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The Rise of POMG, Part 3: Competition and Conflict

While the broth of Ultima Online was slowly thickening, not one but two other publishers beat EA and Origin Systems to the punch by releasing graphical persistent virtual worlds of their own. We owe it to them and to ourselves to have a look at these other POMG pioneers before we return to the more widely lauded one that was being built down in Texas. They were known as Meridian 59 and The Realm.

Meridian 59 was inspired by Scepter of Goth,[1]The first word in the name is often spelled Sceptre as well. a rare attempt to commercialize the text-only MUD outside of the walled gardens of online services such as CompuServe and GEnie. After a long gestation period on a mainframe of the Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium, it was ported in 1983 to an IBM PC/XT, to which were cabled sixteen modems and sixteen phone lines, one for each of the players who could be online at any given time. A company called InterPlay — no, not that Interplay — franchised the software out to operators in at least seven American cities. These franchisees then charged their customers an hourly fee to roam around inside the world. The business model worked surprisingly well for a couple of years, until InterPlay’s founder was sent to prison for tax evasion and his company went down with him.

During the fairly brief window of time that Scepter of Goth remained a going concern, a pair of brothers named Andrew and Chris Kirmse fell in love with the incarnation of it that was run out of their hometown of Fairfax, Virginia. Not yet teenagers when they discovered it, they never forgot it after it disappeared. In the summer of 1994, when Andrew had just earned his bachelor’s degree from MIT and Chris had just finished his junior year at Virginia Tech, they set about bringing something similar to life, albeit this time with a top-down graphical view of the world rather than scrolling text. By the end of the year, they felt they had “the foundation of a game,” as Andrew puts it.

A very early version of the game that would evolve into Meridian 59. At this point, it was known as Blackstone.

Then, like so many other young men of their generation and disposition, they found their productivity derailed by a little game called DOOM. “I spent the early part of 1995 playing DOOM II to the exclusion of all else,” admits Andrew. As soon as he had finished all of the single-player levels, he and a friend started to make a DOOM-like engine of their own — again, just as about a million other young programmers were doing at the time. But there was a key difference in Andrew’s case: he didn’t want to make a single-player game, nor even one oriented toward the one-and-done online deathmatches that were all the rage at university campuses all over the country. He rather wanted to combine DOOM with the persistent online game which he and his brother had already begun — that is to say, to make a DOOM that took place in a persistent world.

Andrew and Chris Kirmse cleared their schedules so that they could spend the summer of 1995 in their parents’ basement, figuring out whether it was possible and practical to make the unholy union a reality. With the Internet now entering the public consciousness in a big way, it was a no-brainer to move the game there, where it would be able to welcome far more than sixteen players without requiring a warehouse worth of modems. A handful of other young dreamers joined them as partners in a would-be company called Archetype Interactive, contributing art, world designs, and even a modicum of business acumen from locations all over the country. Like Kali and for that matter DOOM itself, it was the very definition of an underground project, springing to life far from the bright lights of the major publishers, with their slick “interactive movies” and their fixed — and, it would turn out, comprehensively wrong — ideas of the direction mainstream gaming was destined to go. At first the Archetypers wanted to call their game Meridian, simply because they thought the word sounded cool. But they found that the name was already trademarked, so they stuck an arbitrary number at the end of it to wind up with Meridian 59.

By December, they had a bare-bones world with, as Andrew Kirmse says, “no character advancement, no spells, no guilds, no ranged weapons, just the novelty of seeing other people walking around in 3D and talking to them.” Nevertheless, they decided they were ready for an alpha test, several months before Ultima Online would reach the same milestone. They fired up the server late one evening and went to bed, and were thrilled to wake up the next morning and find four people — out of a maximum of 35 — poking around in their world at the same time. Andrew still calls the excitement of that moment “the high point of the entire project.” They redoubled their efforts, roping in more interested observers to provide more art and expand upon the world and its systems, pushing out major updates every few weeks.

In an testament to the endearingly ramshackle nature of the whole project, the world of Meridian 59 was built using a hacked DOOM level editor. Likewise, much of the early art was blatantly stolen from DOOM.

The world went into beta testing in April of 1996. The maximum number of concurrent players had by now been raised by an order of magnitude, but Meridian 59 had become popular enough that the Archetypers still had to kick people out when they needed to log on themselves to check out their handiwork. Among the curious tire-kickers who visited was Kevin Hester, a programmer with The 3DO Company. Founded by Trip Hawkins five years earlier with the intention of bringing a “multimedia console” — don’t call it a games console! — to living rooms everywhere, 3DO was rather at loose ends by this point, having banked on a future of digital entertainment that was badly at odds with the encroaching reality. But Hawkins’s latest instincts were sounder than those of a half-decade previous: he had now decided that online play rather than single-player multimedia extravaganzas was the future. He jumped on Meridian 59 as soon as Hester brought it to his attention, putting together in a matter of days a deal to acquire the budding virtual world and its far-flung network of creators for $5 million in 3DO stock. The Archetypers all signed on the dotted line and moved to Silicon Valley, most of them meeting one another face to face for the first time on their first day in their new office, where they were thrilled to find five servers — enough for five separate instances of their virtual world! — just waiting for them to continue with the beta test.

It had started off like a hacker fairy tale, but the shine wore off quickly enough. Inspired by the shareware example of DOOM, the Kirmse brothers had expected to offer the game client as a free download, with the necessity to pay subscription fees kicking in only after players had been given a few hours to try it out. 3DO vetoed all of this, insisting that the client be made available only as a boxed product with a $50 initial price tag, plus a $15 monthly subscription fee. And instead of being given as much time as they needed to make their new world fit for permanent habitation, as they had been promised they would, the Archetypers were now told that they had to begin welcoming paying customers into Meridian 59 in less than three months. Damion Schubert, Meridian 59‘s world-design lead, claims that “3DO was using us to learn about the business of online gaming,” seeing their very first virtual world as a stepping-stone rather than a destination unto itself. Whatever the truth of that assertion, it is a matter of record that, while the Archetypers were trying to meet 3DO’s deadline, the stock they had been given was in free fall, losing 75 percent of its value in those first three months, thereby doing that much more to convince the accountants that Meridian 59 absolutely, positively had to ship before 3DO’s next fiscal year began on October 1.

An aesthetic triumph Meridian 59 was not.

So, the game that was officially released on September 27, 1996, was not quite the one the Kirmses had envisioned when they signed the contract with 3DO. To call it little more than a massively-multiplayer DOOM deathmatch with a chat system grafted on would be unkind but not totally unfair. Its pseudo-3D engine would have looked badly outdated in 1996, the year of Quake, even if the art hadn’t been such a mismatched grab bag of aesthetics and resolutions. Meridian 59 evinced none of the simulational aspirations of Ultima Online; this was not a world in which anyone was going to pass the time baking bread or chopping lumber. For lack of much else to do, people mostly occupied themselves by killing one another. Like Ultima Online, the software permitted player-versus-player combat anywhere and everywhere; unlike Ultima Online, there were no guards patrolling any of the world’s spaces to disincentivize it. A Meridian 59 server was a purely kill-or-be-killed sort of world, host to a new war every single day. Because there was no budget to add much other content to the world, this was just as well with its creators; indeed, they soon learned to lean into it hard. Activities in the world came to revolve around the possession of guild halls, of which each server boasted ten of varying degrees of splendor for the disparate factions to fight over. If you didn’t like to fight with your fellow players more or less constantly, Meridian 59 probably wasn’t the game for you.

Handed the first-ever full-fledged massively-multiplayer online role-playing game, 3DO’s marketers chose to… write non-sequiters about latex. This might be the worst advertisement I’ve ever seen; I literally have no idea what joke it’s trying and failing to land. Something about condoms, I presume?

Luckily, there were plenty of gamers who really, really did like to fight, as the popularity of DOOM deathmatches illustrated. Despite its dated graphics and despite promotional efforts from 3DO that were bizarrely inept when they weren’t nonexistent, Meridian 59 managed to attract 20,000 or more subscribers and to retain them for a good while, keeping all ten of the servers that were given over to it after the beta test humming along at near capacity most of the time. 3DO even approved a couple of boxed expansion packs that added a modicum of additional content.

But then, in late 1997, 3DO all but killed the virtual world dead at a stroke. Deciding it was unjust that casual players who logged on only occasionally paid the same subscription fee as heavy users who spent many hours per day online, they rejiggered the pricing formula into a tangle of numbers that would have baffled an income-tax accountant: $2.49 per day that one logged on, capped at $9.99 per week, with total fees also capped at $29.99 per month. But never mind the details. Since the largest chunk of subscribers by far belonged to the heavy-user category, it boiled down to a doubling of the subscription price, from $15 to $30 per month. The populations on the servers cratered as a result. Meridian 59‘s best days — or at least its most populous ones — thus passed into history.

The other graphical MMORPG to beat Ultima Online to market had a very different personality. Sierra’s The Realm was the direct result of Ken Williams’s musings about what an “online adventure game” might be like, the same ones that I quoted at some length in my last article. After trying and failing to convince Roberta Williams to add a multiplayer option to King’s Quest VII, he went to a programmer named David Slayback, saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do something like our adventure games, that was Medieval themed, and allowed players to swap items with each other, buy weapons, and attack monsters?” Slayback then took the ball and ran with it; as Ken himself acknowledges, that initial conversation was “the limit of my involvement creatively.”

The original plan was for The Realm to become a part of America Online, the great survivor of the pre-Web era of commercial online services. That deal, however, fell through. Meanwhile Sierra was itself acquired by an e-commerce firm called CUC International, and The Realm seemed to fall between two stools amidst the reshuffling of deck chairs that followed. A beta test in the summer of 1996 did lead to the acceptance of the first paying subscribers in December of that year, but Sierra never did any real promotion beyond its own customer magazine, making the client software available only via mail order. Still, by all indications this virtual world attracted a number of players comparable to that of Meridian 59, perhaps not least because in its case buying the boxed client entitled the customer to a full year of free online play.

The Realm stands today as a rather fascinating artifact, being the road largely not taken in the MMORPG space. In presentation, aesthetics, and culture, it has more in common with Habitat, an amazingly early attempt by Lucasfilm Games and America Online’s direct predecessor Quantum Link to build a non-competitive graphical space for online socializing, than it does with either Meridian 59 or Ultima Online. This world was very clear about where its priorities lay: “The Realm offers you a unique environment in which to socialize with online friends (or make some new ones) and also gives you something fun to do while you’re socializing.” It was, in other words, a case of social space first, game second. As such, it might be better read as a progenitor to the likes of Second Life or The Sims Online than something like World of Warcraft.

Each player started in her own house, which she had to fight neither to acquire nor to defend. The interface was set up like one of the point-and-click graphic adventures that had been Sierra’s bread and butter since the mid-1980s, with the player guiding her avatar in the third person across a map made up of “rooms” that filled exactly one screen each. The graphical style too was right out of King’s Quest. None of this is terribly surprising, given that The Realm was built using SCI, Sierra’s venerable adventure-game engine.

Although there were monsters to fight and treasure to collect, player-versus-player combat was impossible. Even profanity was expressly forbidden. (“This includes ‘masking’ by using asterisks as part of the word,” noted the FAQ carefully.) The combat was also unusual in that it was turn-based. This choice, combined with the way that The Realm off-loaded an unusual amount of work to the player’s local client, meant that Sierra didn’t have to spread it across multiple servers; uniquely for this era, there really was just one Realm.

All of this attracted a dramatically different clientele from that of Meridian 59; many more women hung out in The Realm, for one thing. Interior decoration and fashion trumped murder and theft in the typical range of pursuits. Beth Demetrescu wrote in Sierra’s magazine InterAction about her own first days there:

As with all newbies, I started in my house. I was a poor, hungry, fashion faux pas. After I got out of my house, moved about six screens, and was lost in my hometown, I encountered HorseWoman, whose biography said she was an eleven-year-old. She took me to her home, gave me decent clothes, and taught me about basic communication, navigation, and combat. This was my first experience with the warm, welcoming community of The Realm.

I soon found myself outside of the town fighting rats. There are plenty of large, ferocious beasts to fight, but for the time being, all I could handle were rats. I was really worried the first time one of these rats killed me, thinking I was going to get kicked out of the game and would have to log back on. Instead, I lost everything I was carrying, but I was found by wanderers who dragged me home to heal…

I learned of Realm weddings. BlueRose, the Justice of the Peace, often called the Lady of Love, conducts over half of the Realm weddings…

I have picked up several valuable things from the many Realmers I have encountered. Not only did I get important information on The Realm’s features and inhabitants, but I also learned from their example about The Realm’s vast, multinational community. These people are friendly and helpful.

The contrast with Meridian 59, where a bewildered newbie was more likely to be given a broadsword to the back of the neck than navigational and sartorial assistance, could hardly have been greater.

A wedding in The Realm.

All told, then, Meridian 59 and The Realm provided the early MMORPG space with its yang and its yin: the one being a hyper-violent, hyper-competitive free-for-all where pretty much anything went, the other a friendly social space that was kept that way by tight moderation. Nevertheless, the two did have some things in common. Neither ever became more than moderately popular, for one — and that according to a pretty generous interpretation of “moderately” in a fast-expanding games industry. And yet both proved weirdly hard to kill. In fact, both are still alive to this day, abandoned decades ago by their original publishers but kept online by hook or by crook by folks who simply refuse to let them go away — certainly not now, when the aged code that makes their worlds come alive can be run for a pittance on a low-end server tucked away in some back corner of an office or data center somewhere. Their populations on any given evening may now be in the dozens rather than the hundreds or thousands, but these virtual worlds abide. In this too, they’ve set a precedent for their posterity; the Internet of today is fairly littered with online games whose heyday of press notices and mainstream popularity are well behind them, but that seem determined to soldier on until the last grizzled graybeard who cut his teeth on them in his formative years shuffles off this mortal coil. MMORPGs especially are a bit like cockroaches in this respect — with no insult to either the worlds or the insects in question intended. Suffice to say that community can be a disarmingly resilient thing.

But we return now to the story of Ultima Online, whose makers viewed the less than overwhelming commercial acceptance of Meridian 59 and The Realm with some ambivalence. On the one hand, Ultima Online had avoided having its own thunder stolen by another MMORPG sensation. On the other, these other virtual worlds’ middling trajectories gave no obvious reason to feel hugely confident in Ultima Online‘s own commercial prospects.

This was a problem not least because, as 1996 turned the corner into 1997, the project’s financial well had just about run dry, just as this virtual Britannia was ready to go from the alpha to the beta stage of testing, with ten to twenty times the number of participants of earlier testing rounds. It wasn’t clear how this next step could be managed under the circumstances; the client software was by now too big to ask prospective testers to download it in its entirety in this era of dial-up connections, yet there simply wasn’t sufficient money in the budget to stamp and ship 20,000 or more CDs out to them. The team decided there was only one option, cheeky though it seemed: to ask each participant in effect to pay Origin for the privilege of testing their game for them, by sending in $5 to cover the cost of the CD. The principals claim today that 50,000 people did so as soon as the test was announced online, burying Origin in incoming mail; I suspect this number may be inflated somewhat, as many of those associated with Ultima Online tend to be in the memories of those who made it. But regardless of the exact figure, the response definitely was considerable, not to mention gratifying for the little team of ex-MUDders who had been laboring in disrespected obscurity up there on a gutted fifth floor. It was the first piece of incontrovertible evidence that there were significant numbers of people out there who were really, really excited by the idea of living out an Ultima game with thousands of others.

The original Ultima Online beta CDs have become coveted collectors’ items.

As the creators tell the story, the massive popular reaction to the call for beta testers was solely responsible for changing the hearts and minds of their managers at EA and Origin. Realizing suddenly that Ultima Online had serious moneymaking potential, they went overnight from passive-aggressively trying to kill it to being all-in with bells on. In March of 1997, they moved the MUDders from their barren exile down to the scene of the most important action at Origin, where a much larger team had been working on Ultima IX, the latest iteration in the single-player series. Yet it was the latter project that was now to go on hiatus, not Ultima Online. This new amalgamation of developers, five or six times the size of the team of the day before, had but one mandate: get the virtual world done already. After two years of living hand to mouth, the original world-builders had merely to state their wishes in terms of resources in order to see them granted.

Most of the conceptual work of building this new online world had already been done by the time the team was so dramatically expanded. Still, we shouldn’t dismiss the importance of this sudden influx of sometimes unwilling bandwagon jumpers. For they made Ultima Online look like at least a passable imitation of a AAA prestige project, in a way that Meridian 59 and The Realm did not. A high design standard combined with a relatively high audiovisual one would prove a potent combination.

With its isometric perspective, Ultima Online most resembled Ultima VII in terms of presentation. The graphics were by no means cutting-edge — Ultima VII had come out back in 1992, after all — but they were bright and attractive, without going full-on cartoon like The Realm.

Did all of this really happen simply because the response to the call for beta testers was better than expected? I have no smoking gun either way, but I must say that I tend to doubt it. Just about everyone loves a good creatives-versus-suits story, such that we seldom question them. Yet the reasoning that went on in the executive suites prior to this turnaround in Ultima Online‘s fortunes was perhaps a little more complex than that of a pack of ravenous wolves chasing a tasty rabbit that had finally been revealed to their unimaginative minds. Whatever else one can say about them, most of the suits didn’t get where they were by being stupid. So, maybe we should try to see the situation from their perspective — try to see what Origin looked like to the outsiders at EA’s California headquarters.

Throughout the 1990s, Origin lived on two franchises: Richard Garriott’s Ultima and Chris Roberts’s Wing Commander. To be sure, there were other games here and there, some of which even turned modest profits, but it was these two series that kept the lights on. When EA acquired Origin in September of 1992, both franchises were by all indications in rude health. Wing Commander I and II and a string of mission packs for each were doing tremendous numbers. Ultima VII, the latest release in Richard Garriott’s mainline series, had put up more middling sales figures, but it had been rescued by the spinoff Ultima Underworld, which had come out of nowhere — or more specifically out of the Boston-based studio Blue Sky Productions, soon to be rebranded as Looking Glass — to become another of the year’s biggest hits.

