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The Next Generation in Graphics, Part 1: Three Dimensions in Software (or, Quake and Its Discontents)

“Mathematics,” wrote the historian of science Carl Benjamin Boyer many years ago, “is as much an aspect of culture as it is a collection of algorithms.” The same might be said about the mathematical algorithms we choose to prioritize — especially in these modern times, when the right set of formulas can be worth many millions of dollars, can be trade secrets as jealously guarded as the recipes for Coca-Cola or McDonald’s Special Sauce.

We can learn much about the tech zeitgeist from those algorithms the conventional wisdom thinks are most valuable. At the very beginning of the 1990s, when “multimedia” was the buzzword of the age and the future of games was believed to lie with “interactive movies” made out of video clips of real actors, the race was on to develop video codecs: libraries of code able to digitize footage from the analog world and compress it to a fraction of its natural size, thereby making it possible to fit a reasonable quantity of it on CDs and hard drives. This was a period when Apple’s QuickTime was regarded as a killer app in itself, when Philips’s ill-fated CD-i console could be delayed for years by the lack of a way to get video to its screen quickly and attractively.

It is a rule in almost all kinds of engineering that, the more specialized a device is, the more efficiently it can perform the tasks that lie within its limited sphere. This rule holds true as much in computing as anywhere else. So, when software proved able to stretch only so far in the face of the limited general-purpose computing power of the day, some started to build their video codecs into specialized hardware add-ons.

Just a few years later, after the zeitgeist in games had shifted, the whole process repeated itself in a different context.

By the middle years of the decade, with the limitations of working with canned video clips becoming all too plain, interactive movies were beginning to look like a severe case of the emperor’s new clothes. The games industry therefore shifted its hopeful gaze to another approach, one that would prove a much more lasting transformation in the way games were made. This 3D Revolution did have one point of similarity with the mooted and then abandoned meeting of Silicon Valley and Hollywood: it too was driven by algorithms, implemented first in software and then in hardware.

It was different, however, in that the entire industry looked to one man to lead it into its algorithmic 3D future. That man’s name was John Carmack.

Whether they happen to be pixel art hand-drawn by human artists or video footage captured by cameras, 2D graphics already exist on disk before they appear on the monitor screen. And therein lies the source of their limitations. Clever programmers can manipulate them to some extent — pixel art generally more so than digitized video — but the possibilities are bounded by the fundamentally static nature of the source material. 3D graphics, however, are literally drawn by the computer. They can go anywhere and do just about anything. For, while 2D graphics are stored as a concrete grid of pixels, 3D graphics are described using only the abstract language of mathematics — a language able to describe not just a scene but an entire world, assuming you have a powerful enough computer running a good enough algorithm.

Like so many things that get really complicated really quickly, the basic concepts of 3D graphics are disarmingly simple. The process behind them can be divided into two phases: the modeling phase and the rendering, or rasterization, phase.

It all begins with simple two-dimensional shapes of the sort we all remember from middle-school geometry, each defined as a collection of points on a plane and straight lines connecting them together. By combining and arranging these two-dimensional shapes, or surfaces, together in three-dimensional space, we can make solids — or, in the language of computerized 3D graphics, objects.

Here we see how 3D objects can be made ever more more complex by building them out of ever more surfaces. The trade-off is that more complex objects require more computing power to render in a timely fashion.

Once we have a collection of objects, we can put them into a world space, wherever we like and at whatever angle of orientation we like. This world space is laid out as a three-dimensional grid, with its point of origin — i.e., the point where X, Y, and Z are all zero — wherever we wish it to be. In addition to our objects, we also place within it a camera — or, if you like, an observer in our world — at whatever position and angle of orientation we wish. At their simplest, 3D graphics require nothing more at the modeling phase.

We sometimes call the second phase the “rasterization” phase in reference to the orderly two-dimensional grid of pixels which make up the image seen on a monitor screen, which in computer-science parlance is known as a raster. The whole point of this rasterization phase, then, is to make our computer’s monitor a window into our imaginary world from the point of view of our imaginary camera. This entails converting said world’s three dimensions back into our two-dimensional raster of pixels, using the rules of perspective that have been understood by human artists since the Renaissance.

We can think of rasterizing as observing a scene through a window screen. Each square in the mesh is one pixel, which can be exactly one color. The whole process of 3D rendering ultimately comes down to figuring out what each of those colors should be.

The most basic of all 3D graphics are of the “wire-frame” stripe, which attempt to draw only the lines that form the edges of their surfaces. They were seen fairly frequently on microcomputers as far back as the early 1980s, the most iconic example undoubtedly being the classic 1984 space-trading game Elite.

Even in something as simple as Elite, we can begin to see how 3D graphics blur the lines between a purely presentation-level technology and a full-blown world simulation. When we have one enemy spaceship in our sights in Elite, there might be several others above, behind, or below us, which the 3D engine “knows” about but which we may not. Combined with a physics engine and some player and computer agency in the model world (taking here the form of lasers and thrusters), it provides the raw materials for a game. Small wonder that so many game developers came to see 3D graphics as such a natural fit.

But, for all that those wire frames in Elite might have had their novel charm in their day, programmers realized that the aesthetics of 3D graphics had to get better for them to become a viable proposition over the long haul. This realization touched off an algorithmic arms race that is still ongoing to this day. The obvious first step was to paint in the surfaces of each solid in single blocks of color, as the later versions of Elite that were written for 16-bit rather than 8-bit machines often did. It was an improvement in a way, but it still looked jarringly artificial, even against a spartan star field in outer space.

The next way station on the road to a semi-realistic-looking computer-generated world was light sources of varying strengths, positioned in the world with X, Y, and Z coordinates of their own, casting their illumination and shadows realistically on the objects to be found there.

A 3D scene with light sources.

The final step was to add textures, small pictures that were painted onto surfaces in place of uniform blocks of color; think of the pitted paint job of a tired X-Wing fighter or the camouflage of a Sherman tank. Textures introduced an enormous degree of complication at the rasterization stage; it wasn’t easy for 3D engines to make them look believable from a multitude of different lines of sight. That said, believable lighting was almost as complicated. Textures or lighting, or both, were already the fodder for many an academic thesis before microcomputers even existed.

A 3D scene with light sources and textures.

In the more results-focused milieu of commercial game development, where what was possible was determined largely by which types of microprocessors Intel and Motorola were selling the most of in any given year, programmers were forced to choose between compromised visions of the academic ideal. These broke down into two categories, neatly exemplified by the two most profitable computer games of the 1990s. Those games that followed in one or the other’s footsteps came to be known as the “Myst clones” and the “DOOM clones.” They could hardly have been more dissimilar in personality, yet they were both symbols of a burgeoning 3D revolution.

The Myst clones got their name from a game developed by Cyan Studios and published by Brøderbund in September of 1993, which went on to sell at least 6 million copies as a boxed retail product and quite likely millions more as a pack-in of one description or another. Myst and the many games that copied its approach tended to be, as even their most strident detractors had to admit, rather beautiful to look at. This was because they didn’t attempt to render their 3D imagery in real time; their rendering was instead done beforehand, often on beefy workstation-class machines, then captured as finished rasters of pixels on disk. Given that they worked with graphics that needed to be rendered only once and could be allowed to take hours to do so if necessary, the creators of games like this could pull out all the stops in terms of textures, lighting, and the sheer number and complexity of the 3D solids that made up their worlds.

These games’ disadvantage — a pretty darn massive one in the opinion of many players — was that their scope of interactive potential was as sharply limited in its way as that of all those interactive movies built around canned video clips that the industry was slowly giving up on. They could present their worlds to their players only as a collection of pre-rendered nodes to be jumped between, could do nothing on the fly. These limitations led most of their designers to build their gameplay around set-piece puzzles found in otherwise static, non-interactive environments, which most players soon started to find a bit boring. Although the genre had its contemplative pleasures and its dedicated aficionados who appreciated them, its appeal as anything other than a tech demo — the basis on which the original Myst was primarily sold — turned out to be the very definition of niche, as the publishers of Myst clones belatedly learned to their dismay. The harsh reality became undeniable once Riven, the much-anticipated, sumptuously beautiful sequel to Myst, under-performed expectations by “only” selling 1 million copies when it finally appeared four years after its hallowed predecessor. With the exception only of Titanic: Adventure out of Time, which owed its fluke success to a certain James Cameron movie with which it happened to share a name and a setting, no other game of this style ever cracked half a million in unit sales. The genre has been off the mainstream radar for decades now.

The DOOM clones, on the other hand, have proved a far more enduring fixture of mainstream gaming. They took their name, of course, from the landmark game of first-person carnage which the energetic young men of id Software released just a couple of months after Myst reached store shelves. John Carmack, the mastermind of the DOOM engine, managed to present a dynamic, seamless, apparently 3D world in place of the static nodes of Myst, and managed to do it in real time, even on a fairly plebeian consumer-grade computer. He did so first of all by being a genius programmer, able to squeeze every last drop out of the limited hardware at his disposal. And then, when even that wasn’t enough to get the job done, he threw out feature after feature that the academics whose papers he had pored over insisted was essential for any “real” 3D engine. His motto was, if you can’t get it done honestly, cheat, by hard-coding assumptions about the world into your algorithms and simply not letting the player — or the level designer — violate them. The end result was no Myst-like archetype of beauty in still screenshots. It pasted 2D sprites into its world whenever there wasn’t horsepower enough to do real modeling, had an understanding of light and its properties that is most kindly described as rudimentary, and couldn’t even handle sloping floors or ceilings, or walls that weren’t perfectly vertical. Heck, it didn’t even let you look up or down.

And absolutely none of that mattered. DOOM may have looked a bit crude in freeze-frame, but millions of gamers found it awe-inspiring to behold in motion. Indeed, many of them thought that Carmack’s engine, combined with John Romero and Sandy Petersen’s devious level designs, gave them the most fun they’d ever had sitting behind a computer. This was immersion of a level they’d barely imagined possible, the perfect demonstration of the real potential of 3D graphics — even if it actually was, as John Carmack would be the first to admit, only 2.5D at best. No matter; DOOM felt like real 3D, and that was enough.

A hit game will always attract imitators, and a massive hit will attract legions of them. Accordingly, the market was soon flooded with, if anything, even more DOOM clones than Myst clones, all running in similar 2.5D engines, the product of both intense reverse engineering of DOOM itself and Carmack’s habit of talking freely about how he made the magic happen to pretty much anyone who asked him, no matter how much his colleagues at id begged him not to. “Programming is not a zero-sum game,” he said. “Teaching something to a fellow programmer doesn’t take it away from you. I’m happy to share what I can because I’m in it for the love of programming.” Carmack was elevated to veritable godhood, the prophet on the 3D mountaintop passing down whatever scraps of wisdom he deigned to share with the lesser mortals below.

