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Titanic Visions, Part 1: Sifting Through the Wreckage

Games are not made in a vacuum.

This truth ought to be self-evident, but it’s often lost in histories of gaming. People like me tend to rely, perhaps a bit too much, on what I sometimes call the cataloging approach to gaming history. You all know the recipe for such articles: start with a discrete classic (or occasionally infamous) game, add a narrative of who made it and how they did so, pour in an evaluation of its merits and demerits, and season the final concoction with a description of its place in the evolution of gaming in general. I’ve written plenty of such articles in the past, and will doubtless write plenty more of them in the future.

What such articles sometimes lose sight of, however, is a broader cultural context that’s to be found beyond the permeable borders of the gaming ghetto. The ideas and influences that are turned into games come from all over the place, being reflections of the societies that surround them and the interests of the people who make them. (For much of gaming history, these people have been mostly young white and Asian men from fairly privileged socioeconomic circumstances, which, needless to say, has had its own impact on the types of games that exist and the subjects they tackle.) Sometimes the pop culture that influences games is so blindingly obvious that we almost can become blind to it: what would digital games be today if Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had never invented the tabletop game of Dungeons & Dragons, or if J.R.R. Tolkien had never written The Lord of the Rings, or if George Lucas had never made Star Wars? But it’s the subtler influences that I find most interesting to ferret out — like, for instance, the way that techno-thriller author Tom Clancy’s brand of American military triumphalism fed into the combat simulations made by companies like Microprose, which at times commanded a quarter or more of the overall computer-gaming market during the 1980s and 1990s.

When I realized a decade or so ago that I had somehow stumbled into writing a broad, encompassing history of computer gaming, I promised myself that I would try to bring out connections like these whenever possible. I’m not sure that I’ve always kept that promise on an article-by-article basis, but I have always tried to keep one eye at least on the bigger picture, to give this site some credibility as a broad cultural history rather than just a catalog of neat games that appeared down through time — not that it hasn’t also been the latter, of course. In short, I’ve always wanted to understand how outside culture bleeds into the seemingly insular world of gaming, and how gaming has left its mark on the world outside its boundaries. (This last has barely begun to happen at the point in history we’ve reached now, more than ten years into this project, but rest assured that the “gamefication” of everyday life is not that far away.) There are many reasons to play old games, the most popular ones being simply because they’re fun on their own merits and because of the warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia they invoke in us folks of a certain age. But another reason, which is no less defensible, is that they give us a chance to become time travelers in a more impersonal sense, by giving us a direct pipeline to a receding past.

So, please indulge me now in a case study about how changing fashions in the way we view one of the most enduring mytho-historical tropes of modern culture impacted games. The sinking of the brand-new, “unsinkable” luxury liner the Titanic following a collision with a North Atlantic iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, is the delicious tragedy that we just can’t seem to let go of, an irresistible mixture of symbolism, theme, romance, pathos, mystery, and heroism to which we keep returning over and over. Just as many historical novels have more to tell us about the times in which they were written than the times they allegedly chronicle, the lens through which we view the Titanic has been as much a mirror we hold up to our contemporary selves as a window into the past. For example, during the unsentimental, materialist 1980s, the last full decade before our virtual online existences started to compete with our flesh-and-blood reality, the Titanic was discussed primarily as a thing, to be found, probed, and perhaps even raised above the waves once again. But then, in 1997 — an altogether dreamier, more fanciful time to be alive — a hit film reminded us why we had all fallen in love with the Titanic to begin with: because it’s such a great story, or rather collection of them, a beautiful canvas for our imaginations. My next three articles will examine these competing visions of the Titanic, and the games that were made in response to them — no fewer than ten games in all, plus one intriguing idea for a game that was never made.


The first person to propose finding and raising the Titanic from its watery grave did so barely a year after the ship had sunk. Charles Smith was a Colorado mining engineer who knew nothing about ships or the sea, but was convinced that his own area of expertise was as applicable to the problem of a seaborne salvage operation as it was to that of cracking open an elusive new seam of gold. It seems that when one goes through life with a miner’s hammer in one hand, everything looks like a suitable nail. “My object is to deliver the Titanic to its owners without further injury so that the great vessel may be rebuilt,” Smith declared. “Much of the cargo, or all of it, would be recovered. All the bodies which sank with the doomed ship have long since been embalmed by the action of the seawater, and when they are at last brought back to the surface they will be easily identifiable and prepared for reverential burial.”

Smith’s plan hinged on electromagnets, one of the trendy technological wonders of his age. He would build a massive one — possibly the most massive one ever built — sail or drag it out to the Titanic‘s last known location, turn it on, and let the sunken ship’s steel hull pull it to its bosom. With the wreck thus pinpointed on the ocean floor, he would descend in a custom-made submarine to attach hundreds more magnets to the hull, each with a rope leading back to a steam-powered winch aboard one of a dozen or so boats on the surface. When all was ready, the winches would all be activated in unison, and the 46,000-ton vessel would be slowly lifted back to the surface, then towed to a dry dock, repaired, and placed back into service. Smith estimated that the whole operation would require just $1.5 million and 162 men, and would take about three months: one month to find the wreck, one month to prepare it, and one month to raise it and tow it to safety. “It is merely a matter of magnets,” he insisted.

The plan left something to be desired in terms of basic physics, not to mention in its understanding of basic human psychology; how many passengers would really want to sail on a ship on which more than 1500 people had died in horrific circumstances? Yet it was taken bizarrely seriously in the popular press, which churned out excited headlines like “Can the Lost Titanic Be Raised?” Alas, potential investors proved less credulous: Smith managed to raise just $10,000 of the $1.5 million he said he needed. After the onset of the First World War, a more diffuse tragedy than the sinking of the Titanic but one that was many orders of magnitude more immense, he and his scheme faded back into obscurity, just another of the frivolous pipe dreams of a more innocent era.

More than half a century later, in the late 1960s, a British odd-jobber and Titanic obsessive named Doug Woolley captured headlines with a scheme that was almost as outlandish as that of Charles Smith. He would attach 200 deflated pontoons all around the Titanic‘s hull. Then they would be filled with hydrogen which would be extracted from the surrounding seawater via electrolysis, and the ship would rise majestically to the surface like the mother of all hot-air balloons. He said the whole operation would cost about £4.8 million and could be accomplished within one year.

To say that Woolley lacked qualifications in deep-sea salvage hardly begins to state the case. He was working in a pantyhose factory at the same time that he was holding press conferences about raising the Titanic. He had never personally sailed farther than the width of the English Channel, and was conducting what he insisted were groundbreaking experiments in electrolysis in his dingy flat’s bathtub. And he was rather putting the cart before the horse anyway, given that no one knew precisely where the Titanic lay; whereas Charles Smith had at least made some attempt to address that part of the problem, Woolley just took it on faith that it would turn up when he started to look around for it.

Wooley’s dream never had a chance in the real world, but the world of fiction was another matter. In 1976, the American author Clive Cussler published the third of what would become many pulpy adventure novels featuring his hero Dirk Pitt, a sort of Tom Swift for grown-ups. The novel was called Raise the Titanic!, and had a plot involving byzanium, a precious (and fictional) mineral, a radioactive power source whose potential dwarfs that of uranium or plutonium, whose only known reserves happened to be aboard the Titanic on that fateful night. Pitt and his friends concoct a plan for raising the ship — why they don’t just try to raise the byzanium in its hold is never adequately explained — that bears distinct similarities to Doug Woolley’s scheme: they will seal off the interior of the ship and pump it full of compressed air to cause it to float to the surface. This they succeed in doing, fighting off Soviet saboteurs all the while.

The novel became a bestseller, whereupon Hollywood made it into a big-budget summer movie in 1980. The scale model of the Titanic that was constructed for the film’s climactic scene of the ship breaking the ocean’s surface cost $7 million, as much as the original vessel when not adjusting for inflation. But surprisingly, even the Titanic name and a titanic budget worthy of the ship couldn’t save the film; it was savaged by critics, and turned into a box-office bomb. “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic,” quipped its producer Lew Grade later.

Although the method employed by Dirk Pitt and his friends for raising the Titanic was hopeless for a vessel of this size at this depth, it was adapted from real-world techniques already in use for raising ships that had sunk in shallower waters. For a cottage industry of shipwreck recovery had arisen after World War II. With an estimated quarter of a million or more ships having sunk since humanity first began to ply the world’s waterways, the pickings in the most popular sea lanes were rich. People made fortunes by poring over old nautical records, searching doggedly where the ships they found in them were believed to have sunk, and retrieving the gold, silver, and other valuable in their holds. The Caribbean, which had once positively teemed with Spain’s treasure-laden galleons sailing from the New World back to the Old, was particularly fertile ground.

Meanwhile others had invented the new field of maritime archaeology, with the purpose of studying and preserving the wrecks they found instead of looting them for profit. Soon every other issue of National Geographic seemed to contain some new undersea discovery, illustrated in full-color Kodachrome. For example, the Titanic‘s sister ship the Britannic, which had struck a German mine and sunk off the coast of Greece in 1916 while serving as a hospital ship, was found by the famous French undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau in 1975.

Admittedly, the boundaries between the treasure hunter and the maritime archaeologist weren’t always clear. Many of the adventurous folks who got into this racket had a little bit of both in them, along with a hefty hankering for the notoriety that would come their way if they became, say, the first person to send back pictures of the most famous of all sunken ships in the world.

The problem with the Titanic, the thing which made it so much harder to find than the likes of the Britannic, was that it had sunk in the deep water of the open ocean rather than the coastal water of the Mediterranean. The deep ocean floor is the most inaccessible geography on our planet; even today, marine scientists like to say that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the landscapes under our own planet’s oceans. That said, people did come up with various ideas for locating the Titanic from the ocean’s surface that were more or less feasible. For example, Commander John Grattan, the Royal Navy’s anointed expert in diving and submersibles, proposed scouring the ocean floor with a huge active sonar array towed behind a trawler. But such plans would be dauntingly expensive to implement. And, even if the Titanic was found from the surface, what next? Only a few submersibles in the world were capable of diving to the wreck’s depth of two and a half miles below the ocean’s surface, and they were all in the hands of the United States Navy, which wasn’t in the habit of renting them out to private treasure hunters to use for snapping pictures and collecting souvenirs.

One man, however, judged that the fame and money that would follow a credible claim of just having found the Titanic — never mind the photographs, much less any salvage operations — would be enough to make the task eminently worth taking on. “Cadillac” Jack Grimm was a flamboyant Texas oilman with a taste for exotic adventure and pseudoscience, who had already mounted expeditions in search of Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, and the Loch Ness Monster, who had once traveled to the North Pole in the hope of proving that the Earth was hollow. His greatest achievement to date in this mold, at least if you asked him, was the recovery of a piece of Noah’s Ark from the side of Mount Ararat in Turkey — never mind that the scientific community universally scoffed at his alleged find.

In the summer of 1980, while Raise the Titanic was bombing in box offices, Grimm funded a search for the real ship that was broadly similar to the approach suggested by John Grattan: a trawler dragged behind it a sonar array which hovered a few hundred feet above the ocean floor. Over a period of more than a week, the boat methodically covered an area of about ten square miles that was judged the most likely to contain the wreck. It returned to port without a smoking gun, but its crew did create a list of fourteen sites within the search area that had sent back suspiciously regular sonar echoes, any of which could be indicative of a large human-made object like the Titanic. “I think we got that heifer corralled in a box canyon,” Grimm told the press in his usual colorful diction.

Indeed, Grimm knew how to work the press like the master of ceremonies at a rodeo, and he poured on the juice now. He announced that he would mount a second expedition the following summer to exhaustively search each of the fourteen sites with a more sensitive sonar array, an iron-detecting magnetometer, and a camera capable of sending back grainy photographs. He arranged this time to borrow from the Coast Guard the Gyre, a cutting-edge oceanographic research vessel, and funded a documentary film that was to be hosted by Orson Welles; the film crew would sail with the second expedition in order to capture the instant of discovery. He was, he told the assembled journalists on the day he himself sailed with the Gyre, absolutely convinced that he would be known to the world as the man who had found the Titanic by the time his feet next touched dry land.

Looking for an expert to support, debunk, or qualify his showy optimism, some journalists turned to one Robert Ballard, an oceanographer and diver with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who was arguably the world’s foremost expert on deep-ocean exploration of a more scientific bent, whose greatest achievement to date had been his discovery of underwater hydrothermal vents and the unique forms of animal life that clustered around these precious oases of warmth on the bitter-cold ocean floor. The polar opposite of Grimm in temperament, the cautious Ballard said that, while Grimm’s overall approach was viable if conducted carefully and thoroughly, it would nevertheless be difficult to convince the public that he truly had found the Titanic absent high-quality, closeup photographs of the wreck. He was diplomatic enough not to add that Grimm’s earlier trafficking in mythical monsters and Biblical literalism would cause any claim he made to seem that much more dubious without overwhelming proof.

Meanwhile Grimm’s expedition set to work, contending with unstable weather that kept the Gyre‘s captain on a constant knife-edge. One by one, the crew eliminated the promising locations that had been identified the previous year. As the number of remaining possibilities dwindled, the mood onboard grew dimmer and dimmer. At last, the fourteenth and final site was crossed off the list. They had come up dry.

Or had they? On the way home, flipping in desultory fashion through the photographs that been returned to the surface, Grimm stumbled upon an image that gave him goosebumps: something that looked for all the world like a large human-made object, smoothly tapered like the wings of an airplane, rising out of the mud of the ocean floor. He was sure it must be a blade from one of the Titanic‘s 26-ton propellers.

Grimm immediately radioed the Coast Guard and asked to hang onto the Gyre for another week. But the Coast Guard refused, even when he name-dropped President Ronald Reagan, whom he claimed was a close personal friend. There was nothing for it but to continue the journey home. He was certain he had found the Titanic, but even his own team of experts, never mind outsiders, were unconvinced. They said that the blurry photograph was more likely than not just another rocky outcropping. An extraordinary claim required extraordinary proof, and this one picture was not it. Which didn’t stop Grimm’s documentary, once it was finished, from claiming it to be all but conclusive proof.

Grimm did try one more time to seal the deal. In the summer of 1983, he set off again aboard a research vessel, borrowed this time from Columbia University. But this trip was plagued by even worse weather than the last one. After several days of frantic searching for a propeller which seemed to have disappeared back into the ocean floor whence it had sprouted, 40-knot winds forced him to cut the expedition short. Grimm, who was prone to seasickness and had a deadly fear of water, decided enough was enough after this latest miserable experience. He never mounted a fourth expedition.

But the Titanic wasn’t to remain hidden much longer. For even as Jack Grimm was capturing headlines with his expeditions, Robert Ballard and his colleagues at Woods Hole were quietly developing an uncrewed deep-water sled equipped with an array of powerful searchlights and high-resolution still and video cameras, all operable by remote control from the surface. He called it the Argo, after the ship which the mythical Greek hero Jason had sailed into the unknown sea that lay beyond the Hellespont. Being not without a streak of public-relations savvy of his own, Ballard thought it would be quite a coup to use his expensive new toy to find and send back images of the Titanic, an achievement for which Grimm had obligingly primed the press’s pump.

That, at any rate, was how the story was reported in the 1980s. A more complicated and truthful version emerged years later. It seems that the United States Navy had funded much of the Argo‘s development and construction, with the understanding that it would be able to use it and its creator from time to time for its own purposes. (Ballard had longstanding relationships in the Navy, having served from 1967 to 1970 as an active-duty officer and being still a reservist.) The first favor was called in almost as soon as the Argo was ready for action. The Navy brass were very concerned about two nuclear attack submarines which had been lost in the 1960s in the North Atlantic, not far from where the Titanic had gone down. They were eager to ensure that the subs’ reactor cores had not ruptured and, just as importantly, that the Soviets hadn’t found the vessels and looted them for secrets. A search for the Titanic would make the perfect cover story for Ballard’s activities in this otherwise deserted stretch of open ocean. The Navy gave him two months to play with; if he completed his classified investigations more quickly than that, he could use the rest of his time to really search for the Titanic. As it happened, it took him slightly over a month and a half to find the two submarines and put the Navy’s mind at ease that neither was leaking radioactivity and neither had been plundered. He was left with twelve days in which to find the Titanic.

Ballard and his Argo were sailing aboard the research vessel Knorr, the workhorse of Woods Hole. That same summer, a French team under an oceanographer named Jean-Louis Michel had tried to find the Titanic using sonar, but had come up empty. This failure, combined with the failures of Jack Grimm’s expeditions, convinced Ballard that he shouldn’t be looking for a reasonably intact ship on the ocean floor; the area had been scoured so thoroughly with sonar by now that such an object would surely have been found if it existed. He believed that the ship must be far more badly damaged than had been previously assumed — in fact, that it had possibly broken into many pieces during its long plunge to the bottom. Instead of looking for a whole ship, he would look for the debris left by a sinking ship. Since sonar had no way of distinguishing small bits of human-made rubble from the natural detritus of the ocean floor, the only way to conduct such a search was visually, using the Argo‘s camera feeds. Time was short, the area to be searched was large, and this was an exhaustingly tedious way to go about it, but he would do what he could before he had to head home.

The twelve days were half up on the early morning of September 1, 1985, when, with Ballard fast asleep in his cabin, a shout went up from the Argo control room: “Wreckage!” By the time Ballard had burst into the room, the crew had zeroed in on a clearly manufactured metal object that they were certain was a boiler for the great ship’s engines. Everyone in the cramped little room burst into spontaneous cheers. But then, just as quickly, the mood turned sober. “We realized we were dancing on someone’s grave, and we were embarrassed,” remembered Ballard later. He suggested that they all observe a moment of silence. This they did, and then they got back to work.

