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The Incredible Machine

As we saw in my previous article, Jeff Tunnell walked away from Dynamix’s experiments with “interactive movies” feeling rather disillusioned by the whole concept. How ironic, then, that in at least one sense comparisons with Hollywood continued to ring true even after he thought he’d consigned such things to his past. When he stepped down from his post at the head of Dynamix in order to found Jeff Tunnell Productions and make smaller but more innovative games, he was making the sort of bargain with commercial realities that many a film director had made before him. In the world of movies, and now increasingly in that of games as well, smaller, cheaper projects were usually the only ones allowed to take major thematic, formal, and aesthetic risks. If Tunnell hoped to innovate, he had come to believe, he would have to return to the guerrilla model of game development that had held sway during the 1980s, deliberately rejecting the studio-production culture that was coming to dominate the industry of the 1990s. So, he recruited Kevin Ryan, a programmer who had worked at Dynamix almost from the beginning, and set up shop in the office next door with just a few other support personnel.

Tunnell knew exactly what small but innovative game he wanted to make first. It was, appropriately enough, an idea that dated back to those wild-and-free 1980s. In fact, he and Damon Slye had batted it around when first forming Dynamix all the way back in 1983. At that time, Electronic Art’s Pinball Construction Set, which gave you a box of (virtual) interchangeable parts to use in making playable pinball tables of your own, was taking the industry by storm, ushering in a brief heyday of similar computerized erector sets; Electronics Arts alone would soon be offering the likes of an Adventure Construction Set, a Music Construction Set, and a Racing Destruction Set. Tunnell and Slye’s idea was for a sort of machine construction set: a system for cobbling together functioning virtual mechanisms of many types out of interchangeable parts. But they never could sell the vaguely defined idea to a publisher, thus going to show that even the games industry of the 1980s maybe wasn’t quite so wild and free as nostalgia might suggest.1

Still, the machine-construction-set idea never left Tunnell, and, after founding Jeff Tunnell Productions in early 1992, he was convinced that now was finally the right time to see it through. At its heart, the game, which he would name The Incredible Machine, must be a physics simulator. Luckily, all those years Kevin Ryan had spent building all those vehicular simulators for Dynamix provided him with much of the coding expertise and even actual code that he would need to make it. Ryan had the basic engine working within a handful of months, whereupon Tunnell and anyone else who was interested could start pitching in to make the many puzzles that would be needed to turn a game engine into a game.

The look of the Mouse Trap board game…

…is echoed by the Incredible Machine computer game.

If Pinball Construction Set and those other early “creativity games” were one part of the influences that would result in The Incredible Machine, the others are equally easy to spot. One need only glance at a screenshot to be reminded of the old children’s board game cum toy Mouse Trap, a simplistic exercise in roll-and-move whose real appeal is the elaborate, Rube Goldberg-style mechanism that the players slowly assemble out of plastic parts in order to trap one another’s pieces — if, that is, the dodgy contraption, made out of plastic and rubber bands, doesn’t collapse on itself instead. But sadly, there’s only one way to put the mousetrap’s pieces together, making the board game’s appeal for any but the youngest children short-lived. The Incredible Machine, on the other hand, would offer the opportunity to build a nearly infinite number of virtual mousetraps.

In contrast to such venerable inspirations, the other game that clearly left its mark on The Incredible Machine was one of the hottest current hits in the industry at the time the latter was being made. Lemmings, the work of a small team out of Scotland called DMA Design, was huge in every corner of the world where computer games were played — a rarity during what was still a fairly fragmented era of gaming culture. A level-oriented puzzle game of ridiculous charm, Lemmings made almost anyone who saw it want it to pick up the mouse and start playing it, and yet managed to combine this casual accessibility with surprising depth and variety over the course of 120 levels that started out trivial and escalated to infuriating and beyond. Its strong influence can be seen in The Incredible Machine‘s similar structure, consisting of 87 machines to build, beginning with some tutorial puzzles to gently introduce the concepts and parts and ending with some fiendishly complex problems indeed. For that matter, Lemmings‘s commercial success, which proved that there was a real market for accessible games with a different aesthetic sensibility than the hardcore norm, did much to make Sierra, Dynamix’s new owner and publisher, enthusiastic about the project.

Like Lemmings, the heart of The Incredible Machine is its robust, hugely flexible engine. Yet that potential would have been for naught had not Tunnell, Ryan, and their other associates delivered a progression of intriguing puzzles that build upon one another in logical ways as you learn more and more about the engine’s possibilities. One might say that, if the wonderful engine is the heart of the game, the superb puzzle design is the soul of the experience — just as is the case, yet again, with Lemmings. In training you how to play interactively and then slowly ramping up the challenge, Lemmings and The Incredible Machine both embraced the accepted best practices of modern game design well before they had become such. They provide you the wonderful rush of feeling smart, over and over again as you master the ever more complex dilemmas they present to you.

To understand how The Incredible Machine actually works in practice, let’s have a look at a couple of its individual puzzles. We’ll begin with the very first of them, an admittedly trivial exercise for anyone with any experience in the game.

Each puzzle begins with three things: with a goal; with an incomplete machine already on the main board, consisting of some selection of immovable parts; and with some additional parts waiting off on the right side of the screen, to be dragged onto the board where we will. In this case, we need to send the basketball through the “hoop” — which is, given that there is no “net” graphic in the game’s minimalist visual toolkit, the vaguely hole-shaped arrangement of pieces below and to the right of where the basketball stands right now. Looking to the parts area at the far right, we see that we have three belts, three hamster wheels, and three ramp pieces to help us accomplish our goal. The score tallies at the bottom of the screen have something or other to do with time and number of puzzles already completed, but feel free to do like most players and ignore them; the joy of this game is in making machines that work, not in chalking up high scores. Click on the image above to see what happens when we start our fragment of a machine in its initial state.

Not much, right? The bowling ball that begins suspended in mid-air simply falls into the ether. Let’s begin to make something more interesting happen by putting a hamster cage below the falling ball. When the ball drops on top of it, the little fellow will get spooked and start to run.


His scurrying doesn’t accomplish anything as long as his wheel isn’t connected to any other parts. So, let’s stretch a belt from the hamster wheel to the conveyor belt just above and to its right.


Now we’re getting somewhere! If we put a second hamster wheel in the path of the second bowling ball, and connect it to the second conveyor belt, we can get the third bowling ball rolling.


And then, as you’ve probably surmised, the same trick can be used to send the basketball through the hoop.

Note that we never made use of the three ramp pieces at our disposal. This is not unusual. Because each puzzle really is a dynamic physics simulation rather than a problem with a hard-coded solution, many of them have multiple solutions, some of which may never have been thought of by the designers. In this quality as well The Incredible Machine is, yet once more, similar to Lemmings.

The game includes many more parts than we had available to us in the first puzzle; there are some 45 of them in all, far more than any single puzzle could ever use. Even the physical environment itself eventually becomes a variable, as the later puzzles begin to mess with gravity and atmospheric pressure.

We won’t look at anything that daunting today, but we should have a look at a somewhat more complicated puzzle from a little later in the game, one that will give us more of a hint of the engine’s real potential.

In tribute to Mouse Trap (and because your humble correspondent here just really likes cats), this one will be a literal game of cat and mouse, as shown above. We need to move Mort the Mouse from the top right corner of the screen to the vaguely basket-like enclosure at bottom left, and we’ll have to use Pokey the Cat to accomplish part of that goal. We have more parts to work with this time than will fit in the parts window to the right. (We can scroll through the pages of parts by clicking on the arrows just above.) So, in addition to the two belts, one gear, one electric motor, two electric fans, and one generator shown in the screenshot below, know that we also have three ramp pieces at our disposal.

Already with the starting setup, a baseball flips on a household power outlet, albeit one to which nothing is initially connected.

We can connect one of the fans to the power outlet to blow Mort toward the left. Unfortunately, he gets stuck on the scenery rather than falling all the way down to the next level.


So, we need to alter the mouse’s trajectory by using one of our ramp pieces; note that these, like many parts, can be flipped horizontally and stretched to suit our needs. Our first attempt at placing the ramp does cause Mort to fall down to the next level, and he then starts running away from Pokey toward the right, as we want. But he’s not fast enough to get to the end of the pipe on which he’s running before Pokey catches him. This is good for Pokey, but not so good for us — and, needless to say, least good of all for Mort. (At least the game politely spares us the carnage that ensues after he’s caught by making him simply disappear.)


A little more experimentation and we find a placement of the ramp that works better.


Now we just have to move the mouse back to the left and into the basket. The most logical approach would seem to be to use the second fan to blow him there. Simple enough, right? Getting it running, however, will be a more complicated affair, considering that we don’t have a handy mains-power outlet already provided down here and that our fan’s cord won’t stretch anywhere near as far as we need it to in order to utilize the outlet above. So, we begin by instead plugging our electric motor into the second socket of the outlet we do have, and belting it up to the gear that’s already fixed in place.


So far, so good. Now we mesh the gear from our box of parts to the one that’s already on the board, and belt it up to our generator, which provides us with another handy power outlet right where we need it.


Now we place our second fan just right, and… voila! We’ve solved the puzzle with two ramp pieces to spare.


The experience of working through the stages of a solution, getting a little closer each time, is almost indescribably satisfying for anyone with the slightest hint of a tinkering spirit. The Incredible Machine wasn’t explicitly pitched as an educational product, but, like a lot of Sierra’s releases during this period, it nevertheless had something of an educational — or at least edutational — aura, what with its bright, friendly visual style and nonviolent premise (the occasional devoured mouse excepted!). There’s much to be learned from it — not least that even the most gnarly problems, in a computer game or in real life, can usually be tackled by breaking them down into a series of less daunting sub-problems. Later on, when the puzzles get really complex, one may question where to even start. The answer, of course, is just to put some parts on the board and connect some things together, to start seeing what’s possible and how things react with one another. Rolling up the old sleeves and trying things is better than sitting around paralyzed by a puzzle’s — or by life’s — complexity. For the pure tinkerers among us, meanwhile, the game offers a free-form mode where you can see what sort of outlandish contraption you can come up with, just for the heck of it. It thus manages to succeed as both a goal-oriented game in the mode of Lemmings and as a software toy in the mode of its 1980s inspirations.

As we’ve already seen, Jeff Tunnell Productions had been formed with the intention of making smaller, more formally innovative games than those typically created inside the main offices of Dynamix. It was tacitly understood that games of this stripe carried with them more risk and perhaps less top-end sales potential than the likes of Damon Slye’s big military flight simulators; these drawbacks would be compensated for only by their vastly lower production costs. It’s thus a little ironic to note that The Incredible Machine upon its release on December 1, 1992, became a major, immediate hit by the standard of any budget. Were it not for another of those aforementioned Damon Slye simulations, a big World War II-themed extravaganza called Aces of the Pacific that had been released just days before it, it would actually have become Dynamix’s single best-selling game to date. As it was, Aces of the Pacific sold a few more absolute units, but in terms of profitability there was no comparison; The Incredible Machine had cost peanuts to make by the standards of an industry obsessed with big, multimedia-rich games.

The size comparisons are indeed telling. Aces of the Pacific had shipped on three disks, while Tunnell’s previous project, the interactive cartoon The Adventures of Willy Beamish, had required six. The Incredible Machine, by contrast, fit comfortably on a single humble floppy, a rarity among games from Dynamix’s parent company Sierra especially, from whose boxes sometimes burst forth as many as a dozen disks, who looked forward with desperate urgency to the arrival of CD-ROMs and their 650 MB of storage. The Incredible Machine needed less than 1 MB of space in all, and its cost of production had been almost as out of proportion with the Sierra norm as its byte count. It thus didn’t take Dynamix long to ask Jeff Tunnell Productions to merge back into their main fold. With the profits The Incredible Machine was generating, it would be best to make sure its developers remained in the Dynamix/Sierra club.

There was much to learn from The Incredible Machine‘s success for any student of the evolving games industry who bothered to pay attention. Along with Tetris and Lemmings before it, it provided the perfect template for “casual” gaming, a category the industry hadn’t yet bothered to label. It could be used as a five-minute palate-cleanser between tasks on the office computer as easily as it could become a weekend-filling obsession on the home computer. It was a low-investment game, quick and easy to get into and get out of, its premise and controls obvious from the merest glance at the screen, yet managed to conceal beneath its shallow surface oceans of depth. At the same time, though, that depth was of such a nature that you could set it aside for weeks or months when life got in the way, then pick it up and continue with the next puzzle as if nothing had happened. This sort of thing, much more so than elaborate interactive movies filmed with real actors on real sound stages —  or, for that matter, hardcore flight simulators that demanded hours and hours of practice just to rise to the level of competent — would prove to be the real future of digital games as mass-market entertainments. The founding ethos of the short-lived entity known as Jeff Tunnell Productions — to focus on small games that did one thing really, really well — could stand in for that of countless independent game studios working in the mobile and casual spaces today.

Still, it would be a long time before The Incredible Machine and games like it became more than occasional anomalies in an industry obsessed with cutting-edge technology and size, both in megabytes and in player time commitment. In the meantime, developers who did realize that not every gamer was thirsting to spend dozens of hours immersed in an interactive Star Wars movie or Lord of the Rings novel could do very well for themselves. The Incredible Machine was the sort of game that lent itself to almost infinite sequels once the core engine had been created. With the latter to hand, all that remained for Tunnell and company was to churn out more puzzles. Thus the next several years brought The Even More! Incredible Machine, a re-packaging of the original game with an additional 73 puzzles; Sid & Al’s Incredible Toons, which moved the gameplay into more forthrightly cartoon territory via its titular Tom & Jerry ripoffs; and The Incredible Machine 2 and The Incredible Toon Machine, which were just what they sounded like they would be. Being the very definition of “more of the same,” these aren’t the sort of games that lend themselves to extended criticism, but certainly players who had enjoyed the original game found plenty more to enjoy in the sequels. Along the way, the series proved quietly but significantly influential as more than just one of the pioneers of casual games in the abstract: it became the urtext of the entire genre of so-called “physics simulators.” There’s much of The Incredible Machine‘s influence to be found in more than one facet of such a modern casual mega-hit as the Angry Birds franchise.

For his part, Jeff Tunnell took away from The Incredible Machine‘s success the lesson that his beloved small games were more than commercially viable. He spent most of the balance of the 1990s working similar territory. In the process, he delivered two games that sold even better than The Incredible Machine franchise — in fact, they became the two best-selling games Dynamix would ever release. Trophy Bass and 3-D Ultra Pinball are far from the best-remembered or best-loved Dynamix-related titles among hardcore gamers today, but they sold and sold and sold to an audience that doesn’t tend to read blogs like this one. While neither is a brilliantly innovative design like The Incredible Machine, their huge success hammers home the valuable lesson, still too often forgotten, that many different kinds of people play many different kinds of games for many different reasons, and that none of these people, games, or reasons is a wrong one.

(Sources: Sierra’s InterAction news magazine of Fall 1992 and Winter 1992; Computer Gaming World of March 1992 and April 1993; Commodore Microcomputers of November/December 1986; Matt Barton’s interviews with Jeff Tunnell in Matt Chat 200 and 201; press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play.

All of the Incredible Machine games are available for purchase in one “mega pack” from GOG.com.)


  1. That, anyway, is the story which both Jeff Tunnell and Kevin Ryan tell in interviews today, which also happened to be the only one told in an earlier version of this article. But this blog’s friend Jim Leonard has since pointed out the existence of a rather obscure children’s game from the heyday of computerized erector sets called Creative Contraptions, published by the brief-lived software division of Bantam Books and created by a team of developers who called themselves Looking Glass Software (no relation to the later, much more famous Looking Glass Studios). It’s a machine construction set in its own right, one which is strikingly similar to the game which is the main subject of this article, even including some of the very same component parts, although it is more limited in many ways than Tunnell and Ryan’s creation, with simpler mechanisms to build out of fewer parts and less flexible controls that are forced to rely on keystrokes rather than the much more intuitive affordances of the mouse. One must assume that Tunnell and Ryan either reinvented much of Creative Contraptions or expanded on a brilliant concept beautifully in the course of taking full advantage of the additional hardware at their disposal. If the latter, there’s certainly no shame in that. 

 

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The Dynamic Interactive Narratives of Dynamix

By 1990, the world of adventure games was coming to orient itself after the twin poles of Sierra Online and LucasFilm Games. The former made a lot of games, on diverse subjects and of diverse quality, emphasizing always whatever new audiovisual flash was made possible by the very latest computing technology. The latter, on the other hand, made far fewer and far less diverse but more careful games, fostering a true designer’s culture that emphasized polish over flash. In their attitudes toward player-character death and dead ends, toward puzzle design, toward graphics style, each company had a distinct personality, and adventure-game fans lined up, as they continue to do even today, as partisans of one or the other.