Seen in retrospect, the DOOM clones are, like the Myst clones, a fairly anonymous lot for the most part, doubling down on transgressive ultra-violence instead of majestic isolation, but equally failing to capture a certain ineffable something that lay beyond the nuts and bolts of their inspiration’s technology. The most important difference between the Myst and DOOM clones came down to the filthy lucre of dollar and unit sales: whereas Myst‘s coattails proved largely illusory, producing few other hits, DOOM‘s were anything but. Most people who had bought Myst, it seemed, were satisfied with that single purchase; people who bought DOOM were left wanting more first-person mayhem, even if it wasn’t quite up to the same standard.

The one DOOM clone that came closest to replacing DOOM itself in the hearts of gamers was known as Duke Nukem 3D. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, given its pedigree: it was a product of 3D Realms, the rebranded incarnation of Scott Miller’s Apogee Software. Whilst trading under the earlier name, Miller had pioneered the episodic shareware model of game distribution, a way of escaping the heavy-handed group-think of the major boxed-game publishers and their tediously high-concept interactive movies in favor of games that were exponentially cheaper to develop, but also rawer, more visceral, more in line with what the teenage and twenty-something males who still constituted the large majority of dedicated gamers were actually jonesing to play. Miller had discovered the young men of id when they were still working for a disk magazine in Shreveport, Louisiana. He had then convinced them to move to his own glossier, better-connected hometown of Dallas, Texas, and distributed their proto-DOOM shooter Wolfenstein 3D to great success. His protégées had elected to strike out on their own when the time came to release DOOM, but it’s fair to say that that game would probably never have come to exist at all if not for their shareware Svengali. And even if it had, it probably wouldn’t have made them so much money; Jay Wilbur, id’s own tireless guerilla marketer, learned most of his tricks from watching Scott Miller.

Still a man with a keen sense of what his customers really wanted, Miller re-branded Apogee as 3D Realms as a way of signifying its continuing relevance amidst the 3D revolution that took the games industry by storm after DOOM. Then he, his junior partner George Broussard, and 3D Realms’s technical mastermind Ken Silverman set about making a DOOM-like engine of their own, known as Build, which they could sell to other developers who wanted to get up and running quickly. And they used the same engine to make a game of their own, which would turn out to be the most memorable of all those built with Build.

Duke Nukem 3D‘s secret weapon was one of the few boxes in the rubric of mainstream gaming success that DOOM had failed to tick off: a memorable character to serve as both star and mascot. First conceived several years earlier for a pair of Apogee 2D platformers, Duke Nukem was Joseph Lieberman’s worst nightmare, an unrepentant gangster with equally insatiable appetites for bombs and boobies, a fellow who “thinks the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is a convenience store,” as his advertising trumpeted. His latest game combined some of the best, tightest level design yet seen outside of DOOM with a festival of adolescent transgression, from toilet water that served as health potions to strippers who would flash their pixelated breasts at you for the price of a dollar bill. The whole thing was topped off with the truly over-the-top quips of Duke himself: “I’m gonna rip off your head and shit down your neck!”; “Your face? Your ass? What’s the difference?” It was an unbeatable combination, proof positive that Miller’s ability to read his market was undimmed. Released in January of 1996, relatively late in the day for this generation of 3D — or rather 2.5D — technology, Duke Nukem 3D became by some reports the best-selling single computer game of that entire year. It is still remembered with warm nostalgia today by countless middle-aged men who would never want their own children to play a game like this. And so the cycle of life continues…

In a porno shop, shooting it out with policemen who are literally pigs…

Duke Nukem 3D was a triumph of design and attitude rather than technology; in keeping with most of the DOOM clones, the Build engine’s technical innovations over its inspiration were fairly modest. John Carmack scoffed that his old friends’ creation looked like it was “held together with bubble gum.”

The game that did push the technology envelope farthest, albeit without quite managing to escape the ghetto of the DOOM clones, was also a sign in another way of how quickly DOOM was changing the industry: rather than stemming from scruffy veterans of the shareware scene like id and 3D Realms, it came from the heart of the industry’s old-money establishment — from no less respectable and well-financed an entity than George Lucas’s very own games studio.

LucasArts’s Dark Forces was a shooter set in the Star Wars universe, which disappointed everyone right out of the gate with the news that it was not going to let you fight with a light saber. The developers had taken a hard look at it, they said, but concluded in the end that it just wasn’t possible to pull off satisfactorily within the hardware specifications they had to meet. This failing was especially ironic in light of the fact that they had chosen to name their new 2.5D engine “Jedi.” But they partially atoned for it by making the Jedi engine capable of hosting unprecedentedly enormous levels — not just horizontally so, but vertically as well. Dark Forces was full of yawning drop-offs and cavernous open spaces, the likes which you never saw in DOOM — or Duke Nukem 3D, for that matter, despite its release date of almost a year after Dark Forces. Even more importantly, Dark Forces felt like Star Wars, right from the moment that John Williams’s stirring theme song played over stage-setting text which scrolled away into the frame rather than across it. Although they weren’t allowed to make any of the movies’ characters their game’s star, LucasArts created a serviceable if slightly generic stand-in named Kyle Katarn, then sent him off on vertigo-inducing chases through huge levels stuffed to the gills with storm troopers in urgent need of remedial gunnery training, just like in the movies. Although Dark Forces toned down the violence that so many other DOOM clones were making such a selling point out of — there was no blood whatsoever on display here, just as there had not been in the movies — it compensated by giving gamers the chance to live out some of their most treasured childhood media memories, at a time when there were no new non-interactive Star Wars experiences to be had.

Unfortunately, LucasArts’s design instincts weren’t quite on a par with their presentation and technology. Dark Forces‘s levels were horribly confusing, providing little guidance about what to do or where to go in spaces whose sheer three-dimensional size and scope made the two-dimensional auto-map all but useless. Almost everyone who goes back to play the game today tends to agree that it just isn’t as much fun as it ought to be. At the time, though, the Star Wars connection and its technical innovations were enough to make Dark Forces a hit almost the equal of DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D. Even John Carmack made a point of praising LucasArts for what they had managed to pull off on hardware not much better than that demanded by DOOM.

Yet everyone seemed to be waiting on Carmack himself, the industry’s anointed Master of 3D Algorithms, to initiate the real technological paradigm shift. It was obvious what that must entail: an actual, totally non-fake rendered-on-the-fly first-person 3D engine, without all of the compromises that had marked DOOM and its imitators. Such engines weren’t entirely unheard of; the Boston studio Looking Glass Technologies had been working with them for five years, employing them in such innovative, immersive games as Ultima Underworld and System Shock. But those games were qualitatively different from DOOM and its clones: slower, more complex, more cerebral. The mainstream wanted a game that played just as quickly and violently and viscerally as DOOM, but that did it in uncompromising real 3D. With computers getting faster every year and with a genius like John Carmack to hand, it ought to be possible.

And so Carmack duly went to work on just such an engine, for a game that was to be called Quake. His ever-excitable level designer John Romero, who had the looks and personality to be the rock star gaming had been craving for years, was all in with bells on. “The next game is going to blow DOOM all to hell,” he told his legions of adoring fans. “DOOM totally sucks in comparison to our next game! Quake is going to be a bigger step over DOOM than DOOM was over Wolf 3D.” Drunk on success and adulation, he said that Quake would be more than just a game: “It will be a movement.” (Whatever that meant!) The drumbeat of excitement building outside of id almost seemed to justify his hyperbole; from all the way across the Atlantic, the British magazine PC Zone declared that the upcoming Quake would be “the most important PC game ever made.” The soundtrack alone was to be a significant milestone in the incorporation of gaming into mainstream pop culture, being the work of Trent Reznor and his enormously popular industrial-rock band Nine Inch Nails. Such a collaboration would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.

While Romero was enjoying life as gaming’s own preeminent rock star and waiting for Carmack to get far enough along on the Quake engine to give him something to do, Carmack was living like a monk, working from 4 PM to 4 AM every day. In another sign of just how quickly id had moved up in the world, he had found himself an unexpectedly well-credentialed programming partner. Michael Abrash was one of the establishment’s star programmers, who had written a ton of magazine articles and two highly regarded technical tomes on assembly-language and graphics programming and was now a part of Microsoft’s Windows NT team. When Carmack, who had cut his teeth on Abrash’s writings, invited him out of the blue to come to Dallas and do Quake with him, Bill Gates himself tried to dissuade his employee. “You might not like it down there,” he warned. Abrash was, after all, pushing 40, a staid sort with an almost academic demeanor, while id was a nest of hyperactive arrested adolescence on a permanent sugar high. But he went anyway, because he was pretty sure Carmack was a genius, and because Carmack seemed to Abrash a bit lonely, working all night every night with only his computer for company. Abrash thought he saw in Quake a first glimmer of a new form of virtual existence that companies like Meta are still chasing eagerly today: “a pretty complicated, online, networked universe,” all in glorious embodied 3D. “We do Quake, other companies do other games, people start building worlds with our format and engine and tools, and these worlds can be glommed together via doorways from one to another. To me this sounds like a recipe for the first real cyberspace, which I believe will happen the way a real space station or habitat probably would — by accretion.”

He may not have come down if he had known precisely what he was getting into; he would later compare making Quake to “being strapped onto a rocket during takeoff in the middle of a hurricane.” The project proved a tumultuous, exhausting struggle that very nearly broke id as a cohesive company, even as the money from DOOM was continuing to roll in. (id’s annual revenues reached $15.6 million in 1995, a very impressive figure for what was still a relatively tiny company, with a staff numbering only a few dozen.)

Romero envisioned a game that would be as innovative in terms of gameplay as technology, that would be built largely around sword-fighting and other forms of hand-to-hand combat rather than gun play — the same style of combat that LucasArts had decided was too impractical for Dark Forces. Some of his early descriptions make Quake sound more like a full-fledged CRPG in the offing than another straightforward action game. But it just wouldn’t come together, according to some of Romero’s colleagues because he failed to communicate his expectations to them, rather leading them to suspect that even he wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to make.

Carmack finally stepped in and ordered his design team to make Quake essentially a more graphically impressive DOOM. Romero accepted the decision outwardly, but seethed inwardly at this breach of longstanding id etiquette; Carmack had always made the engines, then given Romero free rein to turn them into games. Romero largely checked out, opening a door that ambitious newcomers like American McGee and Tim Willits, who had come up through the thriving DOOM modding community, didn’t hesitate to push through. The offices of id had always been as hyper-competitive as a DOOM deathmatch, but now the atmosphere was becoming a toxic stew of buried resentments.

In a misguided attempt to fix the bad vibes, Carmack, whose understanding of human nature was as shallow as his understanding of computer graphics was deep, announced one day that he had ordered a construction crew in to knock down all of the walls, so that everybody could work together from a single “war room.” One for all and all for one, and all that. The offices of the most profitable games studio in the world were transformed into a dystopian setting perfect for a DOOM clone, as described by a wide-eyed reporter from Wired magazine who came for a visit: “a maze of drywall and plastic sheeting, with plaster dust everywhere, loose acoustic tiles, and cables dangling from the ceiling. Almost every item not directly related to the completion of Quake was gone. The only privacy to be found was between the padded earpieces of headphones.”

