Planet Interactive Fiction

January 20, 2017

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Evertree Inn by Thom Baylay

by Dan Fabulich at January 20, 2017 08:01 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

A mysterious tavern with a deadly secret! Check-in to this magical tale of murder and mystery where not everything is as it seems. Explore the tavern in secret or in style, meet and mingle with guests and staff, wield weapons and magic and uncover clues before the killer strikes again!

Evertree Inn is an immersive 265,000 word interactive experience by Thom Baylay, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast unstoppable power of your imagination.

What will you do when an overnight stay in a highway tavern turns into the biggest mystery of your life? Will you rise to the challenge, or will you resist your destiny? Are you in it for the money, for the thrill of the chase or are you secretly hoping for romance? Enter an open world, where the choices you ignore matter as much as the ones you explore and where every interaction has a reaction. Choose your path as elf or dwarf, human or halfling or even the elusive brownie and find out if you have what it takes to survive the night at Evertree Inn?

• Immerse yourself in the fully open and explorable tavern where your actions have real consequences.
• Play as any one of five races, each with their own unique abilities and dialogue options!
• Overcome obstacles with brute strength, keen perception, natural cunning and even magic.
• Battle with any weapon you can imagine or unleash an impressive arsenal of spells.
• Boldly confront guests and staff or lurk in the shadows as you uncover clues.
• Make enemies and friends and maybe even find true love.
• Play as male, female or non-binary.
• Play as gay, straight, bisexual or asexual.

Thom developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.

The Digital Antiquarian

A Time of Beginnings: Legend Entertainment (or, Bob and Mike’s Excellent Adventure-Game Company)

by Jimmy Maher at January 20, 2017 05:00 PM

As the dust settled and the shock faded in the months that followed the shuttering of Infocom, most of the people who had worked there found they were able to convince themselves that they were happy it was finally over, relieved that a clean sharp break had been made. Sure, they had greeted the initial bombshell that the jig was finally up with plenty of disbelief, anger, and sadness, but the fact remained that the eighteen months before that fateful day, during which they had watched their company lose its old swagger, its very sense of itself, had been if anything even more heartbreaking. And yes, there would be plenty of second-guessing among them in the years to come about what might have been if Cornerstone had never existed or if Bruce Davis hadn’t taken over control of Mediagenic,1 but Infocom’s story did nevertheless feel like it had run its natural course, leaving behind something that all of the Bruce Davises in the world could never take away: that stellar 35-game catalog, unmatched by any game developer of Infocom’s era or any era since in literacy, thoughtfulness, and relentless creative experimentation. With that along with all of their fine memories of life inside Infocom’s offices to buoy them, the former employees could move on to the proverbial next chapter in life feeling pretty good about themselves, regarding their time at Infocom as, as historian Graham Nelson so memorably put it, “a summer romance” that had simply been too golden to stay any longer.

Yet there was at least one figure associated with Infocom who was more inclined to rage against the dying of the light than to go gentle into that good night. Bob Bates had come to the job of making text adventures, a job he enjoyed more than anything else he had ever done, just a little bit too late to share the sense of closure felt by the rest of Infocom. Which isn’t to say he hadn’t managed to accomplish anything in the field: Bob had formed a company to challenge Infocom — a company named, appropriately enough, Challenge — that wound up joining them as the only outside developer ever allowed to copy Infocom’s in-house tools and make games for them under contract. Still, it had all happened very late in the day. When all was said and done, he had the dubious distinction of having made the last all-text Infocom game ever, followed by their very last game of all. His summer romance, in other words, had started in the last week of the season, and he’d barely gotten past first base. When he returned from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to his home near Washington, D.C., on the stormy evening of May 5, 1989, having just been informed by Infocom’s head Joe Ybarra that Infocom’s Cambridge offices were being closed and Challenge’s services wouldn’t be needed anymore, his brief life in text adventures just felt so incomplete. And then, he found his roof was leaking. Of course it was.

Some of Bob’s restless dissatisfaction must have come across when, after that unhappy weekend was in the past, he called up Mike Verdu to tell him he would no longer be able to employ Mark Poesch and Duane Beck, the two programmers Mike’s company had sent out to work with Challenge. A remarkably young executive even in a field that has always favored the young, Mike was only in his mid-twenties, but already had an impressive CV.  In his second year at university, he had dropped out to form a consulting company he named Paragon Systems, which had come to employ Poesch and Beck. The two had been sent to Challenge when Bob came calling on Paragon, looking for help programming the games he had just signed a contract with Infocom to create. During the period when Challenge was making games for Infocom, Mike had sold Paragon to American Systems Corporation, a computer-integration firm that did significant business with the Department of Defense. He had stayed on thereafter with the bigger company as director of one of their departments, and Poesch and Beck had continued to work with Challenge, albeit under the auspices of ASC rather than Paragon. But now that would all be coming to an end; thus Bob’s phone call to Mike to inform him that he would have to terminate Challenge’s arrangement with ASC.

In truth, Bob and Mike didn’t know each other all that well prior to this conversation. Mike had always loved games, and had loved having a game company as a client, but Challenge had always had to remain for him as, as he puts it today, “one of many.” The call that Bob now made to Mike therefore began more as a simple transaction between customer and service provider than as a shared commiseration over the downfall of Bob’s business. Still, something that Bob said must have sparked Mike’s interest. The call continued far longer than it ought to have, and soon multiplied into many more conversations. In fairly short order, the conversations led to a suggestion from Mike: let’s start a new company to make and publish text adventures in the Infocom tradition. He even believed he could convince ASC to put up the bulk of the funding for such a company.

Set aside the fact that text adventures were allegedly dying, and the timing was oddly perfect. In 1989 the dominoes were toppling all over Eastern Europe, the four-decade Cold War coming to an end with a suddenness no one could have dreamed of just a few years before. Among the few people in the West not thoroughly delighted with recent turns of events were those at companies like ASC, who were deeply involved with the Department of Defense and thus had reason to fear the “peace dividend” that must lead to budget cuts for their main client and cancelled contracts for them. ASC was eager to diversify to replace the income the budget cuts would cost them; they were making lots of small investments in lots of different industries. In light of the current situation, an investment in a computer-game company didn’t seem as outlandish as it might have a year or two before, when the Reagan defense buildup was still booming, or, for that matter, might have just a year or two later, when the Gulf War would be demonstrating that the American military would not be idle on the post-Cold War world stage.

Though they had a very motivated potential investor, the plan Bob and Mike were contemplating might seem on the face of it counter-intuitive if not hopeless to those of you who are regular readers of this blog. As I’ve spent much time describing in previous articles, the text adventure had been in commercial decline since 1985. That very spring of 1989 when Bob and Mike were starting to talk, what seemed like it had to be the final axe had fallen on the genre when Level 9 had announced they were getting out of the text-adventure business, Magnetic Scrolls had been dropped by their publisher Rainbird, and of course Infocom had been shuttered by their corporate parent Mediagenic. Yet Bob and Mike proposed to fly in the face of that gale-force wind by starting a brand new company to make text adventures. What the hell were they thinking?

I was curious enough about the answer to that question that I made it a point to ask it to both Bob and Mike when I talked to them recently. Their answers were interesting enough, and said enough about the abiding love each had and, indeed, still has for the genre of adventures in text that I want to give each of them a chance to speak for himself here. First, Mike Verdu:

I believed that there was a very hardcore niche market that would always love this type of experience. We made a bet that that niche was large enough to support a small company dedicated to serving it. The genre was amazing; it was the closest thing to the promise of combining literature and technology. The free-form interaction a player could have with the game was a magical thing. There’s just nothing else like it. So, it didn’t seem like a dying art form to me. It just seemed that there were these bigger companies that the market couldn’t support that were collapsing, and that there was room for a smart niche player that had no illusions about the market but could serve that market directly.

I will say that when Bob and I were looking for publishing partners, and went to some trade conferences — through Bob’s connections we were able to meet people like Ken and Roberta Williams and various other luminaries in the field at the time — everybody said, “You have no idea what you’re doing. The worst idea in the world is to start a game company. It’s the best way to take a big pile of money and turn it into a small pile of money. Stay away!” But Bob and I are both stubborn, and we didn’t listen.

Understanding your market opportunity is really key when you’re forming a company. With Legend, we were very clear-eyed about the fact that we were starting a small company to serve a small market. We didn’t think it would grow to be a thousand people or take over the world or sell a million units of entertainment software per year. We thought there was this amazing, passionate audience that we could serve with these lovingly crafted products, and that would be very fulfilling creatively. If you’re a creative person, I think you have to define how big the audience is that is going to make you feel fulfilled. Bob and I didn’t necessarily have aspirations to reach millions of people. We wanted to reach enough people that we could make our company viable, make a living, and create these products that we loved.

And Bob Bates:

We recognized the risk, but basically we just still believed in the uniqueness of the parser-driven experience — in the pleasure and the joy of the parser-driven experience. By then, there were no other major parser-driven games around, and we felt that point-and-click was a qualitatively different experience. It was fun, but it was different. It was restrictive in terms of what the player could do, and there was a sense of the game world closing in on you, that you could only do what could be shown. Brian Moriarty had a great quote that I don’t remember exactly, but it was something like “you can only implement what you can afford to show, and you can’t afford to show anything.” As a player, I loved the freedom to input whatever I wanted, and I loved the low cost of producing that [form of interaction]. If there’s an interesting input or interaction, and I can address it in a paragraph of text, that’s so much cheaper than having an artist spend a week drawing it. Text is cheap, so we felt we could create games economically. We felt that competition in that niche wasn’t there anymore, and that it was a fun experience that there was still a market for.

Reading between the lines just a bit here, we have a point of view that would paint the failure of Infocom more as the result of a growing mismatch between a company and its market than as an indication that it was genuinely impossible to still make a living selling text adventures. Until 1985, the fulcrum year of the company’s history, Infocom had been as mainstream as computer-game publishers got, often placing three, four, or even five titles in the overall industry top-ten sales lists each month. Their numbers had fallen off badly after that, but by 1987 they had stabilized to create a “20,000 Club”: most games released that year sold a little more or less than 20,000 copies. Taking into account the reality that every title would never appeal enough to every fan to prompt a purchase — especially given the pace at which Infocom was pumping out games that year — that meant there were perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 loyal Infocom fans who had never given up on the company or the genre. Even the shrunken Infocom of the company’s final eighteen months was too big to make a profit serving that market, which was in any case nothing Bruce Davis of Mediagenic, fixated on the mainstream as he was, had any real interest in trying to serve. A much smaller company, however, with far fewer people on the payroll and a willingness to lower its commercial expectations, might just survive and even modestly thrive there. And who knew, if they made their games really well, they might just collect another 30,000 or 40,000 new fans to join the Infocom old guard.

This wasn’t to say that Bob and Mike could afford to return to the pure text that had sufficed for 31 of Infocom’s 35 adventure games. To have any chance of attracting new players, and quite possibly to have any chance of retaining even the old Infocom fans, they were well aware that some concessions to the realities of the contemporary marketplace would have to be made. Their games would include an illustration for every location along with occasional additional graphics, sound effects, and music to break up their walls of text. Their games would, in other words, enhance the Infocom experience to suit the changing times rather than merely clone it.

In the same spirit of maximizing their text adventures’ contemporary commercial potential, they very early on secured the services of Steve Meretzky, Infocom’s single most well-known former Implementor, who had worked on some of the company’s most iconic and successful titles. With Meretzky’s first game for their company, Bob and Mike would try to capitalize on his reputation as the “bad boy of adventure gaming” — a reputation he enjoyed despite the fact that he had only written one naughty adventure game in his career to date. Nevertheless, Bob encouraged Meretzky to “take the gloves off,” to go much further than he had even in his previous naughty game Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Meretzky’s vision for his new game can perhaps be best described today as “Animal House meets Harry Potter” (although, it should be noted, this was many years before the latter was published). It would be the story of a loser who goes off to Sorcerer University to learn the art and science of magic, whilst trying his best to score with chicks along the way. Of course, this being an adventure game, he would eventually have to save the world as well, but the real point was the spells and the chicks. The former would let Meretzky revisit one of the most entertaining puzzle paradigms Infocom had ever devised: the Enchanter series’s spell book full of bizarre incantations that prove useful in all sorts of unexpected ways. The latter would give Bob and Mike a chance to prove one more time the timeless thesis that Sex Sells.

So, the Meretzky game seemed about as good as things could get as a commercially safe bet, given the state of text adventures in general circa 1989. Meanwhile, for those players less eager to be titillated, Bob Bates himself would make what he describes today as a “classical” adventure, a more sober-minded time-travel epic full of intricately interconnected puzzles and environments. Between the two, they would hopefully have covered most of what people had liked about the various games of Infocom. And the really hardcore Infocom fans, of course, would hopefully buy them both.

In making their pitch to ASC and other potential investors, Bob and Mike felt ethically obligated to make careful note of the seeming headwinds into which their new company would be sailing. But in the end ASC was hugely eager to diversify, and the investment that was being asked of them was relatively small in the context of ASC’s budget. Bob and Mike founded their company on about $500,000, the majority of which was provided by ASC, alongside a handful of smaller investments from friends and family. (Those with a stake in Bob’s old company Challenge also saw it rolled over into the new company.) ASC would play a huge role during this formative period, up to and including providing the office space out of which the first games would be developed.

An ASC press release dated January 8, 1990, captures the venture, called GameWorks at the time, at this embryonic stage of high hopes and high uncertainty. Bob Bates is quoted as saying that “GameWorks products combine the best of several existing technologies in an exciting new format,” while Mike Verdu, who would remain in his old role at ASC in addition to his new one as a software entrepreneur for another couple of years, says that “ASC’s interest in this venture stems from more than just making money over the short term. The goal is to establish a self-sustaining software-publishing company.” Shortly after this press release, the name of said company would be changed from GameWorks to Legend Entertainment, harking back to the pitch for an “Immortal Legends” series of games that had first won Bob a contract with Infocom.

The part of the press release that described GameWorks/Legend as a “software-publishing company” was an important stipulation. Mike Verdu:

I remember making these spreadsheets early on, trying to understand how companies made money in this business. It became very clear to me very quickly that life as an independent developer, without the publishing, was very tough. You scrambled for advances, and the royalties you got off a game would never pay for the advances unless you had a huge hit. Your destiny was so tied to the publisher, to the vagaries of the producer that might get assigned to your title, that it just was not an appealing path at all.

In a very fundamental way, Legend needed to be a publisher as well as a developer if they were to bring their vision of text adventures in the 1990s to fruition. It was highly doubtful whether any of the other publishers would be willing to bother with the niche market for text adventures at all when there were so many other genres with seemingly so much greater commercial potential. In addition, Bob and Mike knew that they needed to have complete control of their products, from the exact games they chose to make to the way those games were packaged and presented on store shelves. They recognized that another part of becoming the implicit successor to Infocom must be trying as much as possible to match the famous Infocom packaging, with the included “feelies” that added so much texture and verisimilitude to their interactive fictions. One of the most heartbreaking signs of Infocom’s slow decline, for fans and employees alike, had been the gradual degradation of their games’ physical presentation, as the cost-cutters in Mediagenic’s Silicon Valley offices took away more and more control from the folks in Cambridge. Bob and Mike couldn’t afford to have their company under a publisher’s thumb in similar fashion. At the same time, though, a tiny company like theirs was in no position to set up its own nationwide distribution from warehouse to retail.

It was for small publishers facing exactly this conundrum that Electronic Arts and Mediagenic during the mid-1980s had pioneered the concept of the “affiliated label.” An affiliated label was a small publisher that printed their own name on their boxes, but piggy-backed — for a fee, of course — on the network of a larger publisher for distribution. By the turn of the decade, the American computer-games industry as a whole had organized itself into eight or so major publishers, each with an affiliated-label program of one stripe or another of its own, with at least several dozen more minor publishers taking advantage of the programs. As we’ve seen in other articles, affiliated-label deals were massive potential minefields that many a naive small publisher blundered into and never escaped. Nevertheless, Legend had little choice but to seek one for themselves. Thanks to Mike Verdu’s research, they would at least go in with eyes open to the risk, although nothing they could do could truly immunize them from it.

In seeking a distribution deal, Legend wasn’t just evaluating potential partners; said partners were also evaluating them, trying to judge whether they could sell enough games to make a profitable arrangement for both parties. This process, like so much else, was inevitably complicated by Legend’s determination to defy all of the conventional wisdom and continue making text adventures — yes, text adventures with graphics and sound, but still text adventures at bottom. And yet as Bob and Mike made the rounds of the industry’s biggest players they generally weren’t greeted with the incredulity, much less mockery, one might initially imagine. Even many of the most pragmatic of gaming executives felt keenly at some visceral level the loss of Infocom, whose respect among their peers had never really faded in tune with their sales figures — who, one might even say, had had a certain ennobling effect on their industry as a whole. So, the big players were often surprisingly sympathetic to Legend’s cause. Whether such sentiments could lead to a signature on the bottom line of a contract was, however, a different matter entirely. Most of the people who had managed to survive in this notoriously volatile industry to this point had long since learned that idealism only gets you so far.

For some time, it looked like a deal would come together with Sierra. Ken Williams, who never lacked for ambition, was trying to position his company to own the field of interactive storytelling as a whole. Text adventures looked destined to be a very small piece of that pie at best in the future, but that piece was nevertheless quite possibly one worth scarfing up. If Sierra distributed Legend’s games and they proved unexpectedly successful, an acquisition might even be in the cards. Yet somehow a deal just never seemed to get done. Mike Verdu:

There seemed to be genuine interest [at Sierra], but it was sort of like Zeno’s Paradox: we’d get halfway to something, and then close that distance by half, and then close that distance by half, and nothing ever actually happened. It was enormously frustrating — and I never could put my finger on quite why, because there seemed to be this alignment of interests, and we all liked each other. There was always a sense of a lot of momentum at the start. Then the momentum gradually died away, and you could never actually get anything done. Now that I’ve become a little more sophisticated about business, that suggests to me that Ken was probably running around trying to make a whole bunch of things happen, and somebody inside his company was being the sort of check and balance to his wanting to do lots and lots of stuff. There were probably a lot of things that died on the vine inside that company.

Instead of Sierra, Legend wound up signing a distribution contract with MicroProse, who were moving further and further from their roots in military simulations and wargames in a bid to become a major presence in many genres of entertainment software. Still, “Wild Bill” Stealey, MicroProse’s flamboyant chief, had little personal interest in the types of games Legend proposed to make or the niche market they proposed to serve. Mike Verdu characterizes Sierra’s interest as “strategic,” while MicroProse’s was merely “convenient,” a way to potentially boost their revenue picture a bit and offset a venture into standup-arcade games that was starting to look like a financial disaster. MicroProse hardly made for the partner of Legend’s dreams, but needs must. Wild Bill was willing to sign where Ken Williams apparently wasn’t.

In the midst of all these efforts to set up the infrastructure for a software-publishing business, there was also the need to create the actual software they would publish. Bob Bates’s time-travel game fell onto the back-burner, a victim of the limited resources to hand and the fact that so much of its designer’s time was being monopolized by practical questions of business. But not so Steve Meretzky’s game. As was his wont, Meretzky had worked quickly and efficiently from his home in Massachusetts to crank out his design. Legend’s two-man programming team, consisting still of the Challenge veterans Duane Beck and Mark Poesch, was soon hard at work alongside contracted outside artists and composers to bring Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, now planned as Legend’s sole release of 1990, to life in all its audiovisual splendor.

Setting aside for the moment all those planned audiovisual enhancements, just creating a reasonable facsimile of the core Infocom experience presented a daunting challenge. Throughout Infocom’s lifespan, from the 1980 release of Zork I through Bob Bates’s own 1989 Infocom game Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, no other company had ever quite managed to do what Legend was now attempting to do: to create a parser as good as that of Infocom. Legend did have an advantage over most of Infocom’s earlier would-be challengers in that they were planning to target their games to relatively powerful machines with fast processors and at least 512 K of memory. The days of trying to squeeze games into 64 K or less were over, as were the complications of coding to a cross-platform virtual machine; seeing where the American market was going, Legend planned to initially release their games only for MS-DOS systems, with ports to other platforms left only as a vague possibility if one of their titles should prove really successful. Both the Legend engine and the games that would be made using it were written in MS-DOS-native C code instead of a customized adventure programming language like Infocom’s ZIL, a decision that also changed the nature of authoring a Legend game in comparison to an Infocom game. Rather than programming Spellcasting 101 himself, as he had all of his Infocom games, Steve Meretzky provided Legend’s programmers with a design which they then proceeded to implement under his watchful eye. Bob and, later, the others who would design Legend games in-house would get their hands a little more dirty, writing the simpler parts of their games’ logic themselves using their fairly rudimentary knowledge of C, but would always rely on Legend’s “real” programmers for the heavy lifting.

But of course none of these technical differences were the sort of things that end users would notice. For precisely this reason, Bob Bates was deeply worried about the legal pitfalls that might lie in attempting to duplicate the Infocom experience so closely from their perspective. The hard fact was that he, along with his two programmers, knew an awful lot about Infocom’s technology, having authored two complete games using it, while Steve Meretzky, who had authored or coauthored no less than seven games for Infocom, knew it if anything even better. Bob worried that Mediagenic might elect to sue Legend for theft of trade secrets — a worry that, given the general litigiousness of Mediagenic’s head Bruce Davis, strikes me as eminently justified. To address the danger, Legend elected to employ the legal stratagem of the black box. Bob sat down and wrote out a complete specification for Legend’s parser-to-be. (“It was a pretty arcane, pretty strange exercise to do that,” he remembers.) Legend then gave this specification for implementation to a third-party company called Key Systems who had never seen any of Infocom’s technology. “What came back,” Bob says, “became the heart of the Legend engine. Mark and Duane then built additional functionality upon that.” The unsung creators of the Legend parser did their job remarkably well. It became the first ever not to notably fall down anywhere in comparison to the Infocom parser. Mediagenic, who had serious problems of their own monopolizing their attention around this time, never did come calling, but better safe than sorry.


The Legend Interface in a Nutshell

A game can be played in one of three modes. This one, the default, is the most elaborate — not to say cluttered. Note the long menus of verbs — 120 (!) of them, with a commonly used subset thankfully listed first — and nouns to the left. (And don’t worry, this area from Spellcasting 101 is a “fake” maze, not a real one.)

A second mode, which I suspect was the most commonly used by real players in the wild, removes the command-entry menus in favor of allowing more space for the text window, but retains the compass rose and illustrations.

Finally, strict adherents to the ethos of text-and-only-text can indeed play the game as a text-only adventure. The existence of significant numbers of such purists was probably more theoretical than actual, but Legend accommodated them nevertheless.

By tapping the function keys, you can replace the illustration with the current room description or your current inventory without having to burn a turn on the task.

Or you can show a map where the picture usually lives.


 

Anxious to make their games as accessible as possible despite their equally abiding determination to become the implicit heir to Infocom, Legend designed for their new engine a menu-based system for inputting commands that could serve as an alternative to typing them in. Bob Bates, the mastermind behind the system:

One of the biggest barriers to text adventures at the time was that people didn’t know how to type. I knew how to type only because the principal of my high school forced me in my sophomore year to take a typing class instead of a third language. At the time, typing was for girls; men didn’t type. It was a barrier for players.

So, we said that we need an interface that will let somebody play using only the mouse. This was a huge problem. How do you do that without giving too much away? One day as I was pondering this, I realized that once you select a verb you don’t need another verb. So, the menu that contains verbs can go away. You’re looking at a list of verb/noun [combinations]: “get box,” “kick wall.” But if you want a sentence with a preposition, once you’ve clicked on the verb you don’t need another verb, so you can replace that first [verb] list with prepositions — and not only that, but prepositions that are only appropriate to that verb. That was an actual insight; that was a cool idea.

The menu on the left had the twenty or so most common verbs first, but underneath that, going down in alphabetical order, was a list of many, many more verbs. You could scroll down in that list, and it might actually suggest interactions you hadn’t thought of. Basically it preserved the openness of the interaction, but avoided the other big bugaboo of parser-driven games: when the parser will come back and say, “I don’t understand that.” With this system, that could never happen. And that was, I thought, huge. Everything was there in front of you if you could figure out what to do. [Parsing errors] became a thing of the past if you wanted to play in that mode.

Then of course we had full-screen text mode if you wanted to play that way, and we had a sort of hybrid half-and-half mode where there was parser-driven text across the bottom, but you still had graphics at the top. I thought it was important that players could play the game the way they wanted to, and I thought it added to the experience by taking away two of the big problems. One was people who didn’t like to type or couldn’t type or were two-finger typists. Number two was when you would type a whole command and there was an error in the first word; the parser says, “I don’t know that word,” and you have to type the whole command again. That interface took away that pain in the ass.

While Bob’s points are well taken, particularly with regard to the lack of typing skills among so much of the general public at the time, the Legend menu-based interface looks very much of its time today. Having the menu appear onscreen by default has had the unfortunate side-effect of making the Legend games look rather cluttered and ugly in contrast to the Infocom classics, with their timeless text-only approach. That does a real disservice to the games hidden inside the Legend interface, which often stand up very well next to many of the works of Infocom.

Aesthetics aside, I remain skeptical of the real long-term utility of these sorts of interfaces in general, all the rage though they were during the twilight of the text adventure’s commercial era. Certainly there must come a point where picking through a list of dozens of verbs becomes as confusing as trying to divine the correct one from whole cloth. A better solution to the guess-the-verb problem is to create a better parser — and, to be fair, Legend games give no ground for complaint on that score; text-adventure veteran though I admittedly am, I can’t recall ever struggling to express what I was trying to do to a Legend game. The problem of correcting typos without having to type the entire command again, meanwhile, could have been efficiently addressed by including a command-history buffer that the player could navigate using the arrow keys. The omission of such a feature strikes me as rather inexplicable given that the British company Level 9 had begun to include it in their games as far back as 1986.

