Bard's Tale post-mortem at GDC

December 11th, 2017 8:10 AM
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The Game Developer's Conference is an annual event that invites members of the computer and video game industry to collaborate, inspire, and share their stories and best practices. This professional affair is expensive to attend but nonetheless attracts developers both mainstream and indie.

One of the flagship offerings of each year's GDC schedule is the post-mortem, where developers take attendees behind the scenes of their memorable games, be they modern or historical. Past post-mortems have included games Maniac Mansion for the Apple II and Raid on Bungeling Bay for Commodore 64.

At GDC 2018, to be held in San Francisco on March 19–23, another classic game will enter the post-mortem vault: The Bard's Tale I and II. Dr. Michael Cranford, creator of The Bard's Tale series and programmer for the Apple II version of Donkey Kong, will host the session:

Cranford… will share the vision that led him to the game's conception, design, and development from his years as a dungeon master. The games are an expression of Cranford's personal love for the genre and desire to surpass the experience of tabletop gaming. The session will explore the vision behind the game and help illuminate a trajectory in gaming which has remained strong to the current day… [and] many elements in current RPGs are developed in 'The Bard's Tale'.

… this talk is not going to be technical. This session targets those who are interested in concepts behind game design (RPG game design in particular), how that came together in the early '80s, and how it impacted so many people.

Although I've not played many games in The Bard's Tale series, I recognize the role it played in gaming history, as it was named among the top RPGs of all time by both Game Informer and Retro Gamer, inspiring me to back the Kickstarter for The Bard's IV. I would love to be in the audience for this upcoming talk… but alas, attendance at GDC is not for the casual gamer, with passes starting at $999 $149. I will instead hope the video and slides will eventually make their way into the GDC Vault, where they will be preserved and made available to the wider audience interested in RPG history.

(Hat tip to Gamasutra)

Maniac Mansion design notes

August 11th, 2014 11:34 AM
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Despite growing up an avid gamer, I didn't play many commercial games for the Apple II. (No, I didn't pirate them, either.) We had the Atari 2600 before we had an Apple, and from there, our console collection grew to include every Nintendo system. It was there, on the 8-bit NES, that I encountered many classics that had been ported from the Apple II: Ultima, Archon — and Maniac Mansion.

That last title was a point-and-click adventure developed at LucasFilm Games. Players chose two of six characters to accompany primary protagonist Dave on his exploration of a mad scientist's home to rescue Dave's girlfriend, Sandy. Along the way, gamers encounter a sentient meteor, a disembodied tentacle, an explodable hamster, and one of the first instances of video game cutscenes. Maniac Mansion garnered a cult following, spawning both a sequel and a television series.

The writer, director, artist and programmer responsible for Maniac Mansion was Ron Gilbert, who later wrote several of the Monkey Island games on the Mac, all of which used the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) game engine. Although Gilbert has moved past these titles and tools, he hasn't forgotten his roots, as evidenced by recent posts to his blog, Grumpy Gamer:

While cleaning out my storage unit in Seattle, I came across a treasure trove of original documents and backup disks from the early days of Lucasfilm Games and Humongous Entertainment. I hadn't been to the unit in over 10 years and had no idea what was waiting for me.

Here is the original pitch document Gary and I used for Maniac Mansion. Gary had done some quick concepts, but we didn't have a real design, screen shots or any code. This was before I realized coding the whole game in 6502 was nuts and began working on the SCUMM system.

If this document… say[s] anything, it's how much ideas change from initial concept to finished game. And that's a good thing. Never be afraid to change your ideas. Refine and edit. If your finished game looks just like your initial idea, then you haven't pushed and challenged yourself hard enough.

His first batch of scanned Maniac Mansion design notes showcases UI mockups, a map of a mansion that never would've fit into 320K, and puzzle ideas that didn't make the cut until 25 years later. A second batch of notes demonstrates the logic and code behind SCUMM.

It's fascinating and wonderful that Gilbert saved these documents and is now making them available. He likely didn't know the place Maniac Mansion would earn in gaming history — surely there are countless other point-and-click adventures of the era that have been forgotten. But this one was not, and now the context and process by which it was created can be examined in a new light. I hope these documents (or their scans) eventually make their way to an institution such as the Strong Museum's International Center for the History of Electronic Games.

Maniac Mansion

It was a dark and clear night…

Want more Maniac Mansion history? In 2012, Gilbert gave a one-hour Maniac Mansion post-mortem at the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC). Due to wonky embed code, the video is better viewed in the GDC Vault, but it's included below for convenience.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Jason Scott Adventure

March 1st, 2012 10:34 AM
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In July 2010, Jason Scott interviewed Christine Love, creator of Digital: A Love Story. This game, available for Mac, Windows, and Linux, emulates meeting people via a dial-up BBS, an experience that predates Love; she used Scott's textfiles.com as a reference by which she recreated this digital environment. I'm sure Scott was honored that his work proved the foundation for a game.