Understandably under the circumstances, EA overlooked what a dysfunctional workplace Origin was already becoming by the time of the acquisition, divided as it was between two camps: the “Friends of Richard” and the “Friends of Chris.” Those two personifications of Origin’s split identity were equally mercurial and equally prone to unrealistic flights of fancy; one can’t help but sense that both of their perceptions of the real world and their place in it had been to one degree or another warped by their having become icons of worship for a cult of adoring gamers at an improbably young age. Small wonder that EA grew concerned that there weren’t enough grounded adults in the room down in Austin, and, after first promising a hands-off approach, showed more and more of a tendency to micro-manage as time went on — so much so that, as we learned in the last article, Garriott was soon reduced to begging for money to start his online passion project.

Wing Commander maintained its momentum for quite some time after the acquisition, even after DOOM came along to upend much of the industry’s conventional wisdom with its focus on pure action at the expense of story and world-building, the things for which both Garriott and Roberts were most known. Wing Commander III was released almost a year after DOOM in late 1994 with a cast of real actors headed by Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame, and became another huge success. Ultima, however, started to lose its way almost as soon as the ink was dry on the acquisition contract. Ultima VIII, which was also released in 1994, chased the latest trends by introducing a strong action element and simplifying most other aspects of its gameplay. This was not done, as some fan narratives wish to state, at the behest of EA’s management, but rather at that of Richard Garriott himself, who feared that his signature franchise was at risk of becoming irrelevant. That said, EA can and should largely take the blame for the game being released too early, in a woefully buggy and unpolished state. The critical and commercial response was nothing short of disastrous, leaving plenty of blame to go around. Fans complained that Ultima VIII had more in common with Super Mario Bros. than the storied Ultima games of the past, bestowing upon it the nickname Super Avatar Bros. in a backhanded homage to the series’s most hallowed incarnation, 1985’s Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, whose unabashed idealism now seemed like something from a lifetime ago in a parallel universe.

Then, in early 1996, Origin’s other franchise went squishy as well. As the studio’s own press releases breathlessly trumpeted, Wing Commander IV was the most expensive digital game ever made to that date, with a claimed production budget of $12 million. The vast majority of that money went into a real Hollywood film shoot, directed by Chris Roberts himself and starring a returning Mark Hamill among a number of other recognizable faces from the silver screen. Wing Commander IV wound up costing four times as much as its predecessor and selling half as many copies, taking months of huffing and puffing to just about reach the break-even point. The interactive-movie era had reached the phase of diminishing returns; under no circumstances was EA going to let Origin make a game like this one again.

But what kinds of games should Origin be making? That was the million-dollar question in the aftermath of Wing Commander IV. After Chris Roberts left the studio to pursue his dream of becoming the latest George Lucas in Hollywood, Origin announced that his series was to be continued on a less grandiose scale, moving some of the focus away from the cut scenes and back to the gameplay. Yet there was no reason to believe such games would make many inroads beyond the hardcore Wing Commander faithful. Meanwhile Richard Garriott had pledged to repair the damage done by Ultima VIII, by making the next single-player Ultima the biggest, best one ever. But epic CRPGs in general had been in the doldrums for years, and the Ultima IX project was already showing signs of becoming another over-hyped, over-expensive boondoggle like Wing Commander IV. Exacerbating the situation was the loss of two of the only people at Origin who had shown themselves to be capable of restraining and channeling Garriott’s flights of fancy. Origin and EA alike felt keenly the loss of the diplomatic and self-effacing designer and producer Warren Spector, the first everyday project lead on Ultima IX, who decamped to Looking Glass in 1995 when that project was still in its infancy. Ditto the production manager Dallas Snell, a less cuddly character whose talent for Just Getting Things Done — by cracking heads if necessary — was almost equally invaluable.

Of course, one can still ding EA for failing to see that Richard Garriott was onto something with Ultima Online long before they did. In their partial defense, though, Garriott tended to propose a lot of crazy stuff. As his checkered post-millennial career in game development illustrates all too clearly, he has not been a detail-oriented creator since his days of conceiving and coding the early Ultima games all by himself. This has made his ideas — even his good ones, which Ultima Online certainly was — all too easy to dismiss.

Nonetheless, the potential of persistent online multiplayer gaming was becoming impossible to deny by early 1997, what with the vibrant virtual communities being built on the likes of Kali and, in addition to the smaller but no less dedicated ones that had sprung up in Meridian 59 and The Realm. You’d have to be a fool not to be intrigued by the potential of Ultima Online in a milieu such as this one — and, again, EA’s executives most definitely weren’t fools. They wanted to keep Origin alive and viable and relevant as badly as anyone else. Suddenly this seemed the best way to do so. Thus the mass personnel transfer from Ultima IX, which was increasingly smelling like gaming’s past, into Ultima Online, which had the distinct whiff of its future.

It was a difficult transition for everyone, made that much more difficult by the fact that most of the people involved were still in their twenties, with all of the arrogant absolutism of youth. Both the project’s old-timers and its newcomers had plenty of perfectly valid complaints to hurl at their counterparts. Raph Koster, who had been told that he was the design lead, was ignored by more experienced developers who thought they knew better. And yet he did little for his cause by, as he admits today, “sulking and being very rude” and “behaving badly and improperly” even to Richard Garriott himself. From his point of view, the newcomers showed that they fundamentally didn’t understand online games when they wasted their time on fluff that players who needed to be captured for months or years would burn through in a matter of hours, such as lengthy, single-player-Ultima-style conversation trees for the non-player characters. Yet the newcomers were right to express shock and horror when they found that, amidst all the loving attention that had been given to simulating Britannia’s ecology and the like, no one on the original team had thought up a consistent system for casting spells, a bedrock of Ultima‘s appeal since the very beginning. Even today, one Ultima IX refugee accuses the MUDders of being “focused on minutia, what I would call silly little details that really added nothing to the game.”

When the two-month-long beta test finally began after repeated delays in June of 1997, the dogged simulation-first mentality of Koster and company faced a harsh reckoning with reality. Many of the systems that had seemed wonderful in theory didn’t work in practice, or displayed side effects that they’d never anticipated. Here as in many digital games, attempting to push the simulation too far just plunged the whole thing into a sort of uncanny valley, making it feel more rather than less artificial. For instance, the MUDders had made it possible for you to learn or improve skills simply by standing in close proximity to someone who was using the skill in question at a high level, on the assumption that your character was observing and internalizing this example of a master at work. But they’d also instituted a cap on the total pool of skill points a character could possess across all disciplines, on the assumption that no Jack of all trades could be a master of them all; just as is the case for most of us in real life, in Ultima Online you could be really good at a few things, or fair at a lot of them, but not really good at a lot of them. When a character hit her skill-point cap, learning new things would cause some of her other skills to decline to stay under it. In practice, this caused players to desperately try to avoid seeing what that baker or weaver was doing, for fear of losing their ability to hunt or cast spells as a result. Problems like these hammered home again and again the fact that any digital simulation is only the crudest approximation of a lived existence; in the real world, matters are not quite so zero-sum as instantly losing the ability to catch a fish because one has learned to cook a fish.

But the most extreme case of unforeseen consequences involved the aforementioned lovingly crafted ecology of virtual Britannia. To put it bluntly, the players destroyed it — all of it, within days if not hours. The population of deer and rabbits, the food sources of apex predators like dragons, were slaughtered to extinction by players instead. This was not done out of sheer bloody-mindedness alone, although that was undoubtedly a part of the equation. The truth was that deer and rabbits had value, in the form of meat and pelts. In a sense, then, virtual Britannia was becoming a real economy, just as its creators had always hoped it would. But it was an economy without real-world limits or controls, unimpeded by consequences which were themselves only virtual, never real; no one was going to go hungry in real life for over-hunting the forests and fields of Britannia. The same went for trees and fish and a hundred other precious resources that we of the real world usually make some effort to conserve, however imperfectly. With the simulation spinning wildly out of control, Origin had to start putting its thumb on the scales, applying external remedies such as magically re-spawning rabbits and trees, lest the world degenerate into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a deserted moonscape where roving bands of starving players were chased hither and yon by equally hungry dragons. People came to an Ultima game expecting a Renaissance Faire version of Merry Olde England, not a Harlan Ellison story.

Of course, the external corrections themselves had further knock-on consequences. By creating an endless supply of animals to hunt and trees to fell, Origin was in effect giving the economy a massive, perpetual external stimulus. The overseers were therefore always on the lookout for ways to suck gold back out of the world. Ironically, one of the best was to let players get killed a lot, since between death and resurrection they lost whatever money they’d been carrying with them. Thus Origin had a perverse incentive not to try too hard to make Britannia a safer, more friendly place.

Such collisions between idealism and reality were scarring for the MUDders. “This was a wake-up call for me,” says Raph Koster. “The limits on what we can get an audience to go along with, and how much we can affect the bottom line. A lot of people [on the development team] were emotionally hurt by the player killing. Many of the tactics we would use on MUDs just didn’t work at a large scale. Players behaved differently. They were ruder to one another.” All of which is to say that Richard Garriott’s fondly expressed wish that the persistent quality of Ultima Online would serve to put a brake on the more toxic ways of acting out on the anonymous Internet did not come to pass to anything like the extent he had imagined.

At the same time, though, it wasn’t all destruction a nd disillusionment during that summer of the beta test. Some players proved less interested in killing than they were in crafting, becoming armorers and blacksmiths, jewelers and merchants, chefs and bankers and real-estate agents. Players cooked food and sold it from booths in the center of the cities or earned a (virtual) living as tour guides, leading groups of people on treks to scenic but dangerous corners of the world. Enterprising wizards set up a sort of long-distance bus service, opening up magical portals to shuttle their fellow players instantly from one side of the world to another for a fee. Many of the surprises of the beta period were just the kind the MUDders had been hoping to see, emerging from the raw simulational affordances of the environment. “[Players] used the ability to dye clothing to make uniforms for their guilds,” says Raph Koster, “and they [held] weddings with coordinated bridesmaids dresses. They started holding sporting events. They founded theater troupes and taverns and police forces.” The agents of chaos may have been perpetually beating at the door, but there was a measure of civilization appearing in virtual Britannia as well.

Or rather in the virtual Britannias. One of the most frustrating compromises the creators had to make was necessitated by, as compromises usually are in game development, the practical limitations of the technology they had to hand. There was no way that any one of the servers they possessed could contain the number of players the beta test had attracted. So, there had to be two virtual Britannias rather than just one, the precursors to many more that would follow. Both Garriott and Koster have claimed to be the one who came up with the word “shards” as a name for these separate servers, each housing its own initially identical but quickly diverging version of Britannia. The name was grounded in the lore of the very early days of Ultima. In Ultima I back in 1981, the player had shattered the Gem of Immortality, the key to the power of that game’s villain, the evil wizard Mondain. It was claimed now that each of the jewel’s shards had contained a copy of the world of Britannia, and that these were the duplicate worlds inhabited by the players of Ultima Online. Rather amusingly, the word “shard” has since become a generalized term for separate but equal server instances, co-opted not only by other MMORPGs but by administrators of large de-centralized online databases of many stripes, most of which have nothing to do with games.

Each shard could host about 2500 players at once. In these days when the nation’s Internet infrastructure was still in a relatively unrefined state, such that latency tended to increase almost linearly with distance, the shards were named after their real-world locations — there was one on each coast in the beginning, named “Atlantic” and “Pacific” — and players were encouraged to choose the server closest to them if at all possible. (Such concerns would become less pressing as the years went by, but to this day Ultima Online has continued the practice of naming its virtual Britannias after the locations of the servers in the real world.)

On the last day of the beta test, there occurred one of the more famous events in the history of Ultima Online, one with the flavor of a Biblical allegory if not a premonition. Richard Garriott, playing in-character as Lord British, made a farewell tour of the shards in the final hours, to thank everyone for participating before the servers were shut down, not to be booted up again until Ultima Online went live as a paid commercial service. Among fans of the single-player Ultima games, there was a longstanding tradition of finding ways to kill Lord British, who always appeared as a character in them as well. People had transplanted the tradition into Ultima Online with a vengeance, but to no avail; acknowledging that even the most stalwart commitment to simulation must have its limits when it comes to the person who signs your paycheck, the MUDders had agreed to provide Lord British with an “invulnerability” flag. As he stood up now before a crowd on the Pacific shard to deliver his valediction, someone threw a fireball spell at him. No matter; Lord British stepped confidently right into the flames. Whereupon he fell over and died. Someone had forgotten to set the invulnerability flag.

If Lord British couldn’t be protected, decided the folks at Origin on the spur of the moment, he must be avenged; in so deciding, they demonstrated how alluring virtual violence could be even to those most dedicated to creating a virtual civilization. Garriott:

It’s amazing how quickly the cloak of civilization can disappear. The word spread verbally throughout the office: let us unleash hell! My staff summoned demons and devils and dragons and all of the nightmarish creatures of the game, and they cast spells and created dark clouds and lightning that struck and killed people. The gamemasters had special powers, and once they realized I had been killed, they were able to almost instantly resurrect Lord British. And I gleefully joined in the revelry. Kill me, will you? Be gone, mortals! It was a slaughter of thousands of players in the courtyard.

It definitely was not the noble ending we had intended.

And while some players enjoyed the spontaneity of this event, others were saddened or hurt by it. When most characters die they turn into a ghost and are transported to a distant place on the map. Then they have to go find their body. So the cost of being killed is a temporary existence as a ghost. In the last three minutes of these characters’ existence, they suddenly found themselves alone, deep in the woods, unable to speak or interact with anyone else. The net result of this mass killing in retaliation for the assassination of Lord British was that not only were all of these innocent people slaughtered, they were also cast out of the presence of the creators at the final moment. As the final seconds trickled down, they desperately tried to get back, but most often failed. The fact that all of us, the creators and the players, were able to turn the last few moments of the beta test into this completely unplanned and even unimagined chaos was proof that we had built something unique, a platform that would allow players to do pretty much whatever they pleased, and that it was about to take on a life — and many deaths — of its own.

After more than two and a half years, during which the face of the games industry around it had changed dramatically and its own importance to its parent company had been elevated incalculably, Ultima Online was about to greet the real world as a commercial product. Whether the last minutes of its existence while it was still officially an experiment boded well or ill for its future depended on your point of view. But, as Richard Garriott says, the one certain thing was uncertainty: nobody knew quite what would happen next. Would Ultima Online be another Meridian 59 or The Realm, or would this be the virtual world that finally broke through? And what would it mean for gaming — and, for that matter, for the real world beyond gaming — if it did?

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

Sources: the books Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online by Wes Locher, Postmortems: Selected Essays, Volume One by Raph Koster, Online Game Pioneers at Work by Morgan Ramsay, Through the Moongate, Part II by Andrea Contato, Explore/Create by Richard Garriott, MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle, and Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings by Ken Williams; Sierra’s customer newsletter InterAction of Spring 1996, Summer 1996, Spring 1997, Summer 1997, Fall 1997, Summer 1998, and Fall 1998; PC Powerplay of November 1996; Next Generation of March 1997.

Web sources include a 2018 Game Developers Conference talk by some of the Ultima Online principals, an Ultima Online timeline at UOGuide, “How Scepter of Goth Shaped the MMO Industry” by Justin Olivetti at Massively Overpowered, David A. Wheeler’s history of Scepter of Goth, “How the World’s Oldest 3D MMO Keeps Cheating Death” by Samuel Axon at Vice, Andrew Kirmse’s own early history of Meridian 59, Damion Schubert’s Meridian 59 postmortem and its accompanying slides from the 2012 Game Developers Conference, and Gavin Annand’s video interview with the Kirmse brothers.


1 The first word in the name is often spelled Sceptre as well.

Posted by on February 16, 2024 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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The Rise of POMG, Part 2: Multima

This sign, executed in throwback 1980s Ultima iconography, hung on the wall outside the elevator on the fifth floor of Origin Systems’s office building, pointing the way to the Multima team. If you neglected to follow the sign’s advice and turned left instead of right here, you would plunge five stories to your doom.

To carry our story forward into the next phase of persistent online multiplayer gaming, we first need to go backward again — all the way back to the days when tabletop Dungeons & Dragons was new on the scene and people were first beginning to imagine how computers might make it more accessible. Some dreamed of eliminating the pesky need for other humans to play with entirely; others wondered whether it might be possible to use networked computers in place of the tabletop, so that you could get together and play with your friends without all of the logistical complications of meeting up in person. Still others dreamed bigger, dreamed of things that would never be possible even with a tabletop big enough to make King Arthur blush. What if you could use computers to make a living virtual world with thousands of human inhabitants? In a column in a 1983 issue of Starlog magazine, Lenny Kaye mused about just such a thing.

When played among groups of people, [tabletop] RPGs foster a sense of cooperation toward a common goal, something videogames have hardly approached.

But with the computer’s aid, the idea of the game network can expand outward, interfacing with all sorts of societal drifts. The technology for both video[games] and RPGs is still in its infancy — one with graphics and memory far from ideal, the other still attached to its boards and figurines — and yet, it’s not hard to imagine a nationwide game, in which all citizens play their part. Perhaps it becomes an arena in which to exercise and exorcise ourselves, releasing our animal instincts through the power of the mind, understanding the uses and misuses of our humanity.

While they waited for the technology which could make that dream a reality to appear, people did what they could with what they had. The ones who came closest to the ideal of a “nationwide game” were those running MUDs, those “multi-user dungeons” that allowed up to 100 players to interact with one another by typing commands into a textual parser, with teletype-style streaming text as their eyes and ears into the world they all shared.

Island of Kesmai did soon come along on the big online service CompuServe, with an interface that looked more like Rogue than the original game of Adventure. But again, only 100 people could play together simultaneously there, about the same number as on the biggest MUDs. And in this case, each of them had to pay by the minute for the privilege. For all that it was amazing that it could exist at all in its time and place, Island of Kesmai was more like a wealthy gated village than a teeming virtual world.