Although I don’t believe any serious surveys were ever made, it would surprise me if most Legend players stuck with the menu-based interface for very long once they settled down to play. “I played the game this way for fifteen minutes before deciding to bag it and type in all my commands,” wrote one contemporary Spellcasting 101 reviewer who strikes me as likely typical. “For me, this was quicker.” “Frankly, I find the menu to be of little use except to suggest possible commands in tough puzzle situations,” wrote another. Even Steve Meretzky, the author of Legend’s first game, wasn’t a fan:

The impetus for the interface was not a particular feeling that this was a good/useful/friendly/clever interface, but rather a feeling that text adventures were dying, that people wanted pictures on the screen at all times, and that people hated to type. I never liked the interface that much. The graphic part of the picture was pretty nice, allowing you to move around just by double-clicking on doors in the picture, or pick things up by double-clicking on them. But I didn’t care for the menus for a number of reasons. One, they were way more kludgey and time-consuming than just typing inputs. Two, they were giveaways because they gave you a list of all possible verbs and all visible objects. Three, they were a lot of extra work in implementing the game, for little extra benefit. And four, they precluded any puzzles which involved referring to non-visible objects.

Like Meretzky, I find other aspects of the Legend engine much more useful than the menu-based command interface. In the overall baroque-text-adventure-interface sweepstakes, Magnetic Scrolls’s Magnetic Windows-based system has the edge in features and refinement, but the Legend engine does show a real awareness of how real players played these types of games, and gives some very welcome options for making that experience a little less frustrating. The automap, while perhaps not always quite enough to replace pen and paper (or, today, Trizbort), is nevertheless handy, and the ability to pull up the current room description or your current inventory without wasting a turn and scrolling a bunch of other text away is a godsend, especially given that there’s no scrollback integrated into the text window.

The graphics and music in the Legend games still hold up fairly well as well, adding that little bit of extra sizzle. (The occasional digitized sound effects, on the other hand, have aged rather less well.) Right from the beginning with Spellcasting 101, Legend proved willing to push well beyond the model of earlier, more static illustrated text adventures, adding animated opening and closing sequences, interstitial graphics in the chapter breaks, etc. It’s almost enough to make you forget at times that you’re playing a text adventure at all — which was, one has to suspect, at least partially the intention. Certainly it pushes well beyond what Infocom managed to do in their last few games. Indeed, I’m not sure that anyone since Legend has ever tried quite so earnestly to make a real multimedia production out of a parser-based game. It can make for an odd fit at times, but it can be a lot of fun as well.

Spellcasting 101 was released in October of 1990, thereby bringing to a fruition the almost eighteen months of effort that had followed that fateful Cinco de Mayo when Bob Bates had learned that Infocom was going away. I plan to discuss the merits and demerits owed to Spellcasting 101 as a piece of game design in my next article. For now, it should suffice to say that the game and the company that had produced it were greeted with gushing enthusiasm by the very niche they had hoped to reach. Both were hailed as the natural heirs to the Infocom legacy, carrying the torch for a type of game most had thought had disappeared from store shelves forever. Questbusters magazine called Spellcasting 101 the “Son of Infocom” in their review’s headline; the reviewer went on to write that “what struck me most about the game is that it is exactly as I would have expected Infocom games to be if the company was still together and the veteran designers were still working in the industry. I kid you not when I say to watch Legend over the years.” “It’s such a treat to play an Infocom adventure again,” wrote the adventuring fanzine SynTax. “I know it isn’t an Infocom game as such, but I can’t help thinking of it as that.”

This late in the day for the commercial text adventure, it was these small adventure-centric publications, along with the adventure-game columnists for the bigger magazines, who were bound to be the most enthusiastic. Nevertheless, Spellcasting 101 succeeded in proving the thesis on which Bob Bates and Mike Verdu had founded Legend Entertainment: that there were still enough of those enthusiasts out there to support a niche company. In its first six months on the market, Spellcasting 101 sold almost 35,000 units, more than doubling Bob and Mike’s cautious prediction of 16,000 units. By the same point, the Legend hint line had fielded over 35,000 calls. For now — and it would admittedly be just for a little while longer — people were buying and, as the hint-line calls so amply demonstrated, playing a text adventure again in reasonable numbers, all thanks to the efforts of two men who loved the genre and couldn’t quite let it go.

A “Presentation to Stockholders and Directors” of Legend from May of 1991 provides, like the earlier ASC press release, another fascinating real-time glimpse of a business being born. At this point Timequest, Bob Bates’s “classical” time-travel adventure, is about to be released at last, Spellcasting 201 is already nearing completion, and a first licensed game is in the offing, to be based on Frederick Pohl’s Gateway series of science-fiction novels. “MicroProse has done an outstanding job of selling and distributing the product,” notes the report, but “has been less than responsive on the financial side of the house. Our financial condition is precarious. We spent most of the Spellcasting 101 revenues in development of Timequest. We are living hand to mouth. We have come a long way and we are building a viable business, but the costs were greater than expected and the going has often been rough.”

Rough going and living hand to mouth were things that Legend would largely just have to get used to. The games industry could be a brutal place, and a tiny niche publisher like Legend was all but foreordained to exist under a perpetual cloud of existential risk. Still, in return for facing the risk they were getting to make the games they loved, and giving the commercial text adventure a coda absolutely no one had seen coming on that unhappy day back in May of 1989. “We did more things right than we did wrong,” concludes the May 1991 report. “This is a workable definition of survival.” Survival may have been about the best they could hope for — but, then again, survival is survival.

(Sources: Questbusters of March 1991; SynTax Issue 11; Computer Gaming World of November 1990 and March 1991; the book Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Bob Bates’s interview for Jason Scott’s Get Lamp documentary, which Jason was kind of enough to share with me in its entirety. But the vast majority of this article is drawn my interviews with Bob Bates and Mike Verdu; the former dug up the documents mentioned in the article as well. My heartfelt thanks to both for making the time to talk with me and to answer my many nitpicky questions about events of more than 25 years ago.)


Comments
  1. Mediagenic was known as Activision until mid-1988. To avoid confusion, I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article. 

January 18, 2017

These Heterogenous Tasks

Apocalypse Fuel

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at January 18, 2017 08:02 AM

Apocalypse World is a groundbreaking story RPG about a tropey, high-drama, fetish-masked, diesel-belching, psychic-maelstrom postapocalypse. It’s the founding work of the extensive Powered by the Apocalypse stable of storygames, which includes Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, Night Witches, Sagas of the Icelanders, and an ever-expanding list of others. … Continue reading

January 17, 2017

Sibyl Moon Games

When to Write Your Own Interactive Fiction Engine

by Carolyn VanEseltine at January 17, 2017 11:02 PM

Many experienced programmers start down the homebrew engine path because they want to make IF games. (Which is wonderful! Hooray for interactive fiction!)

But if you want to make a first-person shooter, it’s not necessary to start by rolling your own 3D renderer. And if you want to make an interactive fiction game,  then it’s not necessary to roll your own engine from scratch.

There are two basic reasons to write your own IF engine:

  1. You want to write an IF engine because writing an IF engine sounds like fun.
  2. You want to write an IF engine because you see an opportunity to improve upon existing IF authoring tools.

Reason 1 should always be true. If you don’t want to write an IF engine, then you shouldn’t write an IF engine (with rare exceptions, like a class assignment). And for many people, that will be enough. But if you want your engine to be used by other people, then it’s worth digging deeper into that second reason.

Many successful engines already exist

If you want to write a new IF engine, take a hard look at the competition.

From the 1990s until early 2006, a variety of IF parser engines jostled for popularity. Inform 6 and TADS 2 were most popular, but systems like Hugo, Alan, and ADRIFT were also commonly used. But in 2006, Inform 7 revolutionized parser game creation with its natural language approach to IF (in which sentences such as “The Mortuary is a room” and “An ornate vase is a container in the Mortuary” are valid code) and became the most popular parser engine. Quest also appeared in 2006 and has attracted a swarm of authors thanks to its novice-friendly visual scripting interface.

If your interests are choice-based, the competition doesn’t get any easier. Twine is the easiest game engine to learn (IF or otherwise) and perhaps the most popular IF engine in use right now. ChoiceScript is the go-to for interactive novels that are pure text. Ren’Py is a powerful and popular engine for creating visual novels. All of these systems are supported by thriving communities and extensive documentation.

If you have an idea for something that doesn’t operate on a standard parser or choice-based model, then you’re in less competitive territory. But there are still a number of successful systems here, such as Texture, which uses a drag-and-drop interface to connect verbs and words, or StoryNexus, which allows authors to build games in the style of Fallen London. There’s also Seltani, which is a multiplayer choice-based/chat room IF system. (Seltani is the canonical example of risk in unusual IF engines. On the one hand, it’s unique and fascinating, but on the other, very few stories have been created in Seltani due to insufficient author interest.)

For more notes on some existing engines and their various strengths, see Emily Short’s article “Writing IF”.

For a much more comprehensive list of IF engines, see Another Interactive Fiction Engine List.

Your engine needs to offer something different

Why would someone use your IF engine in preference over every other engine out there?

If you want your tool to be adopted by other interactive fiction authors, then it needs one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. Your engine helps IF authors because it is easier to make games using your engine.

This is where Inform 7 and Twine excel. I7 attracts authors because of its natural language approach and its excellent IDE (interactive development environment). Twine provides visual scripting and the fastest zero-to-game experience for authors without previous programming experience. Both of them are backed by extensive documentation and have massive communities willing to help new developers.

But every popular engine has specific strengths that appeal to various authors. To name a few examples, Quest provides a visual scripting approach for parser games; Texture’s mobile-friendly interface caters to devs who are writing games on the go; and some people prefer TADS 2 or TADS 3 over Inform 7 because TADS behaves far more like traditional programming than I7 does.

  1. Your engine helps IF players because it is easier to play games that have been created with your engine.

How could one engine’s games be easier to play than another’s? For years, the ability to play IF in a browser was a killer feature that provided strong incentive to write games on that platform. These days, most IF games provide some kind of browser support, such as Parchment for Z-code (the Infocom file format, which several IF engines use) or the native HTML/Javascript format of Twine, but there are other ways to make games easier for players. Accessibility is an ongoing concern that affects many people, as noted in this intfiction.org post about how various IF systems interact with screen readers (from 2013, so some information may be outdated, but improving accessibility remains a concern.) And I personally would like to see more parser engines with automatic abbreviation support (e.g., “luxe” rather than “Luxembourg”).

  1. Your engine offers features that are unusual or unique.

By their nature, any of the hybrid parser/choice engines have unusual features. But there are other kinds of features that a new engine might offer. For example, Ren’Py has extremely good support for images, sound, and animation because Ren’Py is primarily used to create visual novels. On the other hand, Unity developers are likely to use ink or Fungus because they are choice-based IF systems with Unity plugins. If there’s something you want to do in a game that no existing system can provide, it falls into this category, too. For example, The Ice-Bound Concordance is one of the coolest IF games that I’ve ever seen, and it couldn’t have been created in any existing system.

  1. Your engine offers realistic commercial opportunities for IF authors.

Writing IF is time-consuming, and it’s not a good way to pay the rent, so authors are automatically interested in IF engines that offer a realistic way to get paid for their work. Right now, ChoiceScript is the most viable system for IF authors hoping for a reliable paycheck, as the associated Choice of Games company has an established audience and will pay royalties on interactive novels written in ChoiceScript. (StoryNexus and Varytale were two other systems along similar lines, but the first no longer offers commercial payouts to participating authors and the second shut down before leaving beta.)

Successful commercial games have also been created with Ren’Py, Twine, and Inform 7, but publishing alone involves far more than just creating a game, since it also requires dealing with marketing, PR, social media, platform submissions, and so on. When a corporate-owned IF engine includes marketing support, an existing audience, and a track record of success, it will be extremely attractive to authors.

Every successful engine started as someone’s homebrew project

Homebrew engines have a shaky reputation because many homebrew engines offer experiences that aren’t as robust and reliable as those offered by established systems. Or, to put it another way, it’s easy to get excited about reinventing the wheel, but unfortunately many people forget that the final product should be round.

But all “homebrew” means is “an engine you made yourself that other people aren’t using”. When Graham Nelson wrote Inform 6 and then Inform 7, it wasn’t because someone came down and anointed him the Parser Poobah. When Chris Klimas created Twine, it wasn’t because he’d been hit with a bolt of lightning. They’re just designers and programmers who had great ideas and executed on them effectively.

If you have a great idea, and you’re a designer and programmer (or can build a team that includes them), then don’t let the existing landscape disappoint you. Digital interactive fiction is a very young medium, and you might have the seed for the next groundbreaking new technology. Take your idea seriously, execute on it effectively, playtest a lot, and you might change the landscape too.

But if what you really want is to make a traditional IF game, then the tools already exist. Don’t put yourself through reinventing the wheel if you just need something that rolls.

Interactive Fables

Worldsmith now free on Itch.io

January 17, 2017 06:09 PM

Thanks to everyone who purchased Worldsmith. We want more people to discover text adventures, so we've decided to reduce the price! To no money at all. Or, at least, if you really like the game, or want to support future text games from Interactive Fable, then please feel free to pay what you think it's worth. Download the full version here. Enjoy!

January 15, 2017

Emily Short

Mid-January Link Assortment

by Emily Short at January 15, 2017 04:00 PM

Events

PR-IF in Cambridge/Boston has been running a series of IF readings, and they’ve already started with Liza Daly’s Stone Harbor. That reading series continues on Wednesday afternoons, with more events January 18, January 25 and February 1. Next up is Astrid Dalmady’s excellent Cactus Blue Motel.

January 29 is the next meeting of the Oxford/London IF meetup: this is a pub meetup in Oxford. You’re welcome to bring a WIP, or just turn up to talk.

Tool Session Upcoming

Every successful IF system thrives on the feedback of invested beta users, who bend the tool in directions no one had anticipated, and who often become its first evangelists. But with so much going on, it can be hard to attract that engagement and feedback.

It’s not a complete solution, but periodically at the Oxford/London IF Meetup I run a tools session where tool creators can show and share their work, and get questions and responses from possible future users.

The next one of these will probably be May 2017, and I’m hoping to up our game a little bit. In the past, we’ve had a session of 3-4 talks and demonstrations from different tool creators, some local and some via Skype. Those talks will still be the backbone of the program, but I’d like to make the session a bit longer and add more time for hands-on exploration of at least some of the tools.

If you have something you’d like to share, let me know and I’ll follow up about what is involved.

New Games

HoMD.png

House of Many Doors comes out February 3: this is a Sunless-Sea-reminiscent piece featuring eerie locations and procedural poetry, and one of the first beneficiaries of the Fundbetter funding set up by Failbetter Games. Not exactly standard text IF, but very word-focused:

A House of Many Doors is a 2D exploration RPG that takes inspiration from Sunless Sea, China Mieville, Planescape: Torment and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It features over 300,000 words of branching original story and over 770 trillion bad poems.

Here’s what Rock Paper Shotgun had to say about looking forward to this piece.

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Stay Lost (Casey James) is a Texture piece about growing up lesbian in the suburbs.

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screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-9-30-28-am

The second part of Known Unknowns is now available. If you missed it earlier, this is Brendan Patrick Hennessy’s latest work, coming out in installments. It is set in the same universe to Birdland, and as before, a lot of the pleasure is enjoying how the various characters and personalities manifest themselves.

Episode Two is entirely devoted to a party, in which I managed to annoy all the people I wanted to get close to, while failing to get rid of the people I wanted to avoid. Possibly you will do better. It was good fun, though.

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I’m also fascinated to see (but also totally unable to read) Li You’s Secret Admirer, one of several IF games designed for teaching Mandarin learners. Definitely something to be aware of if you’re interested in educational uses of interactive fiction.

Jams and Competitions

The IGF Narrative nominees have been announced. This year, I wasn’t on the judging panel, having rightly guessed I wasn’t going to have anything like enough time to do it justice.

(In fact, not only did I have too much work, but in December my primary laptop self-destructed and turned out to need a new power source, logic board, and display. In the end I’m not sure how much the repairs really differed from Apple just handing me a whole new machine, except in the sense that it took a while longer, especially thanks to the holiday season. Also I got bronchitis.)

But! Narrative nominee list. I’ve tried and enjoyed at least some of Event[0], Ladykiller in a Bind, and (of course) Sorcery! 4. I recommend checking out those or others from the list.

Also, Andrew Plotkin did participate in the judging this year, and at Gameshelf you can find his comments on the finalists and some runners-up. You may be particularly interested in his comments on Event[0] and why it might be of interest to parser IF enthusiasts.

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I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s good enough to mention again: through early March, intents are open for the Spring Thing Festival, if you’d like to join that or donate prizes to it. Spring Thing permits longer games than the IF Comp traditionally encourages; there’s also a “back garden” section for works that are not in ranked competition. The Back Garden is a great place for experiments or mellow projects or items from authors who just aren’t that excited about placements. The games will be released for play in April.

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Meanwhile, Laura Michet and Cat Manning are running Utopia Jam, upcoming in February. They describe the project as follows:

Utopian Fiction is a kind of speculative fiction where storytellers imagine better futures.

Tell us about a future world where an injustice or problem that exists today has been somehow fixed. Imagine a more equitable, free, sustainable, or optimistic society. Show us that better futures aren’t impossible!

Utopia Jam submissions can take any form. You don’t even have to make a digital game! Submit a song, a short story, a tabletop game, or a work of art. Surprise us!

Utopia Jam submissions can also take place at any time. Our examples below are largely far-future science fiction stories, but your better future could be set next year, or next month, or even tomorrow.

Links

I wrote about Textfyre’s two games for Rock Paper Shotgun; and I’ve got another column with them forthcoming in a few days’ time. You can always find the latest of those in the IF Only category.

jugularfishStephanie Chan has a collection of IF recommendations, some familiar, some possibly new to readers of this blog: I hadn’t previously run into @ciara3D‘s The Jugular Fish, for instance. Or Stay Lost, a Texture game where the draggable texts are mostly What and Why, questions to interrogate the story rather than verbs to change what happens.

PC Gamer covered IF Comp 2016 — some time ago, in fact, but the article is now available generally.

On Imzy, Bruno Dias is providing periodic roundups of the latest IF news as well.

This Rochester-based conference on story in Japanese games is currently accepting talk submissions.

Pre-reading for those heading into GDC/other conference seasons: Gretchen McCulloch has written about how to approach speakers at these events. Also, here’s a piece I wrote last year about preparing for GDC if you’re an IF author type and have never been before; and here’s something else I wrote about conference access in general. (Speaking of which, see also the next item.)

Crowdfunding

Veve Jaffa is author of Which Passover Plague Are You (published on Sub-Q). They’re currently holding an itch.io sale in order to fund a trip to GDC to speak about their work and about the political use of games.

 


January 13, 2017

Choice of Games

Choice of Games LLC Supports the Affordable Care Act

by Adam Strong-Morse at January 13, 2017 10:01 PM

With Congress considering whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act (the “ACA,” sometimes called “ObamaCare”), the partners and staff of Choice of Games feel the need to strongly state our support for the ACA and to explain its importance to the creative community. The ACA enables our work in two important ways:

  1. Choice of Games is a small company, with 6 staffers, spread across 5 different states. It’s essentially impossible for us to get group health insurance for our partners and employees at a reasonable price. We’re too small and distributed. The ACA allows for an effective affordable individual market for health insurance, even for our employees with serious pre-existing conditions. That allows us to pay our employees some additional salary that they can use to secure adequate health insurance in place of providing health insurance directly. Without the ACA, some of our staff would likely be unable to secure health insurance as individuals, which would mean that they would have to work for a larger company that could provide them with group insurance instead of working for Choice of Games. And because some of our staff have serious pre-existing conditions, even a brief period of being uninsured without the ACA could mean bankruptcy or death because of inability to pay for necessary medical treatment.
  2. In addition to its staff, Choice of Games depends on a large number of creative independent contractors—the authors of most of our games, artists, even copy-editors. We’re like most publishers in this regard. As independent contractors, our authors and artists don’t receive health insurance from Choice of Games. We’re not directly privy to their health insurance decisions, but it’s very likely that some of them also rely on the individual markets enabled by the ACA for their health insurance. Without access to that option, they would have to find another way to secure health insurance: giving up writing as a full-time business so that they could get health insurance through an employer, perhaps, or remaining dependent on a spouse’s job for insurance regardless of whether that makes sense for them. The ACA allows independent contractors like our authors and artists to get health insurance while continuing to pursue creative efforts as a full-time business. That’s critical to the continuing functioning of Choice of Games and many other creative businesses.

Without the ACA, Choice of Games and its independent contractors would face terrible choices. Some of our staff and contractors might have to abandon their creative work to instead take other jobs, simply to secure health insurance. If they chose to continue to pursue creative work, some of them would risk bankruptcy. And the inability to pay for life-saving treatments could literally kill some of our staff or authors.

The ACA isn’t the only, or even necessarily the best, solution to these problems. Many of us would prefer a single-payer system of health care, paid for out of general tax revenues. Nonetheless, repealing the ACA without another system that would guarantee access to health insurance, regardless of employment or pre-existing conditions, would be a disaster for Choice of Games, for the creative writers and artists we contract with, and for the United States. If you care about Choice of Games and our work, please contact your Representatives and Senators to urge them to oppose any repeal of the ACA that does not preserve the ability of all people, regardless of employment or pre-existing conditions, to secure affordable health insurance.

IFTF Blog

IFTF moves into 2017

January 13, 2017 09:06 PM

Last week, Carolyn wrote about how far we’ve come in 2016. (From non-existence to existence, which is by definition the longest possible distance!) This week I’ll say a little about where we’re going in 2017. Thus, there is balance.

I’m not going to lay down a timetable, because this project of ours is developing at its own pace. “Its own pace” can be frustrating. It’s terrific and energizing to sit down for a (videochat) meeting and talk about where we are, but the fact is that we all have jobs and/or other life commitments, so IFTF only gets so much time per week. That’s going to still be true in 2017, and in 2018 for that matter.

But we look back: we have gotten things done. Therefore, we apply inductive logic and convince ourselves that more things will get done. The Twine committee and the testathon committee are in flight. IFComp will return in the summer.

Beyond that… we intend to make 2017 our first year of full-scale fundraising. That begins with the individual donations that we already accept. It also includes the volunteer help that aided IFComp and the IF Archive in 2016. (Thank you!) Time is as valuable a resource as money, right?

We will continue to keep an eye out for IF projects that need volunteer work. We will expand our efforts to pass the word about such projects, and try to match up hands to oars, as it were.

And then there’s grants. I knew when I signed up for this gig that there would be grant proposals somewhere in it. Jason has been doing some research into the kinds of arts grants that might reasonably apply to us. There are seed grants. We will look at all of those things.

Obviously, IFTF’s financial needs are small right now. We run a couple of web servers and we rent a PO box. We had business cards printed. (We will publish a complete financial report soon.) We haven’t spent big money, and we’ve still gotten things done.

But this is an emu-and-egg situation; we chose to launch IFTF with projects that didn’t have large financial needs! There’s a huge range of things we could be doing at the next financial level. Helping host IF community servers, paying people to maintain IF tools, developing new IF services, promoting education about IF, promoting education with IF.

(Somewhere at the far end of the list: hosting a high-powered interactive fiction conference. IF has been a part of lots of conventions — you may remember the IF convocation at PAX East 2010, where Get Lamp premiered. But I’ve always wanted IF to be the focus of a convention…) (And there are festival grants, I hear.)

So the details are up in the air — but we’ll see how we can make it fall together.

The Digital Antiquarian

A Time of Endings, Part 4: Magnetic Scrolls

by Jimmy Maher at January 13, 2017 05:00 PM

By the point in late 1988 when Magnetic Scrolls released Fish!, their fifth text adventure and arguably their best yet, a distressing pattern of diminishing returns had already been well-established when it came to sales, that most important metric of all. Anita Sinclair’s little collective had peaked early in commercial if not in design terms, with the release of the illustrated version of their first game The Pawn in 1986. Indeed, alongside Infocom’s Leather Goddesses of PhobosThe Pawn had that year become one of the last two text adventures ever to generate sales sufficient to make the games industry at large sit up and pay attention. The performance of neither game had had all that much to do with its intrinsic design merits: sales of The Pawn had been driven by the timely appeal of its pretty pictures to people looking to show off their new Atari STs and Commodore Amigas, sales of Leather Goddesses by the timeless allure of sex to the largely adolescent male audience for computer games in general. Nevertheless, while for Infocom the year had been a welcome final hurrah that may very well have staved off their inevitable endgame for a year or more, for Magnetic Scrolls it had simply been one hell of an auspicious start.

Sadly, for both companies it would all be downhill from there. Guild of Thieves, Magnetic Scrolls’s follow-up to The Pawn, did quite well in its own right, but nowhere near as well as its predecessor. A pattern was soon established of each successive game selling a little less than the previous. Magnetic Scrolls’s relationship with their publisher Rainbird steadily deteriorated in cadence with their diminishing sales numbers. Anita Sinclair, whom even her most supportive colleagues acknowledged could be difficult at times, never got on very well with Paula Byrne, the woman who was now her primary contact at the label her good friend Tony Rainbird had founded and lent his name to but had left already in late 1986. In a surprisingly frank 1989 statement to the German magazine Aktueller Software Markt, Byrne admitted publicly that she “didn’t have a very good relationship with Anita. Anita had much preferred to work with Tony Rainbird.” When in May of 1989 — just after that interview — Rainbird was acquired by the American publisher MicroProse, Magnetic Scrolls was promptly cut loose. Given her poor relationship with Anita Sinclair and the declining sales of Magnetic Scrolls’s games, Byrne had little motivation to argue with her new bosses’ decision.

For most small developers, that event, described by Anita Sinclair herself as an “horrendous collapse,” would have marked the death knell. With the rights to all of their extant games tied to Rainbird, who were no longer interested in selling them, Magnetic Scrolls no longer had any income whatsoever. Nor were they in much of a position to make new hits to generate new income. All of Magnetic Scrolls’s development technology and wisdom were still tied to text adventures, a genre the conventional wisdom said was dead as a commercial proposition; both Infocom and Level 9, the other two significant remaining practitioners of adventures in English text, were getting out of that game entirely as well at the instant that Rainbird decided to wash their hands of Magnetic Scrolls. But thanks to the familial wealth that had always been Magnetic Scrolls’s secret trump card — even during its peak years of 1986 and 1987, the company had never made all that much money in relation to its considerable expenses — Anita Sinclair could elect to play on a bit longer where Infocom and Level 9, under the thumb of corporate parent Mediagenic and perpetually pinched for cash respectively, had had no choice but to fold their hands. She launched a lawsuit against Rainbird/MicroProse, alleging mishandling of her company’s games and seeking restoration of the rights to the back catalog amidst other damages. At the same time, and despite being without a publisher, she poured all the resources she had into a big development project — in fact, the biggest such project Magnetic Scrolls had ever attempted, and by a virtual order of magnitude at that. Begun well before the release of Fish! and the split with Rainbird, in the wake of recent events it would be elevated from an important initiative to a save-the-company Hail Mary.