Wired magazine’s August 1996 cover, showing John Carmack flanked by John Romero and Adrian Carmack, marked the end of an era. By the time it appeared on newsstands, Romero had already been fired.

Needless to say, it didn’t have the effect Carmack had hoped for. In his book-length history of id’s early life and times, journalist David Kushner paints a jittery, unnerving picture of the final months of Quake‘s development: they “became a blur of silent and intense all-nighters, punctuated by the occasional crash of a keyboard against a wall. The construction crew had turned the office into a heap. The guys were taking their frustrations out by hurling computer parts into the drywall like knives.” Michael Abrash is more succinct: “A month before shipping, we were sick to death of working on Quake.” And level designer Sandy Petersen, the old man of the group, who did his best to keep his head down and stay out of the intra-office cold war, is even more so: “[Quake] was not fun to do.”

Quake was finally finished in June of 1996. It would prove a transitional game in more ways than one, caught between where games had recently been and where they were going. Still staying true to that odd spirit of hacker idealism that coexisted with his lust for ever faster Ferraris, Carmack insisted that Quake be made available as shareware, so that people could try it out before plunking down its full price. The game accordingly got a confusing, staggered release, much to the chagrin of its official publisher GT Interactive. To kick things off, the first eight levels went up online. Shortly after, there appeared in stores a $10 CD of the full game that had to be unlocked by paying id an additional $50 in order to play beyond the eighth level. Only after that, in August of 1996, did the game appear in a conventional retail edition.

Predictably enough, it all turned into a bit of a fiasco. Crackers quickly reverse-engineered the algorithms used for generating the unlocking codes, which were markedly less sophisticated than the ones used to generate the 3D graphics on the disc. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people were able to get the entirety of the most hotly anticipated game of the year for $10. Meanwhile even many of those unwilling or unable to crack their shareware copies decided that eight levels was enough for them, especially given that the unregistered version could be used for multiplayer deathmatches. Carmack’s misplaced idealism cost id and GT Interactive millions, poisoning relations between them; the two companies soon parted ways.

So, the era of shareware as an underground pipeline of cutting-edge games came to an end with Quake. From now on, id would concentrate on boxed games selling for full price, as would all of their fellow survivors from that wild and woolly time. Gaming’s underground had become its establishment.

But its distribution model wasn’t the only sense in which Quake was as much a throwback as a step forward. It held fast as well to Carmack’s disinterest in the fictional context of id’s games, as illustrated by his famous claim that the story behind a game was no more important than the story behind a porn movie. It would be blatantly incorrect to claim that the DOOM clones which flooded the market between 1994 and 1996 represented some great exploding of the potential of interactive narrative, but they had begun to show some interest, if not precisely in elaborate set-piece storytelling in the way of adventure games, at least in the appeal of setting and texture. Dark Forces had been a pioneer in this respect, what with its between-levels cut scenes, its relatively fleshed-out main character, and most of all its environments that really did look and feel like the Star Wars films, from their brutalist architecture to John Williams’s unmistakable score. Even Duke Nukem 3D had the character of Duke, plus a distinctively seedy, neon-soaked post-apocalyptic Los Angeles for him to run around in. No one would accuse it of being an overly mature aesthetic vision, but it certainly was a unified one.

Quake, on the other hand,  displayed all the signs of its fractious process of creation, of half a dozen wayward designers all pulling in different directions. From a central hub, you took “slipgates” into alternate dimensions that contained a little bit of everything on the designers’ not-overly-discriminating pop-culture radar, from zombie flicks to Dungeons & Dragons, from Jaws to H.P. Lovecraft, from The Terminator to heavy-metal music, and so wound up not making much of a distinct impression at all.

Most creative works are stamped with the mood of the people who created them, no matter how hard the project managers try to separate the art from the artists. With its color palette dominated by shocks of orange and red, DOOM had almost literally burst off the monitor screen with the edgy joie de vivre of a group of young men whom nobody had expected to amount to much of anything, who suddenly found themselves on the verge of remaking the business of games in their own unkempt image. Quake felt tired by contrast. Even its attempts to blow past the barriers of good taste seemed more obligatory than inspired; the Satanic symbolism, elaborate torture devices, severed heads, and other forms of gore were outdone by other games that were already pushing the envelope even further. This game felt almost somber — not an emotion anyone had ever before associated with id. Its levels were slower and emptier than those of DOOM, with a color palette full of mournful browns and other earth tones. Even the much-vaunted soundtrack wound up rather underwhelming. It was bereft of the melodic hooks that had made Nine Inch Nails’s previous output more palatable for radio listeners than that of most other “extreme” bands; it was more an exercise in sound design than music composition. One couldn’t help but suspect that Trent Reznor had held back all of his good material for his band’s next real record.

At its worst, Quake felt like a tech demo waiting for someone to turn it into an actual game, proving that John Carmack needed John Romero as badly as Romero needed him. But that once-fruitful relationship was never to be rehabilitated: Carmack fired Romero within days of finishing Quake. The two would never work together again.

It was truly the end of an era at id. Sandy Petersen was soon let go as well, Michael Abrash went back to the comfortable bosom of Microsoft, and Jay Wilbur quit for the best of all possible reasons: because his son asked him, “How come all the other daddies go to the baseball games and you never do?” All of them left as exhausted as Quake looks and feels.

Of course, there was nary a hint of Quake‘s infelicities to be found in the press coverage that greeted its release. Even more so than most media industries, the games industry has always run on enthusiasm, and it had no desire at this particular juncture to eat its own by pointing out the flaws in the most important PC game ever made. The coverage in the magazines was marked by a cloying fan-boy fawning that was becoming ever more sadly prominent in gamer culture. “We are not even worthy to lick your toenails free of grit and fluffy sock detritus,” PC Zone wrote in a public letter to id. “We genuflect deeply and offer our bare chests for you to stab with a pair of scissors.” (Eww! A sense of proportion is as badly lacking as a sense of self-respect…) Even the usually sober-minded (by gaming-journalism standards) Computer Gaming World got a little bit creepy: “Describing Quake is like talking about sex. It must be experienced to be fully appreciated.”

Still, I would be a poor historian indeed if I called all the hyperbole of 1996 entirely unjustified. The fact is that the passage of time has tended to emphasize Quake‘s weaknesses, which are mostly in the realm of design and aesthetics, whilst obscuring its contemporary strengths, which were in the realm of technology. Although not quite the first game to graft a true 3D engine onto ultra-fast-action gameplay — Interplay’s Descent beat it to the market by more than a year — it certainly did so more flexibly and credibly than anything else to date, even if Carmack still wasn’t above cheating a bit when push came to shove. (By no means is the Quake engine entirely free of tricksy 2D sprites in places where proper 3D models are just too expensive to render.)

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to fully convey today just how revolutionary the granular details of Quake seemed in 1996: the way you could look up and down and all around you with complete freedom; the way its physics engine made guns kick so that you could almost feel it in your mouse hand; the way you could dive into water and experience the visceral sensation of actually swimming; the way the wood paneling of its walls glinted realistically under the overhead lighting. Such things are commonplace today, but Quake paved the way. Most of the complaints I’ve raised about it could be mitigated by the simple expedient of not even bothering with the lackluster single-player campaign, of just playing it with your mates in deathmatch.

But even if you preferred to play alone, Quake was a sign of better things to come. “It goes beyond the game and more into the engine and the possibilities,” says Rob Smith, who watched the Quake mania come and go as the editor of PC Gamer magazine. “Quake presented options to countless designers. The game itself doesn’t make many ‘all-time’ lists, but its impact [was] as a game changer for 3D gaming, [an] engine that allowed other game makers to express themselves.” For with the industry’s Master of 3D Algorithms John Carmack having shown what was possible and talking as freely as ever about how he had achieved it, with Michael Abrash soon to write an entire book about how he and Carmack had made the magic happen, more games of this type, ready and able to harness the technology of true 3D to more exciting designs, couldn’t be far behind. “We’ve pretty much decided that our niche is in first-person futuristic action games,” said John Carmack. “We stumble when we get away from the techno stuff.” The industry was settling into a model that would remain in place for years to come: id would show what was possible with the technology of 3D graphics, then leave it to other developers to bend it in more interesting directions.

Soon enough, then, titles like Jedi Knight and Half-Life would push the genre once known as DOOM clones, now trading under the more sustainable name of the first-person shooter, in more sophisticated directions in terms of storytelling and atmosphere, without losing the essence of what made their progenitors so much fun. They will doubtless feature in future articles.

Next time, however, I want to continue to focus on the technology, as we turn to another way in which Quake was a rough draft for a better gaming future: months after its initial release, it became one of the first games to display the potential of hardware acceleration for 3D graphics, marking the beginning of a whole new segment of the microcomputer industry, one worth many billions of dollars today.

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

(Sources: the books Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters by David L. Craddock, The Graphics Programming Black Book by Michael Abrash, Masters of DOOM: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner, Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation by Michael O’Rourke, and Computer Graphics from Scratch: A Programmer’s Introduction by Gabriel Gambetta. PC Zone of May 1996; Computer Gaming World of July 1996 and October 1996; Wired of August 1996 and January 2010. Online sources include Michael Abrash’s “Ramblings in Realtime” for Blue’s News.

Quake is available as a digital purchase at, as is Star Wars: Dark Forces. Duke Nukem 3D can be found on Steam.)


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Titanic Visions, Part 2: A Night to Remember

Why does the sinking of the Titanic have such a stranglehold on our imaginations? The death of more than 1500 people is tragic by any standard, but worse things have happened on the world’s waters, even if we set aside deliberate acts of war. In 1822, for example, the Chinese junk Tek Sing ran into a reef in the South China Sea, drowning all 1600 of the would-be immigrants to Indonesia who were packed cheek-by-jowl onto its sagging deck. In 1948, the Chinese passenger ship Kiangya struck a leftover World War II mine shortly after departing Shanghai, killing as many as 4000 supporters of Chiang Kai-shek’s government who were attempting to flee the approaching Communist armies. In 1987, the Philippine ferry Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker near Manila, killing some 4300 people who were just trying to get home for Christmas.

But, you may object, these were all East Asian disasters, involving people for whom we in the West tend to have less immediate empathy, for a variety of good, bad, and ugly reasons. It’s a fair point. And yet what of the American paddle-wheel steamer Sultana, whose boiler exploded as it plied the Mississippi River in 1865, killing about 1200 people, or only 300 fewer than died on the Titanic?

I’m comfortable assuming that, unless you happen to be a dedicated student of maritime lore or of Civil War-era Americana, you probably don’t know much about any of these disasters. But everyone — absolutely everyone — seems to know at least the basic outline of what happened to the Titanic. Why?

