The Future Of Computer Games:
Ten Industry Leaders Speak Out
Keith Ferrell, Features Editor
Computer games have never been more diverse—or more fun. Whether you want to play a sports simulation, play a strategy game, experience arcade action, explore alternate realities, solve text puzzles, or even create a challenge of your own devising, the software is available. Who develops these programs and brings them to the market? COMPUTE! talked to ten industry leaders to find out about the past, present, and future of entertainment software.
Surveys show that a computer bought for home use is used more often for playing games than for anything else.
And who could blame the users? Today there are games for every interest, from shoot-and-smash arcade games to high-level intellectual exercises. Behind these games are a variety of people, from programmers and designers to marketing specialists and corporate executives. For our annual games issue we talked with several people responsible for some of the most popular games and found them to be as engaging in conversation as their products are on the monitor. They are a diverse group, sharing some striking similarities of outlook as well as having dynamic differences of approach.
But we'll let them speak for themselves. Meet, in alphabetical order, ten of the industry's leading game makers:
Mark Beaumont, Activision
"We're moving beyond action/arcade games and moving toward giving somebody a full-blown experience."
Mark Beaumont, product manager for Activision, entered the consumer electronics industry in 1982, joining Atari at the height of the Pac-Man craze. He moved to Activision the following year and, since 1985, has been involved in the company's product management.
Beaumont has seen both expansion and dramatic retrenchment. Activision grew dynamically, then faced a period of restructuring and realignment. Currently returning to economic health, Activision faces a market far different from that of a few years ago.
Many changes result from hardware evolution. "We're starting to move upwards from the 48K machines and the 64. The market today is as much driven by what works from a hardware system as from the sales area. If a machine is doing particularly well, as the MS-DOS machines are doing now, you'll see more people gravitate to that for development and more games designed specifically for that machine."
The number of different systems is exerting an effect on the industry. "The market is getting segmented. At the low and you have the Atari 2600." The 2600 has enjoyed an unexpected resurgence recently, and Activision is responding by developing new software for 2600s.
Moving up, Beaumont sees several areas of opportunity. "At the lower end of the mid-range you have the Atari ST in 520 configuration, on through the Tandy machines which are making significant inroads at the $700 price point. Then, heading toward the high end you have the Amiga 500. And at the real high end there's the Apple IIGS and the full-boat Amiga. Games are appropriate for each of those machines."
While many of its products are ported to several machines, Activision has found that the games market varies somewhat from machine to machine.
"There's an audience issue at play. Different kinds of software, different games, appeal to the different machine owners. Arcade games may not work as well on the Amiga as they do on the 64. We're selective about which titles are ported to different systems, and on occasion we will develop specifically for a particular machine. Amiga owners seem to have a desire for fantasy role playing and graphics-intensive products, as well as high-end productivity products. Our Music Studio has done very well on the Amiga, for example, where things which are direct ports from other systems might not do as well."
The most dramatic growth has been MS-DOS machines. "As Tandy and some of the other clone manufacturers have brought the price of their computers down, it's opened up a whole new category of buyer. When the MS-DOS machines were a higher-end purchase, the demographics of the buyers were significantly higher, and the kinds of software that appealed to the consumer were quite different. As the demographics have come down, there's been a bigger demand for arcade software. Our Gamestar line is a good example. While I don't think that would have done well on MS-DOS machines four years ago, it is doing extremely well now."
Activision understands that computer owners represent a niche within the overall consumer electronics market. Beaumont notes that there are niche markets within this niche market. The key to success in entertainment software, he says, is targeting the largest number of consumers.
"There are subcategories within categories. Working in our favor is the fact that the market continues to grow. As it grows, you bring in a larger variety of people, and individual segments within the installed base also grow."
Market growth can carry dangers as well. "Activision ran into difficulty a couple of years ago. Our mistake was with trying to go to too many different market segments, trying to fragment ourselves too significantly."
With Bruce Davis as the new president and CEO, Activision's recent surge to renewed profitability shows that the company learned important lessons from its slump. "Now we've focused in on the products that have been most successful for us. We're channeling in on those areas that work best—sports software, entertainment software, creativity and productivity software, and not taking too many forays out into the never-never land of ‘who knows what this product is."
Still, Activision is willing to take some risks. "We will occasionally gamble, but we'll make sure we have the core business taken care of before we do."
Within the proven categories, Activision is still committed to extending the capabilities of its software. "We're trying to create the experience and the environment of each of our games, throughout the software, the packaging, and the documentation, so that players actually feel that they're participating. We're moving beyond action/arcade type run-and-shoot games and moving toward giving somebody a full-blown experience."
Thus, new Activision products such as Gamestar's Top Fuel Eliminator offer players the chance to customize drag racers to the conditions of various tracks. The Last Ninja will put martial arts skills in the midst of a quest type of story.
Is there a universal game, a game that will sell 15 million copies? "Consumer taste is so varied that to find one thing that appeals to millions of people would be difficult." To find a market that big, you'd need, for one thing, to have many more computers in the home.