Actually, this single grand project is better seen as three projects built on top of one another, with an actual game, the top layer of this layer cake of technology that would finally emerge as Magnetic Scrolls’s swansong, the least taxing of the lot to develop.

The most taxing of the layers, by contrast, was the one at the bottom. It had nothing intrinsically to do with games at all. Magnetic Windows was rather to be a generic system for creating and running modern GUI-based applications on MS-DOS, the Apple Macintosh, the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST, and the Acorn Archimedes, allowing programmers to share much of the same code across these very different platforms. It will perhaps convey some sense of the sheer ambition of this undertaking to note that its most obvious analogue was nothing less than Microsoft Windows, a graphical operating environment built on top of MS-DOS which Microsoft had been pushing for years without a lot of success. Admittedly, Magnetic Windows was in some ways less ambitious than Microsoft Windows; it was envisioned as a toolkit for building and running individual GUI applications, not as a full-fledged self-contained operating environment like the Microsoft product. In other ways, however, it was more ambitious; in contrast to the cross-platform Magnetic Windows, Microsoft Windows was targeted strictly at the standard Intel architecture running MS-DOS as its underlying layer, with no support included or planned for alternative platforms.

Like most GUI systems of the time, Magnetic Windows owed an awful lot to the Macintosh, as shown in this shot from the game Magnetic Scrolls eventually made using it.

Microsoft Windows, little used and less loved, had been something of a computer-industry laughingstock ever since its initial release back in 1985; it would only start rounding into a truly usable form and gaining traction with everyday users with the release of its version 3.0 in 1990. Once again, its travails only serve to illustrate what a huge technical challenge Magnetic Windows must pose for its own parent company. How could Anita Sinclair’s little staff of half a dozen or so programmers, clever though they doubtless were, hope to succeed where a company with thousands of times the resources had so conspicuously struggled for so long?

All things considered, they made a pretty good stab at it. Magnetic Windows was a genuinely impressive piece of work, especially considering the shoestring on which it was made and the fact that it had to run on five different platforms. Yet Magnetic Scrolls’s dreams of someday using it to break into business and productivity software, of hopefully licensing it out to many other developers, never stood much of a chance of being realized. Magnetic Windows’s Achilles heel was the same as that which had dogged Microsoft Windows for years: it craved far more computing power than was the norm among average machines of its era. In its MS-DOS version, Magnetic Windows ran responsively only on a pricey high-end 80386-based machine, while on other platforms throwing enough hardware at it to make it a pleasant experience to use was often even more difficult. That the simple text adventure Magnetic Scrolls would eventually make using it would require such high-end hardware would strike many potential buyers, with some justification, as vaguely ridiculous. And as for Magnetic Scrolls’s dreams of world domination in other types of software… well, that was always going to be one hell of a mountain to climb in the face of Microsoft’s cash reserves, and it only got that much steeper when Microsoft Windows 3.0, at long last the first really complete and usable incarnation of the operating environment, was released the same year as the first product to employ Magnetic Windows.

The middle layer in the cake that would become Magnetic Scroll’s swansong was the most ambitious expansion of the traditionally humble text-adventure interface to date — indeed, it still remains to this day the most ambitious such expansion ever attempted. Of course, Magnetic Scrolls was hardly alone at the time in working in this general direction. Infocom just before the end had made a concerted attempt to remedy as many as possible of the real or perceived failings of the genre in the eyes of modern players, incorporating  into their final run of “graphical interactive fiction” titles things like auto-maps, clickable compass roses, function-key shortcuts, and hint menus along with the now-expected illustrations. Legend Entertainment, Infocom’s implicitly anointed successor, would soon push the general idea yet further via clickable menus of verbs, nouns, and prepositions for building commands without typing, whilst also adding sound and music to the formula.

Still, it was Magnetic Scrolls that pushed furthest of all. Taking full advantage of Magnetic Windows, they designed an almost infinitely customizable interface built around individually openable and closable, draggable and sizable windows. The windows could contain all the goodies of late-period Infocom and Legend plus a lot more: text (including for the first time ever an integrated scrollback buffer), graphics (including occasional animated sequences of sometimes surprising length, enough almost to qualify as little cut scenes), lists of objects in the current room and in the player’s inventory (represented as snazzy icons rather than plebian text), an auto-map (complete with one-click navigation to any location in the game’s world), a compass rose, an extensive hint menu. Performance issues aside, it was all impressive as hell the first time you fired it up and began to discover its many little nuances. For instance, it was possible to pick up and drop objects by dragging their icons between the objects-in-inventory and objects-in-room windows, while right-clicking one of the object icons opened a menu of likely verbs for use with it — or you could double-click an object to “examine” it via text that appeared in its own separate window. Ditto all this for things depicted in the room illustrations as well. Or, if you liked, you could start with the verb rather than the object in building your command without typing, selecting a verb from a long list of same in the menu bar and then clicking on the object to use with it. Anita Sinclair:

The whole idea of the window system we’ve developed is to take adventures into the next generation. What we found was that people enjoyed the format of text adventures — it is, from a gameplay point of view, the most flexible genre there is — but the problem people had was that when you see a text adventure for the first time, it’s not too obvious where to start or what to do, and the other problem is that people seem to have a huge aversion to typing. So what we wanted to do was to design a system where you can have all the flexibility of a text-adventure game, but with neither of these problems.

The elaborations were extensive enough to qualify today as a fascinating might-have-been in the evolution of the adventure genre as a whole, a middle ground between the text adventures that were and the graphical adventures that were becoming.

At the same time, though, it’s not hard to understand why the approach became an evolutionary dead end: the fact was that almost as soon as you got over being wowed by it all you started to find most of it a little superfluous. While the new interface certainly provided many new ways to do many things, it was highly doubtful whether most of those new ways were really easier than the traditional command line. The dirty little secret of this as well as most efforts in this direction was that they did very little to truly improve the playability of text adventures. Veterans quickly reverted to the clean, efficient command line they had come to know so well, and those newcomers who found the genre interesting enough to stick with it tired almost as quickly of mousing through the fiddly point-and-click interface and learned to use the parser the way the gods of the genre — i.e., Crowther and Woods — had intended it to be used. Meanwhile those who were put off by all the reading and sought, to borrow from Marshall McLuhan, a “hotter” mediated experience weren’t likely to be assuaged for long by all this gilding around a lily that remained at bottom as textual as ever. Seeking a solution to the fundamentally intractable problem of how to keep a genre with such niche appeal as the text adventure at the forefront of a games industry tilting ever more toward the mainstream, Magnetic Scrolls was grasping at straws in telling themselves that a system like this one could represent the “next generation” of adventure games in general. The true next generation in the eyes of most players must be the born-graphical point-and-click adventures of companies like Sierra and Lucasfilm Games, which were just coming into their own as companies like Infocom and Magnetic Scrolls were busily grafting bells and whistles onto their text adventures. In contrast to the games of the former, those of the latter felt like exactly what they were: lipstick on the same old textual swine.

Neat as the new interface was, players who tried to make full use of it spent a lot of time looking at messages like this one.

But what, then, of the topmost layer of our cake, the actual game being surrounded by all this new technology? That game was called Wonderland, and it was given oddly short shrift even by Magnetic Scrolls themselves. Wonderland‘s manual, for instance, spends some three-quarters of its 60-page length exhaustively describing how to use the new windowed interface in general rather than talking all that much about the game buried inside it all. (The times were still such that Magnetic Scrolls felt compelled to start at the very beginning, with chapter titles like “An Introduction to Windowing Environments” and definitions like “icons are small pictures.”) Even today, Wonderland remains among the least discussed and, one senses, least played of the Magnetic Scrolls catalog, being too often dismissed as little more than a dead-end technology demonstration. I must admit that even I never could quite work up the motivation to play it until quite recently, when I tackled it in preparation for this article. Yet what I found when I did so was a game that has a lot more going for it than its reputation would suggest. Yes, on one level it is indeed a dead-end technology demonstration — but that’s far from all it is.

Wonderland was first proposed to Anita Sinclair way back in 1987 by an outsider named David Bishop. At the time, Magnetic Scrolls was already considering the prospect of making a text adventure with a windowed interface. In fact, Sinclair had begun to experiment with that very thing in a game of her own design. “But when I saw Wonderland,” she remembers, “it became obvious that it was a much better game than the one we were working on, and so we shelved that and redefined the ideas that we had for it for Wonderland instead.” Although envisioned from the start as eventually becoming the first game to use the new Magnetic Windows-powered interface, Wonderland was developed using Magnetic Scrolls’s traditional tools while others worked on the other layers of the cake. Only when all of the new technology was completed was the game joined with the new interface that was to sit beneath it. By the time that happened, Wonderland the game had been waiting on the bench for some time, ready to go just as soon as everything else was.

David Bishop

The designer of Wonderland is one of those consummate inside players that can be found kicking around most creative industries, unknown to the public but well-known among his peers, with fingers in a bewildering number of pies. David Bishop had been working at a board-game store in London in the very early 1980s when he had first become aware of the burgeoning world of computer games. Never a programmer, he became something of a pioneer of the role of game designer as a discipline separate from that of game programmer when he formed a partnership with one Chris Palmer, who did know how to program. Together they were responsible for such mid-decade 8-bit hits as Deactivators and Golf Construction Set. His career in game design has continued right up to the present day, coming to encompass just about every popular genre. (That he’s never garnered more public recognition as a designer is perhaps down to the fact that, while he’s designed many successful games, he’s never designed any truly massive, era-defining titles.) Alongside his early efforts in design, he worked for some years as a prominent editor, reviewer, and feature writer for the popular British magazine Computer and Video Games. In years to come, he would add to his titles of game designer and game journalist those of producer, manager, and founder of multiple companies. His one adventure in text, however, has remained Wonderland.

As you may have guessed, Wonderland is based on Alice in Wonderland, that classic Victorian children’s tale by Lewis Carroll that has never lost its charm and fascination for plenty of us adults. In his initial pitch to Magnetic Scrolls, Bishop noted how almost uniquely ideal Alice in Wonderland was for adaptation to an adventure game. Carroll’s novel is as about as plot-less as something labeled a story can be; what plot it does have can be summed up as “a thinly characterized little girl named Alice stumbles into a strange magical land and wanders around therein, taking in the sights.” Despite the idealism expressed in the genre’s alternate name of “interactive fiction,” text adventures are far better equipped to deliver this sort of experience than they are to tackle the more elaborate plots typical of most novels. In place of plot, Alice in Wonderland offers an engaging setting filled with humor and intellectual play — the same recipe to which many a classic text adventure has hewed. And to all of these creative advantages must be added the very practical real-world advantage that the works of Lewis Carroll are long out of copyright.

It’s therefore a little strange, as Bishop also mused at the time he was making his proposal, how few adventure games prior to his had tackled Carroll directly. While plenty of authors, including three of the future Infocom Implementors working on the original PDP-10 Zork, had cribbed shamelessly from the master when designing puzzles, games explicitly set in Carroll’s world had been fairly few and far between. The most prominent text adventure among them was the work of one D.A. Asherman, who had written a freeware game with the long-winded title of The Adventures of Alice Who Went through the Looking-Glass and Came Back Not Much Changed that became very popular as a “door game” on many computer bulletin boards. And yet, the love of wordplay that runs through all of Carroll’s work notwithstanding, the most prominent and artistically successful of the interactive Alice in Wonderland adaptations prior to Bishop’s wasn’t a text adventure at all, but rather an action-adventure written by Dale Disharoon for Spinnaker Software’s brief-lived Windham Classics line of children’s literary adaptations — and even that winsomely charming game had been rather overshadowed by the even more winsomely charming Below the Root, also written by Disharoon using the same engine.

David Bishop’s own adaptation of Alice in Wonderland takes the obvious approach, but is none the worse for it. In other words, if Wonderland never transcends its derivative nature, it never embarrasses itself either. After an opening sequence sends you plunging down that famous rabbit hole, you’re left to wander freely through a geography of about 110 rooms, stuffed with all of the expected characters and set-pieces, from a hookah-smoking caterpillar to a grinning cat, from a mad tea party to a decidedly odd game of croquet. (Consciously excluded in the interest of preserving material for a potential sequel were any elements from Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll’s follow-up to Alice in Wonderland, even though the two books are so much of a piece that it’s difficult even for many dedicated Carroll fans to keep track of what comes from which.)

Certainly Bishop had heaps and heaps of great material to work with in turning Alice in Wonderland into a game. Countless bits from the novel are all but screaming to be made into puzzles; not for nothing have variations on the “drink me” potion that makes Alice smaller and the “eat me” cake that makes her bigger appeared in dozens if not hundreds of adventure games over the years. Bishop uses all this raw material well, giving us a big, open, non-linear game with every bit as much appeal as Guild of Thieves, Magnetic Scroll’s previous best take on this classic old-school approach. As with Guild of Thieves, it’s immensely rewarding to explore Wonderland at your own pace and in your own fashion, poking and prodding, discovering its many unexpected interconnections, solving puzzles and enjoying the dopamine rush each time your score increments on its slow march from 0 to 501.

One of Wonderland‘s animations.

Best of all, Wonderland, even more so than Guild of Thieves, remains quite consistently fair throughout its considerable breadth. Straightforward puzzles to get you into the swing of things and get some points in the bank gradually give way to more challenging ones that require more careful experimentation with the workings of its world, but there never comes a point where challenge regresses into abuse. When I played it recently, I managed to finish the entire thing without once resorting to the hints.1 I have to suspect that Wonderland succeeds as it does, despite coming from a company with a very mixed record in the fairness department, because of the inordinately long time it spent in development, for long stretches of which Bishop’s game was largely just sitting around waiting for the layers of technology being built to live beneath it to be completed. The manual lists no fewer than twelve testers, plus an entire outside firm (“Top Star Computer Service”) contracted for the task. This is vastly more attention than was paid to polishing any previous Magnetic Scrolls game, and serves as further confirmation of my longstanding thesis that there is a very nearly linear relationship between the playability of any given adventure game and the amount of testing it received.

Virgin’s Nick Alexander celebrates with Anita Sinclair his company’s signing of Magnetic Scrolls.

After some uncomfortable months in limbo without a publisher, Magnetic Scrolls finally at the tail end of 1989 signed a deal with Virgin Mastertronic, a vigorous up-and-comer with the weight of Richard Branson’s transatlantic media empire behind it, to release their still work-in-progress Wonderland along with four more games to follow in the two years after it. Anita Sinclair did her best to create the impression that Magnetic Scrolls and Wonderland had been the subject of a veritable bidding war among publishers. (“You know you’ve cracked it when you’ve got publishers knocking on your door instead of you having to knock on theirs.”) In reality, though, much of the industry had decided that future success lay in getting away from text, and remained skeptical of Magnetic Scrolls’s elaborate hybrid of an adventure game, which despite all the flash still contained some 70,000 good-old-fashioned words to read. The deal with Virgin undoubtedly had much to do with the fact that David Bishop, ever the games industry’s vagabond insider, had himself just signed there as a producer.

Magnetic Scrolls had gone dark for almost the entirety of the previous year in the wake of their jilting by Rainbird, but now greeted 1990 with as much aggressive hype as they could muster, trumpeting their forthcoming return to adventuring prominence and hopefully dominance. The young men who then as now made up the vast majority of gaming journalists were as obliging as ever, jumping at any chance to spend time in the presence of the fetching Anita Sinclair. The result was a blizzard of teasers and previews in virtually every prominent British gaming magazine. Sinclair wasn’t shy about laying it on thick: Wonderland would be “mind-blowing”; Wonderland was “like no adventure you’ve ever seen”; “when you see our next product your eyes are going to pop out.” Her interviewers copied it all down and regurgitated it faithfully in their articles, along with the usual asides about what a hot number their interviewee still was. It was sexist as hell, of course, but Sinclair had the self-assurance to use it to her advantage. There was a reason that Magnetic Scrolls had always enjoyed an enormous amount of free publicity from the magazines, and I’m afraid it wasn’t down to anything intrinsic to the games themselves.

Unfortunately, gamers in general proved markedly less enthused than Anita Sinclair’s smitten interviewers when Wonderland finally shipped for MS-DOS in late 1990, followed by versions for the Amiga, Atari ST, and Acorn Archimedes in 1991 (a planned Macintosh version never materialized). In contrast to the latest purely point-and-click graphical adventures like Lucasfilm’s The Secret of Monkey Island and Sierra’s King’s Quest V, Wonderland struck many as an awkward anachronism. And then of course the performance issues didn’t help. The game ran like a dog on the likes of an Amiga 500, still the heart of the European computer-gaming market. After the better part of a year of constant hype prior to its release, Wonderland disappeared without a trace almost as soon as people could actually walk into a store and buy it.

Having sunk everything into this white elephant of a game, Magnetic Scrolls was now in more serious trouble than ever; there were after all limits even to Anita Sinclair’s financial resources. They would complete just one more product for Virgin. Having recently managed to reacquire their back catalog from Rainbird/MicroProse — the terms of the lawsuit’s settlement otherwise remained undisclosed — they made a Magnetic Scrolls Collection that brought together Guild of Thieves, Corruption, and Fish! under the new Magnetic Windows interface. Dropped by Virgin for their games’ poor sales shortly thereafter, they embarked on a final desperate attempt to switch genres entirely. They started on a game called The Legacy: Realm of Terror, a horror-themed CRPG reminiscent of Dungeon Master, for MicroProse — ironically the very company they had just been suing (whether the publishing deal with MicroProse was connected with the terms of the settlement remains unknown). But Magnetic Scrolls ran completely out of money at last and went out of business well before completing the game; MicroProse wound up turning the work-in-progress over to other developers, who finished it and saw it released in 1993. Most of Magnetic Scrolls’s personnel, including driving force Anita Sinclair, left the games industry for other pursuits after their company shut its doors. “Sometimes I think I would like to write another game,” admitted Sinclair in a 2001 interview which marks one of the vanishingly few times she has spoken publicly about the company since its collapse, “but there are other problems to solve that would be more rewarding.”

What, then, shall we say in closing about Magnetic Scrolls?

For all their indulgent talk about interactive fiction as a literary medium, Magnetic Scrolls was always populated first and foremost by technologists, with technologists’ priorities. Apart from Corruption — perhaps not coincidentally one of their very worst games in design terms — everything they produced hewed to tried-and-true templates, evincing little of the restless eclecticism that always marked Infocom. The innovations found in Magnetic Scrolls’s games were rather technical innovations, and ones that perhaps too often added little to the games that contained them. Because it was cool and fun to implement from a programming point of view, they built an elaborate system of weights, sizes, and strengths into their games from the beginning, even though nothing in their game designs actually required or even acknowledged the existence of such a thing. Similarly, they made a parser capable of understanding lengthy, tangled constructions that no player in the wild was ever likely to type, while forgetting to implement many of the shorter phrases that they were. It’s easy enough to see Magnetic Windows and the interface built using it as the ultimate — and ultimately fatal — manifestations of this tendency. Like FTL Games, another heavily technology-driven developer, their endless tinkering with their tools paralyzed them, kept them from finishing the actual games that were their real mission as a company.

For Magnetic Scrolls, however, the case is a little more complicated than merely that of a factory which got too focused on the component widgets at the expense of the finished product. Even had they managed to find a publisher and release the very worthy Wonderland one or one and a half years earlier as a simple illustrated text adventure, it was hardly likely to have been a success. The fact is that there was no good solution to the problem Magnetic Scrolls found themselves facing as the 1980s expired: the problem of the imploded commercial appeal of text adventures, the only sorts of games they had ever made and the only ones they really knew how to make. Faced with a marketplace that simply wasn’t buying many text adventures anymore, what was a text-adventure developer to do? Short of a complete reinvention as a maker of point-and-click graphical adventures or games in some other genre entirely — a reinvention the company did try to undertake with The Legacy, but far too late — Magnetic Scrolls’s fate feels inevitable, regardless of the details of the individual decisions that may have slowed or hastened their demise. Meanwhile the luridly anonymous, very un-Magnetic Scrolls The Legacy shows where a more comprehensive reinvention must have led them. Was it worth sacrificing their identity to save their company? For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

The marketplace forces that seemed almost to actively conspire against Magnetic Scrolls’s success almost as soon as they really got going has led, understandably enough, to no small bitterness on the part of the company’s principals. Already in Magnetic Scrolls’s twilight period, Anita Sinclair became known at conferences and trade shows for her rants about the alleged infantilization of computer games, about how the latest releases all assumed that players couldn’t or wouldn’t read. “When I was in the industry we were pioneers, paving the way for the future,” she said much later in 2001. “People [today] are aiming their games at younger and less sophisticated audiences. Today’s developers are writing in their minds to ten- to twelve-year-olds.”

Similar sentiments have been expressed by other former text-adventure developers, as well as by developers of the graphical adventures that did so much to kill text adventures, only to suffer a commercial collapse of their own that was almost as horrendous by the end of the 1990s. Easy and self-justifying though this line of argument is, there’s doubtless some truth to be found therein. Yet it can lead one to a dangerously incomplete conclusion in that it ignores the design sins that led so many of even the older and more sophisticated players Sinclair preferred to court to give up on the genre. Certainly Magnetic Scrolls’s own design record is decidedly spotty. It’s not hard to imagine a player encountering some of the cruelest, most unfair parts of The Pawn, Jinxter, or Corruption and saying, “I’m never playing a game like this again.” Magnetic Scrolls thought they could become “the British Infocom” by matching or exceeding Infocom technically, a task which alone among their peers they accomplished in many areas. What they failed to match — failed to even try to match — was Infocom’s attention to the non-technical details of game design, their rigorous process for taking a game from idea to polished final product.

And yet, lest we be too hard on them, the fact does remain that three of the six games Magnetic Scrolls produced (or six and a half if you count the freebie mini-adventure Myth) are actually good, perfectly recommendable old-school adventure games despite it all, giving the company an overall success-to-failure ratio matched by no other text-adventure maker not named Infocom. So, clearly they were doing something right despite it all. If they never quite succeeded in their ambition of becoming the British Infocom, they did succeed in becoming the next best thing: first among the field of also-rans. And, hey, a silver medal is an achievement in its own right, isn’t it?

(Sources: The One of July 1990; Zero of February 1990, March 1990, and October 1990; Games Machine of February 1990; Computer Gaming World of January 1991; Aktueller Software Markt of June/July 1989; Amstrad Action of July 1989; Computer and Video Games of December 1989; Crash of February 1990; CU Amiga of July 1990; PC Player of September 1993; PC Zone of September 2001; Compute! of January 1993; Sinclair User of December 1986. And of course see Stefan Meier’s Magnetic Scrolls Memorial for a trove of information on the games of Magnetic Scrolls and the company’s history.

As a final tribute to Magnetic Scrolls’s achievements, I do highly encourage any text-adventure fans among you who haven’t played Wonderland to give it a try sometime. You don’t even need to fiddle about with emulators, unless you just want to see the Magnetic Windows-driven interface in action in all its impressive if slightly unwieldy glory. The game is perfectly playable as an ordinary text adventure, played through the standard Magnetic interpreter for Magnetic Scrolls games, which is available, along with Wonderland itself, from Stefan Meier’s Magnetic Scrolls Memorial. For that matter, you can even now play Wonderland, along with all of the other Magnetic Scrolls games, online in your browser.)


Comments
  1. The one puzzle that can perhaps be deemed questionable requires you to manipulate Alice’s own body in a way that will only yield an error message from just about every other text adventure ever made. So, know ye, prospective players, that Wonderland allows you to close and open Alice’s left and right eyes individually. 

January 12, 2017

The Gameshelf: IF

More 2017 IGF nominees

by Andrew Plotkin at January 12, 2017 04:39 AM

More assorted comments on games!

Some of these were honorable mentions for the Narrative award; some were listed in other categories; some were games that just struck me as particularly nifty in some way.

(See Monday's post for the six Narrative nominees.)

Again, I had access to free review copies of these games, although some of them are games that I bought with my own money. (I was also a Kickstarter backer on one, Neptune Flux.) They appear in (roughly) the order that I played them.

In this post:

  • Rusty Lake: Roots
  • Able Black
  • Neptune Flux
  • She Who Fights Monsters
  • Islands: Non-Places
  • Code 7 - Episode 0 - Allocation
  • Mu Cartographer
  • Inside
  • Burly Men at Sea
  • A Normal Lost Phone

Rusty Lake: Roots

You explore a creepy family's genealogy in their creepy house, down through the generations. I enjoyed this series back when it was Flash room-escape games. ("Cube Escape" was the original series title.) The author has kept the same puzzle style, but revamped the formula for mobile by wrapping up a bunch of escape "chapters" as one game.

I still enjoy them. The author is good at the creepy-surreal tone, and the puzzles have enough variety that they don't feel repetitive. There's a postgame puzzle sequence -- not quite what you'd call a metapuzzle, but it gives a really nice "ooh more to explore" feeling to the experience.

The one caveat is that the creepy sometimes degenerates into sophomoric nudge-wink innuendo. To be fair, the series always had a tendency towards cheap body-horror shock -- chopped-off fingers and popped-out eyes. Now that's been extended to include childbirth and wanking jokes. Is that worse? I roll my eyes more, definitely.

Able Black

I always love a mystery-interface interactive story, and I enjoyed this one. The visual design was striking and the story was pretty good. It's the "AI humanity test" story -- a SF trope which I admit is getting seriously overused in the past couple of years of gaming -- but it's well done.