Ballard and company carefully traced the “debris field” they had found back to each of its termini. At one end lay the front half of the ship, intact enough to still be readily recognizable for what it was; at the other end lay the rear half, so badly mangled that it looked like little more than a colossal pile of rusted metal and other junk. It was obvious what had happened: the ship’s back had broken as it plunged beneath the waves, and the two halves had separated completely from one another and finished the long fall separately, raining boilers, supports, furniture, bric-à-brac, and doubtless plenty of now-vanished human corpses from their open ends down onto the ocean floor between the two, like a gigantic busted piñata.

Needless to say, this discovery caused all but the most committed of dreamers to give up on any hopes of raising the ship. Grimm’s “propeller” lay well away from the real wreck site, proving to be nothing more than the unusual rock formation so many scientists had suspected it to be. On the other hand, it would later emerge that Grimm had towed his sonar array within 500 feet of the real ship’s bow back in 1981. Robert Ballard had been both very good and very, very lucky — a potent combination in any endeavor.

The September 3, 1985, edition of The New York Times included a small article printed near the bottom of the front page: “Wreckage of Titanic Reported Discovered 12,000 Feet Down.” It was the first trickle in what would become a torrent of media coverage. Soon the first photographs began making their way back from the North Atlantic — haunting images of a propeller (the real one this time), of a cabin porthole, of crockery and pots and a stoking port for the boilers. The killer shot captured much of the ship’s bow, its shape unmistakable to even the rankest layperson.

At this point, the story becomes for better or for worse as much a tale of mass media as exploration and discovery. Robert Ballard became more than just a run-of-the-mill celebrity; “folk hero” is a better description of his status. He returned to the wreck in the summer of 1986 with a crewed submersible called the Alvin, one of those aforementioned few vehicles in the world capable of withstanding the almost inconceivable cold and pressure that exist two and a half miles below the ocean’s surface; Ballard’s enviable connections had allowed him to borrow this unique vessel from the Navy. The photographs he came up with this time were stunning, allegories of splendid desolation fit to be framed and hung in a Romantic poet’s library. The press and the public they served couldn’t get enough. They experienced vicariously the same emotions Ballard had felt as he gazed out the window of the Alvin: “As I peered entranced through my viewport, I could easily imagine people walking down the promenade, looking out of the windows I was now looking into. Here I was on the bottom of the ocean gazing at recognizable, man-made artifacts. I was looking [at] decks along which [people] had walked, rooms in which they had slept, joked, made love.”




The wreck of the Titanic was simply inescapable for the next few years in the United States, Britain, and much of the rest of the world, the subject of newspaper and magazine articles, books, documentary films, museum exhibits, and even tourism; charter companies sold expensive junkets out to the spot in the ocean directly above the wreck. And, as with any media sensation worth its salt, there were also controversies. Jack Grimm resurfaced with a spurious legal claim, quickly dismissed by the courts, that he rather than Robert Ballard was the rightful discoverer of the wreck by virtue of having passed so close to it with his sonar array. And already in 1987 a dodgy outfit managed to mount an underwater expedition of its own to the site, damaging the wreck in the process of grabbing a handful of objects that were later unveiled in a tacky syndicated-television special. Host Telly Savalas and his panel of “experts” pawing through these precious artifacts was the twentieth-century equivalent of the amateur archaeologists of the nineteenth century blasting away at the interior of the Pyramid of Khufu with gunpowder.


The Titanic wreck site has continued to attract both earnest maritime archaeologists and shameless profiteers ever since, along with every gradient in between the two. But our interest today is in the early years of the Titanic mania spawned by the initial search for and discovery of the wreck. It’s time for us turn in that context to computer games, a very young form of media at the time Jack Grimm and Robert Ballard were making headlines, but one that was already responding to and reflecting the broader landscape of old media around it. In the case of the Titanic mania, this led to an entire sub-genre of games about the discovery of, exploration of, and in some cases the raising of the famous luxury liner. I’ll reveal upfront that none of these games is a deathless classic. Yet each is an instant of cultural history, suspended in the digital ether like the Titanic in its underwater grave.


The earliest game I know of which tackles the subject of the discovery and salvage of the Titanic predates Robert Ballard’s finding of the wreck by well over a year. Released in early 1984 in Britain only for the Sinclair Spectrum, the oddly titled Titanic: The Adventure Begins… is rather a reflection of the hype which surrounded Jack Grimm’s three expeditions. It was re-released two years later in not only the original Spectrum but a Commodore 64 version, doubtless in response to the news of Ballard’s discovery. It’s very much a product of the collective sugar rush that was the early British games industry, when just about any enterprising bedroom coder could slap a game together, pay a duplication house for a run of cassettes containing it, pay a print shop for a simple insert for the case, and sell the end result for a few quid in corner software shops all over the country.

Programmer Paul Hill, who called himself R&R Software, was clever enough to recognize that at least a third of the battle of finding the Titanic was funding the expedition. Accordingly, the first of the three radically different stages of his game involves finding a sponsor and outfitting your boat and crew, whilst keeping enough cash in reserve to pay your running costs once you head to sea. Stage two is the search for the wreck, which you conduct by sending diving teams down to promising locations identified on the NASA satellite photo you hopefully purchased during the previous stage; matters are complicated here by the icebergs that dot the ocean’s surface. Finally, stage three lets you actually explore the wreck, which in this alternate reality sits on the ocean floor conveniently intact. This stage, the most elaborate by far, is an exercise in mapping a three-level maze of almost 500 locations, looking for the game’s MacGuffin, a fortune in gold that supposedly went down with the ship.

Paul Hill’s knowledge of the realities of deep-water exploration is clearly nonexistent; the scuba divers he imagines frolicking through the wreck would have been crushed like bugs before they made it halfway down to 12,500 feet. Nor is his game any paragon of thoughtful design; much of your success or lack thereof depends on blind luck. Nevertheless, there’s a certain gonzo charm to the thing, a product of a time well before gameplay genres calcified into a set of straitjacketed expectations, when a game could do and be almost anything its programmer could dream up and dare to implement with the primitive tools at his disposal. In this sense, it’s a time capsule par excellence. I only wish I could hear the song which Paul Hill put on the tape’s flip side, an “epic rock track” by a bunch of his mates who called themselves Rare Breed. Sadly, this exposure did not lead to a record deal…

(You can download the original Spectrum version of Titanic: The Adventure Begins… from this site. Note that you’ll need a Spectrum emulator such as Fuse to run it.)


In Sinkable, his recent book-length meditation on the wreck of the Titanic and the hold it continues to exert on our imaginations, Daniel Stone writes that “the complexity of salvage can make it painfully boring. Like building an amusement park or passing a law, the process is far less interesting than the finished product. The film Raise the Titanic was a commercial flop because the title was the most breathtaking part.” Much the same might be said about many of the games featured here; an archaeological expedition to the Titanic is one of a surprisingly large number of possible game subjects which sound exciting in the abstract, but which are damnably difficult to turn into a satisfying gameplay loop once you drill down to the details. Unsurprisingly, then, those designers who came closest to making a compelling go of it were the ones who were willing to season their simulations with a degree of whimsy. The British game R.M.S. Titanic, which was also released in the United States as a budget title under the name of Titanic: The Recovery Mission, is a case in point.

Appearing in Britain in early 1986, R.M.S. Titanic technically postdates Robert Ballard’s discovery of the real ship, but was probably already in development before that point. It’s the product of a small studio who called themselves Oxford Digital Enterprises, whose one previous game was thoroughly in keeping with the highbrow expectations engendered by that name, being a four-stage journey through William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was published at the height of the bookware boom. R.M.S. Titanic, which was released for the Commodore 64 only, is by contrast all of a piece. Although you have to manage your finances and logistics much like in The Adventure Begins, you do so side-by-side with your exploration of the wreck.

All of the facets of this game are much more involved. You have half a dozen fickle backers whom you must keep mollified in order to keep the funding coming in; this you do by recovering alluring artifacts from the wreck and generating favorable press coverage. Indeed, working the press is another important part of the game. You field questions from reporters in press conferences, trying to tailor your responses to the organs they write for; the Titanic Historical Society has different priorities than Pravda.

But the heart of the game still takes place underwater, as it should. The game presumes that you have already located the wreck, and thus focuses only on your exploration of same with an uncrewed, remote-controlled submersible, which is simulated in some detail. You control its movements, set the intensity of its light, and can pick up and manipulate objects using its mechanical arm, keeping one eye always on its battery level; running out of juice under the ocean is disastrously expensive. As in The Adventure Begins, the ship here is conveniently intact, a maze of decks and rooms to be explored. Here, however, your way is blocked by lots and lots of locked doors. The game’s fanciful side comes to the fore via your method of opening them: each door is a little object-combination puzzle. For example, you might need to combine a cherry with a sundae in order to open the door that leads into an ice-cream parlor.

The game’s fiction, such as it is, has it that a previous expedition has already placed eight deflated balloons in the ship, then somehow lost track of where they are (and apparently locked all of the doors behind themselves). Your ultimate goal is to reach all of the balloons and inflate them, in order to raise the ship to the surface. As must be abundantly clear by now, there is much about this game that makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re wondering how a sundae and a cherry have survived for more than 70 years on the ocean floor, I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you.

Still, much the same sense of giddy possibility clings to R.M.S. Titanic as to The Adventure Begins, combined with more sophisticated programming. The underwater scenes are almost unnervingly atmospheric despite — or because of? — the low resolution of the graphics, all flickering light peering into the eerie gloom. I remember being quite captivated by this game for several weeks as a young teenager, even though I never got very far in it.

For its difficulty is its real Achilles heel. As you move deeper and deeper into the ship, the object combinations you must divine grow more and more esoteric and the sheer quantity of objects and geography to reckon with grows more and more daunting. The first documented instance of anyone solving this game dates from after the millennium, when a patient German named Stefan Schönfelder finally accomplished the feat by making extensive use of emulator save states. The ending sequence proved predictably underwhelming; in this era of gaming, the journey had to be its own reward.

(You can download R.M.S. Titanic from this site. Note that you’ll need a Commodore 64 emulator such as VICE to run it.)


By the late 1980s, the shift to more powerful computers made a credible full-on simulation of marine archaeology seem like an increasingly realizable possibility. This would prove a mixed blessing, for all of the reasons listed by Daniel Stone above.

Search for the Titanic was released in 1989 by the American budget software house Capstone, who were best known for casino simulations. There were a flagship version for MS-DOS and a heavily redacted one for the trusty old Commodore 64. Despite or because of having been “reviewed for authenticity by the staff of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute,” it’s one of the most brutally boring computer games ever made. The broad strokes are familiar: you have to deal with the business aspects of an expedition to the Titanic alongside the seaborne bits. This time out, however, you have to build up your reputation and financing by exploring a dozen or so less famous wrecks before you get a crack at the Titanic.

The actual dives are almost totally beyond your control; the game is primarily a simulation of finding the location of the wrecks from the surface. In this and much else, the designers’ guiding principal seems to have been, “Implement all the boring stuff, but be sure to leave out all the fun stuff.” If this is what you get when you do the research and take marine archaeology seriously, give me scuba divers swimming around at 12,500 feet and doors with ham-sandwich-activated locks any day.

There are two things that I find hilarious about this game. The first is that your reward for slogging through this simulation that has less pizazz than your average Excel spreadsheet is a set of digitized photographs of the wreck; it reminds me of those awful games of computerized strip poker I used to play as a sexually frustrated teenager, giving a whole new dimension to the neologism “disaster porn.” The other is that someone recently saw fit to dredge this stinker of a game up off the bottom and put it up for sale on a digital storefront for a fiver. To call that an audacious move is the understatement of the year. For, as Trent Nickson wrote in his 2005 review of Search for the Titanic for the Lemon 64 website, “I don’t really know how you could tart this game up to make it fun.” Suffice to say that the designers never even tried.

(The truly dedicated gaming historians among you can buy this game from GOG.com.)


Thankfully, someone else did try very hard to make marine archaeology fun. Sea Rogue was the first game by a small San Diego studio called Software Sorcery, and was published by Microprose for MS-DOS on their Microplay budget label in 1992. It was created with the assistance of a retired Navy captain whose expertise was underwater salvage, and was billed as a simulation. None of this sounds overly promising in light of the previous game in this survey.

But when you start to play the thing, it quickly becomes clear that Software Sorcery has made an aesthetic rather than a literal simulation — a game which endeavors to give you a taste of its real-world subject matter, but which never overwhelms you with boring detail, which understands that games need to be fun first and foremost. The Titanic is pushed somewhat into the background here; it’s just one of about 150 different wrecks you can find and explore, from the Spanish treasure galleons that litter the floor of the Caribbean to such other legendary modern wrecks as the World War II German battleship Bismarck. Sea Rogue is by far the most ambitious game on this list; there are a lot of moving parts here. I want to say that it’s the best game here as well.

The older game which Sea Rogue immediately brings to mind, even before any of the ones above, is the Sid Meier classic Pirates!. You start out in Norfolk with an old trawler, eager to make your fortune as a wreck hunter. So, you sail up and down the east coast of the United States and into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, seeking clues to wreck sites at each port of call. As you find and dive the wrecks and sell off the loot you acquire thereby back on land, you gradually improve your boat and your equipment. Eventually, you’ll have enough dosh to replace your rusty old tub entirely, first with a state-of-the-art research vessel and then with a beyond-state-of-the-art submarine, the Sea Rogue from which the game takes it name. These vessels make it practical to travel much farther — all the way to Britain, Europe, Africa, and into the Mediterranean, another veritable watery junkyard. And the Sea Rogue allows you to reach deep-water wrecks like the Titanic.

As I said, there’s a lot going on here. You have a crew to manage, who have CRPG-style statistics that improve with experience, assuming you invest in shore-based training every time they level up. Your relationships with different countries are affected by how much respect — or lack thereof — you show to their ships’ wreck sites; aggravate them too much and they’ll send their navies after you. You can hire research assistants, take on salvage contracts, even detect undersea mineral deposits and earn a finder’s fee.

Meanwhile up to five computer-managed competitors are doing the same things you are. One of them, the fellow named Evil Eddie, is particularly nasty, and will sometimes attack your vessel at sea or ambush your divers underwater. This means you need to make provisions for defending yourself, need to have some guns of your own available.

I absolutely love the premise, love the way it blends the unabashedly fantastic with the real-world subculture of wreck hunting. Half of the thick manual is given over to a list of every single one of those 150 ships that are waiting to be found, each and every one of them a real, documented wreck, ranging from Viking longboats to modern Soviet submarines. In order to earn full value for any treasures you recover, you have to ferret out the name of any ship you find from clues at the site, cross-referenced with the descriptions in the manual. The Titanic and Bismarck aren’t the only ships in this game that you’ve heard of before: there are also vessels like the Hunley, the Andrea Doria, the Lusitania, and much of the Spanish Armada to be found. If you approach your endeavors in the right imaginative spirit, you’ll feel a genuine shiver go up your spine when you discover one of these storied ships, and may just go scurrying off to Wikipedia to learn more about it.

Still, it’s possible that my love for the premise makes me more kindly disposed toward the game than it deserves. For it lacks the compulsive playability of Pirates!. The interface is clunky, and, while the big manual does a reasonably good job of telling which keys to press and where to click the mouse, it often fails to explain why you’re doing so; I must confess that I still don’t completely understand the sonar-scanning screen even after playing the game for a considerable number of hours. And then, for all that the developers strained mightily to give you lots of different things to do, from decoding radio messages to chasing down Pirates!-style treasure maps, it never quite gels into a cohesive whole. The competition aspect of the affair never feels all that urgent even when Evil Eddie starts shooting at you. It all becomes a bit samey sooner than it ought to, sorely lacking Pirates!‘s addictive kinetic quality; in the older game, you actually sail your ship from place to place with the joystick, where here you just plot a course on a map, hit a key, and jump instantly to your destination. Perhaps the game’s biggest weakness is the wreck-diving mini-game, which consumes far more time than anything else you do but plays like a not especially exciting board game, complete with an ocean floor made up of discrete squares. Again, the developers plainly tried to spice it up, by introducing roaming sharks that occasionally attack your divers. But there’s no variety from wreck to wreck to keep your interest up; you’ll quickly develop a rote approach to the task that works every time, one that is about as exciting as cutting your lawn (a task with which it has much in common).

In the end, then, Sea Rogue is more of a game that I want to love — that I sometimes manage to convince myself that I at least like — than one I really can enjoy over the longer haul. Call it a brilliant concept, imperfectly realized. In all the years since its release, there’s been nothing else quite like it. I remain convinced that there’s a great game in there somewhere, and I’d be thrilled to see the idea revived with richer and more varied content, ideally spanning all of the world’s oceans, with the sense of atmosphere that Sea Rogue‘s workmanlike graphics and sound struggle to inculcate. We have hugely successful games today in which you do nothing but drive a truck around a continent’s highways and byways. Why not one where you travel its seaways in search of treasures from the past?

(I’ve prepared a Sea Rogue download for you which should be fairly simple to get running under your platform’s version of DOSBox.)


Whatever else one can say about Capstone, someone there clearly had a real interest in marine archaeology. For in 1993, four years after Search for the Titanic, they returned to the scene of that crime with Discoveries of the Deep for MS-DOS. It’s a vastly better effort. Then again, how could it not be?

Discoveries of the Deep is an edutational product aimed at youngsters, and sports the sense of whimsy that Search for the Titanic so sorely lacked, including a credible darts game and a shoot-em-up arcade game in your boat’s galley, ready to play when all of this oceanography business starts to become too much. The main game is structured around seven missions which you may undertake in any order. Only one of them involves the Titanic; the others range from investigating airplane crashes in the Bermuda Triangle to disposing of underwater toxic waste. It plays as a simplified version of the premise we’ve been seeing over and over: sail out to the general vicinity of your goal, search from the surface until you pinpoint it precisely, then get into your submersible to complete your mission. Only the economic element is lacking, replaced with a refreshing focus on environmental science; you definitely won’t be looting the Titanic this time out. Although there’s not overmuch to the experience in the final analysis, what there is is colorful and good-hearted. One can easily imagine this game going down a treat in a classroom back in the day, and it still wouldn’t be a bad choice for a kid of the right age — about ten years old is probably the sweet spot — with an interest in the ocean and the things that lie beneath it. Chalk it up as a partial atonement for Search for the Titanic.