"But that's a double-edged sword. To get more computers into the home you need better software that appeals to more people. As entertainment software becomes better, more people will become interested in computers."
Roger Buoy, Mindscape
"In a decade, we'll be well on our way to projected environments, where you can, through holographic projection, actually take part in an adventure."
Roger Buoy, president and CEO of Mindscape, looks over the company's four-year history and sees the evolution of entertainment software as being shaped by the growth of both hardware capabilities and software development skills.
"The most dramatic change has been the introduction of the 16-bit computers such as the ST and the Amiga, and more recently the GS. They've brought a whole new level to game-play quality. We're gradually getting nearer the same quality that people expect to see on their TV sets. That's the progression that will continue until we finally reach that accepted standard, which we're all striving to achieve."
For all their advanced capabilities, the 16-bit machines face some problems. It will be a while before the 16-bit machines completely supersede the 8-bit machines. "The problem right now is marketing support for the 16-bit machines. Their market penetration is far below what Atari and Commodore in particular would have expected to achieve. The price has to come down before they become widespread, but also those companies have to focus their marketing. They have to decide what they want their machines to be. It's hard to push an Amiga as a professional workstation and as an entertainment product at the same time."
There has been simultaneous growth in the ability to use 8-bit machines such as the Commodore 64 and 128. "We've learned to get a lot more out of 8-bit machines. Looking at a product such as our Superstar Ice Hockey, compared with what was a terrific product four years ago, the older product looks very crude. We're seeing some terrific products coming out for the 64 and the IBM PC, which are six- and seven-year-old architectures."
There are certain qualifications against which any piece of entertainment software must be measured. What does Buoy look for in a new product? "A couple of things. One is terrific depth, a product that kids and adults won't get tired of very quickly. Defender of the Crown is a good example of this and, again, Superstar Ice Hockey." Buoy feels that as a result of their depth, such games become experiences rather than just pastimes.
"In another dimension you have arcade games that are so superior in terms of their addictiveness that you can't leave them alone." Mindscape is presently preparing two arcade releases, Paperboy and Gauntlet, based on two arcade classics.
"On the one hand, you're looking for tremendous depth, but depth of game design includes arcade games. In some ways arcade games theoretically haven't changed a great deal from what we were doing in 1983. You can still be extremely successful, provided the game design is deep enough to provide a very easy-to-play, easy-to-comprehend arcade product."
Perhaps the deepest of all of Mindscape's games, and in many ways the antithesis of an arcade experience, is Balance of Power, which simulates the complexity of interrelationships among the world's powerful and emerging nations. Is there a future for such games? "When I first published Balance of Power, people thought I was crazy. They saw it as a niche product that would not be successful." The game had been, in fact, originally commissioned by another publisher. "The game was just left to languish. No one wanted to do it." Buoy's instincts were right. "Before Christmas, we'll have done over 100,000 copies."
Not bad for a "niche" product. But aren't all products niche or category products? "We see several market niches, types of games that appeal to different folks."
Is there room for new ideas? Buoy thinks there is. "I'm prepared to take a risk on something new and which represents an opportunity. And there are some things I think you should do just because it needs to be done. Balance of Power was like that—it was a product that had so much love and care put into it, and a year and a half of [developer] Chris Crawford's time, that the apparent quality, and the thought behind it, and its depth, were all just phenomenal. It had to be published. It's a great piece of work."
What comes next? "As a follow-up to Balance of Power, Chris has Trust and Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot. It's a new type of product, involving artificial personality."
In this game, scheduled for release later this year, the player faces the challenge of establishing communications with six different aliens. Buoy admits that Siboot is more of a risk than was Balance of Power. "Siboot is so radically different that it's obviously a publishing gamble. No one's ever done this before. It doesn't fall within conventional lines. But the program's intent is good and the amount of work that's gone into it is phenomenal. Siboot is very advanced in its design. It's a fun game, but it's also a very intellectual game. You've got to think about it. If you don't want to think about it, and you want something that's more of an arcade experience, it's not for you."
As Buoy points out, no game can appeal to everyone. Whether in arcade games, sports simulations, or intellectual adventures, Buoy is determined to continue developing Mindscape's potential.
He has a clear vision of the company's future and of the sorts of games that lie ahead. In the next few years, he suggests, "we'll be pretty close to TV-quality images, and interactive media will be available using compact disc or laser disc technology."
And farther down the road? "In a decade, we'll be well on our way to projected environments, where you can be in a room and through holographic projection actually take part in an adventure."
Peter Doctorow, Accolade
"You like to push the boundaries of enjoyment."
Peter Doctorow, vice president of design and development for Accolade, has been involved with computers for more than two decades, working first as a programmer in higher-order languages and in realtime assembly language.
Doctorow entered the consumer electronics industry in 1983, when he joined Nolan Bushnell at Androbot. "The company doesn't exist any longer, but at that time we were involved in the development of home robots. The heart of the product was basically a computer on wheels. It was called ‘BOB’—Brains On Board."
