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Opening the Gold Box, Part 6: A Troubled Marriage

This pie chart prepared by the investment firm Piper Jaffray Research provides a snapshot of the American computer-game industry as of 1993. Sierra leads the pack with a market share of 11.8 percent, trailed closely by Spectrum Holobyte, who have just increased their profile dramatically by acquiring MicroProse Software. Electronic Arts comes in at only third place here, even following their recent acquisition of Origin Systems, but this chart reflects only their computer-game sales; their total sales including computers and consoles are vastly higher than those of Sierra by this point. SSI manages to come in at a respectable fifth place, thanks not least to the two aforementioned acquisitions of comparably sized competitors, but their trend lines are all moving in the wrong direction; their last new release to cross the magical threshold of 100,000 copies sold was Eye of the Beholder from February of 1991, while their biggest game of 1993 will sell just over 70,000 copies.

Two individually unhappy spouses aren’t the recipe for a happy marriage. By 1992, the computer-game publisher SSI and the tabletop-game publisher TSR, whose announcement of a partnership had so shocked both of their industries back in 1987, were learning this reality the hard way. Dungeons & Dragons, both on the computer and on the tabletop, was in trouble, and the marketing synergy which the two companies had so successfully created just a few years before had now turned into a deadly embrace that threatened to pull them both under.

In many ways, SSI’s problems were typical of any small publisher in their changing industry. Players’ audiovisual expectations of the games they purchased were growing rapidly, and it just wasn’t clear where the money to meet them was to come from. SSI had ridden their Gold Box engine for Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs way too hard, churning out nine games using it — eleven if you count two reskinned science-fictional Buck Rogers games — in a span of less than four years. The engine had received some modest improvements over the course of that time, in the form of rudimentary mouse support and VGA- rather than EGA-standard graphics, but at bottom it still played like what it was: an artifact from an entirely different epoch of gaming, designed around the affordances of the 8-bit Commodore 64 rather than the latest 32-bit Intel wonders. It was so outdated as to seem almost laughable beside a boundary-pushing wunderkind like Origin Systems’s Ultima VII.

Just as distressingly, SSI hardly seemed to be trying anymore even when it came to their Gold Box designs. No later Gold Box game had possessed anything like the creative flair of Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, the first two games of the line and by far the best.

And so, as the technology had aged and design standards had fallen, gamers had reacted appropriately: sales had dropped almost linearly from title to title. Pool of Radiance had sold 264,536 copies upon its release in August of 1988; Dark Queen of Krynn, the anticlimactic end of the Gold Box line, sold 40,640 copies after its release in May of 1992. SSI was still profitable that year, but only by a whisker: during the fiscal year which ended on September 30, 1992, profits amounted to just $168,000 on sales of a little under $13 million, the latter of which fell short of expectations by $1 million. What would the next year bring?

TSR was a larger and more diversified company, but they were facing the same essential problem: sales of their own Dungeons & Dragons line for the tabletop had been going in the wrong direction as well for the past couple of years, and it wasn’t immediately clear how to reverse that trend. A flood of new rules supplements and settings — by 1993, TSR would offer an extraordinary eight separate boxed “worlds” in which to play the game, ranging from traditional high fantasy to the Arabian Nights to the depths of outer space — certainly wasn’t doing the trick. In fact, by making Dungeons & Dragons ever more impenetrable to newcomers, the torrent of product was arguably hurting TSR more than it was helping them.

Thanks to these trends, Dungeons & Dragons was in danger of seeing its position as the commercial ne plus ultra of tabletop RPGs usurped for the first and only time in the history of the hobby. The biggest threat to its status came from a new RPG called Vampire: The Masquerade, whose rules-lite, storytelling-oriented approach was the antithesis of the baggy monstrosity which Dungeons & Dragons had become. By catching a wave of “goth” inspiration that was sweeping pop culture more generally, Vampire had even accrued a degree of street cred the likes of which TSR’s nerdier, more pedantic offerings couldn’t have hoped to match even in their early 1980s heyday. TSR’s entire Dungeons & Dragons gaming line was in danger of becoming the world’s most elaborate loss leader, fueling sales of the one part of their empire that was still consistently earning money: their vast and ever-growing lineup of fantasy novels based on their gaming properties.

Human nature being what it is, it was perhaps inevitable that SSI and TSR, these two partners with good reason to be profoundly worried about their futures, would each come to blame the other for at least some of their difficulties. SSI noted pointedly that the Gold Box line was supposed to have been a creative as well as financial partnership between the two companies, with TSR’s staff contributing much of the content for the computer games and TSR themselves publishing tie-in products for the tabletop. All of those synergies, however, had dried up after Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds. (The status of these two very first games as the very best of their line begins to seem like less of a puzzle in light of TSR’s active involvement with them.) SSI had been left to their own devices from 1990 on, albeit still subject to the frequently exercised veto power which TSR enjoyed over their ideas.

Meanwhile, even as SSI complained about their creative abandonment, it was hardly lost on TSR that the Gold Box engine had fallen badly behind the state of the art. As they judged it, its antiquity had become extreme enough to actively hurt their brand, not only on the computer but on the tabletop as well; when struggling against their tabletop game’s popular image as a kitschy relic of the 1980s, TSR’s marketers weren’t excited to be confronted with computers games that themselves looked like products of the previous decade. TSR was also unhappy with SSI’s failure to port the Gold Box games from computers to consoles; out of all of them, only Pool of Radiance had been ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System, by a Japanese developer rather than SSI themselves. SSI tried to point out that this port, which played badly and sold worse, only served to illustrate all the ways in which this style of game just wasn’t suitable for consoles, but TSR was having none of it. In their view, the porting issue was a problem for SSI to solve rather than to explain away.