Yet in the vast territory between these two poles were many other developers experimenting with the potential of adventure games, and in many cases exploring approaches quite different from either of the two starring players. One of the more interesting of these supporting players was the Oregon-based Dynamix, who made five adventure or vaguely adventure-like games between 1988 and 1991 — as many adventure-like games, in fact, as LucasFilm Games themselves managed to publish during the same period. Despite this relative prolificacy, Dynamix was never widely recognized as an important purveyor of adventures; they enjoyed their greatest fame in the very different realm of 3D vehicular simulations. There are, as we’ll see, some pretty good reasons for that to be the case; for all their surprisingly earnest engagement with interactive narrative, none of the five games in question managed to rise to the level of a classic. Still, they all are, to a one, interesting at the very least, which is a track record few other dabblers in the field of adventure games can lay claim to.


Arcticfox, Dynamix’s breakout hit, arrived when Electronic Arts was still nursing the remnants of Trip Hawkins’s original dream of game developers as rock stars, leading to lots of strange photos like this one. This early incarnation of Dynamix consisted of (from left to right) Kevin Ryan, Jeff Tunnell, Damon Slye, and Richard Hicks.

Like a number of other early software developers, Dynamix was born on the floor of a computer shop. The shop in question was The Computer Tutor of Eugene, Oregon, owned and operated in the early 1980s by a young computer fanatic named Jeff Tunnell (the last name is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, like “Raquel” — not like “tunnel”). He longed to get in on the creative end of software, but had never had the patience to progress much beyond BASIC as a programmer in his own right. Then came the day when one of his regular customers, a University of Oregon undergraduate named Damon Slye, showed him a really hot Apple II action game he was working on. Tunnell knew opportunity when he saw it.

Thus was born a potent partnership, one not at all removed from the similar partnership that had led to MicroProse Software on the other coast. Jeff Tunnell was the Wild Bill Stealey of this pairing: ambitious, outgoing, ready and willing to tackle the business side of software development. Damon Slye was the Sid Meier: quiet, a little shy, but one hell of a game programmer.

Tunnell and Slye established their company in 1983, at the tail end of the Ziploc-bag era of software publishing, under the dismayingly generic name of The Software Entertainment Company. They started selling the game that had sparked the company, which Slye had now named Stellar 7, through mail order. The first-person shoot-em-up put the player in charge of a tank lumbering across the wire-frame surface of an enemy-infested planet. It wasn’t the most original creation in the world, owing a lot to the popular Atari quarter-muncher Battlezone, but 3D games of this sort were unusual on the Apple II, and this one was executed with considerable aplomb. A few favorable press notices led to it being picked up by Penguin Software in 1984, which in turn led to Tunnell selling The Computer Tutor in order to concentrate on his new venture. (Unbeknownst to Tunnell and Slye at the time, Stellar 7 was purchased and adored by Tom Clancy, author of one of the most talked-about books of the year. “It is so unforgiving,” he would later say. “It is just like life. It’s just perfect to play when I’m exercising. I get on my exercycle, start pedaling, pick up the joystick, and I’m off…”)

But the life of a small software developer just as the American home-computer industry was entering its first slump wasn’t an easy one. Tunnell signed contracts wherever he could find them to keep his head above water: releasing Sword of Kadash, an adventure/CRPG/platformer hybrid masterminded by another kid from The Computer Tutor named Chris Cole; writing a children’s doodler called The Electronic Playground himself with a little help from Damon Slye; even working on a simple word processor for home users.

In fact, it was this last which led to the company’s big break. They had chosen to write that program in C, a language which wasn’t all that common on the first generation of 8-bit microcomputers but which was officially blessed as the best way to program a new 16-bit audiovisual powerhouse called the Commodore Amiga. Their familiarity with C gave Tunnell’s company, by now blessedly renamed Dynamix, an in with Electronic Arts, the Amiga’s foremost patron in the software world, who were looking for developers to create products for the machine while it was still in the prototype phase. Damon Slye thus got started programming Arcticfox on an Amiga that didn’t even have a functioning operating system, writing and compiling his code on an IBM PC and sending it over to the Amiga via cable for execution.

Conceptually, Arcticfox was another refinement on the Battlezone/Stellar 7 template, another tooling-around-and-shooting-things-in-a-tank game. As a demonstration of the Amiga’s capabilities, however, it was impressive, replacing its predecessors’ monochrome wire-frame graphics with full-color solids. Reaching store shelves in early 1986 as part of the first wave of Amiga games, Arcticfox was widely ported and went on to sell over 100,000 copies in all, establishing Dynamix’s identity as a purveyor of cutting-edge 3D graphics. In that spirit, the next few years would bring many more 3D blast-em games, with names like Skyfox II, F-14 Tomcat, Abrams Battle Tank, MechWarrior, Deathtrack, and A-10 Tank Killer.

Yet even in the midst of all these adrenaline-gushers, Jeff Tunnell was nursing a quiet interest in the intersection of narrative with interactivity, even as he knew that he didn’t want to make a traditional adventure game of either the text or the graphical stripe. Like many in his industry by the second half of the 1980s, he believed the parser was hopeless as a long-term sell to the mass market, while the brittle box of puzzles that was the typical graphic adventure did nothing for him either. He nursed a dream of placing the player in a real unfolding story, partially driving events but partially being driven by them, like in a movie. Of course, he was hardly alone at the time in talking about “interactive movies”; the term was already becoming all the rage. But Dynamix’s first effort in that direction certainly stood out from the pack — or would have, if fate had been kinder to it.

Jeff Tunnell still calls Project Firestart the most painful single development project he’s ever worked on over the course of more than three decades making games. Begun before Arcticfox was published, it wound up absorbing almost three years at a time when the average game was completed in not much more than three months. By any sane standard, it was just way too much game for the Commodore 64, the platform for which it was made. It casts the player as a “special agent” of the future named Jon Hawking, sent to investigate a spaceship called the Prometheus that had been doing controversial research into human genetic manipulation but has suddenly stopped communicating. You can probably guess where this going; I trust I won’t be spoiling too much to reveal that zombie-like mutants now roam the ship after having killed most of the crew. The influences behind the story Tunnell devised aren’t hard to spot — the original Alien movie being perhaps foremost among them — but it works well enough on its own terms.

In keeping with Tunnel’s commitment to doing something different with interactive narrative, Project Firestart doesn’t present itself in the guise of a traditional adventure game. Instead it’s an action-adventure, an approach that was generally more prevalent among British than American developers. You explore the ship’s rooms and corridors in real time, using a joystick to shoot or avoid the monsters who seem to be the only life remaining aboard the Prometheus. What makes it stand out, however, is the lengths Dynamix went to to make it into a real unfolding story with real stakes. As you explore, you come across computer terminals holding bits and pieces of what has happened here, and of what you need to do to stop the contagion aboard from spreading further. You have just two hours, calculated in real playing time, to gather up all of the logs you can for the benefit of future researchers, make contact with any survivors from the crew who might have managed to hole up somewhere, set the ship’s self-destruct mechanism, and escape. You’re personally expendable; if you exceed the time limit, warships that are standing by will destroy the Prometheus with you aboard.

Throughout the game, cinematic touches are used to build tension and drama. For example, when you step out of an elevator to the sight of your first dead body, a stab of music gushes forth and the “camera” cuts to a close-up of the grisly scene. Considering what a blunt instrument Commodore 64 graphics and sound are, the game does a rather masterful job of ratcheting up the dread, whilst managing to sneak in a plot twist or two that even people who have seen Alien won’t be able to anticipate. Ammunition is a scarce commodity, leaving you feeling increasingly hunted and desperate as the ship’s systems begin to fail and the mutants relentlessly hunt you down through the claustrophobic maze of corridors. And yet, tellingly, Project Firestart diverges from the British action-adventure tradition in not being all that hard of a game in the final reckoning. You can reasonably expect to win within your first handful of tries, if perhaps not with the most optimal ending. It’s clearly more interested in giving you a cinematic experience than it is in challenging you in purely ludic terms.

Project Firestart was finally released in 1988, fairly late in the day for the Commodore 64 in North America and just as Tunnell was terminating his publishing contract with Electronic Arts under less-than-entirely-amicable terms and signing a new deal with Mediagenic. It thus shipped as one of Dynamix’s last games for Electronic Arts, received virtually no promotion, and largely vanished without a trace; what attention it did get came mostly from Europe, where this style of game was more popular in general and where the Commodore 64 was still a strong seller. But in recent years it’s enjoyed a reevaluation in the gaming press as, as the AV Club puts it, “a forgotten ’80s gem” that “created the formula for video game horror.” It’s become fashionable to herald it as the great lost forefather of the survival-horror genre that’s more typically taken to have been spawned by the 1992 Infogrames classic Alone in the Dark.

Such articles doubtless have their hearts in the right place, but in truth they rather overstate Project Firestart‘s claim to such a status at the same time that they rather understate its weaknesses. While the mood of dread the game manages to evoke with such primitive graphics and sound is indeed remarkable, it lacks any implementation of line of sight, and thus allows for no real stealth or hiding; the only thing to do if you meet some baddies you don’t want to fight is to run into the next room. If it must be said to foreshadow any future classic, my vote would go to Looking Glass Studio’s 1994 System Shock rather than Alone in the DarkSystem Shock too sees you gasping with dread as you piece together bits of a sinister story from computer terminals, even as the monsters of said story hunt you down. But even on the basis of that comparison Project Firestart remains more of a formative work than a classic in its own right. Its controls are awkward; you can’t even move and shoot at the same time. And, rather than consisting of a contiguous free-scrolling world, its geography is, due to technical limitations, segmented into rooms which give the whole a choppy, disconnected feel, especially given that they must each be loaded in from the Commodore 64’s achingly slow disk drive.

Accessing a shipboard computer in Project Firestart.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Project Firestart‘s protracted and painful gestation followed by its underwhelming commercial performance, Dynamix themselves never returned to this style of game. Yet it provided the first concrete manifestation of Jeff Tunnell’s conception of game narrative as — appropriately enough given the name of his company — a dynamic thing which provokes the player as much as it is provoked by her. Future efforts would gradually hew closer, on a superficial level at least, to the form of more traditional adventure games without abandoning this central conceit.

That said, the next narrative-oriented Dynamix game would still be an oddball hybrid by anyone’s standard. By 1989, Dynamix, like an increasing number of American computer-game developers, had hitched their wagon firmly to MS-DOS, and thus David Wolf: Secret Agent appeared only on that platform. It was intended to be an interactive James Bond movie.

But intention is not always result. To accept Dynamix’s own description of David Wolf as an interactive movie is to be quite generous indeed. It’s actually a non-interactive story, presented as a series of still images with dialog overlaid, interspersed with a handful of vehicular action games that feel like fragments Dynamix just happened to have lying around the office: a hang-glider sequence, a jet-fighter sequence, a car chase, the old jumping-out-of-an-airplane-without-a-parachute-just-behind-a-villain-who-does-have-one gambit. If you succeed at these, you get to watch more static story; if you fail, that’s that. Or maybe not: in a telling statement as to what was really important in the game, Dynamix made it possible to bypass any minigame at which you failed with the click of a button and keep right on trucking with the story. In a perceptive review for Computer Gaming World magazine, Charles Ardai compared David Wolf to, of all things, the old arcade game Ms. Pac-Man. The latter featured animated “interludes” every few levels showing the evolving relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Pac-Man. These served, Ardai noted, as the icing on the cake, a little bonus to reward the player’s progress. But David Wolf inverted that equation: the static story scenes were now the cake. The game existed “just for the sheer joy of seeing digitized images on your PC.”

Our hero David Wolf starts salivating over the game’s lone female as soon as he sees her picture during his mission briefing, and he and the villains spend most of the game passing her back and forth like a choice piece of meat.

These days, of course, seeing pixelated 16-color digitizations on the screen prompts considerably less joy, and the rest of what’s here is so slight that one can only marvel at Dynamix’s verve in daring to slap a $50 suggested list price on the thing. The whole game is over within an hour or so, and a cheesy hour it is at that; it winds up being more Get Smart than James Bond, with dialog that even Ian Fleming would have thought twice about before committing to the page. (A sample: “Garth, I see your temper is still intact. Too bad I can’t say the same for your sense of loyalty.”) It’s difficult to tell to what extent the campiness is accidental and to what extent it’s intentional. Charles Ardai:

The viewer isn’t certain how to take the material. Is it a parody of James Bond (which is, by now, self-parodic), a straight comic adventure (imitation Bond as opposed to parody), or a serious thriller? It is hard to take the strictly formula plot seriously, but several of the scenes suggest that one is supposed to. I suspect that the screenwriters never quite decided which direction to take, and hoped to be able to do with a little of each. This can’t possibly work. You can’t both parody a genre and, at the same time, place yourself firmly within that genre because the resulting self-parody looks embarrassingly unwitting. Certainly you can’t do this and expect to be taken seriously. Airplane! couldn’t ask us to take seriously its disaster plot and Young Frankenstein didn’t try to make viewers cry over the monster’s plight, but this is what the designers of David Wolf seem to be doing.

Such wild vacillations in tone are typical of amateur writers who haven’t yet learned to control their wayward pens. They’re thus all too typical as well of the “programmer-written” era of games, before hiring real writers became standard industry practice. David Wolf wouldn’t be the last Dynamix game to suffer from the syndrome.

The cast of David Wolf manages the neat trick of coming off as terrible actors despite having only still images to work with. Here they’re trying to look shocked upon being surprised by villains pointing guns at them.

But for all its patent shallowness, David Wolf is an interesting piece of gaming history for at least a couple of reasons. Its use of digitized actors, albeit only in still images, presaged the dubious craze for so-called “full-motion-video” games that would dominate much of the industry for several years in the 1990s. (Tellingly, during its opening credits David Wolf elects to list its actors, drawn along with many of the props they used from the University of Oregon’s theatrical department, in lieu of the designers, programmers, and artists who actually built the game; they have to wait until the end scroll for recognition.) And, more specifically to the context of this article, David Wolf provides a further illustration of Jeff Tunnell’s vision of computer-game narratives that weren’t just boxes of puzzles.

Much of the reason David Wolf wound up being such a constrained experience was down to Dynamix being such a small developer with fairly scant resources. Tunnell was therefore thrilled when an arrangement with the potential to change that emerged.

At some point in late 1989, Ken Williams of Sierra paid Dynamix a visit. Flight simulations and war games of the sort in which Dynamix excelled were an exploding market (no pun intended!) at the time, one which would grow to account for 35.6 percent of computer-game sales by the second half of 1990, dwarfing the 26.2 percent that belonged to Sierra’s specialty of adventure games. Williams wanted a piece of that exploding market. He was initially interested only in licensing some of Dynamix’s technology as a leg-up. But he was impressed enough by what he saw there — especially by a World War I dog-fighting game that the indefatigable Damon Slye had in the works — that the discussion of technology licensing turned into a full-on acquisition pitch. For his part, Jeff Tunnell, recognizing that the games industry was becoming an ever more dangerous place for a small company trying to go it alone, listened with interest. On March 27, 1990, Sierra acquired Dynamix for $1.5 million.

In contrast to all too many such acquisitions, neither party would come to regret the deal. Even in the midst of a sudden, unexpected glut in World War I flight simulators, Damon Slye’s Red Baron stood out from the pack with a flight model that struck the perfect balance between realism and fun. (MicroProse had planned to use the same name for their own simulator, but were forced to go with the less felicitious Knights of the Sky when Dynamix beat them to the trademark office by two weeks.) Over the Christmas 1990 buying season, Red Baron became the biggest hit Dynamix had yet spawned, proving to Ken Williams right away that he had made the right choice in acquiring them.

Williams and Tunnell maintained a relationship of real cordiality and trust, and Dynamix was given a surprising amount of leeway to set their own agenda from offices that remained in Eugene, Oregon. Tunnell was even allowed to continue his experiments with narrative games, despite the fact that Sierra, who were churning out a new adventure game of their own every couple of months by this point, had hardly acquired Dynamix with an eye to publishing still more of them.

And so Dynamix’s first full-fledged adventure game, with real interactive environments, puzzles, and dialog menus, hit the market not long after the acquisition was finalized. Rise of the Dragon had actually been conceived by Jeff Tunnell before David Wolf was made, only to be shelved as too ambitious for the Dynamix of 1988. But the following year, with much of the technical foundation for a real adventure game already laid down by David Wolf, they had felt ready to give it a go.