It seems to me that the sinking of the Titanic is one of those rare occasions when History stops being just a succession of one damn thing after another, to paraphrase Arnold Toynbee, and shows some real dramatic flair. The event has enough thematic heft to curl the toes of William Shakespeare: the pride that goeth before a fall (no one will ever dare to call a ship “unsinkable” again); the cruelty of fate (experts have estimated that, if the Titanic somehow could have been raised and put into service once again, it could have made a million more Atlantic crossings without bumping into any more icebergs); the artificiality of money and social status (a form of communism far purer than anything ever implemented in the Soviet Union or China reigned in the Titanic‘s lifeboats); the crucible of character in the breach (some people displayed tremendous, selfless bravery when faced with the ultimate existential impasse of their lives, while others behaved… less well). Unlike the aforementioned shipwrecks, all of which were short, sharp shocks, the sinking of the Titanic was a slow-motion tragedy that took place over the course of two and a half hours. This gave ample space for all of the aforementioned themes to play out. The end result was almost irresistibly dramatic, if you’ll excuse my callousness in writing about it like a film prospectus.

And then, of course, there is the power of the Titanic as a symbol of changing times, as an almost tangible way point in history. The spirit of a century doesn’t always line up neatly with the numbers in our calendars; the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were actually unusual in setting the tone for our muddled, complicated 21st-century existences so soon after we were all cheering our escape from the Y2K crisis and drinking toasts to The End of History on January 1, 2000. By way of contrast, one might say that the nineteenth century didn’t really get going in earnest until Napoleon was defeated once and for all at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Similarly, one could say that the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 makes for a much more satisfying fin de siècle than anything that occurred in 1900. On that cold April night in the North Atlantic, an entire worldview sank beneath the waves, a glittering vision of progress as an inevitability, of industry and finance and social refinement as a guarantee against any and all forms of unpleasantness, of war — at least war between the proverbial great powers — as a quaint relic of the past. Less than two and a half years after the Titanic went down, the world was plunged into the bloodiest war it had ever known.

That, anyway, is how we see the sinking of the Titanic today. Many people of our own era are surprised, even though they probably shouldn’t be, that the event’s near-mythic qualities went completely unrecognized at the time; the larger currents of history tend to make sense only in retrospect. While the event was certainly recognized as an appalling tragedy, it was not seen as anything more than that. Rather than trying to interrogate the consciousness of the age, the governments of both Britain and the United States took a more practical tack, endeavoring to get to the bottom of just what had gone wrong, who had been responsible, and how they could prevent anything like this from ever happening again. There followed interminable hearings in the Houses of Parliament and the Capitol Building, while journalists gathered the stories of the 700-odd survivors and wrote them up for a rapt public. But no one wrote or spoke of the event as any sea change in history, and in due course the world moved on. By the time the British luxury liner Lusitania, the queen of the Atlantic-crossing trade prior to the construction of the Titanic and its two sister ships, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine on May 7, 1915 — loss of life: 1200 — the Titanic was fading fast from the public consciousness, just another of those damn things that had happened before the present ones.

“Had the Titanic been a mud scow with the same number of useful workingmen on board and had it gone down while engaged in some useful social work,” wrote a muckraking left-wing Kansan newspaper, “the whole country would not have gasped with horror, nor would all the capitalist papers have given pages for weeks to reciting the terrible details.” This was harsh, but undeniably true. The only comfort for our Kansan polemicists, if it was comfort, was that the Titanic looked likely to be forgotten just as completely as that hypothetical mud scow would have been in the fullness of time.

But then, in the 1950s, the Titanic was scooped out of the dustbin of history and turned into an icon for the ages by a 30-something American advertising executive and part-time author named Walter Lord, who had crossed the Atlantic as a boy aboard the Titanic‘s sister the Olympic and been fascinated by the ships’ stories ever since. Lord’s editor was unenthusiastic when he proposed writing the first-ever book-length chronicle of that fateful night, but grudgingly agreed to the project at last, as long as Lord wrote “in terms of the people involved instead of the ship.” Accordingly, Lord interviewed as many of the living survivors and their progeny as he could, then wove their stories together into A Night to Remember, a vividly novelistic minute-by-minute account of the night in question that has remained to this day the classic book about the Titanic, a timeless wellspring of lore and legend. It was Lord, for example, who first told the story of the ship’s band bravely playing on in the hope of comforting their fellow passengers, until the musicians and their music were swallowed by the ocean along with their audience. Ditto the story of the ship’s stoic Captain Edward Smith, who directed his crew to save as many passengers as they could and then to save themselves if possible, while he followed the unwritten law of the sea and went down with his ship. Published in November of 1955, A Night to Remember became an instant bestseller and a veritable cultural sensation. Walter Lord became Homer to the Titanic‘s Trojan War, pumping tragedy full of enough heroism, romance, and melodrama to almost — almost, mind you — make us wish we could have been there.

The book was soon turned into an American teleplay that was reportedly seen by an astonishing 28 million people. “Millions, perhaps, learned about the disaster for the first time,” mused Lord later about the evening it was broadcast. “More people probably thought about the Titanic that night than at any time since 1912.” (Sadly, every trace of this extraordinary cultural landmark has been lost to us because it was shot and broadcast live without ever touching film or videotape, as was the norm in those days). The book then became a lavish British feature film in 1958. Surprisingly, the movie was a failure in the United States. Walter Lord blamed this on poor Stateside distribution on the part of the British producers and a newspaper strike in New York. A more convincing set of causes might begin with its lack of big-name stars, continue with the decision to shoot it in stately black and white rather than garish Technicolor, and conclude with the way it echoed the book in weaving together a tapestry of experiences rather than giving the audience just one or two focal points whom they could get to know well and root for.

Nevertheless, by the end of the 1950s the Titanic had been firmly lodged in the public’s imagination as mythology and metaphor, and it would never show any sign of coming unstuck. The first Titanic fan club — for lack of a better term — was founded in Massachusetts in 1960, whence chapters quickly spread around the country and the world. Initially called the Titanic Enthusiasts Society, the name was changed to the Titanic Historical Society after it was pointed out that being an “enthusiast” of a disaster like this one was perhaps not quite appropriate.  But whatever the name under which they traveled, these were obsessive fans in the classic sense, who could sit around for hours debating the minutiae of their favorite ship’s brief but glamorous life in the same way that others of their ilk were dissecting every detail of the starship Enterprise. (Doug Woolley, the first person to propose finding the wreck and raising it back to the surface, was every inch a product of this milieu.)

“The story of the Titanic is a curious one because it rolled on and on,” said Walter Lord decades after writing his seminal book, “becoming more newsworthy as time went by.” Needless to say, A Night to Remember has never come close to going out of print. Even as the 83 survivors who were still around in 1960 died off one by one and the mass-media spotlight shifted from them to the prospects of finding the wreck of the ship on which they had sailed all those years ago, it was always the stories of that one horrible night, with all of their pathos and their bizarre sort of glamour, that undergirded the interest. If there had been no Walter Lord to turn a disaster into a mythology, it would never have occurred to Jack Grimm and Robert Ballard to go in search of the real ship. It was thanks to 30 years of tellings and retellings of the Titanic story that those first pictures of the ship sent up from the depths by Ballard felt like coming face to face with Leviathan. For by the 1980s, you could use the Titanic as a simile, a metaphor, a parable, or just a trope in conversation with absolutely anyone, whether aged 9 or 90, and be certain that they would know what you were talking about. That kind of cultural ubiquity is extremely rare.

Thus we shouldn’t be stunned to learn that this totem of modern culture also inspired the people who made computer games. Even as some of their peers were casting their players as would-be Robert Ballards out to find and explore the wreck, others were taking them all the way back to the night of April 14, 1912, and asking them to make the best of a no-win situation.

The very first Titanic computer game of any stripe that I know of was written by an American named Peter Kirsch, the mastermind of SoftSide magazine’s “Adventure of the Month” club, whose members were sent a new text adventure on tape or disk every single month. Dateline Titanic was the game for May of 1982. Casting you as the ship’s captain, it begins with one of the cruelest fake-outs in any game ever. It seems to let you spot and dodge the deadly iceberg and change the course of history — until the message, “Oh, my God! You hit another one!” pops up. Simple soul that I am, I find this kind of hilarious.

Anyway, we’re back in the same old boat, so to speak. The game does permit you to be a bit less of a romantic old sea dog than the real Captain Smith and to save yourself, although you’re expected to rescue as many passengers as you can first. In an article he wrote for SoftSide a few months after making the game, Kirsch noted that “the days of simply finding treasure and returning it to a storage location are gone forever.” But, stuck as he was with an adventure engine oriented toward exactly this “points for treasures” model, he faced a dilemma when it came time to make his Titanic game. He ended up with a design where, instead of scarfing up treasures and putting them in your display case for safe keeping, you have to grab as many passengers as possible and chunk them into lifeboats.

That said, it’s a not a bad little game at all, given the almost unimaginable technological constraints under which it was created. The engine is written in BASIC, and it combined with the actual game it enables have to be small enough to fit into as little as 16 K of memory. You can finish the game the first time whilst rescuing no one other than yourself, if necessary, then optimize your path on subsequent playthroughs until you’ve solved all of the puzzles in the right order, collected everyone, and gotten the maximum score; the whole experience is short enough to support this style of try-and-try-again gameplay without becoming too annoying. Whether it’s in good taste to treat a tragedy in this cavalier way is a more fraught question, but then again, it’s hard to imagine any other programmer doing much better under this set of constraints. It’s hard to pay proper tribute to the dead when you have to sweat every word of text you include as if you’re writing a haiku.

(Although Dateline Titanic was made in versions for the Radio Shack TRS-80, Apple II, and Atari 8-bit line, only the last appears to have survived. Feel free to download it from here. Note that you’ll need an Atari emulator such as the one called simply Atari800. And you’ll also need Atari’s BASIC cartridge. Unfortunately, the emulator is not a particularly user-friendly piece of software, with an interface that is entirely keyboard-driven. You access the menu by hitting the F1 key. From here, you want to first mount the BASIC cartridge: “Cartridge Management -> Cartridge.” Press the Escape key until you return to the emulator’s main screen. You should see a “READY” prompt. Now you can run the “.atr” file by pressing F1 again, then choosing “Run Atari Program.” Be patient; it will take the game a moment to start up fully.)

Four years later, in the midst of the full-blown Titanic mania ignited by Robert Ballard’s discovery of the wreck, another Titanic text adventure appeared, again as something other than a standard boxed game. Beyond the Titanic by Scott Miller is interesting today mostly as a case of humble beginnings. After releasing this game and a follow-up text adventure as shareware to little notice and less profit, Miller switched his focus to action games. He and his company Apogee Entertainment then became the primary impetus behind an underground movement which bypassed the traditional publishers and changed the character of gaming dramatically in the early 1990s by providing a more rough-and-ready alternative to said publishers’ obsession with high-concept “interactive movies.” For all that it belongs to a genre whose commercial potential was already on the wane by 1986, Beyond the Titanic does display the keen instinct for branding that would serve Miller so well in later years. The Titanic was a hot topic in 1986, and it was a name in the public domain, so why not make a game about it?