Still, it must be acknowledged that the sellers of traditional boxed computer games were even farther away from that aspiration, being content to offer up single-player CRPGs where combat — that being the aspect of tabletop RPGs that was easiest to implement on a computer — tended to overwhelm everything else. The one obvious exception to this norm was Origin Systems of Austin, Texas. Especially after 1985’s landmark Ultima IV, Origin’s Ultima series became not only the commercial standard bearer for CRPGs but the best argument for the genre’s potential to be about something more than statistics and combat tactics. These games were rather about world-building and about the Virtues of the (player’s) Avatar, daring to introduce an ethical philosophy that was applicable to the real world — and then, in later installments, to muddy the waters by mercilessly probing the practical limitations and blind spots inherent in any such rigid ethical code.

Richard Garriott — “Lord British” to his legion of fans, the creator of Ultima and co-founder of Origin — had first conceived of the games as a re-creation of the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons sessions that had made him a minor celebrity in his Houston neighborhood well before he got his hands on his first Apple II. The setting of computerized Ultima was the world of Britannia, the same one he had invented for his high-school friends. The idea of adventuring together with others through the medium of the computer thus made a lot of sense to him. Throughout the 1980s and beyond, he repeatedly brought up the hypothetical game that he called Multima, a multiplayer version of Ultima. In 1987, an Origin programmer was actually assigned to work on it for a while. Garriott, from a contemporary interview:

James Van Artsdalen, who does our IBM and Macintosh translations, is working on a program that lets several people participate in the game. Two people can do this with different computers directly connected via modems, or even more can play via a system with multiple modems. We don’t know if we’ll be able to support packet networks like CompuServe because they may be too slow for this application. We’ll do it if we can.

What you’ll buy in the store will be a package containing all the core graphics routines and the game-development stuff (all the commands and so on), which you could even plug into your computer and play as a standalone. But with a modem you could tie a friend into the game, or up to somewhere between eight and sixteen other players, all within the same game.

We will most likely run a game of this out of our office. Basically, we can almost gamemaster it. There could be a similar setup in each town, and anybody could run one. Our intention is to let anyone capable of having multiple modems on their system have the network software. Anybody can be a node: two people can play if they each own a package, just by calling each other. But to be a base, a multiplayer node, you’ve got to have multiple modems and may need additional software. If the additional software is needed, we’ll let anyone who wants it have it, since we’re just supporting sales of our own products anyway.

Should be a lot of fun, we think. We hope to have it out by next summer [the summer of 1988], and it should cost between $30 and $60. This will be able to tie different kinds of computers together, since the information being sent back and forth doesn’t include any graphics. I could play on my Apple while you’re on your IBM, for instance. The graphics will be full state-of-the-art Ultima graphics, but they’ll already be on your computer.

Alas, this Multima was quietly abandoned soon after the interview, having been judged just too uncertain a project to invest significant resources into when there was guaranteed money to be made from each new single-player Ultima. As we’ll soon see, it was not the last time that argument was made against a Multima.

Circa 1990, Multima was revived for a time, this time as a three-way partnership among Origin, the commercial online service GEnie, and Kesmai, the maker of Island of Kesmai. The last would be given the source code to Ultima VI, the latest iteration of the single-player series, and would adapt it for online play, after which GEnie would deploy it on its central mainframe. As it happened, a similar deal was already taking SSI’s Gold Box engine for licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs through the same process of transformation. It would result in something called Neverwinter Nights[1]Not the same game as the 2002 Bioware CRPG of the same name. going up on America Online in 1991 with an initial capacity of 100 simultaneous players, eventually to be raised by popular demand to 500, making it the most massively multiplayer online game of the early 1990s. But Multima was not so lucky; the deal fell through before it had gotten beyond the planning stages, perchance having proved a simple case of too many cooks in the kitchen.

Richard Garriott had largely ceased to involve himself in the day-to-day work of making new Ultima games by this point, but he continued to set the overall trajectory of the franchise. And as he did so, he never forgot those old hopes for a Multima. Not long after Electronic Arts (EA) purchased Origin Systems in 1992, he thought he saw the stars aligning at long last. For 1993 brought with it NCSA Mosaic, the first broadly popular multimedia Web browser, the harbinger of the home Internet boom. This newly accessible public Internet could replace fragile peer-to-peer modems connections as easily as it could the bespoke private networks of CompuServe and GEnie, making the likes of Multima seem far more practical, both to implement and to offer to customers at an affordable price.

Richard Garriott in 1995.

For better or for worse, though, Origin was now a part of EA, who had the final say on which projects got funded. Garriott tried repeatedly over a period of a year and a half or more to interest EA’s CEO Larry Probst in his Multima schemes, without success. As he tells the story, he and a couple of other true believers from Origin resorted to guerrilla tactics at the third formal pitch meeting.

We literally just refused to give up the floor. They said, “No. Get out.” And we stomped our feet and held our breath. “We are not leaving until you guys get a clue. As a developer, we go over-budget by 25 to 50 percent every year. We’re only asking for $250,000 to build a prototype.” I already had a piece of paper prepared: “You approve of us going $250,000 over-budget to prove that this can work.” And finally, after heated yelling and screaming, they signed the piece of paper and kicked us in the ass as we left the room.

It must be said here that Garriott is generally not one to let an overly fussy allegiance to pedantic truth get in the way of a good story. Thus I suspect that the decision to green-light a Multima prototype may not have been arrived at in quite so dramatic a fashion as the tale above. (Garriott has in fact told a number of versions of the story over the years; in another of them, he’s alone in Larry Probst’s office, hectoring him one-and-one into signing the note granting him $250,000 to investigate the possibility.) Most important for our purposes, however, is that the decision was definitely made by early 1995.

The answer to another question is even more murky: that of just when the change was made from an Ultima that you could play online with a few of your buddies — a feature that would be seen well before the end of the 1990s in a number of otherwise more conceptually conventional CRPGs, such as Diablo and Baldur’s Gate — to a persistent virtual Britannia inhabited by dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of other players. The acronym by which we refer to such worlds today would be coined by Richard Garriott in 1997: the “massively multiplayer online role-playing game,” or MMORPG. (And you thought POMG was a mouthful!) Yet it appears that Multima may not have become an MMORPG in the minds of its creators until after Garriott secured his funding, and that that hugely important conceptual shift may not have originated with Garriott himself. One alternative candidate is the man to whom Garriott turned to become the nuts-and-bolts administrator of the project: Starr Long, a quality-assurance lead who had been one of his few Multima allies inside the company for quite some time. (“The original idea,” Long said in a 1996 interview — i.e., close to the events in question — “was to take an Ultima and just make it so you could have a party of people travel together.”) A third candidate is Rick Delashmit, the first and for a long time the only programmer assigned to the project, who unlike Garriott and Long had deep connections to the MUD scene, gaming’s closest extant equivalent to what Multima would become. In fact, Delashmit had actually co-founded a MUD of his own: LegendMUD, which was still running on a single 80486-based personal computer humming away under a desk in an Austin data center.

Regardless of who decided to do what, Long and Delashmit soon had cause to wonder whether signing onto Multima had been their worst career move ever. “We were kind of the bastard stepchild,” Long says. “No one got it and no one was really interested, because everyone wanted to build the next [single-player] Ultima or Wing Commander. Those were the sexy projects.” They found themselves relegated to the fifth floor of Origin’s Austin, Texas, headquarters, jammed into one corner of a space that was mostly being leased out to an unaffiliated advertising agency.

Making the best of it, Long and Delashmit hacked together a sort of prototype of a prototype. Stealing a trick and possibly some code from the last attempt at a Multima, they started with the now-archaic Ultima VI engine. “All you could do was run around and pick up a single object off of the ground,” says Long. “And then if another player ran into you, you would drop it. We had a scavenger hunt, where we hid a few objects around the map and then let the whole company loose to find them. Whoever was still holding them after an hour won.”

It was a start, but it still left a million questions unanswered. A game like this one — or rather a virtual world — must have a fundamentally different structure than a single-player Ultima, even for that matter than the tabletop RPG sessions that had inspired Richard Garriott’s most famous creations. Those games had all been predicated on you — or at most on you and a few of your best mates — being the unchallenged heroes of the piece, the sun around which everything else orbited. But you couldn’t fill an entire world with such heroes; somebody had to accept supporting roles. Some might even have to play evil rather than virtuous characters, upending the core message of Ultima since Ultima IV.

Garriott, Long, and Delashmit weren’t the only ones pondering these questions. In a 1993 issue of Sierra On-Line’s newsletter InterAction, that company’s head Ken Williams — a man who bore some surface similarities to Garriott, being another industry old-timer who had given up the details of game development for the big-picture view by this point in his career — asked how massively multi-player adventuring could possibly be made to function. He had good reason to ask: his own company’s Sierra Network was doing pioneering work in multiplayer gaming at the time, albeit as a closed dial-up service rather than on the open Internet.

I think a multiplayer adventure game is the next major step. Imagine a version of Police Quest, looking like it does now, except that your partner in the patrol car and the people in the street around you are real people. I think this would be cool.

For three months, Roberta [Williams, Ken’s wife], Chris [Williams, the couple’s son], and I have been arguing over how this would work. The problem is that most adventure games have some central quest story. Generally speaking, once you’ve solved the quest the game is over. You are there as the central character, and all of the other characters are there primarily to help move you towards completing your quest (or to get in your way).

A multiplayer adventure game would be a completely different animal. If 500 people were playing multiplayer King’s Quest at the same time, would there have to be 500 separate quests? There are also problems having to do with the fact that people aren’t always connected to the network. If my goal is to save you from an evil wizard, what do I do if neither you nor the evil wizard happen to sign on?

Here’s the thoughts we’ve had so far. What if we create a world that just contains nothing but forest as far as you can see? When you enter the game, you can do things like explore, or even build yourself a house. There’ll be stores where you can buy supplies. Soon, cities will form. People may want to build walls around their cities. Cities may want to bargain with each other for food. Or, for protection against common enemies. There needs to be some sense of purpose to the game. What if, after some amount of time in the land, the game “promotes” you to some status where your goals become to create the problems which affect the city, such as plagues, war, rampaging dragons, etc. In other words, some of the players are solving quests while others are creating them. Sooner or later, it becomes your turn to complicate the lives of others.

Either this is a remarkable case of parallel invention or someone was whispering in Ken Williams’s ear about MUDs. For the last paragraph above is an uncannily accurate description of how many of the latter were run, right down to dedicated and accomplished players being elevated to “wizard” status, with powers over the very nature of the virtual world itself. The general MUD design philosophy, which had been thoroughly tested and proven solid over the years, held that the creators of multiplayer worlds didn’t have to worry overmuch about the stories and quests and goals that were needed for compelling single-player games. It was enough simply to put a bunch of people together in an environment that contained the raw building blocks of such things. They’d do the rest for themselves; they’d find their own ways to have fun.

In our next article, we’ll see what resulted from Ken Williams’s ideas about massively-multiplayer adventure. For now, though, let us return to our friends at Origin Systems and find out how they attempted to resolve the quandary of what people should actually be doing in their virtual world.

In the immediate aftermath of that first online scavenger hunt, nobody there knew precisely what they ought to do next. It was at this point that Rick Delashmit offered up the best idea anyone had yet had. Multima would share many commonalities with textual MUDs, he said. So why not hire some more folks who knew those virtual worlds really, really well to help the Origin folks make theirs? He had two friends in mind in particular: a young couple named Raph and Kristen Koster, who had taken over the running of LegendMUD after he had stepped down.

The Kosters were graduate students in Alabama, meaning that much of the negotiation had to be conducted by telephone and computer. Raph was finishing up his program in poetry at the University of Alabama, while Kristen studied economics — a perfect pair of perspectives from which to tackle the art and science of building a new virtual world, as it happened. Raph Koster:

We started to get interview questions remotely as they worked to figure out whether we were qualified. All of the questions came from what was very much a single-player slant. We were sent examples of code and asked if we could write code like that and find the bugs that had been intentionally inserted into the code. It was something like a misplaced closing brace.

Finally, we were asked for a sample quest. I sent them the entire code and text of my quest for the Beowulf zone in LegendMUD, but then also said, “But we wouldn’t do quests this way at all now.” Kristen and I had been working on a simulation system based on artificial life and economic theory. We basically sent in a description of our design work on that. It was a system that was supposed to simulate the behavior of creatures and NPCs [non-player characters] using a simplistic version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, with abstract properties behind everything.

The Kosters were hired already in the spring of 1995, but couldn’t start on a full-time basis until September 1. Over the course of several drives between Tuscaloosa and Austin and back in the interim, they hashed out their vision for Multima.

They wanted to lean heavily into simulation, trusting that, if they did it right, quests and all the rest would arise organically from the state of the world rather than needing to be hard-coded. Objects in the world would be bundles of abstract qualities which interacted with one another in pre-defined ways; take an object with the quality of “wood” and touch it to one with the quality of “fire,” and exactly what you expected to happen would occur. This reliance on qualities would make it quick and easy for people — designers or just ordinary players — to create new objects on the fly and have them act believably.

But the system could go much further. The non-player creatures which populated the world would have different sorts of qualities attached, derived, as Raph Koster notes above, from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Each creature would have its own types of Food and Shelter that it sought to attain and retain, alongside a more elevated set of Desires to pursue and Aversions to avoid once it had served for its most basic needs.

An early preview of the game, written by Paul Schuytema for Computer Gaming World magazine, describes how the system would ideally work in action, how it would obviate the need for a human designer to generate thousands of set-piece quests to keep players busy.

Designing a dynamic world is a tricky business. How do you create enough quests to interest 2000 people? Origin’s solution: don’t. Create a world with enough logical conditions that it will generate its own quests. For example, consider a cave in the virtual world. Any self-respecting cave needs a monster, so you assign the cave a “need for monster” request of the game-world engine. Poof! A monster, let’s say a dragon, is then spontaneously created in the cave. Dragons are big eaters, so the dragon sends out a “need for meat” request. Meat, in the form of deer, roams the forest outside the cave, so the dragon’s life consists of leaving the cave to consume deer. If something happens that lowers the deer population (bad weather, over-hunting, or a game administrator strategically killing off deer), the dragon will have to widen its search for meat, which might lead it to the sheep pastures outside town.

At this point, NPCs can be useful to tell real players about a ravenous dragon roaming the countryside. NPCs can also sweeten the pot by offering rewards to anyone who can slay it. But what are they going to say?

“All of the [NPCs’] conversations come from a dynamic conversation pool which is linked to the world state,” explains Long. This means that if you, as a player, were to walk into this town, any one of the villagers will say something like, “Hey, we need your help. This dragon is eating all our sheep.” Thus, the “Kill the Dragon” quest is underway — succeed, and the villagers will handsomely reward you.

If you put it all together correctly, you would end up with a living world, to an extent that even the most ambitious textual MUDs had barely approached to that point. Everything that was needed to make it a game as well as a virtual space would come about of its own accord once you let real humans start to run around in it and interfere with the lives of the algorithmically guided dragons and guards and shopkeepers. It would be all the more fun for being true to itself, a complex dynamic system responding to itself as well as to thousands of human inputs that were all happening at once, a far cry from the typical single-player Ultima where nothing much happened unless you made it happen. Incidentally but not insignificantly, it would also be a sociologist’s dream, a fascinating study in mass human psychology, perhaps even a laboratory for insights into the evolution of real-world human civilizations.

When they arrived for their first day on the job, the Kosters were rather shocked to find that their new colleagues had already begun to implement the concepts which the couple had informally shared with them during the interview process and afterward. It was disconcerting on the one hand — “It freaked us out because we had assumed there was already a game design,” says Raph — but bracing on the other. This pair of unproven industry neophytes, with little on their résumés in games beyond hobbyist experimentation in the obscure culture of MUDs, was in a position to decide exactly what Multima would become. It would take a year or more for Raph Koster to be given the official title of “Creative Lead”; when he arrived, that title belonged to one Andrew Morris, a veteran of Ultima VII and VIII who had recently been transferred to the project, where he would struggle, like so many others at Origin, to wrap his head around the paradigm shift from single-player to multiplayer gaming. But for all intents and purposes, Raph and Kristen Koster filled that role from the start. Each was paid $25,000 per year for building this brave new world. They wouldn’t have traded it for a job that paid ten times the salary. At their urging, Origin hired several other MUDders to work with them on what was now to be called Ultima On-Line; the game would soon loose the hyphen to arrive at its final name.

I can’t emphasize enough what a leap into uncharted territory this was for Origin, as indeed it would have been for any other games studio of the time. To put matters in perspective, consider that Origin began working on Ultima Online before it even had a static website up on the Internet. The company had always been in the business of making packaged goods, games on disc that were sold once for a one-time price. Barring a patch or two in the worst cases, these games’ developers could wash their hands of them and move on once they were finished. But Ultima Online was to be something entirely different, a “game” — if that word even still applied — that was run as a service. How should people pay for the privilege of playing it? (Origin had no experience with billing its customers monthly.) And how much should they pay? (While everyone on the team could agree that Ultima Online needed to be appreciably cheaper than the games on CompuServe and its ilk, no one could say for sure where the sweet spot lay.) In short, the practical logistics of Ultima Online would have been a major challenge even if the core team of less than a dozen mostly green youngsters — median age about 22 — hadn’t also been trying to create a new world out of whole cloth, with only partially applicable precedents.

The early Multima team, or the “MUDders of Invention,” as they sometimes liked to call themselves. Clockwise from top left: Rick Delashmit, Edmond Mainfelder, Clay Hoffman, Starr Long, Micael Priest, Andrew Morris, Scott Phillips, Kristen Koster, and Raph Koster.

When the advertising agency that had been the team’s neighbor moved out, Origin decided to gut the now almost empty fifth floor where the latter was still ensconced. “They literally knocked out all the walls and the windows,” says Raph Koster. “So, the elevator surfaced to bare concrete. If you turned right, you went to see our team in a converted hallway, the only part left standing. If you turned left, you fell five floors to your death.” It was freezing cold up there in the winter, and the dust was thick in the air all year round, such that they learned to wrap their computers in plastic when they left for the day. “This team was given the least possible support you can imagine,” says Richard Garriott.

Undaunted, the little group did what the best game developers have always done when cast onto uncharted waters: they made something to start with, then tested it, then iterated, then tested some more, ad nauseum. Garriott came by “once a month or so,” in the recollection of Raph Koster, to observe and comment on their progress. Otherwise, their ostensible colleagues at Origin seemed hardly to know that they existed. “We were punk kids doing stuff in the attic,” says Raph, “and our parents had no idea what we were up to.”

