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Games on the Net Before the Web, Part 3: The Persistent Multiplayer CRPG

Black Dragon, CompuServe’s first CRPG, was popular enough that the service sold tee-shirts.

The first CRPG to go online with CompuServe was also one of the first entirely original games to appear on the service, following the initial glut of institutional-computing refugees. Black Dragon, written by a programmer of telephone switching systems named Bob Maples, was at bottom a simplified version of Wizardry — not a hugely surprising state of affairs, given that it made its debut in 1981, at the height of the Wizardry craze. The player created a character — just one, not a full party as in Wizardry — and then began a series of expeditions into the game’s ten-level labyrinth, fighting monsters, collecting equipment and experience, and hopefully penetrating a little deeper with each outing. Only the character’s immediate surroundings were described on the scrolling, text-only display, so careful mapping became every bit as critical as it was in Wizardry. The ultimate goal, guaranteed to consume many hours — not to mention a small fortune in connection charges — was to kill Asmodeus, the black dragon of the title, who lurked down on the tenth level. Any player who managed to accomplish that feat and escape back to the surface was rewarded by seeing her name along with her character’s immortalized on the game’s public wall of fame.

Those bragging rights aside, Black Dragon had no multiplayer aspect at all, which might lead one to ask why its players didn’t just pick up a copy of Wizardry instead; doing so would certainly have been cheaper in the long run. But the fact is that not every CompuServe subscriber’s computer could run Wizardry in those early days. Certainly Black Dragon proved quite popular as the first CompuServe game of its kind. Sadly lost to history now, it has been described by some of its old players as far more cleverly designed than its bare-bones presentation and its willingness to unabashedly ride Wizardry‘s coattails might lead one to believe.

Black Dragon‘s success told Bill Louden, the “games guy” at CompuServe, that subscribers had a taste for this sort of experience. In 1982 a second, somewhat more sophisticated single-player CRPG went up. Known as Dungeons of Kesmai, it was, as the name would imply, another work of the indefatigable John Taylor and Kelton Flinn — i.e., Kesmai, the programmers also responsible for CompuServe’s MegaWars III and, a bit later, for GEnie’s Air Warrior. Like so many of CompuServe’s staple games, both Black Dragon and Dungeons of Kesmai would remain on the service for an absurdly long time, until well into the 1990s.


But more ambitious games as well would come down the pipe well before then. A few years later after these first single-player online CRPGs debuted, CompuServe made the leap to multiplayer virtual worlds. As we’ve already seen in my previous article, MUD washed up from British shores in the spring of 1986 under the name of British Legends, bringing with it the idea of the multiplayer text adventure as virtual world. Yet even before that happened, in December of 1985, the CRPG genre had already made the same leap thanks to still another creation from Kesmai: Island of Kesmai.

Taylor and Flinn had originally hoped to make Dungeons of Kesmai something akin to the game which Island would later become, but that project had been cut back to a single-player game when Bill Louden deemed it simply too ambitious for such an early effort. Undaunted, Kesmai treated Dungeons as something of a prototype for their real vision for a multiplayer CRPG and just kept plugging away. They never saw nor heard of MUD when developing the more advanced game, meaning that said game’s innovations, which actually hew much closer than MUD to the massively-multiplayer games to come, were all its own.

Island of Kesmai demonstrated just how far games’ presentation had come on CompuServe in the four years of creeping advancement that had followed Black Dragon. While it was still limited to text and crude character graphics, the latest terminal protocols did allow it to make use of color, and to divide the screen into quadrants dedicated to different purposes: a status “window” showing the state of the player’s character, a pseudo-graphical overhead view of the character’s surroundings, a text area for descriptions of the environment, a command line for the player to issue orders. Island of Kesmai looked like a roguelike, a genre of hardcore tactical CRPG that was a bigger favorite with hackers than with commercial game developers. This roguelike, however, was a multiplayer game set in a persistent world, and that changed everything.

Island of Kesmai used the ASCII graphics typical of roguelikes. Here “>” represents the player’s character; “A” is a monster; “B” is another player’s character; “@@” is a spider web; and “$” is a treasure or other item. The brackets are walls, while “–” represents a closed door and “/” an open one.

As with British Legends, up to 100 players could share Island of Kesmai‘s persistent world at the same time. Yet Kesmai’s creation was a far more coherent, far more designed experience than the cheerful insanity that was life on MUD. Players chose a class for their characters, along with an alignment, a gender, and even a land of origin. As befitted the game’s grounding in CRPG rather than text-adventure tradition, combat was a far more elaborate and tactical affair than in MUD. You had to reckon with the position of your character and your opponents; had to worry about initiative and fatigue; could be stunned or poisoned or even fumble your weapon. The magic system, too, was far more advanced and subtle than MUD‘s handful of ad-hoc spells that had often been added as much for comedic value as anything else.

The Island that gave the game its name was divided into five regions, comprising in total some 62,000 discrete locations, over which roamed some 2500 creatures in addition to one’s fellow players. The game was consciously designed to support differing levels of player engagement. “A person can play casually or seriously,” said Ben Shih, a “scenario designer” hired by Kesmai to continue evolving the game. “He or she can relax and take out frustrations on a few goblins or unwind by joining other players in hunting bear and griffin. But to become a superstar, a ‘mega-character,’ takes time.”

Ben Shih, John Taylor, and Kelton Flinn of Kesmai.

Scenario designers like Shih added content on a regular basis to keep the game fresh even for veteran players, sometimes giving a unique artifact to the first player to complete a new quest. Kelton Flinn was still excited about adding new stuff to the game three years after it had first gone online:

We don’t feel we’re designing games. We’re designing simulations. We create a world and then we let the players roam around in it. Of course, we’re always adding to our view of the world, fiddling with things all the time, creating new treasures, making things work better. I suppose at some point you have to call a halt and say, “Let’s see if we want to make a clean break and try something bigger.” But we haven’t reached that stage yet.

For all the changes the game went through, the ultimate achievement in Island of Kesmai remained always to kill the dragon, the toughest monster in the game. Players who did so were rewarded with everlasting fame as part of the true elite. As for the dragon: he of course re-spawned in a few days’ time, ready to serve as fodder for the next champion.

Those who hoped to do well were almost forced to buy the 181-page manual for the game, available for the low, low price of $16.50 directly from CompuServe. A rather stunning percentage of the elements described therein would still ring true to any World of Warcraft player of today. There was, for instance, a questing system, a ladder of challenges offering ever greater rewards in return for surviving ever greater dangers. Even those looking for an equivalent to the endless stream of World of Warcraft expansions can find it with Island of Kesmai. In 1988, Kesmai opened up the new lands of Torii and Annwn, filled with “more powerful weapons, tougher monsters, and a variety of treasures.” Advanced players were allowed to travel there only after their characters had hit the old Island’s level cap, and weren’t allowed to return again after they passed through the magic portal, lest they wreak havoc among the less powerful monsters and characters they once left behind.

While play on the Island was much more structured than it was in The Land of MUD, it was still the other players who really made the game what it was. Taylor and Flinn went into the project understanding that, and even anticipating to an extraordinary degree the shape of virtual societies to come. “We fully expect that a political system will evolve,” said Taylor upon the game’s launch, “and someone may even try to proclaim himself King of Kesmai.” Much of the design was put in place to emphasize the social aspect of the game. For example, a conference room was provided for strategizing and conspiring, and many quests were deliberately designed to require the cooperation of several characters. The verbiage adopted by players in relation to the quest system still rings true to modern ears. For example, a verb was coined for those loners determined to undertake quests on their own: to “solo.”

Although player-versus-player combat was allowed, it was restricted to specific areas of the Island; an attempt to attack another character in a “civilized” area, such as the town where new players began their adventures, would be met by the Sheriff, an invincible non-player character guaranteed to grind the brawniest hero into dust. Alignment also played a role: a karma meter kept track of players’ actions. Actions like assault or theft would gradually turn a good character neutral, then finally evil. The last alignment was highly undesirable from many perspectives, not least in that it would prevent you from entering the town, with its shops, bars, and trainers.

And there were still other mechanisms for discouraging the veterans from tormenting the newbies in the way so many MUD players so enjoyed. Players were urged to report griefers who preyed excessively upon newbies, even if they only did so in the dungeons and other “uncivilized” areas where player-versus-player combat was technically allowed. If enough people lodged complaints against them, the griefers might find themselves visited by the wrath of the “ghods of Kesmai,” the game’s administrators — the alternate spelling was used so as not to offend the religious — who might take away experience points, steal back their precious magic items, or just smite them dead as punishment. The game thus tended to foster a less cutthroat, more congenial atmosphere than MUD, with most players preferring to band together against the many monsters rather than fight with one another.

A journalist from the magazine Compute’s Gazette shared this tale of his own almost unbelievably positive first encounter with another player in the game:

I desperately wish I could afford to buy a few bottles of balm sold by the vendor here in the nave, but at 16 gold pieces each they are far above my limited budget. Another player walks in from the square. “Hello, Cherp!” she says, looking at me. Taking a close look at her, I recognize Lynn, a middle-aged female fighter from my home country of Mnar.

“Howdy to you. Are you headed down into the dungeon? I’ve just arrived and this is my first trip down,” I tell her.

“Ah, I see. Yes, I was headed down, but I don’t think it’s safe for you to hunt where I’ll be going. Do you have any balm yet?” she asks as she stands next to the balm vendor.

“No, I haven’t got the gold to afford it,” I say hesitantly.

“No problem. I have a few extra pieces. Come and get them.”

“Thank you very much,” I say. Lynn drops some gold on the ground, and we wait as the vendor takes the gold and drops the balm bottles for us. I pick up the bottles and add them to my meager possessions.

“I can’t thank you enough for this,” I say. “Is there some way I can repay you? Perhaps we could meet here again later and I could give you some balms in return.”

“No,” she laughs, “I have no need of them. Just remember there are always other players who are just starting out. They may find themselves in the same position you are in now. Try to lend them a hand when you are sufficiently strong.”

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, I will just note one more time that this attitude stands in marked contrast to the newbie-tormenting that the various incarnations of MUD always seemed to engender. At least one player of Island of Kesmai so distinguished himself through his knowledge of the game and his sense of community spirit that he was hired by Kesmai to design new challenges and serve as a community liaison — a wiz mode of a different and much more lucrative stripe.

But the community spirit of Island of Kesmai at its finest is perhaps best exemplified by Valis, one of the game’s most accomplished players. This online CRPG was actually the first RPG of any stripe he had ever managed to enjoy, despite attending university during the height of the Dungeons & Dragons fad: “I could never get into sitting around eating crackers and cheese doodles and arguing for twelve hours at a time. I can do as much in a half hour in Island of Kesmai as they did in twelve hours.” Valis became the first person to exhaustively map the entire Island, uploading the results to the service’s file libraries for the benefit of all. Further, he put together a series of beginners classes for those new to what could be a very daunting game. CompuServe’s hapless marketers advertised his efforts as an “escort service,” a name which perhaps didn’t convey quite the right impression.

We think we’ve come up with the perfect way of teaching a beginners class. We spend an hour or so in the conference area with a lecture and questions. Then we go on a “field trip” to the Island itself. I lead the beginners onto the Island, where we encounter a few things and look for some treasure. That usually is enough to get them started.

In many respects, the personal stories that emerged from Island of Kesmai will ring very familiar to anyone who’s been reading my recent articles, as they will to anyone familiar with the massively-multiplayer games of today. Carrie Washburn discovered the game in 1986, just after her son was born fourteen weeks premature. During the months the baby spent in intensive care, Island of Kesmai became the “link back to reality” for her and her husband. After spending the day at the hospital, they “would enter a fantasy world in order to forget the real one. The online friends that we met there helped pull us through.” Of course, the escape wasn’t without cost: Washburn’s monthly CompuServe bill routinely topped $500, and once hit $2000. Later she divorced her husband and took to prancing around the Island as the uninhibited Lynn De’Leslie — “more of a slut, really” — until she met her second husband there. Her sentiments about it all echoed those expressed by the CB Simulator fraternity on another part of CompuServe: “One of the great things about meeting people online is that you get to really known them. The entire relationship is built on talking.” (Appropriately enough for a talker, Washburn went on to find employment as the administrator of the Multiplayer Games Roundtable on GEnie.)

Kelton Flinn once called Island of Kesmai “about as complicated as a game can be on a commercial system.” Yet it deserves to be remembered for the thought that went into it even more than for its complexity. Almost every issue that designers of the massively-multiplayer games of today deal with was anticipated and addressed by Kesmai — sometimes imperfectly, yes, but then many of the design questions which swirl around the format have arguably still not been met with perfect answers even today. Incredibly, Island of Kesmai went online in December of 1985 with almost all of its checks and balances already in place, so thoroughly had its designers thought about what they were creating and where it would lead. To use Richard Bartle’s terminology from my previous article, Island of Kesmai was a “product” rather than a “program,” and it was all the better for it. While MUD strikes me as a pioneering work with an awful lot of off-putting aspects, such that I probably wouldn’t have lasted five minutes if I’d stumbled into it as a player, Island of Kesmai still sounds like it must have been fantastic to play.

 

One big name in the field of single-player graphical CRPGs took note of what was going on on The Island quite early. In 1987, a decade before Ultima Online would take the games industry by storm, Richard Garriott and Origin Systems began doing more than just muse about the potential for a multiplayer Ultima. They assigned at least one programmer to work full-time on the technology that could enable just such a product. This multiplayer Ultima was envisioned on a more modest scale than the eventual Ultima Online or even the current Island of Kesmai. It was described by Garriot thus: “What you’ll buy in the store will be a package containing all the core graphics routines and the game-development stuff (all the commands and so on), which you could even plug into your computer and play as a standalone. But with a modem you could tie a friend into the game, or up to somewhere between eight and sixteen other players, all within the same game.” Despite the modest number of players the game would support and the apparent lack of plans for a persistent world, Origin did hold out the prospect of a partnership with CompuServe. In the end, though, none of it went anywhere. After 1987 the idea of a multiplayer Ultima was shelved for a long, long time; Origin presumably deemed it too much of a distraction from their bread-and-butter single-player CRPG franchise.

Another of the big single-player CRPG franchises, however, would make the leap — and not just to multiplayer but all way to a persistent virtual world like that of MUD or Island of Kesmai. Rather than running on the industry-leading CompuServe or even the gamer haven of GEnie, this pioneering effort would run on the nascent America Online.

Don Daglow was already a grizzled veteran of the games industry when he founded a development company called Beyond Software (no relation to the British company of the same name) in 1988. He had programmed games for fun on his university’s DEC PDP-10 in the 1970s, programmed them for money at Intellivision in the early 1980s, been one of the first producers at Electronic Arts in the mid-1980s — working on among other titles Thomas M. Disch’s flawed but fascinating text adventure Amnesia and the hugely lauded baseball simulation Earl Weaver Baseball — and finally came to spend some time in the same role at Brøderbund. At last, though, he had “got itchy” to do something that would be all his own. Beyond was his way of scratching that itch.

Thanks to Daglow’s industry connections, Beyond hit the ground running, establishing solid working relationships with two very disparate companies: Quantum Computer Services, who owned and operated America Online, and the boxed-game publisher SSI. Daglow actually signed on with the former the day after forming his company, agreeing to develop some simple games for their young online service which would prove to be the very first Beyond games to see the light of day. Beyond’s relationship with the latter would lead to the publication of another big-name-endorsed baseball simulation: Tony La Russa’s Ultimate Baseball, which would sell an impressive 85,684 copies, thereby becoming SSI’s most successful game to date that wasn’t an entry in their series of licensed Dungeons & Dragons games.

As it happened, though, Beyond’s relationship with SSI also came to encompass that license in fairly short order. They contracted to create some new Dungeons & Dragons single-player CRPGs, using the  popular but aging Gold Box engine which SSI had heretofore reserved for in-house titles; the Beyond games were seen by SSI as a sort of stopgap while their in-house staff devoted themselves to developing a next-generation CRPG engine. Beyond’s efforts on this front would result in a pair of titles, Gateway to the Savage Frontier and Treasures of the Savage Frontier, before the disappointing sales of the latter told both parties that the jig was well and truly up for the Gold Box engine.

By Don Daglow’s account, the first graphical multiplayer CRPG set in a persistent world was the product of a fortunate synergy between the work Beyond was doing for AOL and the work they were doing for SSI.

I realized that I was doing online games with AOL and I was doing Dungeons & Dragons games with SSI. Nobody had done a graphical massively-multiplayer online game yet. Several teams had tried, but nobody had succeeded in shipping one. I looked at that, and said, “Wait, I know how to do this because I understand how the Dungeons & Dragons system works on the one hand, and I understand how online works on the other.” I called up Steve Case [at AOL], and Joel Billings and Chuck Kroegel at SSI, and said, “If you guys want to give it a shot, I can give you a graphical MMO, and we can be the first to have it.”

The game was christened Neverwinter Nights. “Neverwinter” was the area of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting which TSR, makers of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG, had carved out for Beyond to set their games; the two single-player Savage Frontier games were also set in the region. The “Nights,” meanwhile, was a sly allusion to the fact that AOL — and thus this game — was only available on nights and weekends, when the nation’s telecommunications lines could be leased relatively cheaply.

Neverwinter Nights had to be purchased as a boxed game before players could start paying AOL’s connection fees to actually play it. It looked almost indistinguishable from any other Gold Box title on store shelves — unless one noticed the names of America Online and Quantum Computer Services in the fine print.

On the face of it, Neverwinter Nights was the ugliest of kludges. Beyond took SSI’s venerable Gold Box engine, which had never been designed to incorporate multiplayer capabilities, and grafted exactly those capabilities onto it. At first glance, the end result looked the same as any of the many other Gold Box titles, right down to the convoluted interface that had been designed before mice were standard equipment on most computers. But when you started to look closer, the differences started to show. The player now controlled just one character instead of a full party; parties were formed by multiple players coming together to undertake a quest. To facilitate organizing and socializing, a system for chatting with other players in the same map square had been added. And, in perhaps the trickiest and certainly the kludgiest piece of the whole endeavor, the turn-based Gold Box engine had been converted into a pseudo-real-time proposition that worked just well enough to make multiplayer play possible.

