Sunday: The first major breakthrough. My projects always seem to start with the main character of the 'story'...I've designed a new craft that looks almost as if it escaped from an Atari ST.
Thursday: Spent some time thinking about a new control method.
Wednesday: Rewriting my sound effects editor...
Saturday: As my games evolve, the 'story' also takes shape around the proposed gameplay.
Friday: Session of enemy designing.
Monday: A great new idea for the game arrived in my head late last night, whilst eating a slice of toast...
Flashback - 1988. Maybe you were eight, still hating primary school. Or eighteen, working the ugly shift at McDonald's. Twenty, thirty, forty, doing whatever you do. Maybe all this is late talk and you were just that half-formed twinkle in a pizza boy's eye.
Martin Walker was writing Citadel, a classic game for the Commodore 64 Home Computer. Writing it all by himself, from overall concept to smallest pixel. Day by day he worked with a machine that wouldn't be able to hold the Windows XP loading screen. He struggled with technical limitations like having only 64K of RAM (less than a thousandth of the memory in a 2003 computer). He worked and reworked his vision of the game through months of lone programming. And he wrote a diary about it, printed every month in Zzap!64, an English games magazine.
In 1988, Martin Walker was already a dinosaur. The idea of a major-label computer game being written by one person was heading for laughable. Ocean and U.S. Gold, two of the biggest developers around, would routinely commit ten, even fifteen people to their projects. Games were becoming like miniature films, a mixture of specialists, technicians, actors and "vision" people. Big business. You'd get a good license, the right to put Robocop or Mission Impossible into pixels, and then you'd go the whole hog. Graphics, sound, everything as good as it gets. Pushing machines like the ZX Spectrum, the Amstrad, and the C64 to their limits. Because if you did it right, the money was there. Tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars if you came up with an Ultima III or a World Games 88.
Less and less room for a guy who wanted to do it all himself. We like you, Martin; you've made some good games. But you're not the future. The games industry is going places, and those places involve teamwork. Collaboration. Structure. Not slightly crazed loners who insist on flying solo.
Flash forward: Electronic Arts, present day. 3000 employees. 1.7 billion U.S. dollars revenue for the 2002 fiscal year. One massive corporate power among many in a games sector that's heading for first place in the entertainment industry.
Things are a little different now.
A long time ago, computer games were like books: they were authored. In the same way that you might buy a Rockstar or THQ game now, just because you liked GTA3 or Smackdown!, in the early eighties you would buy anything by John Harris or Scott Adams; Frogger and Colossal Cave had blown your mind apart and left you needing more. Individual writers were the kings of software, and the small, limited programs they made were machine-code poetry.
John Harris' story is told in Hackers, the famous Steven Levy book about early computing, and James Hague's Halcyon Days. He was master of the Atari 800, a computer that made the Commodore 64 look supercharged. Forget about the Windows XP loading screen: an Atari 800 would barely be able to handle mouse clicks. Making it do something interesting was like packing a very, very small suitcase. You had to know every little trick and shortcut, every special fold and arrangement to get things in there properly. Your game, and thus your programming skills, had absolutely no room to breathe. If it didn't work, or wasn't fast enough, back to the drawing board, because the Atari 800 was non-negotiable. There was almost no such thing as upgrading. You couldn't tell people to go out and buy a better graphics card or faster processor in order to run your game. There was the idea, and there was the very small suitcase. Make it work, buddy.
John Harris could make it work. Sitting in front of the screen, young and unwashed, he'd make your jaw drop. Drove the Atari like a sports car. He bopped around with business programs for a while before meeting up with Ken Williams, president of Sierra Online (later, the Sierra Online of Hero's Quest, King's Quest, and Halflife). Then he moved into games and the bigtime.
He wasn't quite like Martin Walker; his strength lay in converting existing games from the arcade to the home computer rather than working them up from scratch. They were his, though. By the time he'd finished with Frogger or Jawbreaker (a Pacman clone) the code inside them was clean, tight and beautiful, John Harris Atari perfection to the core. He remade the boundaries of a very primitive computer and got himself some pretty good money while he was at it. Sierra's development teams would grow in size throughout the eighties and nineties, and John Harris would almost become a footnote (after years of relative obscurity, he now works at Pulsar Interactive). But for a while he was king; an individual in control of a machine and its software.
No one suited the author title better than Brian Moriarty. As the expression of an individual vision, his Infocom text game Trinity is a literary masterpiece. Taking place around (and inside!) an atomic bomb explosion, Trinity took works like Zork or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and fed them into a Lewis Carroll blender. Controlled via simple sentences (GO WEST, LOOK AT SUNDIAL), and giving text descriptions as feedback (YOU HAVE FOUND A MUSHROOM), Trinity presented a world that had genuinely gone down the rabbit hole at Ground Zero. A small boy who just a few minutes ago was in a London park now sits atop a cliff, blowing bubbles from a soap dish. So you climb into the soap dish, and now you're part of a bubble, floating over fractured landscape. An enormous pyramid hangs above it all, a thousand feet high. As you watch its shadow creep across the land you see the terminator line reshaping reality, changing north to south, up to down, swamp to river. You don't understand what's going on and you're not likely to for a long, long time. Oh, by the way, that bubble's not looking too healthy...
Brian Moriarty didn't drive the computer hardware like John Harris. He drove the possibilities of gameplay. There's no group consensus in Trinity. No collaboration. It's not a team effort and never could be. When Moriarty first proposed it to Infocom, they suggested he try something else. "Something else" turned out to be a game called Wishbringer that sold 100,000 copies, a blockbuster for the time. The experience and political power thus gained let Brian push Trinity again. It was a risk, but Infocom took it. And grabbed themselves another little bit of history.
White text on a black screen: Trinity is a stripped-down hotrod of the imagination. One that you're not going to see on the shelves in 2k3. This is Brian Moriarty, one question, one answer:
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.
Cranky oldtimer? Maybe. Not the guy to have around for a few hours of Unreal Championship fragging. But like John Harris, Brian Moriarty used to be king. He had a vision, and he controlled and shaped that vision and poured it into its natural vessel, the personal computer.