Rise of the Dragon found Dynamix once again on well-trodden fictional territory, this time going for a Bladerunner/Neuromancer cyberpunk vibe; the game’s setting is the neon-lit Los Angeles of a dystopic future of perpetual night and luscious sleaze. You play a fellow stamped with the indelible name of Blade Hunter, a former cop who got himself kicked off the force by playing fast and loose with the rules. Now, he works as a private detective for whoever can pay him. When the game begins, he’s just been hired by the mayor to locate his drug-addicted daughter, who has been swallowed up by the city’s underworld. As a plot like that would indicate, this is a game that very much wants to be edgy. King’s Quest it isn’t.

There are a lot of ideas in Rise of the Dragon, some of which work better than others, but all of which reflect a real, earnest commitment to a more propulsive form of interactive narrative than was typical of the new parent company Sierra’s games. Jeff Tunnell:

Dynamix adventures have an ongoing story that will unfold even if the player does nothing. The player needs to interact with the game world to change the outcome of that story. For example, if the player does nothing but sit in the first room of Dragon, he will observe cinematic “meanwhile cutaways” depicting the story of drug lord Deng Hwang terrorizing the futuristic city of Los Angeles with tainted drug patches that cause violent mutations. So the player’s job is to interact with the world and change the outcome of the story to one that is more pleasing and heroic.

The entire game runs in real time, with characters coming and going around the city on realistic schedules. Dialog is at least as important as object-based puzzle-solving, and characters remember how you treat them to an impressive degree. This evolving web of relationships, combined with a non-linear structure and multiple solutions to most dilemmas, creates a possibility space far greater than the typical adventure game, all set inside a virtual world which feels far more alive.

The interface as well goes its own way. The game uses a first-person rather than third-person perspective, a rarity in graphic adventures of this period. And, at a time when both Sierra and Lucasfilm Games were still presenting players with menus of verbs to click on, Rise of the Dragon debuted a cleaner single-click system: right-clicking on an object will examine it, left-clicking will take whatever action is appropriate to that object. Among its other virtues, the interface frees up screen real estate to present the striking graphics to maximum effect. Instead of continuing to rely on live actors, Dynamix hired veteran comic-book illustrator Robert Caracol to draw most of the scenery with pen and ink for digitization. Combined with the jump from 16-color EGA to 256-color VGA graphics, the new approach results in art worthy of a glossy, stylized graphic novel. Computer Gaming World gave the game a well-deserved “Special Award for Artistic Achievement” in their “Games of the Year” awards for 1990.

Just to remind us of who made the game, a couple of action sequences do pop up, neither of them all that notably good or bad. But, once again, failing at one of them brings an option to skip it and continue with the story as if you’d succeeded. Indeed, the game as a whole evinces a forgiving nature that’s markedly at odds both with its hard-bitten setting and with those other adventure games being made by Dynamix’s parent company. It may be possible to lock yourself out of victory or run out of time to solve the mystery, but you’d almost have to be willfully trying to screw up in order to do so. That Dynamix was able to combine this level of forgivingness with so much flexibility in the narrative is remarkable.

If you really screw up, Rise of the Dragon is usually kind enough to tell you so.

But there are flies in the ointment that hold the game back from achieving classic status. Perhaps inevitably given the broad possibility space, it’s quite a short game on any given playthrough, and once the story is known the potential interest of subsequent playthroughs is, to say the least, limited. Of course, this isn’t so much of a problem today as it was back when the game was selling for $40 or more. Other drawbacks, however, remain as problematic as ever. The interface, while effortless to use in many situations, is weirdly obtuse in others. The inventory system in particular, featuring a paper-doll view of Blade Hunter and employing two separate windows in the form of a “main” and a “quick” inventory, is far too clever for its own good. I also find it really hard to understand where room exits are and how the environment fits together. And the writing is once again on the dodgy side; it’s never entirely clear whether Blade Hunter is supposed to be a real cool cat (like the protagonist of Neuromancer the novel) or a lovable (?) loser (like the protagonist of Neuromancer the game). Add to these issues an impossible-to-take-seriously plot that winds up revolving around an Oriental death cult, plus some portrayals of black and Chinese people that border on the outright offensive, and we’re a long way from even competent comic-book fiction.

Still, Rise of the Dragon in my opinion represents the best of Jeff Tunnell’s experiments with narrative games. If you’re interested in exploring this odd little cul-de-sac in adventure-gaming history, I recommend it as the place to start, as it offers by far the best mix of innovation and playability, becoming in the process the best all-around expression of just where Tunnell was trying to go with interactive narrative.

Heart of China, the early 1991 follow-up to Rise of the Dragon, superficially appears to be more of the same in a different setting. The same engine and interface are used, including a couple more action-based mini-games to play or skip, with the genre dance taking us this time to a 1930s pulp-adventure story in the spirit of Indiana Jones. The most initially obvious change is the return to a heavy reliance on digitized “actors.” Dynamix wound up employing some 85 separate people on the business end of their cameras in a production which overlapped with that of Rise of the Dragon, with its beginning phases stretching all the way back into 1989. Thankfully, the integration of real people with computer graphics comes off much better than it does in David Wolf, evincing much more care on the part of the team responsible. Heart of China thus manages to become one of the less embarrassing examples of a style of graphics that was all but predestined to look hopelessly cheesy about five minutes after hitting store shelves.

I’m not sure if this is Really Bad Writing that expects to be taken seriously or Really Bad Writing that’s trying (and failing) to be funny. I’m quite sure, however, that it’s Really Bad Writing of some sort.

When you look more closely at the game’s design, however, you see a far more constrained approach to interactive storytelling than that of its predecessor. You play a down on-his-luck ex-World War I flying ace named “Lucky” Jake Masters. (If there was one thing Dynamix knew how to do, it was to create stereotypically macho names.) He’s running a shady air-courier cum smuggling business out of Hong Kong when he’s enlisted by a wealthy “international business tycoon and profiteer” to rescue his daughter, who’s been kidnapped by a warlord deep inside the Chinese mainland. (If there was one thing Dynamix didn’t know how to do, it was to create plots that didn’t involve rescuing the daughters of powerful white men from evil Chinese people.) The story plays out in a manner much more typical of a plot-heavy adventure game — i.e., as a linear series of acts to be completed one by one — than does that of its predecessor. Jeff Tunnell’s commitment to his original vision for interactive narrative was obviously slipping in the face of resource constraints and a frustration, shared by some of his contemporaries who were also interested in more dynamic interactive storytelling, that gamers didn’t really appreciate the extra effort anyway. His changing point of view surfaces in a 1991 interview:

From a conceptual standpoint, multiple plot points are exciting. But when you get down to the implementation, they can make game development an absolute nightmare. Then, after all of the work to implement these multiple paths and endings, we’ve found that most gamers never even discover them.

When the design of Heart of China does allow for some modest branching, Dynamix handles it in rather hilariously passive-aggressive fashion: big red letters reading “plot branch” appear on the screen. Take that, lazy gamers!

That Lucky’s a real charmer, alright.

Heart of China bears all the signs of a project that was scaled back dramatically in the making, a game which wound up being far more constrained and linear than had been the original plan. Yet it’s not for this reason that I find it to be one of the more unlikable adventure games I’ve ever played. The writing is so ludicrously terrible that one wants to take the whole thing as a conscious B-movie homage of the sort Cinemaware loved to make. But darned if Dynamix didn’t appear to expect us to take it seriously. “It has more depth and sensibility than I’ve ever seen in a computer storytelling game,” said Tunnell. It’s as if he thought he had made Heart of Darkness when he’d really made Tarzan the Ape-Man. The ethnic stereotyping manages to make Rise of the Dragon look culturally sensitive, with every Chinese character communicating in the same singsong broken English. And as for Lucky Jake… well, he’s evidently supposed to be a charming rogue just waiting for Harrison Ford to step into the role, but hitting those notes requires far, far more writerly deftness than anyone at Dynamix could muster. Instead he just comes off as a raging asshole — the sort of guy who creeps out every woman he meets with his inappropriate comments; the sort of guy who warns his friend-with-benefits that she’s gained a pound or two and thus may soon no longer be worthy of his Terrible Swift Sword. For all these reasons and more, I can recommend Heart of China only to the truly dedicated student of adventure-game history.

The third and final point-and-click adventure game created by Jeff Tunnell and Dynamix is in some ways the most impressive of them all and in others the most disappointing, given that it turns into such a waste of potential. Tunnell took a new tack with The Adventures of Willy Beamish, deciding to create a light-hearted comedic adventure that would play like a Saturday-morning cartoon. Taking advantage of a lull in Hollywood’s cartoon-production factories, he hired a team of professional animators of the old-school cell-based stripe, veterans of such high-profile productions as The Little Mermaid, Jonny Quest, and The Simpsons, along with a husband-and-wife team of real, honest-to-God professional television writers to create a script. Dynamix’s offices came to look, as a Computer Gaming World preview put it, like a “studio in the golden age of animation,” with animators “etching frantically atop the light tables” while “pen-and-pencil images of character studies, backgrounds, and storyboard tests surround them on the office walls.” The team swelled to some fifty people before all was said and done, making Willy Beamish by far the most ambitious and expensive project Dynamix had ever tackled.

Willy Beamish looked amazing in its time, and still looks just fine today, especially given that its style of hand-drawn cell-based animation is so seldom seen in the post-Pixar era. Look at the amount of detail in this scene!

What Tunnell got for his money was, as noted, darned impressive at first glance. Many companies — not least Sierra with their latest King’s Quest — were making noises about bringing “interactive cartoons” to computer monitors, but Dynamix was arguably the first to really pull it off. Switching to a third-person perspective in keeping with the cartoon theme, every frame was fussed-over to a degree that actually exceeded the likes of The Simpsons, much less the typical Saturday-morning rush job. Tunnel would later express some frustration that the end result may have been too good; he suspected that many people were mentally switching gears and subconsciously seeing it the way they might a cartoon on their television screen, not fully registering that everything they were seeing was playing on their computer. Today, all of this is given a further layer of irony by the way that 3D-rendered computer animation has all but made the traditional cell-based approach to cartoon animation used by Willy Beamish into a dead art. How odd to think that a small army of pencil-wielding illustrators was once considered a sign of progress in computer animation!

The game’s story is a deliberately modest, personal one — which in an industry obsessed with world-shaking epics was a good thing. The young Willy Beamish, a sort of prepubescent version of Ferris Bueller, wants to compete for the Nintari Championship of videogaming, but he and his dubiously named pet frog Horny are at risk of being grounded thanks to a bad mark in his music-appreciation class. From this simple dilemma stems several days of comedic chaos, including a variety of other story beats that involve his whole family. The tapestry was woven together with considerable deftness by the writers, whose experience with prime-time sitcoms served them well. It’s always a fine line between a precocious, smart-Alecky little boy and a grating, bratty one, but The Adventures of Willy Beamish mostly stays on the right side of it. For once, in other words, a Dynamix game has writing to match its ambition.

Horny the Frog springs into action.

Unfortunately, the game finds a new way to go off the rails. Rise of the Dragon and Heart of China had combined smart design sensibilities with dodgy writing; Willy Beamish does just the opposite. Like Rise of the Dragon, it runs in real time; unlike Rise of the Dragon, you are given brutally little time to accomplish what you need to in each scene. The game winds up playing almost like a platformer; you have to repeat each scene again and again to learn what to do, then execute perfectly in order to progress. Worse, it’s possible to progress without doing everything correctly, only to be stranded somewhere down the line. The experience of playing Willy Beamish is simply infuriating, a catalog of all the design sins Dynamix adventure games had heretofore been notable for avoiding. I have to presume that all those animators and writers caused Dynamix to forget that they were making an interactive work. As was being proved all over the games industry at the time, that was all too easy to do amidst all the talk about a grand union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

Sierra had been a little lukewarm on Dynamix’s previous adventure games, but they gave Willy Beamish a big promotional push for the Christmas 1991 buying season, even grabbing for it the Holy Grail of game promotion: a feature cover of Computer Gaming World. While I’m tempted to make a rude comment here about Dynamix finally making a game that embraced Sierra’s own design standards and them getting excited about that, the reality is of course that the game just looked too spectacular to do anything else. Sierra and Dynamix were rewarded with a solid hit that racked up numbers in the ballpark of one of the former’s more popular numbered adventure series. In 1993, Willy Beamish would even get a re-release as a full-fledged CD-ROM talkie, albeit with some of most annoying children’s voices ever recorded.

Willy Beamish has a “trouble meter” that hearkens back to Bureaucracy‘s blood-pressure monitor, except this time it’s presumably measuring the blood pressure of the adults around you. If you let it get too high, you get shipped off to boarding school.

But it had been a hugely expensive product to create, and it’s questionable whether its sales, strong though they were, were actually strong enough to earn much real profit. At any rate, Jeff Tunnell, the primary driver behind Dynamix’s sideline in adventure games, suddenly decided he’d had enough shortly after Willy Beamish was finished. It seems that the experience of working with such a huge team had rubbed him the wrong way. He therefore resigned the presidency of Dynamix to set up a smaller company, Jeff Tunnell Productions, “to return to more hands-on work with individual products and to experiment in product genres that do not require the large design teams necessitated by [his] last three designs.” It was all done thoroughly amicably, and was really more of a role change than a resignation; Jeff Tunnell Productions would release their games through Dynamix (and, by extension, Sierra). But Tunnell would never make another adventure game. “After doing story-based games for a while,” he says today, “I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to continue to do. I think there is a place for story in games, but it’s…. hard.” Dynamix’s various experiments with interactive narrative, none of them entirely satisfying, apparently served to convince him that his talents were better utilized elsewhere. Ironically, he made that decision just as CD-ROM, a technology which would have gone a long way toward making his “interactive movies” more than just an aspiration, was about to break through into the mainstream at last.

Still, and for all that it would have been nice to see everything come together at least once for him, I don’t want to exaggerate the tragedy, especially given that the new Jeff Tunnell Productions would immediately turn out a bestseller and instant classic of a completely different type. (More on that in my next article!) If the legacy of Dynamix story games is a bit of a frustrating one, Tunnell’s vision of interactive narratives that are more than boxes of puzzles would eventually prove its worth across a multiplicity of genres. For this reason at the very least, the noble failures of Dynamix are worth remembering.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of July 1988, December 1989, May 1990, February 1991, September 1991, October 1991, November 1991, March 1992, February 1994, and May 1994; Sierra’s news magazines of Summer 1990, Spring 1991, Summer 1991, Fall 1991, and June 1993; InfoWorld of March 5 1984; Apple Orchard of December 1983; Zzap! of July 1989; Questbusters of August 1991; Video Games and Computer Entertainment of May 1991; Dynamix’s hint books for Rise of the Dragon, Heart of China, and The Adventures of Willy Beamish; Matt Barton’s interviews with Jeff Tunnell in Matt Chat 199 and 200; press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play.

You can download emulator-ready Commodore 64 disk images of Project Firestart and a version of David Wolf: Secret Agent that’s all ready to go under DOSBox from right here. Rise of the Dragon, Heart of China, and The Adventures of Willy Beamish — and for that matter Red Baron — are all available for purchase on GOG.com.)

 

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Adventure-Game Rock Stars Live in Conference

On August 24, 1990, CompuServe hosted an online discussion on adventure-game design which included Ron Gilbert, Noah Falstein, Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Dave Lebling, Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa. This is, needless to say, an incredible gathering of adventuring star power. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard of its like in any other (virtual) place. Bob Bates, who has become a great friend of this blog in many ways, found the conference transcript buried away on some remote corner of his hard drive, and was kind enough to share it with me so that I could share it with you today.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably recognize all of the names I’ve just listed, with the likely exception only of Khalsa. But, just to anchor this thing in time a bit better, let me take a moment to describe where each of them was and what he or she was working on that August.

Ron Gilbert and Noah Falstein were at Lucasfilm Games (which was soon to be renamed LucasArts). Gilbert had already created the classic Maniac Mansion a few years before, and was about to see published his most beloved creation of all, one that would have as great an impact among his fellow designers as it would among gamers in general: The Secret of Monkey Island. Falstein had created Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for Lucasfilm in 1989. Their publisher had also recently released Brian Moriarty’s Loom, whose radically simplified interface, short length, and relatively easy puzzles were prompting much contemporaneous debate.

Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, and Dave Lebling had all written multiple games for the now-defunct Infocom during the previous decade. Bates had recently co-founded Legend Entertainment, where he was working on his own game Timequest and preparing to publish Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, Meretzky’s first post-Infocom game and Legend’s first game ever, in a matter of weeks. Berlyn had been kicking around the industry since leaving Infocom in 1985, creating perhaps most notably Tass Times in Tonetown for Interplay; he was just finishing up a science-fiction epic called Altered Destiny for Accolade, and would shortly thereafter embark on the Les Manley games, a pair of Leisure Suit Larry clones, for the same publisher. Lebling was at something of a loose end after the shuttering of Infocom the previous year, unsure whether he even wanted to remain in the games industry; he would eventually decide that the answer to that question was no, and would never design another game.

Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa were all working at Sierra. Williams was in the latter stages of making her latest King’s Quest, the first to use 256-color VGA graphics and a point-and-click interface, and the first to be earmarked for CD-ROM as a “talkie.” Al Lowe was, as usual, hard at work on the latest Leisure Suit Larry game, which also utilized Sierra’s newer, prettier, parser-less engine. The Coles were just finishing up Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, which would become the last Sierra game in 16-color EGA and the last with a parser.

Khalsa is the only non-designer here, and, as already noted, the only name here with which longtime readers are unlikely to be familiar. He was another of those unsung heroes to be found behind the scenes at so many developers. At Sierra, he played a role that can perhaps best be compared to that played by the similarly indispensable Jon Palace at Infocom. As the “producer” of Sierra’s adventure games, he made sure the designers had the support they needed, acted as a buffer between them and the more business-oriented people, and gently pushed his charges to make their games just a little bit better in various ways. In keeping with his unsung status, he answers only one question here.

We find all of our participants grappling with the many tensions that marked their field in 1990: the urgent need to attract new players in the face of escalating development budgets; the looming presence of CD-ROM and other disruptive new technologies just over the horizon; the fate of text in this emerging multimedia age; the frustration of not always being able to do truly innovative or meaningful work, thanks to a buying public that largely just seemed to want more of the same old fantasy and comedy. It’s intriguing to see how the individual designers respond to these issues here, just as it is to see how those responses took concrete form in the games themselves. By no means is the group of one mind; there’s a spirited back-and-forth on many questions.

I’ve cleaned up the transcript that follows for readability’s sake, editing out heaps of extraneous comments, correcting spelling and grammar, and rejiggering the flow a bit to make everything more coherent. I’ve also added a few footnotes to clarify things or to insert quick comments of my own. Mostly, though, I’ve managed resist the urge to pontificate on any of what’s said here. You all already know my opinions on many of the topics that are raised. Today, I’m going to let the designers speak for themselves. I hope you’ll find their discussion as interesting and enjoyable as I do.


 

Let’s plunge right into the questions. Before I start, I’d like to thank Eeyore, Flying Gerbil, Steve Horton, Tsunami, Hercules, Mr. Adventure, and Randy Snow for submitting questions… and I apologize for mangling their questions with my editing. And now — drum roll! — on to the first question!

Imagine ourselves five years down the road, with all the technological developments that implies: CD-ROMs, faster machines, etc. Describe what, for you, the “ideal” adventure will look like. How will it be different from current adventures?

Roberta Williams: I think that “five years down the road” is actually just a year or two away. Meaning that a year or two from now, adventure games are going to have a very slick, sophisticated, professional look, feel, and sound to them, and that that’s the way they’re going to stay for a while — standardization, if you will. I mean, how can you improve on realistic images that look like paintings or photographs? How can you improve on CD-quality voices and music? How can you improve on real movement caught with a movie camera, or drawn by a professional animator? That’s the kind of adventure game that the public is going to start seeing within a year or two. Once adventure games reach a certain level of sophistication in look and feel, standardization will set in, which will actually be a boon for all concerned, both buyers and developers alike. After that, the improvements will primarily be in the performance on a particular machine, but the look will stay essentially the same for a while.

Dave Lebling: But if those wonderful pictures and hi-fi sound are driven by a clunky parser or a mythical “parser-less interface,” is this a big improvement? I think not. We can spend $2 million or $5 million developing a prettier version of Colossal Cave. Let’s improve the story and the interface! That doesn’t have to mean text adventures, but there’s more to adventure games than pictures.

Steve Meretzky: I think that in the future the scope of games won’t be limited by hardware but by the marketplace. Unless the market for adventure games expands, it won’t be economical to create super-large environments, even though the hardware is there to support them.

Mike Berlyn: Well, I think that technology can create products which drive the market and create end users — people who need or want to experience something they could experience only on a computer. In the future, I would like to explore “plot” as a structure, something which is currently impossible due to the state of the current technology. Plot cannot be a variable until storage increases and engines get smarter. I can easily see a plot that becomes a network of possibilities.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We hope as well that the improvements will be in story and design as well as flash: richer stories, more realistic character interaction, etc. Technology, beyond a certain point which we’ve already reached, really isn’t a big deal. Creativity, and an understanding of the differences between “interactive movies” and games is! The move to professional writers and game designers in the industry is helping.

Ron Gilbert: I think that plot has nothing to do with technology. They are almost unrelated. It’s not CD-ROM or VGA that is going to make the difference, it’s learning how to tell a story. Anyone who is any good can tell a great story in 160 X 200-resolution, 4-color graphics on two disks.

Roberta Williams: It’s not that I don’t think a good plot is important! Obviously it is.

Dave Lebling: I didn’t mean to accuse you of not caring about plot. You of all people know about that! I just think the emphasis on flash is a symptom of the fact that we know how to do flash. Just give us a bigger machine or CD-ROM, and, wham, flash! What we don’t know how to do is plot. I don’t think today’s plots feel more “real” than those of five or eight years ago. Will they be better in five years? I hope so, but I’m not sure. We can’t just blindly duplicate other media without concentrating on the interactivity and control that make ours special. If we work on improving control and the illusion that what we interact with is as rich as reality, then we can do something that none of those other media can touch.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We have never really used the computer as a medium in own right.

Steve Meretzky: You haven’t used it to contact the spirit world?1

Corey and Lorin Ann Cole: There are things that can be done on a computer that can’t be done with other mediums. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be away from the computer and towards scanned images and traditional film and animation techniques.2 If this trend continues, it may be a long time before we truly discover what can be done uniquely with the computer medium. One small example: the much-chastised saved game is a wonderful time- and mind-travel technique that can be a rich tool instead of an unfortunate necessity.

Bob Bates: I agree. You can’t ask a painter at the Art Institute of Chicago to paint you a different scene. You can’t ask a singer at the Met to sing you a different song. (Well, I guess you could, but they frown on requests.) The essence of a computer game is that the player controls the action. The point is to make beautiful music and art that helps the player’s sense of involvement in the game.

I have noticed that a lot of games coming out now are in 256 colors. Does this mean that 256-color VGA is going to be the standard? Has anyone thought about 256 colors in 640 X 480 yet? And how does anyone know who has what?

Bob Bates: The market research on who has what is abominable. As for us, we are releasing our titles with hi-res EGA, which gives us really good graphics on a relatively popular standard, as well as very nice text letters instead of the big clunky ones.

Steve Meretzky: I often get big clunky letters from my Aunt Matilda.

Guruka Singh Khalsa: We’ve been doing a bit of research on who has what hardware, and an amazing number of Sierra customers have VGA cards. Looks like around 60 percent right now. As for 640 X 480 in 256 colors: there’s no hardware standard for that resolution since it’s not an official VGA mode. You won’t see games in that resolution until the engines are more powerful — got to shove them pixels around! — and until it’s an official mode. All SVGA cards use somewhat different calls.

Dave Lebling: The emerging commercial standard is a 386 with VGA and 2 to 4 megs of memory, with a 40-meg hard drive. The home standard tends to lag the commercial one by a few years. But expect this soon, with Windows as the interface.

Does anyone have any plans to develop strictly for or take advantage of the Windows environment?

Dave Lebling: Windows is on the leading edge of the commercial-adoption wave. The newest Windows is the first one that’s really usable to write serious software. There are about 1 million copies of Windows out there. No one is going to put big bucks into it yet. But in a few years, yes, because porting will be easier, and there is a GUI already built, virtual memory, etc., etc. But not now.

With the coming parser-less interfaces and digitized sound, it seems as if text may eventually disappear completely from adventures. Once, of course, adventures were all text. What was gained and what was lost by this shift? Are adventures still a more “literate” form of computer game?

Bob Bates: Well, of course text has become a dirty word of sorts in the business. But I think the problem has always been the barrier the keyboard presents as an input device for those who can’t type. Plus the problems an inadequate or uncaring game designer can create for the player when he doesn’t consider alternate inputs as solutions to puzzles. I think there will always be words coming across the screen from the game. We hope we have solved this with our new interface, but it’s hard for people to judge that since our first game won’t be out for another month…

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Text will not disappear. Nor should it. We will see text games, parser-less games, and non-text games. And who cares about being “literate”; fun is what matters! I like words. Lori likes words. But words are no longer enough if one also likes to eat — and we do. We also like graphics and music and those other fun things too, so it’s not too big a loss.

Roberta Williams: It’s true that in books stories can be more developed, involving, and interesting than in movies. I believe that there is still room for interactive books. Hopefully there is a company out there who will forget about all the “video” stuff and just concentrate on good interactive stories in text, and, as such, will have more developed stories than the graphic adventure games. But as we progress adventure games in general are going to become more like interactive movies. The movie industry is a larger and more lucrative business than the book industry. For the most part, the adventure-game business will go along with that trend. Currently adventure games are the most literate of computer games, but that may change as more and more text will be lost in the coming years, to be replaced by speech, sound effects, and animation. But I do predict that some company out there will see a huge opportunity in bringing back well-written, high-quality interactive books. It will be for a smaller audience, but still well worth the effort.

Dave Lebling: I think you’re too  optimistic about “some company” putting out text products. We are moving from interactive books to interactive movies. I’m not optimistic about the commercial survival of text except in very small doses.3 Unlike in science fiction, you don’t have to follow a trend until it goes asymptotic. Text won’t go away, but its role will be reduced in commercial adventures. Graphics and sound are here to stay.

Al Lowe: With the coming of talkies, it seems as if all those wonderful dialog cards disappeared! You know, the ones that make silent movies so literate? It’s a visual medium! No one asks for silent movies; most Americans won’t even watch a black-and-white movie. Yes, text-only games are more “literate.” So?

Mike Berlyn: As far as the future of text is concerned, my money is on it sticking around. But I’m not sure it’s at all necessary in these kinds of games. The adventure I’m just finishing up has a little bit of text that reiterates what is obvious on the screen, and manages to add to the player’s inputs in other ways to a create fuller experience. But I still don’t think it’s necessary. I’ve done two completely text-less designs, though neither made it to the market.

Bob Bates: I don’t think it’s the loss of text as output that creates a problem for the designer; I think it’s text as input. It’s hard to design tough puzzles that can be solved just by pointing and clicking at things. And if there are no puzzles — tough puzzles — you’re just watching a movie on a very small screen. The days of the text-only adventure are over. Graphics are here to stay, and that’s not a bad thing, as long as they supplement the story instead of trying to replace it.

We’ve seen fantasy adventures, science-fiction adventures, mystery adventures, humorous adventures. Are there any new settings or themes for adventures? Is there any subject or theme that you’ve always wanted to put in an adventure but never had the chance?

Al Lowe: I’ve had ideas for a Wall Street setting for a game, but somehow I can’t get out of this Larry rut. I’d also like to do a very serious game — something without one cheap laugh, just to see if I could. Probably couldn’t, though. A serious romance would be good too.

Roberta Williams: There should be as many settings or themes for adventure games as there are for fictionalized books and movies. After all, an adventure game is really just an interactive story with puzzles and exploration woven into it. There are many themes that I personally would like to do, and hopefully will someday: an historical or series of historical adventure games; a horror game; an archaeological game of some sort; possibly a western. In between King’s Quests, of course.

Noah Falstein: I’ve always wanted to do a time-travel game with the following features: no manual save or load, it’s built automatically into the story line as a function of your time-travel device; the opportunity to play through a sequence with yourself in a later — and then earlier — time; and the ability to go back and change your changes, ad infinitum. Of course, the reason I’m mentioning all this is that I — and others here — have fried our brains trying to figure out how this could be accomplished. We’d rather see someone else do it right. Or die trying.

Ad infinitum? Won’t that take a lot of memory?

Noah Falstein: Recursion!

Dave Lebling: Gosh, my fantasy is your fantasy! I’ve always wanted to do a game based on Fritz Leiber’s Change War stories — you know, “tomorrow we go back and nuke ancient Rome!” Funny thing is, I’ve always run up against the same problem you ran up against.

Mike Berlyn: My fantasy is to finish a game that my wife Muffy and I were working on for the — sniff! — dead Infocom. It was a reality-based game that had a main character going through multiple/parallel lives, meeting people he’d met before but who were different this time through. In that way, the relationships would be different, the plot would be different, and their lives would interact differently.

Steve Meretzky: In my fantasy, I answer the door and Goldie Hawn is standing there wearing… oh, we’re talking adventure games now, aren’t we? A lot of the genres I was going to mention have already been mentioned. But one is historical interactive nonfiction. I know that Stu Galley has always wanted to do a game in which you play Paul Revere in April of 1775. And before I die I’m going to do a Titanic game.4 Also, in my ongoing effort to offend every man, woman, and child in the universe, someday I’d like to write an Interactive Bible, which would be an irreverent comedy, of course. Also, I’d like to see a collection of “short story” adventure games for all those ideas which aren’t big enough to be a whole game.5

Bible Quest: So You Want to Be a God?. I like it, I like it.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Ah, but someone will sue over the trademark…6

Bob Bates: The problem of course is marketing. The kinds of games we want to write aren’t always the kinds of games that will sell. This presents something of a quandary for those of us who like to eat.

This question was submitted by Tsunami, and I’ll let him ask in his own words: “Virtually every game I have played on my computer is at least partially tongue-in-cheek. What I am interested in is games with mature themes, or at least a more mature approach to their subjects. Games that, like good movies or plays, really scare a player, really make them feel a tragedy, or even make them angry. What are each of you doing to try to push games to this next level of human interaction?”

Steve Meretzky: Well, I think I already did that with A Mind Forever Voyaging, and it did worse commercially speaking than any other game I’ve ever done. As Bob just said, we have to eat. I’d much rather write a Mind Forever Voyaging than a Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but unless I become independently wealthy, or unless some rich benefactor wants to underwrite such projects, or unless the marketplace changes a lot, I don’t think I’ll be doing a game like A Mind Forever Voyaging in the near future. Sigh.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Computers are so stupid that even the smartest game tends to do silly things. So, it’s easier to write a silly game. And the development process on a humorous game tends to be more fun. Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire is fundamentally a very serious game in terms of story line, but we kept lots of silly stuff in to break up the tension. I call it the “roller-coaster effect.” We want the player to get extremely intense about the game at points, but then have a chance to catch his or her breath with comic relief and plain fun.

Bob Bates: My games are usually fairly “mature,” but when 90 percent of what a player tries to do in a game is wrong, you have to keep him interested when he is not solving a puzzle. The easiest way to do this is with humor; you don’t want him mad at you, after all. But I agree that we all should strive to create emotions in the player like what we all felt when Floyd died in Planetfall.

Roberta Williams: I agree with the sentiment that most adventure games, at least up to now, have been not quite “serious” in their approach to the subject matter at hand. I think the reason for that, for the most part, is that professional writers or storytellers have not had their hands in the design of a game. It’s been mostly programmers who have been behind them. I’m not a professional writer either, but I’m trying to improve myself in that area. With The Colonel’s Bequest, I did attempt a new theme, a murder mystery, and tried to make it more mature in its subject matter — more “plot” oriented. I attempted to put in classic “scare” tactics and suspense. I tried to put in different levels of emotion, from repulsion to sadness to hilarity. Whether I accomplished those goals is up to the player experiencing the game. At least I tried!

Noah Falstein: I venture to predict that we all intend to push games this way, or want to but can’t afford it — or can’t convince a publisher to afford it. But I’ll toot the Lucasfilm horn a bit; imagine the Star Wars fanfare here. One way we’re trying to incorporate real stories into games is to use real storytellers. Next year, we have a game coming out by Hal Barwood, who’s been a successful screenwriter, director, and producer for years. His most well-known movies probably are the un-credited work he did on Close Encounters and Dragonslayer, which he co-wrote and produced. He’s also programmed his own Apple II games in 6502 assembly in his spare time. I’ve already learned a great deal about pacing, tension, character, and other “basic” techniques that come naturally — or seem to — to him. I highly recommend such collaborations to you all. I think we’ve got a game with a new level of story on the way.7

Mike Berlyn: I disagree with the idea that hiring professional storytellers from other media will solve our problems for us. Creating emotions is the goal here, if I understood the question. It isn’t whether we write humor or horror, it’s how well we do it. This poses a serious problem. Interactivity is the opposite of the thing that most… well, all storytellers, regardless of medium, require to create emotion. Emotion is created by manipulation. And it is impossible to manipulate emotions when you don’t know where the player has been and you don’t know where the player is going. In linear fiction, where you know what the “player” has just experienced; you can deliberately and continuously set them up. This is the essence of drama, humor, horror, etc. Doing this in games requires a whole different approach. Utilizing an experienced linear writer only tends to make games less game-ish, less interactive, and more linear. In a linear game like Loom, you’re not providing an interactive story or an adventure game. All you’re doing is making the player work to see a movie.