Beyond the Titanic itself is a strange beast, a game which is soundly designed and competently coded but still manages to leave a laughably bad final impression. Miller obviously didn’t bother to do much if any research for his game. Playing the role of a sort of anti-Captain Smith, you escape from the sinking ship all by yourself in one of its lifeboats and leave everyone else to their fate. Luckily for you, in Miller’s world a lifeboat is apparently about the size of a canoe and just as easy for one person to paddle. (In reality, the lifeboats were larger than many ocean-going pleasure boats, being 30 feet long and 9 feet wide.)

Your escape doesn’t mark the end of the game but its real beginning. Now aliens enter the picture, sucking you into a cave complex hidden below the ocean. From this point on, the game lives up to its title by having nothing else to do with the Titanic; the plot eventually sends you into outer space and finally on a trip through time. “Overstuffed” is as kind a descriptor as I can find for both the plot and the writing. This one is best approached in the spirit of an Ed Wood film; Miller tries valiantly to grab hold of the right verbs and adjectives, but they’re forever flitting out of his grasp like fireflies on a summer night. Suffice to say that Beyond the Titanic won’t leave anyone regretting that he abandoned text adventures for greener pastures so quickly.

(Beyond the Titanic has been available for free from Scott Miller’s company 3D Realms since 1998. In light of that, I’ve taken the liberty of hosting a version here that’s almost ready to run on modern computers; just add your platform’s version of DOSBox.)

A relatively more grounded take on the Titanic‘s one and only voyage appeared in 1995 as one of the vignettes in Jigsaw, Graham Nelson’s epic time-travel text adventure, which does have the heft to support its breadth. Indeed, Nelson’s game was the first ever to deliver a reasonably well-researched facsimile of what it was actually like to be aboard the doomed ship before and after it struck the iceberg. A fine writer by any standard, he describes the scenes with the appropriate gravity as you wander a small subsection of the ship’s promenades, staterooms, lounges, and crew areas.

Making a satisfying game out of the sinking of the Titanic presents a challenge for a designer not least in that really is the very definition of a no-win scenario: to allow the player to somehow avert the disaster would undercut the whole reason we find the ship so fascinating, yet to make a game simply about escaping doesn’t feel all that appropriate either. Many designers, including Scott Miller and now Graham Nelson in a far more effective way, therefore use the sinking ship and all of the associated drama as a springboard for other, original plots. (Because you’re a time traveler in Jigsaw, escape isn’t even an issue for you; you can ride the time stream out of Dodge whenever you feel like it.) Nelson imagines that the fabulously wealthy Benjamin Guggenheim, one of the glitterati who went down with the ship, is also a spy carrying a vital dispatch meant for Washington, D.C. Because Guggenheim, honorable gentleman that he is, would never think of getting into a lifeboat as long as women and children are still aboard the ship, he entrusts you with getting the message into the hands of a co-conspirator whose gender gives her a better chance of surviving: the “rich and beautiful heiress Miss Shutes.”

It must be emphasized that the Titanic is only a vignette in Jigsaw, one of fifteen in the complete game. Thus it comes as no surprise that the espionage plot isn’t all that well developed, or even explained. In addition, there are also a few places where Nelson’s background research falls down. The Titanic was not the first vessel ever to send an “SOS” distress signal at sea, as he claims. And, while there was an Elizabeth Shutes aboard the ship, she was a 40-year-old governess employed by a wealthy family, not a twenty-something socialite. On the more amusing side, Jigsaw walkthrough author Bonni Mierzejewska has pointed out that the compass directions aboard the ship would seem to indicate that it’s sailing due east — a good idea perhaps in light of what awaits it on its westward progress, but a decidedly ahistorical one nonetheless.

Still, Jigsaw gets more right than wrong within the limited space it can afford to give the Titanic. I was therefore surprised to learn from Graham Nelson himself just a couple of years ago that “the Titanic sequence is the one I would now leave out.” While it’s certainly a famous event in history and an enduring sign of changing times, he argues, it wasn’t of itself a turning point in history like his other vignettes, at least absent the insertion of the fictional espionage plot: “Rich people drowned, but other rich people took their place, and history wasn’t much dented.” This is true enough, but I for one am glad the Titanic made the cut for one of my favorite text adventures of the 1990s.

(Jigsaw is available for free from the IF Archive. Note that you’ll need a Z-Machine interpreter such as Gargoyle to run it.)

Yet the most intriguing Titanic text adventure of all is undoubtedly the one that never got made. Steve Meretzky, one of Infocom’s star designers, was one of that odd species of Titanic “fan”; his colleagues remember a shelf filled with dozens of books on the subject, and a scale model of the ship he built himself that was “about as big as his office.” Shortly after his very first game for Infocom, the 1983 science-fiction comedy Planetfall, became a hit, Meretzky started pushing to make a Titanic game. Just like the previous two designers in this survey, he felt he had to add another, “winnable” plot line to accompany the ship’s dramatic sinking.

You are a passenger on the Titanic, traveling in Third Class to disguise the importance of your mission: transporting a MacGuffin from London to New York. As the [game] opens and you feel a long, drawn-out shudder pass through the ship, you must begin the process of escaping the restricted Third Class section, retrieving the MacGuffin from the purser’s safe amidst the confusion, and surviving the sinking to complete your delivery assignment. The actual events of those 160 minutes between iceberg and sinking would occur around you. I see this as a game of split-second timing that would require multiple [playthroughs] to optimize your turns in order to solve the puzzles in the shortest possible time. But you could also ignore all the puzzles and simply wander around the ship as a “tourist,” taking in the sights of this amazing event.

To his immense frustration, Meretzky never was able to drum up any enthusiasm for the idea at Infocom. In 1985, he was finally allowed to make a serious game as his reward for co-authoring the third best-selling text adventure in history, but even then his colleagues convinced him to opt for a science-fiction exercise called A Mind Forever Voyaging instead of the Titanic game. The latter remained something of a running joke at Meretzky’s expense for years. “It was almost a cliché,” says his colleague Dave Lebling. “Steve would say, ‘We should do a Titanic game!’ And we would all say, “No, no Titanic game. Go away, Steve.'”

The dream didn’t die for Meretzky even after Infocom closed up shop in 1989, and he moved on to design games for Legend Entertainment, a company co-founded by his fellow Infocom alum Bob Bates. Sadly, Bates too saw little commercial potential in a Titanic game, leaving Meretzky stuck in his comedy niche for all four of the games he made for Legend.

And still the fire burned. When Meretzky and Mike Dornbrook, another old Infocom colleague, decided to start their own studio called Boffo Games in 1994, the Titanic game was high on the agenda. The changing times meant that it had by now evolved from a text adventure into a point-and-click graphic adventure, with a fully fleshed-out plot that was to place aboard the ship the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, which really was stolen from the Louvre in 1911. (Ever since the painting was recovered from the thieves two years later, conspiracy theories claiming that the Mona Lisa which was hung once again in the Louvre is a face-saving forgery have abounded.) Meretzky and Dornbrook pitched their Titanic game to anyone and everyone who might be willing to fund it throughout Boffo’s short, frustrating existence, and even created a couple of rooms as a prototype. But they never could get anyone to bite. “We were saying, you know, there’s this new movie coming out,” says Dornbrook. “And it might do well. It will come out about the time the game will. It’s [James] Cameron. He sometimes does good stuff…” But it was to no avail. Meretzky made his very last adventure game to date in 1997, and it had nothing to do with the Titanic.

Instead it was left to another graphic adventure to ride the wave kicked up by the movie Dornbrook mentioned to sales that bettered the combined totals of all of the other Titanic games I’ve mentioned in these last two articles by an order of magnitude. I’ll examine that game in detail in the third and final article in this series. But first, allow me to set the table for its success via the origin story of the highest-grossing movie of the twentieth century.

After the failures of the film versions of A Night to Remember and Raise the Titanic, the Hollywood consensus had become that nothing sank a feature film’s prospects faster than the Titanic. This was weird, given that the book A Night to Remember had spawned a cottage industry in print publishing and a whole fannish subculture to go along with it, but box-office receipts didn’t lie. The movers and shakers of Hollywood could only conclude that the public wanted a happy ending when they handed over their hard-earned money on a Friday night, which spelled doom for any film about one of the most infamously unhappy endings of all time. Even the full-fledged Titanic mania that followed Robert Ballard’s discovery of the wreck failed to sway the conventional wisdom.

But one prominent Hollywood director begged to differ. James Cameron was coming off the twin triumphs of The Terminator and Aliens in 1987, when he saw a National Geographic documentary that prominently featured Ballard’s eye-popping underwater footage of the wreck. An avid scuba diver, Cameron was entranced. He began to imagine a film that could unite the two halves of the Titanic‘s media legacy: the real sunken ship that lay beneath the waves and the glamorously cursed vessel of modern mythology. He jotted his thoughts down in his journal:

Do story with bookends of present-day scene of wreck using submersibles inter-cut with memory of a survivor and re-created scenes of the night of the sinking. A crucible of human values under stress. A certainty of slowly impending doom (metaphor). Division of men doomed and women and children saved by custom of the times. Many dramatic moments of separation, heroism, and cowardice, civility versus animal aggression. Needs a mystery or driving plot element woven through with all this as background.

The last sentence would prove key. Just like Scott Miller, Graham Nelson, and Steve Meretzky in the context of games, Cameron realized that his film couldn’t succeed as a tapestry of tragedy only. If it was to capture a wide audience’s interest, it needed the foreground plot and obvious set of protagonists that the film of A Night to Remember had so sorely lacked.

Yet Cameron’s own Titanic film would be a long time in coming. The melancholy splendor of that National Geographic documentary first did much to inform The Abyss, his moody 1989 movie about an American nuclear submarine’s close encounter with aliens. There then followed two more straightforward action vehicles starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terminator 2 and True Lies.

Always, though, his Titanic movie stayed in the back of his mind. By 1995, he had more than a decade’s worth of zeitgeist-defining action flicks behind him, enough to make him the most bankable Hollywood crowd-pleaser this side of Steven Spielberg, with combined box-office receipts to his credit totaling more than $1.7 billion. With his reputation thus preceding him, he finally managed to convince an unusual pairing of 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures to share the risk of funding his dream project. Hollywood’s reluctance was by no means incomprehensible. In addition to the Titanic box-office curse, there was the fact that Cameron had never made a film quite like this one before. In fact, no one was making films like this in the 1990s; Cameron was envisioning an old-fashioned historical epic, a throwback to the likes of War and Peace, Cleopatra, and Gone with the Wind, complete with those films’ three-hour-plus running times.

