading a M.U.L.E. from the village at the center of the game board for placement in an empty plot (denoted by the house symbol) at far left.

Leading a M.U.L.E. from the village at the center of the game board for placement in an empty plot (denoted by the house symbol) at far left.

Hunt the "Wampus"

Hunt the “Wampus”

With the core ideas and mechanics now in place, Dan Bunten and his colleagues had the makings of one hell of a game on their hands. But as any good game designer, whether she works in cardboard or silicon, will tell you, even the most genius of designs must be relentlessly tested, endlessly tweaked. Ozark Softscape and EA devoted literally months to this task, gradually refining the design. Land had originally all been sold through auctions, but this soon became obviously problematic: once a player got fairly well ahead, she would be able to buy up every plot that became available, putting her economy in a different league from everyone else’s and making the outcome a foregone conclusion as early as halfway through the game. They solved this by automatically granting one plot of land to each player on every turn, only supplementing those grants with the occasional plot that came up for auction. They also added several other little tweaks designed to keep anyone from completely running away with the game. For instance, a bad random event can never happen to the player in last place, while a good can never happen to the player in first. In case of ties in auctions or land grants — two or more players arriving somewhere or pressing their buttons at the same time — priority always goes to the player furthest behind.

And then of course the economy itself — the exact relationship between supply and demand, the prices of the different commodities and the ways they fluctuated — required a multitude of adjustments to find the perfect balance.

The game was designed to always have four players, with the seats of any absent humans being filled by computer opponents. This required the development of AI. While obviously not the main point of M.U.L.E., the team to their credit did a pretty good job with that; the computer often makes smarter moves than you might expect. Single-player M.U.L.E. is a pale shadow of multi-player M.U.L.E., but it’s hardly a disaster. (As Dan later wrote, “Single-player M.U.L.E. is considerably better than single-player Monopoly!”) It’s even possible to let four computer opponents play while you sit back and watch, something that stores looking to feature the game in their sales windows must have greatly appreciated.

Ozark relied for all of the exhaustive and exhausting testing required to get everything right not only on the endless stream of eager players who visited their house each night but also on others back at EA. Both Hawkins and Ybarra made considerable contributions to the design. Hawkins pushed always to make M.U.L.E. as realistic an economic simulation as its premise and the need for accessibility — not to mention the limited capabilities of the Atari 800 — would allow. Later he wrote the manual himself; like the game, it’s a model of concise, friendly accessibility, designed to get the player playing with an absolute minimum of tedious reading. As for Ybarra… well, here’s his level of dedication to a project of which he had started out so skeptical:

Right about the mid-point of the product, when we were starting to get [the] first playable [builds], that was when I started my several-hundred hour journey of testing this game. I can remember many nights I would come home from work and fire up the Atari 800 and sit down with my, at the time, two-year-old daughter on my lap holding the joystick that didn’t work, while I was holding the joystick that did work, testing this game. And I’d probably get eight or ten games in at night, and I would do that for two or three or four months actually, trying to work out all the kinks in the product.

By the way, at that time in the history of EA, we had no testers. In fact we had no assistance—we didn’t have anything! So producers had to do everything. I tested my own products; I built my own masters; I did all the disk-duplication work; I did all the copy-protection; I did the whole nine yards! If it was associated with getting the product manufactured, the producers did all the work. I remember a lot of nights there staying up until one or two o’clock in the morning playing M.U.L.E. and thinking, “Wow, this game is good!” It was a lot of fun. And then thinking to myself, “Gee, I wish the AI would do this.” So I took notes and took them along to Dan, and said “If you do these kinds of things at this point in the game, this is what happens.” He would take parts of those notes, and a couple of days later I’d get a new build and be back in that main chair back with my daughter on my lap, once again testing this thing and checking to see if it worked. More often than not, it did. That was a really special time.

As the game neared completion just in time for EA’s own launch as a publisher, the EA PR folks went to work. Hewing always to the “software artists” dictum, they cast Ozark Softscape as a group of hip back-country savants, sort of the gaming equivalent of the Allman Brothers Band. Their portrait on the inner sleeve of M.U.L.E. even bears a certain passing resemblance to the Allmans’ iconic At Fillmore East cover.

