Kickstarting the history of Sierra On-Line

July 8th, 2013 2:00 PM
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We retrocomputing enthusiasts have seen Kickstarter used for books (The First Apple, What's Where), games (Shadowgate, Ultima), and documentaries (GET LAMP, 6502). Now it's time to open your wallets again, as the latest project to warrant an Apple II user's investment is a documentary of Sierra On-Line.

Sierra On-Line was the developer and publisher of such classic point-and-click adventure games as the noble King's Quest, comedic Space Quest, avaricious Gold Rush!, and lascivious Leisure Suit Larry (a modern remake of which was published just last month, courtesy Kickstarter). Many of these franchises got their start on the Apple II, so naturally we should be keen to back this project, right?

I bid caution: Kickstarter is an investment platform, and you'd do well to research this project. In this case, this project already toured the Kickstarter circuit in 2012, when the creators asked for $40,000; they received $1,312. Their pitch video at the time consisted entirely of gameplay footage and title cards — no interviews, no introductions, no voiceovers. To their credit, that initial fundraising failure didn't deter the film crew, as their new pitch video demonstrates they've spent the past year conducting interviews with Sierra On-Line luminaries. Having that in their pocket may justify their new request for $125,000. (Makes you wonder what they were hoping to accomplish with just a third that sum!) They have thus far received $10,367, or nine times more than their last effort — but it's a slow start, an still a long ways from their goal.

One thing missing from their new video is the talent behind the camera. I'd like to know that the documentarians dedicating themselves to this project are as passionate about adventure gaming as they need their backers to be. The enthusiasm that Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder brought to their comic strip documentary, Stripped, was contagious and, I suspect, a large part of why it raised double its goal on its first Kickstarter and its second Kickstarter. Between the lack of personality in the video and the relatively terse text write-up, the drive behind the Sierra On-Line film is not as explicit.

The Sierra On-Line documentary is entitled Heroes, an improvement over the original name, So You Want To Be A Hero? One backer suggested, why not call it Quests? I like the ring of that, since it abstracts and plays upon the King's/Space/Police Quest series. The project creators acknowledged and thoughtfully responded to that suggestion:

We chose the title Heroes for the film for a variety of reasons. Chief among them, the term "Hero" was a theme rooted in the adventure games. From the perspective of all of us who played the games, we had the opportunity to be a hero. We also felt that this was an appropriate term that serves as an homage to all of those at Sierra who worked tirelessly to create the games we all know and love a success.

Will this Kickstarter meet or even exceed its fundraising? Will the final film, scheduled for a March 2014 release, reveal anything new about this storied game company, or will it cater more to nostalgic fans? We'll begin to have the answers when the Kickstarter campaign closes on the evening of August 5.

In the meantime, digital antiquarian Jimmy Maher, whom we interviewed this year on Open Apple, has written extensively about the history of Sierra. Although he's not collected his works on this particular subject into a book, I encourage you to scroll through his posts and read them in the order in which they were published; the detail and accuracy of his narratives are remarkable.

UPDATE: This project has failed, having raised only $28,872, or 23% of its goal.

Battle Chess & Space Quest return

May 14th, 2012 5:27 PM
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Tim Schafer, what hath you wrought? The extravagant funding his unidentified adventure game received via crowdfunding site Kickstarter has opened the floodgates to a resurgence of vintage franchises: Wasteland, Leisure Suit Larry, Shadowrun, and more.

The latest Apple II licenses to seek resurrection via Kickstarter are Space Quest and Battle Chess. The former, dubbed "SpaceVenture" (they apparently couldn't get the rights to the original name), will be produced by Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, aka "The Two Guys from Andromeda", the two designers who created the series for Sierra On-Line in the first place. The development seems to be pretty well outlined, with several notable voice actors having signed on, though I've seen no assets from the game as of yet. The final game will be installable on PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, and Android, or playable in Google's Chrome Web browser. A preorder will cost you $15 and get them that much closer to the usual half-a-million goal before the June 12, 2012, deadline.