Serving as director of product development for Androbot provided Doctorow with many challenges. "We spent a lot of time figuring out what we could and could not do in software for this robot." The job gave Doctorow much food for thought. "I was involved in software, and directly in the conceptualization of software capabilities." From Androbot, Doctorow moved to Accolade about a year ago, where he's now applying his experience to developing entertainment software. With games such as Hardball, Ace of Aces, Mean 18, and the new Test Drive! and Apollo 18: Mission to the Moon, Accolade has continued to broaden its approach to entertainment software, with the added effect of further enhancing Doctorow's understanding of the consumer marketplace.
What makes a game successful? "If I knew that, I wouldn't be vice president of product development. I would be king!"
More seriously, he points out that numerous factors play a part in determining a game's success or failure. "One element is timing, another is luck. A variety of things have to come together at just the right time. It's not just the product, it's also the packaging and the distribution channels."
Equally important is the consumer. "The market itself plays a role—what the market wants to buy is a big factor. Success is a function of what time of year a product is sold. It's a function of what hardware the game is written for, of how many marketing dollars are spent not only by the publisher but also the hardware manufacturers."
Included among the factors is the product itself. "Success can be affected by what the product looks like, what category the product falls into. Success is also a function of how deep and how playable the product is."
Doctorow emphasizes that his list of factors is not complete. "The formula is not precise, it's not a scientific evaluation."
Development of entertainment software is not for the faint-hearted. "There is great gamble involved." Getting a product from development to market, "means a commitment of people and money—for a possible payback. When you go to Las Vegas, your payback can occur within seconds. In the software market, your payback is perhaps 18 months down the road."
The payback is worth the wait, Doctorow feels, and the chance of failure is worth the gamble. "We're not so strictly bound up in just dollars and cents, but we're developing a medium for entertainment, for a recreational market. People like to participate in recreational activities. It's a nice feeling to pull your hair out and gnash your teeth for months, and develop a product that's successful and gets good reviews and favorable word-of-mouth. That's what we're in the business for. You like to push the boundaries of enjoyment."
Doctorow wants to see computer games that involve several players, rather than one or two. "We would love to see more group or family-involvement-type computer games. We took a risk and released a couple of products, Killed Until Dead and Comics, both of which are an awful lot more fun when there are several people crowded around the monitor. We've learned, though, that it's tough to get groups around monitors."
In part, the impulse toward group games is mitigated by the nature of the computer itself. "One of the nice things about software is that you can play by yourself. You don't have to have 18 players to enjoy a game of baseball. You don't need a foursome to play a round of golf."
The solitaire tendency concerns Doctorow. "I am hopeful that computers will not contribute to the attitude that people should not be social in the way that television contributed to the antisocialization of the human race. People turn on the TV and they go into a coma. I would be hopeful that the computer wouldn't do that. It would be very nice if the computer added to the socialization of the human race. The computer has the capability of bringing people together."
Will Accolade be pursuing "social" computer games? Doctorow chuckles. "It's something we won't give up on yet. I do think that we will continue to see products and develop products that begin to be a bit more risky, that try to open up the standards, that represent the next activities that will entertain people."
Michael Dornbrook, Infocom
"With text there are always new things to do."
Before there were full-color 3-D graphics, there was text. And now, with graphics of every variety, there is still text, and one company that continues to specialize quite successfully in text games only: Infocom.
Michael Dornbrook, the company's director of marketing, joined Infocom in 1983 as product manager, although he has been associated with the company since the 1970s. "I attended M.I.T. with [Infocom president] Joel Berez, and when Joel was starting Infocom in the late seventies I was hired to test Zork as it was being transferred to microcomputers." Not previously a fan of computer games, Dornbrook found himself captivated by the world of Zork, and foresaw a huge market for the game. His foresight was accurate. "Zork sold way beyond our wildest expectations."
Working as a consultant, Dornbrook began creating promotional materials for Zork. He founded the Zork user's group, designed maps and hint books, established a newspaper—The New Zork Times (now called The Status Line as a result of a settlement with The New York Times)—and built a successful direct-mail business. "I did anything that I thought people would be interested in."
In 1983, Dornbrook sold the company his mail-order business, and joined Infocom as a full-time member of the management team.
Since Zork, Infocom has published close to 30 text games, marketing science-fiction text adventures (Planetfall), ghost stories (Moonmist), horror (The Lurking Horror), archaeological adventure (Infidel), alternate realities (Trinity), bestseller adaptations (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), and even historical romance (Plundered Hearts).
Dornbrook feels that interactive text games are virtually inexhaustible. "People say, ‘What more can you do?’ But that's like saying, ‘What more can you do with a book?’ There have been hundreds of years of books. People shouldn't see text as a limitation. With text, there are always new things to do."