(Like Search for the Titanic, Discoveries of the Deep is available on GOG.com as a digital purchase.)


The last wreck-hunting game of this lineage to date appeared in 1998, the year after James Cameron’s film about the disaster rejiggered all of the pop culture surrounding the Titanic in a way which we’ll examine in my next two articles. Titanic: Challenge of Discovery is simultaneously one of a number of cash-in products made in response to the film’s enormous success and a throwback to an earlier era, when the ship existed in the public’s imagination primarily as a wreck. The game’s box copy would have one believe that Robert Ballard himself made it, declaring it “a dramatic game of deep-sea exploration from the man who discovered the Titanic.” This only serves as grist for the mill of Ballard’s critics, who have been muttering behind the scenes for decades now that he is a bit too eager for the limelight and the money that comes with it, having by now lent his name to a jumble of slapdash products like this one that’s about as large as the sunken Titanic‘s debris field.

Challenge of Discovery was created by a “multimedia” studio rather than a games studio, an outfit called Maris Multimedia to be exact, and was published by Panasonic Interactive for Windows. It came rather late in the day of the multimedia boom, but otherwise bears all the hallmarks of its checkered lineage: a surfeit of video clips, including some featuring Ballard himself, and a paucity of worthwhile gameplay. I’ve written about the problems which plagued creations of this sort at some length elsewhere, so I won’t belabor those points here.

In this game, you’re expected to explore three shipwrecks: a man-of-war from the Spanish Armada, the Bismarck (whose wreck was discovered by Ballard in 1989), and finally the Titanic. But it’s painfully clear that far more attention was lavished on the video clips than the gameplay, which is slow, dull, and buggy, to the point that parts of the game are outright broken. Neither the traditional hardcore gamer demographic nor the different, more casual audience whom Panasonic was presumably trying to attract had anywhere near enough patience for this exercise in tedium. All told, it makes for a dispiriting capstone to a strand of games that had a lot of potential in their individual ingredients, but that no one ever quite managed to bake into a comprehensively delicious cake.

(You can find CD images for Challenge of Discovery by searching on archive.org. But, like a lot of shoddily programmed early Windows software, this game is a nightmare to get running on modern systems. I was finally able to succeed by using a Windows 95 — not Windows 98, mind you — installation running through Oracle VirtualBox. If you’re determined to try out this terrible game for yourself, this YouTube video will show you how to get your Windows 95 virtual machine going.)



Next time, then, we’ll turn to a very different way of approaching the Titanic as a gaming subject, and find out whether anyone had more luck there…

(Sources: the books Sinkable: Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic by Daniel Stone, Into the Deep by Robert Ballard and Christopher Drew, The Discovery of the Titanic by Robert Ballard and Ken Marschall, Raise the Titanic! by Clive Cussler, Beyond Reach: The Search for the Titanic by William Hoffman and Jack Grimm, and Titanic and the Making of James Cameron by Paula Parisi; Crash! of June 1984 and October 1984; Your Computer of July 1984; Zzap! of June 1986; Ahoy! of April 1987; Games Machine of April 1990; Computer Gaming World of July 1992 and December 1993; National Geographic of December 1986.)

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2022 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Ethics in Strategy Gaming, Part 2: Colonization

Just what do you do next after you’ve created an epic, career-defining masterpiece? That was the question facing Sid Meier after the release of Civilization in the waning days of 1991, after the gushing reviews and the impressive sales figures had begun pouring in to his employer MicroProse. How could he go back to making games that were merely about something when he had already made the game of everything? “Civilization was such a big game that it’s hard to find a topic that doesn’t feel as if you were going backwards,” he admitted in an interview in the summer of 1992. Anything he did next seemed destined to be an anticlimax.

Meier’s first decision about his future was an eminently sensible one: he would take a break. Asked what he was currently working on during that same interview, his reply was blunt: “Absolutely nothing! I’m going to take it easy for a while.” And truly, if anyone in the games industry deserved a timeout, it was him. Meier had maintained an insane pace for the last decade, acting as both lead designer and lead programmer on no less than 21 commercially released games, three of them — Pirates!Railroad Tycoon, and of course Civilization — universally lauded icons whose influence has remained pervasive to this day. Indeed, those three games alone, released within five years of one another, constitute as extraordinary a creative outpouring as the field of gaming has ever known. But now, Meier was finally feeling burnt out, even as his marriage was ending — at least partially the result, no doubt, of all those years spent burning the candle at both ends. He desperately needed to catch his breath.

The Sid Meier who returned to the job months later had a new attitude toward his work. He wouldn’t try to somehow top Civilization in terms of scale and scope, but would rather use the fame and money it had brought him to work on whatever most interested him personally at any given time, whilst maintaining a much more sustainable work-life balance. Sometimes these projects would strike others — not least among them MicroProse’s management team — as almost perversely esoteric.

Never was this more the case than with his very first post-Civilization endeavor, as dramatic a departure from the expected as any game designer has ever dared to make. In fact, C.P.U. Bach wasn’t actually a game at all.


The music of Johann Sebastian Bach had long been enormously important to Meier, as he wrote in his recent memoir:

The sense I get when I listen to his work is that he’s not telling me his story, but humanity’s story. He’s sharing the joys and sorrows of his life in a more universal sense, a language that doesn’t require me to understand the specifics of his situation. I can read a book from eighteenth-century Germany, and find some amount of empathy with the historical figures inside, but there will always be a forced translation of culture, society, and a thousand other details that I can never truly understand. Bach isn’t bogged down in those things — he’s cutting straight to the heart of what we already have in common. He can reach across those three hundred years and make me, a man who manipulates electromagnetic circuits with my fingertips on a keyboard, feel just as profoundly as he made an impoverished farmer feel during a traditional rural celebration. He includes me in his story, just as I wanted to include my players in my games; we make the story together. Bach’s music is a perfect illustration of the idea that it’s not the artist that matters, but the connection between us.

Often described as the greatest single musical genius in the history of the world, Bach is as close to a universally beloved composer as one can find, as respected by jazz and rock musicians as he is in the classical concert halls. And mathematicians tend to find him almost equally alluring: the intricate patterns of his fugues illustrate the mathematical concepts that underlie all music, even as they take on a fragile beauty in their own right, outside the sound that they produce. The interior of Bach’s music is a virtual reality as compelling as any videogame, coming complete with an odd interactive quality. Meier:

He routinely used something called invertible counterpoint, in which the notes are designed to be reversible for an entirely new, but still enjoyable, sound. He also had a fondness for puzzle canons, in which he would write alternating lines of music and leave the others blank for his students — often his own children — to figure out what most logically belonged in between.

Bach even went so far as to hide codes in many of his works. Substituting place values for letters creates a numeric total of 14 for his last name, and this number is repeatedly embedded in the patterns of his pieces, as is its reverse 41, which happens to be the value of his last name plus his first two initials. His magnum opus, The Art of the Fugue, plays the letters of his name in the notes themselves (in German notation, the letter B refers to the note we call B-flat, and H is used for B-natural). At the top of one famous piece, The Well-Tempered Clavier, he drew a strange, looping flourish that scholars now believe is a coded set of instructions for how to tune the piano to play in every possible key, opening up new possibilities for variation and modulation.

With C.P.U. Bach, Meier attempted to make a computer write and play “new” Bach compositions, working off of the known techniques of the master, taking advantage of the way that his musical patterns were, as Meier puts it, “both predictable and stunning.” Meier insists that he created the program with no intent to diminish his favorite composer, only to celebrate him. “Creating a computer [program] that creates art counts as a form of artistic expression itself,” he says.

To aid him in the endeavor, he enlisted one Jeff Briggs, a soundtrack composer at MicroProse. Together the two labored away for more than a year on the most defiantly artsy, uncommercial product of MicroProse or Sid Meier’s history. They decided to publish it exclusively on the new 3DO multimedia console, another first for the company and the designer, because they couldn’t bear to hear their creation through the often low-fidelity computer sound cards of the time; by targeting the 3DO, they guaranteed that their program’s compositions would be heard by everyone in CD-quality fidelity.

Still, the end result is a bit underwhelming, managing only to provide an ironic proof of the uniquely human genius of Johann Sebastian Bach. C.P.U. Bach generates music that is pleasantly Bach-like, but it cannot recreate the ineffable transcendence of the master’s great works.

Pick a Baroque musical form, and C.P.U. Bach will compose a brand new example of same for you.

An esoteric product for a console that would itself prove a failure, C.P.U. Bach sold horribly upon its release in 1994. But Meier doesn’t apologize for having made this least likely of all possible follow-ups to Civilization: “My only regret is that [it] is essentially unplayable today, now that the physical console has become a lost relic.” Sometimes you just have to follow your muse, in game design as in music — or, in this case, in a bit of both.



While Sid Meier was first taking a breather and then pursuing his passion project, the public image of MicroProse was being transformed by Civilization. Having made their name in the 1980s as a publisher of vehicular military simulations, they suddenly became the premiere publisher of strategy games in the eyes of many, taking over that crown from SSI, who had largely abandoned those roots to plunge deep into licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs. MicroProse was soon inundated with submissions from outsiders who had played Civilization and wanted their strategy game to go out with the same label on the box as that one, thank you very much. By no means were all of the strategy games MicroProse came to publish as a result equally worthy, but the cream of the crop — titles like Master of Orion, Master of Magic, X-COM, and Transport Tycoon — were as creatively and commercially successful as the genre got during the first half of the 1990s.

The great irony about the MicroProse of this period is that these kinds of games, the ones with which the company was now most identified in the minds of gamers, were almost all sourced from outsiders while the company’s internal developers marched in a multitude of other directions. Much effort was still poured into making yet more hardcore flight simulators like the ones of old, a case of diminishing returns as the tension of the Cold War and the euphoria of the First Gulf War faded into the past. Other internal teams plunged into standup-arcade machines, casual “office games,” complicated CRPGs, and a line of multimedia-heavy adventure games that were meant to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Sierra and LucasArts.

These ventures ranged from modest successes to utter disasters in the marketplace, trending more toward the latter as time went on. The income from the outside-developed strategy games wasn’t enough to offset the losses; by 1993, the company was facing serious financial problems. In June of that year, Spectrum Holobyte, a company with a smaller product catalog but a large amount of venture capital, acquired MicroProse.

Many projects were cancelled in the wake of the acquisition, leaving many employees in limbo, waiting to find out whether their future held a new work assignment or a pink slip. One of this group was Brian Reynolds, a programmer and dedicated tabletop wargamer who had come to MicroProse to escape from his Berkeley graduate program in philosophy and been assigned to the now-cancelled adventure line. With nothing else to do, he started to tinker with a strategy game dealing with what he found to be one of the most fascinating subjects in all of human history: the colonization of the New World. Having never designed a grand-strategy game before, he used Civilization, his favorite example of the genre, as something of a crutch: he adapted most of its core systems to function within his more focused, time-limited scenario. (Although said scenario brings to mind immediately Dani Bunten Berry’s Seven Cities of Gold — a game which was ironically a huge influence on Meier’s Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization — Reynolds claims not to have had it much in mind when he started working on his own game. “I didn’t personally like it as a game,” he says. “It all felt like empty forests.”) Reynolds had little expectation that his efforts would amount to much of anything in the end. “I was just doing this until they laid me off,” he says. Although he was working in the same building as Meier, it never even occurred to him to ask for the Civilization source code. Instead he reverse-engineered it in the same way that any other hacker would have been forced to do.

Nevertheless, word of the prototype slowly spread around the office, finally reaching Meier. “Can you come talk to Sid about this?” Reynold’s manager asked him one day. From that day forward, Colonization was an official MicroProse project.

The powers that were at the company would undoubtedly have preferred to give the reins of the project to Meier, placing Reynolds in some sort of junior design and/or programming role. But Meier was, as we’ve already seen, up to his eyebrows in Johann Sebastian Bach at the time, and was notoriously hard to corral under any circumstances. Further, his sense of fair play was finely developed. “This is your idea,” he said to Reynolds. “You deserve to have ownership of it.” He negotiated an arrangement with MicroProse’s management whereby he would serve as a design advisor, but the project as a whole would very much remain Brian Reynold’s.


Having secured our charter…

… we set off for the New World.

The early game of exploration and settlement is in some ways the most satisfying, being free from the micromanagement that crops up later.

The map can get crowded indeed as time goes on.

Like so much in the game, the city-management screen draws heavily from Civilization, but the row of trade goods along the bottom of the screen reflects the more complex economic model.

We declare independence! Hopefully our armies are up for the war that will follow.


The finished Colonization lets you play as the British, the Spanish, the Dutch, or the French. You begin the game in that pivotal year of 1492, ready to explore and found your first colony in the Americas. In keeping with the historical theme, trade is extremely important — much more so than in the highly abstracted economic model employed by Civilization. Sugar, cotton, and tobacco — grown, processed, and shipped back to the Old World — are the key to your colonies’ prosperity. (Brian Reynolds has said only semi-facetiously that his intention with Colonization was to “combine together all the best things from Civilization and Railroad Tycoon — because that would make the game even better!”) Naturally, you have to deal with the Native Americans who already inhabit the lands into which you want to expand, as you do the other European powers who are jockeying for dominance. Your ultimate goal is to build a federation of colonies self-sufficient enough to declare independence from its mother country, an event which is always followed by a war. If you win said war, you’ve won the game. If, on the other hand, you lose the war, or fail to force an outcome to it by 1850, or fail to trigger it at all by 1800, you lose the game.

Even if we set aside for the moment some of the uncomfortable questions raised by its historical theme and the aspects thereof which it chooses to include and exclude, Colonization reveals itself to be a competent game but far from a great one. Sid Meier himself has confessed to some serious misgivings about the rigid path — independence by an arbitrary date or bust — down which Brian Reynolds elected to force its player:

It was a grandiose, win-or-lose proposition with the potential to invalidate hours of successful gameplay. Generally speaking, I would never risk alienating the player to that degree. It was historically accurate, however, and Brian saw it as a satisfying boss battle rather than a last-minute bait and switch, so I deferred to him. Good games don’t get made by committee.

Not only is the choice problematic from a purely gameplay perspective, but it carries unfortunate overtones of all-too-typically-American historical chauvinism in forcing the Spanish, Dutch, and French colonies to clone the experience of the British colonies that turned into the United States in order to win the game — the implication being that those colonies’ very different real histories mark them as having somehow done things wrong in contrast to the can-do Yankees.

But Colonization has plenty of other, more practical flaws. Micromanagement, that ever-present bane of so many grand-strategy games, is a serious issue here, thanks not least to the nitty-gritty complexities of the economic model; by the time you’re getting close to the point of considering independence, you’ll be so bogged down with the busywork of handing out granular work assignments to your colonists and overseeing every freight shipment back home that you’ll be in danger of losing all sense of any bigger picture. In contrast to the seamless wholeness of Civilization, Colonization remains always a game of disparate parts that don’t quite mesh. For example, the military units you can raise always seem bizarrely expensive in proportion to their potency. It takes an eternity of micro-managing tedium to build even a halfway decent military, and even when you finally get to send it out into the field you still have to spend the vast majority of your time worrying about more, shall we say, down-to-earth matters than fighting battles — like, say, whether you’ve trained enough carpenters in your cities and whether their tools are in good repair. The funnest parts of Colonization are the parts you spend the least amount of time doing.

In the end, then, Colonization never manages to answer the question of just why you ought to be playing this game instead of the more generous, open-ended, historically expansive Civilization. Computer Gaming World magazine, the industry’s journal of record at the time of the game’s release in late 1994, published a sharply negative review, saying that there was “more tedium and less care” in Colonization than in Civilization.

One might expect such a review from such an influential publication to be a game’s death knell. Surprisingly, though, Colonization did quite well for itself in the marketplace. Brian Reynolds estimates today that it sold around 300,000 copies. Although that figure strikes me as perhaps a little on the high side, there’s no question that the game was a solid success. For proof, one need only look to what Reynolds got to do next: he was given the coveted role of lead designer on Civilization II after Sid Meier, ever the iconoclast, refused it.

But here’s the odd thing: Meier’s name would appear in bold letters on the box of Civilization II, as it had on the box of Colonization before it, while that of Brian Reynolds was nowhere to be found on either. MicroProse’s marketing department had first hit upon the idea of using Meier’s name prominently back in 1987, when they’d pondered how to sell Pirates!, a game that was not only radically different from anything MicroProse had released before but was impossible to comfortably classify into any existing gaming genre. It seemed to work; Sid Meier’s Pirates! became a big hit. Since then, the official titles of most of Meier’s games had come with the same prefix. Sid Meier’s Colonization, however, was something new, marking the first time that MicroProse’s marketers assigned Meier ownership of a game he hadn’t truly designed at all. “Yes, I made suggestions along the way,” he says today, “but it had been up to Brian whether to accept them. Colonization was not Sid Meier’s game.”

And yet the name emblazoned at the top of the box stated just the opposite. Meier rationalizes this fact by claiming that “‘Sid Meier’s’ now meant ‘Sid Meier mentored and approved’ instead of ‘Sid Meier personally coded.'” But even this statement is hard to reconcile with the text on the back of the box, which speaks of “Colonization, the newest strategy game from Sid Meier [that] continues the great tradition of Civilization.” Clearly MicroProse’s marketing department, if not Meier himself, was completely eager to make the public believe that Sid Meier had designed Colonization, full stop — and, indeed, the game was received on exactly these terms by the press and public. Brian Reynolds, for his part, was happy to give his mentor all of the public credit for his work, as long as it helped the game to sell better and gave him a chance to design more games in the future. The soft-spoken, thoughtful Sid Meier, already the most unlikely of celebrities, had now achieved the ultimate in celebrity status: he had become a brand unto himself. I trust that I don’t need to dwell on the irony of this in light of his statement that “it’s not the artist that matters.”