Dave Lebling: Well, emotion also comes from identification with the character in the story. You can’t easily identify in a serious way with a character who looks like a 16 X 16-pixel sprite.8 If he or she is silly-looking, he or she isn’t much more silly-looking than if he’s serious-looking: for example, Larry Laffer versus Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So, you are at a disadvantage being serious in graphical games. Better graphics will improve that eventually. But even so, I think Bob hit the point perfectly: the player does a lot of silly things, even if there is no parser — running into rocks in the graphic games, for example — and you can’t stay serious. The other thing is that, in my experience, serious games don’t sell. Infocom’s more serious games sold poorly. Few others have tried, and most of those have sold poorly too.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: A really good game — or story — elicits emotions rather than creating them. A good design opens up the player’s imagination instead of forcing them along a path. A frustrated player is too busy being angry at the computer to experience the wonder and mystery of his or her character and the game’s world. By having fair puzzles and “open” stories, we allow players to emote and imagine.

Okay, now we turn from software to hardware. One of the most striking developments over the last few years has been the growing use of MS-DOS machines for game development. This has led some Amiga and Mac owners to complain that there aren’t any good adventures out for their machines, or that the games that are out for those platforms don’t make good use of their full graphics and sound capabilities. How can this problem be solved?

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Well, I just about went broke trying to develop Atari ST software a few years ago. This was what made it possible to pull up roots and come to Sierra to do games. But I think the real value of all the alternative platforms has been to force IBM and the clone-makers to play catch-up. Myself, I’m waiting for ubiquitous CD-ROM and telecom. I’d really like to be doing multiplayer games in a few years. In the meantime, the cold hard reality is that IBM clones is where the money is — and money is a good thing.

Roberta Williams: Ha! We at Sierra, probably the most guilty of developing our games on MS-DOS machines, are trying to rectify that problem. This past year, we have put teams of programmers on the more important non-MS-DOS platforms to implement our new game-development system in the best way possible for those machines. Emphasis is on the unique capabilities of each machine, and to truly be of high quality on each of them. Our new Amiga games have been shipping for several months now, and have been favorably received — and our Mac games are nearly ready.

Dave Lebling: Get an installed base of 10 million Macs or Amigas and you’ll see plenty of games for them. Probably even fewer are needed, since programmers have the hots for those platforms. But in reality what you need is companies like Sierra that can leverage their development system to move to different platforms. As Windows and 386-based machines become the IBM standard, the differences among the platforms become less significant, and using an object-oriented development system lets you port relatively easily, just like in the old days. Graphics will still be a problem, as the transforms from one machine to another will still be a pain.

Al Lowe: Money talks. When Mac games outsell MS-DOS games, you’ll see Mac-designed games ported to PCs. When Amiga games are hot, etc. In other words, as long as MS-DOS sales are 80 percent or more of the market, who can afford to do otherwise?

Mike Berlyn: I think we all want our games on as many systems as possible, but in reality the publishers are the ones who make the decisions.

When you design a game, do you decide how hard it’s going to be first, or does the difficulty level just evolve?

Ron Gilbert: I know that I have a general idea of how hard I want the game to be. Almost every game I have done has ended up being a little longer and harder than I would have liked.

Noah Falstein: I agree. I’ve often put in puzzles that I thought were easy, only to find in play-testing that the public disagreed. But since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade I firmly believe that one good way to go is to put in multiple solutions to any puzzles that are showstoppers, and to make the remaining ones pretty easy. I think that’s the best for the players.

Dave Lebling: I think alternate solution are a red herring because you can’t make them radically different in difficulty or the easier one will always be found first.

Noah Falstein: But if you provide incentives to replay the game, you can make both beginners happy, who will find the easy alternative, and experienced gamers happy, who will want to find every solution…

Dave Lebling: Yes, but what percentage of people replay any game? What percentage even finish?

Steve Meretzky: Games that are intended for beginners — e.g., Wishbringer — are designed to be really easy, and games intended for veterans — e.g., Spellbreaker — are designed to be ball-busters. But since of course you end up getting both types for any game, my own theory is to start out with easy puzzles, have some medium-tough puzzles in the mid-game, and then wrap it up with the real whoppers. (Don’t ask me what the Babel-fish puzzle was doing right near the beginning of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

Roberta Williams: Usually the decision of how difficult the game is going to be is made about the time that the design actually begins. And that decision is based on who the main player of the game is going to be. In other words, if it’s an adventure game for children, then obviously the game will be easier. If it’s for families, the game will be harder than for children, but easier than a game strictly for adults. If it’s a game with adults in mind, then the difficulty level lies with the designer as he or she weaves the various puzzles into the plot of the story. I think even then, though, the decision of how difficult it’s going to be is made around the start of the design. Speaking personally, I usually have a good sense of which puzzles are going to be more difficult and which ones are easier to solve. There have been a few times when I miscalculated a puzzle. For instance, in King’s Quest II I thought the bridle-and-snake puzzle was fairly straightforward, but no, it wasn’t. And in The Colonel’s Bequest I didn’t think that discovering the secret passage in the house would be as difficult for some people as it turned out to be.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We try to keep the puzzles on the easy side in the sense of being fair; hints are somewhere in the game. But sometimes the best-laid plans of designers and developers go out the window when programming push-time comes, to mix several metaphors. But we definitely plan difficulty level in advance. The Quest for Glory series was intended to be somewhat on the easy side as adventure games go because we were introducing the concept of role-playing at the same time.

Dave Lebling: I think it’s relatively easy to make a game really hard or really easy. What’s tough is the middle-ground game. They tend to slop over to one extreme or the other, sometimes both in different puzzles, and you get a mishmash.

Mike Berlyn: I tend to design games that have various levels of difficulty within themselves, and so can appeal to a broad range of players. Like Steve, I like to open with an easy one and then mix up the middle game, saving the toughest stuff for the endgame.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We made a real effort to graduate the puzzles in Quest for Glory I, easier ones in the early phases.

Al Lowe: Does anyone else feel we should lighten up on our difficulty level so as to attract a broader audience and broaden our base of players?

Mike Berlyn: Making games easier isn’t going to attract more players. What will is designing and implementing them better.

Roberta Williams: Perhaps a parser-less interface would help. But I still think that each game should be thought out in advance as to who the target audience is, and then go from there on difficulty level.

Bob Bates: I agree that what is needed is not easier puzzles. I think that players want tough but fair puzzles. Where’s the rush that comes from solving an easy puzzle? What will keep them coming back for more?

Dave Lebling: One person’s easy puzzle is another’s never-solved brain-buster. There need to be a range of games and a range of puzzles in each game. Even Wishbringer, Infocom’s “easiest” game, had huge numbers of people stuck on the “easiest” puzzles.

Adventure designs have recently been criticized for becoming shorter and/or easier. Do you agree with this criticism, and, if so, how do you change a design to make a product longer and/or harder? And are harder games commercially viable?

Dave Lebling: Games are already too easy and not easy enough, and other paradoxes. Meaning that the intentional puzzles are getting too easy, and the unintentional ones — caused by size limitations, laziness, lousy parsers, bugs, etc. — are still too hard. Harder games are commercially viable, but only if the unintentional difficulty is reduced. We aren’t real good at that yet.

Roberta Williams: It may be true, to a certain extent, that adventure games have become shorter and/or easier than in the past. Four to ten years ago, adventure games were primarily text-oriented, and, as such, could be more extensive in scope, size, and complexity. Since the introduction of graphics, animation, and sound — and, coming up, speech — it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the same sort of scope that the earlier adventure games were able to accomplish. The reason for this is mainly limitations of memory, disk space, time, and cost. We adventure-game developers increasingly have to worry about cramming in beautiful graphics, realistic animation, wonderful sound, and absorbing plots, along with as many places to explore as possible, alternate paths or choices, and interesting puzzles. There is just so much space to put all that in. Something has to give. Even CD technology will not totally solve that problem. Though there is a very large disk capacity with CD, there is still a relatively small memory capacity. Also, the way the adventure-game program needs to be arranged on the CD creates problems. And as usual, with the new CD capabilities, we adventure-game developers are sure to create the most beautiful graphics you’ve ever seen, the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard, etc., etc. And that uses up disk space, even on CD.

Mike Berlyn: Shorter? Yeah, I suppose some of the newer games, whose names will remain untyped, are easier, shorter, etc. But unfortunately, they aren’t cheaper to make. I hate to tell you how much Altered Destiny is going to cost before it’s done. Accolade and myself have over ten man-years in this puppy, and a cast of many is creating it. When I created Oo-Topos or Cyborg or even Suspended, the time and money for development were a fraction of what this baby will cost. In addition, games like King’s Quest IV are larger, give more bang for the buck, and outshine many of the older games.

Steve Meretzky: A few years ago, I totally agreed with the statement that adventure games were getting too short and easy. Then I did Zork Zero, which was massive and ultimately quite hard. A good percentage of the feedback distilled down to “Too big!” It just took too long to play, and it was too hard to keep straight everything you had to do to win the game. Plus, of course, it was a major, major effort to design and implement and debug such a huge game. So, I’ve now come to the conclusion that a nice, average, 50-to-100-room, 20-to-30-hours-of-play-time, medium-level-of-difficulty game is just about right.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: There is plenty of room left for easier games, especially since most “hard” games are hard only because they are full of unfair outguess-the-designer — or programmer or parser — puzzles. Nobody wants to play a game and feel lost and frustrated. Most of us get enough of that in our daily lives! We want smaller, richer games rather than large, empty ones, and we want to see puzzles that further the story rather than ones that are just thrown in to make the game “hard.”

Al Lowe: I’ve been trying for years to make ’em longer and harder!

Groan…

Al Lowe: But seriously, I have mixed emotions. I work hard on these things, and I hate to think that most people will never see the last half of them because they give up in defeat. On the other hand, gamers want meaty puzzles, and you don’t want to disappoint your proven audience. I think many games will become easier and easier, if only to attract more people to the medium. Of course, hard games will always be needed too, to satisfy the hardcore addicts. Geez, what a cop-out answer!

Bob Bates: You have to give the player his money’s worth, and if you can just waltz through a game, then all you have is an exercise in typing or clicking. The problem is that the definition of who the player is is changing. In trying to reach a mass market, some companies are getting away from our puzzle roots. The quandary here is that this works. The big bucks are in the mass market, and those people don’t want tough puzzles. The designers who stay behind and cater to the puzzle market may well be painting themselves into a niche.

Noah Falstein: Al and Bob have eloquently given the lead-in I was intending. But I’d like to go farther and say that we’re all painting ourselves into a corner if we keep catering to the 500,000 or so people that are regular players — and, more importantly, buyers — of adventure games. It’s like the saber-toothed tiger growing over-specialized. There are over 15 million IBM PC owners out there, and most of them have already given up on us because the games are too… geeky. Sorry, folks! Without mentioning that game that’s looming over this discussion, we’ve found that by making a very easy game, we’ve gotten more vehement, angry letters than ever before — as well as more raves from people who never played or enjoyed such games before. It seems to be financially worthwhile even now, and if more of us cater to this novice crowd, with better stories instead of harder puzzles, there will be a snowball effect. I think this is worth working towards, and I hope some of you will put part of your efforts into this. There’s always still some room for the “standard-audience” games. Interestingly enough, 60 to 100 rooms and 20 to 30 hours is precisely the niche we arrived at too! But let’s put out at least one more accessible game each year.

Dave Lebling: Most of the points I wanted to make have been made, and made well, but I’d like to add one more. What about those 20 million or more Nintendo owners out there? What kinds of games will hook them, if any? Have they written us off? I don’t think our fraction of the IBM market is quite as small as Noah’s figures make it look. Many of those IBM machines are not usable for games by policy, as they are in corporate settings. But all of the Nintendos are in home settings. Sure, they don’t have keyboards, but if there was a demand for our sort of game — a “puzzle” game, for want of a better word — there would be a keyboard-like interface or attachment, like the silly gun or the power glove. There isn’t. Why? Are we too geeky? Are puzzles and even the modicum of text that is left too much? We will have the opportunity to find out when the new game systems with keyboards start appearing in the US.

What do you all think about the idea of labeling difficulty levels and/or estimated playing time on the box, like Infocom used to do at one time?

Steve Meretzky: That was a pretty big failure. As was said earlier about puzzles, one person’s easy is another person’s hard.

Al Lowe: Heh, heh…

Steve Meretzky: For example, I found Suspended to be pretty easy, having a mind nearly as warped as Berlyn’s, but many people consider it one of Infocom’s hardest.

Bob Bates: The other Infocommies here can probably be more accurate, but my recollection is that labeling a game “advanced” scared off people, and labeling a game “easy” or “beginner” turned off lots of people too. So most of the games wound up being released as “standard,” until they dropped the scheme altogether. Still, I think some sort of indication on a very easy game, like the ones Noah was talking about, is in order. The customer has a right to know what he is purchasing.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: But Loom was rated as an easy game, and people who were stumped on a puzzle felt like this meant they were dumb or something.

Mike Berlyn: Good point! I’m not sure that labeling a product as being easy, medium, or difficult is a real solution. I know some games which were labeled “beginner” level were too tough for me. What we as designers need to do is write better, fairer, more rounded games that don’t stop players from exploring, that don’t close off avenues. It isn’t easy, but it’s sure my goal, and I like to think that others share this goal.

Okay, this is the last question. What is your favorite adventure game and why?

Noah Falstein: This will sound like an ad, but our audience constitutes a mass market. Ron Gilbert’s next game, The Secret of Monkey Island, is the funniest and most enjoyable adventure game I’ve ever played, including the others our company has done. I’ve laughed out loud reading and rereading the best scenes.

Steve Meretzky: Based simply on the games I’ve had the most fun playing, it’s a tie between Starcross — the first ever adventure game in my genre of choice, science fiction — and the vastly ignored and underrated Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It.

Roberta Williams: I hate to say it, but I don’t play many adventure games, including our own! I really love adventure games, though. It was this love of adventure gaming that brought me into this business. However, nowadays I’m so busy, what with working on games of my own, helping my husband run the company, taking care of the kids and the house, and doing other extracurricular activities, that I literally don’t have time to play adventure games — and we all know how much time it does take to play them! Of the adventure games that I’ve played and/or seen, I like the games that Lucasfilm produces; I have a lot of respect for them. And I also enjoy the Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series that my company, Sierra, produces. Of my own games, I always seem to favor the game I’m currently working on since I’m most attached to it at that given moment. Right now, that would be King’s Quest V. But aside from that, I am particularly proud of The Colonel’s Bequest since it was a departure for me, and very interesting and complicated to do. I am also proud of Mixed-Up Mother Goose, especially the new version coming out. And looking way back, I still have fond memories of Time Zone, for any of you who may remember that one.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Of adventure games, we liked the original mainframe Zork and Space Quest III. But our favorite games are Dungeon Master and Rogue, the only games we keep going back to replay. As for our favorite of all two games we’ve done, we’re particularly proud of what we are doing with Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire. We’re also proud of the first game, but we think Trial by Fire is going to be really great. Okay, end of commercial, at least as soon as I say, “Buy our game!” But seriously, we’re pleased with what we’ve done with the design.

Bob Bates: “You are standing outside a white house. There is a mailbox here.”

Mike Berlyn: This is my least favorite question in the world. (Well, okay, I could think up some I’d like less.) But it’s a toss-up between A Mind Forever Voyaging, Starcross, and the soon-to-be-forgotten masterpiece, Scott Adams’s Pirate Adventure. Yoho.

Dave Lebling: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Trinity. Both well thought-out, with great themes. But beyond those, the original Adventure. I just played it a little bit last night, and I still get a thrill from it. We owe a lot to Will Crowther and Don Woods, and I think that’s an appropriate sentiment to close with.