Cameron’s plan for his movie had changed remarkably little from that 1987 journal outline. He still wanted to bookend the main story with shots of the real wreck. He filmed this footage first, borrowing a Russian research vessel and deep-ocean submersible in September of 1995 in order to do so. Then it was time for the really challenging part. The production blasted out a 17-million-gallon pool on Mexico’s Baja coast and replicated the Titanic inside it at almost a one-to-one scale, working from the original builder’s blueprints. The sight of those iconic four smokestacks — the Titanic is the one ship in the world that absolutely everyone can recognize — looming up out of the desert was surreal to say the least, but it was only the beginning of the realization of Cameron’s vision. Everything that came within the view of a camera was fussed over for historical accuracy, right down to the pattern of the wainscotting on the walls.

Still hewing to the old-school formula for Hollywood epics, Cameron decided to make his foreground protagonists a pair of starstruck lovers from different sides of the economic divide: a prototypical starving artist from Steerage Class and a pampered young woman from First Class. This suited his backers very well; the stereotype-rooted but nevertheless timeless logic of their industry told them that men would come for the spectacle of seeing the ship go down, while women would come for the romance. The lead roles went to Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, a pair of uncannily beautiful young up-and-comers. Pop diva Celine Dion was recruited to sing a big, impassioned theme song. For, if it was to have any hope of earning back its budget, this film would need to have something for everyone: action, romance, drama, a dash of comedy, and more than a little bit of sex appeal. (DiCaprio’s character painting Winslet’s in the altogether remains one of the more famous female nude scenes in film history.) But whether that would make it an entertainment spectacle for the ages or just an unwieldy monstrosity was up for debate.

The press at least knew where they were putting their money. When the project passed the $170 million mark to officially become the most expensive movie ever made, they had a field day. The previous holder of the record had been a deliriously misconceived 1995 fiasco called Waterworld, and the two films’ shared nautical theme was lost on no one. Magazines and newspapers ran headlines like “A Sinking Sensation” and “Glub! Glub! Glub!” before settling on calling Titanic — Cameron had decided that that simple, unadorned name was the only one that would suit his film — “the Waterworld of 1997.” By the time it reached theaters on December 19, 1997, six months behind schedule, its final cost had grown to $200 million.

And then? Well, then the press and public changed their tune, much to the benefit of the latest Titanic game.

(Sources: the books Sinkable: Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic by Daniel Stone, Titanic and the Making of James Cameron by Paula Parisi, A Night to Remember by Walter Lord, and The Way It Was: Walter Lord on His Life and Books edited by Jenny Lawrence; SoftSide of August 1982; the Voyager CD-ROM A Night to Remember. The information on Steve Meretzky’s would-be Titanic game is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me many years ago now, and from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Another online source was “7 of the World’s Deadliest Shipwrecks” at Britannica. My thanks to reader Peter Olausson for digging up a vintage newspaper headline that labels the Titanic “unsinkable” and letting me link to it.)


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The Shareware Scene, Part 2: The Question of Games

In one of the last interviews he gave before his death, shareware pioneer Jim Button said that he “had written off the idea of shareware games” prior to the beginning of the 1990s. At the time, it seemed a reasonable position to take, one based on quite a bit of evidence. While any number of people had tried to sell their games this way, there had been no shareware success stories in games to rival those of Andrew Fluegelman, Jim Button, or Bob Wallace.

Naturally, many pondered why this should be so. The answers they came up with were often shot through with the prejudices of the period, which held that programming or playing frivolous games was a less upstanding endeavor than that of making or using stolid business software. Still, even the prejudiced answers often had a ring of truth. You had a long-term relationship with your telecommunications program, database, or word processor, such that sending its author a check in order to join the mailing list, acquire a printed manual, and be assured of access to updates felt as much like a wise investment as merely “the honest thing to do.” But you had a more transient relationship with games; you played a game only until you beat it or got tired of it, then moved on to the next one. Updates and other forms of long-term support just weren’t a factor at all. No one could seem to figure out how to untangle this knot of motivation and contingency and make shareware work for games.

Luckily, there was an alternative to the shareware model for those game programmers who lacked the right combination of connections, ambitions, and talents to go the traditional commercial route — an alternative that offered a better prospect than shareware during the 1980s of getting paid at least a little something for one’s efforts. It was the odd little ghetto of the disk magazines, and so it’s there that we must start our story today.

The core idea behind the disk magazines is almost as old as personal computing itself. In February of 1978, Ralph McElroy of Goleta, California, published the first issue of CLOAD, a monthly collection of software for the Radio Shack TRS-80, the first pre-assembled microcomputer to rack up really impressive sales numbers. “To join the somewhat elite club of computer users,” wrote McElroy in his introductory editorial, “one [previously] had to learn the mysterious art of speaking in a rather obscure tongue” — i.e., one had to learn to program. Before any commercial software industry to speak of existed, CLOAD proposed to change that by offering “vast quantities of software to be shared.” It was actually distributed on cassette tape rather than floppy disk — a disk drive was still a very exotic piece of hardware in 1978 — but otherwise it put all the pieces into place.

By 1981, the TRS-80’s early momentum was beginning to flag and the more capable Apple II was coming on strong. Jim Mangham, a programmer at the Louisiana State University Medical Center in Shreveport, decided that the market was ready for a CLOAD equivalent for the Apple II — albeit published not on cassettes but on floppy disks, which were now steadily gaining traction. He recruited a buddy named Al Vekovius to join him in the venture, and the two prepared the first issue of something they called The Harbinger. They called up Softalk magazine, the journal of record for early Apple II users, to discuss placing an advertisement, whereupon said magazine’s founder and editor Al Tommervik got so excited by their project that he asked to become an investor and official marketing partner. Thus The Harbinger acquired the rather less highfalutin name of Softdisk to connote its link with the print magazine.

Starting with just 50 subscribers, Mangham and Vekovius built Softdisk into a real force in Apple II computing. Well aware that they couldn’t possibly write enough software themselves to fill a disk every single month, they worked hard from the beginning to foster a symbiotic relationship with their readership; most of the programs they published came from the readers themselves. In the early days, the spirit of reciprocity extended to the point of expecting readers to mail their disks back each month; this both allowed Mangham and Vekovius to save money on media and provided a handy way for readers to send in their programs and comments. Even after this practice was abandoned in the wake of falling disk prices, Softdisk subscribers felt themselves to be part of a real digital community, long before the rise of modern social media made such things par for the course. At a time when telecommunications was a slow, difficult, complicated endeavor, Softdisk provided an alternative way of feeling connected with a larger community of people who were as passionate as oneself about a hobby which one’s physical neighbors might still regard as hopelessly esoteric.

Thus Mangham and Vekovius’s little company Softdisk Publishing slowly turned into a veritable disk-magazine empire. In time, Mangham stepped back from day-to-day operations, becoming a nearly silent partner to Vekovius, always the more business-focused of the pair. He expanded Softdisk to two disks per issue in August of 1983; started reaching retail stores by January of 1984; launched a companion disk magazine called Loadstar for the Commodore 64 in June of 1984. Softdisk survived the great home-computer bust of the second half of 1984, which took down Softalk among many other pioneering contemporaries, then got right back to expanding. In November of 1986, Vekovius launched a third disk magazine by the name of Big Blue Disk, for MS-DOS-based computers; it soon had a monthly circulation of 15,000, comparable to that of Softdisk and Loadstar. A fourth disk magazine, for the Apple Macintosh this time, followed in 1988. At least a dozen competitors sprang up at one time or another with their own disk magazines, but none seriously challenged the cross-platform supremacy of the Softdisk lineup.

In order to encourage software submissions, all of the Softdisk magazines ran a periodic programming competition called CodeQuest. Readers were encouraged to send in programs of any type, competing for prizes of $1000 for the top submission, $500 for second place, and $250 for third place, on top of the money Softdisk would pay upon eventually publishing the winning software. Big Blue Disk‘s second incarnation of the contest ended on January 31, 1988, yielding two winners that were fairly typical disk-magazine fare: the gold-winning The Compleat Filer was a file-management program to replace the notoriously unfriendly MS-DOS command line, while the bronze-winning Western was a sort of rudimentary text-based CRPG set in, you guessed it, the Old West. But it was the silver winner — a game called Kingdom of Kroz, submitted by one Scott Miller from a suburb of Dallas, Texas — that interests us today.

At the time of the contest, Miller didn’t seem to be going much of anywhere in life. In his late twenties, he was still attending junior college in a rather desultory fashion whilst working dead-end gigs at the lower end of the data-processing totem pole, such as babysitting his college’s computer lab. His acquaintances hardly expected him to ever move out of his parents’ house, much less change an industry. Yet this seeming slacker had reserves of ambition, persistence, marketing acumen, and sheer dogged self-belief that would in the end prove a stick in the eye to every one of his doubters. Scott Miller, you see, wanted to make money from videogames — make a lot of money. And by God, he was going to find a way to do it.

The young Scott Miller.

Before entering the CodeQuest contest, he’d written a column on games for the local newspaper, written a book on how to beat popular arcade games, and, last but not least, tested the early shareware market for games: he’d written and distributed a couple of shareware text adventures under the name of Apogee Software — a name which would later become very, very famous among a certain segment of gamers. But on this occasion he was disappointed by the response, just like everyone else making shareware games at the time. Unlike most of those others, though, Miller didn’t give up. If shareware text adventures wouldn’t do the trick, he’d just try something else.

Put crudely, Kingdom of Kroz was a mash-up of the old mainframe classic Rogue and the arcade game Gauntlet — or, if you like, a version of Rogue that played in real time and had handcrafted levels instead of procedurally-generated ones. It wasn’t much to look at — like classic Rogue, it was rendered entirely in ASCII graphics — but many people found it surprisingly addictive once they got into it. It went over very well indeed with Big Blue Disk‘s subscribers when it appeared in the issue dated June 1988 — went over so well that Miller provided two sequels, called Dungeons of Kroz and Caverns of Kroz, almost immediately, although the magazine wouldn’t find an opening for them in its editorial calendar until the issues dated March and September of 1989.

While he waited on Big Blue Disk to release those sequels, Miller started to explore a new idea for marketing games outside the traditional publishing framework. In fact, this latest idea would eventually prove his greatest single stroke of marketing genius, even if its full importance would take some time yet to crystallize. He would later sum up his insight in an interview: “People aren’t willing to pay for something they’ve already got in their hands, but they are willing to pay if it gets them something new.” Call it a cynical notion if you must, but, in the context of games at least, it would prove the only way to make shareware pay on a scale commensurate with Scott Miller’s ambitions.

Miller and George Broussard, his longtime best friend and occasional partner in the treacherous world of shareware, made an engine for multiple-choice trivia games — not exactly a daunting programming challenge after the likes of Kroz. They compiled sets of questions dealing with different topics: general trivia, vocabulary, the original Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. They created “volumes” in each category consisting of 100 questions. Then they released the first volume of each category online, accompanied by an advertisement for additional volumes for the low, low price of $4 each.

