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Wasteland

Wasteland

We can mark the formal beginning of the Wasteland project to the day in December of 1985 when Brian Fargo, head of Interplay, flew out to Arizona with his employee Alan Pavlish to meet with Michael Stackpole. If all went well at the meeting, Pavlish was to join Stackpole and Ken St. Andre as the third member of the core trio who would guide the game to release. His role, however, would be very different from that of his two colleagues.

A hotshot programmer’s programmer, Pavlish, though barely twenty years old, had been kicking around the industry for several years already. Before Interplay existed, he’d done freelance work on Commodore VIC-20 games for their earlier incarnation as Boone Corporation, and done ports of games like Murder on the Zinderneuf to the Apple II and Commodore 64 for another little company called Designer Software. When Pavlish came to work for Interplay full-time, Fargo had first assigned him to similar work: he had ported the non-Interplay game Hacker to the Apple II for Activision. (In those pre-Bard’s Tale days, Fargo was still forced to accept such unglamourous work to make ends meet.) But Fargo had huge respect for Pavlish’s abilities. When the Wasteland idea started to take off while his usual go-to programming ace Bill Heineman1 was still swamped with the Bard’s Tale games and Interplay’s line of illustrated text adventures, Fargo didn’t hesitate to throw Pavlish in at the deep end: he planned to make him responsible for bringing the huge idea that was Wasteland to life on the little 64 K 8-bit Apple II and Commodore 64.

However, when Fargo and Pavlish got out of their airplane that day it was far from certain that there would be a Wasteland project for Pavlish to work on at all. In contrast to St. Andre, Stackpole was decidedly skeptical, and for very understandable reasons. His experiences with computer-game development to date hadn’t been happy ones. Over the past several years, he’d been recruited to three different projects and put considerable work into each, only to see each come to naught in one way or another. Thanks largely to the influence of Paul Jaquays,2 another tabletop veteran who headed Coleco’s videogame-design group during the first half of the 1980s, he’d worked on two games for the Coleco Adam, a would-be challenger in the home-computer wars. The more intriguing of the two, a Tunnels & Trolls adaptation, got cancelled before release. The other, an adaptation of the film 2010: Odyssey Two, was released only after the Adam had flopped miserably and been written off by Coleco; you can imagine how well that game sold. He’d then accepted a commission from science-fiction author cum game developer Fred Saberhagen to design a computer game that took place in the world of the latter’s Book of Swords trilogy. (Stackpole had already worked with Flying Buffalo on a board game set in the world of Saberhagen’s Berserker series.) The computerized Book of Swords had gone into stasis when it became clear that Berserker Works, the development company Saberhagen had founded, just didn’t have the resources to finish it.

So, yes, Stackpole needed some convincing to jump into the breach again with tiny Interplay, a company he’d never heard of.3 Luckily for Interplay, he, Fargo, and Pavlish all got along like a house on fire on that December day. Fargo and Pavlish persuaded Stackpole that they shared — or at least were willing to accommodate — his own emerging vision for Wasteland, for a computer game that would be a game and a world first, a program second. Stackpole:

Programmers design beautiful programs, programs that work easily and simply; game designers design games that are fun to play. If a programmer has to make a choice between an elegant program and a fun game element, you’ll have an elegant program. You need a game designer there to say, “Forget how elegant the program is — we want this to make sense, we want it to be fun.”

I was at a symposium where there were about a dozen people. When asked to tell what we were doing, what I kept hearing over and over from programmer/game designers was something like “I’ve got this neat routine for packing graphics, so I’m going to do a fantasy role-playing game where I can use this routine.” Or a routine for something else, or “I’ve got a neat disk sort,” or this or that. And all of them were putting these into fantasy role-playing games. Not to denigrate their skills as programmers — but that’s sort of like saying, “Gee, I know something about petrochemicals, therefore I’m going to design a car that will run my gasoline.” Well, if you’re not a mechanical engineer, you don’t design cars. You can be the greatest chemist in the world, but you’ve got no business designing a car. I’d like to hope that Wasteland establishes that if you want a game, get game designers to work with programmers.

This vision, cutting as it does so much against the way that games were commonly made in the mid-1980s, would have much to do with both where the eventual finished Wasteland succeeds and where it falls down.

Ditto the game’s tabletop heritage. As had been Fargo’s plan from the beginning, Wasteland‘s rules would be a fairly faithful translation of Stackpole’s Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes tabletop RPG, which was in turn built on the foundation of Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls. A clear evolutionary line thus stretched from the work that St. Andre did back in 1975 to Wasteland more than a decade later. No CRPG to date had tried quite as earnestly as Wasteland would to bring the full tabletop experience to the computer.

You explore the world of Wasteland from a top-down perspective rather than the first-person view of The Bard's Tale. This screenshot and the ones that follow come from the slightly later MS-DOS port rather than the 8-bit original.

You explore the world of Wasteland from a top-down perspective instead of the first-person view of The Bard’s Tale. Note that this screenshot and the ones that follow come from the slightly later (and vastly more pleasant to play) MS-DOS port rather than the 8-bit original.

Early in the new year, Stackpole and St. Andre visited Interplay’s California offices for a week to get the process of making Wasteland rolling. St. Andre arrived with a plot already dreamed up. Drawing heavily from the recent ultra-violent action flick Red Dawn, it posited a world where mutually-assured destruction hadn’t proved so mutual after all: the Soviet Union had won the war, and was now occupying the United States. The player would control a group of American freedom fighters skulking around the farmlands of Iowa, trying to build a resistance network. St. Andre and Stackpole spent a month or more after their visit to California drawing maps of cornfields and trying to find ways to make an awful lot of farmers seem different from one another. (Some of this work can be seen in the Agricultural Center in the finished Wasteland.) But finally the pair had to accept the painful truth: the game they were designing was boring. “I said it will be the dullest game you ever saw,” remembers St. Andre, “because the Russians would be there in strength, and your characters start weak and can’t do anything but skulk and hide and slowly, slowly build up.”

St. Andre suggested moving the setting to the desert of the American Southwest, an area with which he, being born and raised in Arizona, was all too familiar. The region also had a certain thematic resonance, being intimately connected with the history of the atomic bomb. The player’s party might even visit Las Vegas, where folks had once sat on their balconies and watched the mushroom clouds bloom. St. Andre suggested nixing the Soviets as well, replacing them with “ravening monsters stalking through a radioactive wasteland, a few tattered humans struggling to survive against an overwhelming threat.” It meant chucking a fair amount of work, but Fargo agreed that it sounded too good to pass up. They might as well all get used to these sorts of false starts. Little would go smoothly or according to plan on this project.

After that first week at Interplay, St. Andre and Stackpole worked from home strictly in a design role, coming up with the plans for the game that were then left to Pavlish in California to implement in code — still an unusual way of working in the mid-1980s, when even many of the great designers, like Dan Bunten4 and Sid Meier, tended to also be great programmers. But St. Andre and Stackpole used their computers — a Commodore 64 in the case of the former, a battered old Osborne luggable in that of the latter — to do nothing more complex than run a word processor. Bundle after bundle of paper was shipped from Arizona to California, in the form of both computer printouts and reams of hand-drawn maps. St. Andre and Stackpole worked, in other words, largely the same way they would have had Wasteland been planned as a new tabletop adventure module.

Wasteland must be, however, one hell of a big adventure module. It soon became clear that the map-design process, entailing as it did the plotting of every single square with detailed descriptions of what it contained and what the party should be able to do there, was overwhelming the two. St. Andre:

I hadn’t thought a great deal about what was going to be in any of these places. I just had this nebulous story in my mind: our heroes will start in A, they’ll visit every worthwhile place on the map and eventually wind up in Z — and if they’re good enough, they’ll win the game. Certain things will be happening in different locations — monsters of different types, people who are hard to get along with, lots of comic references to life before the war. I figured that when the time came for me to design an area, the Indian Village, for example, I would sit down and figure out what would be in it and that would be it. Except that it started taking a long time. Every map had 1024 squares on it, and each one could do something. Even if I just drew all the buildings, I had to go back and say, “These are all square nine: wall, wall, wall, wall, wall. And if you bump into a wall you’ll get this message: ‘The Indians are laughing at you for walking into a wall.'” Whatever — a map that I thought I could toss off in one or two days was taking two weeks, and the project was falling further and further behind.

Fargo agreed to let St. Andre and Stackpole bring in their old Flying Buffalo buddies Liz Danforth and Dan Carver to do maps as well, and the design team just continued to grow from there. “The guys who were helping code the maps, correcting what we sent in, wanted to do some maps,” remembers Stackpole. “Everyone wanted to have his own map, his own thumbprint on the game.”

Even Fargo himself, who could never quite resist the urge to get his own hands dirty with the creations of this company he was supposed to be running from on high, begged for a map. “I want to do a map. Let me have Needles,” St. Andre remembers him saying. “So I said, ‘You’re the boss, Brian, you’ve got Needles.'” But eventually Fargo had to accept that he simply didn’t have the time to design a game and run a company, and the city of Needles fell to another Interplay employee named Bruce Balfour. In all, the Wasteland manual credits no fewer than eight people other than St. Andre and Stackpole with “scenario design.” Even Pavlish, in between trying to turn this deluge of paper into code, managed to make a map or two of his own.

Wasteland is one of the few computer games in history in which those who worked on the softer arts of writing and design outnumbered those who wrote the code and drew the pictures. The ratio isn’t even close: the Wasteland team included exactly one programmer (Pavlish) and one artist (Todd J. Camasta) to go with ten people who only contributed to the writing and design. One overlooked figure in the design process, who goes wholly uncredited in the game’s manual, was Joe Ybarra, Interplay’s liaison with their publisher Electronic Arts. As he did with so many other classic games, Ybarra offered tactful advice and generally did his gentle best to keep the game on course, even going so far as to fly out to Arizona to meet personally with St. Andre and Stackpole.

Those two found themselves spending as much time coordinating their small army of map designers as they did doing maps of their own. Stackpole:

Work fell into a normal pattern. Alan and I would work details out, I’d pass it down the line to the folks designing maps. If they had problems, they’d tell me, Alan and I would discuss things, and they’d get an answer. In this way the practical problems of scenario design directly influenced the game system and vice versa. Map designers even talked amongst themselves, sharing strategies and some of these became standard routines we all later used.

Stackpole wound up taking personal responsibility for the last third or so of the maps, where the open world begins funneling down toward the climax. St. Andre:

I’m fairly strong at making up stories, but not at inventing intricate puzzles. In the last analysis, I’m a hack-and-slash gamer with only a little thought and strategy thrown in. Interplay and Electronic Arts wanted lots of puzzles in the game. Mike, on the other hand, is much more devious, so I gave him the maps with difficult puzzles and I did the ones that involved walking around, talking to people, and shooting things.

The relationship between these two veteran tabletop designers and Pavlish, the man responsible for actually implementing all of their schemes, wasn’t always smooth. “We’d write up a map with all the things on it and then Alan would say, ‘I can’t do that,'” says St. Andre. There would then follow some fraught discussions, doubtless made still more fraught by amateur programmer St. Andre’s habit of declaring that he could easily implement what was being asked in BASIC on his Commodore 64. (Stackpole: “It’s like a duffer coming up to Arnold Palmer at an average golf course and saying, ‘What do you mean you can’t make that 20-foot putt? I can make a 20-foot putt on a miniature golf course.'”) One extended battle was over the question of grenades and other “area-effect” weapons: St. Andre and Stackpole wanted them, Pavlish said they were just too difficult to code and unnecessary anyway. Unsung hero Joe Ybarra solved that one by quietly lobbying Fargo to make sure they went in.

One aspect of Wasteland that really demonstrates St. Andre and Stackpole’s determination to divorce the design from the technology is the general absence of the usual numbers that programmers favor — i.e., the powers of two that fit so neatly into the limited memories of the Apple II and Commodore 64. Pavlish instinctively wanted to make the two types of pistols capable of holding 16 or 32 bullets. But St. Andre and Stackpole insisted that they hold 7 or 18, just like their real-world inspirations. As demonstrated by the 1024-square maps, the two did occasionally let Pavlish get away with the numbers he favored, but they mostly stuck to their guns (ha!). “It’s going to be inelegant in terms of space,” admits Stackpole, “but that’s reality.”

Logic like this drove Pavlish crazy, striving as he was to stuff an unprecedentedly complex world into an absurdly tiny space. Small wonder that there were occasional blowups. Slowly he learned to give every idea that came from the designers his very best try, and the designers learned to accept that not everything was possible. With that tacit agreement in place, the relationship improved. In the latter stages of the project, St. Andre and Stackpole came to understand the technology well enough to start providing their design specifications in code rather than text. “Then we could put in the multiple saving throws, the skill and attribute checks,” says St. Andre. “Everything we do in a [Tunnels & Trolls] solitaire dungeon suddenly pops up in the last few maps we did for Wasteland because Mike and I were doing the actual coding.”

When not working on the maps, St. Andre and Stackpole — especially the latter, who came more and more to the fore as time went on — were working on the paragraph book that would contain much of Wasteland‘s story and flavor text. The paragraph book wasn’t so much a new idea as a revival of a very old one. Back in 1979, Jon Freeman’s Temple of Apshai, one of the first CRPGs to arrive on microcomputers, had included a booklet of “room descriptions” laid out much like a Dungeons & Dragons adventure module. This approach was necessitated by the almost unbelievably constrained system for which Temple of Apshai was written: a Radio Shack TRS-80 with just 16 K of memory and cassette-based storage. Moving into the late 1980s, the twilight years of the 8-bit CRPG, designers were finding the likes of the Apple II and Commodore 64 as restrictive as Freeman had the TRS-80 for the simple reason that, while the former platforms may have had four times as much memory as the latter, CRPG design ambitions had grown by at least the same multiple. Moving text, a hugely expensive commodity in terms of 8-bit storage, back into an accompanying booklet was a natural remedy. Think of it as one final measure to wring just a little bit more out of the Apple II and Commodore 64, those two stalwart old warhorses that had already survived far longer than anyone had ever expected. And it didn’t hurt, of course, that a paragraph book made for great copy protection.

While the existence of a Wasteland paragraph book in itself doesn’t make the game unique, St. Andre and Stackpole were almost uniquely prepared to use theirs well, for both had lots of experience crafting Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures. They knew how to construct an interactive story out of little snippets of static text as well as just about anyone, and how to scramble it in such a way as to stymie the cheater who just starts reading straight through. Stackpole, following a tradition that began at Flying Buffalo, constructed for the booklet one of the more elaborate red herrings in gaming history, a whole alternate plot easily as convoluted as that in the game proper involving, of all things, a Martian invasion. All told, the Wasteland paragraph book would appear to have easily as many fake entries as real ones.

You fight some strange foes in Wasteland. Combat shifts back to something very reminiescent of The Bard's Tale, with the added tactical dimension of a map showing everyone's location that you can access by tapping the space bar.

For combat, the display shifts back to something very reminiscent of The Bard’s Tale, with the added tactical dimension of a map showing everyone’s location that you can access by tapping the space bar. And yes, you fight some strange foes in Wasteland

Wasteland‘s screen layout often resembles that of The Bard’s Tale, and one suspects that there has to be at least a little of the same code hidden under its hood. In the end, though, the resemblance is largely superficial. There’s just no comparison in terms of sophistication. While it’s not quite a game I can love — I’ll try to explain why momentarily — Wasteland does unquestionably represent the bleeding edge of CRPG design as of its 1988 release date. CRPGs on the Apple II and Commodore 64 in particular wouldn’t ever get more sophisticated than this. Given the constraints of those platforms, it’s honestly hard to imagine how they could.

Key to Wasteland‘s unprecedented sophistication is its menu of skills. Just like in Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, you can tailor each of the up to four characters in your party as you will, free from the restrictive class archetypes of Dungeons & Dragons (or for that matter Tunnels & Trolls). Skills range from the obviously useful (Clip Pistol, Pick Lock, Medic) to the downright esoteric (Metallurgy, Bureaucracy, Sleight of Hand). And of course career librarian St. Andre made sure that a Librarian skill was included, and of course made it vital to winning the game.

Also as in Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, a character’s chance of succeeding at just about anything is determined by adding her level in a relevant skill, if any, to a relevant core attribute. For example, to determine a character’s chance of climbing something using her Climb skill the game will also look to her Agility. The system allows a range of solutions to most of the problems you encounter. Say you come to a locked door. You might have a character with the Pick Lock skill try getting in that way. Failing that, a character with the Demolition skill and a little handy plastic explosives could try blasting her way in. Or a strong character might dispense with skills altogether and just try to bash the door down using her Strength attribute. Although a leveling mechanism does exist that lets you assign points to characters’ skills and attributes, skills also improve naturally with use, a mechanism not seen in any previous CRPG other than Dungeon Master (a game that’s otherwise about as different from Wasteland as a game can be and still be called a CRPG).

The skills system makes Wasteland a very different gameplay experience from Ultima V, its only real rival in terms of 8-bit CRPG sophistication at the time of its release. For all its impressive world-building, Ultima V remains bound to Richard Garriott’s standard breadcrumb-trail philosophy of design; beating it depends on ferreting out a long string of clues telling you exactly where to go and exactly what to do. Wasteland, by contrast, can be beaten many ways. If you can’t find the password the guard wants to let you past that locked gate, you can try an entirely different approach: shoot your way in, blow the gate open, pick the lock on the back door and sneak in. It’s perhaps the first CRPG ever that’s really willing to let you develop your own playing personality. You can approach it as essentially a post-apocalyptic Bard’s Tale, making a frontal assault on every map and trying to blow away every living creature you find there, without concerning yourself overmuch about whether it be good or evil, friend or foe. Or you can play it — relatively speaking — cerebrally, trying to use negotiations, stealth, and perhaps a little swindling to get what you need. Or you can be like most players and do a bit of both, as the mood and opportunity strikes you. It’s very difficult if not impossible to get yourself irretrievably stuck in Wasteland. There are always options, always possibilities. While it’s far less thematically ambitious than Ultima V —  unlike the Ultima games, Wasteland was never intended to be anything more or less than pure escapist entertainment — Wasteland‘s more flexible, player-friendly design pointed the way forward while Ultima V was still glancing back.

Indeed, a big part of the enduring appeal of Wasteland to those who love it is the sheer number of different ways to play it. Interplay picked up on this early, and built an unusual feature into the game: it’s possible to reset the entire world to its beginning state while keeping the same group of lovingly developed characters. Characters can advance to ridiculous heights if you do this enough, taking on some equally ridiculous “ranks”: “1st Class Fargo,” “Photon Stud,” etc., culminating in the ultimate achievement of the level 183 “Supreme Jerk.” This feature lets veteran players challenge themselves by, say, trying to complete the game with just one character, and gives an out to anyone who screws up her initial character creation too badly and finds herself overmatched; she can just start over again and replay the easy bits with the same party to hopefully gain enough experience to correct their failings. It takes some of the edge off one of the game’s most obvious design flaws: it’s all but impossible to know which skills are actually useful until you’ve made your way fairly deep into the game.