  1. One of my favorite things about this transcript is the way that Steve Meretzky and Al Lowe keep making these stupid jokes, and everybody just keeps ignoring them. I fancy I can almost hear the sighs… 

  2. It’s worth noting that the trend the Coles describe as “unfortunate” was exactly the direction in which Sierra, their employer, was moving in very aggressive fashion. The Coles thus found themselves blowing against the political winds in designing their games their way. Perhaps not coincidentally, they were also designing the best games coming out of Sierra during this period. 

  3. This was not what many participating in the conference probably wanted to hear, but it wins the prize of being the most prescient single statement of the evening. Note that Lebling not only predicted the complete commercial demise of text adventures, but he also predicted that they would survive as a hobbyist endeavor; the emphasis on the word “commercial” is original. 

  4. Steve Meretzky’s perennial Titanic proposal, which he pitched to every publisher he ever worked with, became something of an industry in-joke. There’s just no market for such a game, insisted each of the various publishers. When James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic became the first ever to top $1 billion at the box office, and a modest little should-have-been-an-obscurity from another design team called Titanic: Adventure Out of Time rode those coattails to sales of 1 million copies, the accusations flew thick and fast from Meretzky’s quarter. But to no avail; he still hasn’t gotten to make his Titanic game. On the other hand, he’s nowhere near death, so there’s still time to fulfill his promise… 

  5. Meretzky had pitched both of these ideas as well to Infocom without success. In the longer term, however, he would get one of his wishes, at least after a fashion. “Short stories” have become the norm in modern interactive fiction, thanks largely to the Interactive Fiction Competition and its guideline that it should be possible to play an entrant to completion within two hours. 

  6. Legal threats from the makers of the board game HeroQuest had recently forced the Coles to change the name of their burgeoning series of adventure/CRPG hybrids from the perfect Hero’s Quest to the rather less perfect Quest for Glory. Obviously the fresh wound still smarted. 

  7. After some delays, the game Falstein is talking about here would be released in 1992 as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It would prove to be a very good adventure game, if not quite the medium-changer Falstein describes. 

  8. It’s interesting to see Lebling still using the rhetoric from Infocom’s iconic early advertising campaigns

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Dr. Brain

The line between entertainment and education at the Sierra of the early 1990s was much less clearly drawn among the design staff than it was in the company’s marketing materials. The exact same people who made the purely entertaining adventure games took up the task of making entries in Sierra’s new “Discovery Series” of educational games when that line made its debut in 1991.1 Discounting for obvious reasons only the early-education titles, the results of their efforts could be every bit as satisfying for adults as they were for children and adolescents. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that much of the very best work done at Sierra during this period was done for the Discovery Series. The fact that they were designing games for a theoretical audience of youngsters seemed to prompt some of the staff to show a bit more kindness and mercy, to think about issues of playability in ways they sometimes couldn’t be bothered to do when making their other games. It’s thus a real shame that the Discovery Series tends to be overlooked by even many of the most ardent Sierra fans of today, who shy away instinctively from the educational label which Sierra’s marketers placed upon it. More or less educational these games may very well be, but many or most of them are also a hell of a lot of fun, whether you happen to be young, old, or somewhere in-between.

The inception of the Discovery Series was marked by a meeting of all of Sierra’s creative staff, aimed at drumming up ideas for educational games. One of the sample ideas which Ken Williams himself presented there was for something he called Mathemagical Mansion, a game whose player would have to solve math problems to explore ever deeper into the house in question. Programmer and game designer Corey Cole, who had recently created the first two titles in the adventure-game series Quest for Glory alongside his wife Lori Ann Cole, left the meeting having already decided to take the idea and run with it. He planned to expand on Ken Williams’s base by adding the character of a “Dr. Brain,” whom the player would need to impress in order to get a job working in his research laboratory. And he also planned to broaden the base of puzzle topics to include science, technology, and even a dash of culture to go along with the math problems. In additions to the merits of the original idea itself, practical and even political considerations prompted him to go this way. He knew that no new Quest for Glory game was in the cards for 1991, and he knew that, should his proposal not be accepted, he’d likely finding himself working as a programmer on one of the educational proposals that had been. And, most importantly, he knew that Ken Williams would have a natural affinity for a proposal based on his own germ of an idea. His political calculus proved correct; after he showed a prototype demonstrating the basic interface and a few puzzles, Castle of Dr. Brain got the green light. His wife Lori, meanwhile, was similarly politically clever in proposing the early-education game Mixed-Up Fairy Tales, a pseudo-sequel to Roberta Williams’s Mixed-Up Mother Goose, and was also rewarded with a gig as lead designer on her own Discovery Series project.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole didn’t need to up their design standards for their latest projects in the way that some of their colleagues would for other Discovery Series titles; the two Quest for Glory games they had already made were, in this reviewer’s opinion anyway, the absolute best adventures to come out of Sierra to this point. So, they only needed to continue to hew to the high standard they had already set.

Nevertheless, Castle of Dr. Brain represented a leap into unexplored territory in more ways than one for Corey. Lori had taken the lead on many aspects of the Quest for Glory games. The overall arc of the planned four-game series, drawn up before any implementation began on the first game, had been largely her vision, as had been much of the detail of plot and character within the two games that had been produced to date. While Lori had thus played the “artistic” role, Corey had been the puzzle guy, nailing down the details of what the player had to do and where she had to do it. But now, for the first time, he wouldn’t have Lori’s talents to lean on; Castle of Dr. Brain was all his baby. He comforted himself with the knowledge that it was to be at bottom just a big box of puzzles — and if there was one thing he felt he knew, it was puzzles. His attitude toward the project thus gradually moved from trepidation to exhilaration. By the time the game was finished, he would finally feel, as he put it to me many years later, “like a real game designer.”

Which isn’t to say that Castle of Dr. Brain was an easy game to make. The label on the box says that it’s designed for children aged twelve and up, implying that some sort of rigorous pedagogic methodology had gone into that formulation. In later years, certainly, any software from a major publisher daring to bill itself as “educational” would likely be approved if not designed by genuine educators, by people familiar with current age-appropriate curricula and theories of learning and all the rest. But Sierra back in those days just winged it. “While they aren’t intended to be hardcore educational products,” explained the brand manager for the Discovery Series, “they’re more than just games. They have legitimate academic content” — whatever “legitimate academic content” meant. Corey talked to exactly no education professionals in the course of making his educational game, unless you count his wife, who had worked as a schoolteacher years ago. Subject matter as well as pedagogic technique were left entirely up to him. He had promised Ken Williams a game that would have some math in it along with lots of other vaguely defined “educational” things. He got to decide what those things would be for himself.

Instead of some mythical stereotype of late childhood found only inside pedagogic textbooks, Corey aimed his game at the twelve-year-old self he remembered. Perhaps, he mused, he was unusually well-equipped to speak to bright kids of the sort he had once been. He remembered when, back at university, someone had passed an essay he had written through a computerized text analyzer, and the program had said that he wrote on a seventh-grade reading level. “That’s great!” said the analyzer’s programmer by way of comforting a Corey Cole whose first reaction was embarrassment. “You’ve written this so any adult or high-school student can understand it. Most people think they need to sound clever or sophisticated, but all they accomplish is to make their work inaccessible.” One of the worst sins would-be writers of children’s and young-adult fiction can commit is to write down to their target audience; youngsters can smell such condescension a mile away. It seemed that Corey would, at the very least, be free of that sin.

A staple of games like this one: the sliding-block puzzle.

All of which was well and good, but it still left the matter of the actual puzzles to be sorted out. Corey had always loved books of puzzles and brainteasers, and had had this love in mind when he first pitched his idea for Castle of Dr. Brain. Maybe, he had thought, such books could even provide him with most of the puzzles he would need. Yet that proved not to be the case when the time came to roll up his sleeves and start making his game. Corey:

The puzzle books were useless. A book advertising “over 60 puzzles and brainteasers” typically had four formats, and 15 puzzles in each format. They might have cryptograms, crossword puzzles, and grid puzzles (“Who lives in the purple house? What’s their job, hobby, and favorite food?”). Most of these are weak in a computer game, and I wanted to have a dozen or more unique puzzles.

Corey wound up creating groupings of puzzles on the various subjects he chose, clustering them together in rooms of Dr. Brain’s castle. First came three math problems, then three puzzles dealing with time. And so on and so on, incorporating among others a word-puzzle room, a robotics-and-computers room, even an astronomy room — all adding up to 24 multifarious puzzles in all. The puzzle books may have proved a dead end, but some of the puzzles that made their way into the game are nevertheless variations on old favorites of one type or another, such as Mastermind, Hangman, and Knights and Knaves. Roughly half of the puzzles, though, are indeed completely original. Unsurprisingly, these are the ones that tend to make the most impact, to the point of being at least vaguely remembered by some old players of Castle of Dr. Brain literally decades after they last saw them.

The robot maze that’s shown above, for instance, is a marvel of elegant, minimalist design, played in real time to make it exciting for youngsters (and oldsters) raised on videogames. You need to collect cards from all of the red “A” symbols by running the little blue robot over them, while avoiding the swirling red-and-purple vortexes, which will swallow it up. Running over the green crosses, meanwhile, will toggle various vortexes off, thus making them safe to travel over, and on, thus making them decidedly unsafe. The robot will always move straight ahead, until it encounters an obstacle in the form of a wall, which will cause it to turn around and go back whence it came. But there is one exception to this rule, an exception that also happens to be the only way you can interact with the puzzle: you can click on any of the intersections marked with four red dots to cause the robot to turn right when it reaches that intersection; click again to turn off this “traffic signal.” And that’s it. From one verb is created a hugely intriguing possibility space.

But most beloved of all might just be the robot-programming puzzle. You need to retrieve certain items out of a locked cabinet by writing a program to move a robot arm through the correct sequence of steps. Besides being a brilliantly original and entertaining puzzle in its own right, it’s also a fine introduction to the joy of programming.

Writing a program to control a robot arm…

…and running it.

To make Castle of Dr. Brain accessible to as wide an audience as possible, Corey Cole implemented three difficulty levels, which the player can change at any time to adjust for those types of puzzles she’s better or worse at. The “expert” level of any given puzzle should offer an enjoyable challenge to almost any adult, while the “novice” level is good even for many children who are younger than the game’s stated minimum age of twelve. Yet Corey didn’t settle for this form of adjustable difficulty alone. He also came up with a mechanic for “puzzle coins” which ties into your final score in the game. You earn coins by completing puzzles, and can then trade them in for hints if a later puzzle has you stumped. Your final score will take a hit in doing so, but this only adds a bit of replayability to a game that’s really not all that long.

The puzzle design constitutes much of what makes the finished game great, but the puzzles aren’t quite the sum total of the experience. Being made using an engine designed first and foremost for adventure games, and by a company and a designer known first and foremost for same, Castle of Dr. Brain is an embodied experience rather than an exercise in purely abstract puzzling. The plot isn’t up to much — “solve puzzles to move through the castle until you meet Dr. Brain and he gives you a job” is all it consists of from beginning to end — but, hey, it’s there. The charming old coot himself even pops up from time to time to offer encouragement. A stronger line connecting Castle of Dr. Brain to the Quest for Glory adventure games in particular comes in the form of the plethora of optional gags and Easter eggs in every area of the castle. You can click on almost anything and get a reaction. From the front door on which you can pound instead of ringing the doorbell to the telephone you can pick up in the good doctor’s inner sanctum, the game is a riot of interactivity, just as any good adventure game should be, paying full attention to what designer Bob Bates calls the “else” of the “if, then, else” logic of adventure design. And Castle of Dr. Brain is full of the same horrid puns and general good nature which mark the Quest for Glory games. I don’t believe Corey Cole is capable of making a game that’s less than thoroughly likable.

Within the framework of adventure lent by the SCI engine, however, Castle of Dr. Brain and its sequel are unique among the Discovery Series — in fact, unique among Sierra’s adventures in general — for a certain spirit of formal innovation. Those other Discovery games mostly look and play like standard Sierra adventures of their time; it’s just that their puzzles and plots are aimed at an ostensibly younger audience. But, perhaps because Corey was himself an experienced SCI programmer, Castle of Dr. Brain dared to shake up the status quo. Replacing the third-person view and visible onscreen avatar of the typical Sierra adventure is a first-person viewpoint. And then, too, the protagonist here goes unnamed and uncharacterized; the protagonist, in other words, is meant to be you. There is much to be said for both third-person and first-person approaches to the graphical adventure, just as there is for both the richly characterized adventure-game protagonist and the “nameless, faceless adventurer” of Zork. For today, I will only say that the choices Corey made here — both departing from the norm at Sierra — strike me as eminently correct for the game he wanted to make and the audience he wanted to reach. To be constantly switching between a third-person “exploration mode” and a series of screen-filling set-piece puzzles would have felt jarring. And then, too, children love nothing better than to imagine themselves inside their entertainments.

So, Corey Cole had good reason to feel proud of the finished game. Proud he was — and is: he still describes Castle of Dr. Brain as the most satisfying single project of his career. And Sierra too had reason to be pleased after the game was released: it became by far the most commercially successful of all the Discovery Series. Corey estimates that it sold over 100,000 copies in its initial full-price form, then another 150,000 copies as a budget re-release. Those numbers were almost comparable to what might be expected from a new Space Quest or Leisure Suit Larry — flashier games with much bigger development budgets. Sierra’s accountants thus couldn’t help but see Castle of Dr. Brain as a bargain, a relatively cheap investment that had made them quite a lot of money.

With numbers like those, and with the series-loving Ken Williams running Sierra, a sequel was inevitable. Corey was ready and eager to helm that project, but he wasn’t given a fair chance to do so. After Castle of Dr. Brain was finished, he was moved back to the programmer’s role he had been able to avoid for a while by making it, assigned the task of porting Sierra’s SCI engine to the Sega Genesis videogame console. He was offered the “opportunity” to design the sequel strictly as a moonlighting project, if he was willing to give up the 1-percent royalty he had received on the first game in favor of a small lump-sum payment. Understandably, he turned down an offer that would have consumed his nights and weekends for many months to come for very little financial reward. The task of designing the sequel was instead handed to one Patrick Bridgemon, a technical writer who had been responsible for many Sierra manuals and hint books, but whose only experience to date working on the games proper had consisted of a polishing-up of the writing in the first Police Quest game for a recent point-and-click remake of same.

Given these circumstances, one would rather expect the game that became known as The Island of Dr. Brain to disappoint. And, indeed, the general critical consensus over the years has tended to paint it as something of a pale shadow of its illustrious predecessor. In this case, though, I find myself in disagreement with the consensus; I don’t think that The Island of Dr. Brain fares badly at all in comparison to its predecessor. Yes, some of the puzzles are cribbed directly from the previous game, and, yes, more old chestnuts do make an appearance; the game’s lowlight is definitely the supremely tedious (is there any other kind?) Tower of Hanoi puzzle. Yet there are also a number of completely original puzzles here which can stand proudly alongside the best puzzles from the earlier game. And, once again, the vast majority of the puzzles, whether original or cribbed, are great fun to solve.

A chemistry puzzle.

There’s a bit more to the plot this time around. Someone has knocked the good doctor over the head — with a pink-flamingo lawn ornament, no less! — and absconded with his most powerful and dangerous invention. In practice, however, the plot still doesn’t really matter all that much. Now duly hired as Dr. Brain’s assistant, you’ve been sent to your boss’s private island to retrieve a vital battery that’s necessary to stop the evil one’s dastardly plan. But you can’t just walk in and pick it up; you have to solve puzzles in order to make your way to the center of the island where the battery lies waiting. As security systems go, this one doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there you go. The real point, of course, is the puzzles.

It should be amply clear by now that Bridgemon, doubtless responding to dictates from his managers, adopted a “don’t fix what isn’t broken” approach to the sequel. Still, he did manage to innovate modestly within the established framework. This time out, the puzzles and their solutions are all randomized to one degree or another, thus addressing the most obvious complaint customers who had spent $40 or more on the first game might have made: the fact that it just wasn’t very long at all. The Island of Dr. Brain even sets up a sort of meta-challenge for the truly hardcore. If you solve all 26 puzzles four times on each of the three difficulty levels (!), without using any of your hint coins, you earn the maximum of 1000 points, and are rewarded with a special picture. I can’t say that I can muster up that much dedication today, but it’s easy to imagine a patient youngster taking on the challenge, and thereby getting many, many hours out of the game.

Playing with polynominoes. Eat your heart out, Alexey Pajitnov.