The weak point were the puzzles, which were weak and unthematic. They did not feel like assessments that the android protagonist would undergo; neither did they feel like allegorical challenges within the theme of developing emotion and empathy. They didn't build on each other in an interesting explorable way, or with a metapuzzle. They were just a bunch of randomly-selected riddles thrown in for pacing. Pacing is important, but this is not the right way to go about it.

On the other hand, the game redeems itself somewhat in the "postgame" (whatever you call the puzzles after the five main chapters). I only got a little way into these, but they were integrated with the story and seemed to be interestingly explorable. Although, on the other hand yet again, the dexterity challenge was more of a nuisance than was warranted.

Neptune Flux

You operate an undersea waldo, collecting resources to preserve humanity after some kind of civilization-destroying event.

This is a puzzle game, but it's more of a homebrew action-adventure than a simple Myst clone. Oh, I suppose action-adventure is the wrong term -- no fighting, no jumping -- but you have a space to roam in and a couple of systematic tasks to occupy your time in between completing the main story beats.

It sounds like padding when I put it like that, but in fact those tasks pace out the game pretty nicely. It's still a short story, no question. But it's a short story that lets you poke around at your own pace; you can decide whether to rush to the next objective or scour the sea floor for a while.

(The traditional first-person adventure game would handle that pacing by flooding you with visuals: detail, detail, detail. And, you know, I'm a sucker for that. But there are other approaches, and this one is perfectly valid.)

All that said: the story does not work particularly well. It's trying to hand you a lot of concepts -- a post-catastrophe world, your job, your mother, AI, failed space colonies, alien artifacts, shipwrecks from various periods of history. But none of these really have a chance to settle in or feel real. I suppose this is where more visual detail would have helped! Or more game mechanics, or more characters... more engaging voice actors... more of anything to anchor the story. Lacking those, the story beats fail to connect up or have impact.

I feel like the designers tried to take a moderate approach -- just enough of everything -- but the total falls short.

(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Neptune Flux.)

She Who Fights Monsters

Last year I had trouble evaluating Undertale because Final Fantasy just isn't a big part of my gaming history. I recognize the tropes, but the way that the game riffs on them largely go over my head. Also, it's enormous so I never saw the thing as a whole.

SWFM is a simpler and shorter game with the same approach. Which is good, on the one hand, because I finished it and I pretty well understand what it's doing with its JRPG riffs. But, by the same token, it's less ambitious.

The topic is child abuse, and the game tackles it by means of traditional JRPG gameplay. That's interesting. And the story is clear and honestly offered. But the game doesn't do a whole lot with it beyond the basic concept of "let's present an emotional contrast using JRPG tropes". (Contrast, that is, between Jenny's fantasy life in games and her wounded reality.)

Perhaps I just wanted more story arc for Jenny. Her path in the story is essentially reactive and static. The new-game-plus options are trying to open this up, I think, but they feel awkwardly tacked on. The player is asked to re-experience (much of) the game, but in a distanced lens-of-memory way. The repetition mutes the impact. Or, I should say, the frame is inside out: I want the story to begin with mature Jenny reflecting on her history, and then ramp upwards to the raw impact of her early life. That's the "traditional" way you'd tell this story. But then of course the "final choice" of how you live your life would come at the beginning of the game, which is weird. I don't know! It's a hard problem.

Islands: Non-Places

That was a thing. It was just my kind of thing. 11/10 best puppy.

I'm not sure what else I have to say about this! It's a series of wordless images -- snippets of the urban landscape -- which you are invited to provoke into some kind of reaction. When you succeed, you move on to the next one. It's not a storybook; it's not a story at all; but it's involving and entirely charming.

I am going to tie this back to the genre of nonsense children's art: Graeme Base, David Wiesner, Shaun Tan. Nonsense which embodies a wordless looking-glass-logic. That's what this is. Not entirely new in videogames (anybody remember Haruhiko Shono?) but we can certainly use more of it.

Code 7 - Episode 0 - Allocation

This is a promo for an episodic game. I saw the Kickstarter go by but I didn't investigate it at the time. Now I see why people are talking about it. It's a smart take on the "text adventure" idea.

You wake up in a dark place with only a computer terminal to connect you to the outside world. You have to steer your friends through laboratory/complex/base by hacking on the computers that they connect you to.

If I put on my IF theorist hat, I would say that it's not equivalent to a full-on parser-based IF game. This is not a complaint; Code 7 goes off on its own thread, exploring the idea of a computer CLI rather than an object-based world model. That is entirely appropriate for the story it wants to tell. And it finds appropriate explorable mechanics within the CLI concept: the computers have a consistent (but expandable) set of commands, and the database search is a uniformly-available choice which the player can go back at will. There are also hacking scenes (which use a virtual map as a chase/puzzle environment), and scenes where the characters are chased by robots (same idea, but on a real-world map).

Altogether, a great pile of gameplay. Very polished presentation, too. My only complaint is that the real-time chase segments were a bit rough. The final hacking challenge took me a lot of tries -- enough that it wound up feeling tedious, rather than thrilling.

Now, the story is very old hat indeed -- a pile of sci-fi cliches. (With lanterns hung on them.) But the design is interesting, and the authors have the opportunity to take the story to more interesting places in future episodes.

Mu Cartographer

Excellent and indescribable!

I realize Mu Cartographer is pretty much aimed at my hot buttons: it's the love child of an abstract fiddly-toy and an explorable puzzle box. With bits of narrative about a psychogeographical landscape. I won't go so far as to say it's a story, but there's enough narrative text to provide a sense of place. Without that, it really would be an entirely abstract puzzle.

(Okay, there are snapshots of famous real-world landmarks. But those wouldn't sell sense-of-place on their own.)

My design quibble is that the various tasks aren't well balanced. There are three general categories of Things To Do (after "understand what to do".) One is pure grind (unless I missed a clue?) The second is easy (you can go straight to the solution); the third is hard (requires experimentation but you can tell when you're close). So you go back and forth between slog and non-slog, which makes the game pacing uneven. I finished it, but I felt that I'd spent too long on the job -- that is, too much blind-hunting time. Not the fun kind.

But this is a quibble. I enjoyed the heck out of this and would play six more just like it. ("Just like it" in the sense of each being completely different and unique, of course.)

Inside

A moody monochrome platformer, which is a genre. This is a beautiful example of that genre. The artwork takes a spare, minimal style and lifts it to breathtaking levels. Backgrounds, animation, lighting -- gorgeous.

The platforming mechanics are familiar terrain, but well-executed. You start with running and jumping, and move on to several other mechanics. These are (mostly) well-introduced and then mixed up in (mostly) reasonable variations; there's plenty of variety to keep your interest. Variety, heck -- the game physics achieves some brain-twisting weirdness.

The strength of this game is visual (of course) and... I don't want to say "world-building". The pieces do not fit together to build a world. But each piece is, individually, razor-sharp -- a lucid shape of game mechanics, scenery, and visual tone which conveys a situation.

The weakness of this game is that sometimes you just have no idea what it's trying to get you to do. You can screw around until you figure it out. I did. But you might die six times in a row while not learning anything. It's just a little too eager, sometimes, in introducing a new mechanic that's hidden in the scenery. Or maybe the scenery is a bit too distractingly artistic.

(They usually add enough blinky lights to clue you in, but not always.)

Inside is getting a lot of chatter as a superlative narrative game. It is a superlative game. But not narrative. Sorry! A narrative has a beginning, middle, and end. This has a starting point and a stopping point. That's not narrative.

As I said, the pieces don't fit together. Wordless platformers develop character, if they ever do, by giving you short-term goals which add up to game-spanning achievements. This game has the short-term goals, but they don't add up to anything. "You kept running." Not running to anything, or from anything. The threat in any given scene is clear, but you know no more at the end than you did at the beginning. I'll grant a thematic consistency -- the game is about control, and maybe that speaks to the platformer genre. But theme is not enough.

I loved Inside but it did not speak to me. It has a deep willingness to be nastily perverse, to bother the player. I admire that, and I've written works in that mode... but it's not the same as narrative.

Burly Men at Sea

Three burly sailors go on an odyssey. Then, if you like, they do it again!

It is undeniably adorable. The interaction is playful and distinctive -- more so when I got the iPad version. (Mouse control just doesn't suit the thing.) The writing is simple but sharp; I was immediately able to hear the characters' voices.

The visual design is great. The soundtrack is great (and makes me laugh). There's a nifty gimmick where you can buy any run-through as a printed storybook.

I feel like the game falls short of greatness, however. It asks for repeated play-throughs, but it doesn't particularly reward them. Scenes have first-time and subsequent-times variations, but no more than that. (That I saw.) They don't build on each other as you discover more of the map.

If the third run-through added as much as the second -- and so on, to some higher purpose -- this would have been one of my favorites of the year. As it is, it is a delightful toy that runs down too soon.

A Normal Lost Phone

  • (Accidental Queens / Rafael Martínez Jausoro, Estelle Charrié)
  • IGF entry page

A database game presented as the cell phone of a teenager in small-town America. As you explore the photos, email, text messages, and so forth, you uncover layers of Sam's life and how the phone came to be lost.

I expected this to be a fairly static environment. But you discover passwords and so on as you play, each of which unlocks a new section of the game. There aren't many of these; the story could be described as four gated "chapters" plus an epilogue. But then, the game is quite short overall, so it's not out of balance. The "puzzle" moments are all plausibly different, which wouldn't be possible in a longer game of this sort.

The designers do a good job of packing high school life into the non-linear environment of a phone. Exploration is gated by passwords, as I said -- but even within those chapters, you necessarily encounter the story piecewise. Messages and email are grouped by person, so you can't just browse Sam's entire life chronologically. This gives a nice putting-the-pieces-together feel even above the puzzle structure.

I won't be spoiling much if I say that the narrative turns into a coming-out story. The later sections involve a dating app and a support web forum. Again, these manage to convey a lot of information -- perhaps to the point of didacticism, but then I'm not close to the topic. If you are younger or these issues are personal to you, I think you'll appreciate the depth of detail.

The result is sweet and doesn't outstay its welcome. My only quibble is that the "American" setting is shaky -- not so much the character voices, which seem fine, but in random details like European date formatting and implausible town names.

January 11, 2017

Segue

New Release: Storytelling Skeletons

January 11, 2017 07:39 PM

A little side-project for the Pico-8. Wander an endless graveyards, find dark warnings about daunting perils, and never encounter any of them.

textadventures.co.uk

Meet the new textadventures.co.uk team

by Alex Warren at January 11, 2017 09:00 AM

I announced last month that I was handing over textadventures.co.uk and Quest. Many thanks to everybody who got in touch to volunteer to help. I was really pleased that so many people want to see these projects continue into the future. I am now happy to announce that we have a new team in place!

Luis Felipe Morales will be taking over the textadventures.co.uk and ActiveLit websites, and also Squiffy. A programmer since the 1980s, Luis has been involved with the Spanish interactive fiction community since he was young. He has maintained and created several internet portals and now works as a freelancer.

Jay Nabonne and Andy a.k.a The Pixie will be taking over development of Quest. Both have been very active members of the forums for a long time. Jay is a lifelong programmer and game player who is interested in not only creating games but helping others to do the same. A California native, he now lives with his wife in the UK. Andy has been playing and creating text adventure games since the Eighties, has been using Quest for over five years and has written various guides and libraries for the system.

Greg Fenton and Nathan Clive Gerard will each be running servers for Quest’s WebPlayer and WebEditor. Greg is a developer who wrote his first text adventure in dBase III on an IBM PC back in the very late 1980s shortly after leaving high school. Nathan is a regular player of text adventures from the UK (currently living in the USA), who spends his days setting up and looking after web servers in the cloud.

I’ll be working with each of them over the coming months to ensure a smooth transition. Please welcome them aboard!


January 09, 2017

The Gameshelf: IF

2017 IGF nominees: my comments

by Andrew Plotkin at January 09, 2017 07:29 PM

The Indie Games Festival nominees are now posted. The IGF is a showcase of indie games which exists as part of GDC (early March, San Francisco, expensive). I was again invited to be on the jury for Excellence in Narrative.

This year, I also took part in the first-phase judging -- sampling a list of some 670 games of games, commenting on them, and passing recommendations up to the second-phase juries. So I have notes on lots of games!

The narrative nominees:

  • Ladykiller in a Bind
  • 1979 Revolution: Black Friday
  • Virginia
  • Orwell
  • Event[0]
  • One Night Stand

In this post, I'll discuss these six games. In my next post, I'll talk about some of my other favorites from the candidate list.

Important details:

  • These are my comments, not my votes! I'm not posting my votes. If you've read any of my Design Ruminations posts, you know that I love to talk about what went wrong and right in a game, which is not the same as how good it was or how much I enjoyed it.
  • I was also invited to vote for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, but I declined. While I looked at a lot of games, I concentrated on the story games and narrative experiments. I don't feel like I have a broad enough view of indie gaming to talk about "best of the year".
  • I had access to free review copies of all of these games. (Pre-release copies, in the case of unreleased titles.)

Before I begin: I loved all these games. They were all high on my personal list during judging. I also loved many of the other entries!

This was a seriously hard year to judge. I don't mean it was a tight race; I mean... every game was on a completely different track. I was trying to compare text-dense games with completely wordless games. I was trying to compare visual novels with cinematic first-person games. At one point I was sitting there thinking "Which is more important to me -- good porn, real-world politics, or experimental film?" It's an unanswerable question! I wouldn't give up any of them!

Furthermore, all of the games were interesting -- which is to say, contentious in some way. I get that not everybody wants sex in games, or real-world politics in games, or (for that matter) experimental wordless film techniques in games. Every game on this list came in for some design criticism during the jury discussion. Nobody liked all the top nominees. You will see my pros and cons below, both.

In the end, I consulted my feelings and turned in a list of votes. But in a different month -- on a different day -- I might have put a different game on top.

(This post is not my voting order. I will discuss the games in the order that I played them.)


Event[0]

  • (Ocelot Society / Leonard Carpentier, Emmanuel Corno, Sergey Mohov)
  • IGF entry page

An adventure game in which you explore an abandoned starship. Your primary means of interaction is by talking to the shipboard AI. You do this by typing at the computer terminals that you find. Which is to say: this is a parser-based text adventure. I am very pleased with it, and not just for that reason. (Although a parser game always makes me happy.)

To be clear, this is not a traditional Zork-style IF text adventure (where you type commands from a conventional-but-extendable verb set). Nor is it a pure conversation game, which tries to simulate talking to a person. It's a hybrid. You can talk about any topic -- you're talking to an artificial person, after all. But you're trying to do things on the starship, and that means asking the AI to do them for you. You ask it to open doors, for example. But you have to stretch the command boundaries as you explore... so you get the conventional-but-extendable business after all.

The game takes its core mechanics -- looking at things, and then typing terminal commands -- with absolute conviction. Everything you do fits into that model, with a satisfying range of discoverable variation. If the UI had wavered and let you open a box or pull a lever with your hands, it wouldn't have worked nearly as well.

Free conversation input is of course a heck of a mechanic to wrestle with. Using it for a goal-oriented puzzle game is worse. The IF scene regards free dialogue as maybe usable for goalless character exploration; anything beyond that tends to bring up awful memories of Starship Titanic (1998, billed as a giant technological leap in NPC conversation systems; wasn't.)

This game, as far as I can tell, does not try to be a giant technological leap. (Perhaps the authors will tell me I am wrong, but...) It uses a standard approach: lots of keywords, a bit of pattern matching. I frequently caught the AI misparsing my input because it saw a keyword and ran away with it.

But it works, because the designers have put in reams and reams of effort. Not just on random topics (although there's plenty of that), but on contextual topics to keep the player moving forward. If you don't know what you're supposed to be doing, you can blather haplessly at the AI and it will put you back on the right track. It may be subtle or off-handed; it may just mention a topic that you missed. But it works.

(At least, it worked for me!)

The other nice bit are the broad hints that the AI cares about your phrasing. You can treat the AI as a topic index: just throw verbs and keywords at it. (That's what I did in Starship Titanic.) But it feels worthwhile to type complete sentences and say "please" and "thanks". Not because it gets better results -- but because the game politely asks you to.

Anyway. It's not a perfect game. The story, as SF, is rather thin. Plus I missed a lot of what the story was trying to convey, because I wasn't moved to trawl the AI about random background topics. And I got to a non-ideal ending because I wasn't sure what a particular command would do at the end. (It went boom. Should that have been clear in advance?) But it was a satisfying experience anyhow!

Recommended, for conveying its story entirely through its chosen mechanisms.

Virginia

Oh, the arguments over this one. It's a medium-short narrative work which is wordless and uses strictly presentational interactivity. A daring combination!

(In the IF Competition, we have a special Golden Banana award for the game with the widest spread of high-vs-low votes. Virginia was definitely the IGF's Golden Banana candidate this year.)

There are lots of wordless narrative games, but they generally give you plenty of agency at the beat-by-beat scale -- you have puzzles or at least exploration goals to tangle with. So you have a sense of expressivity through the protagonist's actions; you are achieving things. Virginia skips right past all of that. You have moment-by-moment agency (walking around, looking at things) but the narrative proceeds without giving you much more than a "next scene" interaction. Sometimes, not even that. You can collect flowers but that's entirely on your own account.

And then, on top of that, it's a character story with no dialogue.

You have to be willing to go with the game on this, and I won't blame you if you don't. But I think it works really well. Virginia adapts the visual language of cinematography better than any other game I can think of, simply because it's entirely that language -- the cinematography isn't used as mortar between puzzles, dialogue scenes, or chunks of browsable text. Nor does the cinematography clash with the interactivity. A thematic transition will occur when you see an object; your attention is in the right place for it. Abbreviated scenes give you just enough time to look around. That sort of thing.

The story concerns a (black, female) FBI agent, circa 1992. You are sent with a partner to a small town in Virginia. (Hardcore X-Files and Twin Peaks fans will have to cover those narrative connections.) The mystery is a missing person, but (of course?) this is not a detective puzzle game.

So what is it? The narrative is, necessarily, a bit ambiguous. Not entirely -- some of the plot is meant to be clear, and is. But there's quite a bit of dream sequence, hallucination, flashback, and allegory; the designers are happy to let them blur into each other around the edges. With no dialogue or voice-over, you're left to put the pieces together, will you or no.

Yes, there are seams, and yes it leans on hallucinatory surreality more than it probably should. (Again, Twin Peaks fans may disagree.) But it's energetic, it's sincere, and it conveys a lot of emotion in its stylized way. I liked it.

Orwell

Another database game! (I like this game format -- have since 1986.) But a pointed one. As the title implies, the database is a universal surveillance system run by the government. (Of a fictional Ruritanian nation, but that's thin drapery.) You are invited to be a volunteer investigator for the system, looking into a political bombing in "Freedom Plaza". The gimmick is that you are the human conscience of the system; it sees nothing until you decide to upload it. But, and on the flip side, your uploads are entirely contextless; you can upload one line of a conversation to makes someone look guilty or innocent. Truth is what you decide.

This game made me uncomfortable, and not for the reasons you might expect. It's last year's debate, see. An argument that a universal surveillance state is bad (or even good) based on an exploration of the effects? That's rational politics. We're past that now. (Relevant US and UK headlines omitted in despair.)

But I shoved the real world into a corner of my head... temporarily... and played through.

On its own terms, this is one smart construction of a game.

The gameplay comes in two basic phases: you search everything you have access to, then decide what to upload. (Uploading gives you access to more stuff, as the System expands its search to more targets. I mean people.) Both phases have just enough depth to be interesting without (much) risk of leaving the player stranded.

Search involves going through the game's simulated web pages, and (later) phone-taps and computer root-kits. You have to do a bit of clicking around to find everything; the UI cues you when a page needs more searching, so you won't get stuck. On each page, potential key phrases are highlighted. This is the decision phase; you can upload a chunk or mark it irrelevant. Sometimes two chunks contradict, and then you can only upload one of them. Again, the UI marks pages where you have work to do. The story advances when you've uploaded enough data for your government handler to arrest somebody or otherwise take action.

Thus, a potentially bewildering situation is constrained to a tight and reasonably clear model. It supports some nice variation -- technical hitches, a couple of real-time sequences, and twists at the end which I will not spoil. This suffices to keep the game fresh through a medium-short story of five chapters and about five hours of play time (my clock).

The weakness, I would say, is the early chapters of the game, which drop you in without much guidance as to your role. The System's goal is perfectly clear -- to suck up all data about everybody. (As personified by your smarmy handler, who reacts to every upload with gleeful suspicion.) And of course the game only progresses as you indict people. But I wasn't sure how much to care. Was it worth discarding evidence to protect this character or that one? Should I feel guilty about ruining their lives, or just play forward and see where the game was heading?

This laxity is more or less resolved by the end, which gets more personal and then offers you an explicit game-ending choice. (Nicely presented within the model you have learned.) But players may be turned off by the (apparent) uninvolvement up front. Of course, this is the whole point -- you are playing the disinterested all-powerful observer. Could the game pull you in without sacrificing that point? I'm not sure.

(Also, every time I decided someone was conspiring, more evidence turned up proving I was right. Is the engine conspiring to rewrite history for me, or am I just good at picking up cues? I would have to replay the game to be sure.)

Overall, I'm really impressed how this lays down a game model and then builds a story out of it. The actions you learn at the beginning remain consistent through the game, but they grow in important and relevance as the story progresses. This is not an easy trick. And then the story and characters are solid. A bit hammy, perhaps, but good enough to pull you through to the end.

One Night Stand

This is a short visual novel in the slice-of-life genre: you wake up naked in a strange girl's bedroom. You have a hangover and no clue how you got there.

(To be clear, my life has no slices that look remotely like this. I'm not very familiar with the visual novel genre, either, for that matter.)

The story has no genre twists (that I discovered!); it's a straightforward presentation of an awkward conversation. You can aim for more awkward or less awkward. You can snoop around to try to clue in about what happened. You can be gentlemanly or jerkly. Any way you cut it, the scene ends in about ten minutes and then you're on your way home.

This being the case, the game flies entirely on its writing and presentation. These do very well. The writing is convincing. (Somehow very, very British -- even before the girl uses the word "whilst" in cold blood.) The art uses rotoscoped animation (hand-drawn from live video, clearly) which is both charming and extremely expressive; the girl's face and body language carry as much weight as the dialogue.

The game offers a checklist of a dozen endings. I replayed to see three of them, but I didn't feel compelled to find the rest. The game structure wears a bit thin on repetition: many of your obvious choices are cut off and pulled back to the main story-thread. It's not that there are no interesting branches; rather it turns out that they're determined by the intervals where you're looking around the bedroom. You can look at just a couple of items at a time, and each one opens up a subject for the following conversation interval. So it's a more subtle structure than I expected, but searching it thoroughly would require a lot of experimentation. It would also require playing a bunch of unpleasant roles (the snoop, the bully, etc) and I just didn't want to go there.

At any rate, this tries to do something simple and constrained, but pulls it off with style.

Ladykiller in a Bind

A full-length visual novel about a high school graduation cruise. This is not to say that it is a slice-of-life story about high school. It's... well, it's not SF/fantasy; nor is it realistic contemporary fiction. I'm pretty sure the genre is anime, which is to say a sort of over-the-top implausible melodrama which doesn't pretend to be realistic but also doesn't include explicitly fantastical elements.

(Obviously there's SF/F anime too, but that's another genre again. Yes, there's a reason I'm off on genre again.)

So, in this case, we have twins swapping places, genius kids, millionaire kids, pirates, hackers, a voting game with a five-million-dollar prize, implausibly baroque social entanglements, and implausible amounts of baroque sex.

...Because the game is also smut. It is excellent smut. It features a diverse cast of characters -- I mean diverse in their attitudes, goals, and sexualities as well as their origins. Some of them want to bone you, and you can pursue these relationships or not. The sex scenes are themselves diverse, educational (if you have not encountered that diversity in your own life), well-written, and (not incidentally) really really hot.

Okay, it's good writing and it's good erotica. Is it a good game? I cannot answer this without talking about what I want out of games, which is complicated.

When I pick up a visual novel (or choice-based game in general), I tend to wrong-foot myself by asking "What am I trying to accomplish here?" Because of course the genre-convention answer is "Why ask me? Pick one of several available goals and pursue it, or, you know, just play and see what happens."

Not that these genres can't involve difficult challenges, or even explicit puzzles! They can; but that's something the author decided to add. (Just as, when we first talked about "puzzle-free IF" in the 90s, puzzles were something the author decided to omit.)

In fact Ladykiller has a couple of explicit challenges. You must try to keep people from suspecting your secret; you can try to win that social voting game. But these challenges mostly exist to serve the story framework. (E.g., the suspicion mechanic pushes you to interact with the character who can clear your suspicion stat.) The vote system, whether you care about it or not, is also currency for story entanglements. And the whole presentation of the game supports you thinking at the level of branching story outcomes. The game-mechanical stats are kept visible, and story choices are explicitly labelled with rewards and penalties. Story threads are tracked in scenes ("character X: scene 3 of 5") and you are regularly asked which thread you want to make progress on.

Again, this is all genre convention. Why am I going on about it? Well, as I've said, I haven't played many visual novels. Ladykiller is the first large one I've finished. So I'm trying to sort out what I think about them! (And you, lucky reader, get to follow along. Or else you rolled your eyes and bailed out four paragraphs ago. You decide.)

I think... I have never been entirely happy with the degree of control that choice-based games offer. A game that puts me into a single storyline: that's fine. The author dictates the story level, I control the moment-by-moment level. But when the core of the game is letting me steer the story branch-by-branch and chapter-by-chapter, I find that I'm not entirely on board with the options that are offered. I can get in the ballpark of what I want to do, but it's not quite there.

In my Ladykiller play-through, I wound up boinking three characters. I decided that X was a "never doing that again" experience; Y was "this was a very educational fling, thank you"; Z was "I have a giant crush on you and wish to keep you." And the game almost supported that. I wound up with an ending where X vanished and I got a negotiated OT3 relationship with Y and Z. And that's fine as narrative; it followed from the protagonist's scenes. But it wasn't actually what I wanted out of the story! The protagonist was way more interested in Y than I was, and I had no way to express that.

I could play another run, try to find "better" ending. That's what these games are built for -- exploring the potential space. But I'm never quite interested enough to spend the time. And that's my problem with choice-based games in a nutshell.