The increasing sophistication of microcomputers has allowed Infocom to assemble increasingly complex adventures. The company has developed its own programming system, with parsers that offer large vocabularies and stories that branch in many directions.
"Trinity is a good example. We used a new system, and decided to develop the game for 128K computers. The game needed that much memory to be effective." Didn't that decision cost them sales? Dorn brook admits that Infocom was concerned about producing a game that couldn't tap the huge Commodore 64 market.
"But we sold almost exactly the same number of games that we would have had Trinity also been available for the 64. It led us to believe that the 128 market is the more active software buying market now and that there are a lot of 128 owners who are eager to see games developed for their machines."
Can text games, for all the flexibility they offer, compete with increasingly dynamic graphics games? "If people are looking for complete relaxation where they can turn their brains off, our products aren't what they want. But there are a lot of people who do want to keep their brains active. I see our market as about 15 percent of the total home computer market. About one in seven computer users are the potential for us right now."
Can Infocom continue to grow with that size market share? "I'm hoping that we can grow by reaching out with different types of text products. Over time, though, if we really want to reach the whole market—and I'm not sure that we do—I think we'll have to have a different kind of product, with less interaction, with less challenge."
As we move to more and more powerful machines, will we see text adventures moving closer to a real literary experience, to traditional fictional structures? Will we see great novels become interactive computer experiences?
"Taking something like Wuthering Heights, for example, and making an interactive experience out of it would be likely to disappoint people. To be interactive, you need a fairly nonlinear structure. Most stories are written with very linear structures in mind. The optimal use of our medium is nonlinear, with different pieces coming together, with a tree structure that offers lots of different ways to go and lots of different possible endings."
Infocom's relation to fiction is like the movies. "It's very difficult to take a great novel and make it into a great movie. They are very different. What's best, I think, is to come up with something brand new, designed specifically for this medium."
The medium itself is in evolution, and that has Dornbrook excited. "As machines become more powerful, as memory costs go down and things like compact discs come onto the market, you can still have the same type of story, but move away from reading."
Text adventures without reading? "Imagine if you could lie in bed and have a voice-recognition system. When you say, ‘Open the door,’ you hear a creak or shrieks in the distance. You could play in the dark—the game would be all aural. You could have great narrators, different narrators, different voices for different people. There would be a much wider potential market for something like that—simply because there are so many people who don't read."
Will Infocom be a part of these new media? "Absolutely. We're interactive storytellers. When we see a medium that lets stories be told, we're going to jump at it."
Thomas Frisina, Three Sixty
"There's a growing market of consumers that don't understand zeros and ones, they don't like big manuals, they want to have fun, they want to enjoy the experience, and they don't want any obstacles."
A founder of Accolade, Tom Frisina left the company earlier this year. "Everybody with an entrepreneurial spirit, gets to the point where they want to do it for themselves. That's why I named my company Three-Sixty: I've come full circle."
How does starting a software company today differ from the early days at Accolade? "We started Accolade in 1985 when the entertainment software industry and the whole home computer industry were in the doldrums. As it turned out, we had the proper set of experiences, and the market was ready for innovation. We built the company to some rather significant heights in a very short time."
Frisina sees both advantages and disadvantages to today's market. "My advantage today is that I have a track record in the industry. But it was easier to get people's attention in 1985. The difficulty is that because the market is healthier, there are more [industry] players today, who are all much bigger than they were in 1985."
Three-Sixty's first entertainment product was released in September of this year. "Dark Castle is our adaptation of the hit Macintosh product. We'll be releasing versions for the Commodore, ST, PC, and Amiga. The game is an implementation of the jumper and climber platform arcade game. We've tried to give players a tremendous sense of realism. And we've added a number of innuendos and characterizations." Three-Sixty will follow Dark Castle in 1988 with Harpoon, an adaptation of the World War III board game on which Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising was based. Versions will be available for all machines.
Is the variety of machines a dilemma? Frisina sees a conflict at the heart of the market. "The conflict exists both from the developers" point of view and the customer's. Developers want to make the best entertainment programs they can, but if they use the most powerful and sophisticated machines, they have a lesser chance of selling a lot of copies.
"Conversely, if developers choose to go where the money is—the Commodore and IBM environments—they end up never satisfying ing themselves as creators, because those machines don't have the capabilities of the higher-end machines. It's like the difference between going to see a 16mm movie, and then seeing the same movie in 70mm Panavision with Dolby sound. The market really limits the scope of what a talented creator can do."
There's a consumer-based conflict as well. "I think that eight-bit machine users are satisfied with their machines, only because most of them don't really know what an ST or an Amiga looks like. They only have as a reference the products they purchased previously for their machines. If the industry continues to push the state of the art forward on those machines, then the customer can continue to be satisfied with their eight-bit machines. But when they see an ST or an Amiga for the first time, then you have a conflict."
Where does Apple fit? "Apple is a real aggravation for me. They have disavowed any knowledge of a home market since their inception. They don't promote products for the home market, even though there are a lot of Apple IIs in homes, and a growing number of Macintoshes."