It made for a strange hybrid to say the least — one which Richard Bartle for one dismisses as “innovative yet flawed.” Yet somehow it worked. After launching the game in June of 1991 with a capacity of 100 simultaneous players, Beyond and AOL were soon forced by popular demand to raise this number to 500, thus making Neverwinter Nights the most populous virtual world to go online to date. And even at that, there were long lines of players during peak periods waiting for others to drop out of the game so they could get into it, paying AOL’s minute-by-minute connection fee just to stand in the queue.

While players and would-be players of online CRPGs had undoubtedly been dreaming of the graphics which Neverwinter Nights offered for a long time, smart design was perhaps equally important to the game’s long-term popularity. To an even greater degree than Island of Kesmai, Neverwinter Nights strove to provide a structure for play. Don Daglow had been interested in online gaming for a long time, had played just about all of what was available, and had gone into this project with a clear idea of exactly what sort of game he wanted Neverwinter Nights to be. It was emphasized from the get-go that this was not to be a game of direct player-versus-player conflict. In fact, Beyond went even Kesmai one better in this area, electing not just to ban such combat from certain parts of the game but to ban it entirely. Neverwinter Nights was rather to be a game of cooperation and friendly competition. Players would meet on the town’s central square, form themselves into adventuring parties, and be assigned quests by a town clerk — shades of the much-loved first Gold Box game, Pool of Radiance — to kill such-and-such a monster or recover such-and-such a treasure. Everyone in the party would then share equally in the experience and loot that resulted. Even death was treated relatively gently: characters would be revived in town minus all of the stuff they had been toting along with them, but wouldn’t lose the armor, weapons, and magic items they had actually been using — much less lose their lives permanently, as happened in MUD.

One player’s character has just cast feeblemind on another’s, rendering him “stupid.” This became a sadly typical sight in the game.

Beyond’s efforts to engender the right community spirit weren’t entirely successful; players did find ways to torment one another. While player characters couldn’t attack one another physically, they could cast spells at one another — a necessary capability if a party’s magic-using characters were to be able to cast “buffing” spells on the fighters before and during combat. A favorite tactic of the griefers was to cast the “feeblemind” spell several times in succession on the newbies’ characters, reducing their intelligence and wisdom scores to the rock bottom of 3, thus making them for all practical purposes useless. One could visit a temple to get this sort of thing undone, but that cost gold the newbies didn’t have. By most accounts, there was much more of this sort of willful assholery in Neverwinter Nights than there had been in Island of Kesmai, notwithstanding the even greater lengths Beyond had gone to prevent it. Perhaps it was somehow down to the fact that Neverwinter Nights was a graphical game — however crude the graphics were even by the standards of the game’s own time — that led to it attracting a greater percentage of such immature players.

Griefers aside, though, Neverwinter Nights had much to recommend it, as well as plenty of players happy to play it in the spirit Beyond had intended. Indeed, the devotion the game’s most hardcore players displayed remains legendary to this day. They formed themselves into guilds, using that very word for the first time to describe such aggregations. They held fairs, contests, performances, and the occasional wedding. And they started at least two newsletters to keep track of goings-on in Neverwinter. Some issues have been preserved by dedicated fans, allowing us today a glimpse into a community that was at least as much about socializing and role-playing as monster-bashing. The first issue of News of the Realm, for example, tells us that Cyric has just become a proud father in the real world; that Vulcan and Dramia have opened their own weapons shop in the game; that Cold Chill the notorious bandit has shocked everyone by recognizing the errors of his ways and becoming good; that the dwarves Nystramo and Krishara are soon to hold their wedding — or, as dwarves call it, their “Hearth Building.” Clearly there was a lot going on in Neverwinter.

The addition of graphics would ironically limit the lifespan of many an online game; while text is timeless, computer graphics, especially in the fast-evolving 1980s and 1990s, had a definite expiration date. Under the circumstances, Neverwinter Nights had a reasonably long run, remaining available for six years on AOL. Over the course of that period online life and computer games both changed almost beyond recognition. Already looking pretty long in the tooth when Neverwinter Nights made its debut in 1991, the Gold Box engine by 1997 was a positive antique.

Despite the game’s all-too-obvious age, AOL’s decision to shut it down in July of 1997 was greeted with outrage by its rabid fan base, some of whom still nurse a strong sense of grievance to this day. But exactly how large that fan base still was by 1997 is a little uncertain. The Neverwinter Nights community insisted (and continues to insist) that the game was as popular as ever, making the claim from uncertain provenance that AOL was still making good money from it. Richard Bartle makes the eye-popping claim today, also without attribution, that it was still bringing in fully $5 million per year. Yet the reality remains that this was an archaic MS-DOS game at a time when software in general had largely completed the migration to Windows. It was only getting more brittle as it fell further and further behind the times. Just two months after the plug was pulled on Neverwinter Nights, Ultima Online debuted, marking the beginning of the modern era of massively-multiplayer CRPGs as we’ve come to know them today. Neverwinter Nights would have made for a sad sight in any direct comparison with Ultima Online. It’s understandable that AOL, never an overly games-focused service to begin with, would want to get out while the getting was good.

Even in its heyday, when the land of Neverwinter was stuffed to its 500-player capacity every night and more players were lining up outside, its popularity was never all that great in the grand scheme of the games industry; that very capacity limit if nothing else saw to that. Nevertheless, its place in gaming lore as a storied pioneer was such that Bioware chose to revive the name in 2002 in the form of a freestanding boxed CRPG with multiplayer capabilities. That version of Neverwinter Nights was played by many, many times more people than the original — and yet it could never hope to rival its predecessor’s claim to historical importance.

The massively-multiplayer online CRPGs that would follow the original Neverwinter Nights would be slicker, faster, in some ways friendlier, but the differences would be of degree, not of kind. MUD, Island of Kesmai, and Neverwinter Nights between them had invented a genre, going a long way in the process toward showing any future designers who happened to be paying attention exactly what worked there and what didn’t. All that remained for their descendants to do was to popularize it, to make it easier and cheaper and more convenient to lose oneself in a shared virtual world of the fantastic.

(Sources: the books MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle and Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsey; Online Today of February 1986, April 1986, August 1986, June 1987, January 1988, August 1988, September 1988, and February 1989; Computer Gaming World of June/July 1986; The Gamers Connection of September/October 1988; Compute!’s Gazette of July 1989; Compute! of November 1991; the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Online sources include Barbara Baser’s Black Dragon walkthrough, as preserved by Arthur J. O’Dwyer; “The Game Archaeologist Discovers the Island of Kesmai” from Engadget. Readers may also be interested in the CRPG Addict’s more experiential impression of playing Neverwinter Nights offline — and be sure to check out the comments to that article for some memories of old players.)

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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The Many Faces of Middle-earth, 1954-1989

The transformation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from an off-putting literary trilogy — full of archaic diction, lengthy appendixes, and poetry, for God’s sake — into some of the most bankable blockbuster fodder on the planet must be one of the most unlikely stories in the history of pop culture. Certainly Tolkien himself must be about the most unlikely mass-media mastermind imaginable. During his life, he was known to his peers mostly as a philologist, or historian of languages. The whole Lord of the Rings epic was, he once admitted, “primarily linguistic in inspiration, and was begun in order to provide the necessary background history” for the made-up languages it contained. On another occasion, he called the trilogy “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” That doesn’t exactly sound like popcorn-movie material, does it?

So, what would this pipe-smoking, deeply religious old Oxford don have made of our modern takes on his work, of CGI spellcraft and 3D-rendered hobbits mowing down videogame enemies by the dozen? No friend of modernity in any of its aspects, Tolkien would, one has to suspect, have been nonplussed at best, outraged at worst. But perhaps — just perhaps, if he could contort himself sufficiently — he might come to see all this sound and fury as at least as much validation as betrayal of his original vision. In writing The Lord of the Rings, he had explicitly set out to create a living epic in the spirit of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Malory. For better or for worse, the living epics of our time unspool on screens rather than on the page or in the chanted words of bards, and come with niceties like copyright and trademark attached.

And where those things exist, so exist also the corporations and the lawyers. It would be those entities rather than Tolkien or even any of his descendants who would control how his greatest literary work was adapted to screens large, small, and in between. Because far more people in this modern age of ours play games and watch movies than read books of any stripe  — much less daunting doorstops like The Lord of the Rings trilogy — this meant that Middle-earth as most people would come to know it wouldn’t be quite the same land of myth that Tolkien himself had created so laboriously over so many decades in his little tobacco-redolent office. Instead, it would be Big Media’s interpretations and extrapolations therefrom. In the first 48 years of its existence, The Lord of the Rings managed to sell a very impressive 100 million copies in book form. In only the first year of its existence, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster film trilogy was seen by 150 million people.

To understand how The Lord of the Rings and its less daunting predecessor The Hobbit were transformed from books authored by a single man into a palimpsest of interpretations, we need to understand how J.R.R. Tolkien lost control of his creations in the first place. And to begin to do that, we need to cast our view back to the years immediately following the trilogy’s first issuance in 1954 and 1955 by George Allen and Unwin, who had already published The Hobbit with considerable success almost twenty years earlier.

During its own early years, The Lord of the Rings didn’t do anywhere near as well as The Hobbit had, but did do far better than its publisher or its author had anticipated. It sold at least 225,000 copies (this and all other sales figures given in this article refer to sales of the trilogy as a whole, not to sales of the individual volumes that made up the trilogy) in its first decade, the vast majority of them in its native Britain, despite being available only in expensive hardcover editions and despite being roundly condemned, when it was noticed at all, by the very intellectual and literary elites that made up its author’s peer group. In the face of their rejection by polite literary society, the books sold mostly to existing fans of fantasy and science fiction, creating some decided incongruities; Tolkien never quite seemed to know how to relate to this less mannered group of readers. In 1957, the trilogy won the only literary prize it would ever be awarded, becoming the last recipient of the brief-lived International Fantasy Award, which belied its hopeful name by being a largely British affair. Tolkien, looking alternately bemused and deeply uncomfortable, accepted the award, shook hands and signed autographs for his fans, smiled for the cameras, and got the hell out of there just as quickly as he could.

The books’ early success, such as it was, was centered very much in Britain; the trilogy only sold around 25,000 copies in North America during the entirety of its first decade. It enjoyed its first bloom of popularity there only in the latter half of the 1960s, ironically fueled by two developments deeply antithetical to its author. The first was a legally dubious mass-market paperback edition published in the United States by Ace Books in 1965; the second was the burgeoning hippie counterculture.

Donald Wollheim, senior editor at Ace Books, had discovered what he believed to be a legal loophole giving him the right to publish the trilogy, thanks to the failure of Houghton Mifflin, Tolkien’s American hardcover publisher, to properly register their copyright to it in the United States. Never a man prone to hesitation, he declared that Houghton Mifflin’s negligence had effectively left The Lord of the Rings in the public domain, and proceeded to publish a paperback edition without consulting Tolkien or paying him anything at all. Condemned by the resolutely old-fashioned Tolkien for taking the “degenerate” form of the paperback as much as for the royalties he wasn’t paid, the Ace editions nevertheless sold in the hundreds of thousands in a matter of months. Elizabeth Wollheim, daughter of Donald and herself a noted science-fiction and fantasy editor, has characterized the instant of the appearance of the Ace editions of The Lord of the Rings in October of 1965 as the “Big Bang” that led to the modern cottage industry in doorstop fantasy novels. Along with Frank Herbert’s Dune, which appeared the following year, they obliterated almost at a stroke the longstanding tradition in publishing of genre novels as concise works coming in at under 250 pages.

Even as these cheap Ace editions of Tolkien became a touchstone of what would come to be known as nerd culture, they were also seized on by a very different constituency. With the Summer of Love just around the corner, the counterculture came to see in the industrialized armies of Sauron and Saruman the modern American war machine they were protesting, in the pastoral peace of the Shire the life they saw as their naive ideal. The Lord of the Rings became one of the hippie movement’s literary totems, showing up in the songs of Led Zeppelin and Argent, and, as later memorably described by Peter S. Beagle in the most famous introduction to the trilogy ever written, even scrawled on the walls of New York City’s subways (“Frodo lives!”). Beagle’s final sentiments in that piece could stand in very well for the counterculture’s as a whole: “We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers — thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.”

If Tolkien had been uncertain how to respond to the earnest young science-fiction fans who had started showing up at his doorstep seeking autographs in the late 1950s, he had no shared frame of reference whatsoever with these latest readers. He was a man at odds with his times if ever there was one. On the rare occasions when contemporary events make an appearance in his correspondence, it always reads as jarring. Tolkien comes across a little confused by it all, can’t even get the language quite right. For example, in a letter from 1964, he writes that “in a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group. On days when it falls to his turn to have a practice session the noise is indescribable.” Whatever the merits of the particular musicians in question, one senses that the “noise” of the “Beatle group” music wouldn’t have suited Tolkien one bit in any scenario. And as for Beagle’s crack about “murderers carrying crosses,” it will perhaps suffice to note that his introduction was published only after Tolkien, the devout Catholic, had died. Like the libertarian conservative Robert Heinlein, whose Stranger in a Strange Land became another of the counterculture’s totems, Tolkien suffered the supreme irony of being embraced as a pseudo-prophet by a group whose sociopolitical worldview was almost the diametrical opposite of his own. As the critic Leonard Jackson has noted, it’s decidedly odd that the hippies, who “lived in communes, were anti-racist, were in favour of Marxist revolution and free love” should choose as their favorite “a book about a largely racial war, favouring feudal politics, jam-full of father figures, and entirely devoid of sex.”

Note the pointed reference to these first Ballantine editions of The Lord of the Rings as the “authorized” editions.

To what extent Tolkien was even truly aware of his works’ status with the counterculture is something of an open question, although he certainly must have noticed the effect it had on his royalty checks after the Ace editions were forced off the market, to be replaced by duly authorized Ballantine paperbacks. In the first two years after issuing the paperbacks, Ballantine sold almost 1 million copies of the series in North America alone.

In October of 1969, smack dab in the midst of all this success, Tolkien, now 77 years old and facing the worry of a substantial tax bill in his declining years, made one of the most retrospectively infamous deals in the history of pop culture. He sold the film rights to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to the Hollywood studio United Artists for £104,602 and a fixed cut of 7.5 percent of any profits that might result from cinematic adaptations. And along with film rights went “merchandising rights.” Specifically, United Artists was given rights to the “manufacture, sale, and distribution of any and all articles of tangible personal property other than novels, paperbacks, and other printed published matter.” All of these rights were granted “in perpetuity.”

What must have seemed fairly straightforward in 1969 would in decades to come turn into a Gordian Knot involving hundreds of lawyers, all trying to resolve once and for all just what part of Tolkien’s legacy he had retained and what part he had sold. In the media landscape of 1969, the merchandising rights to “tangible personal property” which Tolkien and United Artists had envisioned must have been limited to toys, trinkets, and souvenirs, probably associated with any films United Artists should choose to make based on Tolkien’s books. Should the law therefore limit the contract to its signers’ original intent, or should it be read literally? If the law chose the latter course, Tolkien had unknowingly sold off the videogame rights to his work before videogames even existed in anything but the most nascent form. Or did he really? Should videogames, being at their heart intangible code, really be lumped even by the literalists into the rights sold to United Artists? After all, the contract explicitly reserves “the right to utilize and/or dispose of all rights and/or interests not herein specifically granted” to Tolkien. This question of course only gets more fraught in our modern age of digital distribution, when games are often sold with no tangible component at all. And then what of tabletop games? They’re quite clearly neither novels nor paperbacks, but they might be, at least in part, “other printed published matter.” What precisely did that phrase mean? The contract doesn’t stipulate. In the absence of any clear pathways through this legal thicket, the history of Tolkien licensing would become that of a series of uneasy truces occasionally  erupting into open legal warfare. About the only things that were clear were that Tolkien — soon, his heirs — owned the rights to the original books and that United Artists — soon, the person who bought the contract from them — owned the rights to make movies out of them. Everything else was up for debate. And debated it would be, at mind-numbing length.

It would, however, be some time before the full ramifications of the document Tolkien had signed started to become clear. In the meantime, United Artists began moving forward with a film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings that was to have been placed in the hands of the director and screenwriter John Boorman. Boorman worked on the script for years, during which Tolkien died and his literary estate passed into the hands of his heirs, most notably his third son and self-appointed steward of his legacy Christopher Tolkien. The final draft of Boorman’s script compressed the entire trilogy into a single 150-minute film, and radically changed it in terms of theme, character, and plot to suit a Hollywood sensibility. For instance, Boorman added the element of sex that was so conspicuously absent from the books, having Frodo and Galadriel engage in a torrid affair after the Fellowship comes to Lothlórien. (Given the disparity in their sizes, one does have to wonder about the logistics, as it were, of such a thing.) But in the end, United Artists opted, probably for the best, not to let Boorman turn his script into a movie. (Many elements from the script would turn up later in Boorman’s Arthurian epic Excalibur.)

Of course, it’s unlikely that literary purity was foremost on United Artists’s minds when they made their decision. As the 1960s had turned into the 1970s and the Woodstock generation had gotten jobs and started families, Tolkien’s works had lost some of their trendy appeal, retaining their iconic status only among fantasy fandom. Still, the books continued to sell well; they would never lose the status they had acquired almost from the moment the Ace editions had been published of being the bedrock of modern fantasy fiction, something everyone with even a casual interest in the genre had to at least attempt to read. Not being terribly easy books, they defeated plenty of these would-be readers, who went off in search of the more accessible, more contemporary-feeling epic-fantasy fare so many publishers were by now happily providing. Yet even among the readers it rebuffed The Lord of the Rings retained the status of an aspirational ideal.

In 1975, a maverick animator named Ralph Bakshi, who had heretofore been best known for Fritz the Cat, the first animated film to earn an X rating, came to United Artists with a proposal to adapt The Lord of the Rings into a trio of animated features that would be relatively inexpensive in comparison to Boorman’s plans for a live-action epic. United Artists didn’t bite, but did signify that they might be amenable to selling the rights they had purchased from Tolkien if Bakshi could put together a few million dollars to make it happen. In December of 1976, following a string of proposals and deals too complicated and imperfectly understood to describe here, a hard-driving music and movie mogul named Saul Zaentz wound up owning the whole package of Tolkien rights that had previously belonged to United Artists. He intended to use his purchase first to let Bakshi make his films and thereafter for whatever other opportunities might happen to come down the road.