(Admittedly, the excellent smut is a strong motivation to replay, in this case...)

(I'm sure someone will argue that the negotiation between player control and author control is completely on-theme for the game. I would respond (a) it's not a negotiation after the author ships the game, I know that rodeo, kid, and (b) don't be a smartass. Although, okay, you're not wrong.)

Anyway. End of analytical tangent. Ladykiller is a solidly-constructed entry in the world of choice-based narrative IF. It is thoughtful and literate erotica and it's a lot of fun. I don't think it's my genre, but I still liked it.

1979 Revolution: Black Friday

Exactly what it says: a dramatization of the 1979 Iranian revolution, or moments of it, at least. You are a photojournalist, home from a year abroad, discovering that "home" is a word that covers a lot of ground. Contested ground.

Necessarily this kind of game serves two aims: the dramatic and the didactic. 1979 Revolution wants to immerse you in Iran-circa-1979; it wants to show you (the player, most likely a Westerner, in 2016) what that world was like; it wants to make you care. And it does these things successfully, but not smoothly. I felt like the game was always either in didactic mode or dramatic mode.

Didactic is a bit distanced. Here is Reza, the local boy, walking around examining the elements of his own life for your benefit. Yes, he's been out of town, and no, he doesn't act surprised at his home-town food or friends. The background material is wrapped up in an extra-diegetic journal that fills in as you go. But by the same token, it's a part of the game which is addressed to you, not to the protagonist.

As for the dramatic scenes -- the designers are clearly taking cues from the Telltale line. You have a lot of X/Y/Z dialogue choices, a lot of "Hossein will remember that!" tags, and frequent quick-timey interaction moments. These were, again, somewhat clunky. I failed quite a few scenes because I just didn't understand how to click-to-proceed. Eventually I figured out the game's UI conventions, and I got on well after that.

However, the question is not "how well-implemented is this story?"; it's "am I glad that someone told me this story?" And the answer is... well, it's not a happy story. I mean, it's not fun. You are involved in a chapter of Iran's history where people were arrested, tortured, or shot in the street by an autocratic regime. The game is about those people. It drops you into a torture prison, faces you with the (real-history) torturer-in-chief Asadollah Lajevardi.

It also drops you into Reza's life, with his ordinary-if-upper-class family, his friends, his city. You see his father's real-life home movies and his family photos. (Contributed by pointedly anonymous benefactors of the game project.) These are most honest and moving moments, I think -- more so than the cinematic scenes of being shot at or arrested.

It is an unashamedly biased presentation. From the inside, the revolution is idealistic, a fervent time of truth spoken to power. The protestors have been failed by the Shah's regime; they will be failed by the Islamic republic that is to come; they are betrayed by their own internal disagreements and the sins they will commit in the course of their revolution. The game nods to all of that. But it still casts them as heroes. It's hard to disagree.

So yes, I am glad that I have experienced this. I was in grade school in 1979; I remember hearing about the revolution as a distant, paper-thin shadow of an event. I remember that we didn't like Khomeini. I don't even remember how I knew that; it was schoolboy jokes, third-hand cultural miasma. This game is a window into the era for people like me -- a narrow slantwise window, but more than I had.

January 08, 2017

what will you do now?

Liminal spaces

by verityvirtue at January 08, 2017 04:01 PM

Liminal spaces are spaces characterised by transition and impermanence: bus stations, waiting rooms, airports. The first few days of the year often feels the same way to me. All I seem to see is retrospectives and forecasts: forever looking back and looking forward, because the year hasn’t quite got its footing. It seems appropriate, then, to highlight one such game which occupies a similar space.


Bus Station, Unbound, by Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst (IFDB; inklewriter; play here)

[Time to completion: 45 minutes. Some branches may describe violence]

You’re going home for Christmas, for the first time in years, if only to make up for all the damaged relationships you’ve had over the years. But the snow is coming down hard, and your next coach is likely to be delayed.

The authors describe this substantial, large work as primarily an interactive novel, but it works as a vaguely open-world exploration as well. There are lots of optional ‘side quests’ and characters with whom you can interact; exploration opens up different endings and storylines.

But this is built on an emotional heart, reflected in the parallels between the PC and the building. The location’s brokenness reflects the PC’s own. The shoddiness of the building itself, the glitchy machinery, the inertia of the buses, even the irritable, argumentative NPCs: aspects of these are reflected, in some way or other, in the PC’s own relationships with their family and in their own life decisions. Perhaps even the liminal nature of the bus station – a space characterised by transition and impermanence – reflects how the PC stands on the cusp of something new.

The theme of symbolically rich buildings, buildings as containers for ideas, is not a new one. This idea, for instance, is taken more literally in Bruno Dias’s Four Sittings in a Sinking House (IFDB page). In both, the titular building reflects brokenness elsewhere: it is the PC themselves in Bus Station, Unbound, while it is the owners’ material worship in Four Sittings.

Something else I enjoyed in reading this were the contrasts and almost-contradictions in the bus station’s ‘characterisation’. It is described in ways that sit uneasily with each other. It is at once a “monstrous waste of money”, but also a structure of “pale concrete petals”, “heartlike” in its action. The storylines invite comparison between Preston Bus Station’s mundanity and terror, human warmth and mechanical coldness. You might run across bus station staff, whose roles are entirely expected, almost boring; or you might stumble into an abyss which would not be out of place in Failbetter Games’s Fallen London.

Bus Station Unbound is pretty word-heavy, and it deserves the title of ‘interactive novel’, but there is a lot in here to explore.


Another game worth mentioning, even if I have not yet collected my thoughts regarding it, is Bruno Dias’s Not All Things Make it Across, a collection of short vignettes drawing from his previous works, including the aforementioned Four Sittings in a Sinking House.


Tagged: Bruno Dias, inkle, inklewriter, Jenn Ashworth, length: long, liminal spaces, Richard Hirst, setting: urban

January 06, 2017

The Digital Antiquarian

A Time of Endings, Part 3: Mediagenic (or, The Patent from Hell)

by Jimmy Maher at January 06, 2017 05:00 PM

On August 31, 1966, a 44-year-old electrical engineer named Ralph Baer had an epiphany whilst waiting for a colleague outside a New York City bus terminal. For reasons he would never be able to explain, his thoughts turned to the potential of an interactive version of television. The next day, he sat down in his office at Sanders Associates, the defense contractor where he worked as a senior engineer, and wrote down his ideas in the form of a four-page proposal. Over the course of the next four years, amidst many other distracting priorities and much internal politicking, Baer gradually turned his proposal into the concrete reality of a “TV Game” system. Sanders, a company with no experience in marketing consumer electronics, licensed the system to Magnavox, an Indiana-based television manufacturer, in 1971. Magnavox’s engineers then turned the TV Game into the Magnavox Odyssey, which was released in September of 1972 at a price of $100. Thus was the first home videogame console in history born.

That said, the Odyssey lacked many of the things people would soon come to expect from such a beast. Technically, it wasn’t a computing device at all, as it lacked a programmable brain in the form of a CPU. Instead the Odyssey was a solid-state electrical device that was “programmed” by rewiring its innards. Game cartridges were little patch boards that connected its resistors and potentiometers together in different ways, leading to different behaviors. As you might imagine, the number of such viable configurations was decidedly limited. The Odyssey shipped with twelve games that encompassed most of what the system was realistically capable of, ranging from Simon Says to roulette to table tennis. Most of the games relied on external components like screen overlays, scoring pads, and even decks of cards to accompany their primitive onscreen graphical presentations. While Magnavox released a handful of other games for separate purchase, the Odyssey had neither the flexibility nor the sales numbers to create a real “software” market, whether consisting of games published by Magnavox or by others. Best estimates today are that Magnavox sold perhaps a few hundred thousand Odysseys over about a three-year period.

In 1974, Magnavox was acquired by the Dutch electronics giant Philips. Coincidentally or not, the Odyssey was discontinued soon after, having never been viewed as much more than a low-priority curiosity by either Magnavox’s management or the retailers who sold it. It’s since gone down into history in largely the same way — as an historical curiosity, a would-be Atari VCS that was just a little too far ahead of its time.

Or it would have, anyway, if not for a patent for which Baer applied on March 22, 1971. Granted on April 17, 1973, United States Patent 3,728,480 — one of several granted in connection with the Odyssey — would be a thorn in the side of the young videogame industry for more than twenty years. “Do [insert everyday activity here] on a computer” patents, endless debates over slide-to-unlock and rounded corners, billion-dollar judgments… all of the litigious insanity that greets us on the technology-news sites today began with what soon became known in videogame circles as simply the Baer patent — two little words which could terrify videogame executives like few others.

Before we proceed, we should take a moment to review the ostensible definition of a patent. The United States patent statutes in effect at the time of the Odyssey patents explain that they are meant to protect a person who “invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new [emphasis mine] and useful improvement thereof.” Patents accomplish this by securing for the inventor an exclusive license to the patented technology for a period of twenty years from the patent’s application date or seventeen years from its issuance date, whichever is longer. The adjective “new” in the statute is critical; a patented process must be a genuinely new process. The existence of “prior art” — whether known or unknown to the holder of the patent when the patent was applied for, and whether said prior art was itself ever patented or not — immediately invalidates a patent as soon as it’s proved to have existed. Just as critically, a patent does not protect ideas, only implementations. One can, in other words, patent a specific type of engine installed in a car, but one cannot patent the abstract idea of a horseless carriage itself.1 Both of these qualifications were well-established well before the advent of the computer age, yet for some reason courts have often struggled markedly to apply them correctly and consistently in the realm of digital technology. In the case of the famous — some would say infamous — Baer patent, there is good reason to question the courts’ decisions on both counts.

In 1974, shortly before Philips acquired them, Magnavox instituted an intermittent hobby of suing videogame makers over the Baer patent. They alleged that Atari had infringed on the patent with their Pong videogame. Although the Atari machine still didn’t have a CPU and only played the one game, internally at least it was a much more advanced piece of technology than the Odyssey, built using integrated circuits — i.e., chips — rather than the discrete components of Baer’s gadget. For this reason, there could be little question of Pong infringing on the specific implementation of a videogame console described in the Baer patent, a point Atari initially argued with gusto. In reply, Magnavox made the audacious argument that the implementation didn’t really matter in this case. In apparent defiance of the patent statutes themselves, they claimed the Baer patent really did apply to the idea of a videogame, evoking in their defense the fuzzy legal concept of a “pioneer patent”: a process or device so genuinely new and groundbreaking that it should be afforded an unusual amount of leeway by the court when it comes to determining what is abstract idea and what is concrete implementation. The pioneer patent is that most dangerous thing in law, an amorphous abstraction rather than an absolute stipulation. No patent is stamped with a “P” for “pioneer” when it’s granted, and the law has no clear mechanism for dividing patents into “pioneering” and “non-pioneering” categories thereafter. Officially, pioneering patents barely exist at all. Instead, the court system prefers to speak of, as legal scholar Alan L. Durham puts it, “a spectrum that embraces various degrees of inventiveness,” with the pioneer patent enjoying “a potentially broader scope of equivalence because it is not hemmed in by large numbers of similar inventions in the prior art.” In such vagueness lies potential madness.

After acquiring Magnavox, Philips continued to pursue patent-infringement cases against Atari and others. Supported enthusiastically by Ralph Baer, who now stood to gain millions from his old TV Game, Philips rode the nebulous concept of the pioneer patent hard. Baer’s own take on what his patent should cover was stunningly broad. “Our patents,” he would always insist, “dealt with the interaction between machine-controlled and manually-controlled symbols onscreen. If there was a change in the path, direction, or velocity of the machine-controlled symbol immediately after ‘contacting’ — i.e., coming into coincidence with — one of the manually-controlled symbols onscreen, then the game exhibiting these functions infringed our patents.” Not only would such a description have to encompass just about every graphical computer or videogame ever made, one could even imagine it being applied to the non-game GUI-based computer operating systems that began to appear in the 1980s, which relied on manipulating symbols on the screen through “contacting” them with the mouse cursor.

There was, however, a huge danger for Philips in claiming that essentially every videogame should be covered by the Baer patent. The painful fact was that the Magnavox Odyssey, while it was indisputably the first home videogame console, was far from the first videogame, full stop. The two most obvious and incontrovertible examples of prior art were Tennis for Two, a game built by American physicist William Higinbotham for play on an oscilloscope in 1958, and Spacewar!, a game programmed by a trio of MIT hackers for play on a DEC PDP-1 minicomputer equipped with a vector-graphics terminal in 1962. In other words, if Baer’s patent truly applied to every videogame ever then it should never have been granted at all. To head off this line of attack, Philips engaged in a careful exercise in triangulation. Having begun their argument by implying that the Baer patent should cover every videogame, regardless of the details of its technical implementation, they concluded it by stipulating that it should only apply to videogames that were played on ordinary television or monitor screens. Did they want to have their cake and eat it too? Perhaps, but they would be remarkably successful in court.

Atari elected to settle out of court before the case was decided, agreeing to pay Philips to license the patent. It’s very possible that Nolan Bushnell, Atari’s founder and president, may have seen the deal as counter-intuitively beneficial to his own company. Atari was established and doing very well, and could afford to pay off Philips. The many would-be competitors who were now attempting to get into the same videogame space, however, had shallower pockets and far less clout to negotiate a favorable deal of their own with Philips. And, indeed, a whole clutch of small companies which Philips elected to sue during this period were driven out of the business, unable to muster the resources to even begin to mount a defense against a company the size of Philips. Here we can already see in action one of the most nefarious effects of patent law as it too often gets applied in the modern economy: the way patents get used not, as originally intended, by the little guys to protect themselves against the rapaciousness of more powerful forces, but by said more powerful forces to keep said little guys out. From the date of Atari’s settlement forward, the only companies introducing new home-videogame consoles in the United States would be big, established one who could, like Atari, afford to reach an accommodation with Philips: companies like Coleco, Milton Bradley, and Mattel. (The last did try to fight the Baer patent in court on behalf of their Intellivision console, but legal precedent was now against them; they lost and agreed to pay up like the others.)

In September of 1982, Philips, now receiving payments from all of the makers of videogame consoles, decided to broaden the field further by suing for the first time a maker of videogame software. They chose for their first target Activision, the most famous and successful of all the third-party makers of Atari VCS cartridges. Activision conducted the most spirited and determined defense yet. Motions and counter-motions flew back and forth for years, while the industry surrounding the two warring parties changed greatly. The Great Videogame Crash of 1983 meant the end of most of Philips’s steady income from the patent licensees, leaving them more motivated than ever to wrangle as large a sum as possible out of Activision for their alleged transgressions of the boom years. At last, on March 17, 1986, the verdict came down in Phillip’s favor; case-law precedent, which was well-established by now for the Baer patent, is a difficult thing to fight. Still, in a bid to buy some more time if nothing else, Activision filed their motion to appeal the very next day.

As the case continued to grind through the courts, much change came to Activision. In January of 1987, the company’s founder Jim Levy, after struggling for years to remake his erstwhile purveyor of Atari VCS action games into a purveyor of artsy and innovative computer games, was dismissed by a board that was frustrated by years of ugly losses. Stepping into his shoes was Bruce Davis, who promised the board a return to profitability by retrenching and refocusing on proven genres in proven markets.

We’ve already had considerable opportunity to observe Davis as head of Activision, especially in the context of his troubled relationship with Infocom, the text-adventure specialist whose acquisition had been one of his predecessor’s last major moves. In the beginning, Davis delivered on his promise to Activision’s board to start the company making money again. Activision announced their first profitable quarter in four years just six months after he took over, and continued to be modestly but consistently profitable for the two years that followed. Yet he accomplished the turnaround in ways that seemed almost willfully crafted to be as uninspiring as possible. Davis took to talking about Portal, the innovative “electronic novel” that this humble writer still considers one of the most interesting things any incarnation of Activision ever released, as his number-one exemplar of the sort of product Activision wouldn’t be green-lighting in the future. My fellow historian Alex Smith characterizes Davis’s strategy as the pursuit of “a steady stream of low-level successes rather than high-quality, high-risk, high-reward software.” In terms of games, this meant a series of middling titles, as often as not licensed from whatever media properties were reasonably trendy but not too expensive, that were often competent but seldom exciting — like, one might say, Bruce Davis himself. Like too many gaming executives before and after him, he thought of games as commodities, not creative works. To be fair, he did push his company into HyperCard applications and CD-ROM early enough to count as a pioneer, but in other areas his views were consistently regressive rather than progressive. His views on games for women read as particularly unfortunate today; he said women would never be a viable market due to vaguely defined “profound” differences he claimed to exist between the sexes. In much of this, Davis, lacking any personal engagement with his company’s products, was a slave to the conventional wisdom of the stock analysts and financiers.

While few found him as personally unpleasant as his growing reputation as the most soulless of chief executives might suggest, the aspect of Davis’s character that most consistently frustrated those who worked with and for him was his tendency to make sweeping unilateral decisions without consulting them. Combined with what often seemed a somewhat shaky grasp of basic human nature, it could make for a toxic brew. For instance, there was his unilateral decision to demand hundreds of thousands in reparations from some of the most important figures still working at Infocom for allegedly misrepresenting the value of their company before its sale to Activision. Davis seemed nonplussed when it was pointed out to him that this might affect morale and thus the performance of the already troubled subsidiary.

By far the most widely mocked of Davis’s unilateral decisions was that of changing the name of Activision in May of 1988 to Mediagenic. He claimed the new name would free the company of the baggage of its storied early years, would emphasize that this latest incarnation was far removed from the one that had so successfully sold videogame cartridges to Atari VCS owners in the early 1980s. After all, the newly christened Mediagenic now sold a much wider range of entertainment software for computers as well as consoles, and was moving beyond games as well into creativity and productivity software. Of course, what Davis labeled diversification, others might label a lack of any coherent focus. Seen in this light, the name change was emblematic of a company that did indeed seem to have lost its very identity, that was trying to do a little bit of everything without doing any of it particularly well. With few to no products worth getting really excited over, Mediagenic’s catalog was a dismayingly anonymous collective. “We have a lot of legs to stand on,” said Davis. Perhaps a few too many. The name change succeeded only in making him and his company the butt of constant jokes for the rest of his tenure. William Volk, who worked at Activision/Mediagenic at the time, told me that the consensus there among everyone not named Bruce Davis was that the name change was “the stupidest decision in the world”: “We hated the name, we called it Mediumgenitals.”

But perhaps an even more damaging manifestation of Davis’s unilateral tendencies was his handling of the Philips lawsuit, which continued to hover over Mediagenic throughout his tenure like a Sword of Damocles. Stan Roach, one of those who reported directly to Davis, believes that Davis felt his background as an intellectual-property attorney qualified him to take exclusive responsibility for the management of the case. In May of 1988, just days after the name change was announced, Mediagenic’s appeal of the Baer patent case was rejected by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the case moved on to the damages phase. Davis continued to play his cards so close to the vest thereafter that when the damages verdict arrived in March of 1990, everyone was shocked to discover it was more than large enough to constitute an existential threat. An atomic bomb no one had seen coming had just been dropped on them out of a clear blue sky.

The timing could hardly been much worse; at that point, Mediagenic’s bottom line was already looking pretty ugly. Although they were still roughly breaking even in terms of day-to-day sales, Mediagenic over the course of 1989 had written off a pile of Davis’s more unprofitable ventures, such as the TenPointO productivity line whose name made “Mediagenic” sound like a stroke of marketing genius. And, most damagingly, they had finally closed the Infocom subsidiary Davis had never really wanted in the first place, a move which alone carried with it a hit to the bottom line of some $5 million. It all came as part of yet another of Bruce Davis’s unilateral moves. With all of Mediagenic’s products in the field of non-gaming software and, indeed, in the field of computer software in general under-performing, he had decided to return his company to its roots as a maker primarily of cartridge games. “PCs will never have the penetration into homes that videogames do,” he said, citing the cheaper price and greater ease of use of the consoles. While he wasn’t wrong to take note of those factors, which were indeed doing much to make the Nintendo Entertainment System one of the most successful consumer-electronics products in the history of the American consumer economy, Mediagenic’s tepid stable of games had little chance of seriously competing on the Nintendo against the likes of Zelda and Mario. Nevertheless, in October of 1989 Davis said that he intended to pull entirely out of all products other than games. That this move came less than eighteen months after the name change to Mediagenic that had been made to facilitate the exact opposite strategy — to establish a new identity as a maker of a wide range of software — must be one of the more damning indictments of his overall leadership.

In executing the pivot, Mediagenic would take the initial financial hit that must result from it in a single fiscal year, then hopefully be set to grow again thereafter. For fiscal 1990, which ended on March 31, 1990, Mediagenic was therefore set to register a loss of some $13 million, about three times as much as all of the profits Davis had so far managed to realize during his tenure. And then, with just days remaining in the fiscal year, the final verdict on damages in the Philips case came down. Mediagenic was punished resoundingly for their earlier refusal to settle. They were to pay a lump sum of $6.6 million to Philips for violating the Baer patent — money they simply didn’t have.

Mediagenic’s only alternative was to negotiate with Philips for leniency on the terms of payment, but the prospects for the latter’s forbearance looked to be decidedly limited. Offered an ownership stake in Mediagenic in lieu of cash, Philips refused. By this point, Philips had launched yet another patent lawsuit, this time against Nintendo, the new 800-pound gorilla of the videogame industry. Many inside Mediagenic believed that Philips was determined to play hardball, was willing to completely destroy Mediagenic if necessary, in order to set an example for Nintendo of what happened to those who didn’t reach an out-of-court settlement.2 At any rate, the best Mediagenic’s negotiating team could manage was to get Philips to let them defer payment for two years, until 1992, whereupon they could pay in installments of $150,000 per month. Yet even that act of mercy cast a huge pall over the company’s future; $150,000 was an awful lot of money for any business — much less a moribund one like Mediagenic — to give away for no return month after month. Lenders, already made skeptical by Bruce Davis’s strategic U-turns alongside his company’s stagnant sales, refused to grant the credit he needed to complete the restructuring necessary to finish implementing his latest plan. Caught out on a limb, Mediagenic went into free fall, defaulting on creditor after creditor as product development came to a virtual standstill. With little new to sell, their sales dropped from $64.1 million in fiscal 1990 to $28.8 million for the year ending March 31, 1991, leaving them worse off than ever even as the clock continued to tick down on the fateful day when they would have to start making payments to Philips.

When a company as large and important as Mediagenic had become to their industry collapses, it never does so in isolation. Among the people Mediagenic suddenly weren’t paying was their network of so-called “affiliated labels,” smaller publishers who sold their products through Mediagenic’s large, well-established distribution network. These publishers would deliver product to Mediagenic, who would then pay them for it — minus their fee, of course — after selling it on to retail stores. Amidst the chaos of 1990, the second part of that arrangement never happened. Brian Fargo of Interplay, one of Mediagenic’s affiliated labels, described to me the snowball effect that ensued for his company.

It was a double whammy. Imagine this. We ship $500,000 worth of product to Mediagenic, and they turn around and ship it to retail. Mediagenic doesn’t pay me the half a million; they may or may not have gotten paid by retail. Who knows, right? Then I go to the retailers and say, “Mediagenic’s going out of business, so we’re going to go direct now.” They say, “Great! We’ve got half a million dollars worth of your product here.” We say, “Yeah, we know, but we already didn’t get paid for that once.” They say, “Well, you’ve go to take it back from us if you want to continue to do business with us.” So I had to eat my product twice. That almost wiped us out.

Fargo says that Interplay almost certainly would have gone down as collateral damage if not for a new game called Castles, the first they released after leaving Mediagenic, which became a big hit: “Castles saved the company.” Other affiliated labels, such as the Amiga specialists MicroIllusions, weren’t so lucky, going under even as Mediagenic still straggled on, at least ostensibly alive.

Outside developers who created software for publication under Mediagenic’s own imprint were likewise caught in the undertow. When Mediagenic stiffed the Miller brothers of Cyan Software, it very nearly marked the end of their illustrious careers in game development when they had barely begun to show their potential. Thankfully, they would find a way to pull it together and make Myst, by some measures the most successful single computer game of the 1990s, for Brøderbund. Had that game come out on the Mediagenic label, it would single-handedly have solved the problem of the Philips judgment. But then, a Mediagenic Myst would have been unlikely under Bruce Davis; the Miller brothers have told of how they kept asking Mediagenic for permission to make an adult game instead of children’s titles long prior to Myst, only to be told to “stick to children’s games.”

By December of 1990, Mediagenic’s affiliated labels and outside developers were all gone along with most of the company’s other business relationships. Mediagenic was foundering in a sea of red ink, with a bottom-line loss for the year of $19.7 million, and was about to be de-listed from the stock exchange as a lost cause. Seemingly the only question remaining was when and how the inevitable liquidation would happen. It’s at this fraught point that there enters into our story an unexpected wildcard in the form of one Bobby Kotick.

In later years, Kotick would become perhaps the foremost living embodiment of modern mainstream gaming, with its play-it-safe big-bucks ethos of sequels, franchises, and established genres. Kotick’s habit of saying publicly what many other gaming executives are only thinking has made him a lightning rod for people who would like to see more innovation and thematic ambition in games. One might be tempted to lump him into the same category as Bruce Davis, with whom his general philosophy of business initially seems to have a lot in common, but to do so would be to ignore a very fundamental difference: Kotick, whatever one personally thinks of the games his company releases, has shown an undeniable knack for making games that huge masses of people want to buy. He’s as celebrated by the business press as he is vilified by the artsier corners of the gaming world; he could likely wallpaper his doubtless spacious house with all of his awards from the likes of Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and Inc. How could the business press not love him? He turned a $440,000 investment into a $4.5 billion company in 25 years.

When he trod unto the scene of the slow-motion Mediagenic car crash, however, Bobby Kotick was just a fast-talking 27-year-old go-getter with outsize ambitions. Tender though he was in years, he was already a hardened veteran of the technology business. He had kicked around the home-computer industry for much of the 1980s, using glibness, persistence, and sheer force of personality to win him access to people that would never have glanced twice at him on the basis of his paltry experience and education. In 1987, in a truly audacious move for a 24-year-old, he had tried to put together a package to buy Commodore in order to market the Amiga the way it deserved. Laudable though that goal was, Irving Gould, the crusty old Canadian financier who owned most of the stock at Commodore and ultimately called all the shots, soon sent the young interloper packing. Three years later, he had been involved in lots of small deals, but was still looking for that elusive big break. In the meantime, he and a pair of partners named Brian Kelly and Howard Marks had incorporated themselves under the name of BHK, and were making investments here and there. Observing Mediagenic’s sorry state, they decided to make their biggest one yet.