The very fact that re-playing Wasteland requires you to reset its world at all points to what a huge advance it represents over the likes of The Bard’s Tale. The first CRPG I know of that has a truly, comprehensively persistent world, one in which the state of absolutely everything is saved, is 1986’s Starflight (a game that admittedly is arguably not even a CRPG at all). But that game runs on a “big” machine in 1980s terms, an IBM PC or clone with at least 256 K of memory. Wasteland does it in 64 K, rewriting every single map on the fly as you play to reflect what you’ve done there. Level half of the town of Needles with explosives early in the game, and it will still be leveled when you return many days later. Contrast with The Bard’s Tale, which remembers nothing but the state of your characters when you exit one of its dungeon levels, which lets you fight the same big boss battles over and over and over again if you like. The persistence allows you the player to really affect the world of Wasteland in big-picture ways that were well-nigh unheard-of at the time of its release, as Brian Fargo notes:

Wasteland let you do anything you wanted in any order you wanted, and you could get ripple effects that might happen one minute later or thirty minutes later, a lot like [the much later] Grand Theft Auto series. The Ultima games were open, but things tended to be very compartmentalized, they didn’t ripple out like in Wasteland.

Wasteland is a stunning piece of programming, a resounding justification for all of the faith Fargo placed in the young Alan Pavlish. Immersed in the design rather than the technical end of things as they were — which is itself a tribute to Pavlish, whose own work allowed them to be — St. Andre and Stackpole may still not fully appreciate how amazing it is that Wasteland does what it does on the hardware it does it on.

All of which rather raises the question of why I don’t enjoy actually playing Wasteland a little more then I do. I do want to be careful here in trying to separate what feel like more objective faults from my personal issues with the game. In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, let me put the latter right out there first.

Put simply, the writing of Wasteland just isn’t to my taste. I get the tone that St. Andre and Stackpole are trying to achieve: one of over-the-top comic ultra-violence, like such contemporary teenage-boy cinematic favorites as the Evil Dead films. And they do a pretty good job of hitting that mark. Your characters don’t just hit their enemies in Wasteland, they “brutalize” them. When they die, enemies “explode like a blood sausage,” are “reduced to a thin red paste,” are “spun into a dance of death,” or are “reduced to ground round.” And then there’s some of the imagery, like the blood-splattered doctor in the infirmary.

Wasteland

The personal appeal you find in those quotes and that image, some of the most beloved among Wasteland‘s loyal fandom, says much about whether you’ll enjoy Wasteland as a whole. In his video review of the game, Matt Barton says that “you will be disgusted or find it hilarious.” Well, I must say that my own feelings rather contradict that dichotomy. I can’t quite manage to feel disgusted or outraged at this kind of stuff, especially since, in blessed contrast to so many later games, it’s almost all described rather than illustrated. I do, however, find the entire aesthetic unfunny and boring, whether it’s found in Wasteland or Duke Nukem. In general, I just don’t find humor that’s based on transgression rather than wit to be all that humorous.

I am me, you are you, and mileages certainly vary. Still, even if we take it on its own terms it seems to me that there are other problems with the writing. As CRPG Addict Chester Bolingbroke has noted, Wasteland can’t be much bothered with consistency or coherency. The nuclear apocalypse that led to the situation your characters find themselves in is described as having taken place in 1998, only ten years on from the date of Wasteland‘s release. Yet when the writers find it convenient they litter the game with absurdly advanced technology, from human clones to telepathic mind links. And the tone of the writing veers about as well, perhaps as a result of the sheer number of designers who contributed to the game. Most of the time Wasteland is content with the comic ultra-violence of The Evil Dead, but occasionally it suddenly reaches toward a jarring epic profundity it hasn’t earned. The main storyline, which doesn’t kick in in earnest until about halfway through the game, is so silly and nonsensical that few of even the most hardcore Wasteland fans remember much about it, no matter how many times they’ve played through it.

Wasteland‘s ropey plotting may be ironic in light of Stackpole’s later career as a novelist, but it isn’t a fatal flaw in itself. Games are not the sum of their stories; many a great game has a poor or nonexistent story to tell. To whatever extent it’s a triumph, Wasteland must be a triumph of game design rather than writing, one last hurrah for Michael Stackpole the designer before Michael Stackpole the novelist took over. The story, like the stories in many or most allegedly story-driven games, is just an excuse to explore Wasteland‘s possibility space.

And that possibility space is a very impressive one, for reasons I’ve tried to explain already. Yet it’s also undone, at least a bit, by some practical implementation issues. St. Andre and Stackpole’s determination to make an elegant game design rather than an elegant program comes back to bite them here. The things going on behind the scenes in Wasteland are often kind of miraculous in the context of their time, but those things are hidden behind a clunky and inelegant interface. In my book, a truly great game should feel almost effortless to control, but Wasteland feels anything but. Virtually every task requires multiple keystrokes and the navigation of a labyrinth of menus. It’s a far cry from even the old-school simplicity of Ultima‘s alphabet soup of single-keystroke commands, much less the intuitive ease of Dungeon Master‘s mouse-driven interface.

Some of Wasteland‘s more pernicious playability issues feel like they stem from an overly literal translation of the tabletop experience to the computer.  The magnificent simplicity of the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes system feels much more clunky and frustrating on the computer. As you explore the maps, you’re expected to guess where a skill and/or attribute might be of use, then to try manually invoking it. If you’re not constantly thinking on this level, and always aware of just what skills every member of your party has that might apply, it’s very easy to miss things. For example, the very first map you’re likely to visit contains a mysterious machine. You’re expected to not just dismiss that as scenery, or to assume it’s something you’ll learn more about later, but rather to use someone’s Intelligence to learn that it’s a water purifier you might be able to fix. Meanwhile other squares on other maps contain similar descriptions that are just scenery. In a tabletop game, where there is a constant active repartee between referee and players, where everything in the world can be fully “implemented” thanks to the referee’s imagination, and where every player controls just one character whom she knows intimately instead of a whole party of four, the Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes system works a treat. In Wasteland, it can feel like a tedious, mechanistic process of trial and error.

Other parts of Wasteland feel like equally heroic but perhaps misguided attempts to translate things that are simple and intuitive on the tabletop but extremely difficult on the computer to the digital realm at all costs, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. There is, for instance, a convoluted and confusing process for splitting your party into separate groups that can be on entirely separate maps at the same time. It’s impressive in its way, and gives Wasteland claim to yet another first in CRPG history to boot, but one has to question whether the time and effort put into it might have been better spent making a cleaner, more playable computer game. Ditto the parser-based conversation engine that occasionally pops up. An obvious attempt to bring the sort of free-form conversations that are possible with a human referee to the computer, in practice it’s just a tedious game of guess-the-word that makes it far too easy to miss stuff. While I applaud the effort St. Andre and Stackpole and their colleagues at Interplay made to bring more complexity to the CRPG, the fact remains that computer games are not tabletop games, and vice versa.

And then there’s the combat. The Bard’s Tale is still lurking down at the foundation of Wasteland‘s combat engine, but Interplay did take some steps to make it more interesting. Unlike in The Bard’s Tale, the position of your party and their enemies are tracked on a graphical map during combat. In addition to the old Bard’s Tale menu of actions — “attack,” “defend,” etc. — you can move around to find cover, or for that matter charge up to some baddies and stave their heads in with your crowbars in lieu of guns.

Yet somehow combat still isn’t much fun. This groundbreaking and much beloved post-apocalyptic CRPG also serves as an ironic argument for why the vast majority of CRPG designers and players still favor fantasy settings. Something that feels important, maybe even essential, feels lost without the ability to cast spells. Not only do you lose the thrill of seeing a magic-using character level up and trying out a new slate of spells, but you also lose the strategic dimension of managing your mana reserves, a huge part of the challenge of the likes of Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. In theory, the acquiring of ever more powerful guns and the need to manage your ammunition stores in Wasteland ought to take the place of spells and the mana reserves needed to cast them, but in practice it doesn’t quite work out like that. New guns just aren’t as interesting as new spells, especially considering that there really aren’t all that many of the former to be found in Wasteland. And you’re never very far from a store selling bullets, and you can carry so many with you anyway that it’s almost a moot point.

Most of all, there’s just too much fighting. One place where St. Andre and Stackpole regrettably didn’t depart from CRPG tradition was in their fondness for the wandering monster. Much of Wasteland is a dull slog through endless low-stakes battles with “leather jerks” and “ozoners,” an experience sadly divorced from the game’s more interesting and innovative aspects but one that ends up being at least as time-consuming.

For all these reasons, then, I’m a bit less high on Wasteland than many others. It strikes me as more historically important than a timeless classic, more interesting than playable. There’s of course no shame in that. We need games that push the envelope, and that’s something that Wasteland most assuredly did. The immense nostalgic regard in which it’s still held today says much about how amazing its innovations really were back in 1988.

As the gap between that year of Wasteland‘s release and Fargo, Pavlish, and Stackpole’s December 1985 meeting will attest, this was a game that was in development an insanely long time by the standards of the 1980s. And as you have probably guessed, it was never intended to take anything like this long. Interplay first talked publicly about the Wasteland project as early as the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1986, giving the impression it might be available as early as that Christmas. Instead it took fully two more years.

Thanks to Wasteland‘s long gestation, 1987 proved a very quiet year for the usually prolific Interplay. While ports of older titles continued to appear, the company released not a single original new game that year. The Bard’s Tale III, turned over to Bill Heineman following Michael Cranford’s decision to return to university, went into development early in 1987, but like Wasteland its gestation would stretch well into 1988. (Stackpole, who was apparently starting to like this computer-game development stuff, wrote the storyline and the text for The Bard’s Tale III to accompany Heineman’s design.) Thankfully, the first two Bard’s Tale games were continuing to sell very well, making Interplay’s momentary lack of productivity less of a problem than it might otherwise have been.

Shortly before Wasteland‘s belated release, St. Andre, Stackpole, and Pavlish, along with a grab bag of the others who had worked with them, headed out to the Sonoran Desert for a photo shoot. Everyone scoured the oddities in the backs of their closets and the local leather shops for their costumes, and a professional makeup team was recruited to help turn them all into warriors straight out of Mad Max. Bill Heineman, an avid gun collector, provided much of the weaponry they carried. The final picture, featured on the inside cover of Wasteland‘s package, has since become far more iconic than the art that appeared on its front, a fitting tribute to this unique team and their unique vision.

Some of the Wasteland team. Ken St. Andre, Michael A. Stackpole, Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

Some of the Wasteland team. From left: Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, Bill Dugan, Nishan Hossepian, Chris Christensen, Alan Pavlish, Bruce Schlickbernd.

Both Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III were finished almost simultaneously after many months of separate labor. When Fargo informed Electronic Arts of the good news, they insisted on shipping the two overdue games within two months of each other — May of 1988 in the case of Wasteland, July in that of The Bard’s Tale III — over his strident objections. He had good grounds for concern: these two big new CRPGs were bound to appeal largely to the same group of players, and could hardly help but cannibalize one another’s sales. To Interplay, this small company that had gone so long without any new product at all, the decision felt not just unwise but downright dangerous to their future.

Fargo had been growing increasingly unhappy with Electronic Arts, feeling Interplay just wasn’t earning enough from their development contracts for the hit games they had made for their publisher. Now this move was the last straw. Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III would be the last games Interplay would publish through Electronic Arts, as Fargo decided to carry out an idea he’d been mulling over for some time: to turn Interplay into a full-fledged publisher as well as developer, with their own name — and only their own name — on their game boxes.

Following a pattern that was already all too typical, The Bard’s Tale III — the more traditional game, the less innovative, and the sequel — became by far the better selling of the pairing. Wasteland didn’t flop, but it didn’t become an out-and-out hit either. Doubtless for this reason, neither Interplay nor Electronic Arts were willing to invest in the extensive porting to other platforms that marked the Bard’s Tale games. After the original Apple II and Commodore 64 releases, the only Wasteland port was an MS-DOS version that appeared nine months later, in March of 1989. Programmed by Interplay’s Michael Quarles, it sports modestly improved graphics and an interface that makes halfhearted use of a mouse. While most original players of Wasteland knew it in its 8-bit incarnations, it’s this version that almost everyone who has played it in the years since knows, and for good reason: it’s a far less painful experience than the vintage 8-bit one of juggling disks and waiting, waiting, waiting for all of those painstakingly detailed maps to load and save.

Wasteland‘s place in history, and in the mind of Brian Fargo, would always loom larger than its sales figures might suggest. Unfortunately, his ability to build on its legacy was immediately hampered by the split with Electronic Arts: the terms of the two companies’ contract signed all rights to the  Wasteland name as well as The Bard’s Tale over to Interplay’s publisher. Thus both series, one potential and one very much ongoing, were abruptly stopped in their tracks. Electronic Arts toyed with making a Bard’s Tale IV on their own from time to time without ever seeing the idea all the way through. Oddly given the relative sales numbers, Electronic Arts did bring a sequel of sorts to Wasteland to fruition, although they didn’t go so far as to dare to put the Wasteland name on the box. Given the contents of said box, it’s not hard to guess why. Fountain of Dreams (1990) uses Michael Quarles’s MS-DOS Wasteland engine, but it’s a far less audacious affair. Slipped out with little fanfare — Electronic Arts could spot a turkey as well as anyone — it garnered poor reviews, sold poorly, and is unloved and largely forgotten today.

In the absence of rights to the Wasteland name, Fargo initially planned to leverage his development team and the tools and game engine they had spent so long creating to make more games in other settings that would play much like Wasteland but wouldn’t be actual sequels. The first of these was to have been called Meantime, and was to have been written and designed by Stackpole with the help of many of the usual Wasteland suspects. Its premise was at least as intriguing as Wasteland‘s: a game of time travel in which you’d get to meet (and sometimes battle) historical figures from Cyrano de Bergerac to P.T. Barnum, Albert Einstein to Amelia Earhart. At the Winter CES in January of 1989, Fargo said that Meantime would be out that summer: “I am personally testing the maps right now.” But it never appeared, thanks to a lot of design questions that were never quite solved and, most of all, thanks to the relentless march of technology. All of the Wasteland development tools ran on the Apple II and Commodore 64, platforms whose sales finally collapsed in 1989. Interplay tinkered with trying to move the tool chain to MS-DOS for several years, but the project finally expired from neglect. There just always seemed to be something more pressing to do.

Somewhat surprisingly given the enthusiasm with which they’d worked on Wasteland, neither St. Andre nor Stackpole remained for very long in the field of computer-game design. St. Andre returned to his librarian gig and his occasional sideline as a tabletop-RPG designer, not working on another computer game until recruited for Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2 project many years later. Stackpole continued to take work from Interplay for the next few years, on Meantime and other projects, often working with his old Flying Buffalo and Wasteland colleague Liz Danforth. But his name too gradually disappeared from game credits in direct proportion to its appearance on the covers of more and more franchise novels. (His first such book, set in the universe of FASA’s BattleTech game, was published almost simultaneously with Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale III.)

Fargo himself never forgot the game that had always been first and foremost his own passion project. He would eventually revive it, first via the “spiritual sequels” Fallout (1997) and Fallout 2 (1998), then with the belated Kickstarter-funded sequel-in-name-as-well-as-spirit Wasteland 2 (2014).

But those are stories for much later times. Wasteland was destined to stand alone for many years. And yet it wouldn’t be the only lesson 1988 brought in the perils and possibilities of bringing tabletop rules to the computer. Another, much higher profile tabletop adaptation, the result of a blockbuster licensing deal given to the most unexpected of developers, was still to come before the year was out. Next time we’ll begin to trace the story behind this third and final landmark CRPG of 1988, the biggest selling of the whole lot.

(Sources: PC Player of August 1989; Questbusters of Juy 1986, March 1988, April 1988, May 1988, July 1988, August 1988, October 1988, November 1988, January 1989, March 1989. On YouTube, Rebecca Heineman and Jennell Jaquays at the 2013 Portland Retro Gaming Expo; Matt Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo; Brian Fargo at Unity 2012. Other online sources include a Michael Stackpole article on RockPaperShotgun; Matt Barton’s interview with Rebecca Heineman on Gamasutra; GTW64’s page on Meantime.

Wasteland is available for purchase from GOG.com.)


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

  2. Paul Jaquays now lives as Jennell Jaquays. 

  3. Interestingly, Stackpole did have one connection to Interplay, through <em>Bard’s Tale</em> designer Michael Cranford. Cranford sent Flying Buffalo a <em>Tunnels & Trolls</em> solo adventure of his own devising around 1983. Stackpole thought it showed promise, but that it wasn’t quite there yet, so he sent it back with some suggestions for improvement and a promise to look at it again if Cranford followed through on them. But he never heard another word from him; presumably it was right about this time that Cranford got busy making <em>The Bard’s Tale</em>. 

  4. In what must be a record for footnotes of this type, I have to also note that Dan Bunten later became Danielle Bunten Berry, and lived until her death in 1998 under that name. 

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A Pirate’s Life for Me, Part 3: Case Studies in Copy Protection

Copy-protection schemes, whether effected through software, a combination of software and hardware, or hardware alone, can and do provide a modicum of software protection. But such schemes alone are no better forms of security than locks. One with the appropriate tools can pick any lock. Locks only project the illusion of protection, to both the owner and the prospective thief.

Our focus on copy protection is the primary reason why our industry’s software-protection effort has come under skeptical scrutiny and intense attack. Many users now consider the copy-protection scheme to be just an obstacle to be overcome en route to their Congressionally- and self-granted right to the backup copy.

Dale A. Hillman
President, XOR Software
1985

An impregnable copy-protection scheme is a fantasy. With sufficient time and effort, any form of copy protection can be broken. If game publishers didn’t understand this reality at the dawn of their industry, they were given plenty of proof of its veracity almost as soon as they began applying copy protection to their products and legions of mostly teenage crackers began to build their lives around breaking it.

Given the unattainability of the dream of absolute protection, the next best thing must be protection that is so tough that the end result of a cracked, copyable disk simply isn’t worth the tremendous effort required to get there. When even this level of security proved difficult if not impossible to achieve, some publishers — arguably the wisest — scaled back their expectations yet further, settling for fairly rudimentary schemes that would be sufficient to deter casual would-be pirates but that would hardly be noticed by the real pros. Their games, so the reasoning went, were bound to get cracked anyway, so why compound the loss by pouring money into ever more elaborate protection schemes? Couldn’t that money be better used to make the game themselves better?

Others, however, doubled down on the quixotic dream of the game that would never be cracked, escalating a war between the copy-protection designers who developed ever more devious schemes and the intrepid crackers of the scene, the elite of the elite who staked their reputations on their ability to crack any game ever made. In the long term, the crackers won every single battle of this war, as even many of the publishers who waged it realized was all but inevitable. The best the publishers could point to was a handful of successful delaying actions that bought their games a few weeks or months before they were spread all over the world for free. And even those relative successes, it must be emphasized, were extremely rare. Few schemes stood up much more than a day or two under the onslaught of the scene’s brigade of talented and highly motivated crackers.