Now he's gotten even closer to that medium by being the direct inspiration for The Jason Scott Adventure. Dezro created this game for Pirate Kart V: The 2012-in-One Glorious Developers Conference, a game-making competition funded by Kickstarter and occurring in conjunction with next month's Game Developers Conference, of which Jason Scott is the digital historian. Pirate Kart V ran February 25–27 and included this… interesting production. With 256-color graphics and two modes of gameplay, The Jason Scott Adventure takes only a few minutes to play and has low replay value — yet it's a bizarrely awesome experience that succinctly encapsulates what it means to be Jason Scott as he fights the evil Yahoo!

The Jason Scott Adventure

To run The Jason Scott Adventure on my Mac, I opened Terminal, navigated to the game's folder, and typed ./JasonScottAdventure.sh

Be forewarned: this game includes photos of many cute kittens but also less welcome images. The resolution is such that you're unlikely to be scarred, but try not to look too closely.

(Hat tip to — who else? — Jason Scott)

SimCity at GDC

March 14th, 2011 11:56 AM
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Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy and I are exhausted from a weekend spent at PAX East, an annual video game convention held in Boston. There were some fun classic computer references: Bill Amend put up a picture of an old, non-Apple II computer as representative of the state of technology when he started drawing FoxTrot; Paul Saunders of LoadingReadyRun and The Escapist cited Hard Hat Mack as one of his first and favorite games as a kid (he can expect an issue of Juiced.GS in his mailbox later this month), while his colleague Graham Stark acknowledged The Interbank Incident; and Jerry Holkins reminisced about thinking for a week that he'd lost his Wasteland save game before realizing it was on the other side of the floppy. He actually hugged his mom, crying, "We're back!"

For gamers, there were several classic arcade and console rooms, the former courtesy the American Classic Arcade Museum to which Andy and I made our annual pilgrimage last month, but other than the aforementioned hat tips, there wasn't much here for retrocomputing enthusiasts. Such was not the case at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month, where an iOS version of Out of This World was announced. But there was some other insight out of GDC of interest to Apple II users.

A popular form of GDC panel is the post-mortem, in which developers talk about the thought and processes that went into a game that was released anywhere from a day to a decade ago. Will Wright of SimCity fame was one such presenter, discussing the origin of Raid on Bungeling Bay:

When he decided to make a game after learning BASIC and Pascal, "It was almost more of a whim," he said. At that point, a lot of people on the Apple II were on their second or third generation games, so he was worried about competing with them.

But the Commodore 64 had just come out, "so I thought I'll just buy one of these new computers, make a game on that, and level the playing field," said Wright. He actually programmed the game on the Apple II, then dumped it onto the C64.

"I remember I was 4 or 5 years old, and I went on a helicopter ride, and it was one of the coolest things in the world," he said, so he knew he wanted helicopters in the game, as well as some sort of clockwork world. And since the Apple II's games were all very simple screens, "I wanted a very large world that I could really get lost in, and feel like it was that large."

He made two tools to build the game world: Chedid was a character editor, which was “really primitive,” he said. Wedit lets you scroll around the world and place the characters from Chedid. “Wedit eventually evolved into Sim City,” he said. “I was scrolling around the world and having a lot of fun with it.”

So, there you have it: SimCity was designed to be a map editor for an Apple II game. How frustrating that the Apple II's role in the creation of one of gaming's most celebrated franchises has not been rewarded with its own version of SimCity. With the source code having been made available some years ago, shouldn't it just be a matter of time? It's a popular topic in csa2, but AFAIK, the only attempts to port the game were made before the source was released. How about a renewed effort?

UPDATE: The video, audio, and slides from this GDC presentation are now available.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)

Out of this World for iOS

March 10th, 2011 9:06 AM
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In the latest episode of Open Apple, Mike and I noted both that the 25th Game Developers Conference was held last week in San Francisco, and that iOS is becoming a great platform for retrogaming. I didn't realize at the time that there was a recent intersection of those two topics: Out of this World, a classic Apple IIGS game, is coming to iOS.

As reported by Touch Arcade, Éric Chahi, the game's original developer, made the announcement at GDC that Out of this World, known overseas as Another World, will arrive on the iPad and iPhone at an unspecified future date.

At the time of its 1991 release, when 16-bit graphics weren't quite realistic enough, this puzzle-platform game from Interplay used rotoscoping techniques to transport the earthly scientist Lester Knight Chaykin to an alien planet. Each non-scrolling screen presented a different puzzle and a part of the narrative of his adventure to return home. Surrounded by foreign technology and unintelligible lifeforms, Lester's journey is one of beauty and inscrutability.

I enjoyed OotW on the Super Nintendo but found it a relatively short game once mastered. In my recent attempts to replay it, I found it rather obtuse and far from what modern gamers would expect from what is ostensibly an action game. In my former career as a high school teacher of technical writing, I thought OotW would be a perfect case study: give it to students without instruction, and have them write the documentation from scratch. Trying to decipher the game in both internal and external contexts would've been fascinating. Unfortunately, such an assignment was impossible due to predating the game's many freeware ports.

I did eventually beat this game on the SNES but was dismayed to find its cliffhanger of an ending unresolved; the squel, Heart of the Alien, was released only for the ill-fated Sega CD console system, limiting its accessibility. But maybe, if the series' first half sells well on iOS, it won't be long before we finally see the resolution of Lester's quest.

UPDATE: The video, audio, and slides from this GDC presentation are now available.

(Hat tip to Blake Patterson and Jason Scott)