Tim Schafer's Ball Blazer piracy

February 29th, 2016 9:28 AM
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Tim Schafer, whose Double Fine Adventure blew the roof off Kickstarter, has been in the video game industry for nearly 30 years, having worked on such adventure games as Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. But the launch of his career was nearly torpedoed by an inadvertent admission of youthful piracy.

In 1989, 22-year-old Schafer was applying for his first job. Atari and Hewlett-Packard, which had been the proving ground for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, respectively, both turned down the aspiring game designer. The first glimmer of hope shone when he netted a phone interview with David Fox of Lucasfilm Games, the group responsible for not only the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, but also several original properties. Schafer gushed over his love for the company's games:

I called David Fox right away and scribbled all the notes you see while I was talking to him. I told him how much I wanted to work at Lucasfilm, not because of Star Wars, but because I loved, "Ball Blaster."

"Ball Blaster, eh?" he said.

"Yeah! I love Ball Blaster!" I said. It was true. I had broken a joystick playing that game on my Atari 800.

"Well, the name of the game is Ball Blazer." Mr. Fox said, curtly. "It was only called Ball Blaster in the pirated version."

Gulp.

Totally busted. It was true — I had played the pirated version. There, I said it. Now, if you’ve ever pirated one of my games you don't need to feel bad, because I did it to Lucasfilm Games when I was in high school. Of course, if you’ve pirated two or more of my games, that's a different story.

Fortunately, Schafer recovered from this stumble: he busted out his Koala Pad and designed a résumé in the style of a graphic adventure game — a ballsy move, appropriately enough. It worked, earning him a job offer as Assistant Designer / Programmer with an annual salary of $27,000 in 1989 dollars. (For comparison, my first salary after college was $25,300, fifteen years after Schafer was making $27K. In 2016 dollars, my first job paid $34,239 while Schafer was making $51,587. Perhaps crime does pay.)

The rest, as they say, is history. You can get the full story on Schafer's blog, where, in 2009, in the twentieth anniversary of that first job offer, he related the whole affair, with scans of his applications, rejections, and offers.

(Hat tip to Jonathon Myers via Anna Megill)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

The ultimate game: Archon

May 12th, 2014 4:41 PM
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In the Austin Grossman novel You, our hero is asked, "So what's your ultimate game?

"You know, the game you'd make if you could make any game at all," the long-haired designed explained.

"Forget about budget," the short guy added. "You're in charge. Just do anything! Greatest game ever!"

"The Ultimate Game," I said, "I can do just… anything?"

They nodded. I felt ridiculous. Was the Ultimate Game the one in which I ride a hundred-foot-tall pink rhino through the streets, driving my enemies before me? The one where the chess pieces come alive and talk in a strange poetry? Is it just a game where I always win?

"So… okay, okay. You're playing chess, right, but all the pieces are actual monsters, and when you take one you have to… actually fight… it?" Why were they looking at me that way?

"You mean like in Archon? For the C64?"

"Um. Right."

Archon, a Greek word that means "ruler" or "lord"1 — also a monster in Dungeons & Dragons2 — was a multiplatform action-strategy game distributed by Electronic Arts in 1983. I played it on the NES, but it was also available for the Apple II. Players took turns moving pieces across a board that fluctuated through a spectrum of light and dark, with each extreme favoring a different team. The game pieces had different strengths and capabilities, from shapeshifting to spellcasting, that they brought into combat. I loved playing Archon with my older brothers, as its mix of fast-paced battle with more thoughtful tactics played to my jack-of-all-trades nature. Some of my brothers were faster than me, and others were smarter, but needing having to be both leveled the playing field more than other games did. (The Super NES game Actraiser would later take a similar approach, to great — and inimitable — success.)

A 1984 sequel, Archon II: Adept, was also published for home computers but never got ported to game consoles, thus escaping my notice.

But I did get to revisit the concept almost two decades later. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2003, my last year attending the still-ongoing event, I visited the LucasArts booth, which had more than just Star Wars games:

I briefly left a galaxy far, far away to observe Wrath Unleashed, an action-strategy game. It struck me as bearing a slight resemblance to another game, but the more I saw of Wrath Unleashed, the less slight the resemblance became, until I had to ask the LucasArts rep, "Have you ever played an old game called 'Archon'?" Rather than profess ignorance or extort the differences, he simply nodded and said, "Exactly."

But somehow, the core mechanics hadn't aged well. Perhaps it was because my brothers had grown up, leaving video games (and their gaming sibling) behind. But I didn't find the same engagement and tension in Wrath Unleashed that I did in Archon. (Sibling rivalry was likely a factor in Austin Grossman's affair with Archon, too: his brother Lev included it in his list of the ten greatest games for the Apple II.)

Is Archon the ultimate game? No. That title would likely belong to Zork, or The Legend of Zelda, or something equally revolutionary and genre-defining. But what Archon has in common with those games is timelessness: even today, playing the ruler of a shifting battlefield is still fun.

For a more thorough review of Archon, including a "Where are they now?" of the game's programmers, read The 8-Bit Game: Digesting Archon | 8bitrocket, by Jeff Fulton. (Hat tip to Blake Patterson)

Ancient DOS games

August 15th, 2011 11:11 AM
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Thirty years ago, when multiple incompatible computer formats vied for dominance, there were as many cross-platform games as there were exclusives. Companies who could afford to port their software benefitted from a larger potential audience, resulting in Mac, DOS, and Apple II users having similar yet disparate experiences of games such as the Ultima series.

The modern benefit to such historical cross-pollination is that many classic Apple II games can still be enjoyed, albeit in alternative formats. For example, in the July episode of Open Apple, I mentioned a free version of Ultima IV that requires DOSBox. (Several listeners recommended I instead run the game using Boxer, a DOS emulator specifically for the Macintosh.)

For a more turnkey approach to reliving the classics, I recommend two online distributors who have made games such as Ultima and Zork available again: Steam, and Good Old Games (GOG). Unlike the remake of Ultima IV (or even ADG's non-profit remakes of King's Quest), Steam's and GOG's offerings are not free for the taking — but these commercial products are designed to be run from a modern operating system, usually Windows XP or higher but occasionally for the Mac as well. How else can you easily and legally enjoy the Zork anthology for just $3.59, or four classic LucasArts point-and-click adventures for $9.97, in a native, offline environment?

If you're not sure which of these games to start with, you don't need to delve into old issues of Nibble to find what critics of the age had to say. Modern reviews are still being published at Web site Pixelmusement under the title Ancient DOS Games (ADG). Here's their review of King's Quest II:

They may not be identical with the Apple II games you remember, but these games are legitimate originals that have taken straight from the past to be enjoyed in the present. So… enjoy!