Just as so many crackers found the copy-protection wars to be the greatest game of all, far more intriguing and addictive than the actual contents of the disks being cracked, the art of copy protection — or, as it’s more euphemistically called today, digital-rights management or DRM — remains an almost endlessly fascinating study for those of a certain turn of mind. Back in the day, as now, cracking was a black art. Both sides in the war had strong motivations to keep it so: the publishers because information on how their schemes worked meant the power to crack them, and the crackers because their individual reputations hinged on being the first and preferably the only to crack and spread that latest hot game. Thus information in print on copy protection, while not entirely unheard of, was often hard to find. It’s only long since that wild and woolly first decade of the games industry that much detailed information on how the most elaborate schemes worked has been widely available, thanks to initiatives like The Floppy Disk Preservation Project.

This article will offer just a glimpse of how copy protection began and how it evolved over its first decade, as seen through the schemes that were applied to four historically significant games that we’ve already met in other articles: Microsoft Adventure for the TRS-80, Ultima III for the Apple II, Pirates! for the Commodore 64, and Dungeon Master for the Atari ST. Sit back, then, and join me on a little tour through the dawn of DRM.

Microsoft Adventure box art

The release of Microsoft Adventure in late 1979 for the Radio Shack TRS-80 marks quite a number of interrelated firsts for the games industry. It was the first faithful port of Will Crowther and Don Wood’s perennial Adventure, itself one of the most important computer games ever written, to a home computer. It accomplished this feat by taking advantage of the capabilities of the floppy disk, becoming in the process the first major game to be released on disk only, as opposed to the cassettes that still dominated the industry. And to keep those disks from being copied, normally a trivially easy thing to do in comparison to copying a cassette, Microsoft applied one of the earliest notable instances of physical copy protection to the disk, a development novel enough to attract considerable attention in its own right in the trade press. Byte magazine, for instance, declared the game “a gold mine for the enthusiast and a nightmare for the software pirate.”

Floppy Disk

The core of a 5¼-inch floppy disk, the type used by the TRS-80 and most other early microcomputers, is a platter made of a flexible material such as Mylar — thus the “floppy” — with a magnetic coating made of ferric oxide or a similar material, capable of recording the long sequences of ones and zeroes (or ons and offs) that are used to store all computer code and data. The platter is housed within a plastic casing that exposes just enough of it to give the read/write head of the disk drive access as the platter is spun.

The floppy disk is what’s known as a random-access storage medium. Unlike a cassette drive, a floppy drive can access any of its contents at any time at a simple request from the computer to which it’s attached. To allow this random access, there needs to be an organizing scheme to the disk, a way for the drive to know what lies where and, conversely, what spaces are still free for writing new files. A program known as a “formatter,” which must be run on every new disk before it can be used, writes an initially empty framework to the disk to keep track of what it contains and where it all lives on the disk’s surface.

In the case of the TRS-80, said surface is divided into 35 concentric rings, known as “tracks,” numbered from 0 to 34, with track 0 lying at the outer margin of the disk and track 34 closet to the inner ring. Each track is subdivided along its length into 10 equal-sized sectors, each capable of storing 256 bytes of data. Thus the theoretical maximum capacity of an entire disk is about ((256 * 10 * 35) / 1024) 87 K.

Figure 1

Figure 1 (click to expand)

Figure 1 shows the general organization of the tracks on a TRS-80 disk. Much of this is specific to the TRS-80’s operating system and thus further down in the weeds than we really need to go, but a couple of details are very relevant to our purposes. Notice track 18, the “system directory.” It’s just what its name would imply. The entire track is reserved to be the disk’s directory service, a list of all the files it contains along with the track and sector numbers where each begins. The directory is placed in the middle of the disk for efficiency’s sake. Because it must be read from every time a file is requested, having it here minimizes the distance the head must travel both to read from the directory and, later, to access the file in question. For the same reason, most floppy-disk systems try to fill disks outward from the directory track, using the farthest-flung regions only if the disk is otherwise full.

The one exception to this rule in the case of the TRS-80 as well as many other computers is the “boot sector”: track 0, sector 0. It contains code, stored outside the filesystem described in the directory, which the computer will always try to access and execute on boot-up. This “bootstrap” code tells the computer how to get started loading the operating system and generally getting on with things. There isn’t much space here — only a single sector’s worth, 256 bytes — but it’s enough to set the larger process in motion.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows the layout an individual disk sector. This diagram presumes a newly formatted disk, so the “dummy data” represents the sector’s 256 bytes of available storage, waiting to be filled. Note the considerable amount of organizing and housekeeping information surrounding the actual data, used to keep the drive on track and aware at all times of just where it is. Again, there’s much more here than we need to dig into today. Relevant for our purposes are the track and sector numbers stored near the beginning of each sector. These amount to the sector’s home address, its index in the directory listing.

Microsoft Adventure introduces a seeming corruption into the disk’s scheme. Beginning with track 1 — track 0 must be left alone so the system can find the boot sector and get started — the tracks are numbered not from 1 to 34 but from 127 to 61, in downward increments of 2. The game’s bootstrap inserts a patch into the normal disk-access routines that tells them how to deal with these weirdly numbered tracks. But, absent the patch, the normal TRS-80 operating system has no idea what to make of it. Even a so-called “deep” copier, which tries to copy a disk sector by sector rather than file by file to create a truly exact mirror image of the original, fails because it can’t figure out where the sectors begin and end.

If one wants to make a copy of a protected program, whether for the legal purpose of backing it up or the illegal one of software piracy, one can take either of two approaches. The first is to find a way to exactly duplicate the disk, copy protection and all, so that there’s no way for the program it contains to know it isn’t running on an original. The other is to crack it, to strip out or ignore the protection and modify the program itself to run correctly without it.

One of the first if not the first to find a way to duplicate Microsoft Adventure and then to crack it to boot was an Australian teenager named Nick Andrew (right from the beginning, before the scene even existed, cracking already seemed an avocation for the young). After analyzing the disk to work out how it was “corrupted,” he rewrote the TRS-80’s usual disk formatter to format disks with the alternate track-numbering system. Then he rewrote the standard copier to read and write to the same system. After “about two days,” he had a working duplicate of the original disk.

But he wasn’t quite done yet. After going through all the work of duplicating the disk, the realization dawned that he could easily go one step further and crack it, turn it into just another everyday disk copyable with everyday tools. To do so, he wouldn’t need his modified disk formatter at all. He needed only make a modification to his customized copier, to read from a disk with the alternate track-numbering system but write to a normal one. Remove the custom bootstrap to make Adventure boot like any other disk, and he was done. This first “nightmare for the software pirate” was defanged.

Ultima III

Released in 1983, Ultima III was already the fourth commercial CRPG to be written by the 22-year-old Richard Garriott, but the first of them to be published by his own new company, Origin Systems. With the company’s future riding on its sales, he and his youthful colleagues put considerable effort into devising as tough a copy-protection scheme as possible. It provides a good illustration of the increasing sophistication of copy protection in general by this point, four years after Microsoft Adventure.

Apple II floppy-disk drives function much like their TRS-80 equivalents, with largely only practical variations brought on by specific engineering choices. The most obvious of the differences is the fact that the Apple II writes its data more densely to the disk, giving it 16 256-byte sectors on each of its 35 tracks rather than the 10 of the TRS-80. This change increases each disk’s capacity to ((256 * 16 * 35) / 1024) 140 K.

Ultima III shipped on two disks, one used to boot the game and the other to load in data and to save state as needed during play. The latter is a completely normal Apple II disk, allowing the player to make copies as she will in the name of being able to start a fresh game with a new character at any time. The former, however, is a different story.

The game’s first nasty trick is to make the boot disk less than half a disk. Only tracks 0 through 16 are formatted at all. Like the TRS-80, the Apple II expects the disk’s directory to reside in the middle of the disk, albeit on track 17 rather than 18. In this case, though, track 17 literally doesn’t exist.

But how, you might be wondering, can even a copy-protected disk function at all without a directory? Well, it really can’t, or at least it doesn’t in this case. Again like the TRS-80, the beginning of an Apple II disk is reserved for a boot block. The Ultima III bootstrap substitutes alternative code for a standard operating-system routine called the “Read Write Track Sector” routine, or, more commonly, the “RWTS.” It’s this routine that programs call when they need to access a disk file or to do just about any other operation to a disk. Ultima III provides an RWTS that knows to look for the directory listing not on track 17 but rather on track 7, right in the middle of its half-a-disk. Thus it knows how to find its files, but no one else does.

Ultima III‘s other trick is similar to the approach taken by Microsoft Adventure in theory, but far more gnarly in execution. To understand it, we need to have a look at the structure of an Apple II sector. As on the TRS-80, each sector is divided into an “address field,” whose purpose is to keep the drive on track and help it to locate what it’s looking for, and a “data field” containing the actual data written there. Figures 3 and 4 show the structure of each respectively.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

Don’t worry too much about the fact that our supposed 256 bytes of data have suddenly grown to 342. This transformation is down to some nitty-gritty details of the hardware that mean that 256 logical bytes can’t actually be packed into 256 bytes of physical space, that the drive needs some extra breathing room. A special encoding process, known as Group Code Recording (GCR) on the Apple II, converts the 256 bytes into 342 that are easily manipulable by the drive and back again. If we were really serious about learning to create copy protection or how to crack it, we’d need to know a lot more about this. But it’s not necessary to understand if you’re just dipping your toes into that world, as we’re doing today.

Of more immediate interest are the “prologues” and “epilogues” that precede and trail both the address and data fields. On a normal disk these are fixed runs of numbers, which you see shown in hexadecimal notation in Figures 3 and 4. (If you don’t know what that means, again, don’t worry too much about it. Just trust me that they’re fixed numbers.) Like so much else here, they serve to keep the drive on track and to reassure it that everything is kosher.

Ultima III, however, chooses other numbers to place in these spaces. Further, it doesn’t just choose a new set of fixed numbers — that would be far too easy — but rather varies the expected numbers from track to track and even sector to sector according to a table only it has access to, housed in its custom RWTS. Thus what looks like random garbage to the computer normally suddenly becomes madness with a method behind it when the computer has been booted from the Ultima III disk. If any of these fields don’t match with what they should be — i.e., if someone is trying to use an imperfect copy —  the game loads no further.

It’s a tough scheme, particularly for its relatively early date, but far from an unbreakable one. There are a couple of significant points of vulnerability. The first is the fact that Ultima III doesn’t need to read and write only protected disks. There is, you’ll remember, also that second disk in a standard format. The modified RWTS needs to be able to fall back to the standard routine when using that second disk, which is no more readable by the modified routine than the protected disk is by the standard. It relies on the disk’s volume number to decide which routine to use: volume 1 is the first, protected disk; volume 2 the second, unprotected (if the volume number is anything else, it knows somebody must be up to some sort of funny business and just stops entirely). Thus if we can just get a copy of the first disk in an everyday disk format and set its volume number to 2, Ultima III will happily accept it and read from it.

But that “just” is, of course, a tricky proposition. We would seemingly need to write a program of our own to read from a disk — or rather from half of a disk — with all those ever-changing prologue and epilogue fields. That, anyway, is one approach. But, if we’re really clever, we won’t have to. Instead of working harder, we can work smarter, using Ultima III‘s own code to crack it.

One thing that legions of hackers and crackers came to love about the Apple II was its integrated machine-language monitor, which can be used to pause and break into a running program at almost any point. We can use it now to pause Ultima III during its own boot process and look up the address of its customized RWTS in memory; because all disk operations use the RWTS, it is easily locatable via a global system pointer. Once we know where the new RWTS lives, we can save that block of memory to disk for later use.

Next we need only boot back into the normal system, load up the customized RWTS we saved to disk, and redirect the system pointer to it rather than the standard RWTS. Remember that the custom RWTS is already written to assume that disks with a volume number of 1 are in the protected format, those with a volume number of 2 in the normal format. So, if we now use an everyday copy program to copy from the original, which has a volume number of 1, to a blank disk which we’ve formatted with a volume number of 2, Ultima III essentially cracks itself. The copy operation, like all disk operations, simply follows the modified system pointer to the new RWTS, and is never any the wiser that it’s been modified. Pretty neat, no? Elegant tricks like this warm any hacker’s heart, and are much of the reason that vintage cracking remains to this day such an intriguing hobby.

Pirates!

Ultima III‘s copy protection was clever enough in its day, but trivial compared to what would start to appear just a year or so later as the art reached a certain level of maturity. As the industry itself got more and more cutthroat, many of the protection schemes also got just plain nasty. The shadowy war between publisher and pirate was getting ever more personal.

A landmark moment in the piracy wars was the 1984 founding of the Software Publishers Association. It was the brainchild of a well-connected Washington, D.C., lawyer named Ken Wasch who decided that what the industry really needed was a D.C.-based advocacy group and that he, having no previous entanglements within it, was just the neutral party to start it. The SPA had a broad agenda, from gathering data on sales trends from and for its members to presenting awards for “software excellence,” but, from the perspective of the outsider at any rate, seemed to concern itself with the piracy problem above all else. Its rhetoric was often strident to the point of shrillness, while some of its proposed remedies smacked of using a hydrogen bomb to dig a posthole. For instance, the SPA at one point protested to Commodore that multitasking shouldn’t be a feature of the revolutionary new Amiga because it would make it too easy for crackers to break into programs. And Wasch lobbied Congress to abolish the user’s right to make backup copies of their software for personal archival purposes, a key part of the 1980 Software Copyright Act that he deemed a “legal loophole” because it permitted the existence of programs capable of copying many forms of copy-protected software — a small semi-underground corner of the software industry that the SPA was absolutely desperate to eliminate rather than advocate for. The SPA also did its best to convince the FBI and other legal authorities to investigate the bulletin-board systems of the cracking scene, with mixed success at best.

Meanwhile copy protection was becoming a business in its own right, the flip side to the business of making copying programs. In place of the home-grown protection schemes of our first two case studies, which amounted to whatever the developers themselves could devise in whatever time they had available, third-party turnkey protection systems, the products of an emerging cottage industry, became increasingly common as the 1980s wore on. The tiny companies that created the systems weren’t terribly far removed demographically from the crackers that tried to break them; they were typically made up of one to three young men with an encyclopedic knowledge of their chosen platforms and no small store of swagger of their own. Their systems, sporting names like RapidLok and PirateBusters, were multifaceted and complex, full of multiple failsafes, misdirections, encryptions, and honey pots. Copy-protection authors took to sneaking taunting messages into their code, evincing a braggadocio that wouldn’t have felt out of place in the scene: “Nine out of ten pirates go blind trying to copy our software. The other gets committed!”

Protection schemes of this later era are far too complex for me to describe in any real detail in an accessible article like this one, much less explain how people went about cracking them. I would, however, like to very briefly introduce RapidLok, the most popular of the turnkey systems on the Commodore 64. It was the product of a small company called the Dane Final Agency, and was used in its various versions by quite a number of prominent publishers from early 1986 on, including MicroProse. You’ll find it on that first bona fide Sid Meier classic, the ironically-titled-for-our-purposes Pirates!, along with all of their other later Commodore 64 games.

The protection schemes we’ve already seen have modified their platforms’ standard disk formats to confuse copy programs. RapidLok goes to the next level by implementing its own custom format from scratch. A standard Commodore 64 disk has 17 to 21 sectors per track, depending on where the track is located; a RapidLok disk has 11 or 12 much larger sectors, with the details of how those sectors organize their data likewise re-imagined. Rapidlok also adds a track to the standard 35, shoved off past the part of the disk that is normally read from or written to. This 36th track serves as an encrypted checksum store for all of the other tracks. If any track fails the checksum check — indicating it’s been modified from the original — the system immediately halts.

Like any protection scheme, RapidLok must provide a gate to its walled garden, an area of the disk formatted normally so that the computer can boot the game in the first place. Further, writing to RapidLok-formatted tracks isn’t practical. The computer would need to recalculate the checksum for the track as a whole, encrypt it, and rewrite that portion to the checksum store out past the normally accessible part of the disk — a far too demanding task for a little Commodore 64. For these reasons, Rapidlok disks are hybrids, partially formatted as standard disks and partially in the protected format. Figure 5 below shows the first disk of Pirates! viewed with a contemporary copying utility.

Figure 5

Figure 5

As the existence of such a tool will attest, techniques did exist to analyze and copy RapidLok disks in their heyday. Among the crackers, Mitch of Eagle Soft was known as the RapidLok master; it’s his vintage crack of Pirates! and many other RapidLok-protected games that you’ll find floating around the disk-image archives today. Yet even those cracks, masterful as they were, were forced to strip out a real advantage that RapidLok gave to the ordinary player, that was in fact the source of the first part of its name: its custom disk format was much faster to read from than the standard, by a factor of five or six. Pirates who chose to do their plundering via Mitch’s cracked version of Pirates! would have to be very patient criminals.

But balanced against the one great advantage of RapidLok for the legitimate user was at least one major disadvantage beyond even the obvious one of not being able to make a backup copy. In manipulating the Commodore 64 disk drive in ways its designers had never intended, RapidLok put a lot of stress on the hardware. Drives that were presumably just slightly out of adjustment, but that nevertheless did everything else with aplomb, proved unable to load RapidLok disks, or, almost worse, failed intermittently in the middle of game sessions (seemingly always just after you’d scored that big Silver Train robbery in the case of Pirates!, of course). And, still worse from the standpoint of MicroProse’s customer relations, a persistent if unproven belief arose that RapidLok was actually damaging disk drives, throwing them out of alignment through its radical operations. It certainly didn’t sound good in action, producing a chattering and general caterwauling and shaking the drive so badly one wondered if it was going to walk right off the desktop one day.

The belief, quite probably unfounded though it was, that MicroProse and other publishers were casually destroying their customers’ expensive hardware in the name of protecting their own interests only fueled the flames of mistrust between publisher and consumer that so much of the SPA’s rhetoric had done so much to ignite. RapidLok undoubtedly did its job in preventing a good number of people from copying MicroProse games. A fair number of them probably even went out and bought the games for themselves as an alternative. Whether those sales were worth the damage it did to MicroProse’s relations with their loyal customers is a question with a less certain answer.

Dungeon Master

No discussion of copy protection in the 1980s could be complete without mentioning Dungeon Master. Like everything else about FTL’s landmark real-time CRPG, its copy protection was innovative and technically masterful, so much so that it became a veritable legend in its time. FTL wasn’t the sort of company to be content with any turnkey copy-protection solution, no matter how comprehensive. What they came up with instead is easily as devious as any dungeon level in the game proper. As Atari ST and Amiga crackers spent much of 1988 learning, every time you think you have it beat it turns the tables on you again. Let’s have a closer look at the protection used on the very first release of Dungeon Master, the one that shipped for the ST on December 15, 1987.

