Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Game Design: Supplemental Books and Other Materials

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher has a section on “Supplemental Books and Other Materials” in his game design course. Here are several books from my private collection with a few random comments. I am most interested in how role playing games were adapted to the home computer in days when a lone visionary could develop a hit game by himself within a year or so. These were the halcyon days when teen-aged programmers could achieve cult status….

This book is one I picked up in a bargain bin at a small Atari convention when I was in the sixth grade. I did not own a TRS-80, so I couldn’t type in and run the games it contained. I did spend many hours looking over the listings and reading and rereading the sections on adventure design. The book was released in 1981 and it has forward by Scott Adams who was at the top of his game at the time. The guy was the master of the 16K adventure and the creator of the first commercial adventure program for a home computer. Alas, his company would not survive the first big video-gaming crash. It is thus bittersweet to read his thoughts on the form and to see the source code for his first and most well known game, Adventureland.

Also of interest here is the whopping five adventures from the prolific Greg Hasset. There are a couple of pages each on the topics of what an  “Adventure” is, how to play them, how to write them, and where to sell them. Probably the strangest chapter is the one on “ten adventure ideas.” Some of the them are really off the wall and there is very little help for the novice that might take a yen to developing one of them.

This book came out in 1982, one year after the “Captain 80” book. Very few books ever went so much in detail about how to implement a BASIC adventure program of your own. Unfortunately, by the time the educational materials caught up with the novice programmers, the demand for amateur adventure games had all but vanished. Indeed, it would start to become a rare thing to even see type-in adventures in the magazines before long.

Nevertheless, this book was a pretty good source for learning how to program in general. I know I used the ideas here to work out my on hobby projects on an Atari ST in later years. The general utility of most type-in programs was very low in comparison. Oh sure, you might hack them a bit here and there… but most of the code was a mess. Frank Dacosta spent a great deal of effort helping point people toward the sort of “structured programming” approaches that would save pain and headaches later. As with most books on video games, this book ends up spending more time on programming techniques than it does on actual game design. (I don’t think I picked up on the basic concepts of puzzle design or story pacing until I played several Infocom games all the way through as an adult.)

One other flourish in this book is the inclusion of a rogue-like ASCII style adventure in the last three chapters. This was a breath of fresh air because most “adventure” type books tended to assume that the text adventure was the end-all-be-all of gaming….

Oh, man. This one. Notice the price tag is from a “B Dalton.” That’s cool because you’ve got to realize… at one time there were several different book chains. Secondly, you could go to the magazine section and pick up something that was this cool. Welcome to 1984, y’all. Ancient history, no doubt.

The cover is gorgeous. Some random average-joe type guy goes through the translator and into the world of computer adventure. It’s a bizarre, digitized hybrid wonderland combining science-fiction and fantasy elements. (This same character would appear again on at least one later Antic cover: “Atari Man.”)

Inside, you see buzz surrounding all the games that were about to come out. One of these was Alternate Reality, which pushed the 8-bit graphics chips to their limits. It had on opening sequence that was more in line with what you’d see on later 16 bit games: sort of a combination of a music video with a movie trailer. Philip Price and Gary Gilbertson’s mastery of sound and graphics was unmatched in the home computer scene of their day.

The quintessential image of the game had this portal with your stats cycling through randomly over the top. When you went through the portal, they locked in on whatever numbers they were currently on, so you had some influence over the process of “rolling up” your character, but not complete control. I never got to play this one, but everything about this game fired my imagination. It’s probably better that I never actually played it: most of my experiences with computer rpg’s ended with me either getting frustrated or else losing everything to some sort of bug or disk error.

The game of the month in this issue is by 8-bit game design hero J. D. Casten. While he is better known for his video games, this one is actually pretty good. In my opinion, it is on par with Scott Adams’ best work. Whatever genius it was that Casten brought to the form seemed to carry over just fine from his other design and development efforts.

(Note that while this magazine is a personal favorite of mine, the all-Adventure issue of Byte Magazine is probably more iconic.)

This book covers the state of computer adventure gaming as of 1985. It is chock full of games and is mostly a collection of hints and maps keyed off of adventure maps. This book follows Frank Dacosta’s choice of considering text adventures and computerized role playing games as a single genre.

You really get a sense of the market here. Scott Adams’ games are still a big deal, but the choice to add in graphics instead of better gameplay was a ultimately disastrous choice for his line. The early Infocom’s are all here, too– and there’s even a section on “Cyborg” by the great Michael Berlyn. The first three Ultimas are broken down here as are that line’s chief competitor: Wizardry.

This book is amazing. It’s like “Video Game Geek” on paper. It’s hard to imagine this guy Kim Schuette fighting his way through all of these games– many of them seemed impossible to me at the time and they were purposely hard so that they would last longer. Most of these games were implemented by a single individual or a small team. None of these games were anything like gigantic movie-style productions of today. Some of them were derivative, but others (“Suspended”, say) were highly experimental and innovative.

And by the time this book could be compiled, it was all over. The new 16-bit computers like the Mac, the Amiga, and the ST would cause a sea change. The era of the creative, lone hacker and the gee-whiz excitement surrounding computer was pretty much over. Something was lost as the new era dawned: I just couldn’t seem to find games that had the same depth as the Infocom’s or the same clean gameplay as stuff like Star Raiders and Montezuma’s Revenge. I lost interest in computer games all together with the ascendancy of the first person shooter in the early nineties.

One of the very few people to survive the transitions in the computer gaming market was Richard Garriott. He fairly well defined computerized role playing games throughout the eighties. This book sheds light on the specific things that set this guy apart and how he got to a position where he could dominate the medium.

The fact that this guy’s scout group had access to mainframe computers at a Lockheed facility was a pretty big deal. It meant he got to see the original Adventure way before a lot of other people. The fact that his high school allowed him and his classmates to run their own programming projects for credit is another factor. While other kids were doing busy work, Richard Garriott was working through 28 iterations of his dungeon games over the course of three years. He basically had an extended lab on developing a sandbox-style approach to computerized D&D that allowed him to hit the ground running when the Apple computer finally became available. This was a tremendous advantage over the typical hobbyist of the time: because he’d already spend uncounted hours coding, playtesting, developing, and experimenting… he could focus almost entirely on transitioning his vision to the new platform.

Garriott constantly improved on his skills and his design even after his first break-through hit. For Ultima II, he followed in Scott Adams’ footsteps and switched to machine language instead of continuing with BASIC. For Ultima III, he extended his approach to allow for a party of four adventurers instead of the lone explorer approach of previous iterations– he did this in part to keep up with Wizardry. His efforts to tighten up the overall theme and tone of his games reached a remarkable new level in Ultima IV where he attempted to develop a plot that went beyond the more usual “kill the evil wizard” premise.

And yet, Garriott was no J. R. R. Tolkien. His efforts to create meaning in his games seems a little hokey, looking back… and he was no where near as well read as, say, Gary Gygax. Still, his efforts to grow beyond mere hack and slash are indicative of a maturation of his skills and and parallels what was going on in the paper and pencil scene of the time as well. (See second edition GURPS for another example of an adventure game attempting to “grow up.”)

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3 responses to “Game Design: Supplemental Books and Other Materials

  1. Jimmy Anderson December 31, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Another enjoyable post! My first “introduction” to computers was a TRS-80 Model 4 that my high school math teacher brought one day…

    Actually – I think there’s enough floating around in my head to do my own blog post… Look for it at http://jimmylogan.blogspot.com in just a few minutes…

  2. Pingback: Game Design: The State of the Art in 1981 | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  3. Pingback: The “Learning Game Design” Online Course from Lewis Pulsipher | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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