In January of 1996, they put a message up on the Origin Systems website (yes, one had been built by this point): “Ultima Online (working title, subject to change) is now taking applications from people interested in play-testing a pre-alpha version, starting on March 1, 1996.” Almost 1500 people asked to take part in a test which only had space for a few dozen.

The test began a month behind schedule, but it proved that the core technology could work when it was finally run from April 1 until April 8. “This will be damn awesome when it comes!” enthused one breathless participant over chat. Richard Garriott thrilled the group by appearing in the world as his alter ego one evening. “We ran into LB! The REAL THING!” crowed a starstruck tester. “So what? I went adventuring with him to kill monsters!” scoffed another.

A more ambitious alpha test began about a month later, with participants logging in from as far away as Brazil and Taiwan. The developers waited with bated breath to see what they would do in this latest, far more feature-complete version of the virtual world. What they actually did do was an eye-opener, an early warning about some of the problems that would continue to dog the game and eventually, in the estimation of Raph Koster, cost it half its user base. Koster:

On the very first day of the alpha, players appeared in the tavern in Britain [the capital city of Ultima’s world of Britannia]. They waited for other newbies to walk out the doors, then they stood at the windows and shot arrows at them until they died. The newbies couldn’t shoot back because the archers were hidden behind the wall inside the building. This is, of course, exactly what archery slits were invented for, but it made for a truly lousy first impression of the game.

That was the first time that players took something inherent in the simulation and turned it against their fellow players. Not long after, someone spelled out “fuck” on the main bridge into Britain using fish. Not long after that, players figured out that explosive potions detonated other potions. It was illegal to kill someone in town; it would get you instantly killed by the guards. But if you ran a chain of potions a long distance, like a fuse, you could avoid that.

Chalk it up as another lesson, one to which the team perhaps should have paid more attention. The hope was always that the community would learn to police itself much like those of the real world, that the risks and the stigma of being a troublemaker would come to outweigh the gains and the jollies for all but the most hardened members of the criminal element. Richard Garriott seems to have been in an unusually candid mood when he expressed the hope in a contemporary interview:

One of the unfortunate side effects of computer gaming is that we have a whole generation of kids who have no social graces whatsoever. And this is exemplified in my mind by how much I hate going online for discussions I am invited to do once a month or so. And I truly abhor going to do that for a variety of reasons, one because it’s such a slow experience, but also because everyone has a level of anonymity behind their online persona, [and] they lose their normal and proper etiquette. So you have people screaming over each other to get their questions in, people screaming expletives, people popping in a chat room and making some dumb comment and then popping out again — the kind of behavior that you would never get away with in the real world. So one of the things that I’m really keen to introduce with Ultima Online is making people responsible for their actions, and this will happen as people are recognized by their online persona within the game. They won’t be so anonymous anymore.

This hope would be imperfectly realized at best. “I used to think that you could reform bad apples and argue with hard cases,” says an older and presumably wiser Raph Koster. “I’m more cynical these days.”

So, the alpha testers ran around breaking stuff and making stuff, while the gods of the new fantasy world watched closely from their perch on a gutted floor of an anonymous-looking office building in flesh-and-blood late-twentieth-century Texas to see what it was they had wrought. A bug in the game caused killed characters to respawn naked. (No, not even these simulation-committed developers were cruel enough to make death permanent…) Some players decided they liked it that way, leading to much of Britannia looking like a nudist colony. The guards in the cities had to be instructed to crack down on these victimless criminals as well as thieves and murderers.

But the most important finding was that most of the players loved it. All of it. “We had people who literally did not log off for a week,” says Starr Long. “Groups of players formed tribes, and at the end of the test there was a huge battle between the two largest tribes. None of that we set up. We gave them the world to play in, and human nature took over.” From one of the first substantial previews of the work-in-progress, published in Next Generation magazine:

In a very real sense, the world is what you make of it. One of the more interesting results of Ultima’s alpha testing is that when you have several hundred people in one place at one time, they tend to form their own micro-societies. There are already some two dozen player-created “guilds.” For example, when Richard Garriott signed on as his alter-ego Lord British, two groups sprang up: the Dragon Liberation Front, which pledged itself to destroying him, and the aptly named Protectors of Virtue & Lord British. Threats were made, battles were joined, and a fine time was had by all.

Just as gratifyingly, reports of the alpha test, in the form of previews like the above in many of the glossy gaming magazines, were received very positively by ordinary gamers who hadn’t known that a massively multiplayer Ultima was in the offing prior to this point. Some went so far as to form and run guilds through email, so that they would be ready to go when the day came that they could actually log in. There was still much work to be done before Ultima Online would be ready to welcome the unwashed masses inside, but the MUDders who were making it believed that all of the arrows were pointing in the right direction.

Until, that is, September 27, 1996, when it suddenly seemed that its thunder might have been well and truly stolen. On that date, The 3DO Company published something called Meridian 59, which purported to already be what Ultima Online intended to be: a massively-multiplayer persistent virtual fantasy world. Its box copy trumpeted that hundreds of people would be able to adventure together at the same time, killing monsters and occasionally each other, whilst also chatting and socializing. It sounded great — or terrible, if you happened to be working on Ultima Online.

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

Sources: the books Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online by Wes Locher, Postmortems: Selected Essays, Volume One by Raph Koster, Online Game Pioneers at Work by Morgan Ramsay, Through the Moongate, Part II by Andrea Contato, Explore/Create by Richard Garriott, and MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle; Questbusters of July 1987; Sierra’s customer newsletter InterAction of Summer 1993; Computer Gaming World of October 1995 and October 1996; Starlog of December 1983; PC Powerplay of November 1996; Next Generation of June 1996, September 1996, and March 1997; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of November 3 1995, January 12 1996, and April 5 1996.

Web sources include a 2018 Game Developers Conference talk by some of the Ultima Online principals, an Ultima Online timeline at UOGuide, and some details about LegendMUD, the winner of MUD Connector‘s coveted “MUD of the Month” prize for October 1995.


1 Not the same game as the 2002 Bioware CRPG of the same name.

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A Digital Pornutopia, Part 1: The Seedy-ROM Revolution

Fair warning: although there’s no nudity in the pictures below, the text of this article does contain frank descriptions of the human anatomy and sexual acts.

If I’m showing people what a CD-ROM can do, and I try to show them the Kennedy assassination, their eyes glaze over. But if I show them an adult title, they perk right up.

— John Williams of Sierra On-Line, 1995

As long as humans have had technology, they’ve been using it for titillation. A quarter of a million years ago, they were carving female figurines with exaggerated breasts, buttocks, and vulvae out of stone. Well before they started using fired clay to make pottery for the storage of food, they were using the same material to make better versions of these “Venus figurines,” some of them so explicit that the archaeology textbooks of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries didn’t dare to reproduce or even describe them. And then as soon as humans had pigments and dyes to hand, they used them to paint dirty pictures on the walls of their caves.

Immediately after the world’s first known system of writing came to be in Mesopotamia, the people of that region began using it for naughty stories. (In one of them, a new wife tells her husband to place his hand in her “goodly place,” promising to compensate him in kind thereafter: “Let me caress you. My precious caress is more savory than honey.”) The ancient Greeks covered their household and decorative items with sexual imagery. And the Romans too were enthusiastic and uninhibited pornographers, as evidenced by the famous erotic wall frescoes inside Pompeii’s brothel.

Things changed somewhat in Europe with the rise of Christianity, a religion which, unlike the pagan belief systems that preceded it, framed the questions surrounding sex — whether you did it, with whom you did it, how you did it, even how and how much you thought about doing it — as issues of intense spiritual significance. “To be carnally minded is death,” wrote Saint Paul.

Yet the vicarious desires of the flesh couldn’t be quelled even by the prospect of an afterlife of eternal torment. Porn simply went underground, where it has remained to a large extent to this day. The Decameron of Boccaccio and The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, two of the most celebrated examples of Medieval literature, preserve some of the bawdy tales of promiscuous priests and nubile nuns that the largely illiterate peasantry told one another when they gathered in taverns out of earshot of their social betters.

The Gutenberg Bible of the fifteenth century was followed closely by less rarefied printed books, with titles like The Errant Prostitute. In the seventeenth century, the renowned English diarist Samuel Pepys wrote ashamedly of how he had found a copy of a book called The Girls’ School in a second-hand store, and spent so much time perusing its pages whilst, er, indulging himself that he finally felt compelled to burn “that idle, roguish book.” The book generally considered the first true English novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, appeared in 1740; John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the first English erotic novel, was published just eight years later. It spawned a lively market for written erotica, the consumption of which, followed perhaps by a visit to a brothel or two, became the Victorian Age’s version of sex education for gentlemen.

And then along came photography. Some of the first photographs ever taken were of nude women and cavorting couples; traveling circuses sold them from under the table to furtive men while their wives and children were off buying sweetmeats. Improved photographic techniques, combined with cheap “pulp” paper and cheaper printing technologies led to the first mass-market “skin” magazine in 1931: The Nudist, a publication of the American Sunbathing Association, who knew perfectly well that most of their audience wasn’t buying the magazine for tips on how best to soak up the rays. Throughout modern times, pornographers have often couched titillation under just such a veneer of “educational value.” And another, even more enduring truth of modern porn was also on display in The Nudist‘s pages: the camera lens focused most lovingly on the women. The producers and consumers of visual pornography have always been mostly men, although the reasons why this has been the case are matters for debate among psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists. (The opposite is largely the case for textual erotica in the post-photographic age, for whatever that’s worth.)

By the time The Nudist made the scene, still images of nakedness already had serious competition. Back in 1896, Thomas Edison had released a movie called The Kiss to widespread outrage. “They get ready to kiss, begin to kiss, and kiss and kiss and kiss in a way that brings down the house every time,” ran the description in Edison’s catalog, rather overselling the thrill of an 18-second movie that ends with little more than a chaste series of henpecks. But never fear, matters quickly escalated from there. The first known full-fledged porn film appeared in 1908. A synopsis of the action shows that, when it comes to porn as so many other things, those wise words from the Book of Ecclesiastes (“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun”) ring true: “A woman was seen pleasuring herself with a dildo, then another man and woman joined her for a threesome, involving lots of oral sex before intercourse.” By the 1920s, a full-fledged “blue” film industry was thriving in Hollywood alongside the more respectable one, using many of the same sets and in some cases even the same performers. The arrival of the Hays Code in 1933 put a damper on some of the fun, but the blue movies never went away, just slunk further underground. During the Second World War, the American military turned a blind eye to the “stag films” that infiltrated its ranks at every level; those who made them said it was their patriotic duty to help the boys in uniform through all those lonely nights in the barracks.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s brought big changes to movies, both above- and below-ground. Suddenly things that hadn’t been seen in respectable fare since 1933 — bare female breasts and sex scenes prominent among them — became commonplace in even the most conservative Middle American movie houses. At the same time, the arrival of cheap Super 8 cameras and projectors combined with the general loosening of social mores to yield what some connoisseurs still call the “golden age” of porn. To distinguish themselves from a less prudish mainstream-film industry, the purveyors of porn pushed boundaries of their own, into every imaginable combination of people and occasionally animals, with ever tighter shots of the actual equipment in action, as it were.

By 1970, there were more than 750 porn-only movie theaters in the United States alone. In 1973, a pornographic comedy called Deep Throat, a timeless tale of a woman born with her clitoris on the wrong end of her torso, became an international sensation, shown even by many “legitimate” theaters. Made for $25,000, it eventually grossed $100 million, enough to make it far and away the most successful film of all time when measured in terms of return on investment.

At the time, Deep Throat was widely heralded as the future of porn, but the era of mainstream “porno chic” which it ushered in proved short-lived. Instead of yielding more blockbusters in the style of respectable Hollywood, the porn industry that came after was distinguished by the sheer quantity of material it rolled out for every taste and kink. This explosion was enabled by the arrival of videotape in 1975; shooting direct to video was cheaper by almost an order of magnitude than even Super 8 film. But even more importantly, videotape players for the home gave the porn hounds and would-be porn hounds of the world a way to consume movies in privacy, thereby giving the porn industry access to millions upon millions of upstanding pillars of their communities who would never have frequented sticky-seated cinemas. Every porno kingpin in the world redoubled his production efforts in response, even as they all rushed en masse to move their libraries of “classics” onto videotape as well. The gold rush that followed made Deep Throat look like the flash in the pan it was. In 1978 and 1979, three quarters of all home movies sold in the United States were porn. That percentage inevitably dropped as the technology went more mainstream in the 1980s, but the raw numbers remained huge. Even in the late 1990s, Americans were still renting $4.2 billion worth of porn on videotape each year.

Advances in voice communication as well were co-opted by porn. The party lines of the 1960s and the pay-per-call services that sprang up in the 1980s were quickly taken over by it: respectively, by people wanting to talk dirty to one another and by people willing to pay a professional to talk dirty to them.

Just why is porn so perpetually on the technological cutting edge, both driving and being driven by each new invention that comes around? Perhaps it’s down to its fundamentally aspirational nature. While voyeurism for the sake of it certainly has a place on the list of human fetishes, for most of its consumers porn is a substitute — by definition a less than ideal one — for something they’re not getting, whether just in that precise moment or in their current life in general. So, they’re always looking for ways to get closer to the real thing, as Walter Kendrick, the author of a book-length history of porn, told The New York Times back in 1994.

Pornography is always unsatisfied. It’s always a substitute for the contact between two bodies, so there’s a drive behind it that doesn’t exist in other genres. Pornographers have been the most inventive and resourceful users of whatever medium comes along because they and their audience have always wanted innovations. Pornographers are excluded from the mainstream channels, so they look around for something new, and the audience has a desire to try any innovation that gives them greater realism or immediacy.

If you look at the history of pornography and new technologies, the track record has been pretty good. Usually everyone has come out ahead. The pornography people have gotten what they want, which is a more vivid way to portray sex. And the technology has benefited from their experimentation. The need for innovation in pornography is so great that it usually gets to a medium first and finds out what can be done and what can’t.

If early computers are not as strong an example of this phenomenon as photography, film, and videotape, that perhaps speaks more to the nature and limitations of that particular technology than it does to any lack of abstract interest in using computers for getting off. Yet sex definitely wasn’t absent from the picture even here. I’ve written elsewhere on this site of how the men who worked at Bell Labs in the 1960s contrived ways to put naked women on their monitor screens using grids of alphanumeric characters in lieu of a proper bitmap, of how Scott Adams sold games of Strip Dice alongside his iconic early adventure games, and of how Sierra On-Line once made a mint with the naughty text adventure Softporn, about a loser who wishes he was a swinger trying to navigate the dating scene of the late disco era.

Softporn may have had a name that no big publisher like Sierra would have dared use much after its 1981 release date, but in other ways it became the template for the mainstream games industry’s handling of sex. The rule was that a little bit of sexiness was okay if it was presented in the context of comedy. Infocom’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos went this way to significant success in 1986, helping to convince Sierra to revisit the basic premise of Softporn in the graphical adventure Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards the following year. Larry starred in a whole series of games after his first one proved a huge hit, becoming the poster child for risqué computer gaming. His success in turn brought more games of a similar style from other publishers, from Accolade’s Les Manley (yes, really) series to Legend’s Spellcasting series. The players of such games walked a fine line between being vicariously titillated alongside their protagonists and laughing at them for being the losers they were.

Still, even the Church Lady would have blanched at calling such games porn; they were in fact no more explicit than the typical PG-13-rated frat-boy movie. To find pictures of actual naked women on computers, you would have to download them — slowly! — from a BBS, or buy a still less respectable game like Artwox’s Strip Poker via mail order.[1]A few years ago, I went to a retro-gaming exhibition here in Denmark with a friend of mine. We got to talking with a woman who worked at the museum hosting it, who told us of her own memories from those times. It seems her brother had managed to acquire a copy of Strip Poker for his Commodore Amiga. Being a lover of card games, she tried to play it, but all the stupid pictures kept getting in the way. “I just wanted to play poker!” she lamented. I suspect this story may have something to tell us about the differences between the genders, but I have no idea what it is. Few distributors or retailers would risk handling such titles, what with the mainstream culture’s general impression that any and all forms of digital entertainment were inherently kids’ stuff.

But by 1993 or so, that impression was at last beginning to change. The arrival of mouse-driven user interfaces, decent graphics and sound, and CD-ROM had made “multimedia” one of the buzzwords of the zeitgeist. Part and parcel of the multimedia boom was a new generation of “interactive movies,” which featured real human actors playing their roles according to your instructions. Computer games, went the conventional wisdom, were growing up to become sophisticated adult entertainment — potentially in all senses of the word “adult.” Just like the makers of conventional movies during the 1960s, the makers of these interactive movies were eager to push the boundaries, to explore previously taboo subjects and see how much they could get away with. They had to be careful; 1993 was also the year of an overheated Senate hearing on videogame content, partially prompted by an early interactive movie for the Sega Genesis console called Night Trap. But be that as it may, many of the people behind interactive movies believed strongly in the principle that they should be allowed to show anything that a non-porn traditional film might, as long as, like such a film, they played with an open hand, disclosing the nature of the content to possible buyers upfront.

The pioneer of the risqué — but not pornographic — interactive movie was a game called Voyeur, released in 1993 for the Philips CD-i, a multimedia set-top box for the living room — don’t call it a games console! — that was marketed primarily to adults. The following year, Voyeur made it to ordinary computers as well.

Masterminded by David Riordan, whose earlier attempt at an interactive movie It Came from the Desert has aged much better, Voyeur casts you as a private dick surveilling a potential candidate for the American presidency, a fellow who makes Gary Hart and Bill Clinton look like choirboys. Everything from infidelity to incest, from sado-masochism to an eventual murder is going on in his house. But, like so many productions of this ilk, the game is caught between the urge to titillate and the fear of going too far and getting itself blacklisted. The end result is a weird mixture of the provocative and the prudish, as inimitably described by Charles Ardai, the most entertaining reviewer ever to write for Computer Gaming World magazine.