3 1/2 inch floppy disk

With the ST and its 68000-based companions, we’ve moved into the era of the 3½-inch disk, a format that can pack more data onto a smaller disk and also do so more reliably; the fragile magnetic platter is now protected beneath a rigid plastic case and a metal shield that only pulls away to expose it when the disk is actually inserted into a drive. The principles of the 3½-inch disk’s operation are, however, the same as those of the 5¼-inch, so we need not belabor the subject here.

Although most 3½-inch drives wrote to both sides of the disk, early STs used just one, in a format that consisted of 80 tracks, each with 9 512-byte sectors, for a total of ((512 * 9 * 80) / 1024) 360 K of storage capacity. The ST uses a more flexible filesystem than was the norm on the 8-bit machines we’ve discussed so far, one known as FAT, for File Allocation Table. The FAT filesystem dates back to the late 1970s, was adopted by Microsoft for MS-DOS in 1981, and is still in common use today in a form known as FAT32; the ST uses FAT12. The numerical suffix refers to the number of bits allocated to each file’s home address on the disk, which in turn dictates the maximum possible capacity of the disk itself. FAT is designed to accommodate a wide range of floppy and hard disks, and thus allows the number of tracks and sectors to be specified at the beginning of the disk itself. Thanks to FAT’s flexibility, Dungeon Master can easily bump the number of sectors per track from 9 to 10, a number still well within the capabilities of the ST’s drive. That change increases the disk’s storage capacity to ((512 * 10 * 80) / 1024) 400 K. It was only this modification, more a response to a need for just a bit more disk space than an earnest attempt at copy protection, that allowed FTL to pack the entirety of Dungeon Master onto a single disk.

Dungeon Master‘s real protection is a very subtle affair, which is one of the keys to its success. At first glance one doesn’t realize that the disk is protected at all — a far cry from the radical filesystem overhaul of RapidLok. The disk’s contents can be listed like those of any other, its individual files even read in and examined. The disk really is a completely normal one — except for track 0, sectors 7 and 8.

Let’s recall again the two basic methods of overcoming copy protection: by duplicating the protection on the copy or by cracking the original, making it so that you don’t need to duplicate the protection. Even with a scheme as advanced as RapidLok, duplication often remained an option. Increasingly by the era of Dungeon Master, though, we see the advent of schemes that are physically impossible for the disk drives on the target machines to duplicate under any circumstances, that rely on capabilities unique to industrial-scale disk duplicators. Nate Lawson, a reader of this blog who was hugely helpful to me in preparing this article, describes good copy protection as taking advantage of “asymmetry”: “the difference between the environment where the code is executed versus where it was produced.” The ultimate form of asymmetry must be a machine on the production side that can write data in a format that the machine on the execution side physically cannot.

Because FTL duplicated their own disks in-house rather than using an outside service like most publishers, they had a great deal of control over the process used to create them. They used their in-house disk duplicator to write an invalid sector number to a single sector: track 0, sector 8 is labeled sector 247. At first blush, this hardly seems special; Microsoft Adventure, that granddaddy of copy-protected games, had after all used the same technique eight years earlier. But there’s something special about this sector 247: due to limitations of the ST’s drive hardware that we won’t get into here, the machine physically can’t write that particular sector number. Any disk with a sector labeled 247 has to have come from something other than an ST disk drive.

Track 0, sector 7, relies on the same idea of hardware asymmetry, but adds another huge wrinkle sufficient to warm the heart of any quantum physicist. Remember that the data stored on a disk boils down to a series of 1s and 0s, magnetized or demagnetized areas that are definitively in one state or the other. But what if it was possible to create a “fuzzy” bit, one that capriciously varies between states on each successive read? Well, it wasn’t possible to do anything like that on an ST disk drive or even most industrial disk duplicators. But FTL, technology-driven company that they were, modified their own disk duplicator to be able to do just that. By cramming a lot of “flux reversals,” or transitions between a magnetic and demagnetized state, into a space far smaller than the read resolution of the ST disk drive, they could create bits that lived in a perpetually in-between state — bits that the drive would randomly read sometimes as on and sometimes as off.

Dungeon Master has one of these fuzzy bits on track 0, sector 7. When the disk is copied, the copy will contain not a fuzzy bit but a normal bit, on or off according to the quantum vagaries of the read process that created it.

Figure 6

Figure 6

As illustrated in Figure 6, Dungeon Master‘s copy-protection routines read the ostensible fuzzy bit over and over, waiting for a discordant result. When that comes, it can assume that it’s running from an original disk and continue. If it tries many times, always getting the same result, it assumes it’s running from a copy and behaves accordingly.

FTL’s scheme was so original that they applied for and were granted a patent on it, one that’s been cited many times in subsequent filings. It represents a milestone in the emerging art and science of DRM. Ironically, the most influential aspect of Dungeon Master, a hugely influential game on its own terms, might just be its fuzzy-bit copy protection. Various forms of optical media continue to use the same approach to this day.

With duplication a complete non-starter in the case of both this sector numbered 247 and the fuzzy bit, the only way to pirate Dungeon Master must be to crack it. Doing so must entail diving into the game’s actual code, looking for the protection check and modifying it to always return a positive response. In itself, that wasn’t usually too horrible; crackers had long ago learned to root through code to disable look-up-a-word-in-the-manual and code-wheel-based “soft” protection schemes. But FTL, as usual, had a few tricks up their sleeves to make it much harder: they made the protection checks multitudinous and their results non-obvious.

Instead of checking the copy protection just once, Dungeon Master does it over and over, from half-a-dozen or so different places in its code, turning the cracker’s job into a game of whack-a-mole. Every time he thinks he’s got it at last, up pops another check. The most devious of all the checks is the one that’s hidden inside a file called “graphics.dat,” the game’s graphics store. Who would think to look for executable code there?

Compounding the problem of finding the checks is the fact that even on failure they don’t obviously do anything. The game simply continues, only to become unstable and start spitting out error messages minutes later. For this reason, it’s extremely hard to know when and whether the game is finally fully cracked. It was the perfect trap for the young crackers of the scene, who weren’t exactly known for their patience. The pirate boards were flooded with crack after crack of Dungeon Master, all of which turned out to be broken after one had actually played a while. In a perverse way, it amounted to a masterful feat of advertising. Many an habitual pirate got so frustrated with not being able properly play this paradigm-shattering game that he made Dungeon Master the only original disk in his collection. Publishers had for years already been embedding their protection checks some distance into their games, both to make life harder for crackers and to turn the copies themselves into a sort of demo version that unwitting would-be pirates distributed for them for free. But Dungeon Master used the technique to unprecedented success in terms of pirated copies that turned into sold originals.

Dungeon Master still stands as one of copy protection’s — or, if you like, DRM’s — relatively few absolutely clear, unblemished success stories. It took crackers more than a year, an extraordinary amount of time by their usual standards, to wrap their heads around the idea of a fuzzy bit and to find all of the checks scattered willy-nilly through the code (and, in the case of “graphics.dat,” out of it). After that amount of time the sales window for any computer game, even one as extraordinary as Dungeon Master, must be closing anyway. Writing about the copy protection twenty years later, Doug Bell of FTL couldn’t resist a bit of crowing.

Dungeon Master exposed the fallacy in the claims of both the pirates and the crackers. The pirates who would never have paid for the game if they could steal it did pay for it. Despite a steadily growing bounty of fame and notoriety for cracking the game, the protection lasted more than a year. And the paying customer was rewarded with not just a minimally invasive copy-protection scheme, but, just as importantly, with the satisfaction of not feeling like a schmuck for paying for something that most people were stealing.

As the developer of both Dungeon Master and the software portion of its copy protection, I knew that eventually the copy protection would be broken, but that the longer it held out the less damage we would suffer when it was broken.

Dungeon Master had a greater than 50-percent market penetration on the Atari ST—that is, more than one copy of Dungeon Master was sold for each two Atari ST computers sold. That’s easily ten times the penetration of any other game of the time on any other platform.

So what’s the lesson? That piracy does take significant money out of the pocket of the developer and that secure anti-piracy schemes are viable.

Whether we do indeed choose to view Dungeon Master as proof of the potential effectiveness of well-crafted DRM as a whole or, as I tend to, as something of an historical aberration produced by a unique combination of personalities and circumstances, it does remain a legend among old sceners, respected as perhaps the worthiest of all the wily opponents they encountered over the years — not just technically brilliant but conceptually and even psychologically so. By its very nature, the long war between the publishers and the crackers could only be a series of delaying actions on the part of the former. For once, the delay created by Dungeon Master‘s copy protection was more than long enough.

And on that note we’ll have to conclude this modest little peek behind the curtain of 1980s copy protection. Like so many seemingly narrow and esoteric topics, it only expands and flowers the deeper you go into it. People continue to crack vintage games and other software to this day, and often document their findings in far more detail than I can here. Apple II fans may want to have a look at the work of one “a2_4am” on Twitter, while those of you who want to know more about RapidLok may want to look into the C64 Preservation Project‘s detailed RapidLok Handbook, which is several times the length of this article. And if all that’s far, far more information than you want — and no, I really don’t blame you — I hope this article, cursory as it’s been, has instilled some respect for the minds on both sides of the grand software-piracy wars of the 1980s.

(Sources: Beneath Apple DOS by Don Worth and Pieter Lechner; The Anatomy of the 1541 Disk Drive by Lothar Englisch and Norbert Szczepanowski; Inside Commodore DOS by Richard Immers and Gerald G. Newfeld; The Kracker Jax Revealed Trilogy; Commodore Power Play of August/September 1985; Kilobaud of July 1982; New Zealand Bits and Bytes of May 1984; Games Machine of June 1988; Transactor 5.3; 80 Microcomputing of November 1980; Byte of December 1980; Hardcore Computist #9 and #11; Midnite Software Gazette of April 1986. Online sources include Nick Andrew’s home page, the aforementioned C64 Preservation Project, and The Dungeon Master Encyclopedia. See also Jean Louis-Guérin’s paper “Atari Floppy Disk Copy Protection.” Information on the SPA’s activities comes from the archive of SPA-related material donated to the Strong Museum of Play by Doug Carlston, first fruit of my research here in Rochester.

My huge thanks to Nate Lawson for doing something of a peer review of this article prior to publication!)

 
 

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A Pirate’s Life for Me, Part 2: The Scene

Fair warning: This article contains a couple of images that qualify as Not Safe For Work. Scroll further with caution!

Disks

The scene, the underground, whatever name you attach to it, there will never be anything like it again. There was a certain degree of innocence about it all, even though the activities were largely illegal. No one really understood that because most of us were still living at home trying to get through primary school! We had no larger world view to place the activities in context, no moral compass to tell us it was wrong. It was just fun, and that’s all we cared about!

— A scener named “Fantasy”

There is no historical instant to label as the beginning of the so-called “scene,” the loose international association of hackers, crackers, phreakers, and traders who dedicated themselves to making every computer game available for free within hours of its release, regardless of where in the world that initial release took place. The scene’s story rather begins with thousands of individual stories taking place in thousands of places, in the playgrounds and computer stores and bedrooms where young people first began to casually trade their latest software purchases among themselves. Someone who had a friend in the next town over, where the pool of games being passed around might be very different, could become a big fish in his own small pond by visiting said friend for a little inter-city trading. Gradually a larger distribution network was formed that offered immense rewards in status for the best-connected traders. It didn’t take long for some of these teenage kingpins to start editing their initials into the games, just so everyone at their school would be sure to know from whose largess they were benefiting. And so it began, driven, as it always would be, by the eternal adolescent need for acceptance and validation as much as it was by the very new technologies of home computers and the games they played.

If we insist on identifying a more concrete point of origin for the scene, we could do worse than the birth of Eagle Soft Incorporated, the oldest of the big cracking groups whose bewildering, ever-changing allegiances and wars would come to dominate life in the scene. In 1982, three Canadians named Dan, Jason, and Jim decided to band together under the Eagle Soft banner, chosen from a literal banner of an eagle that Dan happened to have hanging above his bed. With copy protection now becoming more common on games and other software, Jim, a citizen of Singapore studying in Canada, became one of the the world’s first recognized crackers through his work de-protecting early Commodore 64 games. Then another, even better cracker from the United States named Mitch joined the group. In a matter of months he took it over, as the original Canadian trio all lost interest and got on with their lives in one way or another. Unlike Mitch, who remained an almost unique exception by simply going by his first name, the new members he recruited all adopted online handles, the perfect complement to a social milieu that would come to represent for its participants an alternate, fantastic existence divorced from all the trials and tribulations of high school.

Eagle Soft

Eagle Soft dominated the Commodore 64 cracking scene in North America throughout the 64’s glory years there, thanks not only to their technical chops but also to a network of contacts inside magazines and stores that often resulted in an Eagle Soft crack of a game hitting the scene before an honest buyer could walk into a store and purchase it. The earliest Eagle Soft cracks went entirely unclaimed. Later the group started to edit in their initials (“ESI”) wherever they could find a place — for instance, as a replacement for the usual “loading…” message. Soon, however, the Eagle Soft eagle, one of the most iconic images of the cracking scene as a whole, made its first appearance. It became the centerpiece of the custom-programmed introductions that Eagle Soft took to including in the games they cracked. Such “cracktros” were soon a staple of the emerging scene, a place for the various groups to brag about their accomplishments, greet their friends and flame their enemies, and, teenage boys being teenage boys, quote their favorite rock lyrics (Eagle Soft always had a particular obsession with Rush).

Pirated games cracked by North American groups like Eagle Soft were first released almost exclusively via modem, through a fast-growing underground network of BBS systems. Telecommunications in those days was almost unbelievably primitive. Almost all of the boards were single-user systems, a single Commodore 64 or similar computer attached to a single phone line. Because only one person could be online uploading or downloading at any one time, the boards’ time was precious. A scener was expected to justify his use of a system’s time by uploading new “warez” as well as downloading; many boards had a credit system that might award two “download credits” for every block uploaded. Like everything else about the scene, the boards themselves were ranked according to a hierarchy running from “lame” to “eleet”; the better the board’s ranking, the more connected were its users and the more recent the games hosted there. Games trickled down through the hierarchy, from the “0-dayz” boards to the “3-dayz” to the “5-dayz” to all the others, to be eventually traded in gymnasiums and lunch rooms via the sneaker net by those kids so lame they didn’t even own modems. Primitive though it was, the system was surprisingly efficient. A hot new game could easily be available nationwide on the most eleet boards within 24 hours of its arrival on store shelves — if not before it was actually released, thanks to the scene’s contacts inside publishers and magazines. Within a week or two after that one could expect to find it on even the lamest boards.

In those days, there were few affordable legal ways to call between telephone area codes without incurring minute-by-minute long-distance charges, an expense very few parents of teenagers were willing to tolerate. Thus the grease that lubricated the distribution of pirated games was “phreaking,” the illegal practice of making long-distance calls for free. The PC industry had always had connections to this shady art; Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs famously first bonded over a “blue box” used to generate the whistling tones that could be used to fool the analog phone systems of the early 1970s, and one of the first pieces of third-party hardware made available for the original Apple II was a similar device. In the 1980s, the scene made phreaking more popular than ever. By now the old analog switches that were vulnerable to blue boxes were on their way out, but the new phenomenon of long-distance calling cards was on the way in. These allowed customers to take their long-distance services with them when they traveled; they needed only dial a local access number, then input the code on their card followed by the long-distance number they were actually wanting to call. In the beginning, many of the calling-card codes consisted of only five digits, meaning that for a company with just 5000 calling-card customers fully one possibility in twenty would be a valid number. Sceners developed programs to brute-force the numbers; these could be set up overnight to try combination after combination until a valid one turned up. Once they were found, the phreaker could either reserve the codes for his own use or trade them on the boards for download credits or other considerations. Most would last a few weeks, until the victim got her first bill for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Because they were so essential to the workings of the scene, long-distance codes (“codez”) and other means of phreaking were if anything even more sought-after than the games themselves, the fastest way for a new arrival to earn cred and rise through the class hierarchy. Unfortunately, phreaking was also by far the most common if not the only way for a scener to get himself into real legal trouble. The last legal questions surrounding the copyright eligibility of software had been settled by the time the scene came into its own, but enforcement still remained at best problematic. Very few district attorneys saw much profit in hauling teenagers into criminal court for trading computer games, and the game publishers themselves, players in a niche industry as they were, had neither the clout to influence the district attorneys nor the financial wherewithal to pursue civil cases. The case of the big phone companies, however, was another matter entirely. The few police investigations and prosecutions that resulted from the American scene’s activities virtually all revolved not around the software piracy that was the perpetrators’ real raison d’être, but rather around the offense of phone phreaking, or even more dangerous practices like credit-card fraud; desperate for more and better hardware to improve their boards and thus improve their standing, some sceners took to using stolen credit-card numbers to order equipment to convenient nearby vacant houses.

That said, even police involvement of this stripe was uncommon, and often exaggerated within the scene itself. Sceners, being almost universally at that rebel-without-a-cause phase of life, relished the idea of being daring outlaws out of all proportion to the reality of the risk. While the so-called “leet speek” that already characterized the scene by the mid-1980s — replacing “software” with “warez,” “hacker” with “haxxor,” “elite” with “eleet” — was allegedly developed to circumvent electronic law-enforcement filters that might be tracking their activities, one senses that such constructions were more important as typical adolescent markers of inclusion and exclusion.

In 1985 or so a new species of game began to trickle into the American Commodore 64 scene. These new arrivals went unmentioned in the magazines’ review sections and were never spotted on store shelves. And they had a different feel about them as well. Typical American commercial software at the time tended to be fairly high-concept stuff, with lots of earnest simulations, strategy games, and adventure games. The new games, though, unabashedly emphasized fast action and fast graphics over depth. Many already came equipped with cracktros of their own, but these also were different in character from the norm, with audiovisual production values that often smoked even those of the impressive action games to which they were attached. And, while the boasting, greeting, and warring being done by the groups behind these new cracktros wasn’t all that different from what American sceners were used to, it was all being carried on by groups no one had ever heard of before, and often in distinctly broken English that was apt to suddenly lapse into spasms of incomprehensible German or Dutch. The American scene had finally met the European.

A typical Commodore 64 cracktro. Something tells me most sceners greeted this game with particular interest...

A typical Commodore 64 cracktro. Something tells me most sceners greeted this game with particular interest…

The fast-action sensibilities of these new games were right in line with the American scene’s own, ironically much more so than the games commonly made in their own country. They quickly became great favorites, among the most sought-after warez of all. Certain groups became import/export specialists, establishing trading alliances with the groups across the pond. Particularly in the beginning, their trading was often done via the mail. Later, sceners began to practice the risky art of international phreaking. Europeans learned that they could make good use of the calling cards issued by American phone companies to their customers traveling abroad; there followed a booming codez-for-warez trade between the United States and Europe.

The European versions of machines like the Commodore 64 and Amiga were slightly different than the American, with their video signal and internal timings made to conform to the European PAL television standard rather than the American NTSC. This was enough to break certain games that really pushed the hardware, or to make them flicker or run slightly too quickly or too slowly. Some sceners therefore became specialists in PAL or NTSC “fixing,” the art of adapting games to run correctly under the alternate standard. This was far from trivial work — a marker of the fact that, much as the scene may look at times like little more than boys acting out, the best of those boys had real technical chops.

