Crowdfunding Thimbleweed Park

December 15th, 2014 8:08 AM
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This summer, Ron Gilbert unearthed his Maniac Mansion design notes. What was a seemingly nostalgic trip down memory lane may in fact have been the first steps toward the future: a return to his roots, crowdfunded on Kickstarter.

That's where Gilbert and Gary Winnick, Maniac Mansion co-designer, have successfully funded Thimbleweed Park, a new point-and-click adventure in the style of Maniac Mansion. "Why do we want to make Thimbleweed Park?" asks their campaign, which concludes the afternoon of Thursday, December 18. "Because we miss classic adventures and all their innocence and charm."

Ken Macklin, who designed Maniac Mansion's cover art, will return for Thimbleweed Park. So will David Fox, Lucasfilm's SCUMM scripter who decided to put the hamster in the microwave. And while the game will feature classic pixel art, there'll be a modern soundtrack by Steve Kirk. Writes Gilbert:

Don't get me wrong, I loved the SID chip, PC speaker, the Adlib card and amazing digital sound of the SoundBlaster (that still sounded like it was coming out of a PC speaker), but so much 'emotional data' can be carried in music and your eyes are already bleeding from the awesomely retro art, so why should your ears bleed too?

With all that said, though… what about the gameplay? I'm concerned that the interface appears a little too old school, which, as the developers of Shadowgate recently learned, isn't necessarily designed with modern gamers in mind. And what of the puzzles — will they be more logical? Or will be be sticking hunks of cheese in car ignitions? Gilbert's last game, The Cave, promised to be reminiscent of Maniac Mansion, with multiple playable characters, each with unique talents. But the game didn't exactly tear up the charts.

That all said, I'm willing to give this team and game a chance. I've backed Thimbleweed Park for $20 mark, essentially preordering the finished product, due for delivery in June 2016. I am sorely tempted to kick it up to $50, at which level the reward is having my name and phone number included in an in-game phonebook — and when players dial that number, they'll get my actual voicemail! Either way, stay tuned to this blog in two years to hear my thoughts on what comes next from Gilbert & Co.

Apple II cameo at Computerworld

September 8th, 2014 7:49 AM
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When I quit my job at Computerworld almost two years ago, I left the company on good terms. Though that's true of every job I've ever had, Computerworld is unique in allowing me to continue my professional relationship as a freelancer, contributing reviews, interviews, and feature stories. As a result, I've been more prolific since leaving than I was during my tenure there. As a salaried employee, writing was not in my job description, so my byline never affected by bottom line. Now, each successful pitch results in another paycheck, which is a powerful motivator.

The downside to that arrangement is that stories that would've been published when they were "free" (minus the time and effort of the professional editors I worked with) may get passed over when there's a fee associated with them. That's why you saw KansasFest coverage at Computerworld 2007–2013 but not in 2014 — the enterprise IT and Apple II crowds overlap only so much.

Nonetheless, I inadvertently worked the Apple II into my latest story for Computerworld. Apple II Bits is powered by the content management system WordPress, which I've been enthusiastically using and supporting for eight years. When WordPress 3.0 came out four years ago, I reviewed it for Computerworld — so it seemed a natural fit to revisit the topic in my new capacity as a freelancer for last week's release of WordPress 4.0.

My WordPress 4.0 review was submitted with screenshots of the WordPress backend taken while I composed the Apple II Bits blog post "Maniac Mansion design notes". I hadn't been thinking that, with Computerworld's own recent rollout of an entirely new design and more visual CMS, they'd need to use one of these images on the homepage. And so it was that a screenshot of LucasArts' 1987 classic point-and-click adventure game Maniac Mansion graced the homepage of Computerworld.com in 2014.

Maniac Mansion at Computerworld

IT LIVES

The image appears in the article itself but remained on the homepage for less than 24 hours, as screenshots are generally too busy to effectively advertise homepage content. The art director quickly crafted a more representative banner for WordPress and substituted that. But for a brief moment, the Apple II again had its place in the Computerworld sun.

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.

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