Likewise, the sequel not only embraces its predecessor’s wide range of educational themes but actually expands upon it. Puzzles in The Island of Dr. Brain often deal with the expected: mathematics, spatial logic, computer programming (the logic-gates puzzle is every bit as good as Corey Cole’s programming puzzles from the previous game). At the same time, though, Bridgemon shows no fear of the humanities, despite the latter being a field of knowledge so much less obviously suited to puzzles. The Island of Dr. Brain finds clever ways to dive into foreign languages, musical notation, even masterpieces of literature and the visual arts. One of my favorite puzzles teaches you to identify the works of great artists, from Vincent van Gogh to Jackson Pollock, by their unique styles.

The sequel shipped with an “EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy” in the box, a 104-page book full of information that’s sometimes useful for solving the puzzles but is more often there just to add depth to the topics the puzzles cover. As its name would imply, it’s a glorious mess, a big splat of completely unrelated data — a random cross-section of some tiny portion of all the sheer stuff the human race has learned and done and achieved over the centuries. I love it.

The Island of Dr. Brain didn’t do quite as well as its predecessor had commercially, but sold well enough that these two games would not mark the end of Dr. Thaddeus Egghead Brain’s puzzling career. The second game would be, however, the last of the series to be developed by Sierra in-house. Later entries were given to Bright Star Technology, a developer specializing in educational software which Sierra acquired in 1992 as part of Ken Williams’s general educational push. Those Dr. Brain games — there were five more of them in all, stretching all the way to 1999 — are slicker productions in many ways, but lack their predecessors’ gonzo spirit. They’re just well-made educational products — no more, no less.

Which only leads me to emphasize once again what a pleasure these first two Dr. Brain games still are to play. The EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy nicely illustrates the overarching Dr. Brain take on education. In a world obsessed with specialists and specialties, these games dare to tell us that knowledge in general is a sumptuous banquet which is only made more exciting through variety. A person, they imply, should feel free to become a computer programmer and a poet, a geneticist and a musician. At the risk of offending the many hard-working pedagogues out there, I can’t help but think that much of the reason these particular educational games are so bracing is because of the lack of a formal disciplinarian to say, “No, you can’t follow up a mechanical-engineering problem with an art-appreciation exercise. The child will be confused by such an abrupt shift and will fail to internalize the lessons. Such disparate subject matters should be separated by a reasonable pause, and are best contained in separate software programs designed for the individual needs of disparate educational models….” blah, blah, blah. Just throw it all in there, I say, and let children (and adults) enjoy drinking from the fire hose. I often think that half the modern world’s dysfunction is due to the fact that we’ve all become so specialized — so segregated — that we don’t know how to talk to one another anymore. I believe that we desperately need more Renaissance people, more jacks of all trades, even if that means fewer masters of one. The Dr. Brain games, it would appear, agree with me.

If we set aside the educational aspect and consider the Dr. Brain games purely as puzzle collections, they do suffer in some ways in comparison to The Fool’s Errand, the game I still consider the standard by which all other puzzlers should be measured. The Dr. Brain games were created at the dawn of the age of multimedia computing, when Sierra even more so than most companies was determined to put in every bit of digitized sound and color they could fit onto a reasonable number of floppy disks. Such rather garish presentations perhaps haven’t aged as well as The Fool’s Errand‘s austere, elegant black-and-white look. And the Dr. Brain games lack anything like The Fool’s Errand‘s dazzling structural complexity; structurally, they’re just a collection of standalone puzzles, to be solved one at a time until you solve the last one and win. But of course, all of these alleged negatives could equally be read as positives. Certainly the audiovisuals of Dr. Brain have plenty of goofy charm of their own, and you may very well have more room in your life for a casual series of discrete puzzles than for the all-consuming obsession that The Fool’s Errand can become once you’ve fallen down its rabbit hole.

Unlike many of the Sierra titles from their era, the Discovery Series has never been officially re-released as digital downloads — doubtless thanks once again to that dreaded “educational” tag. Yet they richly deserve to be remembered and, most of all, to be played. I’m therefore going to take the liberty of offering Castle of Dr. Brain and The Island of Dr. Brain for download here. As usual, I’ve included a configuration file that will make them as easy as possible to get running with the aid of DOSBox, whether you’re using a Windows, Macintosh, or Linux machine. Happy puzzling!

(My huge thanks go to Corey Cole, who took the time to correspond with me at length on this phase of his career. Be sure to check out Hero-U: From Rogue to Redemption, a new game in the spirit of the Quest for Glory series which Corey and Lori Ann Cole have created. As of this writing, its release is expected in a matter of weeks.

Other sources include the issues of Sierra’s official magazine from Fall 1991, Fall 1992, and Winter 1992.)


  1. The name “Discovery Series” wasn’t actually used until 1992. Before then, the earliest games in the series were sold simply as educational titles, without any further branding. 

 
 

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The Sierra Network

Ken Williams got the online religion early or late, depending on how you look at it. Despite running a company whose official name was Sierra On-Line — admittedly, the second part of the name was already being de-emphasized by the end of the 1980s, and would eventually be dropped entirely — he had paid no more attention than most of his peers to the rise of commercial online services like CompuServe. Sierra maintained a modest presence in such places, even agreed to the occasional online chat, but telecommunication was hardly central to their business strategy during the first eight years or so of their existence. All that began to change, however, when a new service called Prodigy made a splashy entrance in 1988.

Almost a decade after CompuServe’s consumer service had been born, Prodigy breezily declared themselves to be the “first consumer online service,” full stop. In so doing, they demonstrated a certain chutzpah in which they would never be lacking, and which would decidedly fail to endear them to most others in their industry. Yet underneath the bluster there was perhaps an honest aspirational vision. Backed by the unlikely partners of Sears and IBM, Prodigy desired to be, to coin a phrase, the online service for the rest of us. They became the first service after the Commodore 64-only QuantumLink to allow access only through a graphical front-end which they themselves provided to their customers. There would be no scrolling green text for their subscribers, but rather attractive screen layouts full of color and even pictures. Preferring to see themselves as the next step in traditional, top-down mass media — the natural successor or at least adjunct to newspapers, magazines, and television — they hewed to this philosophy to the complete exclusion of the user-driven initiatives that had done so much to build the other online services: things like chat, file libraries, and self-organizing communities of interest. (Incredibly, online chat, the killer app that had first gone up on CompuServe in the Dark Ages of 1980, wouldn’t arrive on Prodigy until 1994.)

In compensation, Prodigy planned to offer more content from Big Media than had ever been seen online before, alongside enough online shopping to make any brick-and-mortar mall stroller green with envy. Indeed, it was typical mall shoppers rather than typical computer hobbyists that they were really trying to reach. Rather than hosting chats with the likes of computer-game developers and NASA engineers, they curated question-and-answer forums with such mainstream celebrities as the fitness diva Jane Fonda and the famed sportscaster Howard Cosell. Further, they offered all of this at a flat rate, a first for the industry. The monthly subscription price of $10 — a price which would only buy you about two hours at best on any of the other services — was augmented by online advertising that took full advantage of the graphical front end. In this area as well, then, Prodigy became a pioneer, albeit of a perhaps more dubious stripe.

Prodigy went live on April 11, 1988. From the moment he first logged on later that year, Ken Williams was excited by what he saw there in a way he had never been by CompuServe or any of the other text-based services. He called Prodigy “a preview of the future” in his “President’s Corner” of Sierra’s corporate magazine.

I boot it up in the morning, and I’m greeted with a “front page” that gives headlines on the major news stories of the day. Beside each headline is a number to punch up the text of the feature, which is written in a professional journalistic style. After the front page, I can check the price of my company’s stock through Prodigy’s Dow Jones service. Because I’m a West Coaster and Wall Street opens before I get out of bed each morning, the stock price I see represents the price of my stock as it was within the last fifteen minutes (not what it was after closing last night).

I can also catch the up-to-date prices of other publicly-traded home-software companies or I can check to see if any of the top computer makers has made a big announcement. I also check the local weather, and occasionally the weather of a city I’m to travel to that day (Prodigy will give me a report for almost anywhere), and I always, always read the PC Industry Column by Stewart Alsop III.

If I have time during the morning (but usually at night), I’ll access one of the “interactive magazine” sections of Prodigy. Among the writers for Prodigy are Gene Siskel (of Siskel and Ebert’s At the Movies), Sylvia Porter (finances), Jane Fonda (fitness), Jolian Block (taxes), and a host of others. Each of these people contributes a column worth reading, and the columns are written when news happens, not just once a week or once a month.

It’s great to have this online magazine rack constantly available, but the best part of Prodigy is that you can write the writers. Recently I saw a Gene Siskel review of the movie Parents on Prodigy. As I enjoy such offbeat movies, and Gene appeared to have similar taste, I wrote him a quick note asking if he could recommend similar films. The next day when I booted up the service I had a short note waiting from Gene that contained the names of two other films I would like. Once, I didn’t like a Stewart Alsop column, and I got my aggressions out immediately by sending him a note of disagreement (no response from Stewart was given or expected). I consider this interactivity to be the major plus of this interactive-magazine format.

The reasons for Ken Williams’s immediate enthusiasm for Prodigy aren’t hard to divine in the context of his strategic vision for Sierra and his industry. As we saw in my last article, he was convinced that computers were simply too hard to use, and that the path to more universal acceptance of his company’s products lay in smoothing out the rough edges of being a computer gamer, in commodifying games like any other form of mass media. If this process entailed the loss of some of hacker culture’s old can-do spirit of empowered creativity, well, such was the price of progress; tellingly, and even as he rejected making games for the platform himself, Williams was a great admirer of Nintendo and their carefully-curated walled garden of cartridge-based videogames. Prodigy in the online space, like Nintendo in the console space, was moving in the direction he hoped to take Sierra in the computer-game space.

Yet the example of Prodigy was also more to Ken Williams than just an object marketing lesson from a related industry. It woke him up to the possibilities — the possibilities, that is, for Sierra themselves — in the online space. Williams, in short, wanted in on that action which he was coming to believe would do so much to shape the future not only of computers but of media in general.

In 1989, a new terminal program from an outside programmer reached Sierra by a somewhat circuitous route that wound through their close relationship with Radio Shack. They chose to revise it and publish it as one of their rare forays into application software. Sierra’s On-Line — yes, the name is a little too cute — was designed, in what was fast becoming the typical Sierra fashion, to make going online just that little bit easier for people who didn’t eat and breathe baud rates and transfer protocols. It shipped, for instance, with a script that would do all the work of getting you logged in and signed up with CompuServe for the first time for you, following up that helping hand with a guided tour of the service. (Ken Williams himself may have been most enamored with Prodigy, but that didn’t mean Sierra would ignore the only online service with more than half a million subscribers in 1989.) After that introduction, many tasks could be automated by clicking big, friendly onscreen buttons, sort of an attempt to bring the Prodigy experience to CompuServe. Previous terminal programs, ran Sierra’s marketing line, had been “too complex and intimidating for the average user to want to tackle; one look at a two- or three-inch thick manual, and most people decided they weren’t really all that interested in going online.” Sierra’s On-Line, by contrast, would make online life “available to a much wider audience than before. With a program this easy, convenient, and inexpensive, going online would be within the reach of anyone with a computer and a telephone.”

While there’s no indication that Sierra’s On-Line became a particularly big seller, much less revolutionized the online demographic in the way the company seemed to have hoped, it is illustrative of their thinking as the 1990s loomed. Ditto the “Sierra BBS” which they set up around the same time, sporting enough incoming telephone lines to let 32 people be online at once. Sierra claimed that over 35,000 people were visiting each month by the end of 1989, getting hints for the games and downloading demos, patches, and curiosities like a “3-D Animated Christmas Card” and a standalone version of “Astro Chicken,” an action game embedded in Space Quest III. And at the same time, Sierra became a great booster of Prodigy. In addition to setting up a big presence on the new service proper, they took to dropping signup kits directly into their game boxes, thus getting them into the hands of hundreds of thousands of gamers.

In a 1990 address, Steve Jobs, a visionary who gets lots of credit for the many things he got right but little blame for the equal number of things he got wrong, said that the 1990s would be “the decade of interpersonal computing.” When he said it, he was talking of small-scale connectivity via LANs, not the wide-scale connectivity that was already being enabled by services like CompuServe and Prodigy, much less the epoch-making invention that would be the World Wide Web. Ken Williams responded, rightly, that Jobs was “thinking too small. I agree that ‘interpersonal computing’ — the idea that the individual computer owner will soon find himself acting as part of a bigger connected computer community — is the next step in the evolution of personal computing. But I disagree with Jobs’s vision of the company office as the birthplace of this technology.”

Even as Jobs was articulating his narrow vision of interpersonal computing to an industry conference, Williams had put Sierra to work attempting to forward his own, more expansive view of computing’s future in a more direct fashion than even the Prodigy relationship entailed. On October 31, 1990, Sierra quietly announced that they had begun testing a new, self-standing online service of their own, one that would go far beyond the Sierra BBS. Ken Williams, from the press release:

Sierra is interested in extending our core product-development technology to have multiplayer capabilities. Our long-term goal is to have games, similar to those we now sell, which can be played simultaneously by large groups of people over a wide-area network. We have no plans currently to announce any particular product, any timetable for roll-out, or even any sense of what form a national roll-out might take — e.g., whether we would operate our own network or offer our product through some existing network. This announcement is only made to correct misinformation that may have been leaked by our testers. Whereas we are very excited about this test, it is much too early to speculate as to whether it might lead to some marketable product. We should know more by early next year, at which time we will be able to comment further.

And so, with slightly under 1000 volunteer testers located in the Los Angeles area, a modest slate of classic parlor games like chess and bridge, and heaps of caveats like those above, The Sierra Network was born.

The test “yielded amazing results,” reported another press release the following May: “Many of our testers had never touched a computer before, but were suddenly averaging 20 hours per week and more on TSN.” In choosing the testers, Sierra had deliberately reached out beyond the demographic that typically played computer games, even going so far as to loan computers to those of their non-techie guinea pigs that needed them. Ken Williams had been inspired by his mother, an avid bridge player, to make that game a special priority, as he did the people of her advanced age who tended most frequently to play it — i.e., the least likely of all people to use a computer under normal circumstances.

The influence of Prodigy could be seen all over The Sierra Network, from the graphical interface that was designed to be easy enough for that much-abused least-common denominator, the proverbial grandmother, to the plan for flat-rate pricing of about $12 per month. It’s thus somewhat ironic to note that Prodigy itself was in danger of crashing in flames at the same time that The Sierra Network was getting off the ground. The former service’s membership had soared by 1991 to 600,000, but, as might have been predicted had its administrators looked more closely at the experience of CompuServe and other predecessors, a big chunk of those subscribers were proving more interested in interacting with one another than they were in engaging with the curated content Prodigy and their corporate-media partners provided. This was throwing the financial model all out of whack. Prodigy responded by censoring forum discussions, by limiting email to 30 messages per month, and by raising the subscription price to $15 per month. Some of their subscribers organized a so-called “Cooperative Defense Committee” to fight back, precipitating an internecine conflict the likes of which has never quite been seen before or since. Members of the user resistance claimed Prodigy was reading their emails, and a rumor spread, never to be conclusively proved or disproved, that Prodigy’s software was snooping through the contents of subscribers’ hard drives — thus providing the service with another dubious first as the centerpiece of the first notable spyware scandal in the history of the computer industry. Although the civil war had little obvious effect on the service’s overall subscriber count, which only continued to grow in a bullish environment for the idea of interpersonal computing in general, it cost Prodigy something less tangible but equally precious. After the great PR debacle of 1991, Prodigy would never again enjoy the prestige and influence of their first moment in the sun. Their thunder would increasingly be stolen by America Online, a service launched with much the same aspirations toward mainstream, non-computer-geek Middle America, but one which would prove to be much better managed in the long run.

So, as Sierra charged ahead with their own online service they had object lessons, should they choose to heed them, that managing such a service — especially at flat-rate pricing — was more difficult and expensive than it might first appear to be. In addition to Prodigy, they could look to PlayNet, the service which seven years before had tried to offer at discount prices to owners of Commodore 64 computers a suite of simple board and card games not all that dissimilar from those of the nascent Sierra Network, only to go bust within a few years, largely because little PlayNet had been unable to negotiate the favorable terms with the big telecommunications firms that might have made their business viable. Sierra too, while a big wheel in the computer-game industry, was next to nothing in the eyes of the telecom giants. Yet they believed they could overcome the factors that had killed PlayNet and nearly done in even Prodigy by using their basic service almost as a loss leader for premium content in the form of bigger, meatier games. Ken Williams described The Sierra Network as the cable television of online services. Sure, you could pay a fairly small flat fee and just get the basic package, but to get the online equivalent of HBO you’d have to pay a premium. The folks at Dynamix were already testing an online version of their hit World War I dogfighting simulator Red Baron, and Sierra planned to make two new “theme parks,” called SierraLand and LarryLand, available to subscribers at additional cost by 1992.