If it’s surprising that the two scenes should have developed so similarly in what was initially all but complete isolation from one another, well, one can only presume that nerdy yet rebellious teenagers really don’t vary all that fundamentally from country to country. More surprising is that the scene took root so strongly in Europe in the face of barriers that must have seemed almost unbelievably confounding to their American counterparts. One was the simple barrier of language. Very few European sceners had English as their native language; computer-mad Britain was, somewhat oddly, never all that huge in the scene, which was biggest in West Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Yet they adopted English, the language they all learned to at least some extent in school and also that of most of the pop culture they consumed, as their lingua franca. The European scene’s diction is indescribable but immediately identifiable to anyone who’s spent any time around it, a mixture of stiff, grammatically suspect schoolboy constructions, leet speek, and phrases copied and pasted out of movies and music, with a heaping dose of profanity layered on top to make it all go down easy.

Another barrier facing European sceners was the cost of telecommunications. European telephone systems, unlike their American counterparts, generally still charged even local calls by the minute in the scene’s formative years, and prior to the influx of all those American codez there were few ways to safely phreak one’s way around this situation. Thus trading by post rather than BBS dominated in Europe for some years. Just as American sceners happily cheated the phone companies, European sceners did the same to the postal systems. Stamps were covered with a thin layer of glue or hairspray, which could be peeled away when packages arrived at their destination, taking with it the postal service’s mark showing the stamps had been used. Another possibility was to attend one of the “copyparties” that started sprouting up in Europe by about 1986. At most of them, you needed only turn up, equipped with a computer, dozens of blank disks, and dozens of games of your own for trading, to get in one the action.

An issue of Illegal, one of the scene's newsletters.

An issue of Illegal, one of the scene’s newsletters.

The specter of law enforcement, usually more a theoretical than an actual threat in North America, was a more serious concern in Europe. Plenty of mail swappers had uncomfortable run-ins with the local postal authorities that resulted in hefty fines and very unhappy parents, and in more extreme cases jail terms for international smuggling and/or mail fraud. One French scener by the name of Maximillian, a major trader in the codez used for international phreaking, was tracked down by Interpol and sentenced to several years in prison. The European police also generally took the crime of software piracy more seriously than their American counterparts. The West German and Norwegian police went so far as to institute special task forces to concentrate on the software-piracy problem, although games were seldom if ever their main focus. Still, for sceners in those countries and others the proverbial policeman’s knock on the front door, while not exactly commonplace, was hardly entirely unknown either. The police would arrive armed with search warrants and the full force of the law to ransack the scener’s bedroom while shocked parents looked on in horror.

As if the legitimate authorities weren’t scary enough, then as now the copyright wars attracted a fair number of shady dealers on the side of ostensible law and order. One German lawyer, Günther Freiherr von Gravenreuth, made the war against software piracy a dodgy sort of personal crusade, going so far as to send entrapping letters to suspected sceners in the persona of “Tanja,” a 16-year-old girl looking for new games; whatever else you can say about him, Gravenreuth certainly did know how to capture a teenage boy’s interest. If they replied, the targets could expect to be threatened with a lawsuit, along with a helpful settlement offer for many thousands of marks. (Gravenreuth was himself found in 2004 to be one of the masterminds of an international for-profit software piracy ring that dwarfed in scale and sophistication anything the scene could have imagined.)

Despite all these pressures, the scene not only survived in Europe but thrived, and for far longer than its American equivalent. Much of the reason for the European scene’s comparative longevity had to do with the rise and fall of the computing platforms that both American and European sceners favored. While virtually all viable platforms had their share of cracking groups, the core of the scene always identified most closely with Commodore’s machines, first the 64 and later the Amiga. When the former began to slowly fade and the latter to rise in the late 1980s, European sceners made a natural, gradual migration. Because the Amiga never quite took off in North America as it did in Europe, however, the American scene largely faded away with the 64. Between 1988 and 1990, most of the prominent American groups and crackers disbanded or retired, leaving the scene as a whole a largely European phenomenon, where it would continue to grow for another half-decade. Indeed, it still survives, in a shrunken and more subdued form with little continuing interest in software piracy, right to the present day. So dominant did its identity as a European phenomenon become that today the very fact that a scene ever existed at all in North America is all but forgotten by many.

But how did one get involved in the scene in the first place? In the hope that one individual’s story might take the place of a lot of dull generalities, let me tell you how it happened for “Weasel,” a German scener.

Our hero’s first computer, bought for him by his parents in 1985, was a Commodore 128 that he used in 64 mode all the time because the 128 didn’t have much in the way of games. He started out trading only with his schoolyard chums. But as his mania for collecting grew, his network of contacts grew to match: “People were coming to me now to get the latest games. I had them all!”

He found fascinating the cracktros that came attached to many of the games he was now trading, created by groups with names like the Dynamic Duo, 1001 Crew, Triad, German Cracking Service, and Federation Against Copyright. As the cracktros grew more elaborate almost by the month, he found himself spending more time admiring them and reading their “scrolltexts” than he did playing the games. “One day I want to be one of those guys as well,” he thought, “being part of a group and doing lots of cracks for all the people inside and outside of that so-called ‘scene.'” With that goal in mind, he started learning to program, first in BASIC, then in machine language, following a course in one of the magazines. He used his new knowledge to tinker with the cracktros and the games themselves, changing this and that to see what would happen. And, because every aspiring scener needed a handle, he started to call himself “Wiesel,” from a car advertisement he had stuck to his bedroom door: “Schneller als ein Wiesel!”

One day he took his skateboard to a popular local hill, at the top of which he noticed a rather incongruous stack of floppy disks amid the jumble of backpacks and bags left lying around by the boarders. When he saw the owner of the disks pick them up, he screwed up his courage to walk over and start a conversation. The owner was a fellow who called himself Havok, a music specialist with a cracking group called Frontline. Havok invited him to the next Frontline meeting, to take place in a Burger King in just a few days. Wiesel accepted in a daze, feeling “I must be dreaming.”

At the meeting, he was given an original of a game called Ikari Warriors, whose copy protection was known to be fairly strenuous. His assignment was to crack the game and bring it to the next weekly meeting, thereby to prove himself worthy — or unworthy — of membership.

So I went home and inserted the disk into my computer to have a look at the game. What I first saw looked like a never-be-able-to-crack-that game. So I almost gave up at the beginning, when I noticed the game loading with a track-sector fastloader. I had never seen anything like that before. But I never stopped thinking about a way to get into that damn program. I recalled everything I had already learned about machine language, and tried to find out as much as I could about the loading routine, the protection, the game itself, and how it worked. Finally I found a way to access the game, and after a while I had a working memory backup saved on my disk.

When Wiesel proudly returned to Frontline with crack in hand, they pronounced his work good enough and offered him official membership. There was only one condition: he needed to change his handle from the German “Wiesel” to the English “Weasel,” to “give it an international touch.” Thanks to his boldness, initiative, and technical chops, he was a real participant in the scene at last. He spent the remainder of his teenage years bouncing from group to group — Frontline, Matrix, Crazy, Crest, Enigma, Red Sector, Legend, Avantgarde, Fantastic Four Cracking Group — in the extended soap opera of shifting allegiances and relationships that was the life of a prominent scener. As with so much in life, the hardest part had proved to be just getting through the door.

Cracktros and demos often repurposed — read, stole — graphics and sound from games. The love scene from Defender of the Crown was a great favorite, for obvious reasons.

And once through the door, what was life like then as a real scener? Well, the scene was first and foremost a rough place, dominated as it was by teenage boys with angsty streaks a mile wide. Prominent sceners could be as young as age 13, and most tended to scale back their involvement or drop out entirely before entering their twenties, as jobs and university and girlfriends proved harder and harder to forgo for the all-consuming obligations of being a big wheel in the scene. Sceners mention in interviews already feeling “old” and out of step with the Lord of the Flies politics of the scene as young as age 17.

There were some exceptions to the demographic rule. Eagle Soft, for example, numbered two actual girls within their ranks (Ladyhawk and Scorpio), who served as their artists, drawing their famous eagle among other pictures. Perhaps the most amusing exception of all is that of Derbyshire Ram, an English country gentleman who retired in his fifties, took up the Commodore 64 as a hobby, and became a major trader and member of several big groups. While Derbyshire Ram was by all reports a gentle soul and an all-around good egg, others among the sprinkling of adults who chose to spend so much time hanging out with all these teenage boys may have had more disturbing motivations; one, known as Music Man, was reportedly jailed for child molestation.

But, exceptions aside, we can guess that at least 90 percent of active sceners during the 1980s were boys between the ages of 13 and 19. The reality that the members of this international criminal conspiracy almost all had parents hectoring them to do their homework and spend more time away from their computer could lead to some hilarious juxtapositions. Mitch of Eagle Soft, for instance, who was for years the most respected cracker in North America, worshiped by legions of disciples within the scene, tells of hiding in bed under the covers with his brother and a portable Commodore 64 playing Maniac Mansion into the night. Really, how many international criminal masterminds have a bed time?

It seems safe to say that many of these kids were the sort who don’t have the easiest time of it in high school. Sadly, instead of creating a gentler teenage society, most embraced the “shit roles downhill” theory of social policy with relish, choosing victims below them in the scene’s pecking order to harass mercilessly. Most of their flames and diatribes will sound very familiar to anyone who’s ever been unwise enough to read YouTube comments. We’ve already encountered one or two of the scene’s cruder productions in passing in earlier articles, like the text adventure Mad Party Fucker, with its tagline “The object of this game is to fuck as many women as you can without getting bufu’ed by fags (contracting AIDS).” Tolerance wasn’t any higher than grammar on the scene’s list of virtues.

Things could get particularly vicious when one of the periodic “warz” broke out between rival groups. If the groups were of sufficient stature, the conflict could quickly become a global one, with every other group force to align themselves with one side or the other. The largest, most sustained, and most brutal of all the wars was probably the one sparked off in 1987 between Eagle Soft and their only real rival for dominance of the North American scene, a group called Untouchable Cracking Force. Again, some of the techniques used by the combatants will ring sadly familiar to anyone aware of some of the Internet harassment that goes on today. Sceners set up war dialers to call their enemies’ homes, endlessly, with a screeching modem on the other end for anyone who picked up; taped their enemies’ conversations, then sent out edited snippets to place them in a bad light (anything that could somehow be construed to imply that they were gay was particular gold); ordered massive quantities of pizza to their houses; sent them mail-order packages full of useless computer equipment, ordered cash-on-delivery.

Scene from a "war" between Eagle Soft and a rival group. Make no mistake: the scene could be an ugly, ugly place.

A scene from a war between Eagle Soft and Untouchable Cracking Force. Believe it or not, this is actually one of the less offensive images of its type.

A journalist who infiltrated the scene and published a newspaper article about the goings-on — one of its few appearances in the overground media — allegedly suffered even worse indignities at their hands. According to By-Tor, a former member of Eagle Soft:

I remember it caused GREAT disruption in the scene and many major groups got together and we harassed him for 2 weeks straight, (I wish I would remember the groups names involved) his credit cards were given out, were charged up for computer equipment that went to a lot of people in the scene. His MCI cards were phreaked and loaded up with charges. He had to change his phone number 3 times during this time and cancel credit cards as there were people in groups that were great hackers and had inside info to finding out his new phone numbers and credit card numbers. Taught him a lesson he never forgot, that he was forced to write a 2nd story apologizing to all of us for lying to us and writing his story explaining the workings of the ELITE SCENE. We put him through HELL. :)

This doesn’t truly convey in written words what truly went on but that is the main story. It was GREAT!

The worst transgression, considered beyond the pale by even most warring sceners but occasionally practiced nevertheless, was to make an anonymous call to the police (the “pigs”) to out a fellow scener as a phreaker and/or pirate. There were also scattered reports of physical confrontations, particularly at the copyparties in Europe, involving fists, baseball bats, pepper spray, or in one alarming case an allegedly live hand grenade.

Lest we judge all of this too harshly, we should remember that, driven by hormones, frustrations, and most of all peer pressure, almost all of us did and said things as adolescents that we aren’t particularly proud of. Betwixt and between the orgasms of ugliness real friendships were formed. The old sceners have for the most part long since gone on to productive lives and careers, often using the skills they learned cracking games and writing cracktros in those formative years. With the exception of only a few like our friend By-Tor who still remembers the scene’s worst antics as so “great,” most remember the scene fondly when thinking back, but naturally prefer to focus on its more positive aspects if they haven’t managed to forget the worst ugliness entirely. The collision between nostalgia and reality can be a little off-putting when they are, say, confronted with an actual newsletter to which they contributed, as happened with the fellow who once went by the handle of “Punk Executioner.”

The thing that struck me when re-reading this 20 year old text was the level of aggression and gorilla chest thumping. Clearly I owe a lot of apologies. This was more apparent after I penetrated deep into my garage and dug out the old C64. Re-reading some of the scroll texts and Reason 4 Treason articles made me cringe. It appears I took aim at any dork, nerd, drop-out, non-music listener, anti-graffiti, pro-establishment, unfashionable person out there. I’m not sure why, perhaps it was because I occasionally copped a bit of flak myself for being a ‘computer head’ at school. Being a Dungeons & Dragons geek and using a brief-case as a school bag didn’t do me any favours either.

The scene’s saving grace, assuming we’re willing to grant it one, must be that its was an ethos not just of nihilism but also, almost paradoxically, of creation and even artistic excellence. Cracking games wasn’t easy, particularly as time went on and the publishers’ protection schemes grew more and more sophisticated. The best crackers brought a real flair to the job, not just finding a way to copy the disk but also adding cheat modes, conveniences, and new features. See for instance the crack by a group called Nostalgia of Access Software’s Leader Board golf simulation, which combined the core game with the course add-on pack and a simple menu to switch between them, simplifying a rather laborious process of rebooting and switching disks that annoyed many a legitimate purchaser.

And, increasingly over time, cracking was just one of the things that sceners did, and eventually not even the most important. In addition to horrid pornographic text adventures like Mad Party Fucker, sceners produced newsletters on paper and disks, in the case of the latter often with astonishingly good production values if not prose; home-grown utilities to produce graphics and, especially, music (the best of the scene’s so-called “sound trackers” on the Amiga were as good as any commercial music package); reams of art and countless hours of music, some of which wouldn’t sound particularly out of place on a modern dance floor, created with the aid of said utilities; and of course cracktros, which by the end of the 1980s had begun to morph into standalone demos, little showcases of multimedia art of sometimes stunning sophistication and ambition. In an odd but satisfying turnaround, software piracy became the afterthought of a vibrant and creative, if still very much underground, association of digital artists. Latter-day Amiga crackers even took to adding messages to their scrolltexts saying, hey, if you like this game you really ought to buy it — perhaps because by this point many current and former sceners were working in the games industry, snapped up for their audiovisual-programming chops by the very publishers who had once tried so hard to stamp them out. As copyparties turned into “demoparties” and the cracking scene turned into the “demoscene” in Europe in the early 1990s, it also became, relatively speaking, a gentler place, with an idealistic artistic ethos all its own. We’ll drop in on the scene again in a future article, to give you a chance to appreciate with me that unique community and some of its creations and to marvel with me how far it came in such a short time.

To be sure, the crackers and pirates who came before the demo coders were a less idealistic lot, motivated as they were by their teenage lusts for acceptance and for free games, but all their feverish cracking and trading all those years ago has had one supreme benefit. In cracking the games, they made it possible to archive and preserve them, something the companies that published them never spared a moment’s thought for. The sceners didn’t either, of course; they were hardly working for posterity when spreading their “0-day warez” around the world. Nevertheless, I’m hugely in their debt, as is everyone who cares about the history of gaming. The vast majority of the games you’ll find on the various disk-image archives today are the cracked versions, complete with their cracktros chronicling all the most recent wars and alliances, an ephemeral tempest in a teapot preserved forever. That, too, is another marker of our new digital way of living, toward which the scene, the first international digital subculture, pointed the way.

Next time we’ll wrap up this little series with a practical look at the mechanisms of copy protection itself: how it worked and how the scene’s crackers learned to defeat it.

(Sceners have done a very good job of archiving most of the artifacts of the 1980s and 1990s, although most of their own attempts at writing about their history quickly devolve into breathless but bewildering accounts of scene politics — “And then this group was formed, and went to war with this group, but this other group switched sides…,” etc. There’s a lot of that in Freax by Tamás Polgár, the only book I know of about the scene, but it’s nevertheless an essential resource for anyone hoping to really understand it. Otherwise this article is largely drawn from online scene sites. See Scenery, Heikki Orsila’s archive of scener interviews, Hall of Fame, the Illegal newsletter archives, and Recollection. Also see the chapter “The Scene” in my own The Future Was Here.)

 
 

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The 68000 Wars, Part 4: Rock Lobster

In the years following Jack Tramiel’s departure, Commodore suffered from a severe leadership deficit. The succession of men who came and went from the company’s executive suites with dizzying regularity often meant well, were often likable enough in their way. Yet they were also weak-willed men who offered only timid, conventional ideas whilst living in perpetual terror of the real boss of the show, Commodore’s dilettantish chairman of the board and interfering largest stockholder Irving Gould.

The exception that proves the rule of atrocious management is Thomas Rattigan, the man who during his brief tenure saved Commodore and in the process the Commodore Amiga from an early death. Rattigan wasn’t, mind you, a visionary; he never got the time to demonstrate such qualities even if he did happen to possess them. His wasn’t any great technical mind, nor was he an intrinsic fan of computers as an end unto themselves; in common with a rather distressing number of industry executives of the time, Rattigan, like Apple’s John Sculley a veteran of Pepsi Cola, seemed to take a perverse pride in his computer illiteracy, saying he “never got beyond the slide rule” and not even bothering to place a computer on his desk. He may not have even been a terribly nice guy; the thousands of employees he laid off, among them virtually the entire team that had once been Amiga, Incorporated, certainly aren’t likely to invite him to dinner anytime soon. No, Rattigan was simply competent, and carried along with that competence a certain courage of his own convictions. That was more than enough to make him stand out from his immediate predecessor and his many successors like the Beatles at a battle of the bands.

Thomas Rattigan

Thomas Rattigan

Rattigan was appointed President and Chief Operating Officer of Commodore International on December 2, 1985, and Chief Executive Officer on April 1, 1986, succeeding the feckless former steel executive Marshall Smith, whose own hapless tenure would serve as a blueprint for most of the Commodore leaders not named Rattigan who would follow. After replacing Tramiel in February of 1984, Smith had fiddled while Commodore burned, going from the billion-dollar face of home computing in North America to the business pages’ favorite source of schadenfreude, hemorrhaging money and living under the shadow of a gleeful deathwatch. The stock had dropped from almost $65 per share at the peak of Tramiel’s reign to less than $5 per share at the nadir of Smith’s. It was Rattigan, in one of his last acts before assuming the mantle of CEO as well as president, who negotiated the last-ditch $135 million loan package that gave Commodore — in other words, Rattigan himself — a lease on life of about one year to turn things around.

