Planet Interactive Fiction

December 11, 2017

The Digital Antiquarian

Patreon Update

by Jimmy Maher at December 11, 2017 08:41 AM

I’ll be rolling out a new pledging system for this site next week. Built on a platform called Memberful, it will let you pledge your support right from the site, without Patreon or anyone else inserting themselves into the conversation. The folks from Memberful have been great to communicate with, and I’m really excited about how this is shaping up. I think it’s going to be a great system that will work really well for many or most of you.

That said, my feeling after much vacillation over the last several days is that I won’t abandon Patreon either. Some of you doubtless would prefer to stay with them, for perfectly valid reasons: for high pledge amounts, the new fee schedule is much less onerous; some of you really like the ability to pledge per-article rather than on a monthly basis, which is something no other solution I’ve found — including Memberful — can quite duplicate; some of you really want to keep all of your pledges to creators integrated on the same site; etc. And of course it’s possible that Patreon will still do something to mitigate the enormous damage they did to their brand last week. At the risk of introducing a bit more complication, then, I think the best approach is just to clearly explain the pros and cons of the two options and leave the choice in your hands.

For right now, those of you who are current Patreon patrons don’t need to do anything. The article which I’ll publish on Friday will still be bound by the old rules; the new ones won’t go into effect until December 18. On or about December 18, I’ll introduce you to the new pledging system, and you can decide then what works best for you.

Thanks for your relentless positivity during what was a pretty stressful few days — and a big welcome to the few of you who defied all the conventional wisdom by signing on with Patreon in the midst of this whole brouhaha. The stress is vastly less now: the path ahead is becoming clear, and, best of all, I continue to be blessed with the best readers in the world.

More news in a week!


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Adventure Blog

Strayed Christmas Sale Starts Now! (Dec 10-16)

December 11, 2017 01:41 AM

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Most people probably don’t fancy getting stuck on a lonely drive through dark, silent woods.

But maybe you’re different. Maybe that sounds like a jolly good time to you.

If so, check out our atmospheric interactive thriller, Strayed! It’s currently on sale for iOS or Android for just $0.99, Dec 10-16.

December 09, 2017

Emily Short

Shadowhand (Grey Alien)

by Emily Short at December 09, 2017 06:40 PM

Shadowhand is a casual game based around the mechanics of solitaire, with a frame story about a noblewoman who dresses up as a highwayman and gets involved in piracy and smuggling and various other shenanigans in 18th century England. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s a prequel to Regency Solitaire, which I covered here previously, and I also posted excitedly when the premise was announced.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.46.12 PM.pngThe frame story is pretty light. I have yet to finish this, but the plot doesn’t feel either very convincing or very important. The protagonist decides to take up highway robbery on the spur of the moment during a traumatic event, and is soon killing local ruffians, coachmen, prisoners, etc with little soul-searching or transition. Notionally, she’s trying to protect a friend, but the friend doesn’t turn out to need all that much protecting, and our protagonist goes on about her highwayman business more because, well, she enjoys it. There’s a bit of business about discovering a conspiracy in the neighborhood, but given the number of people she’s killing in order to uncover said conspiracy, it’s not immediately obvious who would be on the side of Good, if we stopped and did the math.

There’s also an RPG element, whereby we can buy equipment and level up skills. Skills grant bonuses like a higher likelihood of drawing jokers during play, or being to start a level with more of the cards face-up, as well as advantages when fighting — and, of course, let us dress up our protagonist with a range of highwayperson outfits, knives, swords, and guns. This, again, is there because it’s fun, not because it’s an accurate representation of a time or a character or a style of fighting, or because it tells a coherent story.

But that’s okay with me. (No, really, it is.) This game is unabashedly about taking a bath in entertaining swashbuckling tropes. Making sense isn’t the point. And — odd as this might sound — it does a really good job at capturing aspects of the swashbuckling genre through the medium of solitaire.

The actual gameplay takes two forms:

  • regular solitaire, where you’re trying to clear the board before your deck runs out (often narratively framed as a task like searching for something); and
  • solitaire duels, where you use solitaire play to recharge your weapons, and your opponent’s AI gets to play from the same board you do.

This is really fun — way more fun than solitaire usually is — because there are more tactical possibilities, ways to predict or unlock cards, or think ahead about what parts of the board you’re opening up to your opponent.

It’s also a surprisingly good fit to represent a swashbuckling fight. The frame story and the gameplay might be rather loosely and metaphorically connected, but the gameplay and the narrative texture work out beautifully. Swashbuckling fight scenes aren’t about realism or plausibility. They’re about pauses, positioning, ratcheting tension — or trivial skirmishing where no one gets anywhere — followed by extraordinary, over-the-top stunts that feel both rapid and inventive, taking advantage of the scenery. (Bonus points for incorporating pirate ship rigging, medieval candelabras, and/or the furniture of a chateau inherited by your evil twin.)

The solitaire board layout gives you that. Every board arrangement is an intentionally designed level, with different locks, layering, and hidden bonus objects. For instance, sometimes you can uncover a health potion or other useful powerup in the middle of the board. If your opponent gets it first… well, your job just got that much harder:

Screen Shot 2017-12-08 at 2.32.54 PM.png

When things go really well, I hit several successful streaks of cards and also deploy some special abilities to keep the run going (e.g. by getting rid of individual cards that were in my way, or deploying a joker to start a new streak). Doing that feels fast and clever: I scan the board, I see possible sequences, click through them at speed. Make a judgement call about whether to spend extra resources for the chance of maybe continuing the run. Maybe opt to uncover an unknown card rather than a known one, because the known one definitely won’t continue my current streak, and with the unknown, there’s just a chance…

That gives some of the spatial reasoning pleasures of a platformer, but without the timed, reflex-dependent element that makes most platformers such a purgatory for me to play.

Here, for instance, I’ve had a good run and cleared all but one card off the board — it would have been stylish if I could’ve gotten that last one too, but alas, it’s impossible:

Screen Shot 2017-12-08 at 2.52.27 PM.png

But things aren’t bad at all. My run of cards has taken me to a combo of 35, radically increasing the attack value of my weapons. It’s not going to be enough to kill my opponent, but I’m about to knock him down from 41 hitpoints to 20.

This reminded me of the “exploding dice” in the swash RPG 7th Sea — if you rolled a 10, it “exploded”, meaning you got another roll of that die to add on top of that baseline 10. In the rare event your die exploded multiple times, this could get really spectacular. The solitaire mechanic in Shadowhand does a similar job of creating a probability landscape that allows for rare extreme outcomes — and a better job of making you feel like you’ve been clever when it occurs. The rest of the time, when you’re doing small moves, the gameplay still moves fast enough, and with enough planning potential, to feel fun, and like you’re building to something.

It’s the kind of gameplay that looks smooth and simple and natural, too. That is how you can tell Jake Birkett polished and balanced the hell out of it.

*

Elsewhere: see Orion Trail for another narratively-suitable way of presenting randomness to the player.


December 08, 2017

The Digital Antiquarian

Games on the Net Before the Web, Part 1: Strategy and Simulation

by Jimmy Maher at December 08, 2017 05:41 PM

Right from the beginning, games were a component of the commercial online services that predated the World Wide Web; both The Source and CompuServe included them among their offerings from the moment those services first went online. In the early years, such online games were mostly refugees from 1970s institutional computing. Classics like Star Trek, Adventure, and Hammurabi had the advantage of being in the public domain and already running without modification on the time-shared computer systems which hosted the services, and could thus be made available to subscribers with a minimum of investment. Eventually even some text-only microcomputer games made the transition. By 1984, CompuServe, now well-established at the vanguard of the burgeoning online-services industry, had a catalog that included the original Adventure along with an expanded version, nine Scott Adams games, and the original PDP-10 Zork (renamed for some reason to The House of Banshi). And those were just the text adventures. There were also the dungeon crawls Dungeons of Kesmai and Castle Telengard and the war games Civil WarFantasy, and Command Decision, while for the less hardcore there were the CompuServe Casino, board games like Reversi, and curiosities like a biorhythm charter and an astrology calculator.

The fact that so many games were on offer so quickly indicates that they must have paid their way, at least to some extent. The hard reality remained, though, that these single-player games which happened to be played online were a hard sell to many subscribers. Paying $6 or more per hour to play a text-only game didn’t make a whole lot of sense to many of them when they could buy or even type in something just as satisfying for their local machines.

Group discussion about games, on the other hand, was something only the online services could offer with any degree of convenience or regularity, and it absolutely thrived in consequence almost from Day One. Adventure games were an especially popular topic, and for very good reason; given the non-sequiturial puzzles those early adventures were so rife with, outside help was about the only way most players had a reasonable chance of solving many of them. When Sierra in 1982 released perhaps the most absurdly unfair early adventure of them all in the form of Time Zone — twelve disk sides and more than a thousand rooms of complete inscrutability — The Source’s users mounted a pioneering crowdsourced effort to solve it. Its home was called The Vault of Ages:

Welcome to the Vault of Ages. Here we are coordinating the greatest group effort in adventure-solving: the complete mapping of On-Line’s Time Zone.

Herein we are gathering, verifying, and correlating information about each time zone. Feel free to visit here anytime, but remember that for the Vault to fill, we need your contributions of information. Any time you have new information about mapping, puzzle solutions, traps overcome, items found, email this info to me. After verification, your contributed jigsaw-puzzle piece will be added to the Vault file, and your name will be entered upon the rolls as a master solver.

Unsurprisingly, the first person known to have solved Time Zone, a tireless adventure fanatic and gaming journalist named Roe R. Adams III, was a Source and Vault of Ages regular.

The online services would continue to be a vital meeting point for gamers, gaming journalists, and, increasingly, the developers that made the games for many years to come, right up until they were superseded by the modern World Wide Web. Countless gamers who weren’t subscribers nevertheless benefited from the walkthroughs and strategy guides that filtered down from the likes of CompuServe onto the network of local bulletin-board systems and into the halls that hosted users-group meetings, to eventually be passed from hand to hand on playgrounds and in lunch rooms as smudged printouts whose unassuming appearance belied the precious information they contained.

But, while it’s certainly noteworthy in itself, our main concern today isn’t with this far-reaching game-solving grapevine. We’re rather concerned with the games that subscribers were actually playing online in increasing numbers by the middle of the 1980s — games which by and large weren’t the roll call of golden oldies that opened this article. We’re interested, in other words, in how the online services learned to take advantage of their uniqueness as interconnected real-time communities of tens or hundreds of thousands of people to offer players something they couldn’t get from an offline game. In doing so, they would give the world a sneak preview of its online future in yet one more way.


One of the executives who worked under Jeff Wilkins at CompuServe in the early 1980s was named Bill Louden. He was an unusual character there in several ways, not least in being a living embodiment of where computing was going as opposed to where it had been. Unlike most of CompuServe’s management, who had been raised at the bosom of institutional computing, Louden had come to his current job through microcomputers. He had been working as a Radio Shack store manager in CompuServe’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio, when the TRS-80 arrived in 1977, and he became such an instant home-computing zealot that he founded the Central Ohio TRS-80 Users Group shortly thereafter. He joined CompuServe in 1979, hired by Wilkins to be a bridge between the hobbyist-oriented personal-computing community which he knew so well and the dominant culture of business-oriented big-iron computing inside CompuServe.

Among the many things which Louden understood but CompuServe’s other managers largely did not was the appeal of games. He became the foremost advocate for them inside the company — an advocate for, that is, going beyond just scooping up the low-hanging fruit of Adventure and Hammurabi and calling it a day. He believed that games, if given the proper priority, could become not just an occasional distraction for the service’s subscribers but the primary reason some of them chose to sign up in the first place. By acting upon that belief, he would become another forgotten pioneer, one of the most important architects of online gaming’s future.

The first of Bill Louden’s pet projects to hint at the true potential for online gaming was at first glance just another tired institutional refugee. Back in 1978, a new game had appeared on the DEC PDP-10s that lived at the University of Texas at Austin. DECWAR was at bottom yet another variation on the tried-and-true Star Trek strategy game, but some of its embellishments to the formula were very significant. Instead of a single player hunting computer-controlled Klingons and Romulans, DECWAR had room for up to eight players, who faced off against one another in two teams of four, with the balance of the teams filled up by the computer when fewer than eight humans could be rounded up. Just as significantly, the game was played in real time.

DECWAR first came to Bill Louden’s attention in 1982; he saw the potential it held for CompuServe immediately. Making inquiries with the university, he found the game’s developers were willing to sell him its source code for $50. When his superiors refused to part with that princely sum, he bought the source himself using his own money. Louden then did much of the work that was required to adapt the game to CompuServe himself, excising in the process the last vestigial remnants of the Star Trek intellectual property. (Out of similar legal concerns, the original Star Trek game had itself become the thinly veiled Space Trek on CompuServe by this point.) Louden also added innovations like a leader board which saw players progress in rank from cadet to admiral as they won games and blew up other players’ ships, adding at least a dollop of long-term persistence to tempt them to keep playing. And he gave DECWAR a new name: MegaWars.

CompuServe advertised MegaWars widely for the first year or two, even as their marketers ignored other pioneering initiatives like CB Simulator. Garish MegaWars depictions like these contrasted strangely with the company’s usual staid image. (One can only imagine what those members of the board who had been against launching the consumer service from the start thought of this sort of thing.) As was par for the course during this time period, the imagery of the advertising had almost nothing to do with the game, which featured neither interpersonal combat nor scantily-clad warriors of either sex.

MegaWars went up on CompuServe circa August of 1982, much to the dismay of the University of Texas’s student coders, who had neglected to copyright or attach any legal restrictions whatsoever to the source code they had given to Louden for $50. Playing it was a daunting proposition: it usually required about two to three hours — meaning as much as $20 in connection fees — to finish a complete match, and the player had to learn 32 separate textual commands, which had to be typed in real time as the galaxy exploded in battle all around her. Yet, despite or because of its challenging nature, it proved enduringly popular, spawning a cult of hardcore players who stuck with it for years and years. In fact, it would become CompuServe’s most durable single game of all, remaining on the service for the next fifteen years. “The people that play MegaWars are extremely serious,” CompuServe’s communications director was soon warning. “The expertise level is very high.”