Behind all the bickering loomed a daunting reality: SSI’s exclusive license to Dungeons & Dragons was due to expire on January 1, 1993. One of the partners had far more cause for concern about this fact than the other. For those in the boardroom at TSR, the question of the contract’s renewal was just another business debate to be hashed out, but for SSI it was quite possibly of existential importance. After signing his first contract with TSR, Joel Billings, SSI’s founder and president, had rejiggered the public and private face of his company, from that of a maker of hardcore wargames inspired by the tabletop grognard tradition of Avalon Hill and SPI into the Computerized Home of Dungeons & Dragons. While SSI still published some wargames in the early 1990s, they generally sold even worse than the final stragglers from the Gold Box line, and were made strictly by outside developers; almost the entirety of SSI’s internal development efforts had been devoted to Dungeons & Dragons for the past five years. SSI’s identity had become so bound up with TSR’s flagship property that it wasn’t clear what they could or should be without the Dungeons & Dragons license.

The uncertainty surrounding the future of the contract left SSI paralyzed. It was obvious that they needed a better, more modern engine if they were to continue to make Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs, but it would be foolhardy to embark on that expensive project before they were sure of retaining the license that would let them use it for its intended purpose.

Thus Billings must have breathed a sigh of relief in early 1992, when TSR, despite all their recent misgivings about SSI’s handling of the license, agreed to an eighteen-month contract extension. It would take the license out to July 1, 1994, giving SSI enough time to make a new engine and at least one new game with it. Still, the short length of extension served notice that they were on probation; if the marriage was to continue, SSI would have to deliver a hit of Pool of Radiance proportions.

Billings put his people to work on an engine that would build upon the best ideas of SSI’s competitors, not least Origin’s much-admired Ultima VII engine. Like that one, this one would be designed with a mouse in mind from the start; would offer free-scrolling real-time movement over a large world; would go almost entirely mode-less in terms of interface, integrating combat into the same view where conversation and exploration took place. Gone would be the fussy paragraph books, graph-paper maps, and code wheels of the Gold Box games, which could make the experience of playing them feel almost like a hybrid between a computer and tabletop game. SSI had a very different experience in mind this time out. They planned make the engine effortless enough for the player that it could be ported to the Super Nintendo for play on living-room couches. And if that version did well, other console ports would follow.

TSR, eager to give a boost to one of their sales-challenged alternate settings, convinced SSI to set the first game made with the new engine in the land of Dark Sun, a desert world with a vaguely post-apocalyptic feel. Billings, aware that he was on shaky ground with TSR, also initiated development of an original science-fiction game that was to use the engine as well, just in case the Dungeons & Dragons license went away.

Creating such a complex engine alongside the first two games to use it was a truly enormous task — by far the biggest thing SSI had ever attempted, dwarfing even the initial software engineering that had gone into the Gold Box engine. Development dragged on and on after the Gold Box line had petered out with Dark Queen of Krynn. SSI attempted to plug the Gold Box-sized gap in their product line with such second-string releases as Prophecy of the Shadow, an internally developed, non-licensed CRPG-lite (25,875 copies sold); Pirates of Realmspace, a buggy computerized take on TSR’s Spelljammer setting from an outside developer known as Cybertech (23,280 copies sold); The Summoning, a simple action-RPG from Event Horizon Software (25,273 copies sold); Veil of Darkness, a game of a similar stripe to the previous from the same developer (9866 copies sold); Legends of Valor, a poor man’s Ultima Underworld from Synthetic Dimensions (12,588 copies sold); and Unlimited Adventures, a final hurrah for the Gold Box in the form of a public release of many of SSI’s internal development tools, thereby to let the diehards make more games of their own of the old type (32,362 copies sold).

As the sales figures above attest, none of these games set the world on fire. Indeed, their sales managed to make even the latter days of the Gold Box line look pretty good by comparison. In all, SSI released just three games between the summers of 1992 and 1993 that managed to top 40,000 units: Great Naval Battles in September (43,774 copies sold), Tony La Russa Baseball II in March (70,902 copies sold), and Eye of the Beholder III in May (50,664 copies sold). Of this trio, only the last was a Dungeons & Dragons title, and only the last was developed internally. Needless to say, the bottom line suffered. During the fiscal year which ended on September 30, 1993, revenues fell to $10.5 million, and the company lost $500,000 — the first annual loss SSI had posted in more than a decade.

Joel Billings wrote in that year’s annual report that it had been “the most difficult year in SSI’s 14-year history.” He spoke his personal truth not least. Throughout this period, over the course of which development of the Dark Sun game and its engine kept dragging on far longer than expected, Billings was scrambling madly to stem the bleeding. He put an organization that had always had the atmosphere of a family company through the trauma of its first-ever layoff, slashing the employee rolls from 115 to 75 employees; the memory of doing so still haunts Billings, a gentle soul at heart, to this day. Having been forced to cut the staff needed to create the science-fiction game earmarked for the new engine, he cut that as well, putting all his eggs into the single basket that was the Dark Sun game. Even the Super Nintendo version of that game, which his programmers had been struggling mightily to realize, would have to be set aside as well, at least for now. Much to TSR’s chagrin, this latest Dungeons & Dragons game too would have to live or die on computers.

Yet all of Billings’s scrambling constituted no more than financial triage. The existential obstacle which SSI faced was that of being a small, boutique publisher in an industry whose economies of scale were making it harder and harder for such an entity to survive. It was getting ever harder to win shelf space at retail, harder to pay for advertising in the glossy magazines — and, most of all, harder to foot the ever-increasing bill of developing modern games that met all of the expectations of the 1990s. Billings reluctantly concluded that he had but one choice: he had to sell out, had to find a buyer for the family business he had spent almost a decade and a half building from the ground up.

Accordingly, he spent much of his time in 1993 beating the bushes for just such a buyer. Yet here he was stymied once again by the realities of the marketplace. SSI was far from the only small publisher looking for a port in the storm, and many of the others had — or at least were judged to have — more attractive portfolios of extant and forthcoming games. Thus Billings faced a dispiriting, borderline-humiliating series of near misses, of seeing SSI cast aside in favor of alternative acquisitions in the fast-consolidating industry.

At the beginning of June, he thought he had made a deal with Spectrum HoloByte, an oddly bifurcated publisher that was almost entirely dependent on two wildly divergent games: the ultra-hardcore flight simulator Falcon, whose manual was roughly the size of a Tom Clancy novel, and the casual phenomenon Tetris, a game so brilliantly simple that it took only about 30 seconds of experimentation at the keyboard to spawn a lifetime’s addiction. Both of these games, radically different though they were in personality, were equally successful with their own demographics. Just as importantly, Spectrum HoloByte was absurdly well-connected with the movers and shakers of international finance, and was awash in venture capital as a result.