Some of the changes that Rattigan enacted to effect that turnaround were as inevitable as they were distressing: the waves of layoffs and cutbacks that had already begun under Smith’s reign continued for some time. Unlike Smith, however, Rattigan understood that he couldn’t cost-reduce Commodore back to profitablity.

The methods that Rattigan used to implement triage on the profit side of the ledger sheet were unsexy but surprisingly effective. One was entry into the burgeoning market for commodity-priced PC clones, hardware that could be thrown together quickly using off-the-shelf components and sold at a reasonable profit. Commodore’s line of PC clones would never do much of anything in North America — the nameplate was too associated with cheap, chirpy home computers for any corporate purchasing manager to glance at it twice — but it did do quite well in Europe; in some European countries, especially West Germany, the Commodore brand remained as respectable as any other.

Rattigan’s other revenue-boosting move was even more simple and even more effective. Commodore’s engineers had been working on a new version of the 64. Dubbed internally the 64CR, for “Cost Reduced,” it was built around a redesigned circuit board that better integrated many of the chips and circuitry using the latest production processes, resulting in a substantial reduction in the cost of production. The chassis and case were also simplified — for example, to use only two instead of many different types of screws. While they were at it, Commodore dramatically changed the look of the machine and most of its common peripherals to match that of the newer Commodore 128, thus creating a uniform appearance across their 8-bit line. As Rattigan said, “I think you’ve got to give people the opportunity not to have a black monitor, a green CPU, and a red disk drive.”

Commodore 64C

Commodore 64C

All of which was very practical and commonsensical. Looking at the new machine, however, Rattigan saw an opportunity to do something Commodore had never done before: to raise its price, and thereby to recoup some desperately needed profit margin. This really was a revolutionary thought for Commodore. Ever since releasing their VIC-20 model that had created the home-computer segment in North America, Commodore had competed almost entirely on the basis of offering more machine for less money than the other folks — an approach that did much to create the low-rent image that would dog the brand for the rest of the company’s life. Commodore had always kept their profit margins razor thin in comparison to the rest of the industry, trusting that they would, as the old saying/joke goes, “make it up in volume.” Now, though, Rattigan realized that the 64 had much more than price alone going for it. Almost everyone buying a 64 in 1986 was motivated largely by the platform’s peerless selection of games. Most, he theorized, would be willing to pay a little more than what Commodore was currently charging to gain access to that library. Thus when Commodore announced the facelifted 64 — now rechristened simply the 64C for obvious reasons — they also announced a 20 percent bump in its wholesale price. To ease some of the pain, they would bundle with it something called GEOS, an independently developed graphically-oriented operating environment that claimed to turn the humble 64 into a mini-Macintosh. (It didn’t really, of course, but it was a noble, impressive effort for a machine with a 1 MHz 8-bit processor and 64 K of memory.) Anyone who’s been around manufacturing at all will understand just what a huge difference a price increase of that magnitude, combined with a substantial reduction in manufacturing cost, would mean to Commodore’s bottom line if customers did indeed prove willing to continue buying the new model in roughly the same numbers as the old. Thankfully, Rattigan’s instincts proved correct. The 64C picked up right where the older model had left off, a brisk — and vastly more profitable — seller.

Sometimes, then, the simplest fixes really are the most effective. Taken together with the cost-cutting, these two measures returned Commodore to modest profitability well before Rattigan’s one-year deadline expired. Entering 1987, the company looked to be in relatively good shape for the short term. Yet questions still swirled around its long-term future. If Commodore didn’t want to accept the depressing fate of becoming strictly a maker of PC clones for the European market, they needed a successful platform of their own that could become the successor to the 64, which was proving longer lived than anyone had ever predicted but couldn’t go on forever. That successor had to be the Amiga. And therein lay problems.

The Amiga was in a sadly moribund state by the beginning of 1987. The gala Lincoln Center debut was now eighteen months in the past, but it felt like an eternity. The excitement with which the press had first greeted the new machine had long since been replaced by narratives of failure and marketing ineptitude. Commodore had stopped production of the Amiga in mid-1986 after making just 140,000 machines, yet was still able to fill the trickle of new orders from warehouse stock. Sure, some pretty good games had been made for the Amiga, at least one of which was genuinely groundbreaking, but with numbers like those how long would that continue? Already Electronic Arts had quietly sidled away from their early declarations that together they and the Amiga would “revolutionize the home-computer industry,” turning their focus back to other, more plebeian platforms where they could actually sell enough games to make it worth their while. Ditto big players in business and productivity software like Borland, Ashton-Tate, and WordPerfect. The industry at large, it seemed, was just about ready to put a fork in Commodore’s erstwhile dream machine.

The Amiga’s most obvious failing was one of marketplace positioning. Really, just who was this machine for? There were two obvious markets: homes, where it would make the best games machine the world had yet seen; and the offices of creative professionals who could make use of its unprecedented multimedia capabilities. Yet the original Amiga model had managed to miss both targets in some fairly fundamental ways. Svelte and sexy as it was, it lacked the internal expansion slots and big power supply necessary to easily outfit it with the hard drives, memory expansions, accelerator cards, and genlocks demanded by the professionals. Meanwhile its price of almost $2000 for a reasonably complete, usable system was far too high for the home market that had so embraced the Commodore 64. Throw in horrid Commodore marketing that ignored both applications in favor of positioning the Amiga as some sort of challenger to the PC-clone business standard, and it was remarkable that the Amiga had sold as well as it had.

If there was a bright spot, it was that the Amiga’s obvious failing had an equally obvious solution: not one but two new models, each perfectly suited for — and, hopefully, marketed toward — one of its two logical customer bases. Rattigan, industry neophyte though he was, saw this reasoning as clearly as anyone, and pushed his engineers to deliver both new machines as quickly as possible. They were officially announced via a low-key, closed-door presentation to select members of the press at the January 1987 Winter Consumer Electronics Show. The two new models would entirely replace the original, which had always been officially called the Amiga 1000 but had seldom been referred to by that name heretofore. The Amiga 2000 would be the big, professional-level machine, with a full 1MB of memory standard — four times that of the 1000 — and all the slots and expansion possibilities a programmer, artist, or video-production specialist — or, for that matter, a game developer — could possibly want.

Amiga 2000

Amiga 2000

But it was the Amiga 500 that would become the most successful Amiga model ever released, as well as the heart of its legacy as a gaming platform. Designed primarily by George Robbins and Bob Welland at Commodore’s West Chester, Pennsylvania, headquarters — the slowly evaporating original Los Gatos Amiga team had little to do with either of the new models — the 500 was code-named “Rock Lobster” during development after the B-52’s song (reason enough to love it right there if you ask me). Key to the work was a re-engineering of Agnus, the most complex of the Amiga’s custom chips, to make it smaller, simpler, and cheaper to manufacture; the end result was known as “Fat Agnus.” That accomplished, Robbins and Welland managed to stuff the contents of the 1000’s case into an all-in-one design that looked like a bulbous, overgrown Commodore 128.

Amiga 500

Amiga 500

The Amiga 500 wasn’t, especially in contrast to the 1000, going to win any beauty contests, but it got the job done. There was a disk drive built into the side of the case, a “trap door” underneath to easily increase memory from the standard 512 K to 1 MB, and an expansion port in lieu of the Amiga 2000’s slots that let the user add peripherals the old-fashioned Commodore way, by daisy-chaining them across the desktop. Best of all, a usable system could be had for around $1000, still a stratum or two above the likes of a 64 or 128 but nowhere near so out of the reach of the enthusiastic gamer or home hacker as had been the first Amiga. Compromised in some ways though it may have been from an engineering standpoint, enough to prompt a chorus of criticism from the old Los Gatos Amigans, the Amiga 500 was a brilliant little machine from a strategic standpoint, the smartest single move the post-Tramiel Commodore would ever make outside of electing to buy Amiga, Incorporated, in the first place.

But unfortunately, this was still Irving Gould’s Commodore, a company that seldom failed to follow every good decision with several bad ones. Amiga circles and the trade press at large were buzzing with anticipation for the not-yet-released new models, which were justifiably expected to change everything, when word hit the business press on April 23 that Thomas Rattigan had been unceremoniously fired. Like the firing of Jack Tramiel three years before when things were going so very well, it made and makes little sense. Gould would later say that Rattigan had been fired for “disobeying the chairman of the board” — i.e., him — and for “gross disregard of his duties,” but refused to get any more specific. Insiders muttered that Rattigan’s chief sin was that of being too good at his job, that the good press his decisions had been receiving had left Gould jealous. Just a couple of weeks before Rattigan’s firing, Commodore’s official magazine had published a lengthy interview with him, complete with his photo on the cover. To this Gould was reported to have taken grave exception. Yet Rattigan hardly comes across as a prima donna or a self-aggrandizer therein. On the contrary, he sounds serious, thoughtful, grounded, and very candid, explicitly rejecting the role of “media celebrity” enjoyed by Apple’s John Sculley, his former colleague at Pepsi: “When you have lost something in the range of $270 million in five quarters, I don’t think it’s time to be a media celebrity. I think it’s time to get back to your knitting and figure out how you’re going to get the company making money.” Nor does he overstate the extent of Commodore’s turnaround, much less take full credit for it, characterizing it as “tremendous improvement, but not an acceptable performance.” It seems hard to believe that Gould could be petty enough to object to such an interview as this one. But at least one more piece of circumstantial evidence exists that he did: Commodore Magazine‘s longtime editor Diane LeBold was forced out of the company on Rattigan’s heels, along with other real or perceived Rattigan loyalists. It made for one hell of a way to run a company.

True to form of being less of a pushover than Gould’s other executive lapdogs, Rattigan soon filed suit against Commodore for $9 million, for terminating his five-year employment contract four years early for no good reason. Commodore promptly counter-sued for $24 million, the whole ugly episode overshadowing the actual arrival of the Amiga 500 and 2000 in stores. After some five years of court battles, Rattigan would finally be awarded his $9 million — yes, every bit of it — just at a time when everything was starting to go sideways for Commodore and they could least afford to pay him.

With Rattigan now out of the picture — Gould had had him escorted off the campus by security guards, no less — Gould announced that he would be taking personal charge of day-to-day operations, a move that filled no one at the company other than his hand-picked circle of sycophants with any joy. But then, for Gould day-to-day oversight meant something different than it did for most people. He continued to live the lifestyle of the jet-setting super-rich, traveling the world — reportedly largely to dodge taxes — and conducting business, to whatever extent he did, by phone. Thus Commodore was not only under a cloud of rumor and gossip at this critical moment when these two critical new machines were being introduced, but they were also leaderless, their executive wings gutted and reeling from Gould’s purge and their ostensible new master who knew where. There was, needless to say, not much in the way of concerted promotion or messaging as the months marched on toward Christmas 1987, the big test of the Amiga 500.

While it didn’t abjectly fail that test, it didn’t really skate through with honors either. On the one hand, Amigas were selling again, and in better numbers than ever before. The narrative of the Amiga as a flop that was soon to be an orphan began to fade, and companies like Electronic Arts began to return to the platform, if not always as a target for first-run games at least as a consistent target for ports. WordPerfect even ported their industry-standard word processor to the Amiga. But on the other hand, the Amiga certainly wasn’t going to become a household name like the 64 anytime soon at this rate. In addition to the nearly complete lack of Commodore advertising, distribution remained a huge problem. Many people who might have found the Amiga very interesting literally never knew it existed, never saw an advertisement and never saw it in a store. Jack Tramiel’s decision to dump the 64 into mass-market channels like Sears and Toys “R” Us had been a breaking of his own word and a flagrant betrayal of his loyal dealers from which Commodore’s reputation had never entirely recovered. Yet it had also been key to the machine’s success; the 64 was available absolutely everywhere during its heyday, an inescapable presence to tempt plenty of people who would never think to walk into a dedicated computer store. Now, though, having laboriously and with very mixed results struggled to rebuild the dealer network that Tramiel had demolished, Commodore refused to do the same with the Amiga 500, even after some of those dealers had started to whisper through back channels that, really, it might be okay to offer some 500s through the mass market in the name of increasing brand awareness and corralling some new users who would quite likely end up coming to them for further hardware, software, and support anyway. But it didn’t happen, not in 1987, 1988, or the bulk of 1989.

The Amiga thus came to occupy an odd position on the American computing scene of the late 1980s, not quite a failure but never quite a full-fledged success either. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride; the talented actor never quite able to find her breakout role; pick your metaphor. Commodore blundered along, going through more of Irving Gould’s sock-puppet executives in the process. Max Toy, unfortunately named in light of the image that Commodore was still trying to shake, took over in October of 1987, to be replaced by Harold Copperman in July of 1989. Meanwhile the two Amiga models settled fairly comfortably into their roles.

Video production became the 2000’s particular strong suit. Amigas were soon regular workhorses on television series like Amazing Stories, Max Headroom, Lingo; on films like Prince of Darkness, Not Quite Human, Into the Homeland; on lots of commercials. If most of this stuff wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of cinematic art, it was certainly more Hollywood work than any other consumer-grade PC was getting. More important, and more inspiring, were the 2000s that found homes in small local newsrooms, on cable-access shows, and in small one- or two-person video-production studios. Just as the Macintosh had helped to democratize the means of production on paper via desktop publishing, the Amiga was now doing the same for the medium of video, complete with a new buzzword for the age: “desktop video.”

The strong suit of the Amiga 500, of course, was games. At first blush, the Amiga might seem a hard sell to game publishers. Even in 1988, after the 500 and 2000 had had some time to turn things around for the platform, a hit Amiga game might sell only 20,000 copies; a major blockbuster by the platform’s terms, 50,000. The installed base still wasn’t big enough to support much bigger numbers than these. An only modestly successful MS-DOS game, by contrast, might sell 50,000 copies, while some titles had reportedly hit 500,000 copies on the Commodore 64 alone. Yet, despite the raw numbers, many publishers discovered that the Amiga carried with it a sort of halo effect. Everyone seriously into computer games knew which platform had the best graphics and sound, which platform had the best games, even if some were reluctant to admit it openly. Publishers found that an Amiga game down-ported to other platforms carried with it a certain cachet inherited from its original version. Cinemaware, the premiere Amiga game developer and later publisher in North America, used the Amiga’s halo effect to particularly good commercial effect. All of their big releases were born, bred, and released first on the Amiga. They found that it made good commercial sense to do so, even if they ultimately sold far more copies to MS-DOS and Commodore 64 owners. While it’s true that Cinemaware could never have survived if the Amiga had been the only platform for which they made games, neither could they have made a name for themselves in the first place if the Amiga versions of their games hadn’t existed. Some of the same triangulations held sway, albeit to a lesser extent, among other publishers.

All told, the last three years of the 1980s were, relatively speaking, the best the Amiga would ever enjoy in North America. By the end of that period, with the 64 at last fading into obsolescence, the Amiga could boast of being the number two platform, behind only MS-DOS, for computer games in North America — a distant second, granted, but second nevertheless — while Commodore stood as the number three maker of PCs in North America in terms of units sold, behind only IBM and Apple. And Commodore was actually making money for most of this period, which was by no means always such a sure thing in other periods. But perhaps more important than numbers and marketshare was the sense of optimism. Every month seemed to bring some breakthrough program or technology, while every Christmas brought the hope that this would be the one where the Amiga finally broke into the public consciousness in a big way. To continue to be an Amiga loyalist in later years would require one to embrace Murphy’s Law as a life’s creed if one didn’t want to be positively smothered under all of the constant disappointments and broken promises that could make the platform seem cursed by some malicious higher power. But in these early, innocent times everything still seemed so possible, if only there would come the right advertising campaign, the right change in management at Commodore, the right hardware improvements.

But, ah, Commodore’s management… there lay the rub, even during these good years. Amiga owners watched with concern and then alarm as Apple and the makers of MS-DOS machines alike steadily improved their offerings whilst Commodore did nothing. In 1987, Apple debuted the Macintosh II, their first color model, with a palette of millions of colors to the Amiga’s 4096 and a hot new 16 MHz 68020 CPU inside. Yes, it cost several times the price of even the professional-grade Amiga 2000, and yes, 68020 or no, the Amiga could still smoke it for many animation tasks thanks to its custom chips. But then, even Apple’s prices always came down over time, and everyone knew that their hardware would only continue to improve. That same year, IBM introduced their new PS/2 line, and with it the new VGA graphics standard with about 262,000 colors on offer. More caveats applied, as Amiga fans were all too quick to point out, but the fact remained that the competition was improving by leaps and bounds while Commodore remained wedded to the same core chipset that they had purchased back in 1984. The Amiga 1000 had been a generation ahead of anything else on the market at the time of its release, but, unfortunately, generations aren’t so long in the world of computers. Gould and his cronies seemed unconcerned about or, still more damningly, blissfully unaware of the competition that was beginning to match and surpass the Amiga in various ways. In 1989, IBM spent 10.9 percent of their gross revenue on R&D, Apple 6.7 percent. And Commodore? 1.7 percent. The one area where Commodore did rank among the biggest spenders in the industry was in executive compensation, particularly the salary of one Irving Gould.


For the 1989 Christmas season, Commodore launched what would prove to be their first and last major mainstream advertising campaign for the Amiga 500. The $20 million campaign featured television spots produced by no less leading lights than Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and George Lucas’s Lucasfilm. The slogan was “Amiga: The Computer for the Creative Mind.” The most lavish of the spots featured cameos by a baffling grab bag of minor celebrities, including Tommy Lasorda, Tip O’Neill, the Pointer Sisters, Burt Bacharach, Little Richard, and astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Gordon Cooper, and Scott Carpenter. Commodore’s advertising agency announced confidently that 92 percent of Americans would see an Amiga commercial an average of twenty times during November and December. Commodore would even begin selling 500s through mass-market merchandisers at last, albeit in a limited way, going through Sears and Service Merchandise alone. The campaign was hyped in the Amiga press as a last all-out effort to make that ever-elusive big breakthrough in North America. Sure, it was something they really needed to have done back in 1987, when the 500 first debuted, but at least they were doing it now. That was something, right? Right? In the end, it proved a heartbreaker of the sort with which Amiga fans would grow all too familiar over the years to come: it had no appreciable effect whatsoever. And with that Commodore slipped out of the mainstream American consciousness along with the decade with which their computers would always be identified.

The next year the first of a new generation of unprecedentedly ambitious games arrived — games like Wing Commander, Ultima VI, Railroad Tycoon — that looked, sounded, and played better on MS-DOS machines than they did on Amigas, thanks to the ever-improving graphics cards, sound cards, and new 32-bit 80386 processors in those heretofore bland beige boxes. Cinemaware that same year released Wings, the last of their big Amiga showcases, and then quietly died. The Amiga’s halo effect was no more. Just like that, an era ended.