It didn’t take long for MegaWars players to form themselves into consistent teams that themselves sometimes stayed together for years. Intra- and inter-team politics could come to fill as much space as actually playing the game. Team Dune, for instance, was made up of fans of Frank Herbert’s iconic series of science-fiction novels; everyone on the team was expected to take the name of a Dune character as a handle. “Dictators” were selected from among the team’s members for three-month terms in hotly contested elections that could sometimes turn violent. It was all a part of the fantasy. A Team Dune member named Martin Maners, better known on CompuServe as “Leto II,” had this to say:

I’ve always had a vivid imagination. I like science fiction and Star Wars. When you sit down in front of your computer and play MegaWars, you really leave the earth, you’re really out there. It helps me relax, especially with the way MegaWars lets me talk to other players on my team. It’s nice to be able to sit back and do something completely different for a change.

With MegaWars, Bill Louden had put his finger on the real strength of gaming on a service like CompuServe: the opportunity for subscribers to play against one another rather than alone with the computer. “MegaWars is a challenge and is entertaining as well, but the real enjoyment comes from the multiplayer aspect of the game,” said one subscriber. “Interacting with other human players is what makes it interesting in a way that a ‘man vs. computer’ game just can’t match.” Another subscriber noted that it was “not like a game you would run on your personal computer. Here you get to pit yourself against a real person who could be across the street or the country. A much more formidable foe! It’s both entertaining and challenging, and at the same time it’s a great way to meet people and make new friends.”

If CompuServe was to continue to develop their games in this direction, however, they would need to move beyond public-domain institutional refugees like DECWAR/MegaWars. Luckily, Louden had recently been fielding inquiries from a pair of outside programmers with aspirations to do just that. They called themselves Kesmai.

Kelton Flinn and John Taylor, a duo better known as Kesmai.

Kesmai weren’t your stereotypical teenage bedroom coders. John Taylor, who had a masters degree in computer science, worked for General Electric’s High Performance Division, writing software for industrial robots, while Kelton Flinn was working on a PhD in applied mathematics at the University of Virginia. They picked their company’s name as their favorite from a long list of random ones that had been spit out by a name-generating program.

Several years before, while still an undergraduate, Flinn had written a very ambitious game on his university’s computer which combined Star Trek-like space combat — played in real time, no less! — with a conquer-the-universe strategic layer of economics and politics. He called it simply S. He remembers one particular incident as the turning point in its development: “One person’s favorite planet was taken, and he picked up a chair and stalked across the room with it to clobber the culprit. ‘Bob, put the chair down, it’s only a game…’ I guess I should have known then we had a potential hit!”

After much lobbying on Kesmai’s part for a development contract, Bill Louden agreed to let them bring S to CompuServe as a sort of trial project, renaming it in the process to MegaWars III. (MegaWars II had been an ill-fated attempt to add graphics and sound, at least of a sort, to the first MegaWars using the character graphics and simple bells and whistles allowed by some otherwise textual communications protocols. Dismissed by Louden himself as “poorly done and abysmally slow,” it didn’t last very long.) Kesmai greatly expanded on the already ambitious S template for CompuServe, making the universe much larger, adding more diplomatic options, and adding a veritable sub-game all its own of starship design. It seems safe to say that, by the time they were done, there was nothing of comparable complexity available even in single-player form on the microcomputers of the time. Indeed, the end result can’t help but remind one of the so-called “4X” games — “explore, expand, exploit, exterminate” — that wouldn’t become really practical on PCs until the early 1990s, when the steady march of technology would lead to strategic epics like Civilization and Master of Orion. In contrast to most of those later games, though, MegaWars III offered all the unpredictability of dozens of human opponents, with whom one could communicate at any time using “hyperspace radio,” whether to make or break trade deals and military alliances or just to shoot the breeze.

A single game of MegaWars III could host up to 100 players, and ran for four to six weeks. At the end of that time, the player who had earned the most points through conquest and the economic development of her colonies would be crowned emperor (this system would later be cheerfully nicked by Master of Orion as one of its own victory conditions, thus further cementing the similarities between the two games). With a victor thus declared, it would be time to wipe the slate clean. A brand new universe would be generated, and players who had been disappointed by their performance last time could try their luck on this new playing field. Some modern online games could perhaps take a lesson from this constant rolling-over of the virtual universe, which was done with conscious intent: Louden notes that it “kept newbies from feeling they had no way to catch up and were just meat for the slaughter.”

That said, little else about MegaWars III was forgiving; it was even more demanding than the game to which it had been billed a sequel. Eight hours of real time corresponded to about a month of game time. Those who hoped to have a shot at the winner’s circle knew that they had to sign on every night, sometimes for hours at a time, to maintain their empires. The subscriber known as “L’Eagle,” a self-described “corporate lawyer” in real life, became something of a community legend for winning the very first game of MegaWars III, which ran from January 19 until March 15 of 1984. He was already a veteran grognard at that time, with a history with war games which dated back well into the previous decade. For someone like him, MegaWars III provided an experience that could only have been approached in the past by some of the more elaborate play-by-mail campaigns run by companies like Flying Buffalo. The CompuServe version, however, had the added allure of instant feedback, along with the instant gratification of real-time chat — always useful for taunting a vanquished foe.

Just as with the first MegaWars, interactions with other players in MegaWars III were, even more so than all of the complicated rules, the heart of the game’s appeal. L’Eagle described the game, with its delicate tissue of alliances, in terms that actually smack as much or more of Diplomacy as Master of Orion. Such is the effect of adding the human element to the 4X equation.

The game has very few limitations. That’s part of the charm. But everyone has to work to keep the game good-spirited. At one point, the game’s authors thought that team members would turn on one another, that friends would become enemies. But after six weeks of planning together, the last thing you would do is back-stab.

L’Eagle is perhaps overstating the case just a bit. Back-stabbing was hardly unknown in MegaWars III; in fact, just as in Diplomacy, it was a virtual necessity for those with serious aspirations to win. Still, MegaWars III co-creator Kelton Flinn wasn’t wrong when he noted that “it’s a social game, as well as a competitive one.” Already in 1984, the year of MegaWars III‘s debut, CompuServe hosted a gathering of players in Columbus that attracted several dozen attendees. It was only the first of many.

Journalists, conditioned to think of computer games as strictly kids’ stuff, frequently expressed surprise when they were informed that the average age of a hardcore MegaWars I or III player was somewhere north of thirty. Really, though, it couldn’t have been any other way. The great disadvantage of these early online services, the necessary temper to any nostalgia for the era of the net before the Web, was how expensive they were. The whole time you were playing, the meter was running. Just as with CB Simulator, some people got addicted to the games, often to the detriment of the rest of their lives. Regulars soon noticed cyclical patterns to some of their comrades’ comings and goings. L’Eagle:

You can tell when the MasterCard bills come. People disappear. Later, they come back and say, “Yeah, I just had to cut down a bit.” Teenagers, you might never see them again. Fortunately, I make a lot of money.

As always, digital utopianism only got you so far in a world that at the end of the day still ran on money.

By mid-decade, then, multiplayer gaming — as opposed to the older species of single-player games that happened to be played online — was establishing itself as a staple of online life, not only on CompuServe but also on services like PlayNet and QuantumLink. As we saw in an earlier article, the latter pair offered a variety of simple board games that more casual players could enjoy with the added benefit of graphics, an area CompuServe would soon push into as well. The potential of online games remained sharply limited, however, by the fact that the vast majority of subscribers to the various services were still using 300-baud modems, which transferred data at the glacial pace of approximately 30 to 35 bytes per second — or a little over 2 K per minute.

When that logjam finally broke, it did so, as so often happens in technology, with head-snapping speed. The breakthrough was helped along by GEnie, the new online service which launched in October of 1985 to become the most serious challenger yet to CompuServe’s dominance. A big drag on the adoption of faster modems had actually been CompuServe itself, which charged $6 per hour for 300-baud access but a well-nigh absurd $12 per hour for 1200-baud connections. GEnie, on the other hand, launched at $5 per hour for both 300 and 1200 baud, soon forcing even the industry leader to adjust their own rates in response. With a new standard pricing model thus established, subscribers rushed out to buy the new, faster modems that were also coming down rapidly in price. GEnie reported at the beginning of 1986 that less than 40 percent of their subscribers had upgraded to 1200 baud; by the end of the year, that number had topped 90 percent. And 1200 baud was itself only a beginning rather than an end: 2400 baud was coming on strong, with 9600 baud out there on the not-too-distant horizon. What might developers of online games be able to do with those sorts of connection speeds? Bill Louden and the boys at Kesmai had some ideas.

Louden had left CompuServe in 1984, disaffected by what he saw as too many “corporate people” encroaching on his domain. After some misadventures trying to set up a regional online service of his own called Georgia Online, he was tapped by General Electric to run GEnie. Like any good manager of an upstart, he surveyed the leading company in his industry — i.e., his recent employer CompuServe — for weak spots where GEnie could offer something more to customers. As we’ve just seen, one of these was making higher-speed connections affordable. Another, unsurprisingly given Louden’s reputation as the “games guy” even while he was still at CompuServe, was games. Louden strove to make GEnie a haven for gamers, both for talking about offline games — the service would verge on displacing CompuServe in the years to come as the foremost source for walkthroughs and strategy guides — and for playing online games.

For their part, Kesmai were happy to work for any service willing to pay them. The fact that John Taylor was still going to work every day at GEnie’s corporate parent General Electric, not to mention Kesmai’s established relationship with Louden, made a development contract with the new service a natural step. MegaWars III therefore soon came to GEnie as well in thinly disguised form as Stellar Emperor. But that was merely an old CompuServe glory being revisited. GEnie’s crowning gaming glory would be a radical departure from anything seen online to date.

Air Warrior, a multiplayer air-combat simulator using aircraft from both of the world wars, was first offered to owners of the Apple Macintosh in late 1986. Although the game ran through GEnie, it was provided as a standalone application which handled all of the minutiae of logging in and communications for itself, in lieu of the text-only terminal programs subscribers normally used to access the service. This approach allowed it to make use of cutting-edge 3D graphics, the likes of which had never before been seen in an online context. It was nothing short of revolutionary, the very first game of its kind, and those who wished to play it had to pay for their spot at the bleeding edge — to the tune of no less than $11 per hour, more than twice GEnie’s normal going rate. Luckily for Kesmai, who had expanded greatly and invested a lot of money in the project, a fair number of well-heeled users proved willing to pony up.

Choosing a plane to fly — or, alternately, a vehicle to drive — in Air Warrior.

Ported to the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST in 1987, Air Warrior used what we today would call the “software as a service” model to perpetually evolve throughout its long lifespan, with players expected to download the updates which appeared almost monthly on GEnie and merge them into their local disks. By 1988, this process had brought the game to a certain maturity. Three “theaters” — one for World War I, two for the more popular World War II — were kept in constant operation, complete with leader-board tallies of aircraft shot down and ground targets destroyed. Similarly to MegaWars III, a winner of each campaign was declared every three weeks and the theater reset to keep anyone from running away with things for too long.

During a campaign, players could cast their lot with any of three opposing militaries. Some players preferred to be lone wolves, Red Barons lurking in the cloud cover to swoop down on their prey, but most took it upon themselves to further organize into squadrons, with all the resultant social interaction you might expect. Indeed, Air Warrior became more and more team-oriented as time went on. Lumbering B-17 bombers took off on strike missions with not only a pilot but no fewer than six other players filling the various gun turrets, escorted by more players in single-seater Mustangs and Spitfires. Meanwhile still other players would be mounting a coordinated ground assault in jeeps and tanks. All were bound together by the magic of chat — or, in in-game terms, by their multi-band radios. And on the other side, of course, was a similarly well-coordinated group of defenders hoping to add to their point tallies by taking down some of those juicy B-17s.

The Air Warrior application incorporated a terminal layer for handling logging into GEnie and other command-oriented tasks. Here a player is checking out his personal history.

The obvious forerunner to modern multiplayer wargasms like the Battlefield series, Air Warrior was distinguished, like so many of these early online games, by a devotion to the game’s fiction that would be very foreign to most of today’s eager gibbers and fraggers. Air Warrior billed itself as a flight simulator the equal of the ones being made by companies like subLogic and MicroProse, and many players took it very seriously indeed on those terms, implementing historical tactics and even radio protocols, spending hours when they weren’t flying laboring over their planes’ custom paint schemes. Inevitably, some new players showed up in garishly painted monstrosities and tried to single-handedly run roughshod over the place, but such respectless cretins usually didn’t live very long; one sign of the game’s worth as a simulation was the fact that the historically accurate tactics were mostly the ones that worked. And of course the fact that you were paying $11 per hour for the privilege had a way of driving up the average participant’s age and assuring that only those who really, really hankered after a vintage air-combat experience stuck around.

In the air in Air Warrior. Note the chat window, vital to squadron coordination, that’s open to the right.

Newbie pilots wishing to find acceptance within a squadron’s ranks had to contend with the realistic flight mechanics while tranquilly accepting their designated role in each operation; true to history, new pilots were usually given sheltered positions as wingmen to more experienced fliers which gave them little opportunity to run up their personal kill tallies. Still, greenhorns quickly learned to appreciate the extra cover, as nothing about Air Warrior was forgiving. Woe betide the pilot who forgot that the escape key was meant literally in this game: it led to an instant, no-questions-asked bailout.

Death meant that you had to start over with a new character, so all serious players practiced their wheels-up landings and their water ditchings extensively using the game’s weapons-less offline practice mode. Even the effects of fuel usage were modeled accurately; planes became faster and more maneuverable as they got lighter. But this too, of course, was a double-edged sword: many an Air Warrior pilot wound up dead because of inattention to the fuel gauge. To help the youngsters out, the experienced pilots instituted a flying-and-tactics clinic which ran every Thursday night for years. The life saved, they reasoned, might just be their own if they got saddled with one of these greenhorns on their wing.