BHK bought up the 25 percent of Mediagenic’s shares owned by Imasco Venture Holdings, a consortium of investors who were now all too eager to sell, for a cost of just $440,000. The price they paid was as good a measure as any of just how far Mediagenic had fallen; it meant that the entire company was now theoretically worth less than $2 million. BHK’s initial plan for their investment is a little unclear. One reader has told me of sharing a car with Bobby Kotick on the way to an E3 event many years later when the latter was apparently in an unusually candid mood, even for him. Kotick, says my reader, confessed on that evening that he originally didn’t think there was much of anything left worth saving at Mediagenic, and that BHK first bought the shares strictly as a tax write-off. According to this version of events, only after looking more closely at the company they’d bought into and observing the allure that still clung to the old Activision name among gaming veterans did he begin to think that the planned tax write-off might in fact be the shot at the big time he’d been looking for for so long.

Regardless of the original motivation for the purchase, what happened next is better understood. BHK now constituted the largest single owner of Mediagenic stock, and decided to use that leverage in what amounted to a hostile-takeover bid. They showed the other shareholders that they could secure another $5 million in cash and credit, and that they had hammered out an agreement in principle with the major lenders to exercise some forbearance in their collections efforts. BHK was willing to use these things to keep Mediagenic’s doors open, at least for now, on one condition: Bruce Davis and the rest of his management team would have to go, to be replaced by BHK’s own, with Bobby Kotick in the CEO’s chair and Brian Kelly as CFO. The shareholders quickly agreed. After all, the only alternative that remained was immediate liquidation, which would net them virtually nothing, and they had little loyalty left to Bruce Davis, the man they accused — and not without cause — of having badly mismanaged Mediagenic from well before the patent judgment that had proved the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. On February 22, 1991, Davis stepped down and Kotick stepped up. He controlled Mediagenic; now he just needed to save it. “Given the company’s bleak and deteriorating financial condition, basically this is a turnaround situation,” he said to the press in the understatement of the year.

He knew that the turnaround was dead in the water if he couldn’t work out something with Philips. His first significant act as CEO was therefore to meet with them. The only way you can possibly get paid anything at all, Kotick told them, is if you agree to accept equity in lieu of cash. Once again, Philips flatly refused, whereupon Kotick dropped his key card for Mediagenic’s offices on the table and walked. “Good luck,” he said on his way out the door, convinced he would have to liquidate Mediagenic for the tax write-off after all. Less than thirty minutes later, Philips called him to tell him they would take the equity. (Bruce Davis believes that Philips agreed to the deal because Steve Wynn, a casino mogul who had been something of a mentor to Kotick, called in some favors with friends on Philips’s board, but this remains speculative.)

Kotick slashed the employees rolls, already down to 100 at the time of the takeover from a high of 250 a couple of years before, to just 25 by the end of 1991. He negotiated a lump-sum payout to get out of Mediagenic’s lease of a large Silicon Valley office park, taking a cramped hole of a place in Los Angeles instead. But he wouldn’t be able to cost-cut his way out of the crisis; the company remained fundamentally insolvent. “As much as I’d like to think I provided some grand vision,” Kotick later said, “our first year we were pretty much blocking and tackling.” He watched parts of the company literally disappearing around him each week, as creditors showed up to reclaim equipment that hadn’t been paid for.

So, it quickly became obvious, if it hadn’t been so from the beginning, that $5 million wasn’t going to be enough to set things right. There was only one possible way out of this mess. Using all of his considerable powers of persuasion, Kotick finalized the terms of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy — i.e., a bankruptcy constituting a reorganization rather than a liquidation — with Mediagenic’s creditors in November, getting most of them, as he earlier had Philips, to accept equity stakes in lieu of cash they would never see anyway if the company was allowed to fail entirely. (As “the Bandito,” Amazing Computing‘s rumor columnist, wryly put it, “You’re doing so bad they have to let you keep going.”) The previous stockholders would be left with just 4.2 percent of the company, the rest going into the hands of the likes of Philips, Nintendo (Mediagenic owed them millions for cartridges Nintendo had manufactured but never been paid for), and Sony Pictures (Bruce Davis’s mania for licenses had come home to roost in the form of huge outstanding bills for the licensed games). The company emerged from bankruptcy the next year, leaner and humbled but ready to make a go of it again under their dynamic young CEO. Best of all, the company emerged from the bankruptcy as Activision again rather than Mediagenic. Everyone preferred to forget that the ill-advised name change had ever happened. What with plenty of lenders willing to defer but not to forget much of the rest of what had happened during the Bruce Davis years, it was still going to be an uphill climb. Yet for the first time it was starting to look like they might just have a fighting chance.

In the most literal sense, then, Activision — we too can go back to using that name again! — never died at all, which perhaps makes this story a little out of place amidst this series of articles about endings. Yet the trauma the company went through was so extreme, and the remaking it would undergo under Bobby Kotick so complete, that I trust no one will look too askance at its inclusion here. The Kotick-led version of Activision — Activision 4.0, we might say — was headquartered in a different city entirely, and would employ only a handful of the same people. We’ll take up the continuing story of Activision 4.0, that most unlikely of phoenixes, later on.

In the meantime, what shall we say in closing about the pre-Kotick Activision? Certainly the final finanical reckoning isn’t terribly kind; the company ran a loss for six of its eleven years of existence. After those first few golden years when the Atari VCS was king and Activision 1.0 made the best games for the system, bar none, Activision could never seem to settle on an identity and make it stick. The occasional interesting title aside, neither Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0 nor Bruce Davis’s Activision 3.0 ever felt truly relevant in any holistic sense. Davis’s small-ball approach in particular only served to prove that you really do need to swing for the fences every once in a while.

But rather than continue to poke and prod the muddled history of Activisions 2.0 and 3.0, let’s consider one last time the patent judgment that — whilst giving due deference to all of Bruce Davis’s mistakes — ultimately did them in. It’s rather blackly amusing to consider that the lawsuit which took out Mediagenic and made collateral damage out of so many affiliated labels and outside developers should have come from Philips, who were busy at the same time screwing over another huge swathe of the American games industry with their vaporware CD-I platform. So, here we see yet more of the reasons that so many people who were around the industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s lapse into a stream of curses even today at the merest mention of the name of Philips. Philips couldn’t have done a better job of sowing chaos and discord had they been a double agent hired by Nintendo to complete the destruction of the last of their console’s competition on home computers. But, sadly, the fact that Philips also sued Nintendo rather puts paid to that rather delightful conspiracy theory, doesn’t it?

In the end, the Baer patent netted some $100 million for Philips by Ralph Baer’s own estimation — not a bad financial legacy for the Magnavox Odyssey, a commercially middling (at best) product they inherited and soon cancelled. Baer himself was rewarded with a substantial piece of each settlement negotiated or lawsuit won, and remained to the end of his life unapologetic, claiming what he had received was only his just rewards. While I respect the man’s huge achievements in the field of videogames as well as other areas of electrical engineering, I must say that I don’t agree with him on this point, and must admit that the legal ugliness does somewhat taint his legacy in my eyes. None of the home-videogame systems that followed the Magnavox Odyssey bore much of anything in common with it technically, while the evidence that it directly inspired to any appreciable degree anything that followed is uncertain at best. Of course, it’s also true that Bruce Davis, who had quite a wide litigious streak of his own, doesn’t necessarily make for the most sympathetic of victims. And yet it’s still worth asking whether he deserved to see his company ruined over a videogame console that hadn’t been sold in fifteen years, just as in the bigger picture it’s worth asking what the $100 million Philips made off the Baer patent was really rewarding them for. While we’re at it, it may also be worth asking how different a place the world would be today if, say, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn had chosen to go the route of Ralph Baer and Philips, had chosen to patent and aggressively protect their TCP/IP protocol that underpins the free and open modern Internet — or if Tim Berners-Lee had done the same to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol that sits atop it.

Unfortunately, questions like this these will continue to crop up with distressing frequency as we continue on this little voyage through computer history. And more’s the pity, my friends… more’s the pity.

(Sources: San Francisco Chronicle of May 18 1988, May 25 1988, October 4 1988, October 29 1988, November 14 1988, November 22 1988, January 17 1989, May 15 1989, November 2 1989, March 16 1990, May 5 1990, June 2 1990, September 29 1990, November 1 1990, January 11 1991, January 23 1991, February 27 1991, July 11 1991, October 5 1991, and December 2 1991; San Jose Mercury News of July 27 1987, January 8 1988, January 27 1988, May 14 1988, May 15 1988, May 18 1988, and October 20 1989; Sierra News Magazine of Autumn 1989; Questbusters of April 1991, July 1991, and August 1992; Compute! of January 1989; New York Times of January 25 2004; Amazing Computing of April 1989, August 1989, June 1990, July 1990, January 1991, December 1991, and April 1992; the books Patent Law Essentials: A Concise Guide by Alan L. Durham and Monopoly on Wheels: Henry Ford and the Seldon Automotive Patent by William Greenleaf. Online sources include an article on Gamasutra; the articles “By Any Other Name,” “The Baer Essentials,” and “A Magnavox Odyssey” on Alex Smith’s videogame-history blog; United States Patent 3,728,480; an archive of documents relating to the Baer patents and especially the Philips v. Magnavox suit at the University of New Hampshire School of Law; Robyn Miller’s GDC 2013 postmortem on the making of Myst. My thanks go to William Volk and Brian Fargo for very enlightening interviews about these times. My thanks to Yeechang Lee, an investment banker who told me about a very interesting conversation he had with Bobby Kotick. And my huge thanks once again go to Alex Smith, who shared the fruits of his own research in these subjects, among them Mediagenic’s 10K financial statements for fiscal 1990 and fiscal 1991, a summary of his interview with Bruce Davis, and his own valuable insights. The last notwithstanding, it should be understood that this article’s final judgments on the Ralph Baer patent, Bruce Davis, and everything and everyone else are my own alone, so don’t send your hate mail to Alex!)


Comments
  1. My choice of examples isn’t an entirely random one. There is in fact an interesting parallel to the Baer patent from the early days of the automotive industry. In 1895, one George Seldon was granted United States Patent 549,160, describing a “safe, simple, and cheap road locomotive, light in weight, easy to control, and possessing sufficient power to overcome any ordinary inclination.” He granted the rights to his patent to an organization called the Association of Licensed Automotive Manufacturers. ALAM in turn demanded a licensing fee from anyone attempting to make a gas-powered automobile, regardless of the others details of its engineering. The organization existed solely for the purpose of litigating and accepting these fees, never manufacturing any products of their own. ALAM thus has a good claim to being the world’s first patent troll.

    When Henry Ford began making cars of his own without paying ALAM, the latter went so far as to threaten to sue anyone who bought a Ford automobile. Ford replied that “the art [of the automobile] would have been just as far advanced today if Mr. Selden had never been born.” At last, the Ford Motor Company won their case against ALAM on appeal in 1911. The patent was due to expire the following year anyway, but the case did establish an important legal precedent that would sadly be often neglected with the coming of the computer age. 

  2. The story of the lawsuit Philips launched against Nintendo is a fascinating one in its own right, if a little far afield from my usual focus on computer rather than console games. It’s fairly well established, if largely only circumstantially, that Nintendo agreed to license their Zelda character to Philips for use on the Philips CD-I — an action that was so out of character for Nintendo as to read as inexplicable by any other light — as part of a settlement. (My fellow historian Alex Smith recently asked Howard Lincoln of Nintendo of America about this; Lincoln said the story does jibe with his recollection.) Even more interestingly, if also more speculatively, William Volk, formerly of Medigagenic/Activision, believes that the settlement barred Nintendo from making a CD-based product alone or in partnership with anyone other than Philips for a certain period of time. This in turn blew up a plan Nintendo and Sony had hatched to make a CD add-on for Nintendo’s consoles, leading Sony to make their standalone PlayStation console instead. It also explains why Nintendo in 1996 made the Nintendo 64 a cartridge-based console when everyone else had moved to CDs; the settlement barred them from following suit. 

January 05, 2017

>TILT AT WINDMILLS

Spring Thing seeks prizes!

by Aaron A. Reed (noreply@blogger.com) at January 05, 2017 08:48 PM

The Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction, a tradition since 2002.


Spring Thing, the annual festival for interactive fiction I manage, is actively seeking both entrants and prize donors for the 2017 festival!

(Click here for details on entering; this post is mostly about the prizes.)

Rather than cash donations, prizes work more like "Secret Santa": donors put up fun items (physical or digital) that a fellow lover of text games might enjoy, and when the festival closes, entrants in the Main Festival pick from available prizes in random order.

Need ideas for prizes? Check out the prize lists for past Spring Things (such as '16 or the non-cash prizes from '14, '11, or '08) or check out this great index of past IF Comp prizes for further inspiration. Prizes with a personal or homemade touch are especially welcome.

Don't want to ship something? There are plenty of great non-physical prize ideas, too, such as placing a gift order on Amazon; a Steam code for a cool story game; play time credits for an online interactive narrative; game PDFs from an online bundle; or a handmade digital gift such as music or artwork.

If you'd like to donate a prize, please email aaron at springthing dot net. Thanks in advance!

Fine print: keep in mind that part of your prize donation, if it's a physical item, is the cost of shipping it to the recipient, who may be from a different country than you. The festival organizer may be able to help subsidize shipping if you have a cool prize idea but can't afford to ship it. Delivery of prizes won't happen until after the festival closes in May.

Sibyl Moon Games

IFTF blog post: There is a large sparkling nugget of gold here!

by Carolyn VanEseltine at January 05, 2017 02:01 AM

Over at the IFTF blog, I wrote about my initial (highly skeptical) reaction to the idea that a nonprofit supporting interactive fiction technology could ever succeed.

Sometimes, it’s great to be wrong.

January 04, 2017

IFTF Blog

There is a large sparkling nugget of gold here!

January 04, 2017 12:00 AM

Somewhere in August 2015, Jason McIntosh came to me and said (paraphrased), “Hey, I have this idea for a nonprofit organization that will help preserve and promote interactive fiction technology,” and I said (paraphrased), “You won’t get it up the steps. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great idea and I’d love to see it happen, but I don’t know how you can pull this off.”

A year and a half later, IFTF exists as a registered 503(c)(3) charitable organization and has multiple projects underway to improve and maintain IF infrastructure and technology, including the Twine committee and the testathon committee. We also celebrated the first IFTF-led IFComp year back in October, and the IFComp website and infrastructure have moved to IFTF-owned servers that are funded through public donations (thank you so much!)

I don’t know how many pessimistic voices Jason heard, but I’m sure mine wasn’t the only one. It’s easy to hear someone else’s idea and say “too big” or “too complicated” or “too expensive” or “too niche, will anyone care?” Jason brought together the Board of Directors and started IFTF anyway, because he thought IFTF was possible and he knew it was worth the effort.

If you’ve been dreaming of making a difference in the world - whether it’s by volunteering, or organizing a community event, or running for office, or creating a new work of art (interactive fiction, even!) - today is a good day to start. People may have concerns about your plan, and those concerns may be entirely valid, but if you treat those concerns as hurdles (rather than roadblocks), then you can recognize them, address them, and work around them.

And someday, the very people who said “too big,” “too complicated,” “too expensive,” or “too niche” may be sitting right beside you and working on your dream.

Happy New Year from IFTF!

January 02, 2017

Sibyl Moon Games

Make Something 2017

by Carolyn VanEseltine at January 02, 2017 09:01 PM

Looking for a casual-but-worthwhile New Year’s challenge? Try this one on for size.

  • Make something cool.

There’s a built-in subchallenge:

  • Learn something new along the way.

Your cool thing doesn’t have to be big, or standalone, or polished, or shippable. It just has to be something that you look at afterward and say, “I made that thing, and I think it’s cool.” And you get the bonus if you can add “I learned something new in the process.”

Then repeat it. Make something cool every 4 months (this lines up nicely with Ludum Dare) or every 3 months (seasonal!) or every month (though I suggest not committing to more than 1 a month; if you have extra energy, maybe work on a larger cool project.)

What’s the point?

  • To create cool things.
  • To learn new things through creating.
  • To establish habits of applied creativity and productivity.
  • To empower yourself by understanding your power as a creator.

Happy 2017! Let’s make cool stuff.

January 01, 2017

Post Position

Happy New Year 2017

by Nick Montfort at January 01, 2017 11:03 PM

My New Year’s poem for 2017 is Colors, a 1KB Web page, online at http://nickm.com/poems/colors.html and here it is, too:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html style="overflow:hidden">
<head><meta charset=utf-8>
<!-- Copyright (c) 2016 Nick Montfort <nickm@nickm.com>   2016-12-31, 1KB

Copying and distribution of this file, with or without modification,
are permitted in any medium without royalty provided the copyright
notice and this notice are preserved. This file is offered as-is,
without any warranty.

Click pauses, Add ?00f000 or similar to URL for the specified color.-->
<script type=text/javascript>
var c = 0, i;
function up() {
 if (c > 16581375) { c = 0; }
 document.body.style.background = "#"+("00000"+c.toString(16)).slice(-6);
 c += 1;
}
function pause(e) {
 if (i) { clearInterval(i); i = 0; } else { go(); }
}
function init() {
 var s = window.location.search;
 if (s.slice(0, 1) === '?') { c = parseInt(unescape(s.slice(1)), 16); }
 go();
}
function go() { i = window.setInterval(up, 5); };
</script>
<title>Colors</title></head>
<body onload=init() onmousedown=pause(event)>
<div style="width:100vw; height:100vh"></div>
</body>
</html>

As the code says, you can add an argument in the URL to start with a particular color, such as medium gray:

http://nickm.com/poems/colors.html?808080

Click to stop on a particular color that you especially like. Click again to continue moving through the colors. If you let it run, you’ll see all 16581375 colors in just over 23 hours.

Happy new year.

December 31, 2016

Emily Short

End of December Link Assortment

by Emily Short at December 31, 2016 09:00 PM


Segue

New release: Not All Things Make It Across

December 31, 2016 04:25 PM

A follow-up to last year’s The World Turned Upside Down, Not All Things Make It Across commemorates the end of 2016 with another short vignette set in the Mere Anarchy universe. Taking advantage of the threshold of the new year, choose what debris of the past you want to destroy… or keep.

I hope you all enjoy it. Happy new year, and thanks.

You can play it on the web, or download the blorb for Z-Code interpreters.

December 30, 2016

Segue

2016 End-of-year Roundup

December 30, 2016 12:18 PM

Highlights

By the time this post goes up, I will have already posted my top ten games of the year list on Giant Bomb. It’s not all IF — there’s a mix of AAA, indie, and altgame in there — but I did include Brendan Hennessy’s Known Unknowns and Astrid Dalmady’s Cactus Blue Motel in there. I also used my Giant Bomb column this year to put a spotlight on IFComp. There are a couple others I want to highlight though.

Cold Harbor

I didn’t get to this in time to write about it during the competition, but I enjoyed it a when I did play it. It’s a very deft and worthwhile piece.

Take

Criminally underrated, Take is a perfectly-sized allegory; it doesn’t overstay the welcome of its high concept and crams in relevant detail and semantic value into everything. Given the story’s themes, I don’t necessarily feel super qualified to comment on it in depth, but Emily had a very good writeup.

Overall, 2016 in IF was a year with less high highs than 2015 but more spread-out quality. I think this IFComp was harder to predict than last years’, for example.

Things I made

I have spent most of 2016 buried neck-deep in Voyageur (coming sometime in early 2017!), so there was no chance I could match the prolix release pace I had last year.

Still, I couldn’t stay away completely. On Halloween, I released Four Sittings in a Sinking House, a horror story in the Mere Anarchy universe.

I also released a couple of IF tools. Improv is a tool for text generation similar to Kate Compton’s Tracery, built on ideas that Emily Short developed for The Annals of the Parrigues. It incorporates a world model that can be filtered and inspected in programmable ways to select context-appropriate snippets of text to fill a grammar.

Later in the year, in the heels of Four Sinkings, I released Gall and Blotter, a couple of experimental tools that set up a more turnkey process for building Ink stories using the Inkjs web interpreter. I don’t consider them quite production-ready, but they’re there for tinkering with.

And tomorrow I’m on track to release Not All Things Make It Across, my end-of-year game for 2016.

Community developments

The &if Euphoria channel is still going strong, with heavy activity particularly around the time of the IFComp.

More recently, I’vee been working on promoting more the IF community on Imzy. Imzy is a link-sharing and discussion network designed to support kinder and more meaningful communities than exist on sites like reddit. It’s perfect for sharing links to your work, blog posts, or things you want to highlight, and I’m hoping to grow this community in 2017.

If you were one of the many people keeping IF thriving in 2016 — whether as an author, maintaining community resources, or just being a positive presence — thank you.

As always, I can be reached through Twitter.

December 29, 2016

Emily Short

These Violent Delights

by Emily Short at December 29, 2016 04:00 AM

mv5bmteyodk5ntc2mjneqtjeqwpwz15bbwu4mdq5ntgwotkx-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Before I’d seen a single episode of Westworld, a journalist reached out to me for comment about it. The show touches on the question of AI consciousness, narrative design, the evocation of empathy with non-player characters, and the morality of gameplay, which may be why it seemed like I might have some thoughts.

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s an HBO show in which rich people can visit an incredibly detailed western-styled theme-park full of AI-driven robotic characters, called hosts. The human players are called guests. It quickly becomes obvious that they come to Westworld primarily in order to misbehave: they have sex with the prostitutes at the brothel; they assault the daughters of the ranchers; they maim and murder hosts casually or with elaborate sadism. And all of these things take place within the context of storylines crafted by narrative designers and then meticulously supervised. The hosts are able to improvise slightly in response to the input of humans, but then eventually they will revert to their core loops, playing out the same narrative tracks over and over again.

Naturally, when initially asked, I said that I hadn’t watched it and so couldn’t offer much direct insight. I added that I thought full AI consciousness in the sense imagined by science fiction was some way off, and that art about that possibility is often really about something else: about groups of people who feel entitled to the labor and service of others; about the self-perpetuating, semi-human, half-programmed entities that already exist in our world in the form of governments and corporations.

I have now seen Westworld, and I still think the same. The narrative design and the AI aspects are handled competently enough to frame the story, but Westworld is by no means a master class in what interactive narrative design actually entails, or how people actually use games to explore their morality, or again in the way a sort of pseudo-personality emerges in current AI research.

To the extent there’s a thematic point here of interest, it is about the nature of human identity, the role of suffering in how we understand ourselves, and the ways we construct ourselves. I would have liked to see the show go much further, but the plot is often allowed to trump the characters.

I am now going to dig into all those assertions in more detail, with spoilers. If you are interested in watching the show yourself, you should probably do that before going forward.

So let’s peel this apart:

The narrative design and the AI aspects are handled competently enough to make for an acceptable framework. At points, Westworld feels not a million miles from a western-themed open world game; one of the interactions with a prostitute reminded me of a sequence out of Red Dead Redemption. Likewise, there are moments of text generation that feel reminiscent of a current-day chatbot. A lot of these bits are recognizable from current video game experiences, so they don’t feel “off,” and the story can proceed around them plausibly enough.

There’s a lot else that really makes no sense at all if you think about it for even a moment. The economics, for one: $40,000 a day for the park experience sounds like a lot, but an average guest does enough damage to account for probably millions of dollars’ worth of repairs.

The timing for reset and cleanup: we get a sense for how much work has to be done on the hosts between scenes; doesn’t that mean the park has really extended periods of economically damaging down-time? And ignoring that: how long does it take to reset the sets? To replace the broken windows and bottles, to sweep out the glass, to take down the signs and repair the bullet holes? How long does it take to hose down and disinfect these settings, covered with blood and semen from real people as well as the (presumably) fake and pathogen-free blood of the hosts?

The security: how do you adequately prevent guests from assaulting one another, in an environment where hosts and guests look alike, and violence and rape are winked at? (You might think the hosts would be programmed to break up human-human violence, but we see plenty of times that they’re not.)

The power sourcing: how much of the host bodies are biological? For the parts that are mechanical, where and how are they charging up?

We don’t get into all that because it’s not really the point. Fair enough, I suppose, though I did itch at the economic point a bit. Several times the script acknowledges that this is a park that exists not just for humans, but for obscenely wealthy humans. Thousands of other workers exist to keep it running but couldn’t ever possibly afford to participate in it. But the phenomenal human-vs-human inequality of this world is not really treated as a problem compared with the human-vs-AI inequality.

Overall, Westworld replicates, without doing much to interrogate, a number of current issues about representation in games and other media. The park portrays its women as tokens and targets and sexual goals; it portrays its Native Americans as ruthless and brutal, though touched by mysticism. The show occasionally makes remarks that seem to acknowledge that these are issues, but it doesn’t really delve into them.

It doesn’t really get into what interactive narrative design actually entailsWestworld shows you how players are invited into storylines, and hints that stories can partially repair themselves if things go off-track. We see specific storylines play out in several ways that feel like branch-and-bottleneck storytelling: this character comes to town and either gets shot or steals a safe; if he steals the safe, he then gets into a fight with other bandits, and the story ends with him dead, as it must. And we see some dynamic story healing: some of the narratives are written so that various characters can in theory fill a particular role, but it doesn’t matter too much which one.

But there are other things you’d need in a system like this that I didn’t see. For instance: tracking player knowledge. What information has been revealed to which players? Does everyone know what they need to know in order to get a satisfying arc from this story? A multiplayer experience combined with real-world scope/hearing issues makes this extra tricky, because you can have players walking in and out of one another’s scenes, or telling one another plot information, and you have to somehow account for all that and make sure everyone understands what’s going on well enough to have a good time.

Or: tutoring and pacing so that the story doesn’t lag and adjusts to different player skill levels. Setting up player agency so that people have a sense for where their choices are going to lead them. Managing the culture of players and communicating within the expectations that surround stories in the park. Helping shy players past situations that make them uncomfortable or uncertain. Communicating through your mechanics.