And yet… well, here’s where things get a little confusing. As the Amiga was drying up as a gaming platform in North America, it was in many ways just getting started in Europe, with most of the classics still to come. Let’s rewind and try to understand how this parallel history came to be.

Commodore had always been extremely strong in Europe, going all the way back to their days as a maker of calculators. Their first full-fledged computer, the PET, had been little more than a blip on the radar in North America in comparison to its competitors the Radio Shack TRS-80 and the Apple II, yet it had fostered a successful and respected line of business computers across the pond. Commodore’s most consistently strong markets then would also prove the strongest of their twilight years: Britain and, especially, West Germany. Both operations were granted much more autonomy than the North American operation, and were staffed by smart people who were much better at selling Commodore’s American computers than Commodore’s Americans were. Germans in particular developed a special affinity for the Commodore brand, one that was virtually free of the home-computer/business-computer dichotomy that Commodore twisted themselves into knots trying to navigate in the United States. In Germany a good home computer was simply a good home computer, and if the same company happened to offer a good business computer, well, that was fine too.

batmanpack

When Commodore’s European leadership looked to the new Amiga 500, they saw a machine sufficient to make the traditional videogame demographic of teenage boys, who were currently snatching up Commodore 64s and Sinclair Spectrums, positively salivate. They unapologetically marketed it on that basis. Knowing what their buyers really wanted the machine for, they quite early on took to bundling together special packages, usually just in time for Christmas, that combined a 500 with a few of the latest hot games. A particular home run was 1989’s so-called “Batman Pack,” which included the game based on the hit Batman movie, a fresh new arcade conversion called The New Zealand Story, the graphically stunning casual flight simulator F/A-18 Interceptor, and, since this was an Amiga after all, the platform’s signature application, Deluxe Paint II. Deluxe Paint aside, there was no talk of video production or productivity of any other stripe, no mention of the Amiga’s groundbreaking multitasking operating system, no navel-gazing discussions of the platform’s place in the multimedia zeitgeist. Teenage boys didn’t want any of that. What they wanted was great games with great graphics, and that’s exactly what Commodore’s European operations gave them. You were just buying a fun computer, a game machine, so you didn’t need to go through a dealer. From the beginning, the Amiga 500 was widely available at all of the glossy electronics stores on European High Streets. The West German operation went even further: they started selling Amigas through grocery stores. Buy an Amiga 500, hook it up to a television, pop in a disk, turn it on, and start playing.

The British and especially the Germans took to the Amiga 500 in numbers that Commodore’s North American executives could only dream of. By early 1988, Commodore could announce that they had sold 500,000 Amigas worldwide, a strong turnaround for a marquee that had been all but left for dead a year before. A rather astonishing 200,000 of those machines, 40 percent of the total, had been sold in West Germany alone; Britain accounted for another 70,000. Even now, with the Christmas season behind them, Commodore West Germany was selling a steady 4000 Amiga 500s every week. A few months later came the simultaneously impressive and depressing news that the total market for Amiga hardware and software in West Germany (population 60 million) was now worth more than that for the United States (population 240 million). And where Germany led, the rest of Europe followed. Eighteen months later, with worldwide Amiga sales closing in on 1.5 million, it was the number one gaming computer in Europe, a position it would continue to enjoy for several years to come. Just about to begin its fade from prominence as a game machine in the United States, in Europe the Amiga’s best years and best games were still in front of it, as bedroom coders learned to coax performance out of the hardware of which its designers could hardly have conceived. The old Boing demo, once so stunning that crowds of trade-show attendees had peeked suspiciously under tables looking for the workstation-class machine that was really generating that animation, already looked singularly unimpressive. The story of the Amiga 500 in Europe was, in other words, the story of the Commodore 64 happening all over again. Commodore was now making the vast majority of their money in Europe, the North American operation a perpetual weak sister.

When journalists for the Amiga trade press in North America visited Europe, they were astounded. Here was the mainstream saturation that they had only been able to fantasize about back home. A report from a correspondent visiting a typical department store in Cologne must have read to American readers like a dispatch from Wonderland.

I came across a computerized book listing that was running on an Amiga 500. As I approached the computer department, I was greeted by a stack of Amiga 500s. I could not believe the assortment of Amiga titles on the book rack (hardcover ones, too!). I found two aisles full of Amiga software, consisting mostly of games. The Amiga selection was more than that of any other computer.

In a sense, it was just a reversion to the status quo. After all, prior to the introduction of the VIC-20 in 1981, Commodore’s income had been similarly unevenly distributed between the continents. Seen in this light, it’s the high times of the 1980s that are the anomaly, when American buyers flocked to the VIC-20 and the 64 and for a time made what had always been fundamentally a European brand — although, paradoxically, a European brand engineered and steered from the United States — into an intercontinental phenomenon. Not that that was of much comfort to the succession of executives who came and went from Irving Gould’s hotseat, fired one after another for their failure to make North American sales look as good as European sales.

But I did promise you 68000 Wars in the title of this article, didn’t it? So where, you might well be wondering, was the Amiga’s arch-rival the Atari ST in all this? Well, in North America it was a fairly negligible factor, although Atari would continue to sell their machine there almost as long as Commodore would the Amiga. The hype around the ST had dissipated quickly with the revelation in late 1986 that Atari really wasn’t selling anywhere near as many of them as Jack Tramiel liked to let on, and the Amiga 500, so obviously audiovisually superior and now much closer in price, soon proved a deadly foe indeed. The ST retained its small legion of loyal users: desktop publishers unwilling to splurge on a Macintosh, who took full advantage of its rock-solid monochrome high-resolution screen and Atari’s inexpensive laser printer, thereby truly making the ST live up to its old “Jackintosh” nickname; musicians, both amateur and professional, who loved its built-in MIDI port; programmers and hardware hackers who favored its simple, straightforward design over the Amiga’s more baroque approach; people who needed lots and lots of memory for one reason for another, on which terms Atari always offered the best deal in town (they released 2 MB and 4 MB ST models as early as 1987, when figures like that were all but inconceivable); inveterate Commodore haters and/or Atari lovers who bought it for the badge on its front. Still, there was little doubt which platform had won the 68000 Wars in North America. In the wake of the Amiga 500’s release, Atari began increasingly to turn to other ways of making money: buying the Federated chain of consumer-electronics stores; capitalizing on nostalgia for the glory days of the Atari VCS by continuing to sell both the old hardware and the cartridges to run on it; wresting away from Epyx a handheld gaming machine, the first of its kind, that was ironically designed by members of the old Amiga, Incorporated, team. When all else failed, there was always Jack Tramiel’s old hobby of lawsuits, of which he launched quite a few, most notably against the former owners of Federated for overstating their company’s value and against the new kid on the block in console gaming, Nintendo, for their alleged anti-competitive practices.

In Europe, the ST also came out second best to the Amiga, but the race was a much closer one for a while. Along with their love for all things Commodore, Germans found that they could also make room in their hearts for the Atari ST. It found a home in many German markets it never came close to cracking in the United States, being regarded as a perfectly respectable business computer there for quite some time. It also continued to do fairly well with gamers, thanks to Atari’s pricing strategies that always seemed to keep its low-end model just that little bit cheaper than the Amiga 500, enough to be a difference-maker for some buyers. When the Amiga became the biggest gaming computer in Europe, it was the Atari ST that slipped into the second spot. It would take the much more expensive MS-DOS machines some years yet to overtake these two 68000-based rivals. The economic chaos brought on by the reunification of West and East Germany, which caused many consumers there to tighten their wallets, only helped their cause, as did the millions of new price-conscious buyers who were suddenly scrambling for a piece of that Western computing action following the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The story of the Amiga, and to some extent also that of the ST, is often framed as a narrative of frustration, of brilliance that never got its due. There are some good reasons for that, but it can also be a myopic, America-centric view, ignoring as it does a veritable generation of youngsters on the other side of the Atlantic who grew up knowing these two platforms very well indeed. When I was writing my book about the Amiga, I couldn’t help but note the markedly different responses I got from friends in Europe and the United States when I told them about the project. Most Americans have no idea what an Amiga is (“Omega?”); most Europeans of a certain age remember it all too well, flashing me smiles redolent of nostalgia for afternoons spent before the television with their mates, when the summer seemed endless and the possibilities limitless. Instead of lamenting might-have-beens too much more, I expect to spend quite some articles over the next few years talking about the Amiga’s innovations and successes — and, yes, I’ll also have more to say about the Amiga’s perpetually overlooked little frenemy the Atari ST as well. Whether you grew up with one of these machines or you too aren’t quite sure yet what to make of this whole “Omega” thing, I hope you’ll stick around. Some amazing stuff is in store.

(Sources: Invaluable as always for these articles was Brian Bagnall’s book On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore. I can’t wait for the better, longer version. The long-running “Roomers” column in Amazing Computing is my go-to source for a month-by-month chronology of developments on the Amiga scene, and the source of most of the nit-picky factoids in this article. The issues of Amazing used include: March 1987, June 1987, July 1987, August 1987, October 1987, November 1987, December 1987, February 1988, April 1988, May 1988, June 1988, July 1988, August 1988, September 1988, November 1988, December 1988, January 1989, February 1989, March 1989, April 1989, May 1989, June 1989, July 1989, August 1989, September 1989, October 1989, November 1989, December 1989, January 1990, April 1990, May 1990, June 1990, February 1991, March 1991, April 1991, May 1991, December 1991. Commodore Magazine‘s fateful interview with Thomas Rattigan appeared in the May 1987 issue. Other sources include Retro Gamer 39 and of course my own book The Future Was Here. Hey, it’s not every day a writer gets to cite himself…)

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A New Force in Games, Part 3: SCUMM

Maniac Mansion

As part of a general rearranging of the deck chairs at Lucasfilm in late 1985, the Games Group got moved from their nondescript offices in San Rafael to nearby Skywalker Ranch, the “filmmaker’s retreat” at the very heart of George Lucas’s empire. They were housed in an ornate structure of Victorian brick called the Stable House, with crackling fireplaces in almost every room. Later, old-timers would tell newcomers stories of the Games Group’s time at Skywalker Ranch, which would last for just a few years, like legends from before the Fall: catching a sneak preview of a new David Lynch film in the company of Lynch himself in the Ranch’s beautiful 300-seat art-deco theater; hanging out on a regular basis with Steven Spielberg, who wanted to play everything the Games Group had in development every time he stopped by, sometimes for hours at a stretch; playing softball on the Ranch’s gorgeously manicured field with rock star Huey Lewis; hiking up to the observatory after a long day at the office to do another sort of stargazing; eating gourmet lunches every day at the Ranch’s restaurant for $5 a pop. They might not have been able to make Star Wars games, but they could surround themselves with its trappings: when first moving in, they were given a chance to rummage through an enormous warehouse full of old props and concept art for office decorations. It’s questionable whether any other game studio, ever, has worked in quite such a nerd Elysium.

Continuing to blow through Skywalker Ranch as they had San Rafael, however, were winds of change that had been steadily altering Lucasfilm’s expectations of their little Games Group. As the middle years of the decade wore on, the company was becoming a very different place from what it had been during the free-and-easy early 1980s, when money seemed to flow like water. Lucasfilm’s financial outlook had changed almost overnight in 1983 when, even as Return of the Jedi was doing the expected huge numbers in theaters, George Lucas announced that he and his wife Marcia were getting a divorce. An accomplished film editor in her own right, Marcia had been a huge contributor to the Star Wars movies, especially the first, for which she’d won an Oscar — something her ex-husband has never managed — for her editing work. Now her divorce settlement would cost Lucasfilm big, to the tune of $50 to $100 million (precise estimates vary). Lucasfilm’s financial advisers were able to convince her to take her settlement as a series of payments spread over years rather than the lump sum the initial agreement demanded, but those payments nevertheless put a tremendous drain on the company’s finances.

And soon the other side of the ledger, that of incoming earnings, also began to diminish. George Lucas had long since declared that Star Wars was to be but a single trilogy of films, that there would be no more after Return of the Jedi. The lack of new films inevitably meant not just the loss of box-office receipts but also diminished sales of the toys and other merchandise that had always been the franchise’s biggest cash cow. Meanwhile the Indiana Jones series, which had turned into almost as successful a franchise as Star Wars, fell into a five-year hiatus after 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Filling that gap for Lucasfilm were a series of middling disappointments — Labyrinth, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Willow, some almost perversely low-stakes Star Wars television programs featuring R2-D2 and C-3PO and, God help us, the Ewoks — and at least one outright bomb big enough to have become a punchline for the ages in Howard the Duck. It seemed that Lucas, who could do no wrong in the eleven years between American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple Doom, had suddenly seen his Midas Touch desert him.

Never much of a manager and certainly not a numbers guy, Lucas hired a no-nonsense sort named Doug Norby to become Lucasfilm’s president in 1985. “Do what you have to do,” he told him, “and I’m just going to stay out of it.” Norby declared that there needed to be a culture change. Every division would now be expected to justify their existence by earning money for the company rather than costing it money. Those who couldn’t see a way to do so would get the axe. Ditto individual personnel within departments that had become too bloated; Norby orchestrated the first significant wave of layoffs ever to sweep over Lucasfilm. As the conflict-averse Lucas had likely intended, Norby was blamed for all of the pain and chaos, became for some time the most hated name at Lucasfilm, while Lucas himself was largely given a pass, as if he somehow didn’t know about the changes underway in his own namesake company.

As part of the restructuring, it was decided that Lucasfilm would now engage in only two specific lines of business: providing production services to the film industry (Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound) and making mass-market entertainments. The old Computer Graphics Group that had awkwardly spawned the Games Group still hadn’t really proved themselves to belong in the former category, while the Games Group, at least if you squinted just right, pretty much did belong in the latter. Thus, while the Games Group got to remain at Lucasfilm, the Graphics Group in February of 1986 was spun off to a collection of investors that included many of their own current personnel as well as, as ringmaster of the whole proceeding, Steve Jobs, recently exiled from Apple. The old Graphics Group was now known as Pixar, selling a $135,000 graphics workstation which they had developed during their years with Lucasfilm. Most of the rest of Lucasfilm’s computer-oriented research was either cancelled outright or similarly packaged up and sold off. (Most notably, Lucasfim’s EditDroid digital-editing project became an independent company called Droid Works).

Soon the old Games Group represented the only significant hacker presence left at Lucasfilm. It was during this period of colossal change that George Lucas took rare personal notice of Games for long enough to deliver his most oft-quoted piece of advice to Steve Arnold: “Stay small, be the best, don’t lose any money.” This commandment has often been taken to represent a sort of creative carte blanche for Arnold and his charges. Taken in the context in which it was uttered, however, it’s probably better seen as a warning. The Games Group was free to continue to trade on the Lucasfilm name and enjoy their gourmet lunches at the company cafeteria, but they’d have to start paying their own way from here on. Should they fail at that, their rope would not be a long one, for Lucas had little personal investment in their work.

Given this situation, when Lucasfilm’s brass decided to throw the Games Group a bone in the form of an actual piece of intellectual property with which to work Arnold certainly didn’t turn up his nose at the prospect. It wasn’t Star Wars or even Indiana Jones, but it was a much-anticipated film called Labyrinth, a fantasy adventure directed by Jim Henson and starring David Bowie that was to be released in the summer of 1986. Beginning in November of 1985, Arnold poured most of his resources into the project, Lucasfilm Games’s first adventure game. The Henson connection secured the involvement of Christopher Cerf, a Sesame Street stalwart and all-around Renaissance man of the arts who seemed to know everyone and be involved with everything in the world of entertainment. Cerf was a good friend of Douglas Adams, a frequent guest at his legendary gala dinner parties; it had in fact been Cerf who had largely brokered the deal with Infocom that had led to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy computer game. In January much of the Games Group flew to London for an intense week of consultation with Henson, Cerf, and their buddy Adams.

Labyrinth

Labyrinth had been conceived from the beginning as a graphic adventure, a genre that was just beginning to emerge from the primordial muck thanks largely to the work of Sierra and ICOM Simulations. It was Adams who suggested the game’s brilliant cold open: it begins as an ordinary text adventure, and not a very good one at that, until you arrive at a cinema and get sucked into the movie playing there by a pixelated David Bowie. It’s a ludic version of that iconic moment in The Wizard of Oz when the film suddenly shifts from black and white to color. Some of his other subversive touches, playing as he loved to do with the artificiality of the medium itself, weren’t so easily implemented. The team particularly lamented that they wouldn’t be able to use Adams’s idea for a film-editing room found in the game. He suggested that you should be able to view the scraps of film to see snippets of your own previous adventures, maybe even forgotten tributaries down which you’d wandered before restoring the game to its current state. Alas, something like that just wasn’t going to happen on the likes of a Commodore 64.

Not really a bad game but also not quite a fully baked one, Labyrinth would prove to be something of a steppingstone on the way to a grand tradition of Lucasfilm adventure games still to come. Your character can be moved about using the joystick, but other commands must be constructed rather awkwardly, by using the arrow keys to cycle through two separate lists, one of available verbs and one of nouns. Notably, when a verb is selected the list of nouns is limited to only those which logically apply, thus making it at least theoretically impossible to construct a completely nonsensical “sentence.” Driving much of the design was a philosophy that adventure games should be friendlier, less tedious, and much less deadly than was the norm from competitors like Sierra. It is, for instance, almost impossible to get yourself killed in Labyrinth, and David Fox noted in contemporaneous interviews how he had strained to “eliminate the dead-end or ‘insoluble’ situation.” In years to come Lucasfilm Games would virtually define themselves in opposition to what they saw as the Bad Old Way of doing adventure games, as particularly personified by the games of Sierra. It’s an idea that would take some experience and some technology upgrades to reach complete fruition, but it’s interesting to note that it was present right from the beginning.

Note the "slot-machine" verb-noun selector at the bottom of the screen.

Labyrinth. Note the “slot-machine” verb-noun selector at the bottom of the screen.

Released in June of 1986, the movie version of Labyrinth thoroughly underwhelmed by the standards of an expensive would-be blockbuster, spending just one week inside the top ten in the United States and garnering mixed (at best) reviews. The odor of a flop inevitably clung to the game as well when it was released two months later. Despite lots of advertising and the usual free publicity garnered from journalists eager to come out to Skywalker Ranch and bask in the aura of Star Wars, it became on the whole a commercial disappointment. This was now becoming a depressingly common theme for the Games Group. They were perilously close to violating that last and most important of Lucas’s commandments.

Their savior would come from a much smaller, quieter project than the big Labyrinth tie-in — indeed, a project from which Steve Arnold seemed to have no real expectations at all. Its father had himself been heretofore one of the less noticeable employees of the Games Group, a friendly, unassuming fellow with a wry sense of humor and a great aptitude for programming. His name was Ron Gilbert, and he was motivated by that most compelling of all workplace impulses: he was just trying not to get fired.