Lining up on a bridge, one of the ground targets which players got points for destroying.

In marked contrast to the Kesmai games that had preceded it, Air Warrior remained always on the cutting edge of audiovisual technology. It shone most of all on the Amiga when that machine was the audiovisual class of the industry; it wasn’t even ported to MS-DOS until 1989. Once there, though, it continued to evolve apace, becoming in early 1993 one of the first games of any stripe to support the new generation of “Super VGA” graphics cards. The Air Warrior community would always remain a relatively small one; a 1993 magazine report describes about thirty players active in each theater most evenings, the very same number cited by another report from 1989. But despite such limited numbers of active players, Air Warrior became, like the MegaWars games, rather astonishingly long-lived, actually managing to outlast its original host service GEnie to make it all the way to 2001. For those seeking a certain kind of historically grounded multi-player combat experience, emphasizing real-world tactics, it was in many ways a better take on online gaming than most of what’s available today. And even for those who didn’t know the difference between a Hellcat and Zero, it remained a living example of the potential for online gaming, an aspirational ideal at the vanguard of the field for many years.

While it may be a little hard to recognize today, the SVGA Air Warrior looked spectacular in its day — not just spectacular for an online game, but spectacular, period.

This survey, sketchy though it’s been, has hopefully been enough to demonstrate both how influential the online services of the 1980s really were on online gaming as we know it today and how compelling the games they offered could be even when taken entirely on their own terms. Yet the creations we’ve seen so far, groundbreaking though they’ve been in their various ways, have all been relatively short-form experiences: games with beginnings, middles, and ends that spanned no more than a handful of weeks. What persistence these games did possess was thanks to players like the desert rats of Team Dune, who found ways to make the fiction last even when the game proper was over. But what of games which truly have no ending? What of games which aren’t so much games at all as virtual worlds, even virtual societies — real Second Lifes for their inhabitants, one might say. Today such virtual worlds consume the free time of millions of rabid players, and stand as the most complex virtual spaces ever created. Next time, then, we’ll find out how game developers discovered the power of persistence, many years before Warcraft — much less World of Warcraft — was a twinkle in its creators’ eyes.

(Sources: the books On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks and Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy; Softline of May 1982; Online Today of June 1987, January 1988, and February 1989; Byte of September 1982; Antic of November 1984; Compute!’s Gazette of May 1985; Family Computing of June 1986; InfoWorld of October 21 1985 and December 2 1985; Compute! of July 1987; Amazing Computing of August 1987 and March 1989; the STart “games issue” for 1988; Computer Gaming World of January 1990 and May 1993; CompuServe’s games catalog/brochure from 1984; the Games of Fame online articles on MegaWars and MegaWars III; the history page from a recent MegaWars revival.)


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December 07, 2017

Choice of Games

T-Rex Time Machine — Face the world’s fiercest dinosaurs—on their turf!

by Rachel E. Towers at December 07, 2017 05:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that T-Rex Time Machine, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 25% off until December 14th!

Face the world’s fiercest dinosaurs and make it back to the future in one piece! You’re a physics student with a dream: travel back in time and document the world of dinosaurs. Can you survive the terrors of the Tyrannosaurus rex?

T-Rex Time Machine is a 170,000 word interactive adventure novel by Rosemary Claire Smith, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

When you successfully convert your Land Rover into a working time machine, you set your sights on traveling to the age of the Tyrannosaurus rex, triceratops, and pterosaur where you’ll study dinosaurs and film a thrilling documentary. The only problem is the competition: your rival and enemy Darien Vance has claimed your work for his own, accused you of plagiarism, and had you kicked out of graduate school. When you travel back in time, you’ll have to prove you got there first, redeem your good name, and make it home safely.

• Play as male or female, gay or straight.
• Dodge stampeding triceratopses and sickle-clawed troodontids.
• Find love with your best friend or one of your time-traveling classmates.
• Feed a baby duckbilled dinosaur and let it imprint on you.
• Film and debut your dinosaur documentary—as a scientific masterpiece or a heartwarming nature film.
• Master time travel as you repair your Land Rover on the fly.
• Prove your rival stole your time machine plans, or forge a new partnership with him.

Explore the Age of Dinosaurs–if you dare!

We hope you enjoy playing T-Rex Time Machine. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. Don’t forget: our initial download rate determines our ranking on the App Store. The more times you download in the first week, the better our games will rank.

The Digital Antiquarian

Changes to the Patreon Billing Model

by Jimmy Maher at December 07, 2017 07:41 AM

So, I awoke this morning to find a bit of a bombshell from Patreon awaiting me in my inbox. You will soon be hearing directly from Patreon about this, but I’d prefer you learn about it from me first. Here’s what Patreon wants me to tell you:

In the past, I was covering Patreon’s 5% fee and all of the processing fees in full for all of my patrons. This meant that every month I saw anywhere from 7-15% of my earnings taken out to cover those processing fees.

Starting December 18th, Patreon will apply a new service fee of 2.9% + $0.35 to each of your individual pledges. This service fee helps keep Patreon up and running and standardizes my processing fees to 5%.

This ensures that creators like me keep more earnings in order to continue creating high-quality content. I hope you understand and continue your pledges on Patreon. You can read even more about the service fee here.

Note that these new fees apply on a per-article basis. In other words, those of you who have pledged $1.00 per article will now be paying $1.38 per article in real terms.

I’m not at all happy about this change, which is uniquely damaging to the very model this blog uses: of fairly small pledges given on a per-milestone basis. Instead of collecting 7 to 15 percent in fees for credit-card processing, Patreon will now be collecting 37.9 percent from those of you pledging $1 per article. This is all rather disappointingly disingenuous; the obvious question to ask is why the service fee should be collected on each individual per-post pledge instead of on the monthly lump sum which is actually submitted to the credit-card companies for processing. I have to assume on this basis that this change has more to do with “keeping Patreon up and running” than it does with “standardizing my processing fees.” If Patreon needs to increase their cut to stay viable, fair enough, but this is not a terribly transparent way of approaching the problem.

That said, there are some things we can do. Patreon isn’t planning to institute this change until December 18, so there’s still time to write to their customer-service department and/or to Jack Conte, CEO, and share — politely, please! — your feelings about it. If they get enough heat for it, perhaps they might consider a mid-course adjustment.

Assuming, though, that that doesn’t happen:

While I do share Patreon’s hope that some of you will be willing to pay the increased fees, I do understand that everyone has different economic circumstances and places a different value on the material I write, and I will certainly not blame any of you who feel the need to make changes of your own on the basis of what I’ve just shared here. As a patron, you can avoid seeing your monthly charge increase by adjusting your pledge to account for the new processing fees. Those of you currently pledging $1.00 per article, for instance, will want to change that to 62¢ per article (Or not: Alan informs us below that Patreon will no longer accept pledge amounts of less than $1.00. The best thing to do in this situation is probably to cap your monthly spending at $3.00. They just don’t make things easy on us, do they?); those of you pledging $2.00 will want to change that to $1.59; etc. (I’m sure you’re all more than capable of doing the math for yourselves.)

Another possibility, especially if you’d like to see more of your pledge go to me and less to Patreon, is to make a per-article pledge equal to what you’d like to spend for the four articles I normally publish per month. After you do this, set a monthly cap of the same amount on your spending. This will ensure that the processing fee is only collected once, although it does carry with it the risk of paying for articles I haven’t written if, as has very rarely happened in the past, I can’t manage to publish four articles in a given month for one reason or another. (I will always be sure to let you know if and when that’s going to happen, so you can adjust your pledges accordingly if you wish.)

From my side, an obvious alternative is to switch to a flat monthly billing model. I’m reluctant to do so, however, both because it will afflict everyone with the risk I’ve just described in the previous paragraph and — being totally honest here — because it has the potential to be hugely disruptive to what’s become a steady income stream that I rely on.

But I’ll be in touch before December 18, so there’s no need for any of us to make any hasty changes right now. In the meantime, I’d appreciate your thoughts about what this change means to you and how I might minimize its impact on you and everyone else.

Thank you so much for your support over the years! You remain the only reason I can do the work I love most.

(Update, December 8, 2017: Since I all but accused Patreon of being crooks in the post above, I should perhaps share what they’ve finally clarified to be their ostensible real rational for these changes. Some Patreon creators — I’m not among them — make some of their content available only to those who have pledged their support. Because patrons have always been billed at the end of the month, it was possible to make a pledge, consume all that juicy content behind the paywall, then delete the pledge before the bill came due. Patreon wants to prevent this behavior by switching to a model where patrons are billed immediately upon pledging, and continue to be billed immediately thereafter. In other words, when I publish a new article after December 18 backers will be billed right away for that single article alone. This would account for the exorbitant transactions fees on small pledges.

It’s hard for me to imagine, however, that there are enough devious people abusing the existing system to justify this change; based on my life experience, most people are of basically good faith, and most on Patreon in particular just really, earnestly want to help fund what they believe to be worthwhile creative work. So, given that this is effectively destroys the very economies of scale that make Patreon worthwhile in the first place, it rather strikes me as using a bazooka to blow away that fly that’s crawling around your nose. If this behavior is really such a problem — and I’ve certainly never seen it mentioned as such by any actual creator — there are other ways to head it off, such as billing only the first transaction immediately. Personally, I find that most people willing to work that hard to cheat the system tend to be pretty miserable anyway, so I’d just let them be.

I do suspect that another, less public motive may be to drive creators and patrons away from per-milestone pledges and toward flat monthly subscriptions which will deliver a more predictable income stream to the company. But that’s just speculation…)

 


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December 05, 2017

Zarf Updates

Meanwhile launching on Steam on January 17th

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at December 05, 2017 11:16 PM

The coming soon page for Meanwhile is now live on Steam! It will be available for Mac and Windows. Our planned launch date is January 17th.
(I'd like to support Linux, but I haven't figured out how to get or build the SkiaSharp library in a way which will reliably work for Linux gamers. Feel free to drop me hints!)
I intend to also release the game on Itch.IO. I haven't set up the Itch page yet, but I'll link it when the time comes.
If you're new to Meanwhile, it's an adaptation of Jason Shiga's groundbreaking interactive comic book. A thrilling tale of quantum mechanics and self-discovery with 3,856 story possibilities!
This Steam release has been a long road. The original iPhone version of Meanwhile appeared in 2011; I've been working on the Unity port since August of this year. Jason and I are excited to finally get it out the door.

Emily Short

Character Development and Storytelling for Games (Lee Sheldon)

by Emily Short at December 05, 2017 06:40 PM

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 5.24.18 PM.pngIn an essay on Tom Bissell years ago, I took a not-very-contextualized swipe at this book, as follows:

The latest book on the pile is Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games, which is apparently designed for those game writers who have never written anything before and came in from some other part of the production team.

Sheldon’s book dutifully describes many, many basic aspects of story-building; offers an introductory view of plot structures for video games, while deftly avoiding any really hard problems or really interesting solutions; and takes care to remind the reader every few pages of Sheldon’s credentials not only as a professional writer but as the sort of person who has shared a limo with Dick Clark… It is the mental-nutrition equivalent of buttered macaroni…

That was way more of a cheap shot than it needed to be, and I’ve felt a bit guilty about it since. In the unlikely event that Mr Sheldon is tracking my opinion of his work, I apologize for being so flippant.

As I reread the 2004 edition on my ongoing survey of game writing books, I do still have some related criticisms, but I would phrase them more gently and admit more virtues in the project. There’s also a fair share of material that is likely to be helpful to beginners, as well as observations that go a bit deeper. It’s also perfectly readable from moment to moment. I just find that the rate of new revelations per chapter is significantly lower than I would prefer.

This book offers summary introductions to Aristotle, Homer, Aristophanes, Chaucer, Coleridge, Flaubert, Dickens, Jung, Joseph Campbell, Ayn Rand, and dozens of others. There is a multi-page recapitulation of the structure of The Odyssey (276-279) and then several pages each also for The Canterbury Tales and Don Quixote de la Mancha. This is not to say Sheldon is committed only to teaching would-be game writers the western literary canon, because the book also features countless examples from novels, movies and television and video games from text adventures on through 2004. (There’s a second edition dated 2013; I would imagine it’s been updated a bit.) All sorts of classic and semi-classic quotes turn up, from the most celebrated scene in Glengarry Glen Ross to bon mots from Tiger Woods.

Elsewhere, Sheldon extensively quotes and adapts from Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, so much so that I was prompted to go back and reread Egri as context for Sheldon. (My read of how Egri applies to games is rather different from Sheldon’s, but that’s substance for a different post later.)

In pages 206-209, Sheldon offers an explanation of the concept of an “obligatory scene,” a concept referring to the one piece of the play that must happen (often the dramatic climax). This concept was popularized (probably) by French critics in the 19th century and dismissed again by Egri in the first half of the 20th. Sheldon’s exposition of the “obligatory scene” features quotes or examples from Inherit the WindDark Side of the MoonGodfather IITo Kill a Mockingbird, William Faulkner, HeatRunaway Jury, Towering Inferno, and Rocky. (This is not an exhaustive list.) The segment is also illustrated with two photos and a block quote of dialogue.

The gist of this section is that, although Egri doesn’t have much time for “obligatory scenes” as a concept, Sheldon finds some merit in the antiquated notion. He wishes to convince us that, if we make an implicit contract with the audience, we should deliver on it. That is the point of four pages.

And I agree! But I feel that the section could have started with that observation, which barely needs any justification at all, and then perhaps moved on to any further thoughts Sheldon might have about the craft of setting up and delivering on such contracts.

With so much going on, there isn’t really scope for nuanced critique of any of the countless samples Sheldon uses, and no need for the citations he does provide — as when Sheldon references Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales purely in order to make the long-accepted point that Homer belonged to a bardic tradition. (Though Sheldon calls him Alfred Lord, possibly by mental attraction to Tennyson.)

The deployment of references instead of critical development contributes to the impression of namedropping, about which I was perhaps less than polite on the first reading.