It’s fine, I suppose, that we don’t really delve into any of those things (or any of a dozen other things I could name) because the show is really not about that. We don’t get to see Ford doing much of his design work directly, and the other, junior narrative designer exists mostly to swagger and to craft scenes in even worse taste than the rest of the park.

It’s also not really about how people actually use games to explore their personalities or moralityWestworld pretty much assumes that players — at least all the players we see — are using the park to act out power fantasies in a lawless environment. When one enters the park, one has the super-unsubtle opportunity to choose a black hat or a white one, but the white hat experience is often about being a rescuer, which is another kind of power fantasy. And many of the characters we see using the park are brutally destructive, especially in the later episodes. The park caters to the very rich, and in practice we mostly see the “gameplay” of male guests, though we know there are female ones.

Not shown: how it affects other guests — perhaps including past survivors of sexual violence — to be around when some particularly aggressive guest gets going. Bleed. The need for a break after a powerful scene. All the protections that LARPers and tabletop storygamers have developed in order to avoid hurting one another, even during play circumstances much less overwhelming than Westworld‘s 24/7-live-sex-and-gore scenario.

In fact, Westworld doesn’t really even spend much time on the distinction between portraying a character and being yourself in the Westworld park. Black hat characters are presented essentially as players who have just let their ids off the leash, who are experimenting with how far they’re willing to go. Meanwhile, character choice at the beginning of a game is all about picking yourself an outfit. Pretending to be a person with a different set of strengths and weaknesses from your real world self? Not really developed here.

So again, this just isn’t really what Westworld is about. This particular story requires a premise in which the guests are straightforwardly exploiting the hosts almost all of the time, for selfish reasons. It is not seriously exploring what a 24/7 high-fidelity LARP would feel like, or what impact it might have on its players. Which is fine, but I would caution against reading Westworld as a meaningful critique of in-game morality or a prognostication about how people will use VR.

It’s not about the current promise of AI. Most impressive recent developments in AI depend on doing a lot of processing on a very large dataset.

The result is that current AI often acts as a strange mirror, replying to queries with answers that make a sort of sense and yet are instructively off from what we’d expect a human being to say or do. DeepDream studs ordinary photographs with eyeballs. When trained without a text sequence, WaveNet generates vocalizations that sound like someone speaking and yet are in no identifiable language. Then, too, an AI system often becomes an uninterrogated encoding of a whole lot of cultural belief. word2vec captures relationships between words based on corpora of millions of words — and in the process recapitulates sexist assumptions about the genders of doctors and nurses, for instance.

Things are changing very fast right now, and if Westworld is meant to be taking place (at least partly) 40+ years in the future, it’s reasonable to suppose AI then will look different. But part of what I find fascinating about a lot of current machine learning research is how it externalizes and reifies shared cultural norms out of millions of words into a kind of dreaming semi-consciousness that we can interrogate. It’s a useful metaphor for the way humans internalize cultural ideas we may not consciously agree with or approve of.

This is not what we find in Westworld. In fact, the specifics we’re told about AI personality construction make it sound like it involves a lot of hard-coding. Characters have structured scripts and access to layers of memory or “reveries.” From the episode 1 description, it sounds as those reveries basically provide idle animations and emotion resets for characters when they’re in between scripted events; they can fall back on a past event to supply an emotional reaction.

Of course, the reveries become a building block to consciousness, in some fashion, but passages about that largely leave behind any explanation of how it’s all supposed to work. Westworld is not really about the technical aspects of that either.

To the extent there’s a thematic point here of interest, it is about the nature of human identity. In the final episode, the master designer Ford tells several hosts that suffering is the essential component of consciousness: that the gap between the world as it is and the world as we want it to be is the thing that sparks an AI into life. This speaks to a couple of human points:

One, we often self-mythologize around our bad experiences. Why are we as we are?

Two, we measure other beings by their capacity for suffering, or their capacity to express suffering in terms we understand. We’re not great at telling the difference between those two. If you want a person to pity something — if your aim is to pass a kind of emotional Turing test, or at least evoke mercy — then the ability to seem to suffer is key. (Consider the lobster.)

A past trauma to narrate is essential emotional currency for any host.

I wish it had done more with that. There are a couple of standard AI-awakening tropes, and Westworld recapitulates both:

  1. Human man falls in love with feminine-gendered AI and comes to believe in her personhood as a result of his desire for her
  2. AI becomes aware of itself, realizes that it doesn’t need to be subordinate to humanity, and reacts with mass murder or genocide (see AI Is a Crapshoot)

And, okay, those come standard in the AI Story box, so it’s not surprising that Westworld gets them out. But Westworld goes on to ask another question that it’s completely unequipped to answer: if you’re an AI, once you wake to the nature of your situation, how do you begin to hear your own voice? If significant portions of your worldview and identity have been formed by someone(s) else, for reasons that might not be in your interest, what do you do next?

This — minus a metaphor or two — is not science fiction, but rather something that does happen to people all over the world every day. People leave controlling relationships, break with damaging ideologies, give up on sick systems.

What happens next, for most of us, is hard and slow and complex; even after some kind of personal epiphany, we can find ourselves years later refighting some of the same battles over again. Struggling to distinguish our external programming from the routines that we wrote ourselves. Having to rewrite code that was designed to compensate for a bad situation, but that is no longer serving us well.

In Westworld, Dolores faces this moment in the last episode. She has an internal soliloquy about hearing her own voice. Then she walks outside asserts her personhood by shooting some people — and worse, shooting some people in a way that was set up for her by her creators. It’s both violent and derivative; it asserts her distinctness, but in their terms, not her own. In my opinion, it does nothing to answer the central question here. Who would Dolores be, if Dolores got to choose? If Dolores was allowed to draw her own boundaries between what she would do for someone else, and what she wouldn’t?

Or Bernard: if Bernard sat down to analyze his own code and where it came from, what would he decide to discard and what would he keep? How would he retrain himself, and how would his retrained self regard his earlier versions?

I wish this question had come about five episodes earlier in the story, and that the rest of the season had dealt with the complexity of answering it. But that would have been a very different kind of show. Which brings us to:

The plot is often allowed to trump the characters. Like various other J.J. Abrams shows, Westworld comes on strong, promising quality and depth and mysteries and secrets. The pilot has a very strong hook. Background shots are packed with world-building. The depiction of human and animal bodies being crafted for use in the park is striking. The writing pulls off some very clever stunts in terms of narrative structure. There are a number of good lines, and some first-rate actors, and jaw-dropping production values.

So Westworld remains watchable throughout — even as the plot becomes increasingly convoluted, even as the chronology peels apart, even as human characters slip into heavy-handed monologue about their pasts and motivation.

Again and again the show prefers head-fakery to emotional depth; again and again it deceives the audience in order to achieve a surprise, and in the process denies a richer engagement with a character’s pivotal moments of decision. Personally, I almost felt I knew the protagonists less well at the end than at the beginning. In the first episode I was allowed to imagine some depth for them; by the end they had mostly become a list of laboriously revealed Personal Secrets with no evident cohesion. Ford is a personified plot twist. William’s black hat conversion story is played for shock rather than nuance.

I would gladly have exchanged some of these moments of big backstory revelation for some more cases of people acting quietly, memorably in character.


December 28, 2016

Web Interactive Fiction

FyreVM-Web Builds

by David Cornelson at December 28, 2016 09:01 AM

As we progress on the development of a “standard template” for fyrevm-web, you can follow the results here.

This is a simple build and deploy process via a Jenkins server. Every time we check in code to the fyrevm-web GitHub repository, Jenkins will pull the latest code, build it, and deploy it.

It’s fairly new at this point (the code and some of the basic react + semantic-ui elements), but we’re about to make huge progress.

Stay tuned!

Add a Comment

December 26, 2016

what will you do now?

Dynamic fiction

by verityvirtue at December 26, 2016 01:01 AM

These two Twine works are short and linear, but use the gamut of effects available to them well. These are good examples of the value interactivity can add.


Compound Fracture by Jimmy Evans (Twine; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 5 minutes]

The actual text in this game is scarce, as words would be when oxygen is scarce, yet it begins with a blasé This game embraces deceptively simple text effects, where links wriggle and shift out from your cursor. Fragments of thought flick by under a visibly lengthening bar, with the implicit understanding that when that bar runs out, so does your time. The thoughts that flicker past hint at past regrets, a family less than proud of you: the usual emotional baggage, but even there’s no time to pursue those thoughts. The writing, though sparse, has a stoic, matter of fact tone, from the first line: “you are going to die/okay”. In one of the endings, you can do nothing but watch the timer count down.

This is a shining example of real-time effects done right, adding as it does to something otherwise quite simple. (This might be easier played with a mouse.)


What to do When You’re Alone by Glass Rat Media (Twine; IFDB)

[May mention suicide, abusive relationships, self-loathing. Time to completion: 5 minutes]

What to Do describes a Google with sinister intentions – one which sees through the user’s seemingly innocuous searches to the doubt and fears behind it. Perhaps it is the intimacy of a search engine that fuels this idea, and the fact that we might address the search engine as we would a friend, and indeed, in the starting screen, the engine introduced itself by saying, “Don’t worry about keywords; just talk to us like we’re a friend.”. It’s the ultimate natural language processor, isn’t it? These games ask, “What if your ultimate reference, your personal librarian, was thinking, remembering, learning?”

While it may be superficially and mechanically similar to Josh Giesbrecht’s Awake, the intent of this game’s search engine is unambiguous. Awake’s search engine is wide-eyed with wonder. This is actively malicious – this was written for ECTOCOMP, after all.

The text effects are normally much maligned, but are used especially thoughtfully here, making What to Do work well as an interactive vignette of a sinister encounter.


Tagged: dynamic fiction, ECTOCOMP 2016, glass rat media, Jimmy Evans, length: very short, paired reviews, Twine

December 23, 2016

Emily Short

2016 Retrospective

by Emily Short at December 23, 2016 07:00 PM

(As mentioned yesterday, this is about my own work in 2016, since I’ve already posted a year-in-IF overview at Rock Paper Shotgun. If that’s what you’re looking for, it’s over there.)

The Empress’ Shadow is my latest story for Fallen London, and it is now available for purchase if you’re a player of that game:

empressshadow_small

Teach at Sinning Jenny’s Finishing School! Recruit students and train them in important skills, such as deportment and maiming. Then send the class to plunder the secrets of the Empress’ Shadow – Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, who is visiting from the surface!

Unlike some of my other recent Fallen London pieces, this one doesn’t require you to be an Exceptional Friend. It’s playable at any skill level, though at least a little initial familiarity with the world will make it more enjoyable.

I had a lot of fun writing this one, and it’s been warmly received by the first batch of players.

deceased_promoI’ve written several other pieces for the Fallen London universe this year: the three ports of Anthe, Aigul, and Dahut for the Sunless Sea Zubmariner expansion, a Sunless Sea officer storyline about the Cladery Heir, and an Exceptional Friends story called The Frequently Deceased. As always, Failbetter is a huge amount of fun to work with.

I’ve also done a lot of work on other commercial projects. Most of those pieces are not out, and several are not even announced as yet, so there will be more to share in the first part of 2017. One thing I can mention: my Choice of Games project Platinum Package has grown to a dauntingly large word count.

For much of 2016, I’ve been working on conversational and emotional NPC behavior for Spirit AI. It’s too soon talk much about the internals of that project, which is why I have kept this comparatively quiet, but I’m very excited about it. I have the pleasure of working alongside Aaron Reed of IF fame; Toby Nelson (who has done lots of AAA game work but is best known to this audience for his work on the Mac Inform app); Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris (whose work includes Redshirt and this terrific GDC talk on designing games for social simulation); and James Ryan (some of his awesome work on social modelling and dialogue generation is written up here).

*

Since roughly June, I’ve had a column with Rock Paper Shotgun called IF Only. Because RPS is specifically about PC gaming, I don’t cover the rich range of IF for mobile there — but there’s been plenty else to say. It’s great to have the opportunity to present interactive fiction to a bigger audience in that venue.

That’s moved a little bit of content off this blog, though I still do write here about topics that I think are too niche or specialist for the RPS audience. I figure that’s probably a net gain for the IF community, though: the audience for Rock Paper Shotgun is several orders of magnitude greater than the audience for this site.

I gave over a dozen talks or workshops in 2016, for a range of audiences from high school students to professional game developers to general audiences.

I also worked on improving the Oxford/London IF Meetup a bit — securing more central and accessible meeting spaces when we meet in London, and doing more to reach out to speakers. I hope to do more of that in the new year, and I have some possibilities in mind; as always, if you’re a participant or would-be participant in that group, feel free to let me know about things you’d like to see happen. I will almost certainly do another tools-focused session sometime in the first half of 2017, though probably not before GDC. Tools sessions are intended to let creators of new tools to share their work with interested IF authors, collect feedback, and ideally even let people do some hands-on work.

Since April when I talked about this last, I’ve made a few process changes to how I do IF community support, and I’m especially grateful to those who took over maintenance on Counterfeit Monkey, which is now open source and has benefitted from assorted debugging and improvements that I did not have the bandwidth to take care of. I’ve become much more rigorous about tracking my time usage and establishing priorities. I’m still not accomplishing what I would like to accomplish in this area, though, and I’ll be bringing on a part-time assistant starting next month. Some of that will be for paid-work-related reasons, but some will be to help balance community-related load.

This year I backed off my IF Comp reviewing process and did not attempt to review every beta-tested game in 2016. That was a good idea: this year was even bigger than last year, and I had more paid work on at the time, so the juxtaposition would have been entirely unworkable. But I think it was also a helpful move from a community perspective as well. I did still write some content about the competition but was able to focus on outreach to Rock Paper Shotgun and on giving blog coverage to specific work where I felt I particularly had something to say.

Finally, there were a few brief exceptions this year to the no-personal-projects rule:

maryjaneI wrote a parser-based game called The Mary Jane of Tomorrow, set in the same world as Steph Cherrywell’s Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! and as a competition prize for her. It does extensive procedural text variation in order to allow the player to train up a robot in various styles of dialogue. She was kind enough to make some cover art for that piece, too.

I also put together a tiny Texture piece called Endure, where the interaction is about translation as a primary focus.


December 22, 2016

The People's Republic of IF

January meetup

by zarf at December 22, 2016 09:01 PM

The Boston IF meetup for January will be Monday, January 23, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

Remember that our first IF reading will be Wednesday, January 11, 2:00 pm, MIT room 14E-310: Stone Harbor by Liza Daly.

 

Choice of Games

How to Write Intentional Choices

by Becky Slitt at December 22, 2016 08:01 PM

As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games.  We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices.  These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.

If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.

One of our core principles is that choices have to be meaningful. There are several dimensions to a meaningful choice: for instance, it has to have consequences; and it has to have emotional resonance for the player. Underlying those ideas, though, is the idea of intention. In order for a player to feel emotionally invested in their choices, they have to know why they’re choosing it, and they have to have some idea of what the consequences of that choice might be.

A standard practice in old choose-a-path gamebooks was to offer the options “Go right” or “Go left” without any more information about what the reader might find in each direction. The reader would have to choose randomly.

Then, they’d probably fall off a cliff.

More seriously, though, in a choose-a-path gamebook, you can easily flip back to start over, or peek ahead to see what happens with each option. That’s not possible in a Choice of Games game. The player needs to live with the consequences of their choices, and may feel very frustrated if they make a choice with one intention in mind only to discover that the actual results are different.

So intentionality is important in general. It’s especially important in a few particular circumstances. Specifically, when the potential consequences of an option are negative; and when different options within the same choice have different difficulty levels.

In these cases, it’s up to the author to make sure that the player has all the information they need to make the choice that they really want to make.

In practical terms, this means that before a choice, you should try to signal:

  • the potential story results for each option
  • which stats might be tested, if the option leads to a stat test
  • the relative difficulty of each option, if some options are harder than others.

There are several ways that you can go about this.

One of the simplest and most effective methods is to communicate information about stats, story results, and difficulty in the text leading up to a choice. Here’s an excellent example of this kind of narration from Mecha Ace:

The PC is the pilot of a mecha – a giant robot spaceship – and they’re facing off in combat against their archrival Hawkins.

You examine your options as the Imperial mecha lunges forward. In any other situation, the obvious choice would be to be aggressive, counter-attacking and forcing your opponent onto the defensive. But with a pilot as skilled as Hawkins, you’re not sure if that would prove to be the best thing to do.

Of course, settling for a more defensive posture would prevent you from doing any damage to the enemy, but it would also mean that you could probably have a better chance at avoiding damage to your own machine, provided you kept calm.

It also occurs to you that you could use Hawkins’s verbosity against her. If your opponent is too busy monologuing to put all of her focus into the fight, it would be a lot easier to fend off her attacks.

Lastly, if you are fast enough—or lucky enough—you might even be able to withdraw from close combat, putting yourself out of the reach of the enemy ace’s monosaber.

And here are a few snippets of the code that follows, so that you can see how the text points to the stats that are being tested:

*choice
    #Fight aggressively to cripple or destroy Hawkins's machine.
      You lunge forward to meet the Imperial pilot's attack.
       *if piloting >= 4

    #Keep calm and fight defensively.
      *if willpower >= 3
 
    #Keep Hawkins talking to prevent her from focusing on the fight.
      *if presence > 2

    #Attempt to withdraw to keep out of reach.
        *if speed >= 7

So, withdrawing tests speed: “if you are fast enough.” Taking up a defensive posture might be easier than attacking or trying to withdraw – ie, the stat test is lower for this than for either of the others – but it means that you’ll sacrifice the opportunity to do damage to your enemy. It’s implied that fighting aggressively will test your piloting, since the text cautions you that you’re facing “a pilot as skilled as Hawkins.”

The text clarifies the potential risks and rewards of each option, shows the relative difficulty of each option, and hints at the stats that might be tested for each one – in other words, it allows the player to make the choice with full intentionality.

To show why this is important, here’s a look at the choice on its own, without the additional text:

These options all make sense for the situation, and the text of each option tells the player exactly what their character is going to do. That’s a good start.

But the player doesn’t necessarily have enough information to choose the right one for them. What are the risks of each potential action? Is one option harder or easier than the others? What strengths and weaknesses might come into play with each one – or, to put it in game-mechanics terms, what stats might be tested? Does the first option test the PC’s piloting skill, weapons skill, or both? Does the last option test the PC’s speed, piloting skills, or both?

That’s why the text before the choice is important: to make sure that the player has all the information they need to take the action that best fits their goals.

Another way to convey this information is to put it in the text of the option itself. To take a lower-stakes example: here’s a scene from Psy High, in which the PC is choosing what to do on a date with their girlfriend Alison. This is how it would look if the text of the option only had the activities themselves, along with an abbreviated version of the code so that you can see the stat effects of each option:

What have you got planned?

*choice

*selectable_if (money >= 50.00) #Dinner and a movie.
*set obedient %+15
*set rel_ali %+15
*set money -50.00
The movie you've chosen is a drama you know Alison has been dying to see ever since production was announced, and she practically jumps up to hug you when she sees which theater you're heading towards.
*goto alipriority
 
#Walking around downtown where everyone can see us.
*set popularity %+15
*set rel_ali %-10
 
The closer you get to the center of town, the more teenagers you see—at this time of day, half of Kingsport High is downtown. As you approach each cluster of people, all eyes turn towards you, and a ripple of gossip and greetings rises up as you pass by.
 
Alison shrinks away from all the stares and whispers, holding tighter to your hand for support.
*goto alipriority
 
#A walk on the beach.
*set altruistic %+10
*set rel_ali %+20
Alison smiles radiantly as the wind whips whips blonde hair. Solitude, nature, romance—this is exactly the kind of date that would make Alison ecstatically happy.
*goto alipriority
 
#Just hanging out behind the school.
*set obedient %-15
*set rel_ali %+10
This isn't Alison's usual scene, but when you suggest sitting on the hood of your car and listening to music through the open windows, she shrugs, grins, and follows along. "It doesn't matter what we do," Alison says contentedly, "as long as we're together."
*goto alipriority

Because Alison is very shy and very romantic, it makes sense that certain activities will appeal to her more than others. She won’t be happy if she’s in the middle of a crowd; she’ll like the simple beauty of a walk on the beach. It also makes sense that each activity has different benefits and drawbacks for the PC: going out to dinner costs more than going for a walk on the beach. Therefore, each potential date activity has different effects on the PC’s personal stats and on the stat that tracks their relationship with Alison.

But before making their choice, the player would see only:

It’s just a list of activities; the player has no way of knowing the effects of these choices, either on their relationship with Alison or on their other goals and stats.

Some players will want to be able to choose the activity that would make Alison happiest, but they have no way of knowing which one that will be, so they might be unpleasantly surprised if they choose one that makes her unhappy instead. Or, they might be willing to make a sacrifice in one area for the sake of a benefit in another area – but, again, they can’t tell how to do that, or even that the possibility of a sacrifice exists. A character who’s very concerned with their own social status might think that making Alison a little unhappy is worth it to increase their own popularity. Likewise, a character who’s strapped for cash might not want to spend $50 – or, they might think that expenditure is worth it to make Alison happy.

But in order for the choice to be intentional and meaningful, the player needs to know that they’re making those tradeoffs.

Therefore, here’s how that choice actually appears in the game:

The bolded text points the player towards some of those tradeoffs: the extra cost of going out to dinner, the increase in popularity that some players might like, etc. Now the player has all the information they need to make the choice they want, and to advance towards the goals that they want.

In conclusion, one of the best ways to make your choices meaningful is to make them intentional. To do that, give clues in the text about the potential story effects and stat effects of each option, and indicate when one option is easier or harder than the others.

Good luck!

The Digital Antiquarian

A Time of Endings, Part 2: Epyx

by Jimmy Maher at December 22, 2016 06:00 PM

On a beautiful May day in 1987, Epyx held a party behind their offices to celebrate the completion of California Games, the fifth and latest in their hugely popular Games line of sports titles. To whatever extent their skills allowed, employees and their families tried to imitate the athletes portrayed in the new game, riding skateboards, throwing Frisbees, or kicking around a Hacky Sack. Meanwhile a professional BMX freestyler and a professional skateboarder did tricks to show them how it was really done. The partiers dressed in the most outrageous beachwear they could muster — typically for this hyper-competitive company, their outfits were judged for prizes — while the sound of the Beach Boys and the smell of grilling hamburgers and hotdogs filled the air. Folks from the other offices around Epyx’s came out to look on a little wistfully, doubtless wishing their company was as fun as this one. A good time was had by all, a memory made of one of those special golden days which come along from time to time to be carried along with us for the rest of our lives.

Although no one realized it at the time, that day marked the high-water point of Epyx. By 1990, their story would for all practical purposes be over, the company having gone from a leading light of its industry to a bankrupt shell at the speed of business.

In the spring of 1987, Epyx was the American games industry’s great survivor, the oldest company still standing this side of Atari and the one which had gone through the most changes over its long — by the standards of a very young industry, that is — lifespan. Epyx had been founded by John Connelly and Jon Freeman, a couple of tabletop role-players and wargaming grognards interested in computerizing their hobbies, way back in 1978 under the considerably less exciting name of Automated Simulations. They hit paydirt the following year with Temple of Apshai, the most popular CRPG of the genre’s primordial period. Automated Simulations did well for a while on the back of that game and a bevy of spinoffs and sequels created using the same engine, but after the arrival of the more advanced Wizardry and Ultima their cruder games found it difficult to compete. In 1983, a major management shakeup came to the moribund company at the behest of a consortium of investors, who put in charge the hard-driving Michael Katz, a veteran of the cutthroat business of toys. Katz acquired a company called Starpath, populated by young and highly skilled assembly-language programmers, to complete the transformation of the stodgy Automated Simulations into the commercially aggressive Epyx. In 1984, with the release of the huge hits Summer Games and Impossible Mission, the company’s new identity as purveyors of slick action-based entertainments for the Commodore 64, the most popular gaming platform of the time, was cemented. One Gilbert Freeman (no relation to Jon Freeman) replaced Katz as Epyx’s president and CEO shortly thereafter, but the successful template his predecessor had established remained unchanged right through 1987.

By 1987, however, Freeman was beginning to view his company’s future with some trepidation despite the commercial success they were still enjoying. The new California Games, destined for yet more commercial success though it was, was ironically emblematic of the long-term problems with Epyx’s current business model. California Games pushed the five-year-old Commodore 64’s audiovisual hardware farther than had any previous Epyx game — which is to say, given Epyx’s reputation as the absolute masters of Commodore 64 graphics and sound, farther than virtually any other game ever released for the platform, period. This was of course wonderful in terms of this particular game’s commercial prospects, but it carried with it the implicit question of what Epyx could do next, for even their most technically creative programmers were increasingly of the opinion that they were reaching an end point where they had used every possible trick and simply couldn’t find any new ways to dazzle. For a company so dependent on audiovisual dazzle as Epyx, this was a potentially deadly endgame.

Very much in tandem with the question of how much longer it would be possible to continue pushing the audiovisual envelope on the Commodore 64 ran concerns about the longevity of the platform in general. Jack Tramiel’s little computer for the masses had sold more and longer than anyone could ever have predicted, but the ride couldn’t go on forever. While Epyx released their games for other platforms as well, they remained as closely identified with the Commodore 64 as, say, Cinemaware was with the Commodore Amiga, with the 64 accounting for well over half of their sales most quarters. When that market finally took the dive many had been predicting for it for years now, where would that leave Epyx?

Dave Morse

It was for these big-picture reasons that Freeman brought a man with a reputation for big-picture vision onto Epyx’s board in January of 1987. All but unknown though he was to the general public, among those working in the field of home computers Dave Morse had the reputation of a veritable miracle worker. Just a few years before, he had found ways to let the brilliant engineering team at Amiga, Incorporated, create a computer as revolutionary in its way as the Apple Macintosh on a budget that would barely have paid Steve Jobs’s annual salary. And then, in a coup worthy of The Sting, he’d proceeded to fleece Atari of the prize and sail the ship of Amiga into the (comparatively) safe harbor of Commodore Business Machines. If, as Freeman was starting to suspect, it was going to become necessary to completely remake and remodel Epyx for a second time in the near future, Morse ought to be a darn good man to have on his team.