Due diligence between SSI and Spectrum HoloByte was completed, and a plan was made to meet again and sign a letter of intent as soon as that year’s Summer Consumer Electronics Show was behind both of them. At that show, however, Spectrum HoloByte met with Microprose, whose financial circumstances were even more desperate than those of SSI but who had a much more impressive array of upcoming titles to show to potential suitors. To make a long story short, Spectrum HoloByte bought MicroProse instead, leaving SSI stranded at the altar.

A few months later, the same scenario repeated itself. This time the would-be acquirer was Electronic Arts, a company with which SSI already had a longstanding relationship: Trip Hawkins had been a member of SSI’s board since before he founded EA, SSI had been piggybacking on EA’s distribution network as an “affiliated label” since 1987, and EA in fact already owned 20 percent of SSI thanks to an investment made in 1987, when the smaller company was first scaling up to take on Dungeons & Dragons. For all these reasons, the deal at first seemed a natural one. But Hawkins, the biggest proponent of the acquisition on EA’s side, was busy with a new semi-subsidiary known as 3DO and no longer had the day-to-day involvement necessary with the parent company to push it through. After kicking the tires a bit, the rest of EA’s management decided that SSI just wasn’t worth the asking price — especially given that EA already owned Origin Systems, one of SSI’s biggest rivals in CRPGs. Contrary to Joel Billings’s best intentions, SSI would thus be forced to exit 1993 as they had entered it: still an independent company, facing a future that looked more perilous than ever.

SSI’s struggle to find a buyer was a sign not only of their own weakness but of the diminished commercial profile of Dungeons & Dragons. Five years earlier, three quarters of the industry would have rushed to scoop up SSI, if only to acquire the enviable licensing deal they had recently signed. Now, though, the tabletop game was at a low ebb of its own, even as it seemed hopelessly antithetical to all of the winds of change in digital gaming. Where did this nerdy game played in parents’ basements, all tables and charts and numbers, fit in an industry rushing to make slick, kinetic interactive movies featuring real Hollywood actors? Dungeons & Dragons just wasn’t cool. It had never really been cool, of course, but that hadn’t been a problem when the computer-game industry as well was thoroughly uncool. But now, as computer-game moguls were busily penning paeans to themselves as the next wave in mainstream entertainment, its uncoolness was extremely problematic.

Amidst all of this — in September of 1993, to be specific — Dark Sun: Shattered Lands finally got completed and released. It was the most important game SSI had published since Pool of Radiance; the future of the TSR partnership, and thus their own future as a company, rode on its success or lack thereof.

When viewed separately from all of these external pressures, as just a game to be played and hopefully enjoyed, it revealed itself to be a nobly earnest attempt to improve on SSI’s most recent efforts in the realm of CRPGs, even if it wasn’t an entirely unblemished one. On the technological side, SSI’s next-generation engine largely delivered where it needed to: it was indeed vastly slicker, prettier, easier, and more modern than the Gold Box engine, feeling like a true product of the 1990s rather than a holdover from the last decade. It was an engine that could even stand next to the likes of an Ultima VII without undue embarrassment. Indeed, SSI seemed to have learned from their rival’s mistakes and done Origin one better in some places. For example, in place of the real-time, well-nigh uncontrollable frenzy that was combat in Ultima VII, SSI’s engine lapsed seamlessly into a turn-based mode as soon as a fight began; this allowed combat in Shattered Lands to retain most of the tactical complexity and interest that had marked its implementation in the Gold Box games, with the additional advantages of increased audiovisual interest and a less cryptic interface.

At the same time that they endeavored to keep combat interesting, however, SSI’s design team had clearly made a concerted effort to move beyond the exercises in incessant combat and very little else which the Gold Box games had become by the end. Shattered Lands offered much better-developed characters to talk to, along with heaps of real choices to make and alternative pathways to discover. The new approach was enough to impress even so committed an SSI skeptic as Scorpia, Computer Gaming World magazine’s longtime adventure columnist, who had been roundly criticizing the Gold Box games in print for their “incessant, fight-after-fight” nature for half a decade by this point. Now, she could write that “SSI is taking their role-playing line in a new direction, which is good to see”: “the solution to every problem is not kill, kill, kill.” Shay Addams, another prominent adventure pundit, had a similar take: “It’s no secret that I never liked the Gold Box games. Dark Sun, however, kept me coming back to the dungeon for more: more combat, more exploring, more story.”

Still, the game had its fair share of niggles — more than enough of them, in fact, to prevent its achieving a classic status to rival Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds. While SSI was to be commended for attempting to give the setting and plot more nuance and texture, that just wasn’t the sort of thing they did best, and they were still receiving little to no help from TSR on that front. The writing and plotting were derivative in several different directions at once, hackneyed even by the usual standards of the genre. Mind you, the writing wasn’t actually worse than most of that which had accompanied the Gold Box games — but here, moved as it was from a paragraph book onto the screen and expected as it was to do a lot more heavy lifting, its weaknesses were magnified.

Shattered Lands was also damaged as a computer game by its need to conform to TSR’s tabletop rules. The boxed set which presented the Dark Sun setting for the tabletop included a whole range of new rules complications and variations to distinguish it from the already convoluted Dungeon & Dragons base game, and most of these SSI was expected to implement faithfully as part of their licensing agreement. And so Shattered Lands came complete with a bunch of races and classes unfamiliar even to most Gold Box and tabletop Dungeons & Dragons veterans, along with a veritable baseline expectation that every character would be double- or triple-classed. Clerics suddenly had to choose an “element” to worship, which limited their selection of spells — and now everyone had access to a whole parallel sphere of magic known as psionics, and had to choose a specialty there as well. No game designer starting a CRPG from scratch would ever have inserted so much cruft of such marginal utility to the ultimate goal of fun; it was the sort of thing that could only arise from a company like TSR throwing rule after rule at the wall over the course of years in order to sell more supplements. Certainly none of it made much sense in a game explicitly envisioned as a new beginning for Dungeons & Dragons on computers, a place for fresh players to jump aboard. Nor, for that matter, did the choice of the oddball world of Dark Sun as a setting; for all that critics like me have long railed against the tendency, gamers for time immemorial have been demonstrating their preference for CRPGs set in generic high-fantasy worlds — such as that of TSR’s own Forgotten Realms, home of the most commercially successful of the Gold Box games — over more unique settings like this one.