He’s similarly painstaking and lengthy at explaining concepts such as quests and rewards. His chapter on editing begins with two pages of anecdotes about his own writing speed.

A good portion of Sheldon’s advice overlaps heavily with standard game-writing guidance in the many other books I’ve reviewed here. He also subscribes to some generalizations about what games are capable of handling, narratively, that I hope are not entirely true:

What about an idea makes it suitable for a game? Games are an action medium, not a cerebral one… Another key point, which I bring up throughout the book, is that games don’t do complex stories well. (156)

In other places, though, Sheldon calls out what he considers overly basic and mechanistic approaches to writing, such as the sort of template recommended by Dille and Platten:

If our choices are good enough, the character will be three-dimensional even with surprisingly few characteristics. A rich character is not an overly explained character. You don’t create a Scarlet O’Hara with three physical characteristics (raven hair, sparkling eyes, 18-inch waist), two sociological characteristics (southern belle, spoiled rotten), and four psychological characteristics (haughty, flirtatious, determined, brave). The lists are as mechanical as the numbers are meaningless… (116)

Sheldon also is willing to delve into systemic questions at times. This is to his credit, and more than one finds in some of the other books on game writing. But it doesn’t always get very far into what would be useful here.

Under relationships, for instance, he reports on the NPC attitude system designed for The Gryphon Tapestry, in which every character would rate the player on a -6 to 6 score on six different axes (love, admiration, trust, loyalty, respect, like). This explanation, including charts showing the numerical scales, occupies pages 143-148, but does not particularly address how attitudes affected NPC behavior or dialogue; balance of gameplay as it depended on these numbers; normalization of scores and how players were typically distributed over these ranges.

There are some not-wrong thoughts here about the development of character and the history of storytelling practice in western civilization. I just wish the book had been rigorously edited to maybe half or a third its current length. And as a classicist, I wince when he comes out with things like this:

It is through [Aristotle] that we are introduced to the concept of the Deus ex Machina, the ‘God Machine’, that is today trotted out to describe a fortuitous (to the author) plot twist that wraps up the final action in a story. We may frown on it, but in Aristotle’s day of course, it was a perfectly respectable plot device given that most stories were set in motion by those hands-on gods atop Mt. Olympus.

“God Machine” is not the translation of deus ex machina; if we want to be needlessly pedantic, that is not the terminology Aristotle used, as he was writing in Greek; in context, this referred to an actual piece of stage machinery that carried the actor playing a god. None of which makes Sheldon wrong about how the term is used now or the reasons why it is generally a bad thing in modern plots. But these slightly-off explanations started to get to me after a while.


December 04, 2017

Zarf Updates

Zarf life updates

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at December 04, 2017 07:53 PM

My life has been more interesting than my blog, these past few months. Time for a public catch-up post.
The big news is that, as of December 1, I have accepted a full-time job at Spirit AI.

This is, in some sense, the end of the great Zarf Goes Indie experiment. I have thoroughly mixed feelings about that, as you might guess.
I quit my last salaried position at the end of 2010... in order to work on Hadean Lands full-time. Wasn't that simple, was it? I shipped Secret Hideout and Meanwhile and Pocket Storm and even Seltani before HL saw daylight in 2014.
Those were all satisfying and successful projects... except they weren't covering my rent. Not Boston rent, for sure.
In 2015 and 2016 I took on a couple of large contracts -- which haven't emerged from their subterranean lairs, so I can't talk about them. I also worked on the Steam release of HL. Adding all that together, I can say that 2016 was a profitable year for Zarfhome Software. Yay!
"But," I asked myself, "can I really expect that 2017 will be as good?" And the answer was no. I wasn't building up a proper contractor's portfolio or steady client list. I was very wary of taking on game-writing gigs, because I wanted to save my writing mana for my own game projects. I was basically waiting for nifty-looking programming contracts to trip and fall at my feet -- and while that sometimes works, it doesn't work reliably.
(Oh, and I helped launch an IF nonprofit foundation, which is going great. But that's not a paid position.)
So what about my own game projects? I teased something called The Flashpaper War. I built a Flashpaper prototype, followed by another prototype, followed by yet another prototype -- none of which really felt like they were turning into games. (You can play with a couple of the prototypes here.) I messed around with some hexagonal cellular automata, which seemed like they had game potential, but I didn't develop them far.
The upshot: as of the beginning of 2017, I hadn't shipped a new game for two years and I wasn't close to shipping one. The hexagon-automata toy might turn into a game -- I have a pile of good puzzle sketches -- but certainly not in less than twelve months. Which meant that 2017 would be another year of red ink. And that was just not a good idea.
(Plus, the new president was promising to destroy my health care. I will say more on this in a moment.)
"Lo," I said to myself, "time for a Zarf to start looking for job opportunities." And at that moment, I heard a great peal of silent thunder and saw that Spirit AI was hiring. (Okay, "that moment" give or take four months. Who's telling this story?)

So what is Spirit AI? The fastest answer is their about page. Yes, that's Emily Short and Aaron Reed working on a project together. Now I am too.
The Character Engine project is no longer secret (it was unveiled last GDC), but the web page only gives an overview and I can't add to that. Basically, it's an authoring tool for personality-driven game characters, which can then be embedded into a game engine. Unity, for example. See the web site for more PR! Or visit our booth at GDC 2018.
(I'll be at GDC but probably not on booth duty.)
(The company is also developing an AI-based forum monitoring tool called Ally. I'm not involved in that project.)
I began full-time contracting work on Character Engine back in July. I wasn't at all sure how I would feel about Having A Job... but it's turned out pretty well! I get along with the team, I understand the codebase, I like the project. And so, when autumn rolled around, we started talking job offers. And here I am. Employed. First time in seven years.
Spirit AI is a UK-based company, but I will be staying in Boston. (Many of the team work remotely. There are a couple more of us in Boston, in fact.) I went over to London for an office visit in November, which was great, except for the fact that we all exchanged germs and were laid up sick for two weeks thereafter.
I'm feeling much better now.

Speaking of my health, a few words about this week's tax bill.
The Republican Party hates me and wants to destroy my career. They hate all independent game designers and want to destroy all of our careers.
Since 2011, when I quit my day job, I have gotten health care through the Massachusetts Health Connector -- one of the original "state exchanges". That became part of the ACA in 2014. And the GOP has relentlessly worked to destroy the ACA, MassHealth, and my health care. Not "replace" it, not "improve" it, just destroy it. This past fall they came within a few votes of destroying it legislatively. When that failed, the President was able to knock a hole in the system with an executive order. Now the GOP tax plan has blown another hole in the system.
When I say "hole" I mean "skyrocketing premiums and millions of people losing health care." That is the Republican goal; that's what each of their bills and orders has aimed to do. Because they control they government, they are achieving it. Not easily -- we have been able to slow them down -- but they are doing it.
Now, as I've just admitted, I'm fleeing the flooding ship. The job I've accepted comes with traditional, employer-provided insurance. I have a lot of reasons to give up on the indie lifestyle, but health insurance is absolutely one of them. The MassHealth premiums are already rising for 2018. Maybe the MA state government will be able to protect the system; maybe not. I have to protect myself.
I'm able to get out because I have a software engineering background, a nice resume, and a college degree that my parents paid for. I am a lucky bastard. Hell, you knew that; I couldn't have spent five straight years losing money if I hadn't had some awfully good luck back in the dot-com days.
The next generation of game designers will not look like me. They have crippling student loans rather than dot-com nest eggs. They may have to drop out of grad school under the new tax regime. They may be stuck in dead-end corporate jobs in order to keep any health care at all.
I'm not making up fantasy victims here. One of my IF friends just said:
This bill makes it impossible for me to ever go to graduate school or quit my toxic, abusive day job to pursue freelance opportunities. I’m stuck.
(@bravemule, who has been working on a Kickstarter IF game since February)
Another friend (who wishes not to be named) is now rattling paperwork to find a way to finish grad school without blowing their life savings. Did I mention I was working with Aaron Reed now? He finished his PhD in June. If he'd started a year later, who knows if he'd be able to afford to finish.
Republican policy is malicious and cruel and serves nobody but billionaires. That's what I have to say about that. Back to my hopeful future.

So I have a day job again. Where does this leave me as a game designer?
The regrettable truth is that I write games slowly. I thought that going full-time would let me write more games in a year -- but it didn't. I was able to write more of my own code in a year. I built the Seltani engine, Lectrote, and a bunch of iOS apps. But writing IF (any narrative game work) remains a struggle, just as HL was a struggle.
I haven't given up on games. I have bunches of game ideas. But I'm not sure which one will come to fruition next, or what the path will look like. What I can say is that, just as quitting my job didn't speed up my writing process, taking a new job won't slow it down. And hey, now I know Unity.
Blogging will continue, at the usual irregular rate.
I will continue to support my old apps. Pocket Storm has now been updated for iOS11; I will do the iOS Meanwhile and HL apps this month.
Meanwhile is still coming to Mac and Windows! (The Steam page isn't live yet, but it should go up this week.) I am aiming for January 17th as the Steam launch date.
I remain uncertain about the future of The Flashpaper War. I sense there's something in the vicinity of my prototypes, but I haven't been able to get hold of it. Or am I just shy of the amount of writing involved? Hard to say.
The hexagon game (no clever title or code name!) remains an interesting pile of puzzle sketches. Once Meanwhile is out the door, I want to get back to it, for there too I see potential. (And some writing, because come on, I'm going to have some story no matter how puzzle-oriented the game is. I'm not that shy of it.)
And other ideas? I have other ideas. I have too many ideas, just like all of us. We'll see what ferments.

IFComp News

Jacqueline Ashwell is the next IFComp organizer

December 04, 2017 04:41 PM

I am pleased to announce that, starting in 2018, Jacqueline Ashwell will be the lead organizer of the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition.

Jacqueline – long known as “Jacq” within the IF community – organized IntroComp from 2003 through 2017, handing it off to Xalavier Nelson this past year. She also launched the regular IF group-playthrough event Club Floyd in 2007, acting as its main organizer since then. Among her own award-winning IF work is The Fire Tower, based on her real-life experiences as a park ranger.

Jacq succeeds me, Jason McIntosh, after I led IFComp from 2014 (its twentieth year) through 2017. I feel happy and humble to report that I accepted Jacq’s invitation to remain with the project as its technical lead, where I will help maintain the web application that powers ifcomp.org. I also intend to give more attention to the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation, the charitable nonprofit which I co-founded during my IFComp tenure, and continue to serve as president.

Beyond all that, though, it’s Jacq who will start calling the shots with IFComp next year, and I could not be happier than with her as my successor in this role.

Please direct any questions about this change of leadership (or anything else comp-related) to [email protected].

December 01, 2017

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Samurai of Hyuga Book 3 by Devon Connell

by Rachel E. Towers at December 01, 2017 06:42 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Life isn’t getting any easier for our favorite ronin! The journey continues in the land of silk and steel, where fantasy and reality clash and tough choices await you on every page. Get ready to prove why you’re the toughest ronin around. It’s 33% off until December 7th!

Samurai of Hyuga Book 3 is the mind-shattering 230,000 sequel to your favorite interactive tale by Devon Connell, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Become the judge, jury and executioner of your peers. Walk the path of the detective, unravel a demonic mystery—or be consumed by it! Face your past and fight for your future as the student becomes the teacher. Discover the line between lover and monster, and be prepared to cross it.

• Take the law into your own hands as you bring justice with sharpened steel!
• Unravel a demonic mystery and discover the truths you were never meant to know!
• Find love (or something like it) as you do battle against true despair!

That and so much more await you in the third book of this epic series!

Devon Connell developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.

November 30, 2017

IFTF Blog

A DMCA Exemption For (Some) Interactive Fiction

by Flourish Klink at November 30, 2017 08:51 PM

Recently, the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation learned of a project by Authors Alliance and the Organization for Transformative Works to functionally expand fair use rights for e-book authors in the United States. We think everyone who knows about IFTF should know about it and consider helping out by completing a survey.

OK, you want us to know about a legal thing. Fair use rights, what?

There is a law in the United States called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which makes it illegal for most people to rip DVDs, Blu-ray, and digitally transmitted video. However, under United States law, people are allowed to repurpose copyrighted works when it is a “fair use.” If this is the first you’ve heard of the term “fair use,” watch this explainer, then come back here.

The Library of Congress periodically issues exemptions from the DMCA. This means that they consider possible fair use cases, like making an artwork or creating a film school textbook, and then say “yeah, that sound like it’s good enough—we won’t go after folks who break the DMCA in order to do that.”

Right now, there is an exemption for people who make fanvids (if this is the first you’ve heard of fanvids, oh boy, are you in for a treat): they are allowed to rip movies in order to make their work. Similarly, people who make film school textbooks are allowed to do so. But most people in the United States, under the DMCA, are not allowed to rip movies.

What does this have to do with interactive fiction?

IFTF defines “interactive fiction” pretty broadly. We include parser games, yes, but also Twine games, visual novels, pretty much anything you can think of. And a lot of things that we consider “interactive fiction” are legally considered “e-books.”

Authors Alliance and the Organization for Transformative Works are trying to expand fair use rights for e-book authors (which, as we just said, includes most people who write interactive fiction). Right now, the DMCA only allows people who write e-books about film analysis to rip DVDs. But we know that people can create interactive fiction that’s fanfic, and we believe that fanfic (like fanvids) is covered under fair use. Someone ought to be able to create a Twine game or a visual novel critiquing a film and use images from that film.

So, what should I do?

If you create e-books (which, remember, are broadly defined, and include a lot of types of interactive fiction!) then you should take the survey—especially if you ever include images in your work! This will help them learn about fair use in the case of interactive fiction.

Emily Short

End of November Link Assortment

by Emily Short at November 30, 2017 11:40 AM

December 2 is the SF Bay Area Interactive Fiction Meetup.

December 9, the Baltimore IF meetup gets together to talk about Harmonia.