Born in 1964 in the rural Oregon town of La Grande, Gilbert had been programming since 1977, when his father brought home the family’s first Texas Instruments programmable calculator. Soon after starting at his hometown Eastern Oregon State College in 1982, he bought his first Commodore 64, and immediately discovered one of that machine’s most conspicuous weaknesses: its BASIC interpreter had no support whatsoever for the very graphics and sound capabilities that made the 64 so special. Working with a buddy named Tom McFarlane, he developed a BASIC extension called Graphics BASIC to change all that, adding over a hundred new commands to the language. It was impressive enough that they were able to sell it to HESWare, one of the biggest publishers in software at the time. In fact, HESWare was so impressed with Gilbert personally that they offered him a full-time job as an in-house programmer. So, he dropped out of university to move to Brisbane, California.

It didn’t work out. HESWare turned out to be a flash in the pan that had made a ton of unwise financial decisions in their eagerness to rule the software roost. Within months of Gilbert’s arrival the company collapsed, well before releasing anything he had worked on. He was forced to return sheepishly to La Grande to contemplate re-enrolling at Eastern Oregon — luckily, his dad was the president there — and getting back to the real world of adult employment; maybe he could get a job as a programmer at a bank or something. Then, one day in October of 1984, the telephone rang just as he was leaving the house. Prompted by he wasn’t quite sure what, he decided to rush back inside and answer it. It was Steve Arnold from Lucasfilm Games. He and his colleagues had seen Graphics BASIC and heard about Gilbert’s talents through the grapevine, Arnold explained. They needed someone to help port their games, which had been originally developed for Atari 8-bit machines, to the Commodore 64. Would he be willing to come down to San Rafael to talk about a possible contract? Like most prospective employees Arnold spoke to, Gilbert didn’t have to think twice when the company behind Star Wars came calling. It was just an interview, and for a contract position at that, but he nevertheless packed all of his possessions into his 280Z and took off for California. He had no intention of coming back.

He didn’t need to; he got the job. Still, as a contractor rather than a regular employee he was left perpetually uncertain about how long he’d get to live the dream. His anxiety only increased after the Commodore 64 versions of the Games Group’s modest early catalog of four action games were all pretty much complete and nobody seemed to be giving him any clear information about what he was expected to do next. Working with a couple of the other guys, he came up with a fanciful game proposal for Arnold’s bulging ideas file: I Was a Teenage Lobot, a “science-fiction role-playing strategy adventure game.” (Better check again, guys; I think you may have missed a genre or two.) But then the big Labyrinth project came along, depriving him of his would-be partners. Ominously, Gilbert was one of the few people in the Games Group not earmarked to that game.

Whether Steve Arnold was really snubbing him or whether he saw something special in him and wanted to give him his own space to figure out for himself what that was is still an open question. What is clear is that Gilbert started toying with another idea to justify his existence there at Skywalker Ranch, involving a group of kids sent, Scooby-Doo-style, to explore a creepy old mansion.

Gilbert claims that he didn’t originally conceive of Maniac Mansion as an adventure game at all, perhaps because one of its central conceits had rarely been done in an adventure game before. From the beginning, he was determined that you should be able to control several kids rather than just one, each of whom would have her own personality and abilities. Much of the gameplay would hinge on coordinating the kids’ actions to achieve things none of them could manage on her own. And that was pretty much the whole idea; just about everything else about the design seemed to be up in the air. But then, visiting home for the Christmas of 1985, he saw his eight-year-old cousin obsessively playing Sierra’s King’s Quest. Gilbert loved the graphics, but didn’t care for Roberta Williams’s death-heavy philosophy of game design any more than he did for Sierra’s primitive parser, which made a particularly poor fit with a game that was otherwise so graphics-oriented. He decided that he wanted to do an adventure game “because I hate adventure games,” because he wanted to show the world how they could be so much better.

I hated that you died all the time. You’d be walking along and you would step somewhere and out of the blue you would die. That just seemed frustrating to me. I think a lot of designers must think that’s fun. But it’s not. It’s horrible.

And too often the game devolved into what Gilbert calls “second-guess the parser”:

You would see a bush on the screen, and you’d type, “Pick up bush,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘bush’ is.” Then you’d type, “Pick up plant,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘plant’ is.” Then you’d type, “Pick up shrubbery,” and it would say, “I don’t know what a ‘shrubbery’ is.” Pretty soon you’d type, “Fuck you,” and it would say, “I don’t understand what ‘fuck’ is.”

So, I’m looking at this bush or plant or shrub and I cannot figure out the word that the game designer is using for it. That’s very frustrating because I can see it right on the screen. Why can’t I just click on it?

And the next logical step is: if I can just click on objects on the screen, why can’t I just click on verbs as well? Really, despite what the marketing departments and the backs of the boxes were telling us, these games only understood a very small number of verbs.

Beginning from textual lists of verbs and nouns much like the interface of Labyrinth, Maniac Mansion evolved into a much more intuitive experience: a clickable list of verbs at the bottom of the screen, which can be combined with hotspots in the pictures proper to build commands. In its day it was simply the best, most elegant interface for graphical adventuring yet devised. One might call it a combination of the best traits of the two most prominent systems for graphic adventuring already extant at the time: Sierra’s AGI games that debuted with King’s Quest and the ICOM Simulations line of adventures that began with Déjà Vu. Like the former, you can see your avatar (or avatars in this case) and move them about onscreen, but like the latter you don’t have to wrestle with a parser, being able instead to simply click on verbs and objects in your inventory or in the environment proper to construct commands. It’s afflicted with neither the perpetual disconnect between textual parser and graphical worldview that can make the AGI games so frustrating nor the cluttered, cramped feel of ICOM’s overly baroque interface. Maniac Mansion would prove to be by far the most graphical graphical adventure of its time, willing to do most of its storytelling through visuals and the occasional well-chosen sound effect rather than the big text dumps that mark the Sierra and ICOM games. Tellingly, it devotes exactly one line of the screen to text messages.

On the job in Maniac Mansion. Note the selectable list of verbs (including the immortal "New Kid") and the character's inventory below.

On the job in Maniac Mansion. Note the selectable list of verbs (including the immortal “New Kid”) and the character’s inventory below.

Gilbert found a great supporter of his budding adventure game in Gary Winnick, the Games Group’s indefatigable visual artist. In between contributing much of the art found in both Labyrinth and Habitat, Winnick found time to brainstorm Maniac Mansion and to create heaps of sample art. Yet progress was painfully slow. Gilbert was trying to build Maniac Mansion in the same way that Labyrinth was being built, by coding it from scratch in pure assembly language. Problem was, he was trying to do it alone. As 1986’s midpoint approached, Steve Arnold was getting noticeably annoyed at his apparent lack of productivity and Gilbert was surer than ever that he would be sent back to La Grande any day now.

It was at this juncture that Chip Morningstar made the suggestion that would change the direction of Lucasfilm Games forever. Why didn’t he devise a high-level scripting language that could be compiled on the Games Group’s big Unix workstations, then run on the Commodore 64 itself via an interpreter? Morningstar even took the time to help him design the language, a sort of cut-down version of some of the tools he and Randall Farmer were using to build the virtual world of Habitat, and to write the first compiler. SCUMM — the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion — was born.

It wasn’t precisely a new idea, but it was vastly complicated by the need a graphic adventure like Maniac Mansion had to do many things concurrently, in real time. Many different “scripts” would need to run at the same time, forcing Gilbert to code what amounted to a multitasking kernel for the whole system on the little Commodore 64. Even with Morningstar’s help, it took Gilbert a full six months to get the SCUMM system up and running. Meanwhile Gary Winnick’s art continued to pile up, looking for a home, and Gilbert continued to tremble every time Steve Arnold looked his way. At last at the end of 1986 SCUMM was complete enough that he could return to the game proper. Arnold, evidently beginning to feel that his work had real potential, allowed David Fox to join him as a SCUMM scripter. Winnick as well was now working virtually full-time on the project, contributing not only all of the art but also major swathes of design and story.

Gilbert credits SCUMM and the relative ease with which it let the programmer script interactions for making the world of the finished Maniac Mansion much more interactive and alive than it could otherwise have been. Not least amongst the little gags and Easter eggs SCUMM facilitated was a certain soon-to-be-infamous hamster-in-a-microwave bit. Gilbert insists that it was actually Fox and Winnick who came up with and implemented this particular piece of tasteless humor, so angry missives should be directed their way rather than to him.


Winnick drew the kids you control and the other characters that inhabit the mansion like bobblehead dolls, heads out of all proportion to their bodies, to make sure their personalities came across despite the low screen resolution of the Commodore 64. He had already used the same technique in both Labyrinth and Habitat and would continue to do so for some time to come; it would become the most instantly recognizable graphical trait of early Lucasfilm adventure games. Gilbert’s original plan had called for the kids to literally be kids — children. Realizing, however, that no one wanted to see children endangered and potentially dispatched in gruesome ways, Gilbert and Winnick decided to make the kids teenagers, which made a better demographic fit anyway with the teenage players who were the biggest audience for computer games. They form a group of seven broad high-school archetypes, sketched with just a hint of a satirical edge, from amongst which you choose three to see you through the game. Bernard is an electronics buff, physics champion, and all-around nerd; Wendy is a prim and proper “aspiring novelist” who seems to have been born at age 40; Michael is Yearbook Guy at the school, an ace photographer; Jeff is a surfer dude who seems to have wandered into Maniac Mansion whilst looking for California Games; and, betraying perhaps a slight flagging of the creative muscles, both Sid and Razor are would-be rock stars (Sid’s a new waver, Razor a punk, for whatever that’s worth). And finally there’s Dave, a Good Kid of the sort who runs for Class President. He’s the leader of the group and the one kid you have to play with. It’s his girlfriend Sandy — a cheerleader, naturally — who’s been kidnapped by Dr. Fred, the creepy owner of the mansion, to feed to aliens. Some real people found themselves immortalized inside these archetypical shells: Razor’s look was based on Winnick’s girlfriend, Wendy on an accountant (what else?) at the office, Dave on Ron Gilbert himself. All of the kids have unique talents, some expected, some less so; clueless Jeff’s inexplicable hidden talent for fixing telephones is actually one of the funniest gags in the game. The idea was that any combination of kids should be capable of solving the game.

The kids. From left: Dave, Sid, Michael, Wendy, Bernard, Razor, and Jeff.

The kids. From left: Dave, Sid, Michael, Wendy, Bernard, Razor, and Jeff.

It was an idea that would cause Gilbert and Winnick no small amount of angst. Neither had ever designed an adventure game before, much less a knotty tapestry like this with its combinatorial explosion of protagonists, and their design document consisted of little more than a map of the mansion and a list of objects and the puzzles to which they applied. They desperately wanted to create an adventure game that would be more friendly and forgiving than the typical Sierra effort, but, inevitably, their lack of experience and planning and time, not to mention play-testing — the Games Group’s testing department consisted of exactly one guy sitting in front of a Commodore 64 with a pad of paper — led to a game fairly riddled with potential dead ends and unwinnable situations despite its designers’ best intentions. Gilbert, a great and much-needed advocate for fairness in adventure design, still castigates himself for that to this day.

Both Gilbert and Winnick were fans of knowingly schlocky B-grade horror movies like the then-recent Re-AnimatorManiac Mansion was conceived very much as an homage to the genre. The actual plot, of the mad scientist who owns the mansion attempting to tap the power of a mysterious meteorite that fell on his property, was inspired by one of the vignettes in Creepshow, an anthology of short horror films. Other references, like the man-eating plant lifted whole cloth from Little Shop of Horrors, are even more obvious. Still, it was going to have to be a much more family-friendly affair if it was to bear the Lucasfilm name. When Arnold demanded that all traces of swearing be removed from the game, Gilbert and Winnick did so only under duress, and to the tune of plenty of grumbling about “artistic vision” and the like. If you can tell me exactly why Dave has to call Bernard a “shithead” at the outset of the night, said Arnold, you can keep it. No one could. Gilbert says that the lesson thus imparted about the pointlessness of gratuitous profanity has stuck with him to this day.

Maniac Mansion

Better a tuna head than a shithead…

For the mansion itself, they a found a fecund source of inspiration very close to home indeed: the big neo-Victorian “Main House” at Skywalker Ranch. The spiral staircase inside the library in Maniac Mansion is lifted straight from the “filmmaker’s research library” in the Main House. In the game, the staircase has an “out of order” sign on it and cannot be climbed under any circumstances. This was a subtle inside joke: George Lucas’s personal office was on the balcony at the top of those stairs in the real house, and nobody was allowed to go up there without an invitation.

Skywalker Ranch

Maniac Mansion

Given that it was a game inspired largely by movies that was being developed at a movie studio, Gilbert wanted to give Maniac Mansion a cinematic flavor. He imagined little episodes that would “cut away” from the player’s current actions to advance the plot and show what the captive Sally, her captor Dr. Fred, and the other creepy inhabitants of the mansion were up to. He asked Arnold if there was a filmmaking term for this technique that he could employ. Arnold said that “cut scene” sounded more than good enough to him. Thus did a new term enter the gaming lexicon. Maniac Mansion was hardly the first game to employ them — there was Jordan Mechner’s 1984 classic Karateka and Sierra adventure games like Space Quest and even the old Ms. Pac-Man game in the arcades — but it had been left to Lucasfilm to finally give them a name. The concept was baked right into the SCUMM language, with a special kind of script called simply “cut-scene” that when triggered would automatically save the player’s state, play the cut scene as a little animated movie all its own, and then restore the player to control.


One ironic consequence of the cut scenes is to make the game harder in just the ways that Gilbert would have preferred to avoid. Most of them are triggered by simple timers. While some are just there for atmosphere or to convey information, others directly affect the state of the world, such as when a postman arrives with a package. There are often things you must do to react or to prepare for these dynamic events; failing to do so can lock you out of victory. Had anyone been paying attention, Infocom’s Ballyhoo had already pioneered a better way to advance the plot inside an adventure game, by tying events to the player’s progress rather than hard-coded timers. Like many such lessons, it would be learned only slowly by game designers, and largely by a process of reinventing the wheel at that. As it is, Maniac Mansion has some of the feel of the earlier Infocom mysteries, of needing to learn how to steer events just right over the course of multiple restores.

Shortly before the release of Labyrinth, Lucasfilm Games had severed their relationship with Epyx and moved on to Activision. It was thus under that company’s banner that Maniac Mansion made its public debut at the June 1987 Summer Consumer Electronics Show, host to so much of the last great wave of Commodore 64 software. Before Maniac Mansion could actually be released, however, Arnold made the huge decision to self-publish it under Lucasfilm’s own banner. Lucasfilm Games changed from being a mere developer to being an “affiliated publisher” of Activision, a status that gave them more independence and put their own name alone on their boxes but still gave them access to the larger company’s distribution network and other logistical support. Even with Activision’s support, publishing entailed engaging with entire facets of the software industry from which they’d always been happily insulated before. They learned a harsh lesson about the sensitivities of some Americans when Toys ‘R’ Us, one of the biggest Commodore 64 game retailers in the country, abruptly pulled the game off their shelves in response to a customer complaint. It seemed some old biddy had seen the tongue-in-cheek copy on the back of the box, which declared Maniac Mansion to be (amongst other things) a story of “love, lust, and power,” and had objected in no uncertain terms. Lucasfilm was forced to hurriedly redesign the box in order not to lose Toy ‘R’ Us forever.

Lucasfilm Games's Maniac Mansion advertisements took aim at "most story game designers" who "seem to think people love to get clobbered." Here's looking at you, Sierra.

Lucasfilm Games’s advertisements took aim at “most story game designers” who “seem to think people love to get clobbered.” I wonder which designers they’re talking about…

But it all worked out in the end. Coming out as it did with the Lucasfilm Games logo — and only the Lucasfilm Games logo — all over its box, Maniac Mansion proved a pivotal release for this little concern that, despite brilliant personnel and a name to die for, had struggled for years now to come up with a definitive commercial identity. One of the huge advantages of the SCUMM system was that it made porting games to new platforms relatively easy, just a matter of writing a new interpreter. Thus by 1988 Maniac Mansion could be bought in versions for the Amiga, Atari ST, Apple II, and MS-DOS in addition to the Commodore 64 original. In time it would even make its way to the Nintendo Entertainment System. (See Doug Crockford’s “The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion to learn of the hilarious lengths the Games Group had to go through to get it accepted by Nintendo’s censorious management regime, who made the Toys “R” Us lady look like a libertine.) While it never topped many sales charts, Maniac Mansion turned into a perennial back-catalog star, selling far more units when all was said and done than any game the Games Group had released before. Its continuing popularity was such that in 1990 it spawned a successful children’s television series, a claim to fame that very few games can boast. Such success enabled Lucasfilm Games at last to firmly plant their feet and adhere to Lucas’s dictum to “not lose any money” while they built upon the reputation it engendered for them. They were now known first and foremost as a maker of graphic adventure games, the yin to Sierra’s yang. They had traveled a long and winding road to get here, but it seemed they had finally found a calling.

Maniac Mansion’s intrinsic value as a game is often dismissed today in favor of its historical role as the urtext for the many much-loved SCUMM games that followed it. That, however, is a shame, for its charms as the best graphic adventure ever made for the Commodore 64 are real, varied, and considerable. Yes, it’s a bit of shaggy beast in contrast to those later Lucasfilm classics, but it’s also in many ways the most complex and interesting of any of them; no other SCUMM game boasts anything like its seven different playable characters, with all of the alternate storylines and solutions they bring with them.

Yet the most winning thing about Maniac Mansion is its personality, which is in turn a tribute to the personalities who created it. Gilbert and Winnick, one senses, want you to have a good time, want you to solve the game and then come back for more, trying on new combinations of characters for size. Thanks largely to the essential good faith and sense of fair play with which its authors approached it, Maniac Mansion is a game that’s hard to dislike, despite its occasional sins in the form of a puzzle or two that could have been clued slightly better and one really egregious example of hunt-the-hotspot (hint: check the library very carefully). Its puzzles are varied, usually logical in their wacky way, and always entertaining, and are given a wonderful added dimension by the need to coordinate two or sometimes even all three kids in far-flung corners of the mansion to solve some of the more intricate problems. (Interestingly, Level 9 in Britain was doing much the same thing during the same time period in the realm of text adventures.) One other thing that helps immeasurably is that the mansion is a relatively constrained environment, limiting the scope of possibility enough to keep things manageable. And of course it also helps that the game manages to evoke the sylvan atmosphere of a long teenage summer night so beautifully using the blunt instrument of 8-bit graphics and sound. Likeability, good faith, and good intentions will get you a long way, in games as in life, and talent doesn’t hurt one bit either. Thankfully, Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick, and their colleagues were possessed of all of the above in spades.

(Sources: the book Droidmaker by Michael Rubin; The Transactor of July 1986; The LucasArts Adventurer of Spring 1991; Commodore Magazine of June 1987 and November 1988; Computer and Video Games of December 1986; Retro Gamer 94 and 116. Ron Gilbert has a wealth of material on his own history on his website and his “Making of Maniac Mansion” presentation was also invaluable.

Feel free to download the Commodore 64 version of Maniac Mansion from here.)

 

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