Ironically, Apple may have a machine that's ideal for the home user. "The IIGS can satisfy the home market maybe better than any other machine. It offers graphics and sound capabilities that the Amiga and the ST have, combined with a name that customers can trust." Again, Frisina feels that price stands in the way of substantial market penetration. "When the IIGS comes down in price, it could be the ultimate answer to the home market; it has everything the home user could want."
Frisina is concerned about today's software. "We have a terrible problem today with an overabundance of products. There are too many mediocre products."
He sees the lack of quality as endemic to the way the industry is run. "There's a lack of ingenuity, and a lack of commitment to releasing fewer products, but making them bigger, better, and more satisfying to the consumer."
Can this be solved? "I don't think there's going to be a solution. Bigger companies are either in the midst of public offerings, or are public, or have stockholders who want to get liquid. And the way to do that is to get enough revenues. It's my belief that there's not enough commitment out there to raise revenues by putting out fewer products that sell more, rather than more products that sell fewer units."
Frisina plans to concentrate his company's energies on a couple of games each year. He feels certain the public will respond to his approach. "My company is intended to satisfy the growing home market of consumers that have purchased audio and video and car stereo and compact dies. Now, with their discretionary income they are looking to purchase a home computer for the first time. They don't understand zeros and ones, they don't like big manuals, they want to have fun, they want to enjoy the experience, and they don't want any obstacles. And that's what I'm going to give them."
Bing Gordon, Electronic Arts
"We're talking about using the power to give something more like an interactive television experience."
Vice president of the entertainment division at Electronic Arts, Bing Gordon sees the entertainment software industry as being on the verge of broadening its market—a broadening that's the result of hardware advances as well as more sophisticated software. The two go hand in hand.
"The takeoff of Tandy and the IBM compatibles in the home has opened up a whole new computer market. These machines start with about the same amount of power as a Commodore 64, and then beckon us almost toward minicomputer power. It's a real challenge to do a program that's a winner at the low end with 256K of memory and four colors, and then go all the way up and support an EGA card, 640K, and a hard drive."
Does the evolution of hardware spell an end to the Commodore 64-level games? Gordon doesn't think so, noting that different machines offer different challenges and opportunities.
"The 64 has always excelled at games that let you move, a lot of sprites around, with pretty graphics and good sound. The IBM-class machines take a little more power to drive graphics that are competitive with 64 graphics, but because of the disk storage and additional memory, you have a lot more room for math. For simulations, that lets us do incredible amounts of high-speed physics calculations."
The ability to do those calculations lends an ever greater realism to simulation games. "The aerodynamics in Chuck Yeager's Advanced Flight Trainer, for example, can be that much more sophisticated. With Earl Weaver Baseball, there's something like 200 real-world calculations between the time the pitcher winds up and the time the play is finished, all dealing with the batting average against a particular pitcher, the effect of the wind, the speed of the pitch, and so on. It's not possible to do all of that on the Commodore 64, where you compromise the math or the graphics. With the IBM-class machines, we use 48 or 64K of working RAM just for statistical calculations."
This power lets experts such as Yeager and Weaver contribute skills and experience to simulations that come closer and closer to approximating reality.
Gordon suggests that there are games that so far only have been imagined and categories that are as yet underexploited. Interactive fiction is an example. "Today there are basically two kinds of interactive stories." There's the text adventure where you get a 30-page short story and try to make it into a 40-hour experience through a bunch of logic puzzles. Or there's the dungeon fantasy with hit points and tons of melee. Text adventures right now are sort of like Double-Crostic versions of novels.
"With the advent of machines with more on-line storage and more audio/visual capability, there will probably be ways to give someone a first-person story experience without having to impose such artificial slowdown points."
Hardware will likewise exert a large influence on graphics software, but its arrival won't be quick. Even the most advanced machines on the market currently can go only so far. "Look, for example, at Compact Disc-Interactive (CDI) technology, with 400 megabytes of disc storage."
As Gordon points out, 400 megabytes is a finite amount of memory, easily used up. "It costs us, on the Amiga, something like 18K a second for digitized sound, and 20K for a screen. Movies go 60 frames a second, but even if you figure 5 frames a second, you're still looking at an animation cost of 50K a second. That's 1 megabyte for 20 seconds, 3 megabytes a minute. So 400 megabytes can give you roughly two hours of just sitting and watching."
Will CDI's arrival change the nature of the home computer market? "There might be a divergence of the market. Certainly there will be a broadening of it."
That broadening will only come, however, if computers become easier to operate. "For all that we in the industry talk about the ease of use of computers, I don't think they're a whole lot easier to use than a ham radio. We've found with different products ways to go after niches, but we haven't been able to make software yet that persuades a broad spectrum of people to walk by a window and say, 'Hey, I want to buy that!' It's still more abstract and harder to use than a lot of people are willing to put up with. Right now, there's so much expertise and experience that you need to have in order to get the enjoyment out of a rich and deep computer game, that we've shut ourselves off from a part of the marketplace that just wants to sit and be entertained."