But whatever its intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, Shattered Lands suffered most of all from one undeniable external failing: it was deeply, thoroughly unfashionable in the context of 1993. At a time when the whole industry was moving toward multimedia “talkies,” its many conversations and descriptions were still implemented via screenful after screenful of boring old text. And in addition to the old-fashioned implementation, there also remained the fact that the Dungeons & Dragons name just wasn’t the force it once had been. A measure of the industry’s attitude toward the game and its commercial prospects can be gleaned from its placement in the magazines. Even as they were giving it reasonably positive reviews, Computer Gaming World buried it on page 124 of 276, Shay Addams’s Questbusters newsletter on page 8 of 16. (The lead review of that issue, evidently judged to be more immediately interesting to the newsletter’s readers than a review of Shattered Lands, was of Legend Entertainment’s Gateway 2, a fine game in its own right but one which still had a parser, for God’s sake.)

So, you’ve probably guessed where this is going: Dark Sun: Shattered Lands proved a devastating disappointment to TSR and especially to SSI. After costing more than $1 million and eighteen months to make, with the additional opportunity cost of preventing SSI’s internal developers from doing much of anything else over the course of that period, it sold just 45,917 copies. To put this figure into perspective, consider that it’s barely 5000 more copies than the last tired release of the old Gold Box line, or that it’s about one-sixth of the sales of Pool of Radiance — this in spite of an expanded marketplace in which the number of copies which a hit game could hope to sell was actually far greater than it had been five years before.

When SSI and TSR met again early in 1994, after it had become all too clear that Shattered Lands wasn’t to be the next Pool of Radiance, TSR stated matter-of-factly that they no longer wished to remain in the marriage. Some tense negotiation followed, during which TSR did make some concessions to a frantic SSI, who were facing down the apocalyptic prospect of a license due to expire in less than six months while they still had a lot more Dungeons & Dragons product from third-party developers in the pipeline. TSR agreed to extend the exclusive license for six more months, to January 1, 1995, and to allow SSI to continue to release new games under a non-exclusive license until July 1, 1995. After that, though, the marriage was through. TSR emphasized that there would be no further settlement agreements.

Thus SSI’s final string of Dungeons & Dragons releases, of which there would still be a considerable number, would have something of the feel of a lame-duck session of government. DreamForge Intertainment provided two real-time CRPGs set in TSR’s Gothic world of Ravenloft and a third set in the Forgotten Realms; Cyberlore Studios provided a similar game set in the Arabian Nights World of Al-Qadim; Lion Entertainment provided a Doom-influenced hack-and-slasher set nowhere in particular. An overoptimistic SSI had launched into Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager, a sequel to Shattered Lands, before the commercial verdict on the first game and TSR’s final judgment on the whole partnership that had led to it had come in. They finished that game up too, after a fashion anyway, and released it, still full of bugs, unimplemented features, and placeholder writing. It became their final in-house-developed Dungeons & Dragons title. It made for a slightly pathetic way to bow out, but at this point they just couldn’t be bothered to do better; they were now a long way indeed from those enthusiastic early days of Pool of Radiance. None of these games sold more than a few tens of thousands of copies. But then, no one, least of all SSI, had much expected them to.

The news that TSR and SSI were parting ways reached the magazines almost immediately. The two newly minted divorcees couldn’t resist a bit of veiled sniping in the press. SSI, for instance, told Computer Gaming World that they were “unhappy with the rules and restrictions imposed with the license that limited their creativity,” and said they could be perfectly happy and very successful making original CRPGs instead. TSR, for their part, said they’d learned a lesson about binding themselves too inextricably to others, and thus wouldn’t be entering into any more exclusive arrangements at all. Instead they’d play the field, signing deals with publishers on a title-by-title basis, and might just learn how to make computer games of their own.

Yet behind all these brave words lurked a difficult reality for both companies; it was by no means clear that either or both of them would really be better off apart than they’d been together. As if it hadn’t had problems enough already, tabletop Dungeons & Dragons was now getting pummeled by a new arrival with huge appeal to the same demographic: Magic: The Gathering, a fast-playing, accessible “collectible card game” of fantasy combat psychologically engineered to sell an endless amount of content to gamers looking for that one perfect card which could give them an edge over their chums. Magic decks were soon eating up much of the shelf space in hobby stores that had once gone to Dungeons & Dragons, and pushing it out of their display windows entirely. TSR’s only solution was the same as it had always been: to churn out yet more source books. And so the spiral of diminishing returns continued.

The contrast between TSR and Wizards of the Coast, the upstart makers of Magic, was a telling one. The latter engaged with their customers directly at every opportunity, skillfully goosing the grass-roots excitement around their products to yet further extremes. But TSR, still led by the widely disliked non-gamer Lorraine Williams, seemed out of touch, utterly disinterested in their fans and their opinions. Ryan Dancey, who has done a lot of research into TSR’s history, sums up the company’s attitude in damning fashion:

In all my research into TSR’s business, across all the ledgers, notebooks, computer files, and other sources of data, there was one thing I never found — one gaping hole in the mass of data we had available. No customer profiling information. No feedback. No surveys. No “voice of the customer.” TSR, it seems, knew nothing about the people who kept it alive.

The brainy kids who used to fall into the Dungeons & Dragons rabbit hole around the time they entered junior high were now getting their first Magic decks at that age instead. With the red ink beginning to pile up to a truly alarming extent — even the novels were no longer selling like they used to — TSR looked to be headed for an ugly reckoning.