By contrast, the Battle Chess project couldn't be more different. Subdued Software, developers of no games I've ever heard of, have licensed the Battle Chess name and have essentially completed production of an update to the classic strategy game. All that remains before its October 2012 release is to add Internet support, for which they are asking for a paltry $100,000:

… implementing a full featured online experience, like the one we have planned, will take several months. A list of features include; Skilled Based Matchmaking, Statistics, Leaderboards, Achievements and in-game chat. We also needed to factor in the cost of fulfilling rewards and running this campaign. We have carefully planned out the costs of staffing the programmers, artists and testers necessary to complete online multiplayer feature and arrived at this amount.

This modest ambition extends to the scale of the release: $100K will secure a PC-only release, with additional funding promising ports to Mac, iOS, Android, and Xbox 360. If you're counting on support for one of those platforms, one course of action is to pledge your dollars to the project — and, if they don't collect enough funding for additional systems before the June 1 deadline, withdraw your pledge. (Selfish, no?)

The lack of accessibility to Battle Chess brought to mind a potential alternative. Longtime readers of this blog may remember my discussion of a similar game, Battle vs. Chess, originally scheduled for release on Sep 28, 2010, then pushed back to Spring 2011. To date, Battle vs. Chess has still not been released in the United States, according to Wikipedia, "due to an injunction by Interplay Entertainment for trademark infringement due to its similarity to Interplay title Battle Chess." In February 2012, I received this update from Robin Kunimune, Community Manager of publisher TopWare Interactive:

… Battle Vs. Chess has not been released in the USA, yet. If it were in our power, we would do so in a heartbeat, but sadly the publishing rights remain with a company with which we no longer associate. We are currently waiting for said company to fold and declare bankruptcy (at which point we would regain the publishing rights and release the game) or to go ahead and release the game themselves.

In the meantime, the "true" Battle Chess is looking pretty polished, with plenty of neat death sequences — although the outcome is determined in accordance with the rules of chess, it's still fun to watch the characters duke it out, with each potential matchup of pieces and winners resulting in a unique encounter. Check out these three gameplay videos:

Whether you support an ambitious game that's still in the planning stage and not coming out until 2013 but for a variety of platforms, or a game that's all but finished with a meager fundraising goal and target platform — or both — is between you and your wallet. Happy funding!

On death and dying on the Apple II

November 14th, 2011 1:00 PM
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There's a saying among gamers: if a video game is unreasonably challenging, especially as a result of unfair tactics that rely on luck or manipulating arbitrary rules to overcome, that game is "Nintendo hard" — a reference to the 8-bit era of the Nintendo Entertainment System and its ridiculously difficult games.

That term must've originated among those unfamiliar with the computer games of the era, as anyone who's played Sierra On-Line's adventure titles or even a classic text adventure knows how inscrutable those puzzles and answers can be. Lately, those old-school computer gamers have risen to represent their memories in video format, spurred first by this compilation of arcade deaths, posted by Rob Beschizza:

Inspired, Blake Patterson followed up with his own montage of deaths specifically from Apple II games, but set to Commodore 64 music:

Since then, a YouTube user named MrWhitman has become fixated on such fatalistic experiences, documenting them in his video channel. His 263 videos, many of them falling under the "Ways to Lose" or "Ways to Die" categories, showcase a variety of ways to not play your favorite adventure games. Although many of the videos, such as those of the original Police Quest, capture the 8-bit glory of early computer gaming, others, such as Space Quest, rely on various remakes with updated graphics.

I don't remember any Apple II game being so challenging that I would throw the joystick in anger, though maybe I was just accustomed to the illogic of the burgeoning genre. Are classic games more difficult by comparison to today's entertainment? Would we find ourselves less patient with a classic game today? What has your experience with retrogaming been?

(Hat tips to Open Apple and Seth Sternberger)