Saul Zaentz, seated at far left, with Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Saul Zaentz had first come to prominence back in 1967, when he’d put together a group of investors to buy a struggling little jazz label called Fantasy Records. His first signing as the new president of Fantasy was Creedence Clearwater Revival, a rock group he had already been managing. Whether due to Zaentz’s skill as a talent spotter or sheer dumb luck, it was the sort of signing that makes a music mogul rich for life. Creedence promptly unleashed eleven top-ten singles and five top-ten albums over the course of the next three and a half years, the most concentrated run of hits of any 1960s band this side of the Beatles. And Zaentz got his fair share of all that filthy lucre — more than his fair share, his charges eventually came to believe. When the band fell apart in 1972, much of the cause was infighting over matters of business. The other members came to blame Creedence’s lead singer and principal songwriter John Fogerty for convincing them to sign a terrible contract with Zaentz that gave away rights to their songs to him for… well, in perpetuity, actually. And as for Fogerty, he of course blamed Zaentz for all the trouble. Decades of legal back and forth followed the breakup. At one point, Zaentz sued Fogerty on the novel legal theory of “self-plagarization”: the songs Fogerty was now writing as a solo artist, went the brief, were too similar to the ones he used to write for Creedence, all of whose copyrights Zaentz owned. While his lawyers pleaded his case in court, Fogerty vented his rage via songs like “Zanz Kant Danz,” the story of a pig who, indeed, can’t dance, but will happily “steal your money.”

I trust that this story gives a sufficient impression of just what a ruthless, litigious man now owned adaptation rights to the work of our recently deceased old Oxford don. But whatever else you could say about Saul Zaentz, he did know how to get things done. He secured financing for the first installment of Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings, albeit on the condition that he cut the planned three-film series down to two. Relying heavily on rotoscoping to give his cartoon figures an uncannily naturalistic look, Bakshi finished the film for release in November of 1978. Regarded as something of a cult classic among certain sectors of Tolkien fandom today, in its own day the film was greeted with mixed to poor reviews. The financial picture is equally muddled. While it’s been claimed, including by Bakshi himself, that the movie was a solid success, earning some $30 million on a budget of a little over $4 million, the fact remains that Zaentz was unable to secure funding for the sequel, leaving poor Frodo, Sam, and Gollum forever in limbo en route to Mount Doom. It is, needless to say, difficult to reconcile a successful first film with this refusal to back a second. But regardless of the financial particulars, The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t make it back to the big screen for more than twenty years, until the enormous post-millennial Peter Jackson productions that well and truly, once and for all, broke Middle-earth into the mainstream.

Yet, although the Bakshi adaptation was the only Tolkien film to play in theaters during this period, it wasn’t actually the only Tolkien film on offer. In November of 1977, a year before the Bakshi Lord of the Rings made its bow, a decidedly less ambitious animated version of The Hobbit had played on American television. The force behind it was Rankin/Bass Productions, who had previously been known in television broadcasting for holiday specials such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Their take on Tolkien was authorized not by Saul Zaentz but by the Tolkien estate. Being shot on video rather than film and then broadcast rather than shown in theaters, the Rankin/Bass Hobbit was not, legally speaking, a “movie” under the terms of the 1969 contract. Nor was it a “tangible” product, thus making it fair game for the Tolkien estate to authorize without involving Zaentz. That, anyway, was the legal theory under which the estate was operating. They even authorized a sequel to the Rankin/Bass Hobbit in 1980, which rather oddly took the form of an adaptation of The Return of the King, the last book of The Lord of the Rings. A precedent of dueling licenses, authorizing different versions of what to casual eyes at least often seemed to be the very same things, was thus established.

But these flirtations with mainstream visibility came to an end along with the end of the 1970s. After the Ralph Baski and Rankin/Bass productions had all had their moments in the sun, The Lord of the Rings was cast back into its nerdy ghetto, where it remained more iconic than ever. Yet the times were changing in some very important ways. From the moment he had clear ownership of the rights Tolkien had once sold to United Artists, Saul Zaentz had taken to interpreting their compass in the broadest possible way, and had begun sending his lawyers after any real or alleged infringers who grew large enough to come to his attention. This marked a dramatic change from the earliest days of Tolkien fandom, when no one had taken any apparent notice of fannish appropriations of Middle-earth, to such an extent that fans had come to think of all use of Tolkien’s works as fair use. In that spirit, in 1975 a tiny game publisher called TSR, incubator of an inchoate revolution called Dungeons & Dragons, had started selling a non-Dungeons & Dragons strategy game called Battle of the Five Armies that was based on the climax of The Hobbit. In late 1977, Zaentz sent them a cease-and-desist letter demanding that the game be immediately taken off the market. And, far more significantly in the long run, he also demanded that all Tolkien references be excised from Dungeons & Dragons. It wasn’t really clear that Zanetz ought to have standing to sue, given that Battle of the Five Armies and especially Dungeons & Dragons consisted of so much of the “printed published matter” that was supposedly reserved to the Tolkien estate. But, hard charger that he was, Zaentz wasn’t about to let such niceties stop him. He was establishing legal precedent, and thereby cementing his position for the future.

The question of just how much influence Tolkien had on Dungeons & Dragons has been long obscured by this specter of legal action, which gave everyone on the TSR side ample reason to be less than entirely forthcoming. That said, certain elements of Dungeons & Dragons — most obviously the “hobbit” character class found in the original game — undeniably walked straight off the pages of Tolkien and into those of Gary Gygax’s rule books. At the same time, though, the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons had, as Gygax always strenuously asserted, much more to do with the pulpier fantasy stories of Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard than they did with Tolkien. Ditto the game’s default personality, which hewed more to the “a group of adventurers meet in a bar and head out to bash monsters and collect treasure” modus operandi of the pulps than they did to Tolkien’s deeply serious, deeply moralistic, deeply tragic universe. You could play a more “serious” game of Dungeons & Dragons even in the early days, and some presumably did, but you had to bend the mechanics to make them fit. The more light-hearted tone of The Hobbit might seem better suited, but wound up being a bit too light-hearted, almost as much fairy tale as red-blooded adventure fiction. Some of the book’s episodes, like Bilbo and the dwarves’ antics with the trolls near the beginning of the story, verge on cartoon slapstick, with none of the swashbuckling swagger of Dungeons & Dragons. I love it dearly — far more, truth be told, than I love The Lord of the Rings — but not for nothing was The Hobbit conceived and marketed as a children’s novel.

Gygax’s most detailed description of the influence of Tolkien on Dungeons & Dragons appeared in the March 1985 issue of Dragon magazine. There he explicated the dirty little secret of adapting Tolkien to gaming: that the former just wasn’t all that well-suited for the latter without lots of sweeping changes.

Considered in the light of fantasy action adventure, Tolkien is not dynamic. Gandalf is quite ineffectual, plying a sword at times and casting spells which are quite low-powered (in terms of the D&D game). Obviously, neither he nor his magic had any influence on the games. The Professor drops Tom Bombadil, my personal favorite, like the proverbial hot potato; had he been allowed to enter the action of the books, no fuzzy-footed manling would have needed to undergo the trials and tribulations of the quest to destroy the Ring. Unfortunately, no character of Bombadil’s power can enter the games either — for the selfsame reasons! The wicked Sauron is poorly developed, virtually depersonalized, and at the end blows away in a cloud of evil smoke… poof! Nothing usable there. The mighty Ring is nothing more than a standard ring of invisibility, found in the myths and legends of most cultures (albeit with a nasty curse upon it). No influence here, either…

What Gygax gestures toward here but doesn’t quite touch is that The Lord of the Rings is at bottom a spiritual if not overtly religious tale, Middle-earth a land of ineffable unknowables. It’s impossible to translate that ineffability into the mechanistic system of causes and effects required by a game like Dungeons & Dragons. For all that Gygax is so obviously missing the point of Tolkien’s work in the extract above — rather hilariously so, actually — it’s also true that no Dungeon Master could attempt something like, say, Gandalf’s transformation from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White without facing a justifiable mutiny from the players. Games — at least this kind of game — demand knowable universes.

Gygax claimed that Tolkien was ultimately far more important to the game’s commercial trajectory than he was to its rules. He noted, accurately, that the trilogy’s popularity from 1965 on had created an appetite for more fantasy, in the form of both books and things that weren’t quite books. It was largely out of a desire to ride this bandwagon, Gygax claimed, that Chainmail, the proto-Dungeons & Dragons which TSR released in 1971, promised players right there on the cover that they could use it to “refight the epic struggles related by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other fantasy writers.” Gygax said that “the seeming parallels and inspirations are actually the results of a studied effort to capitalize on the then-current ‘craze’ for Tolkien’s literature.” Questionable though it is how “studied” his efforts really were in this respect, it does seem fairly clear that the biggest leg-up Tolkien gave to Gygax and his early design partner Dave Arneson was in giving so many potential players a taste for epic fantasy in the first place.

At any rate, we can say for certain that, beyond prompting a grudge in Gary Gygax against all things Tolkien — which, like most Gygaxian grudges, would last the rest of its holder’s life — Zaentz’s legal threat had a relatively modest effect on the game of Dungeons & Dragons. Hobbits were hastily renamed “halflings,” a handful of other references were scrubbed away or obfuscated, and life went on.

More importantly for Zaentz, the case against TSR and a few other even smaller tabletop-game publishers had now established the precedent that this field was within his licensing purview. In 1982, Tolkien Enterprises, the umbrella corporation Zaentz had created to manage his portfolio, authorized a three-employee publisher called Iron Crown Enterprises, heretofore known for the would-be Dungeons & Dragons competitor Rolemaster, to adapt their system to Middle-earth. Having won the license by simple virtue of being the first publisher to work up the guts to ask for it, Iron Crown went on to create Middle-earth Role Playing. The system rather ran afoul of the problem we’ve just been discussing: that, inspiring though so many found the setting in the broad strokes, the mechanics — or perhaps lack thereof — of Middle-earth just didn’t lend themselves all that well to a game. Unsurprisingly in light of this, Middle-earth Role Playing acquired a reputation as a “game” that was more fun to read, in the form of its many lengthy and lovingly detailed supplements exploring the various corners of Middle-earth, than it was to actually play; some wags took to referring to the line as a whole as Encyclopedia Middle-earthia. Nevertheless, it lasted more than fifteen years, was translated into twelve languages, and sold over 250,000 copies in English alone, thereby becoming one of the most successful tabletop RPGs ever not named Dungeons & Dragons.

But by no means was it all smooth sailing for Iron Crown. During the game’s early years, which were also its most popular, they were very nearly undone by an episode that serves to illustrate just how dangerously confusing the world of Tolkien licensing could become. In 1985, Iron Crown decided to jump on the gamebook bandwagon with a line of paperbacks they initially called Tolkien Quest, but quickly renamed to Middle-earth Quest to tie it more closely to their extant tabletop RPG. Their take on the gamebook was very baroque in comparison to the likes of Choose Your Own Adventure or even Fighting Fantasy; the rules for “reading” their books took up thirty pages on their own, and some of the books included hex maps for plotting your movements around the world, thus rather blurring the line between gamebook and, well, game. Demian Katz, who operates the definitive Internet site devoted to gamebooks, calls the Middle-earth Quest line “among the most complex gamebooks ever published,” and he of all people certainly ought to know. Whether despite their complexity or because of it, the first three volumes in the line were fairly successful for Iron Crown — and then the legal troubles started.

The Tolkien estate decided that Iron Crown had crossed a line with their gamebooks, encroaching on the literary rights to Tolkien which belonged to them. Whether the gamebooks truly were more book or game is an interesting philosophical question to ponder — particularly so given that they were such unusually crunchy iterations on the gamebook concept. Questions of philosophical taxonomy aside, though, they certainly were “printed published matter” that looked for all the world like everyday books. Tolkien Enterprises wasn’t willing to involve themselves in a protracted legal showdown over something as low-stakes as a line of gamebooks. Iron Crown would be on their own in this battle, should they choose to wage it. Deciding the potential rewards weren’t worth the risks of trying to convince a judge who probably wouldn’t know Dungeons & Dragons from Maze & Monsters that these things which looked like conventional paperback books were actually something quite different, Iron Crown pulled the line off the market and destroyed all copies as part of a settlement agreement. The episode may have cost them as much as $2.5 million. A few years later, the ever dogged Iron Crown would attempt to resuscitate the line after negotiating a proper license with the Tolkien estate — no mean feat in itself; Christopher Tolkien in particular is famously protective of that portion of his father’s legacy which is his to protect — but by then the commercial moment of the gamebook in general had passed. The whole debacle would continue to haunt Iron Crown for a long, long time. In 2000, when they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, they would state that the debt they had been carrying for almost fifteen years from the original gamebook settlement was a big part of the reason.

By that point, of course, the commercial heyday of the tabletop RPG was also long past. Indeed, already by the time that Iron Crown and Tolkien Enterprises had inked their first licensing deal back in 1982 computer-based fantasies, in the form of games like Zork, Ultima and Wizardry, were threatening to eclipse the tabletop varieties that had done so much to inspire them. Here, perhaps more so even than in tabletop RPGs, the influence of Tolkien was pervasive. Designers of early computer games often appropriated Middle-earth wholesale, writing what amounted to interactive Tolkien fan fiction. The British text-adventure house Level 9, for example, first made their name with Colossal Adventure, a re-implementation of Will Crowther and Don Woods’s original Adventure with a Middle-earth coda tacked onto the end, thus managing the neat trick of extensively plagiarizing two different works in a single game. There followed two more Level 9 games set in Middle-earth, completing what they were soon proudly advertising, in either ignorance or defiance of the concept of copyright, as their Middle-earth Trilogy.

But the most famous constant devotee and occasional plagiarist of Tolkien among the early computer-game designers was undoubtedly Richard Garriott, who had discovered The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons, the two influences destined more than any other to shape the course of his life, within six months of one another during his teenage years. Garriott called his first published game Akalabeth, after Tolkien’s Akallabêth, the name of a chapter in The Silmarillion, a posthumously published book of Middle-earth legends. The word means “downfall” in one of Tolkien’s invented languages, but Garriott chose it simply because he thought it sounded cool; his game otherwise had little to no explicit connection to Middle-earth. Regardless, the computer-game industry wouldn’t remain small enough that folks could get away with this sort of thing for very long. Akalabeth soon fell out of print, superseded by Garriott’s more complex series of Ultima games that followed it, while Level 9 was compelled to scrub the erstwhile Middle-earth Trilogy free of Tolkien and re-release it as the Jewels of Darkness Trilogy.

In the long-run, the influence of Tolkien on digital games would prove subtler but also even more pervasive than these earliest forays into blatant plagiarism would imply. Richard Garriott may have dropped the Tolkien nomenclature from his subsequent games, but he remained thoroughly inspired by the example of Tolkien, that ultimate fantasy world-builder, when he built the world of Britannia for his Ultima series. Of course, there were obvious qualitative differences between Middle-earth and Britannia. How could there not be? One was the creation of an erudite Oxford don, steeped in a lifetime worth of study of classical and Medieval literature; the other was the creation of a self-described non-reader barely out of high school. Nowhere is the difference starker than in the area of language, Tolkien’s first love. Tolkien invented entire languages from scratch, complete with grammars and pronunciation charts; Garriott substituted a rune for each letter in the English alphabet and seemed to believe he had done something equivalent. Garriott’s clumsy mishandling of Elizabethan English, meanwhile, all “thees” and “thous” in places where the formal “you” should be used, is enough to make any philologist roll over in his grave. But his heart was in the right place, and despite its creator’s limitations Britannia did take on a life of its own over the course of many Ultima iterations. If there is a parallel in computer gaming to what The Lord of the Rings and Middle-earth came to mean to fantasy literature, it must be Ultima and its world of Britannia.

In addition to the unlicensed knock-offs that were gradually driven off the market during the early 1980s and the more abstracted homages that replaced them, there was also a third category of Tolkien-derived computer games: that of licensed products. The first and only such licensee during the 1980s was Melbourne House, a book publisher turned game maker located in far-off Melbourne, Australia. Whether out of calculation or happenstance, Melbourne House approached the Tolkien estate rather than Tolkien Enterprises in 1982 to ask for a license. They were duly granted the right to make a text-adventure adaptation of The Hobbit, under certain conditions, very much in character for Christopher Tolkien, intended to ensure respect for The Hobbit‘s status as a literary work; most notably, they would be required to include a paperback copy of the novel with the game. In a decision he would later come to regret, Saul Zaentz elected to cede this ground to the Tolkien estate without a fight, apparently deeming a computer game intangible enough to be dangerous to quibble over. Another uneasy, tacit, yet surprisingly enduring precedent was thus set: Tolkien Enterprises would have control of Tolkien tabletop games, while the Tolkien estate would have control of Tolkien videogames. Zaentz’s cause for regret would come as he watched the digital-gaming market explode into tens and then hundreds of times the size of the tabletop market.

In fact, that first adaptation of The Hobbit played a role in that very process. The game became a sensation in Europe — playing it became a rite of passage for a generation of gamers there — and a substantial hit in the United States as well. It went on to become almost certainly the best-selling single text adventure ever made, with worldwide sales that may have exceeded half a million units. I’ve written at length about the Hobbit text adventure earlier, so I’ll refer you back to that article rather than describe its bold innovations and weird charm here. Otherwise, suffice to say that The Hobbit‘s success proved, if anyone was doubting, that licenses in computer games worked in commercial terms, no matter how much some might carp about the lack of originality they represented.

Still, Melbourne House appears to have had some trepidation about tackling the greater challenge of adapting The Lord of the Rings to the computer. The reasons are understandable: the simple quest narrative that was The Hobbit — the book is actually subtitled There and Back Again — read like a veritable blueprint for a text adventure, while the epic tale of spiritual, military, and political struggle that was The Lord of the Rings represented, to say the least, a more substantial challenge for its would-be adapters. Melbourne House’s first anointed successor to The Hobbit‘s thus became Sherlock, a text adventure based on another literary property entirely. They didn’t finally return to Middle-earth until 1986, four years after The Hobbit, when they made The Fellowship of the Ring into a text adventure. Superficially, the new game played much like The Hobbit, but much of the charm was gone, with quirks that had seemed delightful in the earlier game now just seeming annoying. Even had The Fellowship of the Ring been a better game, by 1986 it was getting late in the day for text adventures — even text adventures like this one with illustrations. Reviews were lukewarm at best. Nevertheless, Melbourne House kept doggedly at the task of completing the story of Frodo and the One Ring, releasing The Shadow of Mordor in 1987 and The Crack of Doom in 1989. All of these games went largely unloved in their day, and remain so in our own.