For those connoisseurs of striptease who prefer the tease to the strip, Voyeur should be a source of endless delight. Women are forever unfastening their bra straps in this game, or opening their towels while conveniently facing away from the camera, or walking around in unbuttoned vests that don’t quite reveal what you think they’re going to, or leaning toward each other for lesbian kisses that somehow never get completed. Men have it worse in some ways: they get led around in bondage collars, handcuffed to bedposts, and violently groped by their sisters. No one actually manages to have sex, though; all they do is go around interrupting each other. No wonder that after several hours of this someone ends up murdered.


Coming a year after a panties-less Sharon Stone had shocked movie-goers in that scene in Basic Instinct, in a time when even network television shows like NYPD Blue were beginning to flirt with nudity, Voyeur was pretty tame stuff, notable only for existing on a computer. There was very little actual game to Voyeur, even by comparison to most interactive movies; as the player, your choices were limited to deciding which window to peep into at any given time. Yet it attracted a storm of press coverage and sold very well by the standards of the time — enough to prompt a belated 1996 sequel that was if anything even more problematic as a game and that didn’t sell anywhere near as well.

In fact, only one other game of this stripe can be called an outright commercial success. That game was Sierra’s 1995 release Phantasmagoria, designed against type by Roberta Williams, best known as the creator of the family-friendly King’s Quest series. Having written about it at some length in another article, I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say that Phantasmagoria became Sierra’s best-selling game to date, despite or because of content that was not quite as transgressive as the game’s advertising made it appear. In his memoir, Sierra’s co-founder (and Roberta’s husband) Ken Williams speaks of the curious dance — two steps forward, one step back — that interactive movies like this one were constantly engaged in.

There was a scene in Phantasmagoria which was shot with Victoria Morsell, the heroine of the story, topless. Roberta wrote the scene and helped direct it. If it were a horror film no one would have thought anything about it, other than giving the film an “R” rating. But this was a videogame, and the market hadn’t fully realized yet that interactive stories weren’t always just for kids. When it came time to release the game, we edited [it] to only show some side-boob. Even with only a hint of nudity, Phantasmagoria was not a game we felt was appropriate for children. [We] voluntarily self-rated the product with a large “M” for Mature.

But Ken Williams must have believed the market was evolving quickly, because just a year after the first Phantasmagoria Sierra released a sequel in name only — it had nothing to do with the characters or story of the first — called Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh, which proudly strutted all of the stuff that its predecessor had only hinted at. Designed by Lorelei Shannon rather than Roberta Williams, A Puzzle of Flesh was as sexually explicit as any mainstream game would get during the 1990s, an interactive exploitation flick steeped in sado-masochism, bondage, and the bare boobies that had been so conspicuously lacking from Roberta’s game. Like too many Sierra adventure games, its writing and design both left something to be desired. And yet it was an important experiment in its way, demonstrating to everyone who might have been contemplating making a game like it that there really were boundaries which they would be well advised not to cross. In contrast to many organs of game journalism, Computer Gaming World did deign to give A Puzzle of Flesh a review, but said review oozes disgust: “Playing this game, if one can grace this morally reprehensible product with such happy terms as ‘play’ and ‘game,’ is extremely unpleasant; to do so ‘for fun’ requires a fascination with hardcore schlock or a hardened attitude toward horror and exploitive erotica. You have been duly warned.”

Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh.

It speaks to one of the peculiarities of American culture that the magazine could work itself into such a lather of moral outrage over this game whilst praising the booby-less ultra-violence of HyperBlade (“The 3D Battlesport of the Future!”) in the very same issue. (“Fractured skull. Severed bronchial artery. Shattered tibia. This will eventually come as music to your ears. Want to cut an opponent’s head off and throw it in the goal? Pretty brazen, but that’s okay too.”) But such were the conditions on the ground, and publishers had to learn to live with them. Sierra never made another full-fledged interactive movie after A Puzzle of Flesh. The genre as a whole slowly died as the limitations of games made from spliced-together pieces of canned video became clear to even the most casual players. The dream of a games industry that regularly delivered R-rated content in terms of sex as well as violence blew away like so much chaff on the breeze alongside the rest of the interactive-movie fad. Mind you, games would continue to be full of big-breasted, scantily-clad women to feed the male gaze, but gamers wouldn’t get to see them in action in the bedroom.

Yet this isn’t to say that there was no sex whatsoever to be had on CD-ROM. Far from it. Even as the above-ground industry’s fad for interactive movies was swelling up and then petering out, there was plenty of explicit sex available for consumption on “seedy ROM,” the name a wag writing for The New York Times coined for the underground genre. A cottage industry sprang up around the technology of CD-ROM when it was still in its infancy — an industry which it would be disarmingly easy for a historian like me, trolling through my old issues of Computer Gaming World and the like, to never realize ever existed. This has always been the way with porn; despite its eternal popularity, it lives in the shadows, segregated from other forms of media whose consumers are less ashamed of their habit. It is forced to exist in its own parallel universe of distribution and sales — and yet people who are determined to see it always find a way to meet it where it lives. This was as true of porn during the multimedia-computing boom as it has been in every other technological era and context.

The pioneer of the seedy-ROM field, coming already in 1990 — fully three years before Voyeur, at a time when the standards around CD-ROM had barely been set and most people had not yet even heard of it — was a product of a tiny company called Reactor, Incorporated. It called itself Virtual Valerie. Implemented using Apple’s HyperCard authoring system, it plays a bit like The Manhole with sex; you can explore your girlfriend Valerie’s apartment, discovering a surprising number of secret paths and Easter eggs therein, or you can spend your time exploring Valerie herself. Relying on hand-drawn pixel graphics rather than digitized photographs or video, it’s whimsical in personality — almost innocent by contrast with what would come later — but it nevertheless demonstrated that there was an eager market for this sort of thing. “A left-handed mouse designed for use by right-handed people will be a hot seller,” wrote Anne Gregor only partly jokingly in CD-ROM Today, one of the few glossy magazines that dared to cover this space at all.

Virtual Valerie.

Virtual Valerie was the canary in the coal mine. In her wake, dozens of companies plunged into making and selling porn on CD-ROM, smelling an opportunity akin to the porn-on-videotape boom of the recent past. They sold disks full of murky images downloaded from Usenet, where a lively trade in porn went on alongside lively discussions. They sold old porn movies on CDs, the better for gentlemen to view on the computer in the home office, away from the prying eyes of the wife and kids. (The Voyager Company’s version of the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night was promoted in 1993 as the very first full-length movie on CD-ROM, but it actually wasn’t this at all: it was rather the first non-pornographic movie on CD-ROM.) And then there were the more ambitious, genuinely interactive efforts that followed in the footsteps of Virtual Valerie. “Virtual girlfriends” became a veritable sub-genre unto itself for a while. Girlfriend Teri, for example, claimed a vocabulary of 3000 words. Journalist Nancie S. Martin called her perfect for men who preferred “a woman you can talk to, who, unlike most real women, has no opinions of her own. While she can’t discuss Proust, she can say, ‘It’s so big!’ on demand.”

It was proof of a longstanding axiom in media: no matter how daunting the obstacles to distribution, porn will out. When American CD-duplication houses refused their business, the purveyors of seedy ROMs found alternatives in Canada. When no existing software distributor or retailer was willing to touch their products, when the big computer and gaming magazines too rejected them or allowed them only small advertisements sequestered in their back pages, they advertised in the skin magazines and urban newspapers instead, and sealed the deal through mail order and through porn-rental shops that stocked their CDs alongside the usual videotapes. Those who joined this latest porn gold rush were a variegated lot, ranging from the likes of Playboy and Penthouse, whose libraries of photographs stretched back decades, to hardcore pornography pimpers like Vivid Media with catalogs of their own that were equally ripe for re-purposing, to fresh faces who were excited about the overall potential of multimedia, and saw porn as a way to make money from it or to nudge it along as a consumer-facing technology, or both.

One of these newcomers to porn was New Machine Publishing, founded by one Larry Miller and two other 25-year-old men in 1992. “At first, we thought we’d do a CD-ROM on the rain forest,” Miller told The Los Angeles Times three years later. “It was gonna be interactive, have bird calls, native music, all that stuff. Then we discovered we were not thinking in real-world terms. No one would have bought it.” Instead they acquired a bunch of footage from a local porno-production company and stuck it on a CD alongside a frame story not that far away in spirit from Voyeur: you were a guest at a hotel where all the rooms were wired for video and sound, and you were in the catbird seat in the control room. The difference, of course, was that their “interactive porn movie,” which they called Nightwatch, didn’t shirk from the money shots. They took 500 Nightwatch discs to a Macworld show in San Francisco and sold every single one of them, at $70 a pop. Attendees “would cruise by,” remembered Miller. “Then they would get to the end of the aisle and do a U-turn.”

It turned out that porn was immune to the infelicities of this early era of digital video that caused customers to turn away from more upstanding multimedia productions. While few could convince themselves to overlook the fact that Voyager’s A Hard Day’s Night played in a resolution more suited to a postage stamp than a computer monitor, they were happy to peer at Nightwatch‘s even blearier clips, jittering before them enigmatically at all of five frames per second. New Machine plowed their Nightwatch profits into The Interactive Adventures of Seymore Butts (yes, really), which did for Leisure Suit Larry what their previous seedy ROM had done for Voyeur. Everyone knew the drill of this sort of scenario by now: another loser protagonist out on the town trying to score. Except that Seymore would get lucky in a way that Larry or Les and their players could hardly have begun to imagine.

Seymore Butts, ladies man, on the prowl.

Indeed, New Machine was now able to pay for their own film shoots. Robert A. Jones of The Los Angeles Times was permitted to visit the set one day, and returned to bear witness to the ultimate hollowness of mechanistic sex without emotion or context: “Watching it unfold, it’s hard to believe anything of redeeming value could be salvaged from this scene of bored sordidness.” There has always been money to be made in some people’s compulsion to keep watching porn long after the novelty is gone. Why should seedy ROMs be any different?

But, you might be asking, how much money are we talking about here? Alas, that’s a tough question to answer with any degree of certainty. Because porn lives underground, both abhorring the light of mainstream attention and being likewise abhorred, it has always been notoriously difficult to figure out how much money people are actually making from the stuff. Porn on CD-ROM is no exception. That said, the sheer quantity of it that was out there by the middle of the 1990s indicates that real money was being made by at least some of its providers. To be sure, no one was selling discs in the quantities of Voyeur or Phantasmagoria. But then again, they didn’t have to, thanks to vastly cheaper production budgets and the ability to charge a premium price. This latter has always been one of the advantages of peddling smut: most people just want to take their porn and disappear back into blessed anonymity, not haggle and bargain hunt.

We do have some data points. The founders of New Machine Publishing alluded vaguely to selling “tens of thousands” of copies of Seymore Butts, more than many a more wholesome point-and-click adventure game of the era. The first Penthouse Virtual Photo Shoot disc — “Be the photographer!” — reportedly sold 30,000 copies in its first three months. (In another testament to its popularity, no fewer than five additional volumes, featuring different sets of girls for the camera’s roving eye to capture, were later released.) Vivid Entertainment’s interactive division reported having four 10,000-plus sellers on CD-ROM already in the spring of 1994, barely six months after its founding. Fay Sharp, who acted as a distributor and liaison between seedy-ROM makers and mom-and-pop porn shops all over the country, claimed that $260 million worth of porn on disc was sold in that same year. Pixis Interactive claimed multiple titles with sales of 50,000 to 100,000 units a couple of years after that. For all that such numbers may still have been a drop in the bucket compared to porn on videotape, they could mean serious money for the people involved, with the tantalizing prospect of a lot more where that had come from in the future, once multimedia personal computers had become as ubiquitous in American homes as videocassette players. In short, and despite the fact that seedy ROMs would never blow up quite as spectacularly as many of the folks involved in them expected — we’ll get to the reasons for that shortly — all signs are that some people in this market did very well for themselves for a while, thanks to sales that in many cases seem to have dwarfed the numbers racked up by, say, The Voyager Company’s lineup of high-brow explorations of history and science.

Perhaps the best testimony to the real if brief-lived success of porn on CD-ROM is a brouhaha that erupted at COMDEX, the buttoned-down computer industry’s biggest trade show, taking place in November of each year in Las Vegas. In 1993, The New York Times reported with considerable surprise that porn had become one of the highlights of the show in the opinion of businessmen who were ostensibly there to investigate decidedly unsexy server racks and backup systems and the like.

“CD-ROM brings unimaginable quantities of knowledge to those for whom information is their most valuable asset,” said Bill Kelly, president of PC Compo Net of La Habra, California, who sells such knowledge bases as L.A. Strippers: Bikes & Babes & Rock ‘n’ Roll. PC Compo Net was among a half dozen companies selling CD-ROM titles that depict graphic sex with video, sound, and still images. The displays caused traffic jams in the aisles as the predominantly male computer crowd stopped to gawk. Many customers waved fists of cash. One harried booth clerk noted that CD-ROM is ideal for circumventing Japanese laws restricting pornographic films and magazines, because the mirror-like disks give no clue as to their contents and can easily be slipped through customs in an audio-CD case.

Some COMDEX exhibitors complained about their X-rated neighbors on moral grounds; others said they were pleased by the crowds. One Japanese computer dealer, who asked that his name not be used, said it appears that pornography may be the long-awaited “killer” application that will spur the sale of CD-ROM drives. “People who develop CD-ROM software should be overjoyed that we’re here, because we’re helping sell CD-ROM drives,” said Lawrence Miller, one of three partners in New Machine Publishing of Santa Monica, California, which makes games with explicit sexual content.

Concerned about their show’s image, the COMDEX organizers moved the seedy-ROM exhibits into a dank corner of the basement the following year — an apt metaphor for pornography’s place in polite society, yes, but one the exhibitors themselves considered less than gracious, given that they were by now contributing about half a million dollars to the show’s bottom line. In return, COMDEX couldn’t even be bothered to keep the power on for them all the time down there in the cellar. Its organizers were deaf to their complaints: “COMDEX is a place where people show creative new products for the benefit of the industry. This is not appropriate.”

So, Fay Sharp, a rare woman in porn in a role other than that of performer, set up her own show in 1995 just a few blocks away from that year’s COMDEX. Called AdultDex, its admission charge was just $20 if you could show a COMDEX ticket. “COMDEX is the classroom and AdultDex is recess,” said William Margold of the Free Speech Coalition, one of the new show’s sponsors. About 7500 people came by that first year, while the bigger show’s organizers huffed and hawed and threatened this unwelcome parasite. In the end, though, there was nothing they could do about it.

AdultDex became a regular event thereafter, drawing upwards of 20,000 attendees some years. The scene there was much the same as that in the countless Vegas strip clubs that catered to the same clientele of business road warriors enjoying a taste of freedom from the strictures of family life. (“COMDEX attendees don’t gamble, but they line up in those gentlemen’s clubs,” said the chairwoman of the tourism and convention department at the University of Nevada. “I’ve been on flights coming into Las Vegas sitting next to hookers who fly in just for that week.”) Journalist Samantha Cole describes AdultDex as “men in polo shirts and cheap brown suits standing too close to tanned women in bikinis and leather, or leaning their five-o’clock shadows on their breasts. One thing that’s never changed through decades of Las Vegas porn conferences: in this gin-scented setting, men and women do seem like separate species.”

In 1997, the police raided AdultDex — at the instigation, many suspected, of the COMDEX organizers — and handed out citations for “lewd and dissolute conduct” and “performing a live sex act.” But, as always, the porn show must go on. “We were on CNN, the local TV; we have even had an editorial in the newspaper that was favorable,” said Fay Sharp to Billboard magazine. “It’s giving us the kind of publicity we could never buy. It’s showing [that] adult interactivity is very much in the mainstream.” AdultDex wouldn’t pass into history until 2003, when it expired, like any good parasite, alongside its host, COMDEX itself.

The scene at AdultDex.

Yet even as Fay Sharp was saying those words in 1997, the nature of the products being peddled at AdultDex was changing markedly. The fact was that the seedy-ROM boom was already past its peak, already starting onto the down slope toward what all those dirty discs have become today: the kitschy detritus of a quaint past, media artifacts which manifestly failed to reach the world-changing heights once predicted for them. Pixis Interactive reported that year that its latest sales figures looked suddenly “ghastly.” The smart folks in the cottage industry were now plotting exit strategies from CD-ROM, which in some cases involved going legit — or at least more legit — in one way or another. The boys behind New Machine, for example, reinvested their Seymore Butts profits into casino games on CD-ROM, then took that concept online. At the turn of the millennium, their was one of the most popular online-gaming sites on the Internet.

Meanwhile those digital impresarios who intended to stay in porn were trying to figure out how to execute a dramatic shift in terms of delivery medium. For, just as video had once killed the radio star, the World Wide Web was now all too clearly killing the multimedia CD-ROM, regardless of whether it concerned itself with kinky sex or with the fate of the rain forests. Seedy ROMs wouldn’t disappear because of any shortage of horny boys and men — perish the thought! They would disappear because anything they could do, the Web could do better — cheaper and easier and, best of all, even more anonymously. The fact was that the Web was about to change humanity’s relationship to sex in general to an extent that few of even the most enthusiastic proponents of sex on CD-ROM would have ventured to predict. And, almost equally interestingly, sex was about to change the Web — change not only the sites people surfed to and what they did there, but make the whole place safe for commerce and its filthy lucre in a way that a million wide-eyed idealists like its original inventor Tim Berners-Lee could never have managed.

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

Sources: the books How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex by Samantha Cole, Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age by Frederick S. Lane III, The Players Ball: A Genius, a Con Man, and the Secret History of the Internet’s Rise by David Kushner, The Erotic Engine by Patchen Barss, The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession by Kelsy Burke, and Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings by Ken Williams; The New York Times of November 21 1993, January 9 1994, and October 4 1995; CD-ROM Today of June/July 1994; Electronic Entertainment of August 1994 and August 1995; Wired of July 1995; Computer Gaming World of March 1995, July 1996, and March 1997; Wired of July 1995 and February 1997; The Los Angeles Times of March 19 1995; The San Francisco Chronicle of November 19 1997; frieze of March/April 1996; The Las Vegas Sun of November 19 1996; American Heritage of September/October 2000. Online sources include “Inside AdultDex” by Adi Robertson at The Verge, “COMDEX Trade Show Leaves Vegas” by Chris Jones at Casino City Times, and “History of Sex in Cinema” at filmsite.