The next meetup of the People’s Republic of IF in Cambridge (MA) will be Tuesday, December 12 at 6:30 PM in MIT room 14N-233.

Also December 12, there’s an IGDA Writers SIG panel in London for people who are interested in getting into game writing as a career, presenting views from creators who have worked on a number of different commercial genres.

December 14, Hello Words meets in Nottingham, UK.

December 16, there’s an intro to Twine run by Queer Code London and co-sponsored by the Oxford and London IF Meetup. We are not otherwise having a meetup this month, as it’s such a busy time of the year.

December 27, “Game Over,” the radio play I wrote about indie game development, is being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It’s produced by Judith Kampfner and starring Sarah Elmaleh, and I’m delighted that I got to work with such amazingly skilled people on this project.

The Opening Up Digital Fiction competition runs through February 15, 2018. It offers cash prizes and the possibility of future publication.

*

IF Comp is over, and the results are visible here. Congratulations to Buster Hudson for The Wizard Sniffer!

What’s more, there are now lots of post-mortems to read!

Liza Daly writes about the design of Harmonia, alongside critique of a number of standard Twine and other hypertext features. This is some top-notch thinking about the layout, pacing, and general presentation of hypertext literature, from an expert in the topic, and I strongly recommend it.

Also excellent is Stephen Granade’s deep dive on Will Not Let Me Go, covering everything from the initial concept to branching structure to the art direction.

Meanwhile, Mike Spivey discusses the design principles behind his mathematical puzzlefest A Beauty Cold and Austere. (This one assumes you’ve played the game, so might be worth postponing if you’re still planning to get to it and don’t want to be spoiled.)

Other post-mortems include Buster Hudson on The Wizard SnifferChandler Groover on Eat Me (plus some follow-up discussion about what qualifies as a “limited parser” game these days), Mathbrush on Swigian, Mathbrush on Absence of Law, litrouke on 10pm, and Andrew Schultz on Cube in the Cavern.

Matheson Marcault writes about how to display difficult games — that is, games that don’t really lend themselves to festivals and exhibit spaces. IF games are often difficult to show, and this blog post may be relevant for people who are aiming to present that work in public.

Other Articles / Shows / Podcasts

I wrote about Bob Bates’ Thaumistry for PC Gamer. (You may have already seen this from my earlier post this month, but I’m trying to be thoroughish in links.)

IF author and poet Harry Giles was interviewed by BBC Radio 4 about spoken art.

Releases et al

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PROCJam yearly creates a zine called Seeds which describes dozens of procedurally generated projects of various kinds. Seeds 2 is now available.

Crowdfunding and Kickstarters

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My Uncle Merlin is now live on Kickstarter: “Meet a peculiar bunch of characters and complete their quests in our interactive adventure game, enriched with a few RPG elements.”

Then there’s Destination Vitus Prima, a narrative puzzler:

This extraordinary experience happens when the protagonist is in cryo-sleep: to keep the mind fully stimulated during the space trip, NIM, the ship’s AI, has created a simulationwhich the ship’s inhabitants are living in.

The player will have to explore the environment and find clues, collect items that tell stories, and talk with the other characters to deepen and strengthen their relationships.

The other characters will also give you clues to help you solve the puzzles – like in real life, where sometimes you need help from your friends to overcome difficult challenges!

simulacra

Meanwhile, if you’re more in the mood for physical prop games, this Simulacra Games project offers to mail you a crate of mysterious goodies. (This appears to be more overtly mystery/puzzle-based than mailings from the Mysterious Package Company.)


November 29, 2017

IFComp News

Please take the IFComp 2017 survey

November 29, 2017 08:41 PM

IFComp’s annual survey is live. If you participated in this year’s competition in any way, and to any degree, then we would be very grateful for a few minutes of your time here. Your responses help IFComp organizers know what works, what doesn’t, and what changes we ought to make next year.

We will keep the survey open through December 31, 2017. Thank you!

Z-Machine Matter

The NaNoWriMo Marathon

by Zack Urlocker at November 29, 2017 12:37 AM

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This year, I was fortunate to be able to participate in National Novel writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The idea behind the Z-Machine Matter had been kicking around for a couple of years getting scant attention. I knew there was a good story to be written, but I just never seemed to have the time to focus on it. This year I was had the time and the inclination.

This was my first NaNoWriMo, but I was not going in unprepared. I had a set of characters, and the basics of a noir murder mystery story crystal clear in my foggy optimist mind. Nonetheless, I spent much of October writing detailed character backgrounds as well as rough outline of the beats in the story, using a three-act structure.

I had previously spent a lot of time researching the time frame of the story (coldwar era 1950) and some of the events of that time, specifically the arrest of Russian atomic spies Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold and David Greenglass. And as anyone who has fallen into the wikipedia rabbit hole, I did extensive research into a few related areas such as Operation Paperclip (the recruitment of German scientists by the US Army in 1945) and the Venona Project (MI5 and the FBI's joint cooperation to decrypt top-secret Russian cables). Of course, research can easily become a distraction from writing, but I was glad I had done this work previously.  

Z-machine matter wordcount graph 11-28So a few observations on NaNoWriMo... First of all: it works! Yes, there's something to making a commitment to write 50,000 words in a month and then just getting up and writing every frigging day. While I believe only a small percentage of people who sign up for NaNoWriMo hit the 50,000 word target, every writer can benefit from the discipline of writing every day.

The NaNoWriMo approach is based on the idea of just writing for 30 days and not worrying about editing until later. While some might say this puts too much emphasis on quantity as opposed to quality, I think it does serve to help you build momentum. Writing and editing are two different things and for many beginning writers, it's better to just get the words down on paper and worry about making them perfect later on.

However, I think it's also important to note, there's no way I could have written 50,000 words without a solid understanding of my characters and a decent outline. Yes, the story deviates slightly from what I planned, but for the most part the outline worked. And it made it much easier for me to just focus on writing scenes. When I did run into problems in week three, it was because the later sections of my outline were too vague. I wrote every day except for Thanksgiving and even then it was only because I was flat on my back sick with a stomach virus.

Z-machine matter twitter horowotizThere's also a sense of community from having several hundred thousand word nerds working in solitude together for a month. There's some nice #NaNoWriMo camaraderie on Twitter. Heck, I even got a shout out from my favorite author Anthony Horowitz

So what's next?

The story is roughly 54,000 words at this point. And while it is complete, I think it is probably about 10-15k too short. I expect that I can make some of that up during editing. There's a subplot around a historical document that needs shoring up and I can imagine that taking at least 5,000 words. And some sections are probably heavy on dialog and short on descriptions. I'd also like to add some historical documents (newspapers, letters, diaries, journals, telegrams) to the book. 

My expectation is that it will take at least three rounds of editing to complete this story and I'll need an outside editor to help in some areas. My friend Tal tells me he basically re-wrote his book The Punch Escrow three times during editing before it was finished. 

And of course there's the whole debate about traditional publishing versus self-publishing as well as various hybrid models that I will need to research. I would love to get input from other authors who have successfully pursued these options. Feel free to leave comments below or otherwise get in touch with me.

November 28, 2017

Renga in Blue

Quarterstaff (1987)

by Jason Dyer at November 28, 2017 10:40 PM

I was going to get back to my regular sequence from 1980, when I found out The CRPG Addict was about to start Quarterstaff. Quarterstaff was originally written by Scott Schmitz and Ken Updike for Macintosh and published in 1987, but picked up by Infocom in 1988 and republished (with new color graphics and extra writing by Amy Briggs of Plundered Hearts fame). It remains one of the few Infocom games I’ve never beaten, so the opportunity seemed too good to miss.

I tried this sort of simultaneous blogging before once when The CRPG Addict embarked on Fallthru, but that game turned out to be far more RPG than adventure, and I only squeezed out two entries before my body gave out. (“The numbers represent actual numbers of steps, so reaching Biclif to the north by walking requires typing N for north 250 times.”) I can safely toss that game on the “not an adventure” pile and move on.

Quarterstaff, on the other hand, looks to be more adventure than RPG. The plot premise at least is typical RPG; find evil, go slay it. (Or make friends with it, or join forces and become evil yourself, or teach it scrapbooking and then slay it because it used too many sparkles, or …?)

However, during the last six months, the usually-stable Tree Druids have begun to act unnaturally. Their attendance at the Druid Council has become oddly erratic, and the sect’s communication with other Druidic colonies has mysteriously dwindled to nothing . . . Three months ago, all traces of the sect vanished entirely. Three scouts – famed warriors named Bruno, Jaroo, and Eolene – were sent by nearby colonies to find out what had happened. Several weeks have passed without word from them, however, and once again the people of Rhea have grown restless for news of the sect. Casting about for another warrior to send, the Druid Council has called on you to journey forth and discover what unspeakable terror has destroyed the once-prosperous people.

Despite the plot, Quarterstaff manages to squeeze off its own supply of uniqueness:

1.) There are multiple game windows that can be rearranged however you like. I remember seeing this in the Magnetic Scrolls Collection but even now this isn’t that common a thing in text adventures.

2.) You start out, alone, as this guy:

TITUS may look muscle-bound, but he’s got brains to match his enormous muscles. Titus used to be a blacksmith, but then again, he used to be a lot of things. The Druid Council chose Titus for this mission because he was the toughest looking and talking person around and also because he was just drunk enough to accept the mission.

However, you can control multiple characters. From the manual: “Some creatures may find it beneficial to join forces with you, and so, while you begin the game alone, you may quickly become the leader of a sizable party. Of course, as your party grows, you gain control over the actions of its individual members; you may wish to split up into several groups, or even to elect a new leader.”

The very first party member you get (Bruno) is just a few steps away, and all you need to do is >GREET BRUNO to get him to join the group. This game isn’t much for conversation menus.

Once you have more than one party member, if your lead character does an action other than movement, you set commands for all the characters in your group simultaneously. (That is, Titus can examine an item at the same time Bruno is busy unlocking a door.)

3.) The game keeps track of stats, which qualifies it for RPG-status:

4.) There’s a macro system, a built in verb list, and the ability to pick any item in the room or in one of your character’s inventory straight off the menu. The interface would be considered awesomely advanced by the text adventure community if it was in a current game.

There’s also some physical materials that came with the game that match in-universe items (as was standard with Infocom). I’ll show them off next time. In the meantime, I’ll wander and see what trouble I can get into.

The Tree Druids, world-renowned for their acumen in the healing arts, disappeared without a trace, leaving this empty complex. Where could the two score inhabitants have gone, so suddenly? This thought haunts you as you travel down the damp, cool passage.


IFTF Blog

IFTF supports Net Neutrality

November 28, 2017 04:19 PM

As a disappointing and troubling surprise last week, the United States’ Federal Communications Commission announced its plans to remove regulations that enforce Net Neutrality in America. IFTF rejects this proposal.

Interactive fiction relies upon the open web. Thanks to Net Neutrality’s long-standing guarantees that American internet service providers must provide a consistent level of access to all parts of the public internet, IF — its works, and its supporting technologies and services — have remained discoverable to all US-based internet users. It has also provided a commons upon which Americans have developed and shared new IF works and technologies for all the world to enjoy and build upon further.

We do not exaggerate to suggest that literally every development in interactive fiction as we know it today has the reliable existence of the open web to thank. The hobbyist-driven re-emergence of IF in the 1990s via online discussion forums would not have likely happened without Net Neutrality-enforced openness, nor would the initial development and distribution of free IF creation tools like Inform and TADS. This holds just as true for more recent developments such as Twine, and community projects like the IF Archive, IFComp, or IFDB.

Without Net Neutrality, internet service providers would be free to limit access to parts of the internet in any way they wish. They could, for example, split internet access into a la carte services, where only wealthier customers could easily see, much less build upon, the internet beyond a handful of destinations offered in “basic cable” tiers. Less wealthy Americans would thus have trouble discovering any of the tools or services linked to in the previous paragraph, all relatively small projects hosted by either IFTF or independent, self-funded volunteers.

And that’s only one possible scenario. The loss of Net Neutrality would immediately threaten the continued existence of the open web, and all the art both extant and potential that relies on it, for all Americans. It would hurt the rest of the world as well, given the historical prevalence of globally beneficial online projects and resources created within the United States. This change could easily prove devastating to all manner of commercial and artistic innovation and communication, including interactive fiction.

For the sake of the continued growth and even basic availability of interactive fiction technology, IFTF asks its American friends to join in resisting this unwelcome and harmful change. The FCC plans to formally vote on December 14, but considers the outcome predetermined along party lines, with three Republican commissioners versus two Democratic ones. American citizens can still contact their elected representatives, as well as the FCC itself, to demand the proposal’s withdrawal. If the proposal carries as expected, then various organizations, including EFF and ACLU, will need financial support in order to legally challenge the end of Net Neutrality.

November 27, 2017

IFComp News

IFComp 2017 has ended

November 27, 2017 04:41 PM

The twenty-third Annual Interactive Fiction Competition has come to a close. Congratulations to Buster Hudson, author of the first-place finisher The Wizard Sniffer. You can view the full results at the IFComp website, and as with all past years, you can follow links from that results page to download and play all the games thanks to the permanent cataloguing and hosting offered by IFDB and the IF Archive.

You can also read a thread of the “closing ceremony” on Twitter from November 17. Both that thread and this year’s comp-announcement blog post contain a full list of the volunteers who helped bring you IFComp this year.

As we’ve noted here before, IFWiki links to lots of reviews and forum-discussions of this year’s work. Relatedly, Brian Rushton ran an unofficial side-contest for recognizing and rewarding this year’s most prolific reviewers, and you can see those results here.

Some fun facts about 2017’s results:

  • With an average rating of 8.57, The Wizard Sniffer achieved the highest score for any single entry in IFComp history. The previous high-water mark was held by Jeremy Freese’s Violet, which scored 8.53 in 2008.