In a belated attempt to address the formal mismatch between the epic narrative of The Lord of the Rings and the granular approach of the text adventure, Melbourne House released War in Middle-earth in 1988. Partially designed by Mike Singleton, and drawing obvious inspiration from his older classic The Lords of Midnight, it was a strategy game which let the player refight the entirety of the War of the Ring, on the level of both armies and individual heroes. The Lords of Midnight had been largely inspired by Singleton’s desire to capture the sweep and grandeur of The Lord of the Rings in a game, so in a sense this new project had him coming full circle. But, just as Melbourne House’s Lord of the Rings text adventures had lacked the weird fascination of The Hobbit, War in Middle-earth failed to rise to the heights of The Lords of Midnight, despite enjoying the official license the latter had lacked.

As the 1980s came to a close, then, the Tolkien license was beginning to rival the similarly demographically perfect Star Trek license for the title of the most misused and/or underused — take your pick — in computer gaming. Tolkien Enterprises, normally the more commercially savvy and aggressive of the two Tolkien licensers, had ceded that market to the Tolkien estate, who seemed content to let Melbourne House doddle along with an underwhelming and little-noticed game every year or two. At this point, though, another computer-game developer would pick up the mantle from Melbourne House and see if they could manage to do something less underwhelming with it. We’ll continue with that story next time.

Before we get to that, though, we might take a moment to think about how different things might have been had the copyrights to Tolkien’s works been allowed to expire with their creator. There is some evidence that Tolkien himself held to this as the fairest course. In the late 1950s, in a letter to one of the first people to approach him about making a movie out of The Lord of the Rings, he expressed his wish that any movie made during his lifetime not deviate too far from the books, citing as an example of what he didn’t want to see the 1950 movie of H. Rider Haggard’s Victorian adventure novel King’s Solomon’s Mines and the many liberties it took with its source material. “I am not Rider Haggard,” he wrote. “I am not comparing myself with that master of Romance, except in this: I am not dead yet. When the film of King’s Solomon’s Mines was made, it had already passed, one might say, into the public property of the imagination. The Lord of Rings is still the vivid concern of a living person, and is nobody’s toy to play with.” Can we read into this an implicit assumption that The Lord of the Rings would become part of “the public property of the imagination” after its own creator’s death? If so, things turned out a little differently than he thought they would. A “property of the imagination” Middle-earth has most certainly become. It’s the “public” part that remains problematic.

(Sources: the books Designers & Dragons Volume 1 and Volume 2 by Shannon Appelcline, Tolkien’s Triumph: The Strange History of The Lord of the Rings by John Lennard, The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood by Kristin Thompson, Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi by John M. Gibson, Playing at the World by Jon Peterson, and Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland; Dragon Magazine of March 1985; Popular Computing Weekly of December 30 1982; The Times of December 15 2002. Online sources include Janet Brennan Croft’s essay “Three Rings for Hollywood” and The Hollywood Reporter‘s archive of a 2012 court case involving Tolkien’s intellectual property.)

 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 5: All That Glitters is Not Gold

SSI entered 1989 a transformed company. What had been a niche maker of war games for grognards had now become one of the computer-game industry’s major players thanks to the first fruits of the coveted TSR Dungons & Dragons license. Pool of Radiance, the first full-fledged Dungeons & Dragons CRPG and the first in a so-called “Gold Box” line of same, was comfortably outselling the likes of Ultima V and The Bard’s Tale III, and was well on its way to becoming SSI’s best-selling game ever by a factor of four. To accommodate their growing employee rolls, SSI moved in 1989 from their old offices in Mountain View, California, which had gotten so crowded that some people were forced to work in the warehouse using piles of boxed games for desks, to much larger, fancier digs in nearby Sunnyvale. Otherwise it seemed that all they had to do was keep on keeping on, keep on riding Dungeons & Dragons for all it was worth — and, yes, maybe release a war game here and there as well, just for old times’ sake.

One thing that did become more clear than ever over the course of the year, however, was that not all Dungeons & Dragons products were created equal. Dungeon Masters Assistant Volume II: Characters & Treasures sold just 13,516 copies, leading to the quiet ending of the line of computerized aids for the tabletop game that had been one of the three major pillars of SSI’s original plans for Dungeons & Dragons. A deviation from that old master plan called War of the Lance, an attempt to apply SSI’s experience with war games to TSR’s Dragonlance campaign setting, did almost as poorly, selling 15,255 copies. Meanwhile the second of the “Silver Box” line of action-oriented games that made up the second of the pillars continued to perform well: Dragons of Flame sold 55,711 copies. Despite that success, though, 1989 would also mark the end of the line for the Silver Box, thanks to a breakdown in relations with the British developers behind those games. Going into the 1990s, then, Dungeons & Dragons on the computer would be all about the Gold Box line of turn-based traditional CRPGs, the only one of SSI’s three pillars still standing.

Thankfully, what Pool of Radiance had demonstrated in 1988 the events of 1989 would only confirm. What players seemed to hunger for most of all in the context of Dungeons & Dragons on the computer was literally Dungeons & Dragons on the computer: big CRPGs that implemented as many of the gnarly details of the rules as possible. Even Hillsfar, a superfluous and rather pointless sort of training ground for characters created in Pool of Radiance, sold 78,418 copies when SSI released it in March as a stopgap to give the hardcore something to do while they waited for the real Pool sequel.

Every female warrior knows that cleavage is more important than protection, right?

They didn’t have too long to wait. The big sequel dropped in June in the form of Curse of the Azure Bonds, and it mostly maintained the high design standard set by Pool of Radiance. Contrarians could and did complain that the free-roaming wilderness map of its predecessor had been replaced by a simple menu of locations to visit, but for this player anyway Pool‘s overland map always felt more confusing than necessary. A more notable loss in my view is the lack of any equivalent in Curse to the satisfying experience of slowly reclaiming the village of Phlan block by block from the forces of evil in Pool, but that brilliant design stroke was perhaps always doomed to be a one-off. Ditto Pool‘s unique system of quests to fulfill, some of them having little or nothing to do with the main plot.

What players did get in Curse of the Azure Bonds was the chance to explore a much wider area around Phlan with the same characters they had used last time, fighting a selection of more powerful and interesting monsters appropriate to their party’s burgeoning skills. At the beginning of the game, the party wakes up with a set of tattoos on their bodies —  the “azure bonds” of the title — and no memory of how they got there. (I would venture to guess that many of us have experienced something similar at one time or another…) It turns out that the bonds can be used to force the characters to act against their own will. Thus the quest is on to get them removed; each of the bonds has a different source, corresponding to a different area you will need to visit and hack and slash your way through in order to have it removed. By the end of Curse, your old Pool characters — or the new ones you created just for this game, who start at level 5 — will likely be in the neighborhood of levels 10 to 12, just about the point in Dungeons & Dragons where leveling up begins to lose much of its interest.

TSR was once again heavily involved in the making of Curse of the Azure Bonds, if not quite to the same extent as Pool of Radiance. As they had for Pool, they provided for Curse an official tie-in novel and tabletop adventure module. I can’t claim to have understood all of the nuances of the plot, such as they are, when I played the game; a paragraph book is once again used, but much of what I was told to read consisted of people that I couldn’t remember or never knew who they were babbling on about stuff I couldn’t remember or never knew what it was. But then, I know nothing about the Forgotten Realms setting other than what I learned in Pool of Radiance and never read the novel, so I’m obviously not the ideal audience. (Believe me, readers, I’ve done some painful things for this blog, but reading a Dungeons & Dragons novel was just a bridge too far…) Still, my cluelessness never interfered with my pleasure in mapping out each area and bashing things with my steadily improving characters; the standard of design in Curse remains as high as the writing remains breathlessly, entertainingly overwrought. Curse of the Azure Bonds did almost as well as its predecessor for SSI, selling 179,795 copies and mostly garnering the good reviews it deserved.

It was only with the third game of the Pool of Radiance series, 1990’s Secret of the Silver Blades, that some of the luster began to rub off of the Gold Box in terms of design, if not quite yet in that ultimate metric of sales. The reasons that Secret is regarded as such a disappointment by so many players — it remains to this day perhaps the least liked of the entire Gold Box line — are worth dwelling on for a moment.

One of the third game’s problems is bound up inextricably with the Dungeons & Dragons rules themselves. Secret of the Silver Blades allows you to take your old party from Pool of Radiance and/or Curse of the Azure Bonds up to level 15, but by this stage gaining a level is vastly less interesting than it was back in the day. Mostly you just get a couple of hit points, some behind-the-scenes improvements in to-hit scores, and perhaps another spell slot or two somewhere. Suffice to say that there’s no equivalent to, say, that glorious moment when you first gain access to the Fireball spell in Pool of Radiance.

The tabletop rules suggest that characters who reach such high levels should cease to concern themselves with dungeon delving in lieu of building castles and becoming generals or political leaders. Scorpia, Computer Gaming World‘s adventure and CRPG columnist, was already echoing these sentiments in the context of the Pool of Radiance series at the conclusion of her article on Curse of the Azure Bonds: “Characters have reached (by game’s end) fairly high levels, where huge amounts of experience are necessary to advance. If character transfer is to remain a part of the series (which I certainly hope it does), then emphasis needs to be placed on role-playing, rather than a lot of fighting. The true heart of AD&D is not rolling the dice, but the relationship between the characters and their world.” But this sort of thing, of course, the Gold Box engine was utterly unequipped to handle. In light of this, SSI probably should have left well enough alone, making Curse the end of the line for the Pool characters, but players were strongly attached to the parties they’d built up and SSI for obvious reasons wanted to keep them happy. In fact, they would keep them happy to the tune of releasing not just one but two more games which allowed players to use their original Pool of Radiance parties. By the time these characters finally did reach the end of the line, SSI would have to set them against the gods themselves in order to provide any semblance of challenge.

But by no means can all of the problems with Secret of the Silver Blades be blamed on high-level characters. The game’s other issues provide an interesting example of the unanticipated effects which technical affordances can have on game design, as well as a snapshot of changing cultures within both SSI and TSR.

A Gold Box map is built on a grid of exactly 16 by 16 squares, some of which can be “special” squares. When the player’s party enters one of the latter, a script runs to make something unusual happen — from something as simple as some flavor text appearing on the screen to something as complicated as an encounter with a major non-player character. The amount of special content allowed on any given map is restricted, however, by a limitation, stemming from the tiny memories of 8-bit machines like the Commodore 64 and Apple II, on the total size of all of the scripts associated with any given map.

One of the neat 16 by 16 maps found in Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds.

The need for each map to be no larger than 16 by 16 squares couldn’t help but have a major effect on the designs that were implemented with the Gold Box engine. In Pool of Radiance, for example, the division of the city of Phlan into a set of neat sections, to be cleared out and reclaimed one by one, had its origins as much in these technical restrictions as it did in design methodology. In that case it had worked out fantastically well, but by the time development began on Secret of the Silver Blades all those predictably uniform square maps had begun to grate on Dave Shelley, that game’s lead designer. Shelley and his programmers thus came up with a clever way to escape the system of 16 by 16 dungeons.

One of the things a script could do was to silently teleport the player’s party to another square on the map. Shelley and company realized that by making clever use of this capability they could create dungeon levels that gave the illusion of sprawling out wildly and asymmetrically, like real underground caverns would. Players who came into Secret of the Silver Blades expecting the same old 16 by 16 grids would be surprised and challenged. They would have to assume that the Gold Box engine had gotten a major upgrade. From the point of view of SSI, this was the best kind of technology refresh: one that cost them nothing at all. Shelley sketched out a couple of enormous underground complexes for the player to explore, each larger almost by an order of magnitude than anything that had been seen in a Gold Box game before.

A far less neat map from Secret of the Silver Blades. It may be more realistic in its way, but which would you rather try to draw on graph paper? It may help you to understand the scale of this map to know that the large empty squares at the bottom and right side of this map each represent a conventional 16 by 16 area like the one shown above.

But as soon as the team began to implement the scheme, the unintended consequences began to ripple outward. Because the huge maps were now represented internally as a labyrinth of teleports, the hugely useful auto-map had to be disabled for these sections. And never had the auto-map been needed more, for the player who dutifully mapped the dungeons on graph paper could no longer count on them being a certain size; they were constantly spilling off the page, forcing her to either start over or go to work on a fresh page stuck onto the old with a piece of tape. Worst of all, placing all of those teleports everywhere used just about all of the scripting space that would normally be devoted to providing other sorts of special squares. So, what players ended up with was an enormous but mind-numbingly boring set of homogeneous caverns filled with the same handful of dull random-monster encounters, coming up over and over and over. This was not, needless to say, an improvement on what had come before. In fact, it was downright excruciating.

At the same time that this clever technical trick was pushing the game toward a terminal dullness, other factors were trending in the same direction. Shelley himself has noted that certain voices within SSI were questioning whether all of those little extras found in Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, like the paragraph books and the many scripted special encounters, were really necessary at all — or, at the least, perhaps it wasn’t necessary to do them with quite so much loving care. SSI was onto a good thing with these Gold Box games, said these voices — found mainly in the marketing department — and they ought to strike while the iron was hot, cranking them out as quickly as possible. While neither side would entirely have their way on the issue, the pressure to just make the games good enough rather than great in order to get them out there faster can be sensed in every Gold Box game after the first two. More and more graphics were recycled; fewer and fewer of those extra, special touches showed up. SSI never fully matched Pool of Radiance, much less improved on it, over the course of the ten Gold Box games that followed it. That SSI’s founder and president Joel Billings, as hardcore a gamer as any gaming executive ever, allowed this stagnation to take root is unfortunate, but isn’t difficult to explain. His passion was for the war games he’d originally founded SSI to make; all this Dungeons & Dragons stuff, while a cash cow to die for, was largely just product to him.

A similar complaint could be levied — and has been levied, loudly and repeatedly, by legions of hardcore Dungeons & Dragons fans over the course of decades — against Lorraine Williams, the wealthy heiress who had instituted a coup against Gary Gygax in 1985 to take over TSR. The idea that TSR’s long, slow decline and eventual downfall is due solely to Williams is more than a little dubious, given that Gygax and his cronies had already done so much to mismanage the company down that path before she ever showed up. Still, her list of wise strategic choices, at least after her very wise early decision to finally put Dungeons & Dragons on computers, is not a long one.

At the time they were signing the contract with SSI, TSR had just embarked on the most daunting project in the history of the company: a project to reorganize the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, which had sprawled into eight confusing and sometimes contradictory hardcover books by that point, into a trio of books of relatively streamlined and logically organized information, all of it completely rewritten in straightforward modern English (as opposed to the musty diction of Gary Gygax, which read a bit like a cross of Samuel Johnson with H.P. Lovecraft). The fruits of the project appeared in 1989 in the form of a second-edition Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monstrous Compendium.

And then, right after expending so much effort to clean things up, TSR proceeded to muddy the second-edition waters even more indiscriminately than they had those of the first edition. Every single character class got its own book, and players with a hankering to play Dungeons & Dragons as a Viking or one of Charlemagne’s paladins were catered to. Indeed, TSR went crazy with campaign settings. By 1993, boxed sets were available to let you play in the Forgotten Realms, in the World of Greyhawk, or in Dragonlance‘s world of Krynn, or to play the game as a Jules Verne-esque science-fiction/fantasy hybrid called Spelljammer. You could also play Dungeons & Dragons as Gothic horror if you bought the Ravenloft set, as vaguely post-apocalyptic dark fantasy if you bought Dark Sun, as a set of tales from the Arabian Nights if you bought Al-Qadim, or as an exercise in surreal Expressionism worthy of Alfred Kubin if you bought Planescape.

Whatever the artistic merits behind all these disparate approaches — and some of them did, it should be said, have much to recommend them over the generic cookie-cutter fantasy that was vanilla Dungeons & Dragons — the commercial pressures that led Lorraine Williams to approve this glut of product aren’t hard to discern. The base of tabletop Dungeons & Dragons players hadn’t grown appreciably for many years. Just the opposite, in fact: it’s doubtful whether even half as many people were actively playing Dungeons & Dragons in 1990 as at the height of the brief-lived fad for the game circa 1982. After the existing player base had dutifully rushed out to buy the new second-edition core books, in other words, very few new players were discovering the game and thus continuing to drive their sales. Unless and until they could find a way to change that situation, the only way for TSR to survive was to keep generating gobs of new product to sell to their existing players. Luckily for them, hardcore Dungeons & Dragons players were tremendously loyal and tremendously dedicated to their hobby. Many would buy virtually everything TSR put out, even things that were highly unlikely ever to make it to their gaming tables, just out of curiosity and to keep up with the state of the art, as it were. It would take two or three years for players to start to evince some fatigue with the sheer volume of product pouring out of TSR’s Lake Geneva offices, much of it sorely lacking in play-testing and basic quality control, and to start giving large swathes of it a miss — and that, in turn, would spell major danger for TSR’s bottom line.

Lorraine Williams wasn’t unaware of the trap TSR’s static customer base represented; on the contrary, she recognized as plainly as anyone that TSR needed to expand into new markets if it was to have a bright long-term future. She made various efforts in that direction even as her company sustained itself by flooding the hardcore Dungeons & Dragons market. In fact, the SSI computer games might be described as one of these efforts — but even those, successful as they on their own terms, were still playing at least partially to that same old captive market. In 1989, Williams opened a new TSR office on the West Coast in an attempt to break the company out of its nerdy ghetto. Run by Flint Dille, Williams’s brother, one of TSR West’s primary goals was to get Dungeons & Dragons onto television screens or, better yet, onto movie screens. Williams was ironically pursuing the same chimera that her predecessor Gary Gygax — now her sworn, lifetime arch-enemy — had so zealously chased. She was even less successful at it than he had been. Whereas Gygax had managed to get a Saturday morning cartoon on the air for a few seasons, Flint Dille’s operation managed bupkis in three long years of trying.

Another possible ticket to the mainstream, to be pursued every bit as seriously in Hollywood as a Dungeons & Dragons deal, was Buck Rogers, the source of the shared fortune of Lorraine Williams and Flint Dille. Their grandfather had been John F. Dille, owner of a newspaper syndicator known as the National Newspaper Service. In this capacity, the elder Dille had discovered the character that would become Buck Rogers — at the time, he was known as Anthony Rogers — in Armageddon 2419 A.D., a pulp novella written by Philip Francis Nowlan and published in Amazing Stories in 1928. Dille himself had come up with the nickname of “Buck” for the lead character, and convinced Nowlan to turn his adventures in outer space into a comic strip for his syndicator. It ended up running from 1929 until 1967 — only the first ten of those years under the stewardship of Nowlan — and was also turned into very popular radio and movie serials during the 1930s, the height of the character’s popularity. Having managed to secure all of the rights to Buck from a perhaps rather naive Nowlan, John Dille and his family profited hugely.

