Welcome to The Wizard’s Tower, a regular Retro Now feature covering the history and development of computer ‘adventure games’, and the games themselves. Each week, the Wizard opens his Book of Lore to look at a different aspect of adventure gaming, as well as reviewing individual games from time to time.
Last week, the Wizard revealed the secrets of the very first Adventure game, which took place in a Colossal Cave described entirely in text. This week’s page from the Book of Lore is all about the next step, when such adventures became commercial ventures, in search of fortune and glory. And there were two games, and two companies, which had the greatest influence on this particular school of adventure magic. This week the Wizard looks at the first to be programmed, and the first to market.
Drink me, shrink me
Adventure, or Colossal Cave Adventure as it became most widely known, was originally for mainframe or mini computers, and so it spread around the world on academic, scientific and business networks before the days of the public internet. So it was that it became best known only to those who had access to such networks, primarily students, programmers and academics. And it would inspire those programmers to build upon its success – in a totally new market of much smaller computing devices that would come to be used for entertainment as much as practical purposes.
In 1977, the day of the microcomputer dawned, and with it the era of the home computer game. Both the hardware and the software would become some of the biggest and most influential businesses in history. But those were early days.
On 10 June, 1977, the Apple II became the first mass-produced microcomputer, or ‘personal computer’ to go on sale. The Apple was followed, not long after, in October of that year, by the first Commodore Pet, the 2001. But between those two machines, on 3 August 1977, came the Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80 Micro Computer System (later known as the Model 1), for which the first home adventure game would be created. And so it was that with these three, the home computer era began, and the first home adventure game would be produced and distributed on audio tape cassette, making a legend of its programmer and the company which he went on to build.
The Programmer’s Tale
Scott Adams is the first person known to have created an Adventure-style game for personal computers, and it was brought to life, remarkably, on a TRS-80 Model 1 with just 16k of memory and a cassette recorder for storage. Adams had been interested in computers since childhood, having worked with early mainframe computers as a high school student in Miami Beach, and went on to attend Florida Institute of Technology where he majored in computer programming and minored in business administration. To help pay for his education he worked in the school’s computer department part-time.
While Scott and his brother Richard were both studying at FIT his brother built a 16-bit computer, and Scott wrote a game for it in assembly language, a sign of things to come which inspired him later. After graduating, Adams worked as a programmer for the U.S. Navy and then Stromberg Carlson, where a senior programmer showed him the original Adventure, which was just starting to become known. Adams had built his own first home computer, a 6800-based Sphere kit with just 4k of RAM which had been designed by Michael D. Wise in 1975. Scott’s own imagination was fired up by the interactive, problem-solving nature of the game, and wanted to show it to his friends but couldn’t very well take them in to work to see it. So he decided to program his own game, inspired by the original, and this was on his own TRS-80 at home, which was one of the first such machines to go on sale.
This would be quite the feat on a small, 8-bit home computer. It seemed impossible – after all, the original adventures were running on powerful mainframes. But it could be done, amazingly at first using the BASIC programming language (and later in machine code), and subsequently Scott’s fellow hobbyists ‘went wild’ about his achievement, showing that there must be a market for this kind of software. More importantly, it was to be the beginning of one of the first and most influential home computers games businesses – Adventure International.
Fortune and glory
With very little money and a massive amount of work, Adams launched his business, with the help of his first wife and co-founder Alexis, taking out ads in BYTE magazine and selling this first program, Adventureland, by mail order. Scott filled his orders one at a time, laboriously recording cassettes one at a time for customers. But demanded exceeded all expectation and before long Adventure International was able to take the game into mass production. So it began.
Scott was asked, years later in 1985 by Betty Mackey of the Orlando Business Journal, how he did it, how he made such a success from nothing. He pondered the question and responded, “How do I do it? That’s like asking a novelist how to write a novel. I had programming background and creativity. I just put what I knew together and came up with a little bit extra and did it. Like anything else, if it can be done, then others will do it too.”
The quest for adventure
But what about that first game itself? As with the original inspiration by Crowther and Woods, Adams had to create a complex fictional world, a world with the player at its hearts but filled also with a special setting, its own logic, characters, the possibility for success or failure. Like any fictional tale there must be conflict, or there will be no excitement. There must be danger, and the possibility of reward, or there will be no urge to win. And all this to be in 16k, and to be the first with the world watching.
Adventureland involves the search for thirteen lost artefacts in a fantasy setting. Unlike succeeding adventure games, it has no major story or plot, being simply a treasure hunt. To succeed, the player must move between various locations within the game, and at the same time find and collect objects. Often, these objects will be needed for later use, perhaps in a totally different location. There are also puzzles to be solved.
As you would expect for the time, and bearing in mind the limited amount of RAM and lack of a floppy disk, the game has a vocabulary of just 120 words or so. Of necessity, then, game commands are simple and not always obvious. Most take the form of either simple, two-word, verb/noun phrases, such as ‘climb tree,’ or single word commands, such as for moving the player’s character through the game and its locations (north, south, east, west, up, down etc.).
Because the parser (the program’s command interpreter) only recognised the first three letters of any command, it occasionally misidentified a command. But this also mean that the player in a hurry could get away with shortened versions of commands such as ‘lig lam’ instead of ‘light lamp.’
There are thirteen ‘lost artefacts’ which must be collected by the player to complete the game: A jewelled fruit, a golden fish, a diamond necklace and a diamond bracelet, a statue of Paul Bunyan’s blue ox, Babe, a golden net, a magic carpet, a dragon’s egg, the ‘royal honey’, a magic mirror, a crown, a ‘firestone,’ and a pot of rubies.
After its launch on the TRS-80 Model 1, Adventureland was published for a number of other early platforms, including the Apple II series and various computers released by Commodore International, Texas Instruments and Atari. The Texas TI99/4A version was the first to be ported to a 16-bit home computer. There was also a low-priced taster version, cut down to just three treasure objects and called ‘Adventure 0: Special Sampler.’
In 1982, Adventureland would be re-released with graphics, and for later computers such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum; Scott would write over a dozen other adventure games for what are now the treasured classic computers of the 1980s, but that is another story…
Be ye an adventurer bold?
The Wizard would love to hear about your favourite adventures, past and present, and invites you to comment below. He is also on the lookout for newly published retro adventure games, so please do contact him if you are a developer looking for a review!
Next week the Wizard will cast his scrying glass over the first competitor to Adventureland, Infocom’s equally-legendary Zork, which launched a horde of successors as well as a range of other classics rivalling those of Scott Adams’ Adventure International.
Meanwhile, you might like to GET ON the MAGIC CARPET from Adventureland and fly on over to Scott’s own website, http://www.scottadamsgrandadventures.com/ which he still maintains in tribute to those far-off, grand, adventurous days of yore. You can even play games there. Amazingly, as you will find out, Scott is still creating his own adventures…
Contact The Wizard
You can contact The Wizard, Stuart Williams, by dragon messenger, by smoke signal, or by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wizard’s Tower picture used courtesy of Greg Blake: http://landofthelead.blogspot.co.uk/