  • The top two games of this year’s IFComp – including Chandler Groover’s second-placer Eat Me – represent the “limited parser” style of IF, created with parser-IF tools (such as Inform) and using a full “parsery” world-model of rooms and objects, but limiting expected player input to a tightly constrained and wholly transparent verb-list. As Emily Short has documented, the fashion for limited parser has risen gradually in recent years, so it was perhaps inevitable that one would lead the comp soon – but who could have predicted this sort of double-win!

  • The top ten games (in fact, the top dozen) have average scores above 7.00, which is unprecedented for IFComp. Many of this year’s upper-tier games could have broken into the top five placements or even won first prize in previous years, had they earned then the scores they got this year.

    The whole-comp average score was a little under 5.50, right where it should be. I therefore hypothesize that the number of outstanding works this year is a simple consequence of the number of works submitted overall, which of course itself shattered all previous IFComp records. IFComp’s mission is to spur the creation of new work through the crucible of competition, and after the competition is done the work remains. Through that lens, with so many fantastic new IF games for the world to play, enjoy, and study, this year sits among the competition’s most successful.

Two more intentional firsts this year include the anonymous feedback that judges could leave authors directly from the IFComp ballot, and the “Colossal Fund” of charitably given prize money, provided through public donations to the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation. The results of both new programs evince community generosity in different ways! Judges wrote 674 pieces of feedback to authors, and the Colossal Fund exceeded its $6,000 goal by over a thousand dollars.

As such, we have decided to increase the Colossal Fund prize pool from our initially planned $4,800 to $5,600. (The remaining slice funds IFComp operations, such as server costs.) This pool, divided among the top 53 entries according to the curvy formula invented by Andrew Plotkin, will include individual prizes ranging in size from around $10 to just under $300 (prior to our friends at PayPal taking their 2% fee), and we plan to distribute the funds to winners this week.

Given the highly encouraging success of both new programs, IFComp organizers absolutely plan to continue anonymous feedback and the Colossal Fund as ongoing traditions in 2018.

As a final order of IFComp 2017 business, we do plan to prepare a survey for comp participants to take, just like we did last year. (This survey was the origin of the anonymous-feedback idea, so we quickly learned the value of it!) It’s not quite ready yet – we’ve all been quite engaged in making sure that the aforementioned first-time programs all carry through smoothly – but when it is, we will update this blog and our Twitter account as well.

Other than that, IFComp 2017 is in the books (and the IF Archive). As always, my warmest thanks go out to all participants and volunteers for pushing this annual celebration of interactive text games and art around the circle once again.

– Jason McIntosh, November 2017

Adventure Blog

Strayed iOS: Cyber Monday Sale!

November 27, 2017 05:41 AM

Ever had a lonely night where everything seems just a little bit off? Imagine driving through darkened woods, alone but for the thrum of the engine and the scratching sounds of something - you’re not quite sure what - in the back. What happens depends entirely on you.

Strayed is half-off at $0.99 through November 27th, just for iOS users!

Get Strayed here.

November 25, 2017

Emily Short

Thaumistry (Bob Bates)

by Emily Short at November 25, 2017 03:40 PM

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I recently wrote about Bob Bates’ commercial parser IF game Thaumistry for PC Gamer. Bob was kind enough to speak with me about the project for context.

A couple of other observations came up in that conversation with Bob that couldn’t go into the PC Gamer article because they involved spoilers or too much detail about parser IF implementation, but I thought I’d discuss them briefly here.

I’ll do the spoilery bits last, with additional warning, for those who might not have played the game but intend to do so in the future.

Other references.

TADS 3. Thaumistry is really solid from an implementation perspective — I didn’t run into any bugs in the course of play, and it feels smooth and clean. It is also not implemented in the style I usually associate TADS 3 games. Many authors who use TADS 3 do so because they like the detail and complexity of the provided libraries: the meticulous handling of senses and space, chains of implicit actions that are neatly rolled up and reported together, the provided conversation system that offers topic hints. (Mike Roberts’ own Return to Ditch Day demonstrates the possible richness here.)

Thaumistry isn’t really invested in having a very complicated world model like this. There are a handful of convenience verbs, like the ability to GO TO a location via the game’s main transportation method rather than having to manipulate the knobs and dials in detail.

(In fact, I would have liked it if the game handled GO TO more generally, for already visited locations, because a number of parts of the story involve revisiting a previous location to try out newly-acquired solutions.)

*

We now reach the bit with SPOILERS.

*

Endgame action sequence. There’s a passage near the end where the player needs to reach the ceiling of the museum rotunda, through a series of risky / foolish actions.

Puzzle action sequences can easily go really wrong: you want to maintain a sense of tension and forward momentum, so the puzzles have to be easy enough that the player doesn’t get stuck, but there also needs to be a sense of jeopardy… and if the player dies during an action sequence, they’ve often lost some of their sense of excitement on the replay. Often, what you want is an explorable sequence where the player always feels there’s a strong possibility of failure, but does not actually fail — and also never sees the game rearranging outcomes to prevent that failure.

On top of all of that, text makes these sequences even more challenging to construct, because an acrobatic action sequence requires the player to understand relative position and layout in a way that’s easier (usually) to communicate in graphics.

I can’t speak definitively to anyone else’s experience here, but at least for me, this section worked well. I knew what I had to do, and I was able to do it without messing up but also without feeling like the game had put me on Easy Mode.

(For other good examples of this difficult art, see The Shadow in the Cathedral.)

Characterization through play. Often, seemingly sympathetic characters would send the protagonist on a fetch quest before helping in really important ways: both Sarah and Theo the chief engineer demand additional help before doing anything to help save the bodgers, for instance. Theo asks that you get a collectable stock certificate, which requires you to commit a small robbery; Sarah, meanwhile, is concerned with protecting her husband’s legacy, even at the possible cost of lives for a lot of people in the present.

Bob described the decision about Theo as a pacing choice:

I think in the earliest designs of the game, the player would go to the Chief Engineer, who would just tell them what they needed to know, and the player would launch into the endgame.  The pacing of that felt wrong to me. I felt that the player should spend a little more time at the beginning of Act 3 before being catapulted into the end sequences.  So I needed some smallish activity that wouldn’t have them chasing all over the world, but would feel to them that they were closing in on the end, but not quite there yet.  I also felt that putting a puzzle there would give the player some time to get to know Theo and bring out some more of the backstory of his relationship with Sarah and Henry.

All of that makes complete sense to me as a set of pacing decisions, but I did wish the narrative justification were a bit different, because what we’re finding out about Theo in fictional terms is at odds with his actual behavior in the presence. (Not quite ludonarrative dissonance. Maybe just narrative-narrative dissonance.)

Meanwhile, Sarah’s motivation is even more important. Bob invested most in Sarah of all the characters, and she’s meant to emerge as her own character, outside her husband’s shadow, in the course of play.

That means that this particular incident, where she is willing to harm others in order to preserve the memory of her husband, is potentially a key beat of character development. It doesn’t feel as arbitrary as Theo’s stock certificate request; it’s the kind of thing a real person might do. This character in general seems to care about people, so why in this particular case is she willing to harm the living in service of the memory of the dead? If we had the opportunity to explore Sarah’s motives further, that contradiction would yield nuance and depth.

But we have no opportunity to interrogate this motive or push back on it: Sarah sets the fetch quest, and that’s that. It’s a design move that keeps her firmly in adventure game territory, rather than feeling like a fleshed-out person.

The dog. There’s a bit in the game where you need to interact with an invisible dog, and it’s a guess the verb puzzle intentionally: can you think of three dog-related verbs to perform in order to make the dog like you?

For my tastes, this was one of the best bits of the game: a little unusual, playful, and in character. (Or, in my schema of things I value in puzzles, it hit the targets of Fairness, Originality, and Narrative Integration.)

This worked because the coverage of dog-related verbs was pretty solid, as far as I could tell — nothing that I tried was misunderstood by the game, which is critical for something like this. Usually guessing the verb is a bad thing, but there are games that make it work when they constrain the guessing space and provide lots of support for alternate inputs. For instance, Ad Verbum gives the player constraints like “verbs must start with a given letter to be understood in this room”.


Tagged: bob bates, TADS, Thaumistry

November 24, 2017

The Digital Antiquarian

A Net Before the Web, Part 5: The Pony

by Jimmy Maher at November 24, 2017 03:41 PM

Even as Bill von Meister and company were flailing away at GameLine, a pair of former General Electric research scientists in Troy, New York, were working on the idea destined to become Control Video’s real future. Howard S. Goldberg and David Panzl had spent some time looking at online services like CompuServe and The Source, and had decided that they could never become a truly mass-market phenomenon in their current form. In an era when far more people watched television than read books, all that monochrome text unspooling slowly down the screen would cause the vast majority of potential customers to run away screaming.

Goldberg and Panzl thought they saw a better model. The Apple Lisa had just been released, the Macintosh was waiting in the wings, and you couldn’t shake a stick at any computer conference without hitting someone with the phrase “graphical user interface” on the lips. Simplicity was the new watchword in computing. Goldberg and Panzl believed that anyone who could make a point-and-shoot online service to go up against the SLR complexity of current offerings could make a killing.

But how to do so, given the current state of technology? It was all a 300-baud modem could do to transfer text at a reasonable speed. Graphics were out of the question.

Or were they? What if the graphics could be stored locally, on the subscriber’s computer, taking most of the load off the modem? Goldberg and Panzl envisioned a sort of hybrid service, in which as much code and data as possible was stored on a disk that would be sent out to subscribers rather than on the service’s big computers. With this approach, you would be able to navigate through the service’s offerings using a full GUI, which would run via a local application on your computer. If you went into a chat room, the chat application itself would be loaded from disk; only the actual words you wrote and read would need to be sent to and from a central computer. If you decided to write an email, a full-featured editor the likes of which a CompuServe subscriber could only dream of could be loaded in from disk, with only the finished product uploaded when you clicked the send button.

The PlayNet main menu. Note that system updates could be downloaded and installed on the user’s disks, thus avoiding the most obvious problem of this approach to an online service: that of having to send out new disks to every customer every time the system was updated. The games were also modular, with new ones made available for download to disk at the user’s discretion as they were developed. All told, it was an impressive feat of software engineering that would prove very robust; the software shown here would remain in active use as PlayNet or QuantumLink for a decade, and some of its underpinnings would last even longer than that.

Goldberg and Panzl were particularly taken with the possibilities the approach augured for online multiplayer games, a genre still in its infancy. CompuServe had put up a conquer-the-universe multiplayer strategy game called MegaWars, but it was all text, demanding that players navigate through a labyrinth of arcane typed commands. Otherwise there were perennials like Adventure to go along with even moldier oldies like Hangman, but these were single-player games that just happened to be played online. And they all were, once again, limited to monochrome text; it was difficult indeed to justify paying all those connect charges for them when you could type in better versions from BASIC programming books. But what if you could play poker or checkers online against people from anywhere in the country instead of against the boring old computer, and could do so with graphics? Then online gaming would be getting somewhere. The prospect was so exciting that Goldberg and Panzl called their proposed new online service PlayNet. It seemed the perfect name for the funner, more colorful take on the online experience they hoped to create.

When they shared their idea with others, they found a number who agreed with them about its potential. With backing from Rensselaer Polytechnic University, the New York State Science and Technology Foundation, and Key Venture Corporation, they moved into a technology “incubator” run by the first of these in May of 1983. For PlayNet’s client computer — one admitted disadvantage of their approach was that it would require them to write a separate version of their software for every personal computer they targeted — they chose the recently released, fast-selling Commodore 64, which sported some of the best graphics in the industry. The back end would run on easily scalable 68000-based servers made by a relatively new company called Stratus. (The progression from CompuServe to PlayNet thus highlights the transition from big mainframes and minicomputers to the microcomputer-based client/server model in networking, just as it does the transition from a textual to a graphical focus.) Facing a daunting programming task on both the client and server sides, Goldberg and Panzl took further advantage of their relationship with Rensselaer Polytechnic to bring in a team of student coders, who worked for a stipend in exchange for university credit, applying to the project many of the cutting-edge theoretical constructs they were learning about in their classes.

PlayNet began trials around Troy and Albany in April of 1984, with the service rolling out nationwide in October. Commodore 64 owners had the reputation of being far more price-sensitive than owners of other computers, and Goldberg and Panzl took this conventional wisdom to heart. PlayNet was dramatically cheaper than any of the other services: $35 for the signup package which included the necessary software, followed by $6 per month and $2 per hour actually spent online; this last was a third of what CompuServe would cost you. PlayNet hoped to, as the old saying goes, make it up in volume. Included on the disks were no fewer than thirteen games, whose names are mostly self-explanatory: Backgammon, Boxes, Capture the Flag, Checkers, Chess, Chinese Checkers, Contract Bridge, Four in a Row, Go, Hangman, Quad 64, Reversi, and Sea Strike. While they were all fairly unremarkable in terms of interface and graphics, not to mention lack of originality, it was of course the well-nigh unprecedented ability to play them with people hundreds or thousands of miles away that was their real appeal. You could even chat with your opponent as you played.

In addition to the games, most of the other areas people had come to expect from online services were present, if sometimes a little bare. There were other small problems beyond the paucity of content — some subscribers complained that chunks loaded so slowly from the Commodore 64’s notoriously slow disk drive that they might almost just as well have come in via modem, and technical glitches were far from unknown — but PlayNet was certainly the most user-friendly online service anyone had ever seen, an utterly unique offering in an industry that tended always to define it itself in relation to the lodestar that was CompuServe.