And yet, if TSR was in dire straits, SSI’s position was if anything even worse. Without Dungeons & Dragons, they had almost literally nothing; the strongest remaining item in their portfolio was the Tony La Russa Baseball franchise developed by Stormfront Studios. But a baseball simulation alone wouldn’t be enough to sustain the company, and the sales picture of their other recent products wasn’t pretty. They were still in desperate need of a savior, but now lacked even the TSR connection to offer to potential buyers. Who in the age of multimedia would want to buy a failing publisher of stats-heavy wargames and traditionalist CRPGs? Joel Billings didn’t know, but he had no choice but to keep looking for someone crazy enough to take the plunge.

(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 book Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline; Computer Gaming World of September 1993, December 1993, April 1994, and December 1994; Questbusters of October 1993. Online sources include Matt Barton’s video interviews with Joel Billings and David Shelley and Laura Bowen.

The two Dark Sun games are available as digital purchases at GOG.com.)

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2019 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Life on the Grid

I’ve long been interested in the process by which new games turn into new gaming genres or sub-genres.

Most game designers know from the beginning that they will be working within the boundaries of an existing genre, whether due to their own predilections or to instructions handed down from above. A minority are brave and free enough to try something formally different from the norm, but few to none even of them, it seems safe to say, deliberately set out to create a new genre. Yet if the game they make turns into a success, it may be taken as the beginning of just that, even as — and this to me is the really fascinating part — design choices which were actually technological compromises with the Platonic ideal in the designer’s mind are taken as essential, positive parts of the final product.

A classic example of this process is a genre that’s near and dear to my heart: the text adventure. Neither of the creators of the original text adventure — they being Will Crowther and Don Woods — strikes me as a particularly literary sort. I suspect that, if they’d had the technology available to them to do it, they’d have happily made their game into a photorealistic 3D-rendered world to be explored using virtual-reality glasses. As it happened, though, all they had was a text-only screen and a keyboard connected to a time-shared DEC PDP-10. So, they made do, describing the environment in text and accepting input in the form of commands entered at the keyboard.

If we look at what happened over the ten to fifteen years following Adventure‘s arrival in 1977, we see a clear divide between practitioners of the form. Companies like Sierra saw the text-only format as exactly the technological compromise Crowther and Woods may also have seen, and ran away from it as quickly as possible. Others, however — most notably Infocom — embraced text, finding in it an expansive possibility space all its own, even running advertisements touting their lack of graphics as a virtue. The heirs to this legacy still maintain a small but vibrant ludic subculture to this day.

But it’s another, almost equally interesting example of this process that’s the real subject of our interest today: the case of the real-time grid-based dungeon crawler. After the release of Sir-Tech’s turn-based dungeon crawl Wizardry in 1981, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the ideal next step would be: a smooth-scrolling first-person 3D environment running in real time. Yet that was a tall order indeed for the hardware of the time — even for the next generation of 16-bit hardware that began to arrive in the mid-1980s, as exemplified by the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga. So, when a tiny developer known as FTL decided the time had come to advance the state of the art over Wizardry, they compromised by going to real time but holding onto a discrete grid of locations inside the dungeon of Dungeon Master.

Gamers of today have come to refer to dungeon crawls on a grid as “blobbers,” which is as good a term as any. (The term arises from the way that these games typically “blob” together a party of four or six characters, moving them in lockstep and giving the player a single first-person — first-people? — view of the world.) The Dungeon Master lineage, then, are “real-time blobbers.”

By whatever name, this intermediate step between Wizardry and the free-scrolling ideal came equipped with its own unique set of gameplay affordances. Retaining the grid allowed you to do things that you simply couldn’t otherwise. For one thing, it allowed a game to combine the exciting immediacy of real time with what remains for some of us one of the foremost pleasures of the earlier, Wizardry style of dungeon crawl: the weirdly satisfying process of making your own maps — of slowly filling in the blank spaces on your graph paper, bringing order and understanding to what used to be the chaotic unknown.

This advertisement for the popular turn-based dungeon crawl Might and Magic makes abundantly clear how essential map-making was to the experience of these games. “Even more cartography than the bestselling fantasy game!” What a sales pitch…

But even if you weren’t among the apparent minority who enjoyed that sort of thing, the grid had its advantages, the most significant of which is implied by the very name of “blobber.” It was easy and natural in these games to control a whole party of characters moving in lockstep from square to square, thus retaining another of the foremost pleasures of turn-based games like Wizardry: that of building up not just a single character but a balanced team of them. In a free-scrolling, free-moving game, with its much more precise sense of embodied positioning, such a conceit would have been impossible to maintain. And much of the emergent interactivity of Dungeon Master‘s environment would also have been impossible without the grid. Many of us still recall the eureka moment when we realized that we could kill monsters by luring them into a gate square and pushing a button to bash them on the heads with the thing as it tried to descend, over and over again. Without the neat order of the grid, where a gate occupying a square fills all of that square as it descends, there could have been no eureka.

So, within a couple of years of Dungeon Master‘s release in 1987, the real-time blobber was establishing itself in a positive way, as its own own sub-genre with its own personality, rather than the unsatisfactory compromise it may first have seemed. Today, I’d like to do a quick survey of this popular if fairly brief-lived style of game. We can’t hope to cover all of the real-time blobbers, but we can hit the most interesting highlights.


Bloodwych running in its unique two-player mode.

Most of the games that followed Dungeon Master rely on one or two gimmicks to separate themselves from their illustrious ancestor, while keeping almost everything else the same. Certainly this rule applied to the first big title of the post-Dungeon Master blobber generation, 1989’s Bloodwych. It copies from FTL’s game not only the real-time approach but also its innovative rune-based magic system, and even the conceit of the player selecting her party from a diverse group of heroes who have been frozen in amber. By way of completing the facsimile, Bloodwych eventually got a much more difficult expansion disk, similar to Dungeon Master‘s famously difficult Chaos Strikes Back.

The unique gimmick here is the possibility for two players to play together on the same machine, either cooperatively or competitively, as they choose. A second innovation of sorts is the fact that, in addition to the usual Amiga and Atari ST versions, Bloodwych was also made for the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, and Sinclair Spectrum, much more limited 8-bit computers which still owned a substantial chunk of the European market in 1989.