On May 6, 1991, Sierra announced that The Sierra Network was officially a go, being spun off as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the parent company. They intended to make it available to most of California at the flat rate of $12 per month by the end of the month, and to the entire country at that rate within a year. In the meantime, subscribers outside of California could gain access for $5 per month plus $2 per hour, still far cheaper than most other online services of the day.

As one might expect, though, early paying members were heavily concentrated in California. Far from being a disadvantage, this situation was in some ways just the opposite. When wildfires burned more than a thousand homes to the ground in northern California, The Sierra Network’s subscribers put together an impromptu emergency-response center to keep everyone updated on the fires’ current course. During happier times, subscribers organized pot lucks and picnics in the non-virtual world. And, inevitably, romance soon sprouted from this fertile soil of friendship; the first Sierra Network marriage proposal took place as early as August 30, 1991.

But Sierra’s ambitions for the service had of course always extended well beyond California. On June 1, 1992, they rolled out, just as they had promised, nationwide flat-rate pricing: $13 per month, with a usage cap of 30 hours per month to head off the sorts of heavy users who had so nearly been the death of Prodigy. To date, the service had been growing at a reasonable if not breathtaking pace despite going virtually un-promoted outside of Sierra’s own magazine, surpassing 25,000 subscribers in the first year. If not enough to set CompuServe, Prodigy, or America Online shaking in their boots, it still wasn’t bad for a service that offered little beyond games and socializing; even a non-gaming something as basic as email had taken months to arrive. Now, with the nationwide roll-out underway in earnest, Sierra launched the biggest advertising blitz in their history to that point, encompassing glossy print and even television. To accommodate the expected surge in subscriptions, the parent company found their online subsidiary their own space, moving them into a building that had formerly been the home of a local Oakhurst steakhouse known as The Old Barn. (The place had been a popular stop for tourists to nearby Yosemite National Park; there was a bit of a problem with trail-weary hikers turning up, marching in through the front door, and asking for a menu without ever noticing the changed signage.)

Ken Williams’s cable-television-inspired “premium packages” also started to come online — and also just as promised — during 1992. For the extra price of $4 per month per package, subscribers could access SierraLand, an online amusement park complete with white-water rafting, mini-golf, a videogame arcade, and paintball; LarryLand, an online casino, a veritable Lost Wages straight out of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards; and MedievaLand, whose centerpiece was The Shadow of Yserbius, a more limited but better-looking multiplayer CRPG than America Online’s Neverwinter Nights. The truly hardcore could get access to it all, plus unlimited online time, for the low, low price of $150 per month — still a bargain compared to what some people were shelling out just to chat on services like CompuServe.

Ken Williams’s greatest business hero was Walt Disney. He particularly admired Uncle Walt’s talent for turning his cartoon characters into indelible icons of international pop culture, and strove to do the same for the stars of Sierra’s games. In the early 1990s, Larry Laffer, whose gradual transformation from the skeevy pervert of the first Leisure Suit Larry game to lovable loser was by then complete, suddenly started turning up everywhere: on tee-shirts; on coffee mugs; as an opponent in the casual-game collection Hoyle Book of Games; as the proprietor of LarryLand on The Sierra Network; even as the ersatz software mogul behind The Laffer Utilities, a collection of otherwise businesslike MS-DOS add-ons. If Larry never quite became the mainstream icon Sierra wished, you certainly can’t fault them for lack of effort.

To their credit, Sierra had understood from the beginning that the socializing that took place around the games would be at least as important as the games themselves to their subscribers; in this sense at least, they were the polar opposite of Prodigy’s benighted management. “Where people meet people to have fun,” ran The Sierra Network’s early tagline, consciously placing the “people” part before the “fun” of the games. “Playing [offline board and card] games has very little to do with gaming,” wrote Ken Williams. “An evening playing bridge with friends has more to do with the quality of your relationship with your friends than with the actual card-playing.” Sierra worked hard to recreate this chummy atmosphere in an online context.

Even as the various components of The Sierra Network might point back to PlayNet, to Neverwinter Nights, or (in the case of the online Red Baron) to GEnie’s Air Warrior, Ken Williams’s animating vision of the service made it stand out from an online marketplace of increasingly indistinguishable offerings. In the eyes of most modern gamers, the single-player plot-heavy adventure games that are still Sierra’s most famous vintage stock-in-trade might seem to exist at the opposite end of a continuum from the shorter-form grab-and-go games that made up the majority of The Sierra Network’s offerings. Yet Williams didn’t see things that way at all at the time.

In my recent conversation with Judith Pintar, she mentioned how she came to see CompuServe as a sort of virtual space with a spatial architecture of its own, a maze of twisty little passages winding through chat rooms, discussion boards, and online games. While that may have been an idiosyncratic take on CompuServe — an outgrowth of her unique personality — it was one that Ken Williams wanted to make real for everybody on The Sierra Network. To an extent rivaled only by Habitat, the earlier but brief-lived online community Lucasfilm Games had created for QuantumLink, he strained to turn The Sierra Network into an embodied space not at all far removed from the virtual spaces inside his company’s adventure games. Just as much as Sierra’s offline adventure games, their online service was to be a form of “interactive multimedia.” The Sierra Network, Williams had long since declared, was nothing less than “my vehicle for experimenting with virtual reality.” His vision was perhaps summed-up best in a tossed-off line he offered even while the premium “theme parks” were still twinkles in their developers’ eyes: “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could play our games, but all the other characters you ran into were real people?”

The first step a new subscriber took on the service was to make an avatar using the “FaceMaker” program, choosing an age, a sex, a race, a hair style and color, a facial expression, and more; it all added up to an almost infinite range of possibility. Some subscribers tried to construct avatars that looked pretty much like they themselves did — or at least like idealized versions of themselves — but others used The Sierra Network as an opportunity to try out entirely different identities. Such practices, which became known among the subscribers as “masquerading,” weren’t discouraged by the service’s administrators. On the contrary: a single subscriber was allowed to have multiple avatars, and plenty took advantage of that, putting on different looks, personalities, and even genders to suit their mood of any given evening. “Being us, whoever we are, is tough work,” said Jeffrey Leibowitz, The Sierra Network’s director of marketing. “It’s nice sometimes to not be you.” Marketing considered adopting as a slogan “Be all that you can’t be,” a great riff on the United States Army’s longtime slogan of “Be all that you can be,” but it was sadly rejected in the end, probably out of fear of offending delicate patriotic sensibilities.

The Sierra Network wasn’t a collection of services that you used; it was rather a geography of places that you visited.

The sense of embodied physicality was perhaps the key thing that made The Sierra Network so precious to the many — and there are a surprising number of them — who remember it with such nostalgic fondness today. The terminology of a cyber-space is all over Sierra’s own way of talking about the service — sometimes, one senses, for calculated reasons, but other times for unconscious reasons, simply because that terminology seemed the best to use to describe an experience of this nature. So, you didn’t sign into SierraLand or LarryLand, you went there. And once there, you didn’t enter commands or even click buttons; you strolled the midway of the amusement park or the aisles of the casino, looking for something — or someone — that caught your interest. Even the simplest games on The Sierra Network were constructed with this eye toward embodied virtual space; when you played bridge, you saw the table along with your partner and your opponents sitting across it, just as if you were really there. What if online life writ large had eschewed the metaphors of print from the beginning for embodied virtual reality? The Sierra Network takes us as close as we’re likely to get to answering that counter-factual.

By 1992, a real buzz was growing up around online services in general. America Online had an IPO that spring which exceeded all expectations, attracting committed backing from such influential patrons as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Ross Perot, an independent candidate for President of the United States who would manage to attract 18.9 percent of the vote that November, was making news with his proposals for an “electronic town hall,” where citizens across the nation could come together to discuss the issues of the day with the politicians who served them.

The Sierra Network fit right into this zeitgeist, attracting considerable mainstream attention of its own. Noted tech pundit John Dvorak called it nothing less than “the future of telecommunications.” The Washington Post‘s business section wrote about it using words that might have been cribbed directly from Sierra’s own press releases: “If TSN takes off, it could define a new medium — the merger of computer games and online information services into a form of entertainment never seen before. TSN could ultimately propel Sierra into the big leagues, pushing the company far beyond its current annual sales of about $50 million.” Alan Truscott, arguably the world’s foremost authority on the game of bridge, promoted The Sierra Network’s online version of his favorite pastime via his New York Times column on same: “Playing on Sierra is less impersonal than it sounds. From a list of those available, designated by first names or code names, you invite three others to play. Each player designs a face that may or may not be an accurate portrait of themselves, which shows on your computer screen. It is easy to discuss bidding methods, conduct a postmortem, or simply chat.” “It would be wrong to suppose,” he concluded, “that playing bridge in one’s home while linked by computer and telephone to three other players must be an unsocial activity.”

Playing bridge on The Sierra Network.

By some metrics, then, The Sierra Network was doing quite well. Doubtless thanks not least to all this positive press, total subscription revenues jumped from a paltry $266,000 in the first year all the way to $2.825 million in the second.  And yet one stubborn fact couldn’t be disguised by all the good news: Ken Williams’s pet online service just wasn’t making Sierra any money. In fact, it was costing them a bundle. Unusually for this company that saw themselves as a maker of “premium” products with premium prices to match, Sierra had priced their service far too aggressively to ever turn a profit even with the optional packages. They had misjudged the cost of maintaining the computing and networking infrastructure to run the service, misjudged the speed at which telecommunications costs in general would decrease, and misjudged their ability to negotiate with the telecom giants as a paltry $50-million-a-year company.

Nor was the news unadulteratedly positive even on the demand side. By the spring of 1993, Sierra Network membership was showing ominous signs of having already plateaued, or even of having started going in the other direction. Many of the most basic aspects of running an online service — things that companies like CompuServe had been doing for years with apparent ease — were a huge struggle for Sierra. Their service crashed with disconcerting regularity, and they could never seem to catch up to customers’ demands on their bandwidth; trying to connect to The Sierra Network for a casual game of backgammon could often be, as Sierra’s marketing director John Williams put it, like trying to get through to Microsoft’s customer support right after the release of a new version of MS-DOS. In addition to spotty reliability and connectivity, another big problem the service faced in trying to further build its membership rolls was the very fact that it was so exclusively games-focused. The typical pattern on CompuServe or America Online was for customers to sign up with plenty of sober, practical reasons in mind or at least on the tongue — online news, online stock-market quotes, etc. — and then get inadvertently hooked on chat and games. The Sierra Network couldn’t pull the same bait and switch, for the simple reason that it lacked the same bait. To sign up for The Sierra Network, you had to be willing to say up-front that this was strictly an entertainment expense — strictly an indulgence, if you will. For some reason, many potential subscribers — even the ones with gigantic cable-television bills — seemed to find that a hard admission to make.

In the fiscal year ending March 31, 1993, Sierra as a whole turned the wrong kind of corner after years of steady profitability, posting an ugly loss of $12.3 million. While the reasons for this stark downturn extended well beyond the money being spent on The Sierra Network — fodder for future articles on this site — the latter certainly wasn’t helping the situation any. The online service alone lost $5 million that year. To this point, it had cost its parent $7.5 million over and above the revenue it had managed to generate during the period of its existence — or about the cost of making ten single-player multimedia adventure games and then giving them all away for free. Sierra was in the confusing position of having collected a fair number of subscribers for their online service, yet not seeing those numbers translate into less red ink on the bottom line. The annual report for fiscal 1993 reflects the frustration this was causing inside the parent company. “There can be no assurance that costs will not become prohibitive and threaten the economic viability of the network,” it states. “Further, there can be no assurance the revenue growth rate will continue into the future or that The Sierra Network will ever become profitable.” Ken Williams had had high hopes for The Sierra Network — hopes, one might even say, that brought him as close as such a hard-nosed businessman could ever come to real idealism — but he had never been noted for his patience with money-losing ventures. “To obtain necessary funding of our marketing campaigns and new product-development efforts for The Sierra Network,” concludes the annual report, “we sought a strategic partner who could bring capital, a well-respected brand name, and a large customer base.” That partner was to be AT&T. “If you’re a young online service out to compete with the big boys,” wrote John Williams in Sierra’s magazine, “AT&T is the kind of friend you want to have.”

On July 28, 1993, the deal was consummated after months of talks. AT&T bought a 20-percent stake in The Sierra Network, while General Atlantic Partners, a venture-capital firm who had done much to broker the deal, bought another 20 percent. But of almost more import than the initial sale was the statement that the long-term plan was for AT&T “eventually to assume controlling interest.” Sierra, trying to dig themselves out of a financial hole, were gradually divesting from their grandest experiment.

Because it made little sense to continue to call an online service that would be run with decreasing input from Sierra proper The Sierra Network, it was rechristened The ImagiNation Network. In a letter to his subsidiary’s employees, Ken Williams said the things that bosses generally do under such circumstances, promising that “there will be no significant changes as a result of this partnership” — right before informing his charges of all the things that would be changing. For example, they would soon be moving out of The Old Barn and, indeed, out of Oakhurst entirely, with its “inadequate communications links and unreliable electric power.” Instead of continuing as a closed playground curated solely by Sierra, ImagiNation would become “open” to “developers of entertainment, information, and transaction software and services.” In keeping with this new spirit of openness, a bridge of sorts would be built between ImagiNation and Prodigy to allow the latter’s 2.2 million subscribers access to all the delights of SierraLand, LarryLand, and MedievaLand. Thus Ken Williams and his online service came full circle, back to the original motivator.

On November 15, 1994, AT&T bought all remaining ImagiNation shares from Sierra and General Atlantic Partners for $40 million. While the former was still under contract to provide technical support and even to build occasional additions and enhancements, their active role in steering the service ended here if not earlier. In their eyes it was now, depending on which Sierra insider was doing the looking, either a failed experiment or a worthwhile venture that had had to be set free in order to reach its full potential. Sadly, the verdict of history would lean toward holders of the first view.

There is, however, one fascinating might-have-been associated with this final stage of The Sierra Network story. Among the documents in the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play is a letter to Ken Williams from Bill Gates of Microsoft. It’s dated May 5, 1993, and is written in response to the impending initial buy-in by AT&T, which was already an open secret in the tech sector by that date. Gates, it seems, had wanted in on The Sierra Network himself. He’s more than a little miffed that Williams chose AT&T over Microsoft.

I am really disappointed you didn’t talk with us further after we sent our first proposal for working together on your Network. We feel that working with us would have provided the best deal for your shareholders since we would have paid more than AT&T and would have provided more of an outlet for the creative work at Sierra. Some of the key differences between the AT&T and Microsoft proposals are:

A. We believe in the entertainment service. We would have put some of our best people onto scaling up the marketing and technology immediately. AT&T is simply hiring a new person in and seeing what happens while adding priorities relating to new platforms when the focus should be cementing over 200,000 subscribers.

B. All of our online efforts would have been focused on the one network, providing for synergy. AT&T has their Eastlink, Telescript, and other consumer-network efforts completely separated from TSN.

C. Microsoft is focused on online activities. If you had spent more time with Bob Allen and me, the difference would have become clear.

Just why Ken Williams spurned such an enthusiastic, deep-pocketed, and comparatively agile suitor in favor of the rather hidebound AT&T is unknown to me. Had he chosen another course, the latter-day history of his personal passion project would, at the very least, have been very different.

As it happened, though, the most interesting and innovative stage of the former Sierra Network’s history was already behind it by the time Bill Gates wrote his letter. SierraLand, LarryLand, and MedievaLand remained around for some time to come, descending gradually into a homey decrepitude, but AT&T struggled with little success to build anything new and compelling around them. On August 7, 1996, America Online bought the service from AT&T for an undisclosed amount. There its last remnants were gradually engulfed and devoured by its owner’s higher-profile offerings. And thus passed into history Ken Williams’s unique, perhaps impractical but certainly romantic vision for an embodied online community — for, one might even say, the online service as virtual world. It would be many years before our real world would see its like again.

(Sources: the book On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders by Michael A. Banks; Sierra’s official magazines from Spring 1989, Fall 1989, Spring 1990, Summer 1990, Spring 1991, Summer 1991, Fall 1991, Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Winter 1992, June 1993, Summer 1993, and Holiday 1993; Computer Gaming World of November 1991 and December 1992; Electronic Games of December 1992; New York Times of April 12 1988, May 2 1993, July 18 1993, and August 19 1993; Washington Post of November 9 1992; San Francisco Chronicle of August 7 1996; Matt Barton’s YouTube interview with Susan Manley; press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play.)

 
 

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