Gordon makes it clear that Electronic Arts is not simply pursuing "transparent" software. "We're talking about using the power to give something that can be more like an interactive movie or an interactive television experience."
Sid Meier, MicroProse
"We're just at the beginning of what can be done with games."
Sid Meier, cofounder and senior game designer at MicroProse, has been fascinated with games for nearly as long as he can remember. "I've always been interested in games since I was young—board games, card games, war games." In college, Meier began considering a career in some aspect of the computer industry. "I did mainline, traditional computing for a while with a couple of companies."
Personal computers presented Meier with the opportunity to combine his gaming and technological interests. "It was a natural match. I got an Atari 800 and started to play around with it." Meier met Bill Stealey and the two started MicroProse five years ago.
"At first, MicroProse was a part-time thing, but our games were fairly well received, and we turned that into a company." The company's growth, "gave me the opportunity to write games fulltime, and it's continued to grow from there."
An air-combat simulation put MicroProse on the map. "F-15 Strike Eagle was the first really successful game we had. Since then we've put out Silent Service, Gunship, and Pirates!"
Pirates! is Meier's most ambitious game, recreating Caribbean history, with players taking the roles of buccaneers or pirates. The game has strategic, diplomatic, economic, and arcade elements, as well as a detailed social and historical context.
Meier wanted to write an adventure game—with a difference. "The adventure games that I'd played weren't really what I'd wanted out of an adventure game. They were either all text, or they were very numeric oriented. I wanted to just jump in and be the character myself—in a lot of adventure games, you're not the character, you're playing another thing which is the character. Instead of directly playing the role, you play it as a puppet.
I wanted a game where your skills, reactions, and decisions caused things to happen. Not how many hit points or agility you happen to have."
The game had to have animation and action, as well as strategy and planning. "We tried to put all those things in the game. The situation demanded it. If we'd been doing a game—as some of our other games are—with helicopters and airplanes, that's primarily action. When you think of pirates, there's action, but there's also intrigue, trading, politics, and so on."
How long did creating Pirates! take? "I spent about nine or ten months on it myself." No game, of course, is assembled alone. "We had an artist working on the game for five months, and our research and documentation took another four or five months. In all, Pirates! represents one-and-a-half to two years of work split up among three people."
Are we moving toward games with deeper, more fully realized backgrounds? "Yes—as long as it doesn't intrude on the playability of the game. The more context you have, the more real it is to people, and the more fun they'll have playing it. The down side is that you don't want to get so wrapped up in the historical part that you take away the playability. It's a fine line between presenting it and being able to play it.".
Are games such as Pirates! being produced because the technology and programming skills permit their development, or are they a response to an increasingly sophisticated consumer? Meier thinks several factors are at work.
"People are really learning their computers. You can see this as far back as the Atari 2600 machine. If you compare what was available when the 2600 was first introduced, and what was available just a few years later, there's a night-and-day difference. The same thing is happening with personal computers—programmers are learning how to get more and more out of them."
Currently Meier and MicroProse are at work adapting Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy's best-selling novel of World War III. The novel spans several continents, with combat and drama on land and in the air and both on and under the sea.
Other current MicroProse projects include Airborne Ranger, an arcade-style game, and Space, a science fiction game which Meier says will fall somewhere between Pirates! and Gunship in terms of the gaming experience it offers.
Meier looks forward to the day when the majority of home computers offer advanced graphics and digitized sound, but he feels those elements will eventually be taken for granted.
"For a short time people are going to respond to the graphics and the sound, but after that it's still going to be a question of what's in the product: What is the experience that I get out of the game—is it fun, is it challenging? Those are the kinds of games that we want to put out."
Chip Morningstar, Lucasfilm Games
"Habitat is the sort of game people have been speculating about for a long time."
Chip Morningstar wants thousands of people to play his game—all at once.
As games designer for Lucas-film Games, Morningstar is working on an online gaming experience called Habitat, which is nothing less than an attempt to fabricate an open-ended environment where players will, in many ways, make their rules as the game proceeds.
"Habitat is a fictitious universe that you access via telecommunications using your Commodore 64. The monitor represents your view of the world, with various animated characters moving around on the screen. One of those characters is you, the others are other people who are simultaneously logged into this online service."
How many people can play Habitat at once? "There's not really any limit—we're doing this on QuantumLink. They support a large number of subscribers, and conceivably they all could play Habitat. All the players will be in one common universe." Not all of them will be in the same local area. As local limits are reached, Habitat steers new players to new areas. "We call each area of Habitat a region, like the notion of a room in an adventure game or a screen in a video game. The screen will show the objects, scenery, and people located in each region. Habitat's characters are called avatars, and there's a limit of six ‘live’ avatars per region, with a higher number of ‘ghosts’—players without bodies—per region.