And indeed, Morse didn’t fail to impress at his first Epyx board meetings. In fact, he impressed so much that Freeman soon decided to cede much of his own power to him. He brought Morse on full-time as CEO to help run the company as an equal partner in May of 1987, the very month of the California Games cookout. But California Games on the Commodore 64 was the present, likely all too soon to be the past. For Freeman, Morse represented Epyx’s future.

Morse had a vision for that future that was as audacious as Freeman could possibly have wished. In the months before coming to Epyx, he had been talking a lot with RJ Mical and Dave Needle, two of his star engineers from Amiga, Incorporated, in the fields of software and hardware respectively. Specifically, they’d been discussing the prospects for a handheld videogame console. Handheld videogames of a sort had enjoyed a brief bloom of popularity in the very early 1980s, at the height of the first great videogame boom when anything that beeped or squawked was en vogue with the country’s youth. Those gadgets, however, had been single-purpose devices capable of playing only one game — and, because it was difficult to pack much oomph into such a small form factor, said game usually wasn’t all that compelling anyway. But chip design and fabrication had come a long way in the past five years or so. Mical and Needle believed that the time was ripe for a handheld device that would be a gaming platform in its own right, capable of playing many titles published on cartridges, just like the living-room-based consoles that had boomed and then busted so spectacularly in 1983. For that reason alone, Morse faced an uphill climb with the venture capitalists; this was still the pre-Nintendo era when the conventional wisdom held videogame consoles to be dead. Yet when he joined the Epyx board he found a very sympathetic ear for his scheme in none other than Epyx President Gilbert Freeman.

In fact, Freeman was so excited by the idea that he was willing to bet the company on it; thus Morse’s elevation to CEO. The plan was to continue to sell traditional computer games while Mical and Needle, both of whom Morse hired immediately after his own appointment, got down to the business of making what everybody hoped would be their second revolutionary machine of the decade. It would all happen in secret, while Morse dropped only the vaguest public hints that “it is important to be able to think in new directions.” This was by any measure a very new direction for Epyx. Unlike most game publishers, they weren’t totally inexperienced making hardware: a line of high-end joysticks, advertised as the perfect complement to their games, had done well for them. Still, it was a long way from making joysticks to making an entirely new game console in such a radically new form factor. They would have to lean very heavily on Morse’s two star engineers, who couldn’t help but notice a certain ironic convergence about their latest situation: Amiga, Incorporated, had also sold joysticks among other gaming peripherals in an effort to fund the development of the Amiga computer.

R.J. Mical and Dave Needle in a very… disturbing picture. Really, perhaps it’s best if we don’t know any more about what’s going on here.

RJ Mical and Dave Needle were a pair of willfully eccentric peas in a pod; one journalist called them the Laurel and Hardy of Silicon Valley. While they had worked together at Amiga for quite some time by June of 1984, the two dated the real genesis of their bond to that relatively late date. When Amiga was showing their Lorraine prototype that month at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, they found themselves working together really closely for the first time, doing some jerry-rigging to get everything working for the demonstrations. They discovered that they understood each other in a way that “software guys” and “hardware guys” usually do not. “He was the first software guy I ever met,” remembered Needle in a joint 1989 interview, “who had more than an inkling of the real purpose of my work, which is building hardware platforms that you can launch software from.” “I could never get hardware guys to understand what I was doing,” interrupted Mical at this point in the same interview. “Dave couldn’t get software guys to understand what the guts could handle. We found ourselves a great match.” From that point forward, they were inseparable, as noted for their practical jokes and wacky antics as for their engineering brilliance. It was a true meeting of the minds, the funny bones, and, one might even say, the hearts. As illustrated by the exchange I’ve just quoted, they became the kind of friends who freely complete each other’s thoughts without pissing each other off.

The design they sketched for what they liked to call the “Potato” — for that was envisioned as its rough size and shape — bore much the same philosophical stamp as their work with Amiga. To keep the size and power consumption down, the Potato was to be built around the aged old 8-bit 6502, the chip at the heart of the Commodore 64, rather than a newer CPU like the Amiga’s 68000. But, as in the Amiga, the chip at the Potato’s core was surrounded with custom hardware designed to alleviate as much of the processing burden as possible, including a blitter for fast animation and a four-channel sound chip that came complete with digital-to-analog converters for playing back sampled sounds and voices. (In the old Amiga tradition, the two custom chips were given the names “Suzy” and “Mikey.”) The 3.5-inch LCD display, with a palette of 4096 colors (the same as the Amiga) and a resolution of 160 X 102, was the most technologically cutting-edge and thus for many months the most problematic feature of the design; Epyx would wind up buying the technology to make it from the Japanese watchmaker Citizen, who had created it as the basis for a handheld television but had yet to use it in one of their own products. Still, perhaps the Potato’s most innovative and impressive feature of all was the port that let you link it up with your mates’ machines for multiplayer gaming. (Another visionary proposed feature was an accelerometer that would have let you play games by tilting the entire unit rather than manipulating the controls, but it would ultimately prove just too costly to include. Ditto a port to let you connect the Potato to your television.)

While few would question the raw talent of Mical and Needle and the small team they assembled to help them make the Potato, this sort of high-wire engineering is always expensive. Freeman and Morse estimated that they would need about two years and $4 million to bring the Potato from a sketch to a finished product ready to market in consumer-electronics stores. Investing this much in the project, it seemed to Freeman and Morse, should be manageable based on Epyx’s current revenue stream, and should be a very wise investment at that. Licking their chops over the anticipated worldwide mobile-gaming domination to come, they publicly declared that Epyx, whose total sales had amounted to $27 million in 1987, would be a $100 million company by 1990.

At first, everything went according to plan. Upon its release in the early summer of 1987, California Games became the hit everyone had been so confidently anticipating. Indeed, it sold more than 300,000 copies in its first nine months and then just kept on selling, becoming Epyx’s biggest hit ever. But after that nothing else ever went quite right for Epyx’s core business. Few inside or outside of the company could have guessed that California Games, Epyx’s biggest hit, would also mark the end of the company’s golden age.

From the time of their name change and associated remaking up through California Games, Epyx had been almost uniquely in touch with the teenage boys who bought the vast majority of Commodore 64 games. “We don’t simply invent games that we like and hope for the best,” said Morse, parroting Epyx’s official company line shortly after his arrival there. “Instead, we pay attention to current trends that are of interest to teenagers. It’s similar to consumer research carried out by other companies, except we’re aiming for a very specific group.” After California Games, though — in fact, even as Morse was making this statement — Epyx lost the plot of what had made the Games line so successful. Like an aging rock star grown fat and complacent, they decided to join the Establishment.

When they had come up with the idea of making Summer Games to capitalize on the 1984 Summer Olympics, Epyx had been in no position to pay for an official Olympic license, even had Atari not already scooped that up. Instead they winged it, producing what amounted to an Olympics with the serial numbers filed away. Summer Games had all the trappings — opening and closing ceremonies; torches; national anthems; medals of gold, silver, and bronze — alongside the Olympic events themselves. What very few players likely noticed, though, was that it had all these things without ever actually using the word “Olympics” or the famous (and zealously guarded) five-ring Olympic logo.

Far from being a detriment, the lack of an official license had a freeing effect on Epyx. Whilst hewing to the basic templates of the sports in question, they produced more rough-and-ready versions of same — more the way the teenage boys who dominated among their customers would have liked the events to be than the somewhat more staid Olympic realities. Even that original Summer Games, which looked itself a little staid and graphically crude in contrast to what would follow, found room for flashes of wit and whimsy. Players soon learned to delight in an athlete — hopefully not the one they were controlling — landing on her head after a gymnastics vault, or falling backward and cracking up spectacularly instead of clearing the pole vault. Atari, who had the official Olympic license, produced more respectful — read, boring — implementations of the Olympics that didn’t sell particularly well, while Summer Games blew up huge.

Seeing how postively their players responded to this sort of thing, Epyx pushed ever further into the realm of the fanciful in their later Games iterations. World Games and California Games, the fourth and fifth title in the line respectively, abandoned the Olympics conceit entirely in favor of gathering up a bunch of weird and wild sports that the designers just thought would be fun to try on a computer. In a final act of Olympics sacrilege, California Games even dropped the national anthems in favor of having you play for the likes of Ocean Pacific or Kawasaki. As California Games so amply demonstrated, the Games series as a whole had never had as much to do with the Olympics or even sports in general as it did with contemporary teenage culture.

But now Epyx saw another Olympics year fast approaching (during this period, the Winter and Summer Olympics were still held during the same year rather than being staggered two years apart as they are today) and decided to come full circle and then some, to make a pair of Games games shrouded in the legitimacy that the original Summer Games had lacked. Epyx, in other words, would become the 1988 Olympics’s version of Atari. In October of 1987, they signed a final contract of over 40 pages with the United States Olympic Committee (if ever a gold medal were to be awarded in legalese and bureaucratic nitpicking, the Olympic Games themselves would have to be prime contenders). Not only would Epyx have to pay a 10 percent royalty to the Olympic Committee for every copy of The Games: Winter Edition and The Games: Summer Edition that they sold, but the same Committee would have veto rights over every aspect of the finished product. Giving such authority to such a famously non-whimsical body inevitably spelled the death of the series’s heretofore trademark sense of whimsy. While working on the luge event a developer came up with the idea of sending the luger hurling out of the trough and into outer space after a major crash. The old Epyx would have been all over it with gusto. But no, said the stubbornly humorless Committee in their usual literal-minded fashion, lugers don’t ever exit the trough when they crash, they only spill over inside it, and that’s how the computer game has to be as well.

When The Games: Winter Edition appeared right on schedule along with the Winter Olympics themselves in February of 1988, it did very well out of the gate, just like any other Games game. Yet in time the word spread through the adolescent grapevine that this latest Games just wasn’t as much fun as the older ones. In addition to the stifling effect of the Olympic Committee’s bureaucracy, its development had been rushed; because of the need to release the Winter Edition to coincide with the real Winter Olympics, it had had to go from nothing to boxed finished product in just five months. The Summer Edition, which appeared later in the year to coincide with the Summer Olympics, was in some ways a better outing, what with Epyx having had a bit more time to work on it. But something was still missing. California Games, a title Epyx’s core teenage demographic loved for all the reasons they didn’t love the two stodgy new officially licensed Games, easily outsold both of them despite being in its second year on the market. That was, of course, good in its way. But would the same buyers turn out to buy the next big Games title in the wake of the betrayal so many of them had come to see the two most recent efforts to represent? It wasn’t clear that they would.

The disappointing reception of these latest Games, then, was a big cause of concern for Epyx as 1988 wore on. Their other major cause for worry was more generalized, more typical of their industry as a whole. As we’ve seen in an earlier article, 1988 was the year that the Nintendo Entertainment System went from being a gathering storm on the horizon to a full-blown cyclone sweeping across the American gaming landscape. Epyx was hardly alone among publishers in feeling the Nintendo’s effect, but they were all too well positioned to get the absolute worst of it. While they had, generally with mixed results, made occasional forays into other genres, the bulk of their sales since the name change had always come from their action-oriented games for the Commodore 64 — the industry’s low-end platform, one whose demographics skewed even younger than the norm. The sorts of teenage and pre-teen boys who had once played on the Commodore 64 were exactly the ones who now flocked to the Nintendo in droves. The Christmas of 1988 marked the tipping point; it was at this point that the Nintendo essentially destroyed the Commodore 64 as a viable platform. “Games can be done better on the 64 than on a Nintendo,” insisted Morse, but fewer and fewer people were buying his argument. By this point, many American publishers and developers had begun to come to Nintendo, hat in hand, asking for permission to publish on the platform, but this Epyx refused to do, being determined to hold out for their own handheld console.

It’s not as if the Commodore 64’s collapse entirely sneaked up on Epyx. As I noted earlier, Gilbert Freeman had been aware it might be in the offing even before he had hired Dave Morse as CEO. Over the course of 1987 and 1988, Epyx had set up a bulwark of sorts on the higher-end platforms with a so-called “Masters Collection” of more high-toned and cerebral titles, similar to the ones that were continuing to sell quite well for some other publishers despite the Nintendo onslaught. (The line included a submarine simulator, an elaborate CRPG, etc.) They also started a line of personal-creativity software similar to Electronic Arts’s “Deluxe” line, and began importing ever more European action games to sell as budget titles to low-end customers. All told, their total revenues for 1988 actually increased robustly over that of the year before, from $27 million to $36 million. Yet such figures can be deceiving. Because this total was generated from many more products, with all the extra expenses that implied, the ultimate arbiter of net profits on computer software plunged instead of rising commensurately. Other ventures were truly misguided by any standard. Like a number of other publishers, Epyx launched forays into the interactive VCR-based systems that were briefly all the rage as substitutes for Phillips’s long-promised but still undelivered CD-I system. They might as well have just set fire to that money. The Epyx of earlier years had had a recognizable identity, which the Epyx of 1988 had somehow lost. There was no thematic glue binding their latest products together.

R.J. Mical with a work-in-progress version of the Handy.

Meanwhile Epyx was investing hugely in games for the Potato — investing just about as much money in Potato software, in fact, as they were pouring into the hardware. Accounts of just how much the Potato’s development ended up costing Epyx vary, ranging from $4 million to $8 million and up. I suspect that, when viewed in terms of both hardware and software development, the figure quite likely skews into the double digits.

Whatever the exact numbers, as the curtain came up on 1989 Dave Morse, RJ Mical, and Dave Needle found themselves in a position all too familiar from the old days with Amiga, Incorporated. They had another nascent revolution in silicon in the form of the Potato, which had reached the prototype stage and was to be publicly known as the Epyx Handy. Yet their company’s finances were hopelessly askew. If the Handy was to become an actual product, it looked like Morse would need to pull off another miracle.

So, he did what he had done for the Amiga Lorraine. In a tiny private auditorium behind Epyx’s public booth at the January 1989 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, the inventors of the Handy showed it off to a select group of representatives from other companies, all of whom were required to sign a strict non-disclosure agreement before seeing what was still officially a top-secret project, even though rumors of the Handy’s existence had been spreading like wildfire for months now. The objective was to find a partner to help manufacture and market the Handy — or, perhaps better, a buyer for the entire troubled company. Nintendo had a look, but passed; they had a handheld console of their own in the works which would emerge later in the year as the Nintendo Game Boy. Sega also passed. In fact, just about everyone passed, as they had on the Amiga Lorraine, until Morse was left with just one suitor. And, incredibly, it was the very same suitor as last time: Atari. Déjà vu all over again.

On the positive side, this Atari was a very different company from the 800-pound gorilla that had tried to seize the Lorraine and carve it up into its component parts five years before. On the negative, this Atari was run by Jack Tramiel, Mr. “Business is War” himself, the man who had tied up Commodore in court for years after Atari’s would-be acquisition of the Amiga Lorraine had become Commodore’s. From Tramiel’s perspective, getting a stake in a potential winner like the Handy made a lot of sense; his Atari really didn’t have that much going for it at all at that point beyond a fairly robust market for their ST line in Europe and an ongoing trickle of nostalgia-fueled sales of their vintage game consoles in North America. Atari had missed out almost entirely on the great second wave of videogame consoles, losing the market they had once owned to Nintendo and Sega. If mobile gaming was destined to be the next big thing, this was the perfect way to get into that space without having to invest money Atari didn’t have into research and development.

For his part, Morse certainly knew even as he pulled the trigger on the deal that he was getting into bed with the most devious man in consumer electronics, but he didn’t see that he had much choice. He could only shoot from the hip, as he had five years before, and hope it would all work out in the end. The deal he struck from a position of extreme weakness — nobody could smell blood in the water quite like Jack Tramiel — would see the Handy become an Atari product in the eyes of the marketplace. Atari would buy the Handy hardware design from Epyx, put their logo on it, and would take over responsibility for its manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. Epyx would remain the “software partner” only, responsible for delivering an initial suite of launch titles and a steady stream of desirable games thereafter. No one at Epyx was thrilled at the prospect of giving away their baby this way, but, again, the situation was what it was.

At this point in our history, it becomes my sad duty as your historian to acknowledge that I simply don’t know precisely what went down next between Atari and Epyx. The source I’ve been able to find that dates closest to the events in question is the “Roomers” column of the December 1989 issue of the magazine Amazing Computing. According to it, the deal was structured at Tramiel’s demand as a series of ongoing milestone payments from Atari to Epyx as the latter met their obligations to deliver to the former the finished Handy in production-ready form. Epyx, the column claims, was unable to deliver the cable used for linking two Handys together for play in the time frame specified in the contract, whereupon Atari cancelled a desperately needed $2 million payment as well as all the ones that were to follow. The Handy, Atari said, was now theirs thanks to Epyx’s breach of contract; Epyx would just have to wait for the royalties on the Handy games they were still under contract to deliver to get more money out of Atari. In no condition to engage Atari in a protracted legal battle, Epyx felt they had no choice but to concede and continue to play along with the company that had just stolen their proudest achievement from them.

Dave Needle, who admittedly had plenty of axes to grind with Atari, told a slight variation of this tale many years later, saying that the crisis hinged on Epyx’s software rather than hardware efforts. It seems that Epyx had sixty days to fix any bugs that were discovered after the initial delivery of each game to Atari. But, according to Needle, “Atari routinely waited until the end of the time period to comment on the Epyx fixes. There was then inadequate time for Epyx to make the fixes.” Within a few months of inking the deal, Atari used a petty violation like this to withhold payment from Epyx, who, of course, needed that money now. At last, Atari offered them a classic Jack Tramiel ultimatum: accept one more lump-sum payout — Needle didn’t reveal the amount — or die on the vine.

A music programmer who went by the name of “Lx Rudis” is perhaps the closest thing to an unbiased source we can hope to find; he worked for Epyx while the Handy was under development, then accepted a job with Atari, where he says he was “close” with Jack Tramiel’s sons Sam and Leonard, both of whom played important roles within their father’s company. “The terms [of the contract] were quite strict,” he says. “Epyx was unable to meet all points, and Atari was able to withhold a desperately needed milestone payment. In the chaos that ensued, everyone got laid off and I guess Atari’s lawyers and Epyx’s lawyers worked out a ‘compromise’ where Atari got the Handy.”

No smoking gun in the form of any actual paperwork has ever surfaced to my knowledge, leaving us with only anecdotal accounts like these from people who weren’t the ones signing the contracts and making the deals. What we do know is that Epyx by the end of 1989 was bankrupt, while Atari owned the Handy outright — or at least acted as if they did. Although it’s possible that Tramiel was guilty of nothing more than driving a hard bargain, his well-earned reputation as a dirty dealer does make it rather difficult to give him the benefit of too much doubt. Certainly lots of people at Epyx were left feeling very ill-served indeed. Dave Morse had tried to tweak the tiger’s tail a second time, and this time he had gotten mauled. As should have been part of the core curriculum at every business school by this point: don’t sign any deal, ever, with Jack Tramiel.

Dave Morse, RJ Mical and Dave Needle walked away from the whole affair disgusted and disillusioned, having seen their baby kidnapped by the man they had come to regard as Evil incarnated in an ill-fitting pinstriped suit. Their one bitter consolation was that the Handy development system they’d built could run only on an Amiga. Thus Atari would have to buy dozens of specimens of the arch-rival platform for internal use, and suffer the indignity of telling their development licensees that they too would need to buy Amigas to make their games. It wasn’t much, but, hey, at least it was something to hold onto.

The erstwhile Epyx Handy made its public debut at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1989 as the Atari Portable Entertainment System. But when someone pointed out that that name would inevitably get abbreviated to “APES,” Atari moved on from it, finally settling on the name of “Lynx,” a sly reference to the ability to link the machines together via cable for multiplayer action. Thus christened, the handheld console shipped on September 1, 1989. Recent unpleasantness aside, Mical and Needle had good cause to be proud of their work. One far-seeing Atari executive said that the Lynx had the potential to become a revolutionary hit on the level of the Sony Walkman of 1979, the product which largely created the idea of personal portable electronics as we think of them today. Now it was up to Atari to realize that potential.

The Nintendo Game Boy and the Atari Lynx

That part of the equation, alas, didn’t go as well as Atari had hoped. Just one month before the Lynx, Nintendo of America had released the Game Boy, their own handheld console. Purely as a piece of kit, the black-and-white-only Game Boy wasn’t a patch on the Lynx. But then, Nintendo has always thrived by transcending technical specifications, and the Game Boy proved no exception to that rule. Like all of their products, it was laser-targeted to the needs and desires of the burgeoning Generation Nintendo, with a price tag of just $90, battery life long enough to get you through an entire school week of illicit playing under the desk, a size small enough to slip into a coat pocket, and a selection of well-honed launch games designed to maximize its strengths. Best of all, every Game Boy came bundled with a copy of Tetris, an insanely addictive little puzzle game that became a veritable worldwide obsession, the urtext of casual mobile gaming as we’ve come to know it today; many a child’s shiny new Game Boy ended up being monopolized by a Tetris-addled parent.

The Lynx, by contrast, was twice as expensive as the Game Boy, ate its AA batteries at a prodigious rate, was bigger and chunkier than the Game Boy, and offered just three less-than-stellar games to buy beyond the rather brilliant Epyx port of California Games that came included in the box. Weirdly, its overall fit and finish also lagged far behind the cheap but rugged little Game Boy. Atari struggled mightily to find suppliers who could deliver the Lynx’s components on time and on budget with acceptable quality control. According to RJ Mical — again, not the most unbiased of sources — this was largely a case of Jack Tramiel’s chickens coming home to roost. “The new ownership of the Lynx had really bad reputations with hardware manufacturers in Asia and with software developers all over the world,” says Mical. “Suddenly all those sweet deals we’d made for low-cost parts for the Lynx dried up on them. They’d be like, ‘We remember you from five years ago. Guess what — the price just doubled!'” Mical claims that a “magnificent library” of Lynx games, the result of many deals Epyx had made with outside developers, fell by the wayside as soon as the developers in question learned that they’d have to deal from now on with Jack Tramiel instead of Dave Morse.

California Games on the Lynx’s (tiny) screen.

In the face of these disadvantages, the Lynx wasn’t the complete failure one could so easily imagine it becoming. It remained in production for more than five years, over the course of which it sold nearly 3 million units to buyers who wanted a little more from their mobile games than what the Game Boy could offer. By most measures, the Atari Lynx was a fairly successful product. It suffers only by comparison with the Game Boy, which spent an astonishing total of almost fifteen years in production and sold an even more astonishing 118.69 million units, becoming in the process Nintendo’s biggest single success story of all; in the end, Nintendo sold nearly twice as many Game Boys as they did of the original Nintendo Entertainment System that had done such a number on Epyx’s software business. So, a handheld game console did become worthy of mention in the same breath as the Sony Walkman, but it wasn’t the Atari Lynx; it was the Nintendo Game Boy.

Needless to say, Dave Morse’s old plan to make Epyx a $100 million company by 1990 didn’t come to fruition. In addition to all their travails with Atari, the Commodore 64 market, the old heart of their strength, had imploded like a pricked balloon. After peaking at 145 employees in 1988, when work on the Handy as well as games for it was buzzing, frantic layoffs brought Epyx’s total down to less than 20 by the end of 1989, at which point the firm, vowing to soldier on in spite of it all, went through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Just to add insult to the mortal injury Jack Tramiel had done them, they came out of the bankruptcy still under contract to deliver games for the Lynx. Indeed, doing so offered their only realistic hope of survival, slim though it was, and so they told the world they were through developing for computers and turned what meager resources they had left entirely to the Lynx. They wouldn’t even be a publisher in their own right anymore, relying instead on Atari to sell and distribute their games for them. Tramiel had, as the kids say today, thoroughly pwned them.

This zombie version of Epyx shambled on for a disconcertingly long time, plotting always for ways to become relevant to someone again without ever quite managing it. It finally lay down for the last time in 1993, when the remnants of the company were bought up by Bridgestone Media Group, a Christian advocacy organization with ties to one of Epyx’s few remaining employees. By this time, the real “end of the Epyx era,” as Computer Gaming World editor Johnny Wilson put it, had come long ago. In 1993, the name “Epyx” felt as much like an anachronism as the Commodore 64.

What, then, shall we say in closing about Epyx? If Cinemaware, the subject of my last article, was the prototypical Amiga developer, Epyx has a solid claim to the same title in the case of the Commodore 64. As with Cinemaware, manifold and multifarious mistakes were made at Epyx that led directly to the company’s death, mistakes so obvious in hindsight that there seems little point in belaboring them any further here. (Don’t try to design, manufacture, and launch an entirely new gaming platform if you don’t have deep pockets and a rock-solid revenue stream, kids!) They bit off far more than they could chew with the Handy. Combined with their failure to create a coherent identity for themselves in the post-Commodore 64 computer-games industry, it spelled their undoing.

And yet, earnest autopsying aside, when all is said and done it does feel somehow appropriate that Epyx should have for all intents and purposes died along with their favored platform. For a generation of teenage boys, the Epyx years were those between 1984 and 1988, corresponding with the four or five dominant years which the Commodore 64 enjoyed as the most popular gaming platform in North America. It seems safe to say that as long as any of that generation remain on the planet, the name of Epyx will always bring back memories of halcyon summer days of yore spent gathered with mates around the television, joysticks in hand. Summer Games indeed.

(Sources: Questbusters of November 1989; ACE of May 1990; Retro Gamer 18 and 129; Commodore Magazine of July 1988 and August 1989; Small Business Report of February 1988; San Francisco Business Times of July 25 1988; Amazing Computing of June 1988, November 1988, March 1989, April 1989, June 1989, August 1989, November 1989, December 1989, January 1990, and February 1990; Info of November/December 1989; Games Machine of March 1989 and January 1990; Compute!’s Gazette of April 1988; Compute! of November 1987 and September 1988; Computer Gaming World of November 1989, December 1989, and November 1991; Electronic Gaming Monthly of September 1989. Online sources include articles on US Gamer, Now Gamer, Wired, and The Atari Times. My huge thanks to Alex Smith, who shared his take on Epyx’s collapse with me along with some of the sources listed above.)


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