In marked contrast to her attitude toward TSR’s other intellectual properties, Lorraine Williams’s determination to return Buck Rogers to the forefront of pop culture was apparently born as much from a genuine passion for her family’s greatest legacy as it was from the dispassionate calculus of business. In addition to asking TSR West to lobby — once again fruitlessly, as it would transpire — for a Buck Rogers revival on television or film, she pushed a new RPG through the pipeline, entitled Buck Rogers XXVc and published in 1990. TSR supported the game fairly lavishly for several years in an attempt to get it to take off, releasing source books, adventure modules, and tie-in novels to little avail. With all due deference to Buck Roger’s role as a formative influence on Star Wars among other beloved contemporary properties, in the minds of the Dungeons & Dragons generation it was pure cheese, associated mainly with the Dille family’s last attempt to revive the character, the hilariously campy 1979 television series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The game might have had a chance with some players had Williams been willing to recognize the cheese factor and let her designers play it up, but taken with a straight face? No way.

SSI as well was convinced — or coerced — to adapt the Gold Box engine from fantasy to science fiction for a pair of Buck Rogers computer games, 1990’s Countdown to Doomsday and 1992’s Matrix Cubed. SSI’s designers must have breathed a sigh of relief when they saw that the rules for the Buck Rogers tabletop RPG, much more so than any of TSR’s previous non-Dungeons & Dragons RPGs, had been based heavily on those of the company’s flagship game; thus the process of adaptation wasn’t quite so onerous as it might otherwise have been. That said, most agree that the end results are markedly less interesting than the other Gold Box games when it comes to combat, the very thing at which the engine normally excels; a combat system designed to include magic becomes far less compelling in its absence. Benefiting doubtless from its association with the Dungeons & Dragons Gold Box line, for which enthusiasm remained fairly high, the first Buck Rogers game sold a relatively healthy 51,528 copies; the second managed a somewhat less healthy 38,086 copies.

All of these competing interests do much to explain why TSR, after involving themselves so closely in the development of Pools of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, withdrew from the process almost entirely after those games and just left SSI to it. And that fact in turn is yet one more important reason why the Gold Box games not only failed to evolve but actually devolved in many ways. TSR’s design staff might not have had a great understanding of computer technology, but they did understand their settings and rules, and had pushed SSI to try to inject at least a little bit of what made for a great tabletop-role-playing experience into the computer games. Absent that pressure, SSI was free to fall back on what they did best — which meant, true to their war-game roots, lots and lots of combat. In both Pool and Curse, random encounters cease on most maps after you’ve had a certain number of them — ideally, just before they get boring. Tellingly, in Secret of the Silver Blades and most of the other later Gold Box games that scheme is absent. The monsters just keep on coming, ad infinitum.

Despite lukewarm reviews that were now starting to voice some real irritation with the Gold Box line’s failure to advance, Secret of the Silver Blades was another huge hit, selling 167,214 copies. But, in an indication that some of those who purchased it were perhaps disappointed enough by the experience not to continue buying Gold Box games, it would be the last of the line to break the 100,000-copy barrier. The final game in the Pool of Radiance series, Pools of Darkness, sold just 52,793 copies upon its release in 1991.

In addition to the four-game Pool series, SSI also released an alternate trilogy of Dungeons & Dragons Gold Box games set in Krynn, the world of the Dragonlance setting. Champions of Krynn was actually released before Secret of the Silver Blades, in January of 1990, and sold 116,693 copies; Death Knights of Krynn was released in 1991 and sold 61,958 copies; and The Dark Queen of Krynn, the very last Gold Box game, was released in 1992 and sold 40,640 copies. Another modest series of two games was developed out-of-house by Beyond Software (later to be renamed Stormfront Studios): Gateway to the Savage Frontier (1991, 62,581 copies sold) and Treasures of the Savage Frontier (1992, 31,995 copies sold). In all, then, counting the two Buck Rogers games but not counting the oddball Hillsfar, SSI released eleven Gold Box games over a period of four years.

While Secret of the Silver Blades still stands as arguably the line’s absolute nadir in design terms, the sheer pace at which SSI pumped out Gold Box games during the latter two years of this period in particular couldn’t help but give all of them a certain generic, interchangeable quality. It all began to feel a bit rote — a bit cheap, in stark contrast to the rarefied atmosphere of a Big Event that had surrounded Pool of Radiance, a game which had been designed and marketed to be a landmark premium product and had in turn been widely perceived as exactly that. Not helping the line’s image was the ludicrous knockoff-Boris Vallejo cover art sported by so many of the boxes, complete with lots of tawny female skin and heaving bosoms. Susan Manley has described the odd and somewhat uncomfortable experience of being a female artist asked to draw this sort of stuff.

They pretty much wanted everybody [female] to be the chainmail-bikini babes, as we called them. I said, “Look, not everybody wants to be a chainmail-bikini babe.” They said, “All the guys want that, and we don’t have very many female players.” I said, “You’re never going to have female players if you continue like this. Functional armor that would actually protect people would play a little bit better.”

Tom [Wahl, SSI’s lead artist] and I actually argued over whether my chest size was average or not, which was an embarrassing conversation to have. He absolutely thought that everybody needed to look like they were stepping out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog if they were female. I said, “Gee, how come all the guys don’t have to be super-attractive?” They don’t look like they’re off of romance-novel covers, let’s put it that way. They get to be rugged, they get to be individual, they get to all have different costumes. They get to all have different hairstyles, but the women all had to have long, flowing locks and lots of cleavage.

By 1991, the Gold Box engine was beginning to seem rather like a relic from technology’s distant past. In a sense, the impression was literally correct. When SSI had begun to build the Gold Box engine back in 1987, the Commodore 64 had still ruled the roost of computer gaming, prompting SSI to make the fateful decision not only to make sure the Gold Box games could run on that sharply limited platform, but also to build most of their development tools on it. Pool of Radiance then appeared about five minutes before the Commodore 64’s popularity imploded in the face of Nintendo. The Gold Box engine did of course run on other platforms, but it remained throughout its life subject to limitations born of its 8-bit origins — things like the aforementioned maps of exactly 16 by 16 squares and the strict bounds on the amount of custom scripting that could be included on a single one of those maps. Even as the rest of the industry left the 8-bit machines behind in 1989 and 1990, SSI was reluctant to do so in that the Commodore 64 still made up a major chunk of Gold Box sales: Curse of the Azure Bonds sold 68,622 copies on the Commodore 64, representing more than a third of its total sales, while Secret of the Silver Blades still managed a relatively healthy 40,425 Commodore 64 versions sold. Such numbers were likely thanks to diehard Commodore 64 owners who had very few other games to buy thanks to an industry that was moving more and more to MS-DOS as its standard platform. SSI was thus trapped for some time in something of a Catch-22, wanting to continue to reap the rewards of being just about the last major American publisher to support the Commodore 64 but having to compromise the experience of users with more powerful machines in order to do so.

SSI had managed to improve the Gold Box graphics considerably by the time of The Dark Queen of Krynn, the last game in the line.

When SSI finally decided to abandon the Commodore 64 in 1991, they did what they could to enhance the Gold Box engine to take advantage of the capabilities of the newer machines, introducing more decorative displays and pictures drawn in 256-color VGA along with some mouse support. Yet the most fundamental limitations changed not all; the engine was now aged enough that SSI wasn’t enthused about investing in a more comprehensive overhaul. And thus the Gold Box games seemed more anachronistic than ever. As SSI’s competitors worked on a new generation of CRPGs that took advantage of 32-bit processors and multi-megabyte memories, the Gold Box games remained the last surviving relics of the old days of 8 bits and 64 K. Looking at The Dark Queen of Krynn and the technical tour de force that was Origin’s Ultima VII side by side, it’s difficult to believe that the two games were released in the same year, much less that they were, theoretically at least, direct competitors.

It’s of course easy for us to look back today and say what SSI should have done. Instead of flooding the market with so many generic Gold Box games, they should have released just one game every year or eighteen months, each release reflecting a much more serious investment in writing and design as well as real, immediately noticeable technical improvements. They should, in other words, have strained to make every new Gold Box game an event like Pool of Radiance had been in its day. But this had never been SSI’s business model; they had always released lots of games, very few of which sold terribly well by the standard of the industry at large, but whose sales in the aggregate were enough to sustain them. When, beginning with Pool of Radiance, they suddenly were making hits by anybody’s standards, they had trouble adjusting their thinking to their post-Pool situation, had trouble recognizing that they could sell more units and make more money by making fewer but better games. Such is human nature; making such a paradigm shift would doubtless challenge any of us.

Luckily, just as the Gold Box sales began to tail off SSI found an alternative approach to Dungeons & Dragons on the computer from an unlikely source. Westwood Associates was a small Las Vegas-based development company, active since 1985, who had initially made their name doing ports of 8-bit titles to more advanced machines like the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST (among these projects had been ports of Epyx’s Winter Games, World Games, and California Games). What made Westwood unique and highly sought after among porters was their talent for improving their 8-bit source material enough, in terms of both audiovisuals and game play, that the end results would be accepted almost as native sons by the notoriously snobbish owners of machines like the Amiga. Their ambition was such that many publishers came to see the biggest liability of employing them as a tendency to go too far, to such an extent that their ports could verge on becoming new games entirely; for example, their conversion of Epyx’s Temple of Apshai on the Macintosh from turn-based to real-time play was rejected as being far too much of a departure.

Westwood first came to the attention of Gold Box fans when they were given the job of implementing Hillsfar, the stopgap “character training grounds” which SSI released between Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds. Far more auspicious were Westwood’s stellar ports of the mainline Gold Box games to the Amiga, which added mouse support and improved the graphics well before SSI’s own MS-DOS versions made the leap to VGA. But Brett Sperry and Louis Castle, Westwood’s founders, had always seen ports merely as a way of getting their foot in the door of the industry. Already by the time they began working with SSI, they were starting to do completely original games of their own for Electronic Arts and Mediagenic/Activision. (Their two games for the latter, both based on a board-game line called BattleTech, were released under the Infocom imprint, although the “real” Cambridge-based Infocom had nothing to do with them.) Westwood soon convinced SSI as well to let them make an original title alongside the implementation assignments: what must be the strangest of all the SSI Dungeons & Dragons computer games, a dragon flight simulator (!) called Dragon Strike. Released in 1990, it wasn’t quite an abject flop but neither was it a hit, selling 34,296 copies. With their next original game for SSI, however, Westwood would hit pay dirt.

Eye of the Beholder was conceived as Dungeons & Dragons meets Dungeon Master, bringing the real-time first-person game play of FTL’s seminal 1987 dungeon crawl to SSI’s product line. In a measure of just how ahead-of-its-time Dungeon Master had been in terms not only of technology but also of fundamental design, nothing had yet really managed to equal it over the three years since its release. Eye of the Beholder arguably didn’t fully manage that feat either, but it did at the very least come closer than most other efforts — and of course it had the huge advantage of the Dungeons & Dragons license. When a somewhat skeptical SSI sent an initial shipment of 20,000 copies into the distribution pipeline in February of 1991, “they all disappeared” in the words of Joel Billings: “We put them out and boom!, they were gone.” Eye of the Beholder went on to sell 129,234 copies, nicely removing some of the sting from the slow commercial decline of the Gold Box line and, indeed, finally giving SSI a major Dungeons & Dragons hit that wasn’t a Gold Box game. The inevitable sequel, released already in December of 1991, sold a more modest but still substantial 73,109 copies, and a third Eye of the Beholder, developed in-house this time at SSI, sold 50,664 copies in 1993. The end of the line for this branch of the computerized Dungeons & Dragons family came with the pointless Dungeon Hack, a game that, as its name implies, presented its player with an infinite number of generic randomly generated dungeons to hack her way through; it sold 27,110 copies following its release at the end of 1993.

This chart from the April 1991 Software Publishers Association newsletter shows just how quickly Eye of the Beholder took off. Unfortunately, this would mark the last time an SSI Dungeons & Dragons game would be in this position.

Despite their popularity in their heyday, the Eye of the Beholder games in my view have aged less gracefully than their great progenitor Dungeon Master, or for that matter even the early Gold Box games. If what you wished for more than anything when playing Dungeon Master was lots more — okay, any — story and lore to go along with the mapping, the combat, and the puzzles, these may be just the games for you. For the rest of us, though, the Dungeons & Dragons rules make for an awkward fit to real-time play, especially in contrast to Dungeon Master‘s designed-from-scratch-for-real-time systems of combat, magic, and character development. The dungeon designs and even the graphics similarly underwhelm; Eye of the Beholder looks a bit garish today in contrast to the clean minimalism of Dungeon Master. The world would have to wait more than another year, until the release of Ultima Underworld, to see a game that truly and comprehensively improved on the model of Dungeon Master. In the meantime, though, the Eye of the Beholder games would do as runners-up for folks who had played Dungeon Master and its sequel and still wanted more, or for those heavily invested in the Dungeons & Dragons rules and/or the Forgotten Realms setting.

For SSI, the sales of the Eye of the Beholder games in comparison to those of the latest Gold Box titles provided all too clear a picture of where the industry was trending. Players were growing tired of the Gold Box games; they hungered after faster-paced CRPGs that were prettier to look at and easier to control. While Eye of the Beholder was still high on the charts, TSR and SSI agreed to extend their original five-year contract, which was due to expire on January 1, 1993, by eighteen months to mid-1994. The short length of the extension may be indicative of growing doubts on the part of TSR about SSI’s ability to keep up with the competition in the CRPG market; one might see it as a way of putting them on notice that the TSR/SSI partnership was by no means set in stone for all time. At any rate, a key provision of the extension was that SSI must move beyond the fading Gold Box engine, must develop new technology to suit the changing times and to try to recapture those halcyon early days when Pool of Radiance ruled the charts and the world of gaming was abuzz with talk of Dungeons & Dragons on the computer. Accordingly, SSI put a bow on the Gold Box era in March of 1993 with the release of Unlimited Adventures, a re-packaging of their in-house development tools that would let diehard Gold Box fans make their own games to replace the ones SSI would no longer be releasing. It sold just 32,362 copies, but would go on to spawn a loyal community of adventure-makers that to some extent still persists to this day. As for what would come next for computerized Dungeons & Dragons… well, that’s a story for another day.

By way of wrapping up today’s story, I should note that my take on the Gold Box games, while I believe it dovetails relatively well with the consensus of the marketplace at the time, is by no means the only one in existence. A small but committed group of fans still loves these games — yes, all of them — for their approach to tactical combat, which must surely mark the most faithful implementation of the tabletop game’s rules for same ever to make it to the computer. “It’s hard to imagine a truly bad game being made with it,” says blogger Chester Bolingbroke — better known as the CRPG Addict — of the Gold Box engine. (Personally, I’d happily nominate Secret of the Silver Blades for that designation.)

Still, even the Gold Box line’s biggest fans will generally acknowledge that the catalog is very front-loaded in terms of innovation and design ambition. For those of you like me who aren’t CRPG addicts, I highly recommend Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, which together let you advance the same party of characters just about as far as remains fun under the Dungeons & Dragons rules, showing off the engine at its best in the process. If the Gold Box games that came afterward wind up a bit of an anticlimactic muddle, we can at least still treasure those two genuine classics. And if you really do want more Gold Box after playing those two, Lord knows there’s plenty of it out there, enough to last most sane people a lifetime. Just don’t expect any of it to quite rise to the heights of the first games and you’ll be fine.

(Sources: This article is largely drawn from the collection of documents that Joel Billings donated to the Strong Museum of Play, which includes lots of internal SSI documents and some press clippings. Also, the book Designers & Dragons Volume 1 by Shannon Appelcline; Computer Gaming World of September 1989; Retro Gamer 52 and 89; Matt Barton’s video interviews with Joel Billings, Susan Manley, and Dave Shelley and Laura Bowen.

Many of the Gold Box games and the Eye of the Beholder trilogy are available for purchase from GOG.com.)

 
 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 4: Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance is one of the most important CRPGs of all time in terms of both design and the genre’s commercial history. Coming as it did near the end of the line for an 8-bit CRPG tradition that began in earnest with the original Ultima and Wizardry games back in 1981, it’s easy to see it as the culmination of that tradition, blending the ideas and approaches of its predecessors with its own brand new commercial trump card, the Dungeons & Dragons license. The latter was more than enough to move Pool of Radiance and the Gold Box line it spawned into place as the 1B to the Ultima series’s perennial 1A, replacing the Bard’s Tale games, whose own shooting star was now in the descendant. As Wizardry had been replaced by The Bard’s Tale not so long ago, so was The Bard’s Tale now replaced by the Gold Box.

My wife Dorte and I recently played through Pool of Radiance as the first stage in a grander project of trying to take the same party of characters through the entire four-game series that it begins. This article describes what we found therein.

Being the first game in a series that would spawn three direct sequels, Pool of Radiance limits your characters to somewhere between level 6 and 9, depending on class; this is strictly a low- to mid-level adventure, reserving the real power-gaming for its sequels. Still, there’s a big difference between level 1 and level 6, and the thrill of seeing your characters advance and grow in power, so much at the heart of an RPG’s appeal, is the greatest at the lower levels.

The story is appropriate to the characters’ somewhat limited powers. It’s surprisingly modest in scale and scope, at least within the over-the-top context of ludic fantasy in general. Instead of saving the world, you’re “only” out to save a little town called Phlan that’s been largely overrun with monsters in recent years. Like so much about Pool of Radiance, the scenario harks back to the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons experience, to iconic low-level adventures like Gary Gygax’s own The Keep on the Borderlands and the classic British module The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. In these, as in Pool of Radiance, the stakes for the campaign world are relatively low but the stakes for the players’ party couldn’t be higher. There are, thank God, no “Chosen Ones” or existential universal threats in Pool of Radiance, a welcome distinction that largely holds true throughout the Gold Box line.

In addition to the decidedly modest heights to which characters are allowed to rise in Pool of Radiance specifically, the need to fit the Gold Box games in general into TSR’s existing milieus tended to rein in such excesses. You can’t have every party saving the world when said world needs to be shared by hundreds of adventure modules, source books, computer games, and novels. Those who are invested in the Forgotten Realms as a setting will be able to situate Phlan on a map of the Realms and enjoy the lengthy explication of the region’s history and geography included with the game. Those like me who couldn’t really care less how Phlan fits into the greater Realms don’t have to worry about it.