1 A few years ago, I went to a retro-gaming exhibition here in Denmark with a friend of mine. We got to talking with a woman who worked at the museum hosting it, who told us of her own memories from those times. It seems her brother had managed to acquire a copy of Strip Poker for his Commodore Amiga. Being a lover of card games, she tried to play it, but all the stupid pictures kept getting in the way. “I just wanted to play poker!” she lamented. I suspect this story may have something to tell us about the differences between the genders, but I have no idea what it is.


The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery

Personally, I’ve never been one to imagine small things.

— Jane Jensen

When Jane Jensen first said that she would like to make a dark-tinged, adult-oriented mystery of a Sierra adventure game, revolving around an antihero of a paranormal detective named Gabriel Knight, her boss Ken Williams wasn’t overly excited about the idea. “Okay, I’ll let you do it,” he grumbled. “But I wish you’d come up with something happier!”

What a difference a year and a half can make. At the end of that period of time, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers was a hit, garnering vive la différence! reviews and solid sales from gamers who appreciated its more sophisticated approach to interactive storytelling. Rather than remaining an outlier in the company’s catalog, it bent Sierra’s whole trajectory in its direction, as Ken Williams retooled and refocused on games that could appeal to a different — and larger — demographic of players.

There was no question whatsoever about a sequel. In January of 1994, just six weeks after the first Gabriel Knight game had shipped, Jane Jensen was told to get busy writing the second one.

She was more than ready to do so. In fact, she already knew exactly what she wanted the second story to be: a tale of werewolves, Richard Wagner, and Ludwig II, the (in)famously eccentric last king of an independent Bavaria. She’d developed a fascination for all of these subjects when she’d spent nine months living in Germany just before coming to Sierra. “It was initially the plot for the first game,” she says, “but when I started looking at it, I felt I needed to go back further in the characters’ history.” Now, having told how a New Orleans pulp-novel writer, bookstore owner, lady’s man, and general layabout named Gabriel Knight became a “Schattenjäger” — a “shadow hunter” of things that go bump in the night — she was ready to send him to Germany to face The Beast Within.

Very early on during the design phase if not right away, The Beast Within was earmarked to become the second of a new generation of Sierra adventures, which were to be built around filmed snippets of live actors. It was an enormous change from the hand-painted pixel graphics of the first game, but Jensen was, as she says, “all for it.” Although shooting on location in Germany would have been her dream scenario, there was no way the budget would stretch that far. Instead her actors would have to perform in front of a blue screen that would be filled in with computer-generated backgrounds after the shoot, as was the norm for these kinds of productions.

In lieu of taking the whole project to Germany, she did convince management to allow her to bring a piece of that country to Sierra’s offices in Oakhurst, California. During the second half of 1994, she and other Sierra staffers made three separate trips to Germany, spending more than a month there in all, painstakingly photographing among other places Munich’s city center, the Wagner Museum in Bayreuth, and Neuschwanstein, “mad king” Ludwig’s fairy-tale castle. These photos were then touched up as necessary to serve as the scenery behind the actors. This in itself represented a marked change in approach from the 3D-modeled backgrounds employed by Phantasmagoria, Sierra’s first game of this type. It was a wise choice for this project; while the mixing of media is by no means always seamless, the photographic look gives The Beast Within an unusually strong atmosphere of place. The hazy, slightly washed-out look of the backgrounds — an unavoidable byproduct of the state of digital imaging at the time — contributes to rather than detracts from the mood. “We were lucky in all three of the trips over there in that it was fairly overcast, so we didn’t have any harsh, direct lighting on most of the things,” says Nathan Gams, the project’s creative director and chief photographer. “We wanted a soft, gloomy kind of European spring feel. It kind of reflects the alien place where Gabriel is at this time.”

With the background images duly captured, it was time to think about the foreground actors. The budget only allowed for the Screen Actors Guild minimum wage, which precluded “name” stars such as Tim Curry and Mark Hamill, both of whom had provided voice acting in the first game.

Sierra wound up casting in the role of Gabriel one Dean Erickson, a 36-year-old with an interesting story behind him. He had been working in finance on Wall Street at age 30, when he suddenly decided that he wanted to be an actor instead, despite having never performed in so much as a high-school play prior to that point. Six years on from that decision, his chief claim to fame was a bit part in three episodes of the sitcom Frasier. Jane Jensen was initially uncertain that he had the chops to play the role of Gabriel, even though in appearance he was “spookily like what I would have thought the character would be”: “It was more a matter of being sure that he could play all the different faces of Gabriel Knight.” But she allowed herself to be convinced in the end.

Dean Erickson and Jane Jensen.

“I would like to be the lead guy in major features,” Erickson himself said at the time, “and hopefully my performance in this will lead someone to believe that I can help carry a movie.” Hope does tend to spring particularly eternal in Hollywood. In the world of reality rather than Hollywood fantasy, a much older and perhaps wiser Dean Erickson would come to look back on The Beast Within as the best that things ever got for him as an actor, what with “making SAG scale for three and a half months in an idyllic setting under controlled conditions with nice people.”

It was intense in that we shot fairly quickly, only one or two takes per shot. But we were mostly shooting on an air-conditioned sound stage in a beautiful part of the country during the summer near a lake. We worked mostly nine to five, Monday through Friday, so it was about the best situation one could have as an actor. It truly couldn’t have worked out better, other than maybe getting work afterwards.

The role of Grace Nakimura, Gabriel’s strait-laced research assistant and potential love interest, went to Joanne Takahashi, a stage actress and print-advertising model who was also trying to break through in Hollywood. Meanwhile a Polish actor named Peter Lucas would all but steal the show in the role of the darkly enigmatic Baron Friedrich Von Glower, who slowly emerges as the principal antagonist of the story. The cast was rounded out with more than 40 other speaking parts, all recruited like the leads from the ranks of Hollywood hopefuls flashing their SAG membership cards.

Sierra’s original choice as director was an in-demand music-video maker named Mark Miremont, whose grainy, hyperkinetic productions can be credited with inculcating much of the look of MTV during the grunge era. It would have been intriguing indeed to see what he might have done with The Beast Within. But those plans fell through at the last minute, and Sierra instead hired a less distinctive aesthetic personality named Will Binder, a graduate of UCLA film school who had recently been serving as a director’s assistant in such films as The Scent of a Woman.[1]This résumé would later lead to my favorite ever interview opening, from the adorably fannish website Adventure Classic Gaming: “You have worked with some of the best actors in the business — Al Pacino, Michael J. Fox, Bruce Boxleitner, Mira Furlan, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and of course, Dean Erickson and Joanne Takahashi.” Two of these names are not like the others…

Before talking about how any of these folks performed, it’s only fair that we take a moment to appreciate just how awkward this style of “film-making” really was. The difficulties and constraints extended even to the clothing worn by the cast; the chroma-keying process which allowed the programmers to superimpose the live actors over the digitized photographic backgrounds came complete with many restrictions, as noted by costumer Marcelle Gravel:

There are a lot of limitations in terms of colors. [We can’t use] anything that is close to blue or anything white that can reflect the blue, or any green that has a little blue in it. Sometimes black doesn’t work because when it gets wrinkled, it reflects.

So the wardrobe has to be very safe. Gabriel was supposed to be wearing a black jacket, a white tee-shirt, and blue jeans — an American uniform. It is James Dean, Marlon Brando, all those people. And when I started Gabriel, I can’t use black, I can’t use white, I can’t use blue. So what am I going to do to create that effect?

He ended up wearing green. Since he’s got the red hair, I think the green has a good effect on him.

The blue screen also meant that much or most of the evolved language of film had to be tossed. The camera wasn’t allowed to swoop or soar; it had to remain stock still if the computer-generated backgrounds were to look coherent after they were inserted. Thus the scenes had to be staged and blocked like live-theater productions which happened to perform for a camera rather than a live audience.

Making an interactive story, in which scenes could occur in many different orders, played havoc with the actors’ ability to inhabit their roles. Will Binder:

[The player] can jump around during the game at any point, so the actor has to have a neutral emotion at the start of each scene. [The scene currently being filmed] could [be] before a big scene happened or could [be] after a big scene.

In a regular movie, you would like to tell [the actor], “Okay, this just happened: you just broke up with your girlfriend.” Or, “An hour ago you found out some information about a person you have been dealing with.”

In the game,  [the player] can go anywhere [they] want. So there is no linear progression.

Joanne Takahashi:

With this shoot, you are taking so many different paths you are not sure where the character is going. It is a challenge.

I am just feeling it through and letting things come to me as I go along. It was something to adjust to because a lot of what actresses do is inspired by what they are feeling. That was a difficult challenge, but that was a requirement on this kind of project.

Most of the actors were not technically oriented, and had little concept of how the scenes they were shooting would be cobbled together into a coherent final product. Certainly there was nothing like the daily rushes of conventional filmmaking, which help actors understand how a production is coming together while the shoot is still progress. The actors working on The Beast Within were swimming blind in unknown waters.

Keeping all that in mind, then, how did the actors do?

Dean Erickson is a rather counterintuitive case in some ways. On the one hand, he badly misses the mark of the Gabriel Knight that Jane Jensen likes to describe. Far from a cool lady-killer, he radiates discomfort in his own skin virtually every moment he spends onscreen; he’s forever sighing and twitching and glancing nervously away as if looking for direction (which he quite possibly is, come to think of it), coming across as a guy for whom propositioning a girl comes as naturally as foreign languages. (American to the core, Gabriel has managed to avoid picking up a word of German during the months he’s already spent in the country.) Needless to say, nothing about this performance will convince you that Erickson is Hollywood leading-man material.

And yet Erickson’s take on Gabriel kind of works despite itself. His discomfort before Will Binder’s cameras mirrors that which any born-and-bred New Orleanian would feel after being transplanted to such an utterly foreign clime as southern Germany. For all of Erickson’s manifest limitations as an actor, I have to say that I like his Gabriel more than I do the one Tim Curry voice-acted in Sins of the Fathers. He’s relatable in his way, and, if he doesn’t exactly radiate masculine virility, nor does he come across like a member of the #metoo Most Wanted brigade, as Curry’s Gabriel too often did. He’s not bad company on the whole, once you get used to his incessant fidgeting. In achieving this much, he fulfills the first and most important criterion of any good adventure-game protagonist.

Will Binder directs Joanne Takahashi. She needed all the help she could get.

But Joanne Takahashi’s Grace is, alas, less likeable. This is a problem in that Grace steps up to almost equal time with Gabriel in this second game; the player controls her rather than Gabriel through two and a half of the game’s six chapters. Her apparently unrequited affection for Gabriel and jealousy of his beautiful German secretary Gerde are doubtless intended to be endearing, but are written and acted with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball to the head. Whether because she’s got them old lovesick blues or because she’s just made that way, Grace is bitchy toward everyone and everything she encounters for much of the game. Only toward the end, when she’s finally accepted that Gerde isn’t after her man and that Gabriel really needs her help, does she start to lighten up a bit. But even then, the actress who plays her remains stiff as a board.

Peter Lucas by contrast gives by far the most natural performance, as Baron Von Glower, the libertine leader of a mysterious big-game hunting club which Gabriel stumbles upon in the course of his investigations. Every time he appears, he lights up the screen with his romance-novel looks and his enticing aura of danger; his scenes with Gabriel flare with far more sexual tension than Gabriel ever strikes up with Grace. Lucas’s onscreen performance stands out as one of the best of the entire full-motion-video era of gaming — granted, not an overly high bar to clear, but we should give him his props nevertheless.

The smoldering attraction between Gabriel and Van Glower is remarkable in the context of its time. Mass-market computer games just didn’t go to these places in 1995. If the beats of the plot can be read as allegorical in a thoroughly retrograde way — Gabriel must overcome the temptation of lycanthropy, which in turn becomes accidentally or purposefully associated with homosexuality in the script, in order to return to the good girl Grace — what we see on the screen never feels as judgmental as that formulation would imply. (It is perhaps not completely inappropriate to mention at this juncture that Jane Jensen has become a successful writer of gay romance fiction in recent years.)

The Beast Within took over Sierra’s new Oakhurst sound stage in May of 1995. Filming there lasted almost four months in all. At its conclusion, the crew moved to Seattle for a few days to shoot the game’s climactic scenes on location in the city’s opera house, complete with many of the local opera company’s own players. Here the constraints imposed by the game’s peculiar technological stew fell away, and Will Binder got to shoot something resembling scenes from a proper movie. He was a lucky guy; very few other full-motion-video productions from the 1990s ponied up for a full-fledged location shoot.

Coming to this article, I had fonder memories of The Beast Within than Sins of the Fathers, and I was curious to find out whether that impression would hold up. I was gratified that it generally did. The game is as shaggy as its namesake even if one looks beyond the uneven acting, being full of unnecessary stumbling blocks in its interactivity that prevent me from giving it a full-throated recommendation here or making a place for it in my personal Hall of Fame, where fairness to the player is a prerequisite. But it’s a fascinating piece of work all the same, created as it was just at the apogee of that window of time when interactive narratives starring “real” actors were considered the necessary future of gaming by big companies like Sierra — so much so that they were building million-dollar sound stages for themselves to churn them out with the alacrity of any Hollywood studio. Jane Jensen would never get a chance to work on a scale like this again. And it must be said that she made the most of it: the overweening ambition of The Beast Within — the sheer grandiosity of it all — makes it a sight to behold. This is a computer game for which an opera was composed, for God’s sake. Everyone involved with it was unabashedly shooting for the moon.

The game opens several months after the conclusion of Sins of the Fathers, when a very reluctant Gabriel has moved into his ancestral castle in Germany to take up the family business of shadow-hunting. Meanwhile Grace has been left behind in New Orleans to run his old bookstore.

One dark night, a group of German villagers straight out of Hammer Horror central casting knocks on the front door of Gabriel’s castle. “We have come for the Schattenjäger,” says their leader. It seems that a little girl living in another small town near Munich has been killed — by, the visitors believe, a werewolf. (“At least she died quickly,” says the village patriarch to her grieving father, a line so hilariously tone deaf that one has to assume it was intended to be funny.) Gabriel has his doubts, but he agrees to take the case. His investigations will eventually lead him to the hunting club led by Baron Von Glower.

When Grace learns of the case, she hightails it to Germany, but doesn’t join up directly with Gabriel. Instead she occupies herself with research on the real or mythical history of lycanthropy. She learns that Ludwig II, king of Bavaria from 1864, seems to have become a werewolf himself while still a young man, and that this may account for much of his legendarily strange behavior. Further, she discovers that he told his friend Richard Wagner of his plight, prompting the latter to compose a magical opera which he hoped would be able to drive out the curse. But he was unable to complete it before Ludwig died under mysterious circumstances in 1886 — he had become a persistent irritant to the new, Prussia-dominated united Germany, making his death fodder for all sorts of conspiracy theories — and the opera was never performed. What there was of it was lost, seemingly forever — until the dogged Grace digs it up again. She soon has urgent need of it, as Gabriel has by now gotten himself infected with the curse.

All of this is mind-bogglingly ridiculous, of course, but the game leans into it with a commitment that would make Dan Brown proud, and darned if it doesn’t do a pretty good job of selling it. The Beast Within is nothing if not a slow burn. Gabriel doesn’t meet his first indubitable werewolf in the flesh until over two-thirds of the way in, while Grace’s chapters involve little more than poring over musty books and museum exhibits, giving them at times more of the flavor of an educational CD-ROM than an adventure game.

Much of Grace’s time is spent touring Neuschwanstein Castle, complete with the obligatory tourist audio guide.

Clearly Jane Jensen was touched by the wistful, sorrowful life of Ludwig, enough so as to make it the thematic bedrock of her game. She saw parallels with a certain modern eccentric whose days would also end in tragedy and controversy:

He was a real misfit, never in sync with the world. He lived in a fantasy world, and because he had a lot of money, he could surround himself with fantasy, not unlike Michael Jackson now.

As time went on, he got more and more beaten down by the world. His relationships never worked out, and he was always disillusioned. He was a very sensitive soul who was just hurt by everything, who kept retreating and withdrawing.

When he was young, he was very much a Prince Charming type. And of course his end was very tragic. So I just think it is a very beautiful, sad story of a life.

Grace’s historical research and Gabriel’s more active investigations meet only in the sixth and final chapter of the game, when the former arranges a public premiere of the lost opera in order to cure the latter of the affliction he’s picked up. The audacity of this bit is almost unbelievable. Not only did the game’s soundtrack composer Robert Holmes — also Jane Jensen’s husband — dare to write an opera, he had the colossal cheek to make it a lost Wagner opera. It took him “about a week,” as he remembers it. (One has to assume that the real Wagner devoted somewhat more time to his masterworks). I’m in no way qualified to judge the worthiness of Holmes’s opera, but I must assume it to be dire enough to send aficionados running from the room with their hands over their ears. Nevertheless, here’s to ambition. One certainly can’t accuse this game of pulling any of its punches.

All of its interest in place and history can rather overshadow its bona fides as a work of horror. Much of the time, it’s more eerie than terrifying, more melancholy than thrilling; suffice to say that it lives in a place far removed from the schlocky sensationalism of Roberta Williams’s Phantasmagoria. When the time finally does come to confront werewolves nose to snout, however, The Beast Within doesn’t disappoint. There’s one scene in the penultimate chapter — anyone who’s played the game will know which one I’m talking about — that’s unsettling enough to give you nightmares. While it’s easy enough to laugh off Phantasmagoria‘s cartoonish execution scenes, you won’t be laughing at this one. If the climax in the opera house is ironically less horrifying than what comes immediately before it, fair enough; one scene like that should be enough for any game.