But MicroProse’s decision to publicly credit Colonization to someone other than the person who had actually designed it is hardly the most fraught of the ethical dilemmas raised by the game. As I’ve already noted, the narrative about the colonization of the New World which it forces its player to enact is in fact the semi-mythical origin story of the United States. It’s a story that’s deeply rooted in the minds of white Americans like myself, having been planted there by the grade-school history lessons we all remember: Pilgrims eating their Thanksgiving dinner with the Indians, Bostonians dumping British tea into the ocean to protest taxation without representation, Paul Revere making his midnight ride, George Washington leading the new country to victory in war and then showing it how it ought to conduct itself in peace.

In presenting all this grade-school history as, if not quite inevitable, at least the one satisfactory course of events — it is, after all, a matter of recreating the American founding myth or losing the game — Colonization happily jettisons any and all moral complexity. One obvious example is its handling of the Native American peoples who were already living in the New World when Europeans decided to claim those lands for themselves. In the game, the Native Americans you encounter early on are an amiable if primitive and slightly dim bunch who are happy enough to acknowledge your hegemony and work for you as long as you give them cigars to smoke and stylish winter coats to wear. Later on, when they start to get uppity, they’re easy enough to put back in line using the stick instead of the carrot.

And then there’s the game’s handling of slavery — or rather its lack of same. It’s no exaggeration to say that all of the modern-day countries of North and South America were built by the sweat of slaves’ brows. Certainly the extent to which the United States in particular was shaped by what John C. Calhoun dubbed The Peculiar Institution can hardly be overstated; the country’s original sin still remains with us today in the form of an Electoral College and Senate that embody the peculiarly undemocratic practice of valuing the votes of some citizens more than those of others, not to mention the fault lines of racial animus that still fracture American politics and society. Yet the game of Colonization neatly sidesteps all of this; in its world, slavery simply doesn’t exist. Is this okay, or is it dangerous to so blithely dismiss the sins and suffering of our ancestors in a game that otherwise purports to faithfully recreate history?



Johnny L. Wilson, the editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World, stood virtually alone among his peers in expressing concern about the thin slice of life’s rich pageant that games of the 1990s were willing and able to encompass. He alone spoke of “the preponderance of violent solutions as opposed to creative exploration and experimentation, the increasingly narrow scope of subject matter perceived as marketable, the limited nature of non-player characters and our assumptions about game players.” Unsurprisingly, then, he was the first and as it turned out the only gaming journalist of his era to address Colonization not just as a good, bad, or indifferent game in the abstract, but as a rhetorical statement about the era which it attempted to recreate, whether it wished to be such a thing or not. (As the school of Deconstructionism constantly reminds us, it’s often the works that aren’t actually trying to say anything at all about a subject which end up having the most to tell us about their makers’ attitudes toward it…) Wilson raised his concerns before Colonization was even released, when it existed only in a beta version sent to magazines like his.

Two upcoming games on the colonial era will excise slavery from the reality they are simulating: Sid Meier’s Colonization from MicroProse and Impressions’ High Seas Trader. Both design teams find the idea of slavery, much less the institution of slavery, to be repugnant, and both teams resist the idea of “rewarding” the gamer for behavior which is and was abominable.

This reminds me of the film at Mount Vernon where the narration explains that Washington abhorred slavery, so he left wording in his will so that, upon his and Martha’s deaths, his slaves would be freed. To me, that’s tantamount to saying, “I’ll correct this immoral practice as soon as it doesn’t cost me anything anymore!”

It is obvious that George didn’t find it economically viable to be moral in that circumstance. So, if slavery was such an important facet of the colonial economy that even the “father of our country” couldn’t figure out how to build a successful business without it, how do we expect to understand the period in which he lived without having the same simulated tools at our disposal? Maybe we would have some belated appreciation for those early slaves if we didn’t try to ignore the fact of their existence.

Of course, we know what the answer is going to be. The game designers will say that they “only put in the cool parts” of history. We hear that. Yet, while there is nothing wrong with emphasizing the most entertaining parts of a historical situation, there is a danger in misrepresenting that historical situation. Maybe it doesn’t add credibility to the revisionist argument that Auschwitz never happened when we remove the Waffen SS from a computer game, but what happens when someone removes Auschwitz from the map? What happens when it is removed from the history books?

Removing the horrors of history from computer games may not be a grand conspiracy to whitewash history, but it may well be a dangerous first step.

Wilson’s editorial prompted an exchange in the reader-letters section of a subsequent issue. I’d like to reprint it in an only slightly edited form here because the points raised still pop up regularly today in similar discussions. We begin with a letter from one Ken Fishkin, who takes exception with Wilson’s position.

Johnny Wilson seems to have forgotten that the primary purpose of a game is to entertain. Computer games routinely engage in drastic alterations, simplifications, and omissions of history. Railroad Tycoon omitted Chinese labor and union strife. In SimCity, the mayor is an absolute dictator who can blithely bulldoze residential neighborhoods and churches with a mere click of the mouse, and build the Golden Gate Bridge in weeks instead of decades. In Sid Meier’s Civilization, Abraham Lincoln is immortal, phalanxes can sink battleships, and religious strife, arguably the single most important factor in the history of international relations, is totally omitted. And yet Computer Gaming World gave these games its highest praise, placing all of them in its Hall of Fame!

It is hypocritical of Computer Gaming World to criticize Sid Meier’s Colonization in the same issue in which it effusively praises Sid Meier’s Civilization. Computer Gaming World used to know that computer games shouldn’t be held to the same standards of historical accuracy as a textbook.

The magazine’s editorial staff — or really, one has to suspect, Wilson himself — replied thusly:

Is it hypocritical? The same Johnny Wilson that wrote the column had an entire chapter in The SimCity Planning Commission Handbook which talked about the realities that were not simulated (along with some elaborate workarounds that would enable gamers to see how much had been abstracted) and he also questioned certain historical abstractions in [his Civilization strategy guide] Rome on 640K a Day. Do these citations seem hypocritical? Different games have different levels of perspective and different levels of abstraction. Their success or failure will always depend on the merit of their gameplay, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider their historical/factual underpinning as well.

Even if certain historical/real aspects have to be abstracted for the sake of gameplay, the designers have a responsibility to acknowledge, tip their hat to, or clarify those conditions which they have abstracted. When it comes to orders of battle and dominant practices, they should be addressed in some way and not ignored because they are inconvenient. We agree that a game should be balanced enough to play well, but the lessons of history should not be totally glossed over. We fear that there is a tendency of late to do just that.

Finally, we have a letter from Gilbert L. Brahms, writing in support of Wilson’s position.

Your theses are very well-taken. Computer games become nothing [more] than schlock entertainment if they strip realism from historical recreations. There is no point in presenting any [game] referring to World War II Germany without presenting Nazism in all its symbology, nay, without including the imagery which ensorcelled those desperate and gullible Germans of the time into surrendering themselves “mit ganzen Willen” to Hitler’s blandishments.

The sins of the past are not eradicated by repression; in fact, they become all the more fascinating for having become forbidden fruit. Only critical confrontation can clarify such atrocities as occurred in the 1940s and can tutor us to resist such temptations again, in ourselves as well as in others.

If, therefore, a computer game should truly aspire to become a work of art, it must fulfill both the recreative and the didactive functions inherent in all serious aesthetic productions: it must present horrible conflicts with all of their nasty details.

I’ll return to the arguments presented above in due course. Before I do that, though, I’d like to take a brief leap forward in time.

In 2008, Firaxis Games — a company founded by Sid Meier, Brian Reynolds, and Jeff Briggs — announced a new version of Colonization, which once again chose to present Native Americans as dim-witted primitives and to completely ignore the historical reality of slavery. Even before its release, Ben Fritz, a gaming blogger for Variety, loudly attacked it for having committed the vaguely defined, all-purpose crime of being “offensive.” Fritz’s blog post is neither well-argued nor well-written — “I literally exclaimed ‘holy sh*t’ out loud when I was reading an email this morning,” goes its unpromising beginning — so I won’t bother to quote more from it here. But it was a harbinger of the controversy to come, which came to dominate the critical discussion around the new Colonization to the point that its qualities as a mere game were all but ignored. Firaxis published the following terse missive in a fruitless attempt to defuse the situation:

For seventeen years the Civilization series has given people the opportunity to create their own history of the world. Colonization deals with a specific time in global history, and treats the events of that time with respect and care. As with all previous versions of Civilization, the game does not endorse any particular position or strategy – players can and should make their own moral judgments. Firaxis keeps the player at the center of the game by providing them with interesting choices and decisions to make, which has proven to be a fun experience for millions of people around the world.

Whatever its merits or lack thereof, this argument was largely ignored. The cat was now well and truly out of the bag, and many academics in particular rushed to criticize the “gamefication of imperialism” that was supposedly at the core of even the original game of Civilization. In his recent memoir, Sid Meier describes their critiques with bemusement and more than a touch of condescension.

This philosophical analysis quickly spread to my older titles — or as one paper described them, my “Althusserian unconscious manifestations of cultural claims” with “hidden pedagogical aspirations.” Pirates! wasn’t about swashbuckling, it turned out, but rather “asymmetrical and illegal activities [that] seem to undermine the hierarchical status quo while ultimately underlining it.” Even C.P.U. Bach was accused of revealing “a darker side to the ideological sources at work behind ludic techniques.”

All I can say is that our motives were sincere, and maybe these guys have a little too much time on their hands.

For all that I’m usually happy to make fun of the impenetrable writing which too many academics use to disguise banal ideas, I won’t waste space shooting those fish in a barrel here. It’s more interesting to consider the differing cultural moments exemplified by the wildly divergent receptions of the two versions of Colonization — from a nearly complete silence on the subject of the potentially problematic aspects of its theme and implementation thereof to red-faced shouting matches all over the Internet on the same subjects. Through this lens, we can see how much more seriously people came to take games over a span of fourteen years, as well as how much more diverse the people playing and writing about them became. And we can also see, of course, how the broader dialog around history changed.

Those changes have only continued and, if anything, accelerated in the time since 2008; I write these words at the close of a year in which the debates surrounding our various historical legacies have become more charged than ever. One side accuses the other of ignoring all of the positive aspects of the past and trying to “cancel” any historical figure who doesn’t live up to its fashionable modern ideals of “wokeness.” Meanwhile the opposing side accuses its antagonists of being far too eager to all too literally whitewash the past and make excuses for the reprehensible conduct of its would-be heroes. Mostly, though, the two sides prefer just to call one another nasty names.



So, rather than wading further into that morass, let’s return to the arguments I reprinted without much commentary above, applying them now not only to Colonization but also to Panzer General, the subject of my first article in this two-part series. It strikes me that the best way to unpack a subtle and difficult subject might be to consider in turn each line of argument supporting the claim that Colonization — and by implication Panzer General — are fine just as they are. We’ll begin with the last of them: Firaxis’s corporate response to the controversy surrounding the second Colonization.

Said response can be summed up as the “it’s not the game, it’s the player!” argument. It’s long been trotted out in defense of a huge swath of games with objectionable or potentially objectionable content; Peter Molyneux was using it to defend the ultra-violence in Syndicate already in 1993, and there are doubtless examples that predate even that one. The core assertion here is that the game doesn’t force the player’s hand at all — that in a game like, say, Grand Theft Auto it’s the player who chooses to indulge in vehicular mayhem instead of driving politely from place to place like a law-abiding citizen.

Of course, this argument can’t be used as an equally efficacious escape hatch for all games. While Panzer General will allow you to command the Allied forces if you play a single scenario, the grand campaign which is the heart of that game’s appeal only allows you to play a Nazi general, and certainly gives you no option to turn against the Nazi cause at some point, as Erwin Rommel may or may not have done, beyond the obvious remedy of shutting off the computer. But Colonization does appear to do a little better on this front, at least at first glance. As many defenders of the game are at pains to point out, you can choose to treat the Native Americans you encounter relatively gently in comparison to the European colonizers of recorded history (admittedly, not really a high bar to clear). Still, the fact does remain that you will be forced to subjugate them to one degree or another in order to win the game, simply because you need the land and resources which they control if you hope to win the final war for independence.

Here, then, we come to the fatal flaw that undermines almost all applications of this argument. Its proponents would seemingly have you believe that the games of which they speak are rhetorically neutral sandboxes, exact mirror images of some tangible objective reality. But this they are not. Even if they purport to “simulate” real events to one degree or another, they can hope to capture only a tiny sliver of their lived experience, shot through with the conscious and subconscious interests and biases of the people who make them. These last are often most clearly revealed through a game’s victory conditions, as they are in the case of Colonization. To play Colonization the “right” way — to play it as the designers intended it to be played — requires you to exploit and subjugate the people who were already in the New World millennia before your country arrived to claim it. Again, then, we’re forced to confront the fact that every example of a creative expression is a statement about its creators’ worldview, whether those creators consciously wish it to be such a thing or not. Labeling it a simulation does nothing to change this.

The handling — or rather non-handling — of slavery by Colonization is an even more telling case in point. By excising slavery entirely, Colonization loses all claim to being a simulation of real history to any recognizable degree whatsoever, given how deeply intertwined the Peculiar Institution was with everything the game does deign to depict. Just as importantly, the absence of slavery invalidates at a stroke the claim that the game is merely a neutral sandbox of a bygone historical reality for the player’s id, ego, and superego to prance through. For this yawning absence is something over which the player has no control. She isn’t given the chance to take the moral high road by refusing to participate in the slave trade; the designers have made that choice for her, as they have so many others.

I require less space to dispense with Ken Fishkin’s equating of Railroad Tycoon‘s decision not to include exploited Chinese laborers and SimCity‘s casting you in the role of an autocratic mayor with the ethical perils represented by Colonization‘s decision not to include slavery and Panzer General‘s casting you in the role of a Nazi invader. Although Fishkin expresses the position about as well as can reasonably be expected, these sorts of pedantic, context-less gotcha arguments are seldom very convincing to anyone other than the overly rigid thinkers who trot them out. I freely acknowledge that all games which purport to depict the real world do indeed simplify it enormously and choose a very specific domain to focus upon. So, yes, Railroad Tycoon as well does whitewash the history it presents to some extent. Yet the exploitation of Chinese labor in the Old West, appalling though it was, cannot compare to the pervasive legacy of American slavery and the European Holocaust in today’s world. Debaters who claim otherwise quickly start to sound disingenuous. In any discussion of this nature, space has to be allowed for degree as well as kind.

And so we arrive at Fishkin’s other argument from principle, the very place where these sorts of discussions always tend to wind up sooner or later. “The primary purpose of a game is to entertain,” he tells us. Compare that statement with these assertions of Gilbert L. Brahms: “Computer games become nothing [more] than schlock entertainment if they strip realism from historical recreations. If a computer game should truly aspire to become a work of art, it must fulfill both the recreative and the didactive functions inherent in all serious aesthetic productions: it must present horrible conflicts with all of their nasty details.” Oh, my. It seems that we’ve landed smack dab in the middle of the “are games art?” debate. What on earth do we do with this?

Many of us have been conditioned since childhood to believe that games are supposed to be fun — no more, no less. Therefore when a game crosses our path that aspires to be more than just fun — or, even more strangely, doesn’t aspire to be “fun” in the typical sense of the word at all — we can find it deeply confusing. And, people being people, our first reaction is often outrage. Three years before the second version of Colonization was released, one Danny Ledonne made Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, an earnest if rather gawkily adolescent attempt to explore the backgrounds and motivations of the perpetrators of the high-school massacre in question. A book on the same theme would have been accepted and reviewed on its merits, but the game received widespread condemnation simply for existing. Since games by definition can aspire only to being fun, Ledonne must consider it fun to reenact the Columbine massacre, right? The “games as art” and “serious games” crews tried to explain that this edifice of reasoning was built upon a faulty set of assumptions, but the two sides mostly just talked past one another.

Although the “just a game” defense may seem a tempting get-out-of-jail-free card in the context of a Panzer General or a Colonization, one should think long and hard before one plays it. For to do so is to infantilize the entire medium — to place it into some other, fundamentally different category from books and movies and other forms of media that are allowed a place at the table where serious cultural dialog takes place.

The second version of Colonization found itself impaled on the horns of these two very different sets of assumptions about games. Its excision of slavery drew howls of protest calling it out for its shameful whitewashing of history. But just imagine the alternative! As Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens pointed out in a journal article after the hubbub had died down, the controversy we got was nothing compared to the one we would have had if Colonization had given the naysayers what many of them claimed to want: had better captured historical reality by actually letting you own and trade slaves. The arguments against the one approach are predicated on the supposition that at least some types of games are more than idle entertainments, that a game which bills itself as a reasonably accurate reenactment of colonial history and yet excises slavery from its narrative deserves to be condemned in the same terms as a book or movie which does the same; the arguments against the other are rooted in the supposition that games are just fun, and how dare you propose that it’s fun to join the slave trade. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Perhaps the only practical solution to the dilemma is that of simply not making any more versions of Colonization. No, it’s not a terribly satisfying solution, placing limits as it does on what games are allowed to do and be. Nevertheless, it’s the one that Firaxis will almost certainly choose to employ in the future.

I do want to emphasize one more time here at the end of this pair of articles that neither Panzer General nor Colonization was created with any conscious bad intent. They stem from a time when computer gaming was much more culturally homogeneous than it has become, when computer gamers were to an almost overwhelming degree affluent, stereotypically “nerdy” white males between the ages of 10 and 35. People of privilege that they were, usually immersed in the hard sciences rather than the irritatingly amorphous but more empathetic humanities, they struggled to identify with those crosscurrents of society and history outside their own. Although the wargaming subculture that spawned Panzer General and Colonization still exists, and would still receive those exact games today in the same unquestioning way, it’s vastly smaller than it used to be in proportion to the overall mass of gamers. And, again, its blind spots then and now remain venal sins at worst in the grand scale of things.