More interesting to me is the game’s method of telling the more immediate story of your own party of adventurers. As in the contemporaneous Wasteland, much of that story is moved into an accompanying booklet of paragraphs. To my mind, though, Pool of Radiance‘s paragraph book is richer and more interesting than that of Wasteland. In addition to flavor text, you’ll also find maps, diagrams, and illustrations inside the paragraph book to further enrich the experience. And, while I wouldn’t accuse the writing of being precisely good, it is knowing and entertaining in its pulpy cheesiness — and really, how much more can one expect out of such an artificial narrative experience as a traditional monster-bashing CRPG? Dorte and I laughed at the writing a lot, but, hey, it was good-natured laughter; we didn’t go in expecting Shakespeare.

Pool of Radiance

When starting Pool of Radiance, the first order of business — after getting past the irritating code-wheel-based copy protection, that is — must be to create your six-character adventuring party. As was remarked often by disappointed purists back in the day, Pool of Radiance offers nothing close to a full implementation of the byzantine collection of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers. You can, for instance, choose among only the four core, archetypal character classes of fighter, cleric, magic user, and thief, combining them with the six races of human, dwarf, elf, gnome, half-elf, and halfling. Personally, I don’t consider such simplifications a negative at all really. Trust me, what’s here is more than (over)complicated enough. More on that later.

Don't you just love the 1980s permed hair and headband? Makes me want to listen to a little Olivia Newton John.

Don’t you love the 1980s permed hair and headband? Makes me want to listen to a little Olivia Newton John.

As usual for games of this tradition, Pool of Radiance lets you re-roll a character’s statistics as many times as you like to get someone you consider viable. Or, if you like, the game lets you bypass all of the virtual dice-rolling and just input starting ability scores of your choice for your characters. Implemented in the service of some ill-defined scheme to let you move your favorite tabletop characters into the computer game, the feature was promptly used by legions of cheaters to make parties full of super characters with the maximum score of 18 in every attribute. But the final joke was on them: Pool of Radiance punishes such players by scaling some of the fights to the overall power of the party, leading to some long, drawn-out combats for the cheaters that those who play fair will breeze through. As we’re beginning to see already, this game does have a way of proving itself more cleverly designed than one initially wants to give it credit for.

You can combine male heads with female bodies and vice versa when creating a portrait for your character, a feature apparently left in because it amused SSI's programmers. Combined with the questionable fashion choices, the results can be kind of horrifying.

You can combine male heads with female bodies and vice versa when creating a portrait for your character, a feature apparently left in because it amused SSI’s programmers. Combined with the questionable fashion choices, the results can be kind of horrifying.

You can also choose what each character’s “tabletop miniature” will look like, a feature reaching all the way back to Dungeons & Dragons‘s earliest roots in hardcore miniatures wargaming. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see much difference in the icons with these pixelated graphics.

Pool of Radiance

Once you’ve put your party together, you can finally begin the game proper. It opens with your arrival by boat at the last remaining human enclave in the once-thriving village, and a brief guided tour thereof by a representative of the town. The screen layout will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played a Wizardry or Bard’s Tale game. I would say, however, that just the guide’s introduction alone already contains more text and story content than either of those games.

After the guide is finished, you can start to explore. The opening area is devoid of monsters and completely safe (well, almost; stay out of taverns for a while). It contains all the expected accoutrements of a CRPG home base: shops of various sorts, temples for healing, a training hall for leveling up.

Pool of Radiance

It wouldn’t be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons if the shops didn’t offer a healthy selection of Gary Gygax’s beloved but incomprehensible-to-the-rest-of-us Medieval arms. (“How many kinds of pole arms do you need, Gary?” asked Dave Arneson. “It’s a stick with a pointy thing on the end of it!”) Players of course always ignore all the Gallic gibberish and just pick out a trusty long sword, axe, or mace. None of the weird stuff is used by any of the creatures you fight, nor is it found in any of their treasure hoards, triggering a sneaking suspicion that the designers of Pool of Radiance had no more idea what any of this is than the rest of us do.

Pool of Radiance

Another nod to the classic tabletop experience is the table of “tavern tales” found in the paragraph book, just like the ones found in Keep on the Borderlands and all those other early Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules. (How many modules start with the party meeting in a tavern and overhearing rumors about that nearby castle/dungeon/graveyard/monastery?)

Pool of Radiance

Your goals in Pool of Radiance are delivered in the form of commissions found at the city clerk’s office. Several are usually available at any one time, giving the game a welcome non-linearity. As you carry out commissions, you return to the clerk to check them off your to-do list and to receive rewards in the form of experience and money. The whole process is immensely satisfying. As you build up your party, you venture further and further afield, claiming back more and more of Phlan from the monsters. This modest exercise in urban renewal feels far more rewarding than the elaborate save-the-world plots found in most CRPGs.

Another thing that happens as you complete commissions is that you gain a better and better overview of Phlan and its environs as a whole, learning how it all fits together. As usual in such old-school CRPGs as this one, each area is a fixed size, of 16 by 16 squares in this case. Yet SSI made the effort to make them fit together in logical, even intriguing ways to build a larger environment. If you can manage to get yourself in the right frame of mind, mapping really does become one of Pool of Radiance‘s pleasures. Dorte, a spatial-puzzle-loving fan of Carcassonne and Blokus in all the ways I am not, is the cartographer when we play Gold Box games. (I’m the driver; she wants nothing to do with that quirky interface.) I caught her from time to time when we weren’t playing redrawing and repositioning and even taping together her level maps to create a grand plan of Phlan: “This is fun!”

Making mapping far more fun in Pool of Radiance is the game’s complete disinterest in all of the nonsense that’s usually associated with it. There are no spinners or teleports or other artificial time-extenders and frustration-inducers. Unlike The Bard’s Tale, Pool of Radiance has enough real content that it doesn’t need that stuff. Indeed, the designers bent over backward to make mapping as painless as possible. Your grid location on the current map is usually shown right there onscreen, as is the direction you’re currently facing; note the “5, 5” and the “E” respectively on the screenshot above. There’s even an overhead auto-map of sorts. It’s not quite ideal — doors don’t show up on it, nor for that matter anything else other than walls and corridors — but, hey, it shows that they were trying. It’s all part of a thoroughgoing theme of Pool of Radiance, that of duplicating most of the gameplay of its predecessors in the broadest strokes, but doing it all just a little bit better, a little bit smarter, and most of all with a little bit more mercy on you, the long-suffering player.

For instance, consider the case of the wandering monster. In Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale, entering a new area always brings a little thrill of excitement as you get to see what types of new critters now come after you. That excitement dissipates, however, as the same handful of monsters just keep coming at you. Pretty soon you just wish you could move around and finish drawing your map without being attacked by endless hordes of the same old same old.

Pool of Radiance fixes this problem, simply and ingeniously and without requiring much technical innovation at all. When you enter a new area, you do indeed find it populated with the expected horde of wandering monsters. Once you’ve fought and won a certain number of combats, though, they simply stop coming. Your overarching goal being to clear the monsters out of Phlan, this makes a great deal of thematic sense for this particular game. But more importantly, it makes a lot of sense as good game design in general. Combined with lots of interesting fixed encounters, far more than the one or two typical of a Wizardry or Bard’s Tale dungeon level, it keeps the game from ever descending into a dull grindfest. Just when you’re starting to get tired of a stream of samey encounters, they stop. I can’t overemphasize what a difference this one simple act of mercy makes for my own enjoyment of Pool of Radiance. Suddenly an entire genre of gaming that used to bore me becomes a pleasure. The older I get and the more loathe I become to waste my time on anything if I can help it, the more my first rule of game design becomes a match for my first rule of writing: don’t be boring.

Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance‘s adherence to that maxim extends to the times when you do have to fight; combat in this game is a magnificent experience. I think most fans of Pool of Radiance and the other Gold Box games would agree with me that their beating heart is the best combat engine yet devised for a CRPG at the time of their release. Indeed, some would argue that these games still haven’t been bettered in this respect if your definition of good CRPG combat is a cerebral, tactical, turn-based affair. (Granted, such a thing is not particularly in step with mainstream tastes these days.) There’s a welcome logic at play here that’s painfully absent from virtually all of the Gold Box series’s rivals. Because combat is what you spend the vast majority of your time doing in these old CRPGs, the designers of this one decided to take the time to make it really, really great.

And, like so much about the Gold Box games, the focus on intricate combat is also a perfect fit for the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons license. Many have accused that game of not being a role-playing game at all, rather a 1:1-scale wargame focusing on combat almost to the exclusion of all else. Whether you consider that description to be a criticism or not — one suspects that that’s exactly what many if not most players really wanted from the game anyway — Pool of Radiance does its inspiration proud. Just as combat is the essence of Dungeons & Dragons, combat is the essence of the Gold Box games.

Take, for instance, the inevitable mass-damage Fireball spell, a staple of just about every fantasy CRPG ever made. When your magic user gains access to Fireball in the latter stages of Pool of Radiance, it’s a big moment. Yet it’s still not something you can use quite as mindlessly as you can in other games. This Fireball spell has a set area of effect, and doesn’t discriminate between friend and foe. Therefore you need to place it very, very carefully to avoid nuking your own party. You also have to reckon with range, line of sight, and even the spell’s casting time when doing so; if your magic user gets hit while she’s busy casting a spell, she loses it. None of which is to say that a spell like Fireball isn’t wonderful. Quite the opposite: it’s all the more satisfying when a well-placed explosion takes out an entire rank of orcs. And then there’s Lightning Bolt, another spell you’ll acquire at about the same time as Fireball that’s even more tricky to set up just perfectly, and even more satisfying when it works. There are many layers to the onion of Gold Box combat, and they only multiply as you climb the ranks and build more powerful characters — and of course find yourself fighting more powerful monsters as you do so, often with special attacks of their own to go with unique immunities and vulnerabilities that demand you adjust your tactics constantly.

In fact, one might argue that when it comes to combat Pool of Radiance actually betters the typical tabletop experience as most real players knew it. Gary Gygax’s elaborate rules for combat presumed a lot of knowledge about where all of the various combatants were standing in relation to one another and the environment, but it was never entirely clear how to plot and keep track of all that without infinite time to draw up floor plans or construct scale models of the environment. But the computerized Dungeons & Dragons has no problem coming up with such plans on the fly, presenting each battle using wargamey “miniatures” that would have warmed Gygax’s heart and keeping track of all of the other complications that usually led to fudging, simplifying, and house-ruling the tabletop game. One might say that all those fiddly rules were just waiting all along for SSI to come along and make them actually playable. Gold Box combat rules. I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s so wonderful that I’m willing to forgive a lot about the rest of the game that surrounds it.

And that’s good because, almost paradoxically given how progressive Pool of Radiance is in many ways, there really is quite a lot to forgive here. The game’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness: almost every one of its numerous frustrating, infuriating qualities stems from an overzealous faithfulness to the fiddly rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

To begin with, there’s the racial level limits, which arbitrarily cap the maximum advancement in all classes except thief for all races except humans. The levels limits are something of a hidden poison pill whose effect won’t hit you until you import your old party with all of their hard-won experience into Pool of Radiance‘s sequel. It comes as a hard blow indeed when you realize that some of your stalwarts are going to be untenable because they can’t keep pace with the escalating power of the opponents they will be facing in that game and the ones that follow. All you can do is cast your old non-human characters aside and roll up new, human characters to replace them. This is terrible game design, all courtesy of our old friend Gary Gygax. Here’s his justification:

The character races in the AD&D system were selected with care. They give variety of approach, but any player selecting a non-human (part- or demi-human) character does not have any real advantage. True, some of those racial types give short-term advantages to the players who choose them, but in the long run, these same characters are at an equal disadvantage when compared to human characters with the same number of experience points. This was, in fact, designed into the game. The variety of approach makes role selection more interesting. Players must weigh advantages and disadvantages carefully before opting for character race, human or otherwise. It is in vogue in some campaigns to remove restrictions on demi-humans — or at least relax them somewhat. While this might make the DM popular for a time with those participants with dwarven fighters of high level, or elven wizards of vast power, it will eventually consign the campaign as a whole to one in which the only races will be non-human. Dwarves, elves, et al will have all the advantages and no real disadvantages, so the majority of players will select those races, and humankind will disappear from the realm of player character types. This bears upon the various hybrid racial types, as well.

Like so many of Gygax’s justifications, this one is patent nonsense. (I do, however, treasure the smirking reference to what’s “in vogue” — classic Gygax through and through.) The way to ensure that humans stay viable and desirable, if that’s a design goal, isn’t to cripple all of the other races so badly that they become pointless, but to offer some similar off-setting advantage to humans. Humans in TSR’s own Star Frontiers tabletop RPG, for instance, get to add some bonus points to the ability scores of their players’ choice, justified with a paean to humanity’s sheer jack-of-all-trades adaptability in contrast to the more specialized powers of the other races.

Pool of Radiance

We also have Gygax to thank for Pool of Radiance‘s convoluted method of handling spells. Unlike virtually every other CRPG but like tabletop Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a cleric or magic user’s list of spells in this game isn’t treated as a handy universal repository from which she can fire off the spell of her choice at will (as long, of course, as she still has the mana to do so). No, in the Gold Box games you have to memorize ahead of time the precise spells you think you will actually want to use on your next expedition. Because you usually don’t know precisely what kind of monsters you’ll be fighting in the course of said expedition, you’re continually being caught out with the wrong selection of spells. Run into a pack of disease-causing undead without having memorized Cure Disease? Too bad; reload back at camp and try a different spell arsenal. Run into the rare locked door that your fighters can’t bash in, and you don’t have Knock memorized? Take the long walk back to a safe area to rest and memorize it. There’s no strategy to any of this, just rote trial and error. The system is actively damaging to the pleasure induced by that magnificent combat engine. Because so many of the more specialized spells are useful only in specific situations, you end up treating every encounter as a nail and always having lots of Fireball hammers memorized to bash it with. How much better would it be to feel the thrill of satisfaction that comes with a well-timed Animate Dead, Blink, or Invisibility 10′ Radius?

One can only be thankful that SSI didn’t see fit to implement the tabletop rules’ requirement that characters collect a bunch of “material components” to cast most spells. (Interestingly, a similar system did show up in Ultima, with its system of “reagents.”) Presumably it was just too much to fit into a program that needed to run on a Commodore 64 — and thank God for that.

The most initially baffling of all the design choices in Pool of Radiance — baffling, that is, if you aren’t familiar with the tabletop game — is its handling of money. First of all, the game insists on dividing your funds into different types of coins — platinum, gold, electrum, ad nauseam — and keeping rigorous track of exactly how many of each coin your characters carry. It would be like a game with a contemporary setting telling you that you have 2 five-dollar bills, 2 one-dollar bills, 3 quarters, 1 dime, 1 nickel, and 7 pennies instead of just telling you you have $12.97. All because, once again, that’s how Gygax says you should do it. The Gold Box games are quite possibly the only CRPGs in history where your quest can hinge on whether you have the correct change for something. How’s that for heroic fantasy?

Pool of Radiance

And then there’s just so much money. Phlan and its environs are drowning in wealth. Because the weight of all of those individualized coins is meticulously tracked, you can’t carry it all; never have Dorte and I wished more for a bank than during our time in Phlan. Within a few hours, you’ll be leaving mountains of coins behind after encounters as a matter of course, dropping coins in the street, leaving shopkeepers 1000-platinum-piece tips after spending 10 gold pieces on a few arrows. Forget trying to reclaim the village from the monsters; there’s enough money in Phlan to buy each and every citizen a mansion in whatever is the Forgotten Realms’s equivalent of Beverly Hills. What on earth is going on here? Why would anyone design a game this way?

Well, what’s going on here is a vicious conflict between the needs of Pool of Radiance the computer game and the tabletop Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. Those rules are as persnickety about experience points as they are about most things, allowing Dungeon Masters to award them for exactly two things: killing monsters and finding treasure. A tabletop Dungeons & Dragons campaign is — or was meant to be — a slow-paced affair, with characters spending many months at each level. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide and elsewhere, Dungeon Masters are continually cautioned not to let their campaigns devolve into “Monty Haul” affairs where magic items and experience points are passed out like candy. Yet a CRPG like Pool of Radiance is in fact by necessity a Monty Haul affair. People don’t want to spend months waiting for their computer characters to level up. People want to see them move through the ranks in relatively short order, want a more concentrated dose of the RPG experience. So, SSI needed to increase the pace. The obvious way to do that was to hand out more experience more quickly. Yet they were bound to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules that coupled experience awards strictly to monsters killed and hoards looted. And now we begin to understand the broken economy: all that money is flying around strictly as a way of passing experience to characters without violating the letter of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules; the spirit of the rules is, of course, another matter entirely.

The natural next question is to ask why SSI felt themselves bound so strictly to the tabletop rules, even when it proved so damaging to the finished product. The obvious supposition is that TSR, fiercely protective of Dungeons & Dragons as they always were both before and after the era of Gary Gygax, told them they were so bound. The contemporary adventure-game reviewer and columnist Shay Addams, who may or may not have been reporting information gleamed from contacts at SSI, claimed that “TSR insisted that SSI stick by the original rules, and they had final say on the finished product.” While the latter assertion is certainly true, the idea of an overly pedantic, nitpicky TSR is somewhat cast into doubt by the fact that people who were associated with the Gold Box project at SSI don’t tend to describe the relationship in those terms today. Instead we hear always of a genuinely collaborative relationship filled with lots of give and take, a relationship so warm that it spawned cross-company friendships that persisted in some cases long after both companies ceased to exist. Further, one has to presume that the folks SSI was working with at TSR were all too aware themselves of what a confusing muddle Advanced Dungeons & Dragons could be, for they were hard at work on a second edition of the rules that was meant to untangle some of their Gygaxian knots at the very time that SSI was developing Pool of Radiance.

But, whether the compulsion to so literally translate so many rules from tabletop to desktop arose from within TSR or SSI, Addams is right about its effect: “That restriction must have been creatively inhibiting, for it means ignoring much of what game designers have learned about writing RPGs designed to be played on a computer — which are decidedly different from face-to-face games.” Advanced Dungeons & Dragons proved a double-edged sword for Pool of Radiance, the source of much of what is good in it and most of what is bad. I’m not sure that I’ve ever reviewed another game that so freely mixes really good ideas with really bad ones. Too often Pool of Radiance feels like playing tabletop Dungeons & Dragons with the most humorlessly pedantic Dungeon Master ever.