Bloodwych was the work of a two-man team, one handling the programming, the other the graphics. The programmer, one Anthony Taglioni, tells an origin story that’s exactly what you’d expect it to be:

Dungeon Master appeared on the ST and what a product it was! Three weeks later we’d played it to death, even taking just a party of short people. My own record is twelve hours with just two characters. I was talking with Mirrorsoft at the time and suggested that I could do a DM conversion for them on the C64. They ummed and arred a lot and Pete [the artist] carried on drawing screens until they finally said, “Yes!” and I said, “No! We’ve got a better design and it’ll be two-player-simultaneous.” They said, “Okay, but we want ST and Amiga as well.”

The two-player mode really is remarkable, especially considering that it works even on the lowly 8-bit systems. The screen is split horizontally, and both parties can roam about the dungeon freely in real time, even fighting one another if the players in control wish it. “An option allowing two players to connect via modem could only have boosted the game’s popularity,” noted Wizardry‘s designer Andrew Greenberg in 1992, in a review of the belated Stateside MS-DOS release. But playing Bloodwych in-person with a friend had to be if anything even more fun.

Unfortunately, the game has little beyond its two-player mode and wider platform availability to recommend it over Dungeon Master. Ironically, many of its problems are down to the need to accommodate the two-player mode. In single-player mode, the display fills barely half of the available screen real estate, meaning that everything is smaller and harder to manipulate than in Dungeon Master. The dungeon design as well, while not being as punishing as some later entries in this field, is nowhere near as clever or creative as that of Dungeon Master, lacking the older game’s gradual, elegant progression in difficulty and complexity. As would soon become all too typical of the sub-genre, Bloodwych offered more levels — some forty of them in all, in contrast to Dungeon Master‘s twelve — in lieu of better ones.

So, played today, Bloodwych doesn’t really have a lot to offer. It was doubtless a more attractive proposition in its own time, when games were expensive and length was taken by many cash-strapped teenage gamers as a virtue unto itself. And of course the multiplayer mode was its wild card; it almost couldn’t help but be fun, at least in the short term. By capitalizing on that unique attribute and the fact that it was the first game out there able to satiate eager fans of Dungeon Master looking for more, Bloodwych did quite well for its publisher.


Captive has the familiar “paper doll” interface of Dungeon Master, but you’re controlling robots here. The five screens along the top will eventually be used for various kinds of telemetry and surveillance as you acquire new capabilities.

The sub-genre’s biggest hit of 1990 — albeit once again only in Europe — evinced more creativity in many respects than Bloodwych, even if its primary claim to fame once again came down to sheer length. Moving the action from a fantasy world into outer space, Captive is a mashup of Dungeon Master and Infocom’s Suspended, if you can imagine such a thing. As a prisoner accused of a crime he didn’t commit, you must free yourself from your cell using four robots which you control remotely. Unsurprisingly, the high-tech complexes they’ll need to explore bear many similarities to a fantasy dungeon.

The programmer, artist, and designer behind Captive was a lone-wolf Briton named Tony Crowther, who had cranked out almost thirty simple games for 8-bit computers before starting on this one, his first for the Amiga and Atari ST. Crowther created the entire game all by himself in about fourteen months, an impressive achievement by any standard.

More so even than for its setting and premise, Captive stands out for its reliance on procedurally-generated “dungeons.” In other words, it doesn’t even try to compete with Dungeon Master‘s masterful level design, but rather goes a different way completely. Each level is generated by the computer on the fly from a single seed number in about three seconds, meaning there’s no need to store any of the levels on disk. After completing the game the first time, the player is given the option of doing it all over again with a new and presumably more difficult set of complexes to explore. This can continue virtually indefinitely; the level generator can produce 65,535 unique levels in all. That should be enough, announced a proud Crowther, to keep someone playing his game for fifty years by his reckoning: “I wanted to create a role-playing game you wouldn’t get bored of — a game that never ends, so you can feasibly play it for years and years.”

Procedural generation tended to be particularly appealing to European developers like Tony Crowther, who worked in smaller groups with tighter budgets than their American counterparts, and whose target platforms generally lacked the hard drives that had become commonplace on American MS-DOS machines by 1990. Yet it’s never been a technique which I find very appealing as anything but a preliminary template generator for a human designer. In Captive as in most games that rely entirely on procedural generation, the process yields an endless progression of soulless levels which all too obviously lack the human touch of those found in a game like Dungeon Master. In our modern era, when brilliant games abound and can often be had for a song, there’s little reason to favor a game with near-infinite amounts of mediocre content over a shorter but more concentrated experience. In Captive‘s day, of course, the situation was very different, making it just one more example of an old game that was, for one reason or another, far more appealing in its own day than it is in ours.


This is the screen you’ll see most in Knightmare.

Tony Crowther followed up Captive some eighteen months later with Knightmare, a game based on a children’s reality show of sorts which ran on Britain’s ITV network from 1987 until 1994. The source material is actually far more interesting than this boxed-computer-game derivative. In an early nod toward embodied virtual reality, a team of four children were immersed in a computer-generated dungeon and tasked with finding their way out. It’s an intriguing cultural artifact of Britain’s early fascination with computers and the games they played, well worth a gander on YouTube.

The computer game of Knightmare, however, is less intriguing. Using the Captive engine, but featuring hand-crafted rather than procedurally-generated content this time around, it actually hews far closer to the Dungeon Master template than its predecessor. Indeed, like so many of its peers, it slavishly copies almost every aspect of its inspiration without managing to be quite as good — much less better — at any of it. This lineage has always had a reputation for difficulty, but Knightmare pushes that to the ragged edge, in terms of both its ridiculously convoluted environmental puzzles and the overpowered monsters you constantly face. Even the laddish staff of Amiga Format magazine, hardly a bastion of thoughtful design analyses, acknowledged that it “teeters on unplayably tough.” And even the modern blogger known as the CRPG Addict, whose name ought to say it all about his skill with these types of games, “questions whether it’s possible to win it without hints.”