Alas, the scheme proved not to be a surefire means of selling trivia games; the economics of getting just 100 questions for $4 were perhaps a bit dodgy even in the late 1980s, when just about everything involving computers cost exponentially more than it does today. But a seed had been planted; the next time Miller tried something similar, he would finally hit pay dirt.

The next time in question came in the second half of 1989, just after Big Blue Disk published the last Kroz game. The magazine’s contract terms were far more generous than those of any traditional software publisher: Miller had retained the Kroz copyright throughout, and the magazine’s license to it became non-exclusive as soon as it published the third and last game of the trilogy. Miller, in other words, could now do whatever he wished with his three Kroz games, while still benefiting from the buzz their appearance in Big Blue Disk had caused in some quarters.

Kingdom of Kroz

So, he decided to try the same scheme he had used with his trivia games: release the first part of the trilogy for free, but ask people to send him $7.50 each for the second and third parts. A tactic that had prompted an underwhelming response the first time around worked out much better this time. Unlike those earlier exercises in multiple choice, the Kroz trilogy was made up of real games — or, perhaps better said, was actually one real game artificially divided into three. After you’d played the first part of said game, you wanted to see the rest of it through.

In short, Scott Miller — and shareware gaming in general — finally got their equivalent to that day when Jim Button returned home from a Hawaiian vacation to find his basement drowning in paid registrations. Suddenly Miller as well was drowning in mail, making thousands of dollars every month. He’d done it; his dogged persistence had paid off. He’d found a way around the machinations of the big publishers, found a way to sell games on his own terms, cracked the code of shareware gaming. His sense of vindication after so many years of struggle must defy description.

From here, things happened very, very quickly. Miller whipped up a second trilogy of Kroz games to sell under the same model — first part free, second and third must be paid for — and was rewarded with more checks in the mail. Most people at this point would have been content to continue writing lone-wolf games and reaping huge rewards — but Miller was, as I’ve already noted, a man of unusual ambition. At heart, he was more passionate about marketing games than programming them; in fact, he would never program another game at all after the second Kroz trilogy.

Already before 1989 was over, he had reached out to a Silicon Valley youth named Todd Replogle, who had created and uploaded to various bulletin-board systems a little action-adventure called Caves of Thor that was similar in spirit to the Kroz games. Miller convinced Replogle to re-release his free game under the Apogee imprint, and to make two paid sequels to accompany it. Replogle followed that trilogy up with a tetralogy called Monuments of Mars. Meanwhile George Broussard returned on the scene to make two more four-volume series, called Pharaoh’s Tomb and Arctic Adventure.

By 1991, Apogee was off and running as a real business. Miller quit his dead-end day jobs, moved out of his parents’ house, convinced Broussard to join him as a full-time partner, found an accountant, leased himself an office, and started hiring helpline attendants and clerical help to deal with a workload that was mushrooming for all the right reasons. His life had undergone a head-spinning transformation in the span of less than two years.

At this point, then, we might want to ask ourselves in a more holistic way just why Apogee became so successful so quickly. Undoubtedly, a huge part of the equation is indeed the much-vaunted “Apogee model” of selling shareware: hook them with a free game, then reel them in with the paid sequels. Yet that wasn’t a silver bullet in and of itself, as Miller’s own early lack of success with his trivia games illustrates. It had to be executed just right — which tells us that Miller got it just right the second time around. The price of $7.50 was enough to make the games extremely profitable for Apogee in relation to the negligible amounts of money it took to create and market them, but cheap enough that customers could take the plunge without feeling guilty about it or needing to justify it to a significant other. Likewise, each game was perfectly calibrated to be just long enough for the customer not to feel cheated, but not so long that she spent hours playing it which she could have sunk into another Apogee game.

If all of this sounds a bit mercenary, so be it; Miller was as hard-nosed as capitalists come, and he certainly wasn’t running Apogee as a charity. Yet it’s seldom good business, at least in the long run, to sell junk, and this too Miller understood. Apogee maintained a level of quality control that was often lacking even from the big publishers, who often felt compelled to release a game before its time to meet the Christmas market or to pump up the quarterly numbers. Apogee games, on the other hand, seldom appeared under a Christmas tree, and Miller had no shareholders other than his best friend to placate. “Our philosophy is never to let an arbitrary date dictate when we release a game,” said Miller in an interview. As a result, their games were small but also tight: bug-free, stable, consistent. They evinced a sense of care, felt like creations worth paying a little something for. Soon enough, people learned that they could trust Apogee. If none of Apogee’s early games were revolutionary advances within the medium, there were few to no complete turkeys among them either.

I’ll be the first to admit that the Apogee style of game does little for me. Still, my personal tastes in no way blind me to the reality that these unprepossessing but well-crafted little games filled a space in the market of the early 1990s that the big publishers were missing entirely as they rushed to cement a grand merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood and begin the era of the “interactive movie.” While the boxed-games industry went more and more high-concept, with prices and system requirements to match, Apogee kept things simple and fun, as befit their slogan: “Apogee means action!” Apogee games were quick to play, quick to get in and out of; they had some of the same appeal that the earliest arcade games had, albeit implemented in a more user-friendly way, with the addictive addition of a sense of progression through their levels. The traditional industry regarded this sort of thing as hopelessly passé on a personal computer, suitable only for videogame consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System. But, as the extraordinary success of Nintendo and the only slightly less extraordinary success of Apogee both demonstrated, people still wanted these sorts of games. Their near-complete absence from the boxed-computer-game market left a massive hole which Scott Miller was happy to fill. Younger people with limited disposable income found Apogee particularly appealing; they could buy six or seven Apogee games for the price of one boxed production that would probably just bore them anyhow.

But of course a business model as profitable as Miller’s must soon attract rivals who hope to execute it even better. Already in 1992, a company called Epic MegaGames appeared to challenge Apogee for the title of King of Shareware; they as well employed Scott Miller’s episodic approach, and also echoed Apogee’s proven action-first design aesthetic. Shareware gaming was becoming a thriving shadow industry of its own, right under the noses of the big boys who were still chasing after their grand cinematic fantasias. They would have gotten the shock of their lives if they had ever bothered to compare their slim profit margins to the fat ones of Apogee and Epic. As it was, though, they felt nary an inkling in their ivory towers that a proletarian revolution in ludic aesthetics was in the offing out there on the streets. But even they wouldn’t be able to ignore it for much longer.

This shareware sales chart from July of 1993 shows how dominant Apogee was at that time. Seven out of the top ten games are theirs, with a further two going to Epic MegaGames, their only remotely close competitor. Although the fast-and-simple design aesthetic in which those companies specialized ruled the charts, they pulled with them a long tail of many other types of shareware games, as we’ll see in the next part of this article. The very fact that there existed a sales chart like this one at all says much about how quickly shareware had exploded in a very short time.

Many of you doubtless have an inkling already of where this series of articles must go from here — of how not only the story of Apogee Software but also that of Softdisk Publications will feed directly into that of the most transformative computer game in history. And never fear, I’ll get to all of that — but in my next article rather than this one.

For in addition to that other story which threatens to suck all the oxygen out of the room, there are a thousand other, smaller ones of individual creators being inspired to program all kinds of games and sell them as shareware in the wake of Apogee’s success. Exactly none of them made as much money from their endeavors as did Scott Miller, but some became popular enough to still be remembered today. Indeed, many of us who were around back then still have our obscure little hobby horses from the shareware era that we like to take out and ride from time to time. My personal favorite of the breed might just be Pyro II, a thunderously non-politically-correct puzzle game in which you play a pyromaniac who must burn down famous buildings all over the world. Truly, though, the list of old shareware games that come up in any given discussion is guaranteed to be almost as long as the list of old-timers reminiscing about them. The shareware gaming scene in the aggregate which took off after Apogee’s success touched a lot of people’s lives, regardless of how much money this or that individual game might have earned.

Like the Apogee games, many other shareware titles identified holes in the market which the big publishers, who all seemed to be rushing hell-bent in the exact same direction, were failing to fill. In many cases, these were genres from which the traditional industry had actually done very well in the past, but which it had now judged to no longer be worth its while. For example, the years between the collapse of Infocom in 1989 and the beginning of the Internet-based Interactive Fiction Renaissance circa 1995 were marked by quite a number of shareware text adventures. Likewise, as boxed CRPGs got ever more plot- and multimedia-heavy at the expense of the older spirit of free-form exploration, other shareware programmers rushed to fill that gap. Still others mimicked the look and feel of the old ICOM Simulations graphic adventures, while lots more catered to the eternal need just to blow some stuff up after a long, hard day. There were shareware card games, board games, strategy games, fighting games, action puzzlers, proto-first-person shooters of various stripes, and even ballistics simulators.

In terms of presentation, most of these shareware games were dead ringers for the games that had been sold on store shelves five to ten years earlier. And by the same token, the people who made them in the 1990s were really not all that different from the bedroom programmers who had built the boxed-games industry in the 1980s. Just as many creators of non-game shareware were uncomfortable with time-limited or otherwise crippled software, not all creators of shareware games embraced the Apogee model — not even after it had so undeniably demonstrated its efficacy. Even then, some idealistic souls were still willing to place their faith in people sending in checks simply because it was the right thing to do. All of which is to say that shareware gaming encompassed a vast swath of motivations, styles, and approaches. Apogee, Epic, and that other company which we’ll get to in my next article tend to garner all the press when the early 1990s shareware scene is remembered today, but they were by no means the sum total of its personality.

By way of illustration, I’d like to conclude this article with a short case study of a shareware partnership that didn’t make its principals rich, that didn’t even allow them to quit their day jobs. In fact, neither partner ever really even tried to achieve either of those things. They just made games in two unfashionable styles which they still happened to love, and said games made some other people with the same tastes very happy. And that was more than enough for Daniel Berke and Matthew Engle.

Excelsior Phase I: Lysandia

Matthew remembers his best childhood Christmas ever as the one in 1983, when he was twelve years old and his family got an Apple IIe computer. A sheet of Apple-logo stickers came in the box that housed the computer, and Matthew stuck one of them on his notebook. Soon Daniel, another student at his Los Angeles-area school, noticed the sticker and came over to chat. “I’ve got an Apple II also!” he said. Just like that, a lifelong friendship was born.

The two joined an informal community of fellow travelers, the likes of which could be found in school cafeterias and playgrounds all over the country, swapping tips and exploits and most of all games. Their favorites of the games they traded were the text adventures of Infocom and the Ultima CRPGs of Origin Systems; if the pair’s friendship was born over the Apple II, it was cemented during the many hours they spent plumbing the depths of Zork together. Matthew and Daniel eventually joined the minority of kids like them who took the next step beyond playing and trading games: they started to experiment with making them. Their roles broke down into a classic game-development partnership: the analytical Daniel took to programming like a duck takes to water, while the more artistically-minded Matthew was adept at drawing and storytelling.