On balance, though, the good outweighs the bad — which I must say kind of surprises me, given that there’s so very much I love to complain about in this game. One big difference-maker is certainly that the thing that Pool of Radiance does best, tactical combat, it does so insanely well. And then when we get out of the weeds of the irritating minutiae of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and look at Pool of Radiance in a more holistic sense, those shocking progressive tendencies do overshadow the pedanticism in the final reckoning. Unlike so many of its contemporary CRPGs, there’s a sense about this one that its designers actually tried to walk a mile in their players’ shoes. Pool of Radiance is very solvable in comparison to an Ultima with its fragile string-of-pearls approach to plotting, and doesn’t wear out its welcome like a Bard’s Tale with its boring empty mazes and boring endless combats. If you told me that you only planned to play one 1980s-vintage CRPG in your life, I’d tell you to make it this one.

Thankfully, it’s recently become much easier to do just that. Pool of Radiance and its three sequels are now available on GOG.com along with all the other Gold Box games, ready to run on modern computers. These versions emulate the MS-DOS versions, which are faster, prettier (relatively speaking), and easier to play than the Commodore 64 originals. (Trust me, you don’t want to play 8-bit CRPGs in their 8-bit incarnations, unless you really, really enjoying swapping mounds of disks and waiting, waiting, waiting at every turn.)

I won’t lie to you: the learning curve can be a little steep with these games. To try to alleviate that just a bit, I’ll close today by offering some hard-won tips Dorte and I assembled after our own recent play-through. Crude and ugly and opaque though it may appear in the beginning, stick with it for an hour or two and you may be surprised at just how compelling Pool of Radiance can become. Sure, you might find yourself complaining the whole time you play; it’s just that kind of game. But give it a fair chance and soon you might not want to quit playing either. And that’s the real test, isn’t it?


 

A Few Tips On How to Best Enjoy Your Time in Phlan (and Beyond)

  • Take the time (and paper and ink) to print out the paragraph book rather than relying on a digital copy. There’s something to be said for the old-school physicality of flipping through actual pages to find notes and clues. And of course if you have a physical copy it’s easy to put a tick next to the entries you’ve read. Don’t peek at entries you haven’t been asked to read, and certainly don’t just read the paragraph book straight through. This game deserves to be played fair, on its own terms.
  • Plenty of modern players will want to bail as soon as they get a look at Pool of Radiance‘s bizarre-by-modern-standards keyboard-only interface. But have faith: yes, the interface is bizarre, but it’s consistent in its bizarreness. In general, you move up and down through vertical menus of nouns by using the 7 and 1 key on the numeric keypad, and select from horizontal menus of verbs by pressing the first letter of your choice. Every option available to you at any given time is always displayed onscreen, showing that SSI was by no means totally ignorant of the principles of good interface design. You can move your party about the world and move the cursor about the scene of combat using the numeric keypad as well. Within a few hours the interface will start to feel like a comfortable old shoe. No, really. Trust me.
  • Especially if you’re planning to take the grand tour through all three of Pool of Radiance‘s sequels, you’ll want to think carefully about the party you put together. All of the non-human races are pretty much right out, despite their ability to multi-class and other special abilities, because they come with crippling level limits that you will likely hit well before the end of the second game. As for classes, Dorte and I did quite well with a party made up of three fighters, two clerics, and one magic user. (I’m not a big fan of thieves, although their back-stabbing ability can be fun.) Having an extra cleric on-hand to heal and fight alongside your fighters can really come in handy at the lower levels, and having two clerics to turn undead in the graveyard, one of the toughest parts of Pool of Radiance, can be a lifesaver in many combats. In the second game you get the chance to turn one of your clerics and perhaps one of your fighters into magic users by doing something called dual-classing — which, yes, is different from multi-classing. Use it to build an offensive-magic-heavy party for the later games, where spells count for more and more and swords for less and less.
  • You’ll want to take your time making each individual character, re-rolling as many times as necessary to get one that will be viable in the long term; attribute scores, if not quite set in stone, can be increased only very rarely throughout the series. I recommend that each character should have a score of at least 17 in her class’s core attribute (Strength for fighters, Intelligence for magic users, Wisdom for clerics, Dexterity for thieves). Every character should have at least a 15 in Dexterity and Constitution, respectively to be able to move quickly in combat and to get bonus hit points with every level gain. And even the less critical ability scores shouldn’t be too awful; I would set 12 as an absolute floor. In order to dual-class in a later game, a character has to have at least a 15 in the core attribute of her old class and at least a 17 in that of her new; keep that in mind when planning your party and rolling your characters.
  • Buy a hand mirror for each character in one of the general stores in Phlan right away. No, it’s not vanity (although some of the hairstyles in Pool of Radiance might make you think otherwise). Trust me, you’ll thank me when the time comes.
  • Buy a bow and arrows for each of your fighters to go with their melee weapons. Thanks to the turn-based combat, you can switch back and forth at will on the fly, and it’s great to be able to cut down enemies at a distance.
  • Stay out of taverns early in the game to avoid the classic first-time Pool of Radiance experience of getting your new party embroiled in a massive, baffling free-for-all of a bar fight that leaves them all dead and you wondering what the hell just happened. I suspect that more players have bailed permanently on the game right there than at any other point.
  • Maps of all of Pool of Radiance are available in many places, including the official clue book that comes with the game if you buy it from GOG.com. Use them if you must. Before you do, though, at least take a stab at mapping the old-fashioned way. Again, the physicality of mapping on graph paper adds an ineffable something to the experience.
  • When pursuing commissions, remember that you don’t need to do them in the order they’re presented to you. If one is proving too difficult, save it for later and try another.
  • Dead trolls come back to life after a certain number of combat rounds. To prevent this, either kill them with fire — tricky to do at the lower levels — or keep a character standing on the exact spot where the troll died.
  • Early in your travels, you’ll encounter a notoriously difficult room full of trolls. Don’t feel like you have to defeat them right there and then. Go on and build up your strength a bit more, then come back for them.
  • To tackle the graveyard, your entire party needs to be equipped with silver or (preferably) magical weapons. Remember to use your cleric(s) to turn undead at the beginning of every fight involving undead monsters!
  • Dead, in the sense of 0 hit points, is not usually dead in Pool of Radiance. Unless the character was hit very hard, you can usually keep her alive but unconscious for the rest of the fight by bandaging her or casting Cure Light Wounds on her. You’ll definitely want to do so, given that…
  • Another one of Pool of Radiance‘s hidden poison pills is that if you pay to have a character resurrected in a temple (not like you don’t have enough money for it!) she loses 1 point of Constitution, a stiff price to pay indeed given how precious ability scores are. Think long and hard about whether that’s a price you’re willing to pay, or whether you should just try that last fight again.
  • You can convert your lower-denomination coins to platinum by “Pooling” your money inside a shop, then picking it up — or some portion of it — before you leave. This gives you more buying power for less weight carried. Even better, you can store your wealth yet more efficiently as gems and jewelry that you can sell whenever you have need of a little walking-around money.
  • If you have a set of the old first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers lying around, or are willing to spring for digital copies, it’s a good idea to consult them when you aren’t sure what something does or is. Some of the more obscure magic items and spells in Pool of Radiance aren’t properly explained anywhere else. Dorte thought these musty old books with the cheesy covers were hilarious when I dug them out — she persisted in calling them “the nerd books” — but she did keep asking me to look stuff up in them. Which brings me to…
  • Play with a partner, one of you mapping and one of you driving. Like all good things in life, a good game becomes even better when it’s shared. And wouldn’t you like to have someone to high-five when you use all your (combined) wits to win a tough fight?

(Sources: Shay Addams’s review of Pool of Radiance is found in the October 1988  Questbusters, and the Gary Gygax quote in the September 1979 Dragon.)

 
 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 3: From Tabletop to Desktop

Joel Billings of SSI never had a whole lot of use for Dungeons & Dragons, TSR, or RPGs in general. In this he was hardly unique among hardcore wargamers. The newer hobby had arisen directly from the older, forcing each and every grognard to a judgement and a reckoning. Some wargamers saw in RPGs the experiential games they had really been wanting to play all along; they jumped onto the RPG bandwagon and never looked back. Others, the ones who found Montgomery and Rommel far more interesting than Frodo and Sauron, scoffed at RPGs and their silly fantasies and clung all the tighter to their Avalon Hill and SPI boxes. And of course some split the difference, playing a little of this and a little of that.

Joel counted himself among the scoffers. His one experience with playing Dungeons & Dragons hadn’t been a positive one: a sadistic Dungeon Master killed his whole party before he had even begun to figure out what was going on. “This is the stupidest game I’ve ever seen,” he concluded. He never felt seriously tempted to try it again.

By the time that SSI was off and running, Joel and other wargame stalwarts like him had more reasons than ever to dislike RPGs. The late 1970s, you’ll remember, had seen the wargame at its commercial zenith, the RPG the exciting, fast-rising upstart genre. As the 1980s dawned and Dungeons & Dragons exploded into a popularity no wargame had ever dreamed of, it was hard not to blame one genre’s rapid rise for the other’s slow decline. Already in 1982 SPI, alongside Avalon Hill one of the twin giants of wargaming, found themselves in a serious financial crisis brought on partly by the general decline of the wargame market, partly by the general recession afflicting the American economy at the time, and partly by general mismanagement all too typical of their hobbyist-driven industry. TSR, now more than ten times the size of SPI thanks to the Dungeons & Dragons fad, gave them a secured loan of $425,000 to keep their doors open a while longer.

It will likely never be known whether what happened next was the result of Machiavellian scheming or just Gary Gygax and the Blume brothers’ usual bumbling approach to running TSR. Just two weeks after giving SPI the loan, TSR inexplicably called it in again. Having already used TSR’s money to satisfy their other creditors, SPI had no possible way to pay back the loan. TSR therefore foreclosed, announcing that they were taking over SPI. Shortly thereafter, realizing that SPI was so financially upside down as to become a negative asset on their books, they announced that what they had actually meant to say was that they were assuming ownership of all of SPI’s assets but none of their debts. When SPI’s creditors balked at this brazen attempt by TSR to have their cake and eat it too, TSR negotiated to pay them off for pennies on the dollar; something was better than nothing, figured the creditors. The end result was an SPI bankruptcy filing in effect if not in fact.

But any old wargamer who thought that the TSR purchase heralded better days for the company and the hobby was quickly disabused of that notion. TSR proved a terrible steward of SPI’s legacy, alienating their entire old design team so badly that they left en masse to reform as a new Avalon Hill subsidiary called Victory Games. Worse, TSR claimed that their acquisition of SPI’s assets had not included the paid-up subscriptions to SPI’s beloved house organ Strategy & Tactics; subscriptions were not assets at all, you see, but “liabilities.” Every Strategy & Tactics subscriber, even those who had splashed out a bundle for a “lifetime” subscription, would have to re-up immediately to continue receiving the magazine. And no, there would be no compensation for missed issues from the old regime. This act of betrayal of SPI’s most loyal customers didn’t just kill the most respected wargaming magazine in the world; it also, as Greg Costikyan puts it, shot the old subculture of wargaming in general in the head.

So, if a veteran wargamer like Joel Billings needed further reason to dislike all this Dungeons & Dragons silliness, there he had it. Trip Hawkins, a member of SSI’s board from the company’s inception, claims that he started telling Joel that he should branch out into CRPGs almost immediately after SSI was founded. But, although SSI quickly began to supplement their wargames with sports titles and other sorts of strategy games, Joel resisted CRPGs, saying that he preferred to publish “the games that he enjoyed personally.” RPGs, whether played on the tabletop or the desktop, clearly weren’t in that category.

Although Joel did nothing to encourage CRPG submissions, in late 1983 a fairly decent one arrived of its own accord. Written by two teenage brothers, Charles and John Dougherty, Questron had already ping-ponged around the industry a bit before it reached SSI. When the Dougherty brothers had sent it to Origin Systems, Richard Garriott had not only rejected it but told them in no uncertain terms to expect legal trouble if they dared to release something he considered to be so obviously derivative of his own Ultima games. Word of Garriott’s displeasure may very well have made the other major publishers shy away, until it ended up with the Doughertys’ long shot, nichey little SSI. Joel decided that, with a first entry in the genre all but gift-wrapped on his desk, he might as well dip a toe into these new waters and see how it went. SSI published Questron in February of 1984, albeit only after finding a way to placate an angry Garriott, who learned of their plans to do so at the January 1984 Winter Consumer Electronics Show and pitched a royal fit. Joel gave him a small stake in Questron‘s action and a small note on its box: “Game structure and style used under license of Richard Garriott.”

Questron

Questron proved a modest start to something very significant. The game, benefiting from the lack of new Ultima or Wizardry titles during 1984, did unexpectedly well. In fact, when the Commodore 64 port of the Apple II original shipped in August, it became the fastest-selling new release SSI had ever enjoyed. The final total would hit almost 35,000 copies, pretty good numbers for a company whose average game still failed to break 10,000 copies. Some meeting notes dated December 2, 1984, make the new thinking that resulted clear: “Going into fantasy games now, could really affect sales favorably.” A little over a month later, SSI was already going through something of an identity crisis: are we a “wargame company” or a more generalized “computer-game company,” more meeting notes plaintively ask.

But SSI would have a hard time building on the momentum of Questron in the time-honored game-industry way of turning it into a franchise. In the contract the Dougherty brothers had signed with SSI, the latter was granted a right of first refusal of a potential sequel. This put the Doughertys in essentially the same situation as a restricted free agent in sports: they were free to shop a potential Questron II to other publishers if they wished, but they had to allow SSI the chance to match any publisher’s offer before signing a final contract. Not understanding or choosing to ignore this stipulation, the Doughertys allowed themselves to be poached by none other than Trip Hawkins’s Electronic Arts, who, with The Bard’s Tale series still in the offing, were eager to hedge their bets with another potential new CRPG franchise. SSI knew nothing about what was going on until the Doughertys announced that they had gone over to the slicker, better-distributed Electronic Arts — farewell and thank you very much for everything. Feeling compelled to defend his own company’s interests, Joel sued Electronic Arts and the Doughertys. A potential Questron series remained in limbo, its momentum dissipating, while the lawsuit dragged on. The situation doubtless made for some strained times back at SSI’s offices, where board-member Trip Hawkins was still coming every month for the directors meeting.

The suit wasn’t settled until April of 1987, ostensibly at least largely in SSI’s favor. The Doughertys’ long-delayed sequel was published shortly thereafter by Electronic Arts, but under the new title of Legacy of the Ancients. Meanwhile the Doughertys were obliged to design, but not to program, a Questron II for SSI; the programming of the sequel could either be done in-house by SSI or outsourced elsewhere at their discretion. It ended up going to Westwood Associates, a frequent SSI contractor on ports and other unglamorous technical tasks who would soon be making a bigger name for themselves as a developer of original games. Released at last in February of 1988, Questron II felt rather uninspired, as one might expect given the forced circumstances of its creation. It did surprisingly well, though, outselling the first Questron by some 16,000 copies. Rather than its own merits, its success was likely down to increasing enthusiasm for CRPGs in general among gamers, and to other things going on that year that were suddenly making little SSI among the biggest names in the genre.

Questron II

In the immediate wake of Questron I‘s release and success, however, those events were still well in the future. Neither Joel Billings’s troubles with his two teenage problem children nor his personal ambivalence toward CRPGs deterred him from recognizing the potential that game had highlighted. Never a publisher to shy away from releasing lots of games, SSI added CRPGs to their ongoing firehose of new wargames. To Joel Billings the businessman’s pleasure if perhaps to Joel Billings the wargamer’s chagrin, the average SSI CRPG continued to do far, far better than the average wargame. Indeed, their very next CRPG(ish) game after Questron, an unusual action hybrid called Gemstone Warrior released in December of 1984, became their first game of any type to top 50,000 copies sold. The more traditional Phantasie — names weren’t really SSI’s strong suit — in March of 1985 also topped the magic 50,000 mark. Soon the CRPGs were coming almost as quickly as the wargames: Rings of Zilfin (January 1986, 17,479 sold); Phantasie II (February 1986, 30,100 sold); Wizard’s Crown (February 1986, 47,676 sold); Shard of Spring (July 1986, 11,942 sold); Roadwar 2000 (August 1986, 44,044 sold); Gemstone Healer (September 1986, 6030 sold); Realms of Darkness (February 1987, 9022 sold); Phantasie III (March 1987, 46,113 sold); The Eternal Dagger (June 1987, 18,471 sold); Roadwar Europa (July 1987, 18,765 sold).

As the list above attests, sales figures for these games were all over place, but trended generally a bit downward over time as SSI flooded the market. Yet one thing did remain constant: the average SSI CRPG continued to outsell the average SSI wargame by a healthy margin. (The only exception to this rule was Roger Damon’s remarkable Wargame Construction Set, which after its release in October of 1986 became a surprise hit, the first SSI game to crack 60,000 copies sold.) All of these SSI CRPGs — so many coming so close together that it’s difficult even for dedicated fans of the genre’s history to keep them all straight — occupied a comfortable if less than prestigious second rung in the industry as a whole. To describe them as the games you played while you waited for the next Ultima or The Bard’s Tale may sound unkind, but it’s largely accurate. Like SSI’s other games, they tended to be a little bit uglier and a little bit clunkier than the competition.

Wizard's Crown

At their best, though, the rules behind these games felt more consciously designed than the games in the bigger, more respected series — doubtless a legacy of SSI’s wargame roots. This quality is most notable in Wizard’s Crown. The most wargamey of all SSI’s CRPGs, Wizard’s Crown was not coincidentally also the first CRPG to be designed in-house by the company’s own small staff of developers, led by Paul Murray and Keith Brors, the two most devoted tabletop Dungeons & Dragons fans in the office. Built around a combat engine of enormous tactical depth in comparison to Ultima and The Bard’s Tale, it may not be a sustainedly fun game — the sheer quantity and detail of the fights gets exhausting well before the end, and the game has little else to offer — but it’s one of real importance in the history of both SSI and the CRPG. Wizard’s Crown and its sequel The Eternal Dagger, you see, were essentially a dry run for the series of games that would remake SSI’s image.