"Ghosts can move from region to region, they can turn themselves into avatars when they find an open region where they want to do things, or they can simply watch the action. Ghosting allows for the aters, where half a dozen avatars may put on a show, and hundreds of ghosts sit back and serve as the audience."
Morningstar notes that while ghosting offers oportunities, the main motivation for creating this aspect of Habitat was technical. "We needed to eliminate traffic congestion problems. If you run into a crowded area between regions, just turn into a ghost and breeze on past. When the ghost finds a region with fewer than six avatars, he can become corporeal, an avatar."
What sort of world is Habitat? What sorts of things can avatars do or ghosts witness? "One of our objectives is to make the experience as varied and open-ended as possible. We want it to be different things for different people with different interests.
"Activities range from pure socializing, adding a visual and kinesthetic dimension to one of the things that people already use online services for. There will be activities which are planned and organized such as adventures, treasure hunts, road rallies, as well as board games like checkers and chess, or a capture-the-flag game that we're working on."
Habitat is an experiment in social structure as well as being a game. "Urban areas, the core inhabited parts of the universe, are set up as weapons-free zones where you can't attack other avatars. Outlying areas will be a little more rough-and-tumble. One of the things that we expect to happen is that people who are into different styles of behavior will drift in different directions."
Despite weapons rules and traffic patterns, Morningstar is committed to making Habitat as open an experience as possible. "One of the things that I'm most interested in is seeing what sorts of social structures evolve. We're not imposing too much in the way of government on this world. Habitat is pretty much an anarchy."
Anarchy doesn't necessarily mean chaos. "Whenever you get more than three people together in one place you get something resembling political behavior. It will be interesting to see if all the people who live in a particular town decide that they want to have a town council. The game will leave it up to them to set up their government. Habitat is a sort of sociological laboratory, as well as a game."
Technical work on Habitat began in late 1985, although the earliest glimmerings of it occurred to Morningstar about a year before that. Now, the work is coming together, with play testing under way and hopes for the game being online late in 1987.
Morningstar is aware of the risks involved in Habitat. "We're the guinea pigs. Habitat is the sort of game that people have been speculating about for a long time. If we're successful, I think we'll be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing."
Looking farther ahead, Morningstar sees great opportunities for online games. "With the advent of faster computers, larger memories, better graphics and telecommunications, some of the constraints will be removed from what is possible online. It's conceivable that we'll someday have interactive cable television channels, where several thousand people will be able to share experiences in ways that were never before possible."
David Morse, Epyx
"I want people to say we make the best games on the market."
Chairman and C.E.O. of Epyx, David Morse is experienced in both the hardware and software sides of the industry. The founder and president of Amiga Computer, Morse remained with Amiga for almost a year after selling the company to Commodore in 1984. Because Amiga was designed to serve many purposes in computer entertainment, Morse established close relationships with many of the leading manufacturers of entertainment software.
Asked to join Epyx's board of directors earlier this year, Morse found that many of his interests and goals coincided with those of the company.
He is enthusiastic about prospects for both his company and the entertainment software industry. "The main thing that's going on right now is that the business has gotten down to the main companies that have proved themselves survivors." It's a competitive situation that he thinks makes for better games.
The industry shakeout that has left only a few key players, rather than the dozens of entertainment software companies just a few years ago, coincides with a maturing of programming skills. "We're starting to get real close to the limitations of the hardware on many systems, with the possible exception of the Amiga. But it's amazing the ways that Epyx and other companies have found to make machines like the Apple and the 64 and even the IBM do some very advanced operations that nobody even thought of doing just a couple of years ago."
These increased capabilities are built upon foundations that have taken years to acquire. "It's a very gradual build, with the result that we seem to get smarter and smarter about how to do things on computers."
Development of new products has, as a result, become more intensive. "Our most recent introduction is a good example. California Games represents more than three man-years of development time. That's a lot—but that's what it takes to make good products." Commitment of those resources has paid off, with reorders flowing into Epyx quickly after the game's early-summer release.
For all the shared experience and knowledge, there are still new areas to explore. "We have a couple of brainstorming ideas a year. Typically, we'll come up with a few ideas that are improvements on existing games. But we also come up with two or three ideas that are totally new, that nobody's thought of before. Of course, just because it's a new idea doesn't mean that it's a good idea."
Despite the arrival of the Amiga and the ST, and the increased market presence of IBM compatibles, Morse sees a lot of life left in the classic game machine, the 64. "It's probably a better game machine than, say, the Sega or the Nintendo. Graphically, there's a lot that can be done with the machine. The 64 accounts for a lower percentage of our business than in the past, although the unit volumes are holding up and actually increasing."
Other machines, though, offer more memory and other capabilities than the 64. Is it a problem to develop for the 64 and then port the game to other machines? " It's relatively easy to convert from the 64 to the Amiga or vice versa, despite some obvious limitations. But if you really want to see limitations, you need to look at IBM machines. That's the most difficult machine to develop for."