Solo productions like this one, created in a vacuum, with little to no play-testing except by a designer who’s intimately familiar with every aspect of his game’s systems, often wound up getting the difficulty balance markedly wrong. Yet Knightmare is an extreme case even by the standards of that breed. If Dungeon Master is an extended explication of the benefits of careful level design, complete with lots of iterative feedback from real players, this game is a cautionary tale about the opposite extreme. While it was apparently successful in its day, there’s no reason for anyone who isn’t a masochist to revisit it in ours.


Eye of the Beholder‘s dependence on Dungeon Master is, as the CRPG Addict puts it, “so stark that you wonder why there weren’t lawsuits involved.” What it does bring new to the table is a whole lot more story and lore. Multi-page story dumps like this one practically contain more text than the entirety of Dungeon Master.

None of the three games I’ve just described was available in North America prior to 1992. Dungeon Master, having been created by an American developer, was for sale there, but only for the Amiga, Atari ST, and Apple IIGS, computers whose installed base in the country had never been overly large and whose star there dwindled rapidly after 1989. Thus the style of gameplay that Dungeon Master had introduced was either completely unknown or, at best, only vaguely known by most American gamers — this even as real-time blobbers had become a veritable gaming craze in Europe. But there was no reason to believe that American gamers wouldn’t take to them with the same enthusiasm as their European counterparts if they were only given the chance. There was simply a shortage of supply — and this, as any good capitalist knows, spells Opportunity.

The studio which finally walked through this open door is one I recently profiled in some detail: Westwood Associates. With a long background in real-time games already behind them, they were well-positioned to bring the real-time dungeon crawl to the American masses. Even better, thanks to a long-established relationship with the publisher SSI, they got the opportunity to do so under the biggest license in CRPGs, that of Dungeons & Dragons itself. With its larger development team and American-sized budget for art and sound, everything about Eye of the Beholder screamed hit, and upon its release in March of 1991 — more than half a year before Knightmare, actually — it didn’t disappoint.

It really is an impressive outing in many ways, the first example of its sub-genre that I can honestly imagine someone preferring to Dungeon Master. Granted, Westwood’s game lacks Dungeon Master‘s elegance: the turn-based Dungeons & Dragons rules are rather awkwardly kludged into real time; the environments still aren’t as organically interactive (amazingly, none of the heirs to Dungeon Master would ever quite live up to its example in this area); the controls can be a bit clumsy; the level design is nowhere near as fiendishly creative. But on the other hand, the level design isn’t pointlessly hard either, and the game is, literally and figuratively, a more colorful experience. In addition to the better graphics and sound, there’s far more story, steeped in the lore of the popular Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Personally, I still prefer Dungeon Master‘s minimalist aesthetic, as I do its cleaner rules set and superior level design. But then, I have no personal investment in the Forgotten Realms (or, for that matter, in elaborate fantasy world-building in general). Your mileage may vary.

Whatever my or your opinion of it today, Eye of the Beholder hit American gamers like a revelation back in the day, and Europe too got to join the fun via a Westwood-developed Amiga port which shipped there within a few months of the MS-DOS original’s American debut. It topped sales charts in both places, becoming the first game of its type to actually outsell Dungeon Master. In fact, it became almost certainly the best-selling single example of a real-time blobber ever; between North America and Europe, total sales likely reached 250,000 copies or more, huge numbers at a time when 100,000 copies was the line that marked a major hit.

Following the success of Eye of the Beholder, the dam well and truly burst in the United States. Before the end of 1991, Westwood had cranked out an Eye of the Beholder II, which is larger and somewhat more difficult than its predecessor, but otherwise shares the same strengths and weaknesses. In 1993, their publisher SSI took over to make an Eye of the Beholder III in-house; it’s generally less well-thought-of than the first two games. Meanwhile Bloodwych and Captive got MS-DOS ports and arrived Stateside. Even FTL, whose attitude toward making new products can most generously be described as “relaxed,” finally managed to complete and release their long-rumored MS-DOS port of Dungeon Master — whereupon its dated graphics were, predictably if a little unfairly, compared unfavorably with the more spectacular audiovisuals of Eye of the Beholder in the American gaming press.


Black Crypt‘s auto-map.

Another, somewhat more obscure title from this peak of the real-time blobber’s popularity was early 1992’s Black Crypt, the very first game from the American studio Raven Software, who would go on to a long and productive life. (As of this writing, they’re still active, having spent the last eight years or so making new entries in the Call of Duty franchise.) Although created by an American developer and published by the American Electronic Arts, one has to assume that Black Crypt was aimed primarily at European players, as it was made available only for the Amiga. Even in Europe, however, it failed to garner much attention in an increasingly saturated market; it looked a little better than Dungeon Master but not as good as Eye of the Beholder, and otherwise failed to stand out from the pack in terms of level design, interface, or mechanics.

With, that is, one exception. For the first time, Black Crypt added an auto-map to the formula. Unfortunately, it was needlessly painful to access, being available only through a mana-draining wizard’s spell. Soon, though, Westwood would take up and perfect Raven’s innovation, as the real-time blobber entered the final phase of its existence as a gaming staple.


Black Crypt may have been the first real-time blobber with an auto-map, but Lands of Lore perfected the concept. Like every other aspect of the game, the auto-map here looks pretty spectacular.

Released in late 1993, Westwood’s Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos was an attempt to drag the now long-established real-time-blobber format into the multimedia age, while also transforming it into a more streamlined and accessible experience. It comes very, very close to realizing its ambitions, but is let down a bit by some poor design choices as it wears on.

Having gone their separate ways from SSI and from the strictures of the Dungeons & Dragons license, Westwood got to enjoy at last the same freedom which had spawned the easy elegance of Dungeon Master; they were free to, as Westwood’s Louis Castle would later put it, create cleaner rules that “worked within the context of a digital environment,” making extensive use of higher-math functions that could never have been implemented in a tabletop game. These designers, however, took their newfound freedom in a very different direction from the hardcore logistical and tactical challenge that was FTL’s game. “We’re trying to make our games more accessible to everybody,” said Westwood’s Brett Sperry at the time, “and we feel that the game consoles offer a clue as to where we should go in terms of interface. You don’t really have to read a manual for a lot of games, the entertainment and enjoyment is immediate.”

