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)

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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