Will that change? Will IBM compatibles become more serious entertainment machines in the near future? "Obviously, the ability to play entertainment software is one way to sell machines."
Where are we headed over the next five years? "Two years ago, for example, the Amiga was the hottest machine around. In many ways, it still is. But today, technically, we can build machines that would run faster, do even better graphics, and be far easier to program."
Having participated in the industry from both the hardware and software sides, Morse is excited about meeting the future from the vantage point Epyx offers. "I like product development work. Of all the things I do, that's my favorite. At Amiga, we were working on one product, admittedly a very complex one, but still only a single product."
Epyx offers more diversity. "At any given time there are probably 10 or 15 projects going on. That's very interesting and exciting to me to be involved in all of that."
Morse's goals for the next few years? "I want us to be the best software company. I'd like people to say Epyx has the best games, the best variety of products. I think we're there in some aspects, and on our way there in others. That kind of growth is what's going to make Epyx a fun place to be."
"Imagination is the only limitation you have. Imagination is a lot more important than programming skill."
Freelance software designer Ezra Sidran has just completed his first major product, Universal Military Simulator (UMS) for Firebird. Sidran attended Marycrest College in Iowa, the only college in the country offering a degree program in computer graphics. Sidran's own degree is in computer animation, and he has linked his academic background with his interest in miltary history and war games.
"I invested a year of my life in writing Universal Military Simulator." That year will have stretched to two-and-a-half years by the time UMS is on the market late in 1987.
Because he was working freelance, and would not submit the game to publishers until it was completed, Sidran was free to follow his own instincts in pursuit of the creation of a strategy game that differed from others on the market. He wanted to come up with a game that would not only include historical scenarios, but also offer gamers the chance to set up their own battles, and even design their own battlefields. Most of all, he wanted the game to have a different look and feel.
"It's a 3-D game in which players can create and design their own three-dimensional maps, rotate them, zoom in on areas." Those maps can be filled with armies from any time period, equipped with weaponry ranging from bows and arrows to modern firepower to fantasy implements." By the time the game was finished, UMS had expanded to 22,000 lines of executable code.
Sidran traces the genesis of the program to an artificial-intelligence program he wrote in college, as well as to other strategy games he developed as he learned programming. Sidran wrote UMS in C, a decision he appreciates now that he is porting the game to other machines.
In retrospect, Sidran recognizes the size of the challenge he set himself. "I have to admit that I didn't have any idea how big the job was. Only now do I understand that the reason nobody had done a game like this before was because they all understood how difficult a job it would be."
Dedicated to historical accuracy, Sidran put in as much time in libraries as in writing code. "UMS represents a lot of library time. Before I wrote the first line of code I spent a full month in the library, not only doing historical research, but also doing market research. I wanted to make sure I had a fighting chance of succeeding with the program."
Sidran attended the 1986 Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago in order to talk with game publishers. He found the entertainment software industry to be friendlier than even he expected—one major publisher passed on UMS, but introduced him to Marten Davies of Firebird, who became Sidran's publisher. "I had a contract for the program about five days later."
With Universal Military Simulator ready for release, Sidran is hard at work on new products. "I've got three coming up. I'll be working with Encyclopedia Britannica next, doing a dinosaurs game for younger players." The new game will be developed for the PC first and then for the Apple IIGS and the 64.
Sidran also sees himself doing more strategy games. "We haven't yet scratched the surface of what we'll be able to do in simulations. What we call high-tech will be laughable just a few years from now. Twenty years from now will be a great time to be a programmer. It will be easier to develop programs, the graphics and sound will be better, everything will be more sophisticated. Right now, we're at the computer equivalent of movable type for printing presses."
Sidran cites 3-D as an example. "3-D is an illusion. But there are all kinds of wonderful 3-D illusions that you can do on computers. We'll be seeing a lot more vector graphics 3-D in the near future."
What would an ideal game include? What hardware developments will make these ideal games possible? "The biggest thing is that computers will have much more RAM, much larger memory areas. Also, we'll be looking at larger disk storage space. Even for the ST and the Amiga, you have more RAM than you have disk space. So disks have got to get bigger, or people have to get more hard drives."
For all the new technologies, he also feels that we haven't yet used up the possibilities of existing technology. "We haven't exhausted any of our systems, not by a long shot. All good programmers look at any problem as solvable. Step one is defining the problem and planning solutions. As always, imagination is the only limitation you have. Imagination is a lot more important than programming skill. That's what attracted me to computers from the beginning. There aren't any physical limitations to what you can and can't do."
Is there need for new ideas? "They're screaming for new ideas. There's more work than you can shake a stick at."
Currently anticipating a brief vacation from programming, Sidran is nonetheless looking forward to moving on to new frontiers. "I'm planning a new kind of adventure game. It calls for an exceptionally large 3-D map that adventurers will wander around in."
Sidran's adventurers face a situation that he understands well. "Writing a program is like starting out on an incredibly long journey. The sooner you put one foot in front of the other, the faster you get to the end."