Lands of Lore places you in control of just two or three characters at a time, who come in and out of your party as the fairly linear story line dictates. The magic system is similarly condensed down to just seven spells. In place of the tactical maneuvering and environmental exploitation that marks combat within the more interactive dungeons of Dungeon Master is a simple but satisfying rock-paper-scissors approach: monsters are more or less vulnerable to different sorts of attacks, requiring you adjust your spells and equipment accordingly. And, most tellingly of all, an auto-map is always at your fingertips, even automatically annotating hidden switches and secret doors you might have overlooked in the first-person view.

Whether all of this results in a game that’s better than Dungeon Master is very much — if you’ll excuse the pun! — in the eye of the beholder. The auto-map alone changes the personality of the game almost enough to make it feel like the beginning of a different sub-genre entirely. Yet Lands of Lore has an undeniable charm all its own as a less taxing, more light-hearted sort of fantasy romp.

One thing at least is certain: at the time of its release, Lands of Lore was by far the most attractive blobber the world had yet seen. Abandoning the stilted medieval conceits of most CRPGs, its atmosphere is more fairy tale than Tolkien, full of bright cartoon-like tableaux rendered by veteran Hanna-Barbera and Disney animators. The music and voice acting in the CD-ROM version are superb, with none other than Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame acting as narrator.

Sadly, though, the charm does begin to evaporate somewhat as the game wears on. There’s an infamous one-level difficulty spike in the mid-game that’s all but guaranteed to run off the very newbies and casual players Westwood was trying to attract. Worse, the last 25 percent or so is clearly unfinished, a tedious slog through empty corridors with nothing of interest beyond hordes of overpowered monsters. When you get near the end and the game suddenly takes away the auto-map you’ve been relying on, you’re left wondering how the designers could have so completely lost all sense of the game they started out making. More so than any of the other games I’ve written about today, Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, despite enjoying considerable commercial success which would lead to two sequels, feels like a missed opportunity.


Real-time blobbers would continue to appear for a couple more years after Lands of Lore. The last remotely notable examples are two 1995 releases: FTL’s ridiculously belated and rather unimaginative Dungeon Master II, which was widely and justifiably panned by reviewers; and Interplay’s years-in-the-making Stonekeep, which briefly dazzled some reviewers with such extraneous bells and whistles as an introductory cinematic that by at least one employee’s account cost ten times as much as the underwhelming game behind it. (If any other anecdote more cogently illustrates the sheer madness of the industry’s drunk-on-CD-ROM “interactive movie” period, I don’t know what it is.) Needless to say, neither game outdoes the original Dungeon Master where it counts.

At this point, then, we have to confront the place where the example I used in opening this article — that of interactive fiction and its urtext of Adventure — begins to break down when applied to the real-time blobber. Adventure, whatever its own merits, really was the launching pad for a whole universe of possibilities involving parsers and text. But the real-time blobber never did manage to transcend its own urtext, as is illustrated by the long shadow the latter has cast over this very article. None of the real-time blobbers that came after Dungeon Master was clearly better than it; arguably, none was ever quite as good. Why should this be?

Any answer to that question must, first of all, pay due homage to just how fully-realized Dungeon Master was as a game system, as well as to how tight its level designs were. It presented everyone who tried to follow it with one heck of a high bar to clear. Beyond that obvious fact, though, we must also consider the nature of the comparison with the text adventure, which at the end of the day is something of an apples-and-oranges proposition. The real-time blobber is a more strictly demarcated category than the text adventure; this is why we tend to talk about real-time blobbers as a sub-genre and text adventures as a genre. Perhaps there’s only so much you can do with wandering through grid-based dungeons, making maps, solving mechanical puzzles, and killing monsters. And perhaps Dungeon Master had already done it all about as well as it could be done, making everything that came after superfluous to all but the fanatics and the completists.

And why, you ask, had game developers largely stopped even trying to better Dungeon Master by the middle of the 1990s?1 As it happens, there’s no mystery whatsoever about why the real-time blobber — or, for that matter, the blobber in general — disappeared from the marketplace. Even as the format was at its absolute peak of popularity in 1992, with Westwood’s Eye of the Beholder games selling like crazy and everything else rushing onto the bandwagon, an unassuming little outfit known as Blue Sky Productions gave notice to anyone who might have been paying attention that the blobber’s days were already numbered. This they did by taking a dungeon crawl off the grid. After that escalation in the gaming arms race, there was nothing for it but to finish whatever games in the old style were still in production and find a way to start making games in the new. Next time, then, we’ll turn our attention to the great leap forward that was Ultima Underworld.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1987, February 1991, June 1991, February 1992, March 1992, April 1992, November 1992, August 1993, November 1993, October 1994, October 1995, and February 1996; Amiga Format of December 1989, February 1992, March 1992, and May 1992; Questbusters of May 1991, March 1992, and December 1993; SynTax 22; The One of October 1990, August 1991, February 1992, October 1992, and February 1994. Online sources include Louis Castle’s interview for Soren Johnson’s Designer Notes podcast and Matt Barton’s interview with Peter Oliphant. Devotees of this sub-genre should also check out The CRPG Addict’s much more detailed takes on Bloodwych, Captive, Knightmare, Eye of the Beholder, Eye of the Beholder II, and Black Crypt.

The most playable of the games I’ve written about today, the Eye of the Beholder series and Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, are available for purchase on GOG.com.)


  1. If one takes the <em>really</em> long view, they didn’t, at least not forever. In 2012, as part of the general retro-revival that has resurrected any number of dead sub-genres over the past decade, a studio known as Almost Human released <a href="https://www.mobygames.com/game/legend-of-grimrock"><em>Legend of Grimrock</em></a>, the first significant commercial game of this type to be seen in many years. It got positive reviews, and sold well enough to spawn <a href="https://www.mobygames.com/game/legend-of-grimrock-ii">a sequel</a> in 2014. I’m afraid I haven’t played either of them, and so can’t speak to the question of whether either or both of them finally managed the elusive trick of outdoing <em>Dungeon Master</em>. 

 
 

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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 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 that its author found thoroughly antithetical. 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 same 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 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 it 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, 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, due 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 likely came courtesy of diehard Commodore 64 owners who had very few other games to buy in 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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