That said, I for one am happy that the trajectory of gaming since 1994 has been ever outward, both in terms of the types of people who play games and the kinds of themes and experiences those games present. Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that their very scope of possibility is half the reason we can so easily confuse one another when we try to talk about games. Certainly one person’s idea of a satisfying game can be markedly different from another’s, such that even as brilliant a mind as that of Sid Meier can have trouble containing it all. His famous categorical claim that a good game is a “series of interesting decisions” is true enough in the case of the games he prefers to play and make, but fails to reckon with the more experiential aspects of interactivity which many players find at least equally appealing. It’s thus no surprise that he offhandedly dismisses adventures games and other interactive experiences that are more tightly plotted and less zero-sum.

I’ve often wondered whether this label of “game” is really all that useful at all, whether there’s really any more taxonomical kinship between a Colonization and a Super Columbine RPG! than there is between, say, books and movies. Digital games are the ultimate form of bastard media, appropriating elements from all of the others and then slathering on top of it all the special sauce of interactivity. Perhaps someday we’ll figure out how to talk about this amorphous stew of possibility that just keeps bubbling up out of the pot we want to use to contain it; perhaps someday we’ll divide it up into a collection of separate categories of media, using those things we call “gaming genres” now as their basis. In the meantime, we’ll just have to hang on for the ride, and try not to rush to judgment too quickly when our expectations of the medium don’t align with those of others.

(Sources: the books Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games by Sid Meier with Jennifer Lee Noonan and the article “Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization” by Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens, from the book Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History; PC Review of August 1992; Computer Gaming World of April 1994, September 1994, November 1994, and December 1994; online sources include “How Historical Games Integrate or Ignore Slavery” by Amanda Kerry on Rock Paper Shotgun; “Colonialism is Fun? Sid Meier’s Civilization and the Gamefication of Imperialism” by CIGH Exeter on the Imperial and Global Forum; Soren Johnson’s interview with Brian Reynolds; IGN‘s interview with Brian Reynolds; Ben Fritz’s blog on Variety.

Colonization is available for digital purchase on GOG.com. C.P.U. Bach, having been made only for a long-since-orphaned console, is sadly not.)

 
 

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Master of Magic

Steve Barcia started thinking about his second grand-strategy game well before he had finished creating his first one. While he was waiting for his latest iteration of Master of Orion to compile each day in the cramped Austin, Texas, offices of his company SimTex, he sketched in the mental details of a follow-up that would take place in a fantasy rather than science-fictional milieu. As soon as the one game was finished, he wrote up a design document for the next one and shared it with the rest of the SimTex staff. Within two weeks, they were charging full-speed ahead on Master of Magic. It would ship under the MicroProse imprint in time for the Christmas of 1994, only a year after its predecessor, despite being one of the most complex strategy games yet made for a computer. If there’s no rest for the wicked, it would seem that Barcia and company had been very bad indeed.

Given the new game’s title and its short development cycle, one might suspect it to be little more than a reskinned Master of Orion. In reality, though, such could hardly be further from the truth. Master of Magic is a wildly different experience from Master of Orion, enough so that one would scarcely guess it to have come from the same designer. Where Master of Orion is polished to perfection, its every element carefully considered and tested, Master of Magic is a far more ramshackle affair, a pile of diverse ideas thrown together — some more fully realized than others, some literally not working at all if we want to get pedantic about it. Nevertheless, it all comes out okay in the end; the game’s variety, generosity, and sheer chutzpah win through. Master of Magic is simply fun —  every bit as much fun as Master of Orion. Just don’t try this at home, budding designers.

Master of Orion was frequently billed as “Civilization in Space” by a slightly lazy press. It’s therefore ironic to note that it’s actually Master of Magic which betrays a major influence from Sid Meier’s 1991 magnum opus. Barcia began laying down the basics of his first game in the late 1980s, and thus its mechanics and interface are most indebted to the conquer-the-galaxy board and computer games which appeared before that point. By the time he started on Master of Magic, however, Barcia had had plenty of time to play and admire Civilization and to clone some of its approaches. It’s thus at least a bit more defensible to call Master of Magic “Fantasy Civilization,” as was and is done from time to time, even if doing so still falls well short of a complete description. Certainly the magazine Computer Gaming World made no bones about it in its review of the game:

The city display will be familiar to players of Sid Meier’s Civilization. In fact, we wouldn’t want to suggest that the same code was used, but it sure looks like it could have been. From the graphic representation of the buildings themselves to the rows of farming, working, and rebelling citizens, the city display is a near-verbatim copy of the earlier design.

The city-management screen in Master of Magic, which is almost a carbon copy of the one in Civilization. Many of the systems behind it work exactly the same as well.

This, then, is one important aspect of Master of Magic. You start with a single village which you must grow and develop. Meanwhile you send out settlers to found other cities, or armies to conquer ones that already exist. You improve your cities by ordering their populations to build structures that increase their production or otherwise cause them to function more efficiently. All of this will be very familiar indeed to any Civilization veteran. That said, the city-building side of Master of Magic is generally simplified in comparison to Civilization. There is, for example, no tech tree to research in order to unlock new types of buildings. Instead buildings themselves unlock other buildings, as shown by a handy chart included in the manual: constructing a builder’s hall unlocks the granary, shrine, library, miner’s guild, and city walls; constructing a granary unlocks the farmer’s market; etc., etc. Steve Barcia, who was eager for understandable reasons to ensure that the similarities to Civilization weren’t overstated, explained the simplifications by noting that the two games had fundamentally different design goals: “Civilization focuses on internal problems. In Master of Magic, it’s the external; it’s conquest.”

The main Master of Magic screen, where you examine the map and move your units around. While it departs a bit more from the layout of Civilization than does the city-management screen, the inspiration remains obvious, right down to the shortcut keys.

So, although you move your units around the map exactly as you do in Civilization — to be fair, that game in turn borrows the approach from the much older Empire — things go in a dramatically different direction once combat begins: Master of Magic places much more emphasis on combat than does Civilization. In the latter game, each unit moves independently over the map; in Master of Magic, you form larger armies by “stacking” up to nine units together. When two units bump into each other on the world map in Civilization, one loses and is completely destroyed and the other wins and survives completely intact, all depending on a single roll of the virtual dice which is compared against their respective attack and defense ratings. In Master of Magic, by contrast, combat takes place on a separate screen, with plenty of room for your tactical genius to make its presence felt. Units here can be “wounded” by having only some of their number killed, needing time to heal and replenish themselves.

Fighting a tactical battle. Given that I have only one group of halberdiers against seven groups of zombies and and one of skeletons, my best option here is to flee — assuming I don’t have a Turn Undead spell at my disposal, that is.

But the most important addition of all to the combat model, the game’s first real stroke of genius, is that of experience points: as units fight and survive battles, they become better, tougher and stronger, able eventually to punch well above their rookie weight. Granted, Civilization too has the barest inkling of this; a unit which wins a battle there has a chance of becoming a “veteran,” with a bonus to its attack and defense. Master of Magic, however, takes the concept to another level entirely. And then it adds a second stroke of genius: heroes, individual captains who can be recruited to join your cause and lead your armies into battle. They too earn experience and improve their skills; you can even find or make magical weapons and armor for them.

A hero levels up.

In the context of its own day, Master of Magic thus joined Julian Gollop’s X-COM, which was released about six months before it, as one of the foremost exemplars of a new trend in strategy games, that of using CRPG elements to forge a more personal, even emotional bond between the player and the figures she commands. It works brilliantly here, just as it does in X-COM. You come to identify deeply with your units and especially your heroes as you nurture their development, and come to mourn the loss of one of them almost like that of a real friend.

The debt which Master of Magic owes to the CRPG genre extends to other areas as well. Its randomly generated maps are seeded not just with neutral and enemy towns but with “fallen temples,” “abandoned keeps,” and “mysterious caves.” You can send your units and heroes to confront what is found within, if you dare; your reward for doing so is booty and the experience they earn, assuming they survive. Just exploring the world, revealing and clearing out more and more of the map, is thoroughly enjoyable even before you meet any of the computer players who are doing the same thing.

Do we dare to enter the fallen temple?

But it’s the game’s third and final layer rather than the city building or unit management that is its most defining attribute, not to mention the source of its name. The fact is that you really do play a master of magic, a wizard competing to conquer the world against up to four other wizards under the control of the computer. As such, you have spells at your disposal… boy, do you have spells. The magic system draws heavily from Magic: The Gathering, the collectible card game of fantasy combat that took the culture of tabletop gaming by storm in the early 1990s. Magic here is divided into five “books”: Life, Nature, Sorcery, Chaos, and Death. When you begin a new game, you choose your wizard from a list of fourteen possibilities, each of which specializes in one or two books of magic and has some other individual advantage to boot. Or, if you’re playing at one of the higher difficulty levels, you can also build your own wizard from scratch.

Most hardcore players wouldn’t think of playing with anything other than a customized wizard; you see one of them being made here. Not being much of a power gamer, I’m generally happy taking one of the fourteen pre-made wizards, which offer plenty of variety in themselves.

Either way, you enter the game with just a few low-level spells in your particular book or books. In place of the technological research trees of Civilization and Master of Orion, here you research new spells. Their number and variety are positively mind-boggling: there are 40 spells associated with each book, plus 16 that everyone can learn regardless of specialty, for a total of no less than 216 in the game as a whole. But Master of Magic borrows a trick from Master of Orion to great effect: not all of the potential spells in your books are available for research on any given playthrough, meaning that the sort of rote strategies that are possible in climbing Civilization‘s static research tree cannot be relied upon here. Because you get a different set of possible spells even if you play the very same wizard twice in a row, you constantly have to think on your feet. Needless to say, your overall strategy must be dictated to a large extent by the spells that show up in your research list. If you gain early access to Floating Island, for example, you have a handy means of crossing oceans before your opponents may be able to; if not, you might need to build expensive shipyards early on in at least some of your coastal cities.

Hmm… which spell should I research next?

Your source of spell-research points is mana, which you harvest from the land’s so-called “places of power.” It’s the most essential resource in the game, and thus the source of some agonizing decisions. For mana, you see, is not only important for research. You must balance the amount of it which you devote to research against that which goes to casting spells in the field and that which goes to improving upon your innate spell-casting capabilities; this last category of mana, in other words, serves as your wizard’s equivalent to experience points.

You change the ratio of mana you devote to various purposes by manipulating the three staffs to the left.

The thoroughgoing watchword of Master of Magic is variety, applying not only to the list of spells but to every aspect of the game. The sheer amount of stuff here would be impressive in a modern game, and was well-nigh unprecedented at the time of this one’s release. In addition to choosing one of fourteen starting wizards, you choose a starting race for her to command from another fourteen possibilities; each of these races comes with its own unique set of units to be unlocked and raised, as well as a unique mix of buildings that it can erect in its towns. You can choose a world with small, medium, or large land masses, with weak, normal or powerful magic. All these possible starting parameters alone ensure that the game will take a long time indeed to get old. Then, once you actually begin to play, you find an absurdly wide array of monsters to contend with, heroes to recruit, and magical arms and armor to dredge up. And then there are all those spells: spells to buff your units and heroes and to nerf your enemies’, to summon fantastical creatures to join your ranks, to disrupt your foes’ own magic. Eventually your powers become downright Biblical, as you control the winds and blight your enemies’ fields and forests — but be aware that they can potentially do the same things to you. By way of a final touch, you have not one but two complete worlds to explore and conquer; there are two separate dimensions in the game, the relatively mundane Arcanus and the magic-rich realm of Myrror. You can move between them by means of special portals on the landscape which you must discover and secure — or, inevitably, via yet another spell you can research. It will take you a long, long time to see everything that Master of Magic has to offer.

You can explore and conquer two different planes. This map shows part of just one of them.

Master of Magic‘s huge diversity of content does as much as its theme and its core mechanics to give it a very different personality from that of its predecessor Master of Orion. I love both games just about equally, but most others I’ve talked to tend to express a marked preference for one or the other. Board-game aficionados often speak of two schools of design, named after their typical continents of origin: the Eurogame, where a fairly small number of moving parts is carefully tuned for a perfectly coherent, perfectly balanced, Neoclassical experience; and the “Ameritrash” game, which is distinguished by its Romantic exuberance in throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, just to see what will happen. It’s hopefully clear by now that Master of Magic is very much the latter sort of game. While there are whole worlds of emergent strategy to be found in all of its variety, there are also moments of friction when things don’t quite gel.

The most disappointingly half-baked aspect of Master of Magic is, perhaps not coincidentally, its one feature that actually was lifted wholesale from Master of Orion: its diplomatic model. You communicate with the other wizards here just as you do the leaders of the other alien races in the older game, but it’s harder to divine why you should do so. In some circumstances, it’s possible to win a game of Master of Orion without ever firing a shot in anger, by persuading your counterparts to vote you into supremacy via clever diplomacy. Master of Magic, however, lacks any equivalent victory condition; the only way to win here is to wipe out your foes. This fact turns your negotiations over treaties and favors into an even more cynical exercise than it is in Master of Orion; it’s a foregone conclusion that absolutely everyone is only playing for time before unsheathing their trusty daggers for the backstab. Further, there’s little ultimate point to all of your diplomatic contortions. Any opposing wizard who agrees to a peace treaty is probably weak enough that you can defeat her in war, or is just trying to milk a little bit more tribute out of you before she declares war on you three turns later. There’s very little reason to ever even initiate diplomatic relations, other than perhaps to trade for a spell you have an urgent need for. I know that I tend to ignore diplomacy entirely, and have never felt overly disadvantaged by it — a statement one could never make about Master of Orion. When playing Master of Magic, I do sometimes find myself missing the intricate dance of negotiation in Master of Orion, which can be as exciting as any space battle — but then, Master of Magic is, as I’ve already noted, a very different game.

Those who’ve played Master of Orion will find this menu very familiar. Alas, it’s used to far less compelling effect here.

One consequence of your inability to schmooze your way to victory is a drawn-out endgame, a problem all too typical of these types of grand-strategy games which Master of Orion manages to deftly avoid thanks to its Galactic Council. There comes a point in every game of Master of Magic when you know you’re going to win — or the opposite. Assuming it’s to be the former, everything becomes a bit rote from that point on, even as conquering those last pesky cities of your enemies can be quite time-consuming. Although you can win by advancing all the way up the spell-research tree and casting the “Spell of Mastery” instead of wiping out all of your opponents militarily — this is the game’s equivalent of blasting off for Alpha Centauri in Civilization — that process is even more time-consuming. And because all of the enemy wizards rush to attack you with everything they have as soon as you start to research the Spell of Mastery, your game is still guaranteed to end in genocidal total war.

Master of Magic also runs afoul of another typical problem of its genre which its predecessor mostly manages to sidestep: the micromanagement bugbear. Most players develop a consistent pattern for building up their cities early on, one which they vary only under special circumstances. While the game does offer a “vizier” who can manage your cities for you, his choices tend to be hopelessly nonsensical. A way of setting up building queues in advance for each city, coupled ideally with a default queue you could define for yourself, would have been a wonderful addition. As it is, you’re in for an awful lot of busywork in the later stages of building your fantasy empire.

One final area of the game that’s frequently singled out for criticism is the artificial intelligence of your opponents, which leaves a lot to be desired. In the grand tradition of Civilization and Master of Orion, cranking up the difficulty level doesn’t make the other wizards smarter; as far as I can determine, it doesn’t actually change their set behaviors at all. What it does do is cheat on their behalf ever more egregiously, by giving them bigger and bigger production bonuses. Many understandably find this solution to the problem of making the game challenging for the veteran player to be less than ideal.

Still, a recent development in the small but surprisingly active world of ongoing Master of Magic fandom provides an object lesson in being careful what you wish for. Just this year, a group of fans, working in association with the current owners of the game’s intellectual property, released Caster of Magic, a comprehensive patch/expansion that, among many other things, dramatically upgrades the artificial intelligence. Personally, I find it no fun whatsoever, and I’ve heard many others say the same thing. Playing against its smart, ruthless, ultra-agressive enemy wizards only served to clarify for me what I really enjoy about Master of Magic: exploring the worlds, building up my units and heroes, researching and trying out new spells. For me, it’s as much experiential CRPG as zero-sum strategy game. If I could add something to the game, it would be more diverse encounter areas, possibly with elements of story to them, to further emphasize these qualities. This is not to say that you’re wrong to play in a different way, wrong to enjoy the game for other reasons; certainly there are many who love what Caster of Magic does to the game. It does, however, serve to illustrate that the field of ludic artificial intelligence, which is so often characterized as simply the struggle to make the computer play just like a human, becomes more complicated than that formulation just as soon as it collides with real-world game design.

Caster of Magic is in fact merely the latest example of a long tradition of patching Master of Magic, stemming from the fact that the game as originally released desperately needed all the patching it could get. Both before and after their acquisition by Spectrum Holobyte in 1993, MicroProse was among the publishers most prone to ship games before their time in response to external financial pressures. As one of the company’s big titles for the Christmas of 1994, Master of Magic fell victim to this unfortunate tendency. In yet another marked contrast to Master of Orion, Steve Barcia’s second grand-strategy game shipped so riddled with bugs that it was essentially unplayable; the game crashed more often than not during battles. (“Save every turn, save before every battle, save every time you can,” became the player’s rule of thumb as summarized by Computer Gaming World.) A series of patches gradually solved the worst of the issues, but there remain to this day spells in the game that don’t quite work correctly. Master of Magic could have used its own incarnations of Alan Emrich and Tom Hughes, the two outsiders who took an early interest in Master of Orion during its development and offered so much feedback and practical advice over the months that followed that co-designer credits wouldn’t have been out of order. Failing that, just a few more months in the oven and a round or two of proper testing could have done much for it.

