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What got you interested in writing text adventures?
When I bought my first computer in late 1981--an Atari 800 with 48K RAM, 810 disk and cassette--I also picked up a handful of games. One of them was Scott Adams' "Strange Odyssey," the sixth or seventh in his classic series. By the time I finished the game, I knew I would be writing adventures for a living.
What was it that pulled you into "Strange Odyssey"?
The puzzles. And the possibilities! The Scott Adams games didn't have much in the way of story. I, in my youthful arrogance, thought I'd be able to change that. Then I saw the early Infocom titles in their marvelous packaging--the "Deadline" dossier, the "Starcross" saucer--and I was totally hooked.
Had you written any games prior to "Adventure in the Fifth Dimension?"
My first job out of college was as a Radio Shack sales clerk. A few weeks after I started working, they delivered the first TRS-80 Model I systems to my store: 4K of RAM, 64-character black and white monitor and a cassette for $599. It was the first consumer-oriented computer, as opposed to the Apple, which was hobbyist-oriented. I immediately neglected all of my important duties as a sales clerk and began learning to program the machine, first in BASIC and soon in Z80 assembler. The only reason I didn't get fired was that the demos I wrote made the machine look good. Naturally, many of those first efforts were games, but I don't remember what they were, exactly.
How did you get hired at ANALOG Computing?
One of the sales clerks at a Radio Shack store near mine was a fellow named Lee Pappas. We got to know each other a bit because of our mutual interest in the TRS-80, but drifted apart after I left the company. Three years later, when I'd finally decided to buy a computer for myself, I went to visit the only Atari dealer in my area. The fellow behind the counter and co-owner of the store was none other than Lee! He'd also started an Atari newsletter and asked me to contribute to the fourth issue. I hung around those guys for a year and watched the magazine get bigger and bigger. Finally they offered me a job as technical editor, and I left my comfortable position at Bose Corporation to join them. Best career move I ever made.
ANALOG Software announced a game called "Crash Dive!" several years before your type-in game of the same name. What's the connection?
A game called "Crash Dive!" was announced by ANALOG Games [the commercial software division of ANALOG Computing] in 1982 and cover art was commissioned, but no design or code was actually produced. A year later, I saw the forgotten artwork hanging on the wall and decided to write a text adventure around it.
Did you play any of the later ANALOG games that used your text adventure frameworks, like Tom Hudson's "Adventure at Vandenburg?"
No. By then I was working at Infocom and far too busy!
How do you feel your pre-Infocom work holds up today?
At the time, they were considered pretty good freeware games, though quite primitive by later standards. They were supposed to serve as examples to show others how to write games themselves. "Fifth Dimension" took only a week to write. "Crash Dive!," being in assembler, took nearly a month.
ANALOG printed some "coming soon" screen shots of a game of yours called "Tachyon," which looked a lot like Atari's "Quantum," but the game was never printed in the magazine. What's the story behind it?
ANALOG had a proud tradition of publishing high-quality knockoffs of arcade games, such as Tom Hudson's "Livewire," a "Tempest" clone. "Tachyon" was indeed an adaptation of "Quantum." It was never published because I left ANALOG before I had a chance to complete it.
Was it your text games that got you noticed by Infocom?
They probably didn't hurt, but I wasn't hired by Infocom to write games. They hired me to engineer and maintain the 6502 interpreters for their ZIL system. I completely revamped their Atari and C64 interpreters and created new ones for the Commodore Plus 4 and Tandy Color Computer. Later, they made me a game designer.
How did it feel to work with big-name designers such as Dave Lebling and Steve Meretzky?
I'll never forget my first lunch with those guys after being promoted to game designer. Sitting around this big table were Dave, Steve, Marc Blank, Mike Berlyn, Stu Galley, and Douglas Adams, who was in town helping Steve write "Hitchhiker's Guide." Boy, did I feel tiny! Eventually I got to know them all, of course, and they were very gracious about letting me into their circle, especially after "Wishbringer" sold nearly a hundred thousand copies.
Was "Wishbringer" designed to be an introductory game from the beginning or did it just turn out that way?
Yes. Mike Dornbrook, the head of marketing, asked for an easy game to introduce new players to the genre. It was a smart idea and a very successful product.
Where did the idea for "Trinity" come from?
"Trinity" was a concept I had been toying with since my ANALOG days. I presented it to Infocom as my first game idea, but they wisely suggested that it was too ambitious. After "Wishbringer" came out, my coding skills were considerably improved, and my political position was much stronger, so I took the plunge.
How long did it take to write?
About eleven months, somewhat longer than the typical Infocom games of the time, which typically took eight or nine months to complete. However, "Trinity" filled the entire 256K address space of the Interactive Fiction Plus system, first used in Meretsky's "A Mind Forever Voyaging," so it was two or three times larger than games like "Leather Goddesses of Phobos," which came out at the same time.
Was "Trinity" a commercial success?
I think it sold somewhere between forty and fifty thousand copies when it was released in summer of 1986. Not a blockbuster, but certainly not a flop. The fact that it was the first and, for a while, only game available for the then-new Commodore 128 helped.
Would you have liked to do more all-text games for Infocom? Any plots for games you never got to?
I'd love to do more, if anyone would pay me to write them. But the market simply dried up after 1987. Only a handful of aficianados care about the all-prose format anymore, despite the fact that the games are generally much better. There were plans for more games, but they were never well developed.
Was the graphical "Loom" for Lucasfilm easier or more difficult to write than your Infocom games?
Far, far more difficult. The amount of code and data that need to be created to make anything happen in a graphical game is staggering. The Infocom games were generally designed, coded and debugged by a single person, working with a handful of testers. But "Loom" required a full-time staff of six people, plus a shared staff of engineers, sound designers and a large testing department. I did maybe ninety percent of the coding myself, but the sixteen month effort nearly flattened me.
Is originality important to you?
Originality is great. It can get you in the history books. Sometimes it can even make you rich. But there's nothing wrong with a superior execution of an old idea, either. In the long run, it's not important to be the first. It's important to be the best.
Do you still program or are you solely a designer?
I am only a designer. I miss programming sometimes, but I just don't have time to keep up with the latest languages and operating systems.
Have you been impressed by any games in recent years, from a design and storytelling point of view?
Not really. All of the impressive achievements of the past five years have been purely technical. Some of the stuff they can do with real-time 3-D is astonishing! But the actual design of the games has been quite conventional. And nobody takes any real chances with stories at all. It's not surprising, considering how much games cost to build nowadays, but I miss the days when we could consider taking a bit of creative risk.
Do you think it's harder these days to go from idea to finished project than it was in 1985?
It's so much harder it takes an incurable optimist to even bother trying.
Is game design artistically fulfilling?
Not by itself. To get the fulfillment, you have to be able to build it and get it published without having your vision torn to shreds in the process. Artists looking for personal fulfillment would be well advised to choose a medium that doesn't cost as much as today's computer games!