Coming off a disappointing 1986, the first year in which SSI had failed to increase their earnings over the previous year, Joel Billings was greeted with some news that was rapidly sweeping the industry: that TSR was interested in making a Dungeons & Dragons computer game, and that they would soon be listening to pitches from interested parties. To say that Dungeons & Dragons was a desirable license hardly begins to state the case. This was the license in CRPGs, the name that inexplicably wasn’t there already, a yawning absence about to become a smothering presence at last. Everyone wanted it, and had wanted it for quite some time. That group included SSI as much as anyone; once again pushing aside any misgivings about getting into bed with the company that had shot his own favorite hobby in the head, Joel had been one of the many to contact TSR in earlier years, asking if they were interested in a licensing deal. They hadn’t been then, but now they suddenly were. Encouraged by Murray and Brors and other rabid Dungeons & Dragons fans around the office, Joel decided to put on a “full-court press,” as he describes it, to spare no effort in trying to get the deal for his own little company. Sure, it looked like one David versus a whole lot of Goliaths, but what the hell, right?

The full list of Goliaths with which SSI was competing for the license has never been published, but in interviews Joel has mentioned Origin Systems (of Ultima fame) and Electronic Arts (of The Bard’s Tale fame) as having been among them. As for the other contenders, we do know that there were at least seven more of them. One need only understand the desirability of the license to assume that the seven (or more) must have been a veritable computer-game who’s who. “We were going head to head with the best in the industry,” remembers Chuck Kroegel, a programmer and project manager on SSI’s in-house development team.

SSI was duly granted their hearing, scheduled for April 8, 1987, at TSR’s Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, headquarters. With a scant handful of weeks to prepare, they scrambled desperately to throw together some technology demos; these felt unusually important to SSI’s pitch, given that they were hardly known as a producer of slick or graphically impressive games. Those with a modicum of artistic talent digitized some monster portraits out of the Monster Manual on a Commodore Amiga, coloring them and adding some spot animation. Meanwhile the programmers put together a scrolling three-dimensional dungeon maze, reminiscent of The Bard’s Tale but better (at least by SSI’s own reckoning), on a Commodore 64.

But it was always understood that these hasty demos were only a prerequisite for making a pitch, a way to show that SSI had the minimal competency do this stuff rather a real selling point. When SSI’s five-man team — consisting of Joel Billings, Keith Brors, Chuck Kroegel, the newly hired head of internal development Victor Penman, and Vice President of Sales Randy Broweleit — boarded their plane for Lake Geneva, they were determined to really sell TSR on a vision: a vision of not just a game or two but a whole new computerized wing of Dungeons & Dragons that might someday equal or eclipse the tabletop variant. The pitch document that accompanied their presentation has been preserved in the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. I want to quote its key paragraphs, the “Overview,” in full.

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons computer game system would be provided as a series of modules built around a central character-creation, combat, and magic system. The first release would be this central system, which would include a modest dungeon adventure. It would be followed by the release of a number of adventure modules suitable for beginning-level characters. With the passage of time, higher-level adventures and more character types would be offered. Editors which would permit users to create their own dungeons, outdoors, and cities would also be provided. The timing on the introduction of these later releases would be determined by market demand.

The first release would be the central system. It would be similar to the Player’s Handbook in that it would provide for the creation of a number of character classes, combat, and spells. The players would draw on these abilities to create their characters for adventuring. Also included in this first release would be an introductory dungeon adventure in which the computer program would perform as DM.

This first release would be followed by a number of adventure games similar to TSR’s dungeon and adventure modules. The earliest of these would be aimed at beginning characters. As time passed and players had an opportunity to build up more powerful characters, more challenging modules would be released.

It is anticipated that at least three game sets will be released as a result of periodic improvements in and expansions of the game system. Each of these would be built on an improved and expanded version of the central system. The systems would be kept upwardly compatible so that characters developed on earlier versions of the system could take advantage of its improvements. Dungeon and adventure modules would be created for each of these game sets.

At some point (to be determined by marketing considerations) a number of editors would be released. These editors would enable the users to create their own computer adventures. The first of these would be a Dungeon Master’s Guide-type package, which would provide instructions and tools for setting up the adventures and a Monster Manual-type package to provide monsters for these adventures (the monster disk might be released much earlier since we can see non-DMs wanting it). Specialized packages for creating outdoor adventures, city adventures, overland adventures, seafaring adventures, underwater adventures, etc., would be added to meet market demand.

SSI's original plan for a Dungeons & Dragons "product family," as presented at their pitch. You can see traces of what would come here -- the eventual "Gold Box" line of CRPGs would be grouped into three separate series, each offering the chance to import characters from one game into the next -- the idea of a central "game disk" and add-on "adventure modules" would be thankfully abandoned.

SSI’s original plan for a Dungeons & Dragons “product family,” as presented at their pitch. You can see glimmers of what would come later here — the eventual “Gold Box” line of CRPGs would be grouped into three separate series, each offering the chance to import characters from one game into the next — but the idea of a central “game disk” and add-on “adventure modules” would be thankfully abandoned.

In some ways, what this overview offers is a terrible vision. The Wizardry series had opted for a similar overly literal translation of Dungeons & Dragons‘s core-game/adventure-module structure, requiring anyone who wanted to play any of the later games in the series to first buy and play the first in order to have characters to import. The fallout from that decision was all too easy to spot in the merest glance at the CRPG market as of 1987: the Wizardry series had long since pissed away the position of dominance it had enjoyed after its first game to become an also-ran (much like SSI’s own CRPG efforts) to Ultima and The Bard’s Tale.

On the other hand, though, this overview is a vision, which apparently stood it in marked contrast to most other pitches, focused as they were on just getting a single Dungeons & Dragons game out there as quickly as possible so everyone could start to clean up. TSR innately understood SSI’s more holistic approach. With the early 1980s Dungeons & Dragons fad now long past, their business model relied less on selling huge quantities of any one release than in leveraging — some would say “exploiting” — their remaining base of hardcore players, each of whom was willing to spend lots of money on lots of new products.

Further, the TSR people and the SSI people immediately liked and understood one another; the importance of being on the same psychological wavelength as a potential business partner should never be underestimated. Born out of wargames, TSR seemed to have that culture and its values entwined in their very DNA, even after the ugly SPI episode and all the rest of the chaos of the past decade and change. Many of the people there knew exactly where scruffy little SSI was coming from, born and still grounded in the culture of the tabletop as they were. These same folks at TSR weren’t so sure about all those bigger, slicker firms. While Joel Billings may not have had a lot of personal use for Dungeons & Dragons, that certainly wasn’t true of many of his employees. Joel claims that the “bottom line” that sold TSR on SSI was “an R&D staff that knows AD&D games, plays AD&D games, and enjoys AD&D games.” They would feel “honored to be doing computer AD&D games. If you’re doing fantasy games, the AD&D game is the one to do.” Chuck Kroegel sums up SSI’s biggest advantage over their competitors in fewer words: “We wanted this project more than the other companies.” That genuine personal interest and passion, along with SSI’s idea that this would be a big, ambitious, multi-layered, perhaps era-defining collaboration — TSR had never been known for thinking small — were the important things. The details could be worked out later.

At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June — yes, it’s that landmark CES again — SSI and TSR announced their unlikely partnership, formally signing the contract right there at the show in front of the press and SSI’s shocked rivals. The contract was for five years of Dungeons & Dragons software, with options to renew thereafter. It would officially go into effect on January 1, 1988, although development of a planned torrent of products would start immediately.

There would be three distinct Advanced Dungeons & Dragons product lines. One line, which grew out of whole cloth during the negotiations, would be a series of “multi-player action/arcade games” that used settings and characters from TSR’s various novels and supplements, but otherwise had little to do with the tabletop game: “These games will focus on special aspects of AD&D, such as swordplay, spell-casting, and dungeon and wilderness exploration.” Having no particular competence in the area of action games, SSI would sub-contract with their European publishers, U.S. Gold, to make these games, drawing from the deep well of hotshot British game programmers to which U.S. Gold had access.

Another line evolved out of SSI’s original plan for a sort of “Dungeons & Dragons Construction Set.” Instead of letting Dungeon Masters make new computerized adventures — SSI and TSR, like many other companies, were worried about killing the market for future games by putting too good game-making tools in the hands of players — the Dungeon Masters Assistant line would be designed to aid in the construction of adventures and campaigns for the tabletop game.

And finally there was the big line: a full-fledged implementation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as a series of CRPGs. The idea of a “central system” with “adventure modules” blessedly disappeared within a few months of the contract signing, replaced by a series of standalone games that would allow those who wished to do so to import the same party into each sequel; those who didn’t wish to do so, or who hadn’t played the earlier games at all, would still be able to create new characters in the later games.

The choice of a partner for this high-profile deal had been driven entirely by the creative types at TSR and the kinship they felt for SSI. That’s doubly surprising when you consider that it occurred well into the reign of Lorraine Williams, whose supposed dislike of games and gamers and constant meddling in the design process would later win her an infamous place in fan legend as the most loathed real-life villain in the history of the tabletop RPG. Whatever the veracity of the other claims made against her, in this case she ignored lots of very sensible questions to let her creative people have the partner they wanted. Could nichey little SSI improve their marketing and distribution enough to get the games in front of as many potential customers as someone like Electronic Arts? Could SSI raise the standards of their graphics and programming to make something attractive and slick enough to match the appeal of the Dungeons & Dragons trademark? In short, was SSI really up to this huge project, many times greater in scope than anything they’d done before? Lorraine Williams was betting five years of her flagship brand’s future, the most precious thing TSR owned, on the answer to all of these questions being yes. It was one hell of a roll of the dice.

SSI was more than ready to crow about their coup.

SSI was more than ready to crow about their coup from the moment the contract was signed.

If SSI was to pull it off, they would have to mortgage their hopefully bright future as the software face of Dungeons & Dragons and expand dramatically. In the months following the contract-signing ceremony, their in-house development staff expanded from 7 to 25 people. Among the new hires were SSI’s first full-time pixel artists, hired to give the new products a look worthy of the license. SSI’s games having never been the sort to wow anyone with their beauty, figuring out the graphics thing presented perhaps the greatest challenge of all, as Victor Penman recognized:

In the past, when SSI was primarily a wargames company, graphics were not as important as game play. Now the graphics will be better, making this product more of an improvement than any other. We’re committed to carrying out state-of-the-art graphics all the way down the line, so we’re dedicated to game sophistication and a new level of graphics more so than anything we’ve done to date.

With the action games outsourced to U.S. Gold and the Dungeon Masters Assistant line being less demanding projects likely to be of only niche appeal anyway, the big push at SSI was on the first full-fledged Dungeons & Dragons CRPG. The new project used the two Wizard’s Crown games, especially those games’ intricate tactical-combat system, as a jumping-off point; most of the SSI veterans who had worked on those games were now employed on this new one. But that could only be a jumping-off point, for SSI’s plans needed to be much more ambitious now to please both TSR and the gaming public, who would expect this first real Dungeons & Dragons CRPG to be something really, truly special. As the first CRPG of a series that would come to include many more, a whole software ecosystem needed to be built from scratch to create it. A multi-platform game engine, interpreters, scripting languages, and level editors were all needed just for starters.

In a move that SSI would soon have cause to regret, the tool chain was built around the Commodore 64, then enjoying its belated final year as the American home-computer industry’s dominant platform. The choice isn’t hard to understand in the context of 1987: the 64 had been around for so long and for so strong that one could almost believe it would continue forever. SSI had sold 35 percent of all their games on the Commodore 64 during 1986, 10 percent more than its closest rival, the Apple II. If anything, these numbers were low for the industry in general, reflecting SSI’s specialization in cerebral strategy games, traditionally a bastion of the Apple II market. With this new partnership, SSI’s bid for the big time, there seemed every reason to think that the 64’s percentage of the pie would only increase. Therefore they would build and release the Dungeons & Dragons games first on the Commodore 64, ensuring that they looked and ran well on that all-important platform. Then they could adapt the same engine to run on the other, often more capable platforms.

The arrival of Dungeons & Dragons at SSI and the dramatic upending of the daily routine that it wrought created inevitable tensions at what had always been a low-key, workmanlike operation. The minority of staffers assigned to the non-Dungeons & Dragons business-as-usual — i.e., the company’s wargames and the last sprinkling of non-licensed CRPGs in the pipeline — started to feel, in the words of Chuck Kroegel, like “outcasts.” Staffers referred to themselves as either working in Disneyland (everything Dungeons & Dragons) or being exiled to Siberia (everything non-Dungeons & Dragons). Sometimes those descriptions could feel distressingly literal: desperate for space, SSI exiled the small team that tested and perfected non-Dungeons & Dragons external submissions to an unheated, cheerless nearby building. “There was a feeling on their part that we were getting all the goodies and they got all the cold Arctic air,” remembers Keith Brors.

Jim Ward, who got on fabolously with SSI, visits in 1990 to celebrate the company's tenth anniversary along with his plus-one.

Jim Ward, who got on fabulously with SSI, visits along with his plus-one in 1990 to celebrate the company’s tenth anniversary.

The folks in Disneyland got plenty of help from Lake Geneva. In the beginning the TSR/SSI partnership really was a partnership, standing it in marked contrast to most similar licensing deals. The scenario for the first Dungeons & Dragons CRPG was first written and designed as a tabletop adventure module by three of TSR’s most experienced staff designers, working under one Jim Ward, whose own history with Dungeons & Dragons went back to well before that name existed, when he had played in Gary Gygax’s earliest campaigns. The tabletop module was passed on to SSI for implementation on the computer in January of 1988. SSI had their hands plenty full before that date just getting the game engine up and running; that job was described by Victor Penman as “equivalent to producing the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual in one program.”

TSR’s close involvement ensured that the end result really did feel like tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, more so than any of the competing CRPG series — and this, of course, was exactly what its audience wanted. Ward’s team chose to set the game in TSR’s new campaign world of the Forgotten Realms, envisioned as the more generic, default alternative to the popular but quirky Dragonlance world of Krynn. The big boxed set that introduced the Forgotten Realms was published well after the contract signing with SSI, allowing TSR to carve out a space on the world’s map reserved for the computer games right from the outset. While many have grumbled that words like “generic” and “default” do all too good a job of describing the Forgotten Realms — “vanilla” is another strong candidate — Ward and company nevertheless drowned their scenario in the lore of the place, such as it is, leading to a CRPG with a sense of place comparable only to the Ultima series and its world of Britannia. To further cement the connection between Dungeons & Dragons the tabletop game and its computerized implementation, TSR prepared tie-in products of their own, including a novelization of the first CRPG written by Jim Ward with the help of Jane Cooper Hong and the original tabletop adventure module that had served as SSI’s design document.

SSI had promised TSR when making their original pitch that they could have an official Dungeons & Dragons CRPG ready to go within thirteen months at the outside of signing a deal. Joel Billings always took great pride in his company’s punctuality. Lingering, “troubled” projects of any stripe were a virtual unknown there during the 1980s; outside and in-house developers alike quickly learned to just get their games done and move on to the next if they wanted to continue to work with SSI. Dungeons & Dragons proved to be no exception. SSI would manage to meet their deadline of summer 1988.

With the big day drawing near, Joel Billings took an important step to address the still-lingering questions about whether SSI had the promotional and distributional resources to properly sell Dungeons & Dragons on the computer. It marked the next phase in SSI’s long, multi-faceted relationship with Trip Hawkins and his company Electronic Arts. Barely a year removed from settling SSI’s lawsuit and less than a year removed from losing the big TSR contract to them, Electronic Arts bought into SSI to the tune of 20 percent in May of 1988, giving the smaller company some much-needed cash to spend on a big Dungeons & Dragons promotional effort. SSI also became one of Electronic Arts’s affiliated labels, thus solving the distribution problems. As previous tales told on this blog will attest, such deals with the titans of the industry could be dangerous territory for smaller publishers like SSI. But SSI did have advantages that most of the affiliated labels didn’t: in addition to the longstanding personal relationship enjoyed by Trip Hawkins and Joel Billings, the buy-in would give Electronic Arts a real stake in SSI’s success, making them much harder to gut and cast aside if they should disappoint.

Grognards to the end, Trip Hawkins and Joel Billings dressed up as generals to celebrate their strategic alliance of May 1988.

Grognards to the end, Trip Hawkins and Joel Billings dress up as generals to celebrate their “strategic alliance” of May 1988.

SSI released the first title in all three branches of their new Dungeons & Dragons family tree in August of 1988, each on a different platform of the several each title would eventually reach. Dungeon Masters Assistant Volume I: Encounters shipped on the Apple II. It would sell 26,212 copies across four platforms — not bad for such a specialized utility. Heroes of the Lance, an action game set in Dragonlance‘s world of Krynn that was developed and delivered as promised from Britain, shipped on the Atari ST. The first of what would come to be known as the “Silver Box” line of action-oriented Dungeons & Dragons games, it would sell an impressive 88,808 copies across four platforms, enough to easily qualify it as SSI’s all-time biggest seller.

Enough, that is, if it hadn’t been for Pool of Radiance, first of the “Gold Box” line of full-on Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs. Recognized as The Big One in the lineup right from the start, it didn’t disappoint. Beginning on the Commodore 64 and moving on to MS-DOS, the Apple II, the Macintosh, and the Amiga, its final sales total reached 264,536 copies in North America alone. By far the most successful release of SSI’s history as an independent company, it became exactly the transformative work that SSI (and Electronic Arts) had been banking on, a ticket to the big leagues if ever there was one. Even the Pool of Radiance clue book outsold any previous SSI game, to the tune of 68,395 copies.

Summer CES, June 1988. The big day draws near.

Summer CES, June 1988. The big day draws near.

The second serious attempt of 1988 to adapt a set of tabletop-RPG rules to the computer, Pool of Radiance makes, like its contemporary Wasteland, an enlightening study in game design for that reason and others. Happily, it’s mostly worthy of its huge success; there’s a really compelling game in here, even if you sometimes have to fight a little more than you ought to to tease it out. As a game, it’s more than worthy of an article in its own right. By way of concluding my little series on SSI and TSR and my bigger one on the landmark CRPGs of 1988, I’ll give it that article next time.

(Sources: As with all of my SSI articles, much of this one is drawn from the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Other sources include the Questbusters of March 1988, Computer Gaming World of March 1988 and July 1988, and Dragon of November 1987, May 1988, and July 1990. Also the book Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline, and Matt Barton’s video interviews with Joel Billings.)

 
 

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