The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East

Seated from left: Bill Bunten, Jim Rushing, Alan Watson, Dan Bunten

Seated from left: Bill Bunten, Jim Rushing, Alan Watson, Dan Bunten

Like all of this software-artists stuff, it was a bit contrived. The girl Bill Bunten is apparently ogling like a real rock star on the prowl is actually his sister, hastily recruited to add an element of additional interest to the picture.

Heartbreakingly, the image-making and advertising didn’t get the job done. Despite all the love lavished on M.U.L.E. by Ozark Softscape and EA and despite deservedly stellar reviews, it was a commercial disappointment. M.U.L.E. sold only about 30,000 copies over its lifetime. By way of comparison, consider that Pinball Construction Set, another launch title, shifted over 300,000 units. Some of the disappointment may be down to M.U.L.E.‘s debuting on a relative minority platform, the Atari 8-bit line. Although it was later ported to the juggernaut Commodore 64, it was kludgier away from the Atari and its four joystick ports. Even the latest iteration of the Atari 8-bit line, the 1200XL, couldn’t play M.U.L.E. properly, thanks to Atari’s decision to reduce the four joystick ports to two in the name of cost reduction. Out of all the disappointments engendered by that very disappointing machine, this was perhaps the most painful. Thus M.U.L.E., the Atari 8-bit’s finest gaming hour, plays properly only on a subset of the line.

But likely even more significant was a fact that was slowly becoming clear, to Dan Bunten’s immense frustration: multi-player games just didn’t sell that well. It really did seem that most of the people buying computer games preferred to spend their time alone with them. Reluctantly recognizing this, even he would soon be forced by commercial concerns to switch to the single-player model, at least for a couple of games.

Yet we can take comfort in the fact that M.U.L.E.‘s reputation has grown to far exceed its commercial performance. Indeed, it’s better remembered and better loved today than all but a handful of the contemporaries that trounced it so thoroughly in the marketplace back in the day. And deservedly so, because playing M.U.L.E. with a group of friends is a sublime experience that stands up as well today as it did thirty years ago. The world is a better place because it has M.U.L.E. in it, and every time I think about it I feel just a little bit happier than I was before. Just a few notes of its theme music (written by a Little Rock buddy of the Buntens, Roy Glover) puts a smile on my face. If the reasons for that aren’t clear from all the words that have preceded these, that may be down to my failings as a writer. But it may just also be down to the way that it transcends labels and descriptions. If ever a game was more than the sum of its parts, it’s this one. I could tell you at this point how such gaming luminaries as Sid Meier, Will Wright, and Warren Spector speak about M.U.L.E. with stars in their eyes, but instead I’ll just ask you to please go play it.

There are modern recreations on offer, but purists like me still prefer the original. In that spirit, here’s the manual and Atari disk image, which you can load into an emulator if, like most of us, you don’t have an old Atari 800 lying around. Pick up some old-time digital joysticks as well and then hook a laptop up to your television to really do the experience right. That’s the way that M.U.L.E. should be played — gathered around the living room with good friends and the snacks and beverages of your choice. At some point during the evening remember to look around and remind yourself in best beer-commercial fashion that gaming doesn’t get any better than this. And maybe drink a toast to the late, great Dan Bunten while you’re at it.

(Yes, I know that Dan later got a sex change, but it didn’t seem particularly relevant to this article at the time I wrote it. Others took me to task a bit for that in the comments, and I did end up adding some of my thoughts on the subject in response. Just have a look at the comments for all of that. Or, for the short version: I remain unconvinced. But please understand that my lack of discussion of this issue in the article conveys only that I found it out of scope, not entirely unworthy of discussion. And it certainly wasn’t intended as a condemnation. Perhaps I’ll revisit the issue in a future article. In the meantime, you can find lots more about Bunten’s choice elsewhere on the Internet if you’re interested.

As far as sources: Dan wrote a column for Computer Gaming World from the July/August 1982 issue through the September/October 1985 issue. Those are a gold mine for anyone interested in understanding his design process. Particularly wonderful is his detailed history of M.U.L.E.‘s development in the April/May 1984 issue. Other interesting articles and interviews were in the June 1984 Compute!’s Gazette, the November 1984 Electronic Games, and the January 1985 Antic. Online, you’ll find a ton of historical information on World of M.U.L.E. Salon also published a good article about him ten years ago. Finally, see the site of the (apparently stalled) remake Alpha Colony for some nice — albeit somewhat buried — historical tidbits. And sorry this article runs so long. M.U.L.E. is… special. I really wanted to do it justice.)

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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