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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The evolution of gaming

July 30th, 2012 3:14 PM
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At this month's KansasFest, John Romero spoke at length about the role the Apple II has played in the evolution of computer gaming and the development of specific programmers, such as Will Wright and Jordan Mechner. The research Romero conducted for this speech, and the awareness of his audience he demonstrated by focusing on his pre-Wolfenstein 3D experiences, made for one of the most engaging and memorable keynotes KansasFest has had the pleasure of hosting.

As further exemplified later in the week by Wayne Arthurton's presentation, franchises and influences that had their start on the Apple II have echoed throughout several generations of game design. This truism is succinctly demonstrated in this montage on the evolution of computer games. How many Apple II games can you spot — and how many descendants can you identify?

(Hat tip to John Walker)

The history of game design

November 22nd, 2010 11:11 AM
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My alma mater offers a major in interactive media and game design, a field that didn't exist during my time there as a student. It's one of many such programs that have popped up across academia in the past decade, in response to the growing popularity and cultural acceptance of video games as an industry and pastime.

Yet electronic game design predates its study by decades. When there were no templates, exemplars, formulae, or rubrics, creative programmers experimented with creative and risky innovations, setting the course for thirty years of successors. Although modern games can still be ingenious, such variation from popular game design is often relegated to low-budget "indie" games and not the big-budget blockbusters sold at retail, which are almost always sequels to existing intellectual properties (IP). This was not the case with the Apple II; visionary games such as Lode Runner, Oregon Trail, and Choplifter were enormous successes and are remembered fondly today.

When today's students are educated in game design and theory, it only makes sense to reflect on historical successes as well. Some academic institutions have wisely chosen to complement their modern game design with this retrospective look. Such a course was once offered at Stanford as the "History of Computer Game Design".

This course provides a historical and critical approach to the evolution of computer and video game design from its beginnings to the present. It brings together cultural, business, and technical perspectives. Students should come away from the course with an understanding of the history of this medium, as well as insights into design, production, marketing, and socio-cultural impacts of interactive entertainment and communication.

The course's required reading includes Dungeons & Dreamers, a book I gave high marks to when I reviewed it for Juiced.GS for its analysis of the 1970s and the era's intersection of popularity in Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, and personal computing. Considering such engaging assignments, I have to wonder why Stanford's course wasn't popular enough to have become a regular part of the school's curriculum; sadly, the "History of Computer Game Design" course does not appear to have been offered since 2005.

This class was part of an accompanying interactive project that has likewise not been updated in nearly a decade. It had an ambitious and socially relevant mission:

The aim of this project is to explore the history and cultural impact of a crucial segment of contemporary new media: interactive simulations and video games. Once the late-night amusement of nerds and hackers who built "Space Wars" and the "Game of Life" in the 1950s and 1960s, video games and interactive media have emerged as one of the most vibrant elements of today's entertainment industry. However, despite the growing popularity and legitimacy of video games, the importance of the medium itself has all but eluded notice by most scholars and media critics. As a result, this project seeks to ground the history and study of video games within a framework of rigorous academic discourse.

While Roger Ebert may contend that video games are not art, others have suggested the better question is: "Can artists express themselves through the video game medium?" I feel the answer to that is an obvious "Yes!", as demonstrated by games from the Apple II to today. It's only a matter of time before game design history is as common a field of study as art history, film theory, and music appreciation.

In addition to the aforementioned Dungeons & Dreamers, other books providing academic perspectives on game design's history include Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort, and Dungeons & Desktops by Matt Barton.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)