So many things in life are a question of timing — not least the careers of game developers. One story which Matthew Engle shared with me when I interviewed him in preparation for this article makes that point disarmingly explicit. In 1986, Daniel, Matthew, and another friend created a BASIC text adventure called Zapracker, which they attempted to sell through their local software stores. Matthew:

We made our own boxes and packaged the game with the floppy disk and the manual, just like Richard Garriott did back in the day. Our box was designed to hang on a peg in a software store. We got on a bus with 25 or so copies and visited a few different stores. We’d say, “Hey, would you like to sell this on consignment? You get half the money and we get half.” A few stores took us up on it, and we sold a few copies.

Zapracker (A Lost Classic?)

This tale is indeed almost eerily similar of that of Richard Garriott selling a Ziploc-bagged Akalabeth through his local Computerland just six years earlier; if anything, our heroes in 1986 would appear to have put more effort into their packaging, and perhaps into their game as well, than Garriott did into his. But in the short span of barely half a decade, the possibility of parlaying a homemade game hanging on a rack in a local computer store into an iconic franchise had evaporated. Instead Daniel and Matthew would have to go another route.

Their game-making efforts were growing steadily more sophisticated, as evinced by Daniel’s choice of programming languages: after starting off in Apple II BASIC, he moved on to an MS-DOS C compiler. Adopting unknowingly the approach that had already been used by everyone from Scott Adams to Infocom, from Telarium to Polarware to Magnetic Scrolls, Daniel wrote an interpreter in C which could present a text adventure written in a domain-specific language of his own devising. Matthew then wrote most of the text for what became Skyland’s Star, a science-fiction scenario.

During the pair’s last year in high school, the Los Angeles school district and the manufacturing conglomerate Rockwell International co-sponsored a contest for interesting student projects in computer science. Once Daniel and Matthew decided to enter it, it gave them a thing which many creators find invaluable: a deadline. They finished up their game, and submitted it alongside the technological framework that enabled it. They were soon informed that their project was among the finalists, and were invited to a dinner and awards ceremony at a fancy hotel. Matthew:

All of the finalists were there, demonstrating their entries. We did a couple of interviews for a local TV station. Then the dinner started. They started running down the list of winners, and before we knew it, it was down to two finalists: my and Dan’s project and another one. Then they announced the other one as second place; we had won. It was quite a night!

Matthew Engle and Daniel Berke win the contest with Skyland’s Star in 1989. That’s Daniel’s Apple II GS running the game; he wrote it on that machine in MS-DOS via a PC Transporter emulator card.

Daniel and Matthew gave little initial thought to monetizing their big win. After finishing high school in 1989, they went their separate ways, at least in terms of physical location: Daniel moved to New York to study computer science, while Matthew stayed in Los Angeles to study film. But they kept in touch, and soon started talking about making another game, this time in the spirit of their other favorite type from the 1980s: an old-school Ultima.

It was 1991 by now, and, fed by the meteoric success of Apogee, shareware games of many different stripes were appearing. Daniel and Matthew as well finally caught the fever. They belatedly released Skyland’s Star as shareware for $15, using it as a sort of test case for the eventual marketing of their Ultima-alike. They were among those noble or naïve souls who eschewed the Apogee model in favor of releasing their whole game at once. Instead of offering the rest of the game as an enticement, Daniel and Matthew offered a printed instruction manual, hint book, and map — nice things to have, to be sure, but perhaps not things that played on the psychological compulsions of gamers so powerfully as the literal rest of a game which they dearly wanted to finish. Daniel and Matthew weren’t overwhelmed with registrations.

Progress on the Ultima-like game, which was to be called Excelsior Phase I: Lysandia, was inevitably slowed by their respective university studies; the biggest chunk of the work got done in the summers of 1991, 1992, and 1993, when Daniel came back to Los Angeles and they both had more free time. Then they would sit for hours many days at their favorite pizza restaurant, sketching out their plans. Matthew did most of the scenario design, graphics, and writing, while Daniel did all of the programming.

Calling themselves by now 11th Dimension Entertainment, they finished and released Excelsior in 1993 as shareware, with a registration price of $20. Once again, they relied on a manual, a hint book, and a map alongside players’ consciences to convince them to register. Although it certainly didn’t become an Apogee-sized success story, Excelsior did garner more attention and registrations than had Skyland’s Star. It was helped not only by its being in a (marginally) more commercially viable genre, but also by its coming into a world that was just on the cusp of the Internet Revolution, with the additional distribution possibilities which that massive change to the way that everyday people used their computers brought with it.

As they were finishing Excelsior, Daniel and Matthew had also been finishing their degree programs. Daniel got a programming job at Electronic Arts after a few false starts, while Matthew started a career in Hollywood that would put him, ironically given the retro nature of Excelsior, on teams making cutting-edge CD-ROM-enabled multimedia products at companies like Disney Interactive. Despite their busy lives, they were both still excited enough by independent game development, and gratified enough by the response to Excelsior I, that they embarked on a sequel in 1994. Whereas Excelsior I had aimed for a point somewhere between Ultima IV and Ultima V, Excelsior II took Ultima VI as its model, with all of the increased graphics sophistication that would imply. For this reason not least, the partners wound up spending fully five years making it, communicating almost entirely electronically.

The sheer quantity of labor which Matthew in particular put into this retro-game with limited commercial prospects could have been motivated only by love. Matthew:

We went all out. I ultimately made about 3800 16 X 16-pixel tiles. It was an exhausting process. For every tile, I had to specify whether you could walk on it or it would block you. There was also transparency; we had layers of tiles, overlaid upon one another. There might be a grass tile, then the player-character tile. Then, if you’re walking through a doorway, for example, the arch at the top of the doorway.

Then, after that exhausting process, began the arduous process of putting the tiles down to create the map, which was 500 X 500 tiles if I’m not mistaken — so, 250,000 tiles to place. Plus all of the town and castle and dungeon maps had to be created.

By the time they released Excelsior Phase II: Errondor in 1999, software distribution had changed dramatically from what it had been six years before. It was now feasible to accept credit-card registrations online, and to offer registrants the instant satisfaction of downloadable PDF documents and the like. The motivating ethic of the original shareware movement was alive and well in its way, but, just as with other types of software, the phrase “shareware games” was soon to fall out of use. The more tactile, personal side of the shareware experience, entailing mailed checks, documents, and disks, had already mostly faded into history. Excelsior II did reasonably well for a niche product in this brave new world, but even before its release Daniel and Matthew knew that it would be their last game together. “We realized we just didn’t have it in us to do an Excelsior III,” says Matthew.

In the end, the two of them sold roughly 500 copies each of Excelsior I and II — “small potatoes” by any standard, as Matthew freely admits. He believes that they made perhaps $5000 to $10,000 in all on their games, after the cost of postage and all those printed manuals was subtracted.

I must confess that I personally have some reservations about the 11th Dimension games. It seems to me that Skyland’s Star‘s scenario isn’t quite compelling enough to overcome the engine’s limited parser and lack of player conveniences, and that the Excelsior games, while certainly expansive and carefully put-together, rely a bit too much on needle-in-the-haystack hunting over their enormous maps. Then again, though, I have the exact same complaints about the Ultima games which Excelsior emulates, which would seem to indicate that Daniel and Matthew actually achieved their goal of bringing old-school Ultima back to life. If you happen to like those Ultima games a little more than I do, in other words, you’ll probably be able to say the same about the Excelsior games. One thing that cannot be denied is that all of the 11th Dimension games reflect the belief on the part of their makers that anything worth doing at all is worth doing well.

Shareware gave a place for games like those of Daniel and Matthew to live and breathe when the only other viable mode of distribution was through the boxed publishers, who interested themselves only in a fairly small subset of the things that games can do and be. Long before the likes of Steam, the shareware scene was the indie-games scene of its time, demonstrating all of the quirky spirit which that phrase has come to imply. While the big boys were all gazing fixedly at the same few points in the middle distance, shareware makers dared to look in other directions — even, as in the case of Daniel and Matthew, to look behind them. In the face of a mainstream industry which seemed hell-bent on forgetting its history, that was perhaps the most radically indie notion of them all.

(Sources: the books Masters of Doom by David Kushner, Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters by David L. Craddock, and Sophistication & Simplicity: The Life and Times of the Apple II Computer by Steven Weyhrich; Computer Gaming World of December 1992, January 1993, March 1993, May 1993, June 1993, July 1993, September 1993, January 1994, February 1994, and June 1994; Game Developer of January/February 1995; PC Powerplay of May 1996; Questbusters of November 1991; Los Angeles Times of February 6 1987; the tape magazine CLOAD of February 1978; the disk magazine Big Blue Disk of January 1988, May 1988, June 1988, March 1989, April 1989, September 1989, and August 1990. Online sources include the archives on the old 3D Realms site, the M & R Technologies interview with Jim Knopf, Samuel Stoddard’s Apogee FAQ, Al Vekovius’s old faculty page at Louisiana State University Shreveport, Stephen Vekovius’s appearance on All Y’all podcast, “Apogee: Where Wolfenstein Got Its Start” at Polygon, Benj Edwards’s interview with Scott Miller for Gamasutra, and Matt Barton’s interview with Scott Miller. Most of all, I owe a warm thank you to Matthew Engle for giving me free registered copies of the 11th Dimension games and talking to me at length about his experiences in shareware games.

In the interest of full disclosure as well as a full listing of sources, I have to note that a small part of this article is drawn from lived personal experience. I actually knew Scott Miller and George Broussard in the late 1980s and early 1990s, albeit only in a very attenuated, second-hand sort of way: Scott dated my sister for several years. Scott and George came by my room from time to time to see the latest Amiga games when I was still in high school. Had I known that my sister’s lovelife had provided me with a front-row seat to gaming history, and that I would later become a gaming historian among other things, I would doubtless have taken more interest in them. As it was, though, they were just a couple of older guys with uncool MS-DOS computers wanting to see what an Amiga could do.

A year and a half to two years after finishing high school, I interviewed for a job at Apogee, which was by then flying high. Again, had I known what my future held I would have paid more attention to my surroundings; I retain only the vaguest impression of a chaotic but otherwise unremarkable-looking office. Scott and George were perceptive enough to realize that I would never have fit in with them, and didn’t hire me. For this I bear them no ill will whatsoever, given that their choice not to do so was the best one for all of us; I would have been miserable there. I believe that the day of that interview in 1992 was the last time I ever saw Scott and George; Scott and my sister broke up permanently shortly thereafter if not before.

The company once known as Apogee, which is now known as 3D Realms, has released all of their old shareware games for free on their website. Daniel Berke and Matthew Engle continue to maintain their old games in updated versions that work with modern incarnations of Windows; you can download them and purchase registrations on the 11th Dimension Entertainment home page.)


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