All of which is to say that The Beast Within is a richly textured, admirably complex work of fiction in many ways. At its best and judged in the context of its time, it was one of the most impressive interactive narratives yet attempted on a computer by 1995. But alas, it isn’t always this best version of itself. What with so much love having been so clearly poured into the game from so many different quarters, I can’t help but wonder why Jane Jensen couldn’t manage to make it just a little bit better. Mixed in with all of its rarefied intellectual and thematic aspirations is plenty of B-movie amateurishness. The language barrier gets erected and torn down willy-nilly, depending on whether Jensen wants to make a plot element out of it or not at any given instant; particularly amusing is the Schattenjäger library in Gabriel’s family castle, consisting of a bunch of Medieval texts helpfully written in modern English. There’s no reason that plausible ways around the language problems couldn’t have been built into the game’s puzzle structure, doing much for its sense of mimesis and potentially even for its character-building in the process. (Perhaps Grace needs to enlist the help of the hated Gerde to translate?) Similarly, the game’s timeline makes no sense whatsoever. Gabriel and Grace’s separate investigations overlap with one another in ways that would only be possible if one or both had a time machine to hand.

These may strike some as the pettiest of niggles, but the fact is that continuity matters in the crafting of believable fictions of any stripe. No credible book-publishing house or film studio would allow a story to go out in such a state as this one. Plot may stand at a lower rung on the artistic totem pole than character or theme in the minds of many, but even most of these will acknowledge that a coherent plot is a necessary prerequisite to those other things.

The Beast Within has some really good puzzles that stretch the interface beyond the typical “use item X on hotspot Y.” One, for example, requires you to construct a fake telephone message by splicing together snippets of recorded speech.

And then there is the interactive design. Jane Jensen resisted any pressure that may have come her way to dumb down The Beast Within in the manner of Phantasmagoria: her game is full of real puzzles worthy of the name, in some cases pretty good ones. In fact, it fares considerably better on this metric than Sins of the Fathers. Nevertheless, there remains a smattering of bad design choices that serve to pull you out of the game every time you feel yourself on the verge of becoming truly immersed in its world. A few of the puzzles hinge on the sort of moon logic for which adventure games have been so often justifiably criticized. (Using a cuckoo clock on a potted plant? Really, Jane?) Even one example of this sort of thing can be ruinous to the player’s experience, in that it destroys her trust in the game’s interactive design at the same time that it demolishes the integrity of its fiction.

In Grace’s chapters, Jensen lays claim to the dubious status of being the inventor of the hidden-object genre: you have to pixel-hunt your way through several big areas, looking for that one tiny thing you overlooked the last dozen times through. You see, this game really, really wants you to know everything possible about Richard Wagner and King Ludwig II: it won’t let the plot proceed until you’ve clicked on every last hotspot on every last detail in every last musty little corner of their respective museum and castle — in a few cases twice. Finding it all can be a challenge even if you’re playing directly from a walkthrough.

And when we get to the big finale, Jensen falls into the common trap of assuming that the ending of an adventure game ought to be much harder than what has come before. (In reality, the opposite is true; the player has already done lots of thinking during the mushy middle, and now just wants an exciting climax followed by victory, with a minimum of fuss.) One key puzzle here hinges on manipulating an object in a way that the interface has never allowed before and never even hinted was a possibility. And the literal last action you need to do in the game is a tricky exercise in perfect timing and precise clicking that’s also out of keeping with everything that’s come before, so much so that you could easily assume you’ve missed something and waste hours looking for it.

But regular readers have heard similar litanies of design sins from me many times before, so I won’t belabor these issues further here. The Beast Within is yet another checkered product of Sierra’s creative culture, which, in marked contrast to such other adventure specialists as Infocom, LucasArts, and Legend Entertainment, never emphasized outside play-testing or even serious discussion of the craft of design in the abstract. Interesting and engaging as it is in its present state, it could have been so much better, if only a process had been put in place to make it better. Whatever the merits of his year-to-year choices as a businessman, Ken Williams’s failure to do so — a byproduct of his personal disinterest in actually playing his company’s games — will always stand as his biggest single lapse in my book.

Wagner’s Lost Opera, the grand finale to The Beast Within. Most games, then and since, have tended to front-load their most impressive scenes so that everyone — not least potential buyers — can see them. This one’s willingness to hold off until the very end says something, I think, about the spirit of grandiose (operatic?) idealism that marked the whole project.

The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery shipped on six CDs less than a week before the Christmas of 1995, half a year after Phantasmagoria had been greeted with huge sales and much mainstream-press attention. Everything about this latest release reflected the current ebullient mood at Sierra, where everyone was convinced they were about to truly hit the big time, with a vastly expanded customer base. For example, the box was careful not to say that this was “Gabriel Knight 2,” for fear of scaring away that new generation of buyers, who might not be keen on starting a series in the middle and might be even less keen on playing an “old-fashioned” game like Sins of the Fathers.

Indeed, even Sierra’s new fictional genre of choice reflected the new focus on the mainstream. Horror was a less stereotypically nerdy ghetto than fantasy or science fiction, yet one that was still fairly well-suited to adventure-game modes of interaction. So, after never touching the genre for the first decade and change of their existence, Sierra was now all over it. Three of the five domestically-developed adventures they released in 1995 were horror games. (The third companion to Phantasmagoria and The Beast Within in this respect was the lower-profile Shivers, a solitary Myst-style first-person puzzler created by a breakaway team at Bright Star, Sierra’s educational-software subsidiary.)

In comparison to the adventure-lite Phantasmagoria, The Beast Within was perhaps a wolf in sheep’s clothing: it was, as we’ve seen, a game that evinced a full measure of respect for its audience’s collective intelligence, with challenging puzzles and complex present-day and historical mysteries to tease out. Still, there’s little reason to believe it was because of this that it failed to sell anywhere near as well as its predecessor. The mainstream magazines and newspapers that had covered the older game as a curiosity showed little interest in the newer one; ditto the many people who had bought Phantasmagoria strictly to show off their new multimedia computer systems. That left only the traditional adventure market, the same people who had bought Sins of the Fathers. It seemed that Sierra was suddenly back to square one.

This state of affairs was, to say the least, deeply disconcerting to everyone there, as they all found themselves having to adjust their paradigm of gaming’s necessary future at lightning speed. Sierra programmer Greg Tomko-Pavia expressed the collective confusion in a contemporary online interview whose frankness presumably wouldn’t have endeared it to his managers:

I must say that I’m surprised Phantasmagoria has done so well. Presently, we’ve sold over 700,000 copies — more than any other Sierra game. I can’t account for it. In my opinion, Phantasmagoria suffered from weak writing, acting, and direction. I don’t understand why Gabriel Knight 2, to my mind superior in every detail, isn’t doing nearly so well. What do I know? I just write code!

At the time of The Beast Within‘s release, Sierra was already filming their third big interactive horror film on their Oakhurst sound stage, a sequel-in-name-only to Phantasmagoria subtitled A Puzzle of Flesh. Its garish grindhouse aesthetic made its two boundary-pushing predecessors look downright prudish — which was, one supposes, further progress of a sort. But it would prove the last production of its type. Once it too had disappointed in the marketplace, its feverish courting of controversy having largely come up dry, the facility Sierra had built with such pride and at such expense would be used only occasionally, for 3D motion captures and the like. It was now clear that gaming writ large was going in a different direction entirely, leaving the sound stage a fork in a world of soup.

As for Gabriel and Grace: against all the odds, they would return for one final game, but that would be a more constrained production than this one, using one of the 3D engines that were taking over the industry. There’s a world-weariness about that game — a sense of existential despair on the part of its creators that’s almost palpable when playing it — that you won’t find in this one, which was created by a team who saw only limitless potential everywhere they looked. The Beast Within is the product of a rare moment when the creative and the commercial impulse seemed united as one. For all its frustrating infelicities, it positively soars with its makers’ enthusiasm, with their bracing willingness to just try. Neither Jane Jensen nor any of the rest of them realized how lucky they were to be given the time and money to do so.

Six months after the release of The Beast Within, Roberta Williams, who was always the bellwether of the current creative direction of Sierra, gave a new verdict on the current state of adventure games that contradicted everything Sierra had been saying and doing for the past couple of years:

I believe adventure games have now gotten too plot-heavy. Not just ours, but also a lot of our competitors’ games. I think game designers need to get back to the game and forget all this wanna-be-writer-and-director stuff. They don’t realize people just want to play a game. They want to have control over what happens. Video clips are fine — if they’re very short, to the point, concise, and then… get out of there.

The times, they were still a-changing.

(Sources: the books Influential Game Designers: Jane Jensen by Anastasia Salter and The Beast Within: Official Player’s Guide by Corey Sandler with Jane Jensen; Computer Gaming World of November 1995 and February 1996; Sierra’s customer newsletter InterAction of Fall 1994, Spring 1995, Fall 1995, Holiday 1995, Spring 1996, and Summer 1996. Online sources include Anthony Larme’s interview with Greg Tomko-Pavia, “The Making of… the Gabriel Knight Trilogy” at Edge Online, Andrea Santorio’s interview with Jane Jensen, Martin Bourassa’s interview with Dean Erickson, Jane Jensen and Robert Holmes’s appearance on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” and Ingrid Heyn’s interview with Will Binder.

Now re-titled with the numeral Sierra once eschewed, Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within is available as a digital purchase at


1 This résumé would later lead to my favorite ever interview opening, from the adorably fannish website Adventure Classic Gaming: “You have worked with some of the best actors in the business — Al Pacino, Michael J. Fox, Bruce Boxleitner, Mira Furlan, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and of course, Dean Erickson and Joanne Takahashi.” Two of these names are not like the others…

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Making Sierra Pay

Scenes from the Phantasmagoria set, with Roberta Williams in pride of place at center.

At the conclusion of my previous article on Sierra Online’s corporate history, we saw how Ken and Roberta Williams moved their company’s headquarters from the tiny Northern California town of Oakhurst to the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, home to Microsoft among others, in September of 1993. They did so for a mixture of personal and professional reasons, as Ken has since acknowledged. Their children were getting older, for one thing, and the schools in Oakhurst were far from world-class. Additionally, life in general as the biggest fish of all in the fishbowl of a company town that Oakhurst had become wasn’t always pleasant; for example, Ken has claimed that his kids were at times bullied by “the children of former Sierra employees who had a grudge against Sierra.” Some other former employees suspect still another reason for the move to Bellevue, one that Ken neglects to mention: the fact that Washington State had no personal income tax, while California’s was the highest in the nation.

Still, there are no grounds to doubt that the public reason Ken gave for the move back in the day was indeed a major part of the calculation: the need to recruit the sort of seasoned business talent that could take Sierra to the next level. The company’s annual revenues had grown every single year since 1987, more often than not substantially, and this was of course wonderful. But less wonderful was the fact that profits had never been as high as that progression would imply; Sierra had a knack for spending almost every dime they earned. Of late in fact, the bottom line had dipped sharply into loss territory even as revenues continued their steady climb. Under pressure from his shareholders, Ken Williams realized that he had to find a way to make his company start to pay off. He believed that doing so must entail assembling the kind of top-flight management team which could only be found in a big city. He’d been seeking a rock star of a chief financial officer for a long time from Oakhurst to no avail. Ken Williams:

I had hired a San Francisco-based company, Heidrick & Struggles, to lead the search, and after months of getting nowhere I called my contact at Heidrick in frustration. “Why do you keep sending me B and C level candidates?” I asked. I was tired of having my time wasted interviewing candidates who were not at the level I was seeking. The answer came back without hesitation: “Ken, you’re aren’t getting it. No A player wants to move to Oakhurst.”

Nine months after the move to Bellevue, Ken finally found his rock star in the form of one Mike Brochu, a financial whizz who had spent the last nineteen years working for Burlington Resources. The man whom Ken still describes as “probably the best hire I ever made” was a garrulous Texan who “inspired confidence in everyone around him.” Not coincidentally, Sierra began to display a newly hard-nosed, bottom-line-focused attitude toward their business from virtually the moment of his arrival. As one of his first projects, Brochu led the negotiations that resulted in the sale of The ImagiNation Network, Sierra’s visionary but perpetually money-losing online-gaming service, to AT&T for $40 million in cash in November of 1994.

Meanwhile Sierra implemented a significant shift in their product-development strategy. For many years now, the heart of the company’s identity had been a set of long-running adventure-game series, most of which worked the word “quest” somewhere into their title. Dodgy from the standpoints of both writing and design though they sometimes were, they’d all displayed enough lovable qualities to worm their way into fans’ hearts. I’ve described in earlier articles how Sierra fandom could feel like belonging to a big extended family. These games, then, were the cousins whom you could always expect to see at the family reunion every couple of years, dressed perhaps a bit differently than last time around but always the same person at bottom. They were comfortingly predictable, and that was exactly how the fans liked them.

But for all that these ramshackle, puzzle-heavy adventure games were good at cementing the loyalty of the already converted, they were less equipped to unleash the sort of explosive growth Sierra was now after. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the personal computer, as Ken Williams and Mike Brochu well recognized. In 1994, more home computers would be sold than televisions, as consumers, tempted by the ease of use of Microsoft Windows, the magic of multimedia, and rumors of a thing called the World Wide Web, jumped onboard the computing bandwagon in staggering numbers. These people didn’t know a King’s Quest from an Ultima. Reaching them would require a different sort of game: fresher, hotter in the Marshall McLuhan sense, more in tune with what they were seeing on television and at the movies. It seemed like it was now or never for Sierra to capture their interest, even if it meant that some of the old fans were left feeling a bit abandoned.

So, Sierra’s new Bellevue management team took a hard look at their existing series in order to decide which were expendable and which were not. King’s Quest, the company’s longstanding flagship series, which already enjoyed a measure of name recognition outside the traditional computer-gaming ghetto, would have been an obvious keeper even if it hadn’t been the baby of Roberta Williams. Leisure Suit Larry also had proven appeal with non-traditional demographics, and was thus also a no-brainer to keep around. Space Quest was an edge case, but the managers decided to green-light one more game, if only to throw a bone to the old-school fans. But Police Quest would get revamped from a line of adventure games into a line of tactical 3D action games, while Quest for Glory would get the axe entirely. Going forward, the main focus would be on bigger-budget adventures employing filmed human actors, for which Sierra was now building their own sound stage down in Oakhurst at considerable cost. They would make fewer of this new type of adventure, but each of them would be a flashy, high-fidelity production, able to appeal to a mass market weaned on big-screen televisions and CD players. The idea was to make the release of each Sierra adventure from now on a real event.

Unfortunately, the transition from one product strategy to another came with a pitfall: it would take some time to bring it off, meaning that 1994 would be an unusually quiet year in terms of new games. And that reality, combined with the new management team’s more hard-nosed attitude, meant that some of the folks in Oakhurst must lose their jobs. Among them were Corey and Lori Cole, the husband-and-wife team behind Quest for Glory, who saw their roles cancelled along with the fifth game in their series, the most impressive of all the series in the Sierra lineup in terms of design ambition and innovation. Corey recalls a scene which made it all too clear to everyone present that Sierra was now being run as a business, not a family: “All employees in the meeting were handed envelopes; about half of them contained ‘pink slips’ notifying them that they no longer worked for Sierra. Those employees were escorted back into the building and watched as they retrieved personal belongings from their desks.” Layoffs are never easy. Corey especially remembers the sight of Gano Haine, who had worked on Sierra’s two EcoQuest games and Pepper’s Adventures in Time, standing in the parking lot crying: “Sierra had been her dream, and she was so thrilled to have gotten the job there.”

During this year of wrenching transition, Sierra released just one new Oakhurst-built adventure game, making it their least prolific year in that respect in almost a decade. Thankfully for the bean counters, the game in question was the latest installment in Sierra’s most bankable adventure series of them all. King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride was a typical entry in a series that had been Sierra’s ever-evolving technological showpiece since 1984. But then, that description in itself implies innovation on at least a technical front, and this the new entry certainly delivered.

The King’s Quest VII opening movie. Ken Williams has often said that Walt Disney was one of his biggest role models. With King’s Quest VII, this influence became almost distressingly literal.

Although it did not employ filmed actors, King’s Quest VII was indicative in another way of Sierra’s new direction: rather than an interactive movie, it aimed to be an interactive cartoon worthy of comparison to the likes of Disney, an ambition which required it to look beyond Sierra’s own stable of talented in-house artists for some of its visuals. Ken Williams first reached out to an up-and-coming animation studio known as Pixar. He even spoke personally with Steve Jobs, Pixar’s chairman and majority owner, but in the end the studio proved to be simply too busy working on Toy Story, their first full-length feature film, to take on this task as well. So, Sierra ended up contracting sequences out to no fewer than four other outside animation studios, in addition to employing their own artists to create what truly was an audiovisual extravaganza by the standards of its time. King’s Quest VII went full Disney, as Charles Ardai described in his review for Computer Gaming World magazine.

I tried this game on my mother (a big fairy-tale fan), who asked, “Is that a game from Disney?” When I replied in the negative, she said, “But they’re trying to do Disney, right?”

They are indeed. From the opening frames, where drops of dew in an enchanted forest drop on the tummy of an enchanted ladybug, to the scene a few seconds later in which lovely Princess Rosella sings her royal heart out in a tuneful paean to her about-to-be-lost adolescence, King’s Quest VII exudes Disney-like quality from each of its cel-animated poses.

Every frame is beautiful, every line is neat and pert, the camera soars and glides, and the notes of the musical score tinkle out in bounding effervescence like the fizz out of a bottle of soda pop. This is the Disney of The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, or Aladdin, if you deduct that film’s adult-targeted sense of irony. It’s the Disney of The Sword in the Stone and of Alice in Wonderland, light and fluffy as a soufflé. It’s not the Disney of Bambi or Snow White; here even the menaces are adorable bits of whimsy. If the villains ever frighten, it’s only for a brief time, and then everyone gets together again for one more song.

It matters not at all that the game is from Sierra rather than Disney. It is true to the Disney spirit.

Along with the mouth-watering new look, the game showed some welcome design evolution over Roberta Williams’s earlier work. Four years after LucasArts’s The Secret of Monkey Island had pointed the way, King’s Quest VII finally managed to free itself from the countless hidden dead ends that had always made playing a Roberta Williams game feel like playing make-believe with a sadist. Player deaths, on the other hand, were still copious, and still so unclued as to be essentially random, but were now at least relatively painless. Rather than expecting you to save every five minutes, the game was now kind enough to return you to the point you were at before you were so foolish as to look at the wrong thing or dilly-dally in the wrong room a second too long. In fact, save files as such disappeared altogether; exiting the game now automatically bookmarked your progress.