Although its overall reception was gravely impacted by its unconscionable state at the time of its release, a small group of players fell in love with the game for its crazy multitudinousness and kept its memory alive for years, then decades. They did so not least because Master of Magic became the opposite of Master of Orion in one final, supremely ironic way: whereas Master of Orion spawned about a thousand 4X rule-the-galaxy copycats of varying degrees of quality, nobody else has ever done a game quite like Master of Magic. The year after it appeared, New World Computing released Heroes of Might and Magic, a superficially similar blending of strategy and CRPG elements, but one that was dramatically different in the details: it was a more tightly focused effort, with pre-crafted maps in place of randomly generated worlds, a modest but carefully tuned suite of spells and creatures in place of a decadent cornucopia of same, and a multi-mission story-oriented campaign in place of a wide-open sandbox to play in. When Heroes of Might and Magic — admittedly, a superb game in its own right — became the hit that Master of Magic had not, it became the model for fantasy strategy games going forward.

So, Master of Magic remains a unique experience to this day. While it’s definitely no paragon of balanced game design, its rambunctious riot of possibility ensures that it stays interesting over the long term; this is one quality that it certainly does share with Master of Orion. In fact, I like to play Master of Magic just like I play that game: I throw the dice to set up the parameters of my world, my wizard, and my minions, and then have at it, assured that, whatever awaits me, it will be completely different from the last time I played. That’s the kind of variety that can keep you playing a game forever.

Each race has its own set of city names. Those of the barbarians are real-world German cities — including Flensburg, where my wife grew up. What’s up with that?

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of September 1994, December 1994, January 1995, May 1995, and October 1995; PC Gamer of January 1995; Electronic Entertainment of January 1995; Computer Player of February 1995; Next Generation of January 1995; InfoWorld of December 1994; Interactive Entertainment CD-ROM of October 1994 and November 1994; Hyper of June 1995.

Master of Magic is available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 

 
 

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Transport Tycoon

Anyone who has followed the career of the British game developer Chris Sawyer down through the years knows that he prefers to go his own way. This was true from the very beginning.

In 1980, when Sawyer was fourteen years old, Sinclair Research subcontracted out the manufacture of the ZX80 — the cheap microcomputer that was about to take all of Britain by storm — to the Timex plant located in his hometown of Dundee, Scotland. From that moment on, Dundee was a Sinclair town. And small wonder: by 1983, with the cheap and cheerful Sinclair Spectrum pushing Britain toward the status of the most computer-mad nation on earth on a per-capita basis, the house that Uncle Clive built had become a significant part of the city’s economy. Half of the Dundee kids who were interested in computers seemed to have gotten jobs at the Timex plant, while the other half had just gotten Speccys for their living rooms.

Sawyer was no less fascinated with computers than his peers, but he was also a dyed-in-the-wool iconoclast. Just as the Spectrum boom was nearing its peak, he saved up his money to buy… a Camputers Lynx, one of those oddball also-rans of the 1980s which are remembered only by collectors today. And when it became clear that this first computer of his was destined for orphandom, he chose to invest in a Memotech MTX, another doomed machine.

His strange taste in hardware proved a blessing in disguise. With very little software available for the likes of a Lynx or MTX, Sawyer was forced to learn how to make his own fun, forced to become a programmer of games rather than a mere player of them. He would read about a game for another, more popular platform in a magazine, look carefully at the screenshots thereof, and make his own version that played as he imagined the original must.

One day in 1984, Sawyer’s chemistry teacher called him aside. Knowing that his student liked to program, the teacher showed him a newspaper article he had clipped out, telling how another local boy had made £1000 selling his games. Sawyer was inspired. By the time he moved to Glasgow to attend university in the fall of that year, he had made contact with Memotech themselves, who were eager for software of any stripe for their struggling machine. Absolutely no one — least of all the soon-to-be-bankrupt Memotech — got rich off the MTX, but Sawyer did make enough money to buy a printer and floppy-disk drive.

Even after Memotech bit the dust, he continued to go his own way as stubbornly as ever. Instead of a Commodore Amiga or Atari ST like his friends were buying, he scraped together the last of his Memotech earnings to buy an Amstrad MS-DOS machine, another definite minority taste at the time among gamers in Britain.

Once again, though, the road less traveled proved advantageous. In need of a job just after graduating from university, he contacted Jacqui Lyons, a former literary agent who had made a spectacular debut as Britain’s first ever software agent when she auctioned off to the highest bidder the porting rights to Ian Bell and David Braben’s game Elite, a sensation on the BBC Micro that went on to become the British game of its decade, thanks not least to her efforts. Now, Sawyer learned from her that the British industry had need for MS-DOS specialists — not so much for the domestic or even continental European market, but in order to bring its games to American shores, where MS-DOS was fast becoming the biggest platform of them all. Thus Lyons gave Sawyer a contract to port StarRay, an enhanced version of the old arcade classic Defender, from the Amiga to MS-DOS (the end result would be published in the United States as Revenge of Defender). When that went well, he was entrusted with the MS-DOS port of Virus, the long-awaited second game from David Braben himself.

Sawyer spent the next five years doing yet more ports. He worked alone from his Scottish home, evincing already the reclusive tendencies that would eventually get him labelled one of gaming’s greatest “enigmas,” whilst building a reputation for speed and efficiency that would also never desert him. He was arguably better versed in the tricky art of Intel assembly language than any other person in the British games industry; he refused to write in a high-level language, a resolve he has stayed true to to this day. “I enjoyed the work and it paid well,” he remembers, “though I became very frustrated that often I was unable to finish a contract because I’d caught up with the original game’s programmer and had to wait for him before I could convert the remainder of the game. My solution was to take on two conversions at the same time.” He developed a particularly good relationship with Braben, becoming the only programmer besides himself to which the latter was willing to entrust the hallowed name of Elite. In 1991, Sawyer coded Elite Plus, an enhanced version of the game for the latest MS-DOS machines; he then ported Frontier: Elite II, its belated, ambitious, and ultimately underwhelming sequel, to MS-DOS in 1993.

Up to this point, Chris Sawyer had been widely and fairly judged as a technician rather than a creative force. The teenager who had cloned games he had never actually seen from magazine reviews seemed every bit the father of the man who still earned his living by making other people’s games look and play as well as possible on alternative hardware. But now came the great leap that would elevate his name into the firmament where lived the superstars of British game development — names like David Braben, Peter Molyneux, and David Jones (another product of the tech-obsessed city of Dundee, as it happened). Sawyer may have been a late arrival, but in the final reckoning he would outshine all of them in terms of the sheer quantity of pounds his games brought in.

As so often happens when you look closely at such things, Sawyer’s inexplicable dizzying leap into original game design is perhaps less inexplicable or dizzying than it first appears. Certainly his first masterstroke wasn’t made from whole cloth. It sprouted rather from the fertile soil of Railroad Tycoon from MicroProse Software, Sid Meier’s brilliant 1990 game of railroad logistics and Gilded Age financial warfare. Sawyer:

I was fascinated with Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon game. I played it for hours and hours; it was definitely my favorite game at the time. The viewpoint was just an overhead 2D map, though, and I wondered whether [an] isometric viewpoint would be better, and if other modes of transport should be included. I was inspired.

So, while he was waiting for his better-known colleagues to send him the next chunks of their own games for conversion to MS-DOS, Sawyer began to tinker. By the time Elite II was wrapping up, he had an ugly but working demo of an enhanced version of Railroad Tycoon which did indeed shift the viewpoint from vertically overhead to isometric. “I decided to devote all my time to the game for a few months and see what developed,” he says. He convinced a talented free-lance artist named Simon Foster, who was already an established name in commercial graphics but was looking to break into games, to provide illustrations, even as he made the bold decision to step up to cutting-edge SVGA graphics, at more than twice the resolution of standard VGA. At the end of that few months, he was more convinced than ever that he had a winner on his hands: “Even people who didn’t normally play computer games would sit for hours on end, totally engrossed in building railway lines, routing trains, and making as much profit as possible.” He soon made his train simulator into an all-encompassing transportation simulator, adding trucks and buses, ships and ferries, airplanes and even helicopters.

The choice of publisher was obvious. Jacqui Lyons connected him with MicroProse’s British office, who immediately saw the potential for marketing the game as a pseudo-sequel to Railroad Tycoon; thus it was agreed that it would be known as Transport Tycoon. It shipped under that name in Europe and North America in time for the Christmas of 1994. And just like that, Chris Sawyer’s days of toiling as an anonymous porter were behind him, as he took his place among the stars. His elevation was richly deserved based on his game’s surface qualities alone.



Indeed, its groundbreaking interface is as good a place as any to begin to sing Transport Tycoon‘s praises. Any long-running, in-depth historical project such as this one of mine winds up becoming a form of time travel for its propagator, who comes to live a part of his life in the past which he studies. The fact is, I just don’t have much time to play modern games that aren’t on the syllabus. My near-complete immersion in ludic antiquity means that I get some sense of how these old games must have looked to the people who saw them for the first time. When I fired up Transport Tycoon after years of playing VGA games sporting interfaces that were technically mouse-driven but still lacking most of the flexibility we’ve come to expect from a modern GUI, my jaw dropped to the proverbial floor. Transport Tycoon plays, looks, and even sounds completely different from any of its peers of 1994.

Transport Tycoon

But no need to take my word for it: Julian Gollop, the mind behind the iconic X-Com series, happened to visit MicroProse while the folks there were playing around with a pre-release version of Transport Tycoon. He describes it as looking “awesomely sophisticated” in comparison to anything else on the market: “Especially the interface, because he [Sawyer] had essentially programmed his own Windows-style interface on top of DOS, which in itself must have been quite a lot of effort, let alone making the actual game. The X-Com interface was incredibly primitive by comparison.”

Windows, windows everywhere. All of them are dynamically updated in real time, all of them are interactive, and all of them can be dragged where you will.

As Gollop notes, Transport Tycoon‘s interface is built around windows which you can open and close whenever you wish and drag around the screen to wherever you want them. All of these windows are updated in real time. If you bring up a view of a vehicle, you see it going about its business there in its window, moving through the same world that fills the screen behind it. Bring up ten vehicles, and you can watch all of them at once with a little judicious clicking and dragging. Click on a certain icon in any of those windows, and the main view jumps to the location of that vehicle. In the context of its time, all of this is absolutely stunning.

But we should step back now and cover the basics. Transport Tycoon presents 100 years of shipping — by railroad, by road, by sea, and by air — stretching from 1930 until 2030. It plays in real time, but is nevertheless a sedately paced, even relaxing affair on the whole. You begin with a modest bank loan and a map full of cities, factories, and natural resources craving connection, and go from there. Up to seven computer opponents can join you, or you can play with another human via a modem link-up, but competition isn’t the real heart of the game’s appeal. No, the core appeal — the thing that will bring you back to it over and over — is laying out your transportation network as efficiently as possible, then sitting back to watch it in action. You need to raise and lower land at times, build tunnels and bridges at others. You need to see to the signals on your railroad to ensure that traffic moves briskly but safely. And of course you need to purchase the vehicles themselves and assign them their routes. It’s almost indescribably satisfying to watch your network in action, just as it’s almost impossible to resist tweaking it constantly to squeeze that much more efficiency out of it. Transport Tycoon is a software toy of the highest order, as well as a series of endlessly intriguing spatial puzzles. (How can I get from Point A to Point B most effectively when I’ve already built all this other stuff in between?)

As with Railroad Tycoon, the economy of the world in Transport Tycoon is to at least some extent linked to your actions as a transportation mogul. And also as in Railroad Tycoon, subsidies will occasionally pop up to bring attention to under-served places. (These windows too are interactive. Clicking them once brings you to the first location mentioned; twice brings you to the second. The interface never ceases to amaze.) Hardcore puzzlers can take the subsidies as challenges; these places have often remained unlinked because getting between them is hard for one reason or another.

For all the obvious and acknowledged inspiration of Railroad Tycoon, Transport Tycoon gradually reveals a very different personality. Whereas Sid Meier’s game is at least as much a cutthroat business simulation as a model-railroad set, Chris Sawyer’s really is all about its busy little vehicles, lacking the stock trading of the earlier game or even its rate wars. Here you compete with your opponents for the choicest spots on which to build stations and terminals, and try to serve your mutual customers better so as to win more of their business, but none of it ever feels quite so life-or-death. This is a much more easygoing experience.

Unlike Railroad Tycoon with its maps based on different regions of the real world, Transport Tycoon take place in a landscape of the imagination — more specifically, the computer’s imagination; each new map is randomly generated. This makes its relationship to real history that much more attenuated. Although its timeline covers some decidedly fraught decades in our world, wars are never fought in its, and crises of any stripe are unheard of. Big-picture circumstances never change at all beyond more and more people needing to haul both themselves and more and more of their stuff from place to place.

Pleasantness is an underrated quality in games, as it perhaps is in people, but it’s one that Transport Tycoon has in spades. After a long stressful day, watching this bustling but orderly little world is a nice way to unwind, even if you’re not actually doing all that much. This was by design; Sawyer says that he consciously created “something that was fun to watch as well as rewarding to play.” Simon Foster’s graphics are the perfect compromise between clarity and detail. Nothing is static; everything in the environment, not just the vehicles that drive through it, is moving, changing, developing. Buildings go up before your eyes, towns expand, crops appear and then disappear on the farms as you haul them away, forests grow and are cut and grow again. Meanwhile John Broomhall, MicroProse’s long-serving in-house composer, outdoes himself with a jazzy soundtrack that screams mid-century Americana. Despite the game’s British origins, the whole experience evokes that time of boundless American optimism and prosperity before the costs of Progress became clear, back when better living and heavy industry were synonymous. It’s a soothing balm to our current disillusioned, pandemic-addled souls.



Then again, Transport Tycoon needs every ounce of good will it can generate — because, taken purely as a piece of zero-sum game design, it’s horribly, hopelessly broken. Pretty much none of the mechanisms that surround the core simulation engine — the things that ostensibly make Transport Tycoon into a proper game rather than just a software toy — work properly.

The drawn-out length of the thing is a good starting point for a discussion of its flaws. Transport Tycoon runs at only one speed; there is no fast-forward function. By my calculation, playing through the full 100 years would take you somewhere north of 30 hours if you never paused it at all in order to plan your construction projects. This is problematic in itself; some other, shorter options for playing a complete game would hardly have gone amiss. Yet it’s made worse because the rest of the game just isn’t set up to support such an extended length.

There’s a limit of 40 trains, 80 road vehicles, 50 ships, and 80 airplanes in the game. If you’re expanding with any degree of energy whatsoever, you’ll begin to hit those limits before you’re a third of the way in. After this, all you can do is optimize to take advantage of the newer vehicles which allow you to haul more stuff more quickly. But there’s nothing that compels you to do so beyond the siren song of your inner perfectionist because the economy is completely broken. Your finances might be mildly challenged during the first few years of a game of Transport Tycoon, especially if you choose the Hard difficulty level, but after that you have all the money in the world; you couldn’t go bankrupt if you tried.

This effectively infinite bankroll makes cost-benefit analysis meaningless, causing what ought to be interesting dilemmas — the meat of a good strategy game — to become moot. Consider: you need to run a railroad line over some very uneven terrain in order to connect a farm to a factory. In theory, you should be forced to balance the delays caused by steep grades on a track against the considerable cost of raising and lowering land to avoid them. In practice, though, you need do no such thing: money is flowing like water, so you just flatten out the land without giving it a second thought. Or: you need to choose which locomotive to employ for a vital but short jaunt between two neighboring cities. In theory, you should contemplate whether buying the latest 120-mile-per-hour silver streak of an engine is really worth the money on a local commuter route like this one, where the train will spend as much time loading and unloading in the station as traveling. In practice, though, you just buy the silver streak, because why not? What else are you going to do with your money?

Transport Tycoon likes to present itself as a hardcore business simulation. Don’t believe it for a second.

And as for the competition… oh, my. Your computer opponents succeed only in annoying the heck out of you with their epic stupidity; they’re forever building absurd Gordian knots of roads and rails that go absolutely nowhere, inadvertently blocking you from reaching the places that you actually need to get to. Building your way around their mess is a challenge of a sort, to be sure, but not a very satisfying one in that it demolishes any semblance of the clean, efficient networks that are such a pleasure to watch in action. Like a lot of players, I usually just turn the computer opponents off completely so I can concentrate on my own logistical works of art. The only way to get a really enjoyable competitive game out of Transport Tycoon is presumably to connect two computers, each with a real human behind the screen. (Unfortunately, I was never able to test that side of the game myself, as getting such a link-up working in DOSBox today is a tall order indeed.)

The artificial “intelligence” of your computer opponents provides the most vivid demonstration this side of a populist politician of what happens when extreme ambition collides with extreme incompetence. Its stupidity has become so legendary that at least one web page is devoted to showcasing the best or worst — depending on how you look at it — of its roads to nowhere.

Beginning about twenty years in, maintenance begins to annoy you even more than the computer players. Every vehicle in the game has a service life which, once exceeded, results in a constant stream of schedule-destroying breakdowns. It’s an interesting mechanic in theory, but utter tedium in practice. When you get a message that a vehicle is getting old, you have to manually send it to the nearest depot, wait for it to arrive, and then manually replace it with a newer version. There’s nothing fun or challenging about doing so; nor, what with all the money you’ve banked by this point, are there any financial concerns to balance. It’s just pure busywork. Not coincidentally, it’s right when vehicles start to age out of service that I tend to bail on most of my games of Transport Tycoon — and, if anecdotal evidence is any guide, I’m far from alone in that. If you become one of the few to persevere, however, you’ll eventually reach the late stages, where you get to contemplate manually pulling up all of your railroad tracks to replace them with monorail tracks. This is exactly as much fun as it sounds like it would be.

The end of a century of Transport Tycoon — a screen shockingly few players ever see.

Recluse that he is, Chris Sawyer has given very few in-depth interviews over the course of his career. He did, however, talk with Retro Gamer magazine at some length in 2015. I was particularly intrigued by one thing he said there, in response to a question about how much input MicroProse had in shaping the finished Transport Tycoon: “I think they did suggest some changes, but few made it into the game — either it wasn’t possible to do what they wanted or I was too stubborn!” I do have to wonder if those rejected suggestions might have fixed some of the game’s obvious, fundamental issues. But then again, the all-important Christmas deadline was just as likely the real determiner. MicroProse was one of the publishers most prone to releasing games before their time, and Transport Tycoon actually reached stores in far better shape than many of their other games.