Things seemed to go fairly well at the outset, with PlayNet collecting their first 5000 subscribers within a couple of months of launch. But, sadly given how visionary the service really was, they would never manage to get much beyond that. Separated both geographically and culturally from the big wellsprings of technology venture capital around Silicon Valley, forced to deal with a decline in the home-computer market shortly after their launch that made other sources of funding shy away, they were perpetually cash-poor, a situation that was only exacerbated by the rock-bottom pricing — something that, what with prices always being a lot harder to raise on customers than they are to lower, they were now stuck with. An ugly cycle began to perpetuate itself. Sufficient new subscribers would sign up to badly tax the existing servers, but PlayNet wouldn’t have enough money to upgrade their infrastructure to match their growth right away. Soon, enough customers would get frustrated by the sluggish response and occasional outright crashes to cancel their subscriptions, bringing the system back into equilibrium. Meanwhile PlayNet was constantly existing at the grace of the big telecommunications networks whose pipes and access numbers they leased, the prospect of sudden rate hikes a Sword of Damocles hanging always over their heads. Indeed, the story of PlayNet could serve as an object illustration as to why all of the really big, successful online services seemed to have the backing of the titans of corporate America, like H&R Block, Readers Digest, General Electric, or Sears. This just wasn’t a space with much room for the little guy. PlayNet may have been the most innovative service to arrive since CompuServe and The Source had spawned the consumer-focused online-services industry in the first place, but innovation alone wasn’t enough to be successful there.

Still, Goldberg and Panzl could at least take solace that their company had a reason to exist. While PlayNet was struggling to establish an online presence, Control Video was… continuing to exist, with little clear reason why beyond Jim Kimsey and Steve Case’s sheer stubbornness. Kimsey loved to tell an old soldier’s joke about a boy who is seen by the roadside, frantically digging into a giant pile of horse manure. When passersby ask him why, he says, “There must be a pony in here somewhere!” There must indeed, thought Kimsey, be a pony for Control Video as well buried somewhere in all this shit they were digging through. He looked for someone he could sell out to, but Control Video’s only real asset was the agreements they had signed with telecommunications companies giving them access to a nationwide network they had barely ever used. That was nice, but it wasn’t, judged potential purchasers, worth taking on a mountain of debt to acquire.

The way forward — the pony in all the shit — materialized more by chance than anything. Working through his list of potential purchasers, Kimsey made it to Commodore, the home-computer company, in the spring of 1985. Maybe, he thought, they might like to buy him out in order to use Control Video’s network to set up their own online service for their customers. He had a meeting with Clive Smith, an import from Commodore’s United Kingdom branch who was among the bare handful of truly savvy executives the home office ever got to enjoy. (Smith’s marketing instincts had been instrumental in the hugely successful launch of the Commodore 64.) Commodore wasn’t interested in running their own online service, Smith told Kimsey; having released not one but two flop computers in 1984 in the form of the Commodore 16 and Plus/4, they couldn’t afford such distractions. But if Control Video wanted to start an independent online service just for Commodore 64 owners, Commodore would be willing to anoint it as their officially recommended service, including it in the box with every new Commodore 64 and 128 sold in lieu of the CompuServe Snapaks that were found there now. He even knew where Kimsey could get some software that would make his service stand out from all of the others, by taking full advantage of the Commodore 64’s color graphics: a little outfit called PlayNet, up in Troy, New York.

It seemed that PlayNet, realizing that they needed to find a strong corporate backer if they hoped to survive, had already come to Commodore looking for a deal very similar to the one that Clive Smith was now offering Jim Kimsey. But, while he had been blown away by the software they showed him, Smith had been less impressed by the business acumen of the two former research scientists sitting in his office. He’d sent them packing without a deal, but bookmarked the PlayNet software in his mind. While Kimsey’s company was if anything in even worse shape than PlayNet on the surface, Smith thought he saw a much shrewder businessman before him, and knew from the grapevine that Kimsey was still tight with the venture capitalists who had convinced him to take the job with Control Video in the first place. He had, in short, all the business savvy and connections that Goldberg and Panzl lacked. Smith thus brokered a meeting between Control Video and PlayNet to let them see what they could work out.

What followed was a veritable looting of PlayNet’s one great asset. Kimsey acquired all of their software for a reported $50,000, plus ongoing royalty payments that were by all accounts very small indeed. If it wasn’t quite Bill Gates’s legendary fleecing of Seattle Computer Products for the operating system that became MS-DOS, it wasn’t that far behind either. PlayNet’s software would remain for the next nine years the heart of the Commodore 64 online service Kimsey was now about to start.

The best thing Goldberg and Panzl could have done for their company would have been to abandon altogether the idea of hosting their own online service, embracing the role of Control Video’s software arm. But they remained wedded to the little community they had fostered, determined to soldier on with the PlayNet service as an independent entity even after having given away the store to a fearsome competitor that enjoyed the official blessing of Commodore which had been so insultingly withheld from them. Needless to say, it didn’t go very well; PlayNet finally gave up the ghost in 1987, almost two years after the rival service had launched using their own technology. As part of the liquidation, they transferred all title to said technology in perpetuity to Jim Kimsey and Steve Case’s company, to do with as they would. Thus was the looting completed.

Well before that happened, the looter was no longer known as Control Video. Wanting a fresh start after all the fiasco and failure of the last couple of years, wanting to put the Bill von Meister era behind him once and for all, Kimsey on May 25, 1985, put Control Video in a shoe box, as he put it, and pulled out Quantum Computer Services. A new company in the eyes of the law, Quantum was in every other way a continuation of the old, with all the same people, all the same assets and liabilities, even the same philosophical orientation. For all that the deal with Commodore and the acquisition of the PlayNet software was down to seeming happenstance, the online service that would come to be known as QuantumLink evinced von Meister’s — and Steve Case’s — determination to create a more colorful, easier, friendlier online experience that would be as welcoming to homemakers and humanities professors as it would to hardcore hackers. And in running on its own custom software, it allowed Quantum the complete control of the user’s experience which von Meister and Case had always craved.

The QuantumLink main menu. Anyone who had used PlayNet would feel right at home…

Continuing to tax the patience of their financiers — patience that would probably have been less forthcoming had Daniel Case III’s brother not been on the payroll — Quantum worked through the summer and early fall of 1985 to adapt the PlayNet software to their own needs and to set up the infrastructure of Stratus servers they would need to launch. QuantumLink officially went live on the evening of November 1, 1985. It was a tense group of administrators and techies who sat around the little Vienna, Virginia, data center, watching as the first paying customers logged in, watching what they did once they arrived. (Backgammon, for what it’s worth, was an early favorite.) By the time the users’ numbers had climbed into the dozens, beers were being popped and spontaneous cheers were in the air. Simultaneous users would peak at about 100 that night — not exactly a number to leave CompuServe shaking in their boots. But so be it; it just felt so good to have an actual product — an actual, concrete purpose — after their long time in the wilderness.

In keeping with the price-sensitive nature of the Commodore market, Quantum strove to make their service cheaper than the alternatives, but were careful not to price-cut themselves right out of business as had PlayNet. Subscribers paid a flat fee of $10 per month for unlimited usage of so-called “Basic” services, which in all honesty didn’t include much of anything beyond the online encyclopedia and things that made Quantum money in other ways, like the online shopping mall. “Plus” services, including the games and the chat system that together were always the centerpiece of QuantumLink social life, cost $3.60 per hour, with one hour of free Plus usage per month included with every subscription. The service didn’t set the world on fire in the beginning, but the combination of Commodore’s official support, the user-friendliness of the graphical interface, and the aggressive pricing paid off reasonably well in the long term. Within two months, QuantumLink had its first 10,000 subscribers, a number it had taken CompuServe two years to achieve. Less than a year after that, it had hit 50,000 subscribers. By then, Quantum Computer Services had finally become self-sustaining, even able to make a start at paying down the debt they had accumulated during the Control Video years.

One of QuantumLink’s unique editorial services was an easy-to-navigate buyer’s guide to Commodore software.

Quantum had the advantage of being able to look back on six years of their rivals’ experience for clues as to what worked and what didn’t. For the intensely detail-oriented Steve Case, this was a treasure trove of incalculable value. Recognizing, as had Goldberg and Panzl before him, that other services were still far too hard to use for true mainstream acceptance, he insisted that nothing be allowed on QuantumLink that his mother couldn’t handle.

But Case’s vision for QuantumLink wasn’t only about being, as he put it, “a little easier and cheaper and more useful” than the competition. He grasped that, while people might sign up for an online service for the practical information and conveniences it could offer them, it was the social interchange — the sense of community — that kept them logging on. To a greater degree than that of any of its rivals, QuantumLink’s user community was actively curated by its owner. Every night of the week seemed to offer a chat with a special guest, or a game tournament, or something. If it was more artificial — perhaps in a way more cynical — than CompuServe’s more laissez-faire, organic approach to community-building, it was every bit as effective. “Most services are information- and retrieval-oriented. It doesn’t matter if you get on on Tuesday or Thursday because the information is the same,” said Case; as we’ve seen from earlier articles in this series, this statement wasn’t really accurate at all, but it served his rhetorical purpose. “What we’ve tried to do is create a more event-oriented social system, so you really do want to check in every night just to see what’s happening — because you don’t want to miss anything.” Getting the subscriber to log on every night was of course the whole point of the endeavor. “We recognized that chat and community were so important to keep people on,” remembers Bill Pytlovany, a Quantum programmer. “I joked about it. You get somebody online, we’ve got them by the balls. Plain and simple, they’ll be back tomorrow.”

Indeed, QuantumLink subscribers became if anything even more ferociously loyal — and ferociously addicted — than users of rival services. “For some people, it was their whole social life,” remembers a Quantum copywriter named Julia Wilkinson. “That was their reality.” All of the social phenomena I’ve already described on CompuServe — the friendships and the romances and, inevitably, the dirty talk — happened all over again on QuantumLink. (“The most popular [features of the service] were far and away the sexual chat rooms,” remembers one Quantum manager. “The reality of what was happening was, if you just let these folks plug into each other, middle-aged people start talking dirty to each other.”) Even at the cheaper prices, plenty of subscribers were soon racking up monthly bills in the hundreds of dollars — music to the ears of Steve Case and Jim Kimsey, especially given that the absolute number of QuantumLink subscribers would never quite meet the original expectations of either Quantum or Commodore. While the raw numbers of Commodore 64s had seemingly boded well — it had been by far the most popular home computer in North America when the service had launched — a glance beyond the numbers might have shown that the platform wasn’t quite as ideal as it seemed. Known most of all for its cheap price and its great games, the Commodore 64 attracted a much younger demographic than most other computer models. Such youngsters often lacked the means to pay even QuantumLink’s relatively cheap rates — and, when they did have money, often preferred to spend it on boxed games to play face to face with their friends rather than online games and chat.

Nevertheless, and while I know of no hard numbers that can be applied to QuantumLink at its peak, it had become a reasonably popular service by 1988, with a subscriber base that must have climbed comfortably over the 100,000 threshold. If not a serious threat to the likes of CompuServe, neither was it anything to sneeze at in the context of the times. Considering that QuantumLink was only ever available to owners of Commodore 64s and 128s — platforms that went into rapid decline in North America after 1987 — it did quite well in the big picture in what was always going to be a bit of an uphill struggle.

Even had the service been notable for nothing else, something known as Habitat would have been enough to secure QuantumLink a place in computing history. Developed in partnership with Lucasfilm Games, it was the first graphical massively multiplayer virtual world, one of the most important forerunners to everything from World of Warcraft to Second Life.  It was online in its original form for only a few months in early 1988, in a closed beta of a few hundred users that’s since passed into gaming legend. Quantum ultimately judged Habitat to be technologically and economically unfeasible to maintain on the scale that would have been required in order to offer access to all of their subscribers. It did, however, reemerge a year later in bowdlerized fashion as Club Caribe, more of an elaborate online-chat environment than the functioning virtual world Lucasfilm had envisioned.

But to reduce QuantumLink to the medium for Habitat, as is too often done in histories like this one, is unjust. The fact is that the service is notable for much more than this single pioneering game that tends so to dominate its historical memory. Its graphical interface would prove very influential on the competition, to a degree that is perhaps belied by its relatively modest subscriber roll. In 1988, a new service called Prodigy, backed by IBM and Sears, entered the market with an interface not all that far removed from QuantumLink’s, albeit running on MS-DOS machines rather than the Commodore 64; thanks mostly to its choice of platform, it would far outstrip its inspiration, surpassing even GEnie to become the number-two service behind CompuServe for a time in the early 1990s. Meanwhile virtually all of the traditional text-only services introduced some form of optional graphical front end. CompuServe, as usual, came up with the most thoroughgoing technical solution, offering up a well-documented “Host Micro Interface” protocol which third-party programmers could use to build their own front ends, thus creating a thriving, competitive marketplace with alternatives to suit most any user. Kimsey and Case could at least feel proud that their little upstart service had managed to influence such a giant of online life, even as they wished that QuantumLink’s bottom line was more reflective of its influence.

QuantumLink’s technical approach was proving to be, for all its advantages, something of a double-edged sword. For all that it had let Quantum create an easier, friendlier online service, for all that the Commodore and PlayNet deals had saved them from bankruptcy, it also left said service’s fate tied to that of the platform on which it ran. It meant, in other words, that QuantumLink came with an implacable expiration date.

This hard reality had never been lost on Steve Case. As early as 1986, he had started looking to create alternative services on other platforms, especially ones that might be longer-lived than Commodore’s aging 8-bit line. His dream platform was the Apple Macintosh, with its demographic of well-heeled users who loathed the command-line interfaces of most online services as the very embodiment of The Bad Old Way of pre-Mac computing. Showing the single-minded determination that could make him alternately loved and loathed, he actually moved to Cupertino, California, home of Apple, for a few months at the height of his lobbying efforts. But Apple wasn’t quite sure Quantum was really up to the task of making a next-generation online service for the Macintosh, finally offering him instead only a sort of trial run on the Apple II, their own aging 8-bit platform.

Quantum Computer Services’s second online service, a fairly straightforward port of the Commodore QuantumLink software stack to the Apple II, went online in May of 1988. It didn’t take off like they had hoped. Part of the problem was doubtless down to the fact that Apple II owners were well-entrenched by 1988 on services like CompuServe and GEnie, and weren’t inclined to switch to a rival service. But there was also some uncharacteristically mixed public messaging on the part of an Apple that had always seemed lukewarm about the whole project; people inside both companies joked that they had given the deal to Quantum to make an online service for a platform they didn’t much care about anymore just to get Steve Case to quit bugging them. Having already a long-established online support network known as AppleLink for dealers and professional clients, Apple insisted on calling this new, completely unrelated service AppleLink Personal Edition, creating huge confusion. And they rejected most of the initiatives that had made QuantumLink successful among Commodore owners, such as the inclusion of subscription kits in their computers’ boxes, thus compounding the feeling at Quantum that their supposed partners weren’t really all that committed to the service. Chafing under Apple’s rigid rules for branding and marketing, the old soldier Kimsey growled that they were harder to deal with than the Pentagon bureaucracy.