These changes all existed in the name of making the game more welcoming to brand new players, out of the hope that they could be convinced to give it a try despite the ominous Roman numeral after its name. To further emphasize that this was a kinder, gentler King’s Quest, it used a radically simplified interface built around a one-click-does-it-all mouse cursor. More oddly, Sierra made it possible to play any of its chapters at any time, meaning you could start with the climax and work backward to the prologue if you were so inclined. (The real point of this feature, of course, was to let you watch each chapter’s opening movie without having to get your hands dirty with the actual game, if you happened to be one of the many people who typically bought each new King’s Quest as a tech demo for their latest computer.)

But alas, in other ways this latest entry really was just another King’s Quest. The writing from Roberta Williams and Lorelei Shannon, her latest apprentice co-designer, was the usual scattershot blend of fairy-tale and pop-culture ephemera, lacking sufficient wit or imagination to be all that compelling even as pastiche, while the puzzle design was made less infuriating than usual only by the lack of dead-player-walking situations. Both the writing and the puzzles got noticeably worse as the game wore on, evidence perhaps of a lead designer who was feeling increasingly bored with her big series, and was in fact already working on her next, very different game. All of this was doubly disappointing coming on the heels of King’s Quest VI, a game which had seemed to herald a series that was at last beginning to take its craft a bit more seriously. Even the much-vaunted look of King’s Quest VII, although impressive in its individual parts, made for a rather discordant jumble when taken in the aggregate, being the work of so many different teams of animators.

Nevertheless, King’s Quest VII sold very well upon its release in November of 1994, as games in the series always did. Meanwhile Dynamix, the most consistent of Sierra’s subsidiary studios, delivered solid performers in the non-adventure games Aces of the Deep, Front Page Sports: Football ‘Pro 95, and Metaltech: EarthSiege. Most of all, though, it was the ImagiNation windfall that turned what would otherwise have been an ugly year into one that actually looked pretty good on the bottom line: $83.4 million in revenues, up from $59.5 million in 1993, with an accompanying $12 million profit, in contrast to an $8.6 million loss the previous year. Now it was up to the new product strategy to keep the party going in 1995.

The first big test of that strategy was to be the game that Roberta Williams had been working on concurrently with King’s Quest VII. Phantasmagoria would take full advantage of the Oakhurst sound stage Sierra had just built. It was to be a play against type worthy of any pop diva: Roberta, the family-friendly “queen of adventure gaming,” was going dark and sexy. “With Phantasmagoria,” wrote Sierra’s marketers, “Roberta Williams has created a superbly written interactive story, fraught with horror and suspense, and totally in the player’s control at all times.” Bill Crow, the mastermind of Sierra’s new sound stage, believed that “Phantasmagoria is going to open the market to a much broader audience of game players. We’re now starting to deliver an audiovisual experience that’s much closer to what the average consumer can relate to.” With Phantasmagoria, in other words, computer games were about to burst out of their nerdy ghetto to become sophisticated entertainments for discerning adults.

How times do change. Today Phantasmagoria is more or less a laughingstock, a tidy microcosm of everything that was wrong with the full-motion-video era of adventure games. In truth, some of its bad rap is a bit exaggerated; it’s not really any worse than dozens of other similarly dated productions of the mid-1990s. Certainly plenty of other games had equally cheesy acting, equally clueless writing, and equally trivial gameplay. Phantasmagoria‘s modern reputation for hilarious ineptitude stems to a large extent from its mainstream prominence in its heyday. The wave of hype that Sierra unleashed, much of it issuing from the mouth of Roberta herself, is catnip for snarky reviewers like yours truly, who can’t help but throw it all back in her face. “I want to explore games with a lot of substance and deep emotions,” Roberta said. But Phantasmagoria is so very, very much not that kind of game. If you squint just right, you can see what she was trying to create: a game of claustrophobic psychological horror, an interactive version of The Shining. But alas, nobody involved had the chops to pull it off.

Phantasmagoria revolves around a couple of artsy newlyweds named Adrienne and Don, a novelist and a photographer respectively. As the story begins, they’ve just moved into a rambling old mansion on a sparsely inhabited island off the coast of New England. They’re the first people to attempt to live in the house, we soon learn, in almost a century. The last person to do so before them was a strange stage magician named Carno the Magnificent, who went through pretty young wives at a prodigious rate — all of them abruptly disappearing from the island, never to be seen again. In the end, Carno himself disappeared, and that was that for the house until our heroes turn up. It comes as a surprise to absolutely no one except them when the place turns out to be haunted by a malevolent spirit. It quickly begins to take over the mind of Don, leaving Adrienne, the character the player controls, to try to sort out the mystery before her husband murders her like Carno killed all of his wives.

Somewhat surprisingly in light of Sierra’s mass-market aspirations, they never attempted to hire “name” actors for Phantasmagoria in the way that Origin Systems was doing at the time for the Wing Commander franchise. The role of Adrienne went to Victoria Morsell, whom Sierra rather ambitiously described as a “film, TV, and theater star,” having apparently confused bit parts with starring ones. Still, she does a decent job within the awkward constraints of her task. David Homb in the role of Don, on the other hand, is just awful; his wooden performance comes off as more creepy before the horror starts, when he’s trying to play a loving husband and failing at it abjectly, than it does after his head starts metaphorically spinning around. The rest of the cast is a similarly mixed bag.

Sierra hired a director named Peter Maris, with a long run of schlocky ultra-low-budget films behind him, for a shoot that wound up taking fully four months. Even given that his oeuvre wasn’t exactly of Oscar caliber, his complete disregard for pacing is bizarre. Phantasmagoria‘s seven CDs — yes, seven — are filled with interminable sequences where Adrienne disassembles a brick chimney piece by piece, or breaks through a wooden door board by board, or applies her morning makeup layer by agonizing layer. Indeed, Adrienne insists on stopping and preening herself at each of the many mirrors in the house throughout the game, and we’re forced to watch and wait while she does so, hoping against hope that something interesting might happen this time around. (For all of Roberta Williams’s status as a female pioneer in a male-dominated industry, her games’ view of gender isn’t always the most progressive.) All of this, combined with the clumsy, overly wordy script, makes the game seem much longer than the few hours it actually takes to play. There’s a (bad) 90-minute horror flick worth of plot-advancing footage here at the best; Sierra could easily have ditched three of the seven CDs without losing much at all.

The much-vaunted “adult” content is rather less than it’s cracked up to be. The opening movie includes the least sexy sex scene in the history of media. Ken Williams says that it was originally to have shown Adrienne topless, but Sierra lost their nerve in the end: “When it came time to release the game, we edited it to only show some side boob.” Given how weird and awkward it already is, we can only be thankful for their last-minute fit of prudishness.

Nor is the game remotely scary, although it does get gruesome — a very different quality — from time to time. These sequences come when Adrienne is visited by visions of the murders that took place long ago in the different rooms of the house, or, in the latter stages of the game, when she herself meets an unfortunate end thanks to a failure on the player’s part. For better or for worse, the methods of murder might just be the most creatively inspired parts of the game: Carno kills one wife by sticking a funnel into her mouth and stuffing disgusting offal down her throat, another by shackling her into a machine that twists her head around until her neck snaps, while Adrienne can get her head sliced in two by an axe blade or her face literally ripped off by a demon. These scenes are certainly gross and shocking in their way, but it’s all strictly B-movie-slasher fare — Friday the 13th Part V rather than the Shining vibe Roberta was going for.

The scene which prompts by far the most discussion today takes place out of the blue one morning, when Don creeps up behind Adrienne at her bedroom mirror and proceeds to… well, to rape her. Needless to say, this is a disturbing place for even an adults-only game to go. Roberta Williams is hopelessly out of her writerly depth here; in contemporary interviews, she seems utterly oblivious to the real trauma of rape, describing the scene as nothing more than a plot device to show Don’s descent into evil. Its one saving grace is the fact that no one involved is up to the task of making the rape seem remotely realistic; Don humps and thrusts a bit without ever actually taking his boxer shorts off, and that’s that. (One can only hope that Sierra didn’t shoot a more explicit version of this scene…) Afterward Adrienne, rather in contrast to Roberta’s stated desire to explore “deep emotions,” just cleans herself up and gets on with her day, apparently none the worse for wear. Even amidst the more lackadaisical sexual politics of 1995, the scene prompted considerable discussion and a measure of public outrage here and there. Australia’s Office of Film and Literature Classification refused to accept the game because of it, with the result that it was effectively banned from sale in that country.

So much for Phantasmagoria the movie. In terms of gameplay, it isn’t up to all that much at all. Its reliance on canned snippets of static video dramatically limits the scope of its interactivity, while its determination to be as accessible as possible means that all of its puzzles are broadly obvious; a version of that tired old adventure saw, the locked door with a key in the keyhole on the other side and a handy nail and newspaper, is about as complicated as things ever get. The simplified interface from King’s Quest VII makes a return, it’s once again possible to play the chapters in any order you choose, and bookmarks once more replace save files in the game’s terminology, although it is at least possible to make your own bookmarks whenever you like now.

In a way, all of this is a blessing: it lets you power right on through Phantasmagoria, laughing at it all the while, without getting hung up on the design flaws that dog most of Roberta Williams’s games. I’m not generally a fan of high camp, but even I could probably enjoy Phantasmagoria with the right group of friends. If ever a game was ripe for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, it’s this one.

Note the ESRB rating at the bottom right of the Phantasmagoria box. In the face of the internecine split over rating systems among computer-game publishers, Sierra generally backed the ESRB over its rival the RSAC. (The much more extreme sequel-in-name-only Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh would go with the RSAC in order to avoid the ESRB’s dreaded “Adults Only” rating, which most retailers refused to touch.)

Adrienne just can’t resist a mirror.

Objects in your inventory can be viewed as rotatable 3D models, a capability that debuted in King’s Quest VII. Indeed, Phantasmagoria‘s environments were all built using 3D-modeling software rather than being hand-drawn pixel art. This is the only way Sierra could possibly have included more than 1000 different views in the game, as their marketers proudly told anyone who would listen; the typical old-style Sierra adventure had less than 100. But the new approach didn’t lead to increased environmental interactivity — rather the opposite, I’m afraid.

Adrienne with psycho-hubby Don. Both wear the same clothes for all seven days of the game, a fact that has prompted much joking over the years. This was judged necessary so that the developers could mix and match video sequences as needed. The outfit that Adrienne wears is actually the one that Victoria Morsell, the actress who portrayed her, just happened to turn up in on the first day of filming. “By the time the filming for Phantasmagoria was complete,” wrote Sierra in their customer newsletter, “duct tape, patches, and prayers were all that held Tori’s pants together. She had worn them to the set every single day of the fifteen weeks of filming.”

One of Carno’s ingenious execution devices. Sierra had these props built by local Oakhurst craftsmen, prompting much discussion in the town about just what it was they were up to inside the building that housed their sound stage.

The real horrors of Phantasmagoria are Harriet and her son Cyrus, a pair of bumpkin ingrates who are meant to serve as comic relief. They’re exactly as unfunny as this screenshot looks.

But that, of course, is now. When it was released in the summer of 1995, accompanied by the most lavish marketing campaign Sierra had ever sprung for, Phantasmagoria was hailed as the necessary future of gaming — and not just by Sierra’s own marketers. All of the drawbacks of its technical approach, which would have still been present even with better writing, designing, acting, and directing, were overlooked by industry scribes eager to see the fusion of Silicon Valley and Hollywood. “For horror fans,” wrote Computer Gaming World, “Phantasmagoria is a signal event, one of the most powerful titles ever released in the genre, and easily the most single-mindedly horrific.” In a fit of exuberance, Roberta Williams let slip her dream of becoming “the Steven Spielberg of interactivity.” Thus she must have reveled most of all in the mainstream-press coverage. USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, and Billboard all gave the game positive reviews; “Hotly awaited and, well, just hot, Phantasmagoria lives up to the advance billing,” wrote the last. Notices like these easily made up for the refusal of some squeamish retailers, among them the national chain Comp USA, to stock the game at all.

Every article was sure to mention the game’s budget of fully $4 million, an absolutely astronomical sum by the standards of the time, and one which Sierra too trumpeted for all it was worth in their advertising. In truth, much of that money had gone into the building of the Oakhurst sound stage that Sierra planned to use for many more games, but no one was going to let such details get in the way of a headline about a $4 million computer game. Phantasmagoria became a massive hit; its sales soared past the magic mark of 1 million units and just kept right on going. It was a perfect game to take home with a shiny new computer, the perfect way to show your friends and neighbors what your new wundermachine could do. The window of time in which a game like this could have success on a scale like this was to prove sharply limited, but Phantasmagoria managed to slip through behind Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, The 7th Guest, and Myst just before said window slammed shut. It would prove the last such sparkling success among its peculiar species of game.

But what a success it was while it lasted. Phantasmagoria still stands as the best-selling game ever released by an independent Sierra. Small wonder that Ken and Roberta Williams both remember it so fondly today. Rather than a laughingstock, they remember Phantasmagoria as a mainstream-press darling and chart-topping hit, and love it for that. Thus Ken continues to describe it as “awesome,” while Roberta still names it as her favorite of all the games she made. It was all too easy in 1995 to believe that Phantasmagoria really was the future of gaming writ large.

The Oakhurst folks finished three other adventure games that year, with more mixed commercial results. Space Quest 6, which was made with a lot of the traditional Sierra style but without a lot of enthusiasm from upper management, validated the latter’s skepticism when it failed to sell all that well, signifying the end of that series. Torin’s Passage, a workmanlike fantasy adventure in the King’s Quest mold by Al Lowe of Leisure Suit Larry fame, was another mediocre performer, one whose reason for existing at all at this juncture was a little hard to determine. Finally, the second of the new generation of Sierra adventures, built like Phantasmagoria around filmed actors, was The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery. I’ll return to it in my next article.

Yet Oakhurst was no longer the be all, end all of Sierra. In the new corporate order envisioned by Ken Williams and Mike Brochu, the adventure games that came out of Oakhurst were to be only a single piece of the overall Sierra puzzle. They planned to build an empire from Bellevue that would cover all of the bases in consumer-oriented software. Already over the course of the previous half-decade, Sierra had acquired the Oregon-based jack-of-all-trades games studio Dynamix, the Delaware-based educational-software specialist Bright Star, and the artsy French games studio Coktel Vision. Now, in the first year after Brochu’s hiring, they made no fewer than six more significant acquisitions: the Texas-based Arion Software, maker of the recipe-tracking package MasterCook; the Washington-based Green Thumb Software, maker of Land Designer and other tools for gardeners; the British Impressions Software, maker of a diverse lineup of strategy games; the Massachusetts-based Papyrus Design Group, a specialist in auto-racing simulations; the Washington-based Pixellite Group, the maker of Print Artist, a software package for creating signs and banners; and the Utah-based Headgate Studios, a specialist in golf simulations.

Of all the other products Sierra released in 1995, the one that came closest to matching Phantasmagoria‘s success came from good old reliable Dynamix. “I was in a high-level meeting,” remembers Dynamix’s founder Jeff Tunnell, “and the sales manager for all of Sierra said, ‘These fishing games are selling in Japan on the Nintendo.’ Everybody started laughing. But I said, ‘I’ll do one.'” Like Phantasmagoria, Trophy Bass was consciously designed for a different demographic than the typical computer game; it looked more at home on the shelves of Walmart than Electronics Boutique or Software Etc. It shocked everybody by outselling all other Sierra games in 1995, with the exception only of Roberta Williams’s big adventure, becoming in the process the best-selling game that Dynamix ever had or ever would make. Thanks to it, the later 1990s would see a flood of other fishing and hunting games, most of them executed with less love than Trophy Bass. Hardcore computer gamers scoffed at these simplistic knockoff titles and the supposed simple-minded rednecks who played them, but they sold and sold and sold.

Along with Phantasmagoria and other Sierra products like The Incredible MachineTrophy Bass provided proof positive that there were any number of new customer bases out there just waiting to be tapped, made up of people who were looking for something a bit less demanding of their time and energy than the typical computer game for the hardcore, with themes other than the nerdy staples of science fiction, fantasy, and military simulations. Whatever his faults and mistakes — you know, those ones which I haven’t hesitated to describe at copious length in these articles — Ken Williams realized earlier than most that these people were out there, and never stopped trying to reach them, even as he also navigated the computer-game market as it was currently constituted. For this, he deserves enormous credit.

As Sierra came out of 1995, he had good reason to feel pleased with himself. Revenues had nearly doubled over those of the previous year, to $158.1 million, and even all of the acquisitions couldn’t prevent the company from clearing over $16 million in profits. With Electronic Arts, the only publisher of consumer software with equal size and clout, now investing more and more heavily in console games, Sierra seemed to stand on the verge of complete dominance of the exploding marketplace for home-computer software. Ken’s longstanding dream of selling software to everyone was so close to fruition that he could taste it. And as for Roberta: her own dream of becoming the Steven Spielberg of interactivity seemed less and less far-fetched each day.

If you had told the pair that Roberta would never get the chance to make another point-and-click adventure game, or that the Oakhurst sound stage would be written off as a colossal blind alley and decommissioned within the next few years, or that neither of them would still be working for Sierra by that point, or that Sierra’s Oakhurst branch as a whole would be shuttered well before the millennium… well, they would presumably have been surprised, to say the least.

(Sources: the books Phantasmagoria: The Official Player’s Guide by Lorelei Shannon and Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings: The Rise and Fall of Sierra On-Line by Ken Williams, Computer Gaming World of February 1995 and November 1995, Los Angeles Times of November 14 1995, Sierra’s customer newsletter InterAction of Fall 1994, Holiday 1994, Spring 1995, and Holiday 1995; press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Video sources include a vintage making-of-Phantasmagoria video and Matt Chat 201. Other online sources include “How Sierra was Captured, Then Killed, by a Massive Accounting Fraud” by Duncan Fyfe at Vice, Sierra’s SEC filing for 1996, Anthony Larme’s Phantasmagoria fan site, the Adventure Classic Gaming interview with Roberta Williams, Ken Williams’s comments in a Sierra Gamers discussion of King’s Quest opening movies, and the current MasterCook website. And my thanks go to Corey Cole, who took the time to answer some questions about this period of Sierra’s history from his perspective as a developer there.)


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