A game with as many fundamental design issues as this one has shouldn’t be recommendable. And yet I find Transport Tycoon impossible not to like, much less to hate. The presentation is just so slick and charming, and building out your transportation infrastructure is just so soothing and satisfying, that the game transcends its faults for me, blows a hole through all of the critical facilities which tell me that a game needs to succeed as a whole to receive the label of classic. In fact, it leaves me in what feels perilously close to an ethical dilemma, as my critic’s brain wrestles with my player’s heart. The closest point of comparison I can offer is a game that is as different as can be from Transport Tycoon in most other ways: the CRPG Ultima VII. Please bear with me while I engage in the supreme arrogance of quoting myself:

Classic games, it seems to me, can be plotted on a continuum between two archetypes. At one pole are the games which do everything right — those whose designers, faced with a multitude of small and large choices, have made the right choice every time. Ultima Underworld, the spinoff game which Origin released just two weeks before Ultima VII, is one of these.

The other archetypal classic game is much rarer: the game whose designers have made a lot of really problematic choices, to the point that certain parts of it may be flat-out broken, but which nevertheless charms and delights due to some ineffable spirit that overshadows everything else. Ultima VII is the finest example of this type that I can think of. Its list of trouble spots is longer than that of many genuinely bad games, and yet its special qualities are so special that I can only recommend that you play it.

The special qualities of Transport Tycoon are special enough to yield the same recommendation. Most games focus on destruction in one way or another; the designer presents you with a complete, functioning system, and then you go through and tear it all down. How wonderful to be able instead to point at a smoothly humming thing of beauty on the screen and know that you built that.



So, the superlative reviews that followed Transport Tycoon‘s release were perhaps justified in spite of it all. “If you like the kind of ‘toying around’ and micromanagement offered by SimCity,” wrote Computer Gaming World magazine, “you might find that your romantic partners will split up with you, you will lose your job, your pets will starve, your computer will overheat, and you won’t even notice.” PC Gamer, the emerging populist rival to that older, more high-toned magazine, simply said that Transport Tycoon was “as good as PC gaming gets.” Edge magazine in Britain wrote that “it’s clear that Railroad Tycoon was a mere rehearsal. Transport Tycoon takes open-ended strategy games a giant step further.”

The game proved popular enough that MicroProse released a modestly enhanced Transport Tycoon Deluxe the following year, with optional fixed instead of randomly generated maps, with an editor for making your own versions of same, with new environments (arctic, tropical, or the ultra-whimsical Toy Land), and with some tweaks to gameplay (railroad signals grew somewhat more complex and flexible, and the timeline was shifted twenty years forward to run from 1950 to 2050, with a correspondingly more futuristic selection of vehicles on offer by the end). Rather bizarrely, however, no effort was made to fix the game’s fundamental issues of poor artificial intelligence, too much busywork, a broken economy, and an over-extended play time. In this sense, the deluxe edition was a colossal missed opportunity. Transport Tycoon is a really fun game even with all of its infelicities; without them, it could have been a staggeringly great one.

Indeed, Transport Tycoon‘s peculiar combination of fascination and frustration caused it to become one of those games that players felt a compulsion to somehow fix. Ten years worth of fan-made patches and tweaks finally yielded in 2004 to the first release of OpenTTD, an open-source clone of the game. The latter has continued to receive updates ever since, and has joined the likes of FreeCiv and NetHack as a staple of what we might call “hacker gaming.” As such, it evinces both the typical advantages and disadvantages of its species. A huge array of options and add-ons is available to correct every one of the problems I’ve outlined above and then some, but the process of choosing the right ones and putting them all together can be daunting, enough so as to drive away the player who just wants a fun, balanced game that plays well right out of the (virtual) box.

But enough of that; this is intended to be a review of the original Transport Tycoon rather than its later incarnations. In any such review, the obvious point of comparison remains its inspiration of Railroad Tycoon. This fact is not always to Transport Tycoon‘s benefit: it cannot be denied that the older game is also the more fully-realized. There are many reasons to prefer it: its carefully honed balance, the verisimilitude provided by its deeper connection to real history, its slightly more advanced train management (I dearly miss in Transport Tycoon the ability to change your trains’ consists automatically at stations), the fact that you can reasonably expect to finish a single game in an evening or two. And yet there’s something to be said as well for Transport Tycoon‘s more easygoing personality and more pronounced sandbox flavor, not to mention its groundbreaking interface and delightful aesthetic presentation. If I had to choose one, the critic and the pedant in me would demand that I take Railroad Tycoon. But luckily, we don’t really have to choose, do we?

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of October 1991 and March 1995; Edge of December 1993, February 1994, and February 1995; Electronic Entertainment of March 1995; Retro Gamer 4, 8, 58, 74, 98, and 138. Online sources include a Wired profile of Chris Sawyer and a EuroGamer interview with him, as well as his own home page.

Transport Tycoon has never received a digital re-release. I therefore take the liberty of hosting a version here that’s ready to run; just add the Windows, Macintosh, or Linux version of DOSBox. Do note, however, that most modern players prefer OpenTTD, which is free in all senses of the word.)

 
 

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X-COM

X-COM seemed to come out of nowhere. Its release was not preceded by an enormous marketing campaign with an enormous amount of hype. It had no video demo playing in the front window of Babbages, it wasn’t advertised twelve months in advance on glossy foldout magazine inserts, it had no flashing point-of-purchase kiosks. It didn’t come in a box designed by origamists from the school of abstract expressionism. It featured no full-motion video starring the best TV actors of the 80s; it had no voice-overs. It offered neither Super VGA graphics, nor General MIDI support. It wasn’t Doom-like, Myst-like, or otherwise like a hit game from the previous season; it didn’t steal the best features from several other successful games. It wasn’t even on a CD-ROM!

In short, if you plugged X-COM’s variables into the “success formula” currently in use by the majority of large game companies, you’d come up with a big, fat goose egg. According to the prevailing wisdom, there’s no way X-COM could survive in today’s gaming marketplace. And yet it sold and sold, and gamers played on and on.

— Chris Lombardi, writing in the April 1995 issue of Computer Gaming World

In the early days of game development, there existed little to no separation between the roles of game programmer and game designer. Those stalwart pioneers who programmed the games they themselves designed could be grouped into two broad categories, depending on the side from which they entered the field. There were the technologists, who were fascinated first and foremost with the inner workings of computers, and chose games as the most challenging, creatively satisfying type of software to which they could apply their talents. And then there were those who loved games themselves above all else, and learned to program computers strictly in order to make better, more exciting ones than could be implemented using only paper, cardboard, and the players’ imaginations. Julian Gollop, the mastermind behind the legendary original X-COM, fell most definitely into this latter category. He turned to the computer only when the games he wanted to make left him no other choice.

Growing up in the English county of Essex, Julian and his younger brother Nick lived surrounded by games, courtesy of their father. “Every Christmas, we didn’t watch TV, we’d play games endlessly,” Julian says. From Cluedo, they progressed to Escape from Colditz, then on to the likes of Sniper! and Squad Leader.

Julian turned fifteen in 1980, the year that the Sinclair ZX80 arrived to set off a microcomputer fever all across Britain, but he was initially immune to the affliction. Unimpressed by the simplistic games he saw being implemented on those early machines, which often had as little as 1 K of memory, he started making his own designs to be played the old-fashioned way, face-to-face around a tabletop. It was only when he hit a wall of complexity with one of them that he reassessed the potential of computers.

The game in question was called Time Lords; as the name would imply, it was based on the Doctor Who television serials. It asked two to five players to travel through time and space and alter the course of history to their advantage, but grew so complex that it came to require an additional person to serve in the less-than-rewarding capacity of referee.

By this point, it was 1982, and a friend of Julian’s named Andy Greene had acquired one of the first BBC Micros. Its relatively cavernous 32 K of memory opened up the possibility of using the computer as a referee instead of a bored human. Greene coded up the program in BASIC, staying faithful to Julian’s board game to the extent of demanding that players leave the room when it wasn’t their turn, so as not to see anything they weren’t supposed to of their opponents’ actions. The owner of the tabletop-games store where Julian shopped was so impressed with the result that he founded a new company, Red Shift Games, in order to publish it. They all traveled to computer fairs together, carrying copies of the computerized Time Lords packaged in Ziploc baggies. The game didn’t take the world by storm — Personal Computer News, one of the few publications to review it, pronounced it a “bored game” instead of a board game — but it was a start.

The two friends next made Islandia, another multiplayer strategy game of a similar stripe. In the meantime, Julian acquired a Sinclair Spectrum, the cheap and cheerful little machine destined to drive British computer gaming for the next half-decade. Having now a strong motivation to learn to program it, Julian did just that. His first self-coded game, and his first on the Spectrum, appeared in 1984 in the form of Nebula, a conquer-the-galaxy exercise that for the first time offered a computer opponent to play against.

The artificial intelligence disappeared again from his next game, but it mattered not at all. Rebelstar Raiders was the prototype for Julian Gollop’s most famous work. In contrast to the big-picture strategy of his earlier games, it focused on individual soldiers in conflict with one another in a Starship Troopers-like science-fictional milieu. Still, it was very much based on the board games he loved; there was a lot of Sniper! and Squad Leader in its turn-based design. Despite being such a cerebral game, despite being one that you couldn’t even play without a mate to hand, it attracted considerable attention. Red Shift faded out of existence shortly thereafter as its owner lost interest in the endeavor, but Rebelstar Raiders had already made Julian’s reputation, such that other publishers were now knocking at his door.

Rebelstar Raiders, the first of Julian Gollop’s turn-based tactical-combat games. Ten years later, the approach would culminate in X-COM.

It must have been a thrill for Julian Gollop the board-game fanatic when Games Workshop, the leading British publisher of hobbyist tabletop games, signed him to make a computer game for their new — if ultimately brief-lived — digital division. Chaos, a spell-slinging fantasy free-for-all ironically based to some extent on a Games Workshop board game known as Warlock — not that Julian told them that! — didn’t sell as well as Rebelstar Raiders, although it has since become something of a cult classic.

So, understandably, Julian went where the market was. Between 1986 and 1988, he produced three more iterations on the Rebelstar Raiders concept, each boasting computer opponents as well as multiplayer options and each elaborating further upon the foundation of its predecessor. Game designers are a bit like authors in some ways. Some authors — like, say, Margaret Atwood — try their hands at a wide variety of genres and approaches, while others — like, say, John Cheever — compulsively sift through the same material in search of new nuggets of insight. Julian became, in the minds of the British public at least, an example of the Cheever type of designer. “It could be said by the cruelest among us that Julian has only ever written one game,” wrote the magazine New Computer Express in 1990, “but has released various substantially enhanced versions of it over the years.”

Of those enhanced versions, Julian published Rebelstar and Rebelstar 2: Alien Encounter through Firebird as a lone-wolf developer, then published Laser Squad through a small outfit known as Blaze Software. Before he made this last game, he founded a company called Target Games — soon to be renamed to the less generic Mythos Games — with his father as silent partner and his brother Nick in an active role; the latter had by now become an accomplished programmer in his own right, in fact surpassing Julian’s talents in that area. In 1990, the brothers made the Chaos sequel Lords of Chaos together in order to prove to the likes of New Computer Express that Julian was at least a two-trick pony. And then came the series of events that would lead to Julian Gollop, whose games were reasonably popular in Britain but virtually unknown elsewhere, becoming one of the acknowledged leading lights of strategy gaming all over the world.



The road to X-COM traveled through the terrain of happenstance rather than any master plan. Julian’s career-defining project started as Laser Squad 2 in spirit and even in name, the next manifestation of his ongoing obsession with small-scale, turn-based, single-unit tactics. The big leap forward this time was to be an isometric viewpoint, adding an element of depth to the battlefield. He and Nick coded a proof of concept on an Atari ST. While they were doing so, Blaze Software disappeared, yet another ephemeral entity in a volatile industry. Now, the brothers needed a new publisher for their latest game.

Both of them had been playing hours and hours of Railroad Tycoon, from the American publisher MicroProse. Knowing that MicroProse had a British branch, they decided to take their demo there first. It was a bold move in its way; as I’ve already noted, their games were popular in their sphere, but had mostly borne the imprints of smaller publishers and had mostly been sold at cheaper price points. MicroProse was a different animal entirely, carrying with it the cachet that still clung in Europe to American games, with their bigger budgets and higher production values. In their quiet English way, the Gollops were making a bid for the big leagues.

Luckily for them, MicroProse’s British office was far more than just a foreign adjunct to the American headquarters. It was a dynamic, creative place in its own right, which took advantage of the laissez-faire attitude of “Wild” Bill Stealey, MicroProse’s flamboyant fly-boy founder, to blaze its own trails. When the Gollops brought in the nascent Laser Squad 2, they were gratified to find that just about everyone at MicroProse UK already knew of them and their games. Peter Moreland, the head of development, was cautiously interested, but with plenty of caveats. For one thing, they would need to make the game on MS-DOS rather than the Atari ST in order to reach the American market. For another, a small-scale tactical-combat game alone wouldn’t be sufficient — wouldn’t be, he said, “MicroProse enough.” After making their name in the 1980s with Wild Bill’s beloved flight simulators, MicroProse was becoming at least as well known in this incipient new decade for grand-strategy games of or in the spirit of their star designer Sid Meier, like the aforementioned Railroad Tycoon and the soon-to-be-released Civilization. The emphasis here was on the “grand.” A Laser Squad 2 just wouldn’t be big enough for MicroProse.

Finally, Moreland wasn’t thrilled by all these far-future soldiers fighting battles in unknown regions of space for reasons that were abstract at best. Who could really relate to any of that? He wanted something more down to earth — literally. Maybe something to do with alien visitors in UFOs… that sort of thing. Julian nodded along, then went home to do some research and refine his proposal.

He quickly learned that he was living in the midst of a fecund period in the peculiar field of UFOlogy. In 1989, a sketchy character named Bob Lazar had given an interview for a Las Vegas television station in which he claimed to have been employed as a civilian contractor at the top-secret Nevada military base known only as Area 51. In that location, so he said, the American Air Force was actively engaged in testing fantastic technologies derived from extraterrestrial visitors. The interview would go down in history as the wellspring of a whole generation of starry-eyed conspiracy theorists, whose outlandish beliefs would soon enter the popular media zeitgeist via such vehicles as the television series The X-Files. When Julian first investigated the subject in 1991, however, UFOs and aliens were still a fairly underground obsession. Nevertheless, he took much from the early lore and legends of Area 51, such as a supposed new chemical element — called ununpentium by Lazar, elerium by the eventual game — which powered the aliens’ spaceships.

His other major source of inspiration was the 1970 British television series entitled simply UFO. In fact, his game would eventually be released as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe, capitalizing on the association with a show that a surprising number of people there still remembered. (I’ve chosen to use the American name of X-COM globally in this article because all subsequent games in the franchise would be known all over the world under that name; it has long since become the iconic one.) UFO the television series takes place in the then-near-future of 1980, when aliens are visiting the Earth in ever-increasing numbers, abducting humans and wreaking more and more havoc. An international organization known as SHADO (“Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation”) has been formed to combat the menace. The show follows the exploits of the SHADO operatives, complete with outlandish “futuristic” costumes and sets and gloriously cheesy special effects. Gollop lifted this basic scenario and moved it to his own near-future: to the year 1999, thus managing to nail not only his decade’s burgeoning obsession with aliens but also its unease about the looming millennium.

The game is divided into two distinct halves — so much so that each half is almost literally an entirely separate game: each unloads itself completely from memory to run a separate executable file at the point of transition, caching on the hard drive before doing so the relatively small amount of state data which its companion needs to access.

The first part that you see is the strategic level. As the general in charge of the “Extra-Terrestrial Combat Force,” or X-COM — the name was suggested by Stephen Hand and Mike Brunton, two in-house design consultants at MicroProse UK — you must hire soldiers and buy equipment for them; research new technologies, a process which comes more and more to entail reverse-engineering captured alien artifacts in order to use your enemy’s own technology against them; build new bases at strategic locations around the world, as well as improve your existing ones (you start with just one modest base); and send your aircraft out to intercept the alien craft that are swarming the Earth. In keeping with the timeless logic of computer games, the countries of the Earth have chosen to make X-COM, the planet’s one real hope for defeating the alien menace, into a resource-constrained semi-capitalist enterprise; you’ll often need to sell gadgets you’ve manufactured or stolen from the aliens in order to make ends meet, and if you fail to perform well your sponsoring countries will cut their funding.

The “Geoscape” view, where you place your bases and use them to intercept airborne alien attackers. You can find a wealth of discussion online about where best to position your first base — but naturally, most people prefer to put it in their home town. Like the ability to name your individual soldiers, the ability to start right in your own backyard forges a personal connection between the game and its player.

This half of the game was a dizzying leap into uncharted territory for the Gollop brothers. Thankfully, then, they were on very familiar ground when it came to the other half: the half that kicks in when your airborne interceptors force a UFO to land, or when you manage to catch the aliens in the act of terrorizing some poor city, or when the aliens themselves attack one of your bases. Here you find yourself in what amounts to Laser Squad 2 in form and spirit if not in name: an ultra-detailed turn-based single-unit combat simulator, the latest version of a game which Julian Gollop had already made four times before. (Or close enough to it, at any rate: X-COM, the culmination of what had begun with Rebelstar Raiders on the Spectrum, is ironically single-player only, whereas that first game had not just allowed but required two humans to play.) Although the strategic layer sounds far more complex than this tactical layer — and, indeed, it is in certain ways — it’s actually the tactical game where you spend the majority of your time, fighting battles which can consume an entire evening each.

The “Battlescape” view, where tactical combat takes place.

For all their differences, the two halves of the game do interlock in the end as two facets of a whole. Your research efforts, equipment purchases, and hiring practices in the strategic half determine the nature of the force you lead into the tactical man-against-alien battles. Less obviously but just as significantly, your primary reward for said battles proves to be the recovery of alien equipment, alien corpses, and even live alien specimens (all is fair in love and genocidal interplanetary war), which you cart back to your bases to place at the disposal of your research teams. And so the symbiotic relationship continues: your researchers use what you recover as grist for their mill, which lets you go into tougher battles with better equipment to hand, thereby to bring back still richer spoils.

The capsule description of the finished game which I’ve just provided mirrors almost perfectly the proposal which Julian Gollop delivered to MicroProse; the design would change surprisingly little in the process of development. MicroProse thought it sounded just fine as-is.



The contract which the Gollops signed with MicroProse specified that the former would be responsible for all of the design and coding, while the latter would provide the visual and audio assets. MicroProse UK did hold up their end of the bargain, but had an oddly casual attitude toward the project in general. Julian remembers their producer as “very laid back — he would come over once a month, we would go to the pub, talk about the game for a bit, and he would go home.” Otherwise, the Gollops worked largely alone after their first rush of consultations with the MicroProse mother ship had faded into the past. Time dragged on and on while they struggled with this massively complicated game, one half of which was unlike anything they had ever even contemplated before.

X-COM‘s UFOpaedia is a direct equivalent to Civilization‘s innovative Civilopedia, its most obvious single nod to Sid Meier’s equally influential but very, very different game.

As it did so, much happened in the broader world of MicroProse. On the positive side, Sid Meier’s Civilization was released at the end of 1991. But despite this and some other success stories, MicroProse’s financial foundation was growing ever more shaky, as their ambitions outran their core competencies. The company lost millions on an ill-judged attempt to enter the stand-up arcade market, then lost millions more on baroque CRPGs and flashy interactivity-lite adventure games. After an IPO that was supposed to bail them out went badly off the rails, Wild Bill Stealey sold out in June of 1993 to Spectrum Holobyte, another American publisher. The deal seemed to make sense: Spectrum Holobyte had a lot of money, thanks not least to generous venture capitalists, but a rather thin portfolio of games, while MicroProse had a lot of games both out and in the pipeline but had just about run out of money.

Spectrum Holobyte sifted carefully through their new possession’s projects in development, passing judgment on which were potential winners and which certain losers. According to Julian Gollop, Spectrum Holobyte told MicroProse UK in no uncertain terms to cancel X-COM. On the face of it, it wasn’t an unreasonable point of view to take. The Gollops had been working for almost two years by this point, and still had few concrete results to show for their efforts. It really did seem that they were hopelessly out of their depth. Luckily for them, however, Peter Moreland and others in the British office still believed in them. They nodded along with the order to bin X-COM, then quietly kept the project on the books. At this point, it didn’t cost them much of anything to do so; the art was already done, and now it was up to the Gollops to sink or swim with it.

X-COM bobbed up to the surface six months later, when the new, allegedly joint management team — Stealey would soon leave the company, feeling himself to have been thoroughly sidelined — started casting about for a game to feature in Europe in the first quarter of 1994, thereby to make the accountants happy. Peter Moreland piped up sheepishly: “You remember that UFO project you told us to cancel? Well, it’s actually still kicking around…” And so the Gollop brothers, who had been laboring under strangely little external pressure for the past 26 months or so, were now ordered to get their game done already. They managed it, just — UFO: Enemy Unknown shipped in Europe in March of 1994 — but some of the problems in the finished game definitely stem from the deadline that was so arbitrarily imposed from on high.

But if the game could have used a few more months in the oven, it nonetheless shipped in better condition than many other MicroProse games had during the recent stretch of financial difficulties. It garnered immediate rave reviews, while its sales also received a boost from another source. The first episode of The X-Files had aired the previous September in the United States, followed by airings across Europe. Just like that, a game about hostile alien visitors seemed a lot more relevant. Indeed, the game possessed much the same foreboding atmosphere as the show, from its muted color palette to MicroProse composer John Broomhall’s quietly malevolent soundtrack, which he had created in just two months in the final mad rush up to the release deadline. He couldn’t have done a better job if he’d had two years.

X-COM: UFO Defense shipped a few months later in North America, into a cultural zeitgeist that was if anything even more primed for it. Computer Gaming World, the American industry’s journal of record, gave it five stars out of five, and its sales soared well into the six digits. As the quote that opened this article attests, X-COM was in many ways the antithesis of what most publishers believed constituted a hit game in the context of 1994. Its graphics were little more than functional; it had no full-motion video, no real-time 3D rendering, no digitized voices; it fit perfectly well on a few floppy disks, thank you very much, with no need for any new-fangled CD-ROM drive. And yet it sold better than the vast majority of those other “cutting-edge” games. Many took its success as a welcome sign that gaming hadn’t yet lost its soul completely — that good old-fashioned gameplay could still trump production values from time to time.



The original X-COM‘s reputation has only grown more hallowed in the years since its release. It’s become a perennial on best-games-of-all-time lists, even ones whose authors weren’t yet born at the time of its release. For this is a game, so we’re told, that transcends its archaic presentation, that absolutely any student of game design needs to play.

That’s rather ironic in that X-COM is a game that really shouldn’t work at all according to many of the conventional rules of design. For example, it’s one of the most famous of all violators of what’s become known as the Covert Action Rule, as formulated by Sid Meier and named after one of his own less successful designs. The rule states that pacing is as important in a strategy game as it is in any other genre, that “mini-games” which pull the player away from the overarching strategic view need to be short and to the point, as is the case in Meier’s classic Pirates!. If they drag on too long, Meier tells us, the player loses focus on the bigger picture, forgets what she’s been trying to accomplish there, gets pulled out of that elusive state of “flow.”

But, as I already noted, X-COM‘s tactical battles can drag on for an hour or two at a time — and no one seems be bothered by this at all. What gives?

By way of an answer to that question, I would first note that the Covert Action Rule is, like virtually all supposedly hard-and-fast rules of game design, riddled with caveats and exceptions. (Personally, I don’t even agree that violating the yet-to-be-formulated Covert Action Rule was the worst problem of Covert Action itself.) And I would also note that X-COM does at least a couple of things extraordinarily well as compensation, better than any strategy game that came before it. Indeed, one can argue that no earlier grand-strategy game even attempted to do these things — not, at least, to anything like the same extent. Interestingly, both inspired strokes are borrowed from other gaming genres.

The first is the intriguing mystery surrounding the aliens, which is peeled back layer by layer as you progress. As your scientists study the equipment and alien corpses brought back from the battle sites and interrogate the live aliens your soldiers have captured, you learn more and more about where your enemies come from and what motivates them to attack the Earth so relentlessly. It doesn’t take long to reach a point where you look forward to the next piece of this puzzle as excitedly as you do the next cool gun or piece of armor. By the time the whole experience culminates in a desperate attack on the aliens’ home base, you’re all in. Granted, a byproduct of this sense of unfolding discovery is that you may not feel like revisiting the game after you win; for many or most of us, this is a strategy game to play through once rather than over and over again. But on the other hand, considering the fifty hours or more it will take you to get through it once, it’s hard to complain overmuch about that fact. Needless to say, when you do play it for the first time you should meticulously avoid spoilers about What Is Really Going On Here.

Learning more about the alien invaders via an autopsy. The game was ahead of its time; the year after X-COM‘s release, at the height of the X-Files-fueled UFO craze, the Fox television channel would broadcast Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? in the United States. (For the record, it was most assuredly the latter.)

X-COM‘s other, even more brilliant stroke is the sense of identification it builds between you and the soldiers you send into battle. Each soldier has unique strengths and weaknesses, forcing you to carefully consider the role she plays in combat: a burly, fearless character who can carry enough weaponry to outfit your average platoon but couldn’t hit the proverbial broad side of a barn must be handled in a very different way from a slender, nervous sharpshooter. As your soldiers (hopefully) survive missions, their skills improve, CRPG-style. Thus you have plenty of practical reasons to be more loathe to lose a seasoned veteran than a greenhorn fresh out of basic training. And yet this purely zero-sum calculus doesn’t fully explain why each mission is so nail-bitingly tense, so full of agonizing decisions balancing risk against reward.

One of X-COM‘s most defining design choices is also one of its simplest: it lets you name each soldier for yourself. As you play, you form a picture of each of them in your imagination, even though the game itself never describes any of them to you as anything other than a list of numbers. Losing a soldier who’s been around for a while feels weirdly like losing a genuine acquaintance. For here too you can’t help but embellish the thin scaffolding of fact the game provides with your own story of what happened: the grizzled old-timer who went out one time too many, whose nerves just couldn’t handle another firefight; the foolhardy, testosterone-addled youth who threw himself into every battle like he was indestructible, until one day he wasn’t. X-COM provides the merest glimpse of what it must feel like to be an actual commander in war: the overwhelming stress of having the lives of others hanging on your decisions, the guilty second-guessing that inevitably goes on when you lose someone. It has something that games all too often lack: a sense of consequences for your actions. Theoretically at least, the best way to play it is in iron-man mode: no saving and restoring to fix bad outcomes, dead is dead, own your decisions as commander.

Beginning with just a name you choose for yourself and a handful of statistics which the game provides, your imagination will conjure a whole personality for each of your soldiers. Dwight here, for example, likes guitars, Cadillacs, and hillbilly music.

In one of those strange concordances that tend to crop up in many creative fields, X-COM wasn’t the only strategy game of 1994 to bring in CRPG elements to great effect. Ironically, these innovations occurred just as the CRPG genre itself was in its worst doldrums since Ultima I and Wizadry I had first brought it to prominence. Today, even as the CRPG has long since regained its mojo as a gaming genre, CRPG elements have become the special sauce ladled over a wide array of other types of games. X-COM was among the first to show how tasty the end result could be.

I have to say, however, that I find other elements of X-COM less appetizing, and that its strengths don’t quite overcome its weaknesses in my mind sufficiently to win it a place on my personal list of best games ever. My first stumbling block is the game’s learning curve, which is not just steep but unnecessarily so. I’d like to quote Garth Deangelis, who led the team that created XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the critically acclaimed franchise reboot that was released in 2012:

While [the original X-COM] may have been magnificent, it was also a unique beast when it came to beginning a new game. We often joked that the diehards who mastered the game independently belonged to an elite club because by today’s standards the learning curve was like climbing Mount Everest.

As soon as you fire up the original, you’re placed in a Geoscape with the Earth silently looming, and various options to explore within your base — including reading (unexplained) financial reports, approving manufacturing requests (without any context as to what those would mean later on), and examining a blueprint (which hinted at the possibility for base expansion), for example — the player is given no direction.

Even going on your first combat mission can be a bit of a mystery (and when you first step off the Skyranger, the game will kill off a few of your soldiers before you even see your first alien — welcome to X-COM!).

There’s certainly a place for complex games, and complexity will always come complete with a learning curve of some sort. But, again, X-COM‘s curve is just unnecessarily steep. Consider: when you begin a new game, you have two interceptors already in your hangar for bringing down UFOs. Fair enough. Unfortunately, they come equipped with sub-optimal Stingray missiles and borderline-useless cannon. So, one of the first tasks of the experienced player becomes to requisition some more advanced Avalanche missiles, put them on her interceptors, and sell off the old junk. Why can the game not just start you off with a reasonable weapons load-out? A similar question applies to the equipment carried by your individual soldiers, as it does to the well-nigh indefensible layout of your starting base itself, which makes it guaranteed to fall to the first squad of marauding aliens who come calling. The new player is likely to assume, reasonably enough, that the decisions the game has already made for her are good ones. She finds out otherwise only by being kicked in the teeth as a result of them. This is not good game design. The impression created is of a game that is not tough but fair, but rather actively out to get her.

Your starting base layout. By no means should you assume that this is a defensible one. In fact, many players spend a lot of money at the very beginning ripping it up completely and starting all over again. Why should this be necessary?

You’ll never use a large swath of the subpar weapons and equipment included in X-COM, which rather begs the questions what they’re doing in there. The game could have profited greatly from an editor empowered to pare back all of this extraneous nonsense and home in on its core appeal. Likewise, the user interface in the strategic portion operates on the principle that, if one mouse click is good, ten must be that much better; everything is way more convoluted than it needs to be. Just buying and selling equipment is agonizing.

The tactical game’s interface is also dauntingly complex, but does have somewhat more method to its madness, being the beneficiary of all of Julian Gollop’s earlier experience with this sort of game. Still, even tactical combat, so widely and justly lauded as the beating heart of X-COM, is not without its frustrations. Certainly every X-COM player is all too familiar with the last-alien-on-the-map syndrome, where you sometimes have to spend fifteen or twenty minutes methodically hunting the one remaining enemy, who’s hunkered down in some obscure corner somewhere. The nature of the game is such that you can’t relax even in these situations; getting careless can still get one or more of your precious soldiers killed before you even realize what’s happening. But, although perhaps a realistic depiction of war, this part of the game just isn’t much fun. The problem is frustrating not least because it’s so easily soluble: just have the remaining aliens commit suicide to avoid capture — something entirely in keeping with their nature — when their numbers get too depleted.

All of these niggling problems mark X-COM as the kind of game I have to rant about here all too often: the kind that was never actually played before its release. For all its extended development time, it still needed a few more months filled with play-testing and polishing to reach its full potential. X-COM‘s most infamous bug serves as a reminder of just how little of either it got: its difficulty levels are broken. If you select something other than the “beginner” difficulty, it reverts back to the easiest level after the first combat mission. In one sense, this is a blessing: the beginner difficulty is more than difficult enough for the vast majority of players. On the other, though… how the heck could something as basic as that be overlooked? There’s only one way that I can see: if you barely played the game at all before you put it in a box and shipped it out the door.

To his credit, Julian Gollop himself is well aware of these issues and freely acknowledges them — does so much more freely in fact than some of his game’s biggest fans. He notes the influence of vintage Avalon Hill and SPI board games, some of which were so demanding that just being able to play them at all — never mind playing them well — was an odd sort of badge of honor for the grognards of the 1970s and early 1980s. He would appear to agree with me that there’s a bit too much of their style of complexity-for-its-own-sake in X-COM:

I believe that a good game may have relatively simple rules, but have complex situations arise from them. Strategy games tend to do that very well, you know — even the simplest ones are very good at that. I think it’s possible to have an accessible game which doesn’t have amazingly complex rules, but still has a kind of emerging complexity within what happens — you know, what players do, what players explore. For me, that’s the Holy Grail of game design. So, I don’t think that I would probably go back to making games as complex as [X-COM].

Like poets, game designers often simplify their work as they age, the better to capture the real essence of what they’re trying to express.



But whatever their final evaluation of the first game, most players then and now would agree that few franchises have been as thoroughly botched by their trustees as X-COM was afterward. When the first X-COM became an out-of-left-field hit, MicroProse UK, who had great need of hits at the time to impress the Spectrum Holobyte brass, wanted the Gollops to provide a sequel within a year. Knowing that that amount of time would allow them to do little more than reskin the existing engine, they worked out a deal: they would give their publisher their source code and let them make a quickie sequel in-house, while they themselves developed a more ambitious sequel for later release.

The in-house MicroProse project became 1995’s X-COM: Terror from the Deep, which posited that, forty years after their defeat at the end of the first game, the aliens have returned to try again. The wrinkle this time is that they’ve set up bases under the Earth’s oceans, which you must attack and eradicate. Unfortunately, Terror from the Deep does little to correct the original’s problems; if anything, it makes them worse. Most notably, it’s an even more difficult game than its predecessor, a decision that’s hard to understand on any level. Was anyone really complaining that X-COM was too easy? All in all, Terror from the Deep is exactly the unimaginative quickie sequel which the Gollops weren’t excited about having to make.

Nevertheless, it’s arguably the best of the post-original, pre-reboot generation of X-COM games. X-COM: Apocalypse, the Gollops’ own sequel, was a project on a vastly greater scale than the first two X-COM games, a scale to which they themselves struggled to adapt. It was riven by bureaucratic snafus and constant conflict between developer and publisher, and the resulting process of design-by-fractious-committee turned it into a game that did a lot of different things — turned-based and real-time combat in the very same game! — but did none of them all that well, nor even looked all that good whilst doing them. Julian Gollop today calls it “the worst experience of my entire career” and “a nightmare.” He and Nick cut all ties with MicroProse after its 1997 release.

After that, MicroProse lost the plot entirely, stamping the X-COM label onto games that had virtually nothing in common with the first one. X-COM: Interceptor (1998) was a space simulator in the mode of Wing Commander; Em@il Games: X-COM (1999) was a casual multiplayer networked affair; X-COM: Enforcer (2001) was a mindless shoot-em-up. This last proved to be the final straw;  the X-COM name disappeared for the next eleven years, until XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the reboot by Firaxis Games.

If you ask me, said reboot is in absolute terms a better game than the original, picking up on almost all of its considerable strengths while eliminating most of its weaknesses. But it cannot, of course, lay claim to the same importance in the history of gaming. Despite its flaws, the original X-COM taught designers to personalize strategy games, showed them how to raise the emotional stakes in a genre previously associated only with cool calculation. For that reason, it richly deserves its reputation as one of the most important games of its era.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Video Games Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Amstrad Action of October 1989; Computer Gaming World of August 1994, September 1994, April 1995, and July 1995; Crash of Christmas 1988 and May 1989; Game Developer of April 2013; Retro Gamer 13, 68, 81, 104, 106, 112, and 124; Amiga Format of December 1989, June 1994, and November 1994; Computer and Video Games of December 1988; Games TM 46; New Computer Express of September 15 1990; Games Machine of July 1988; Your Sinclair of August 1990 and September 1990; Personal Computer News of July 21 1983. Online sources include Julian Gollop’s X-COM postmortem from the 2013 Game Developers Conference, “The Story of X-COM at EuroGamer, and David Jenkins’s interview with Julian Gollop at Metro.

The original X-COM is available for digital purchase at GOG.com, as are most of the other X-COM games mentioned in this article.)

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2020 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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