Apple dropped Quantum in the summer of 1989, barely a year after signing the deal with them, and thereby provoked a crisis inside the latter company. The investors weren’t at all happy with the way that Quantum seemed to be doing little more than treading water; with so much debt still to service, they were barely breaking even as a business. Meanwhile the Commodore 64 market to which they were still bound was now in undeniable free fall, and they had just seen their grand chance to ride Apple into greener pastures blow up in their faces. The investors blamed for the situation Steve Case, who had promised them that the world would be theirs if they could just get in the door at Cupertino. Jim Kimsey was forced to rise up in his protege’s defense. “You don’t take a 25-pound turkey out of the oven and throw it away before it’s done,” he said, pointing to the bright future that Case was insisting could yet be theirs if they would just stay the course. Kimsey could also deliver the good news from his legal department that terminating their marketing agreement early was going to cost Apple $2.5 million, to be paid directly to Quantum Computer Services. For the time being, it was enough to save Case’s job. But the question remained: what was Quantum to do in a post-Commodore world?

In his methodical way, Case had already been plugging away at several potential answers to that question beyond the Apple relationship. One of them, called PC-Link, was in fact just going live as this internal debate was taking place. Produced in partnership with Radio Shack, it was yet another port of the Commodore QuantumLink software stack, this time to Radio Shack’s Tandy line of MS-DOS clones. PC-Link would do okay, but Radio Shack stores were no longer the retail Ground Zero of the home-computing market that they had been when CompuServe had gotten into bed with them with such success almost a decade ago.

Quantum was also in discussions with no less of a computing giant than IBM, to launch an online service called Promenade in 1990 for a new line of IBM home computers called the PS/1, a sort of successor to the earlier, ill-fated PCjr. On the one hand, this was a huge deal for so tiny a company as Quantum Computer Services. But on the other, taking the legendary flop that had been the PCjr to heart, many in the industry were already expressing skepticism about a model line that had yet to even launch. Even Jim Kimsey was downplaying the deal: “It’s not a make-or-break deal for us. We’re not expecting more than $1 million in revenue from it [the first] year. Down the road, we don’t know how much it will be. If the PS/1 doesn’t work, we’re not in trouble.” A good thing, too: the PS/1 project would prove another expensive fiasco for an IBM who could never seem to figure out how to extend their success in business computing into the consumer marketplace.

So, neither of these potential answers was the answer Quantum sought. In fact, they were just exacerbating a problem that dogged the entire online-services industry: the way that no service could talk to any other service. By the end of the 1980s Quantum had launched or were about to launch four separate online services, none of which could talk to one another, marooning their subscribers on one island or another on the arbitrary basis of the model of computer they happened to have chosen to buy. It was hard enough to nurture one online community to health; to manage four was all but impossible. The deal with Commodore to found QuantumLink had almost certainly saved Quantum from drowning, but the similar bespoke deals with Apple, Radio Shack, and IBM, as impressive as they sounded on their face, threatened to become the millstone around their neck which dragged them under again.

Circa October of 1989, Case therefore decided it was time for Quantum to go it alone, to build a brand of their own instead of for someone else. The perfect place to start was with the moribund AppleLink Personal Edition, which, having just lost its official blessing from Apple, would have to either find a new name or shut down. Case wasn’t willing to do the latter, so it would have to be the former. While it would be hard to find a worse name than the one the service already had, he wanted something truly great for what he was coming to envision as the next phase of his company’s existence. He held a company-wide contest soliciting names, but in the end the one he chose was the one he came up with himself. AppleLink Personal Edition would become America Online. He loved the sense of sweep, and loved how very Middle American it sounded, like, say, Good Morning, America on the television or America’s Top 40 on the radio. It emphasized his dream of building an online community not for the socioeconomic elite but for the heart of the American mainstream. A member of said elite though he himself was, he knew where the real money was in American media. And besides, he thought the natural abbreviation of AOL rolled off the tongue in downright tripping fashion.

In the beginning, the new era which the name change portended was hard to picture; the new AOL was at this point nothing more than a re-branding of the old AppleLink Personal Edition. Only some months after the change, well into 1990, did Case begin to tip his hand. He had had his programmers working on his coveted Macintosh version of the AppleLink software since well before Apple had walked away, in the hope, since proven forlorn, that the latter would decide to expand their agreement with Quantum. Now, Quantum released the Macintosh version anyway — a version that connected to the very same AOL that was being used by Apple II owners. A process that would become known inside Quantum as “The Great Commingling” had begun.

Case had wanted the Mac version of AOL to blend what Jeff Wilkins over at CompuServe would have called “high-tech” and “high-touch.” He wanted, in other words, a product that would impress, but that would do so in a friendly, non-intimidating way. He came up with the idea of using a few voice samples in the software — a potentially very impressive feature indeed, given that the idea of a computer talking was still quite an exotic one among the non-techie demographic he intended to target. A customer-service rep at Quantum named Karen Edwards had a husband, Elwood Edwards, who worked as a professional broadcaster and voice actor. Case took him into a studio and had him record four phrases: “Welcome!,” “File’s done!,” “Goodbye!,” and, most famously, “You’ve got mail!” The last in particular would become one of the most iconic catchphrases of the 1990s, furnishing the title of a big Hollywood romantic comedy and even showing up in a Prince song. Even for those of us who were never on AOL, the sample today remains redolent of its era, when all of the United States seemed to be rushing to embrace its online future all at once. At AOL’s peak, the chirpy voice of Elwood Edwards was easily the most recognizable — and the most widely heard — voice in the country.

You’ve got mail!

But we get ahead of the story: recorded in 1990, the Edwards samples wouldn’t become iconic for several more years. In the meantime, the Great Commingling continued apace, with PC-Link and Promenade being shut down as separate services and merged into AOL in March of 1991. Only QuantumLink was left out in the cold; running as it was on the most limited hardware, with displays restricted to 40 columns of text, Quantum’s programmers judged that it just wasn’t possible to integrate what had once been their flagship service with the others. Instead QuantumLink would straggle on alone, albeit increasingly neglected, as a separate service for another four and a half years. The few tens of thousands of loyalists who stuck it out to the bitter end often retained their old Commodore hardware, now far enough out of date to be all but useless for any other purpose, just to retain access to QuantumLink. The plug was finally pulled on October 31, 1994, one day shy of the service’s ninth birthday. Even discounting the role it had played as the technical and philosophical inspiration for America Online, the software that Howard Goldberg and David Panzl and their team of student programmers had created had had one heck of a run. Indeed, QuantumLink is regarded to this day with immense nostalgia by those who used it, to such an extent that they still dream the occasional quixotic dream of reviving it.

The first version of America Online for MS-DOS. Steve Case convinced Isaac Asimov, Bill von Meister’s original celebrity spokesman for The Source all those years ago, to lend his name to a science-fiction area. It seemed that things had come full-circle…

For Steve Case, though, QuantumLink was the past already in 1991; AOL was the future. The latter was now available to anyone with an MS-DOS computer — already the overwhelmingly dominant platform in the country, whose dominance would grow to virtual monopoly status as the decade progressed. This was the path to the mainstream. To better reflect the hoped-for future, the name of Quantum Computer Services joined that of Control Video in Jim Kimsey’s shoe box of odds and ends in October of 1991. Henceforward, the company as well as the service would be known as America Online.

Much of the staff’s time continued to be devoted to curating community. Now, though, even more of the online events focused on subject areas that had little to do with computers, or for that matter with the other things that stereotypical computer owners tended to be interested in. Gardening, auto repair, and television were as prominently featured as programming languages. The approach seemed to be paying off, giving AOL, helped along by its easy-to-use software and a meticulously coached customer-support staff, a growing reputation as the online service for the rest of us. It had just under 150,000 subscribers by October of 1991. This was still small by the standards of CompuServe, GEnie, or Prodigy, but AOL was coming on strong. The number of subscribers would double within the next few months, and again over the next few months after that, and so on and so on.

CompuServe offered to buy AOL for $50 million. At two and a half times the latter’s current annual revenue, it was a fairly generous offer. Just a few years before, Kimsey would have leaped at a sum a fraction of this size to wash his hands of his problem child of a company. Even now, he was inclined to take the deal, but Steve Case was emphatically opposed, insisting that they were all on the verge of something extraordinary. The first real rift between the pair of unlikely friends was threatening. But when his attempts to convince CompuServe to pay a little more failed to bear fruit, Kimsey finally agreed to reject the offer. He would later say that, had CompuServe been willing to pay $60 million, he would have corralled his investors and sold out, upset Case or no. Had he done so, the history of online life in the 1990s would have played out in considerably different fashion.

With the CompuServe deal rejected, the die was cast; AOL would make it alone or not at all. At the end of 1991, Kimsey formally passed the baton to Case, bestowing on him the title of CEO of this company in which he had always been far more emotionally invested than his older friend. But then, just a few months later, Kimsey grabbed the title back at the behest of the board of directors. They were on the verge of an initial public offering, and the board had decided that the grizzled and gregarious Kimsey would make a better face of the company on Wall Street than Case, still an awkward public speaker prone to lapse gauche or just clam up entirely at the worst possible moments. It was only temporary, Kimsey assured his friend, who was bravely trying but failing to hide how badly this latest slap in the face from AOL’s investors stung him.

America Online went public on March 19, 1992, with an initial offering of 2 million shares. Suddenly nearly everyone at the company, now 116 employees strong, was wealthy. Jim Kimsey made $3.2 million that day, Steve Case $2 million. A real buzz was building around AOL, which was indeed increasingly being seen, just as Case had always intended, as the American mainstream’s online service. The Wall Street Journal‘s influential technology reporter Walt Mossberg called AOL “the sophisticated wave of the future,” and no less a tech mogul than Paul Allen of Microsoft fame began buying up shares at a voracious pace. Ten years on from its founding, and already on its third name, AOL was finally getting hot. Which was good, because it would never be cool, would always be spurned by the tech intelligentsia who wrote for Wired and talked about the Singularity. No matter; Steve Case would take being profitable over being cool any day, would happily play Michael Bolton to the other services’ Nirvana.

For all the change and turmoil that Control Video/Quantum Computer/America Online had gone through over the past decade, Bill von Meister’s original vision for the company remained intact to a surprising degree. He had recognized that an online service must offer the things that mainstream America cared about in order to foster mainstream appeal. He had recognized that an online service must be made as easy to use as humanly possible. And he had seen the commercial and technical advantages — not least in fostering that aforementioned ease of use — that could flow from taking complete control of the subscriber’s experience via custom, proprietary software. He had even seen that the mainstream online life of the future would be based around graphics at least as much as text. But, as usual for him, he had come to all these realizations a little too early. Now, the technology was catching up to the vision, and AOL stood poised to reap rewards which even Steve Case could hardly imagine.

(Sources: the books On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks, Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner by Alec Klein, Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner by Nina Munk, and The Must be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle by Kara Swisher; Softline of May 1982; New York Times of December 3 1984; Ahoy! of February 1985; Commodore Power/Play of December 1984/January 1985; Info issues 6 and 9; Run of August 1985 and November 1985; Midnite Software Gazette of January/February 1985 and November/December 1985; Washington Post of May 30 1985 and June 29 1990; Compute! of November 1985; Compute!’s Gazette of March 1986 and January 1989; Commodore Magazine of October 1989; Commodore World of August/September 1995; The Monitor of March 1996; the episode of the Computer Chronicles television series entitled “Online Databases, Part 1”; old Usenet posts by C.D. Kaiser and Randell Jesup.)


Comments

November 23, 2017

Emily Short

Dagstuhl Workshop on Narrative and Social Graphs

by Emily Short at November 23, 2017 08:40 AM

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 12.30.21 AM

Graphing a Facebook network without information about interaction frequency.

I’m currently in Germany for the Dagstuhl seminar Artificial and Computational Intelligence in Games: AI Driven Game Design. Wednesday, I was part of a workshop focusing on social network analysis and its application to narrative: how are social networks graphed? What kinds of information can they contain? What data could be associated with an edge — number and recency of interactions? Emotional valence of average interaction? More than this?

And — given the graphs available — how might we build interesting narrative game mechanics that in some way made use of a knowledge of the network? Might there be games that turned on either a human or an AI interacting to modify a social graph as the primary mode of interaction? What about gameplay experience interventions that were triggered by the discovery of particular graph states?

This is interesting to me in part because I feel a lot of our game design is currently poor at facilitating stories about communities and group dynamics.

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 5.58.38 PMOne of several contributions from the graph theory members of the group was the idea of a “motif,” a recurring pattern from within a larger graph, which could be reasoned about. The motif here might represent the idea of a small family — all the members know one another. Many other social situations could be represented this way, including ideas like “one character knows everyone else” or “this character is a loner.”

It occurred to us that this might make the useful basis for an authoring tool where motifs were used to specify prerequisites and post-conditions for narrative moves — a little the way StoryNexus specifies numeric range prerequisites and post-conditions for its storylets.

Depending on the rest of the system, eligible narrative moves might be presented as options to the player — it’s up to you to choose which one you want to use to advance the story — or executed by an AI automatically, in which the AI would need to select among all currently valid narrative moves.

The author would have a palette of motifs to work with, and could apply these to a story segment to say “if this configuration of relationships exists in the game, the following narrative segment is eligible for use; please fill each role with an available character who fits that slot.” (This is a system with dynamic requirements, a bit more flexible than a quality-based narrative system.)

For instance, here’s how this system might express a narrative moment involving a love triangle:

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 9.56.26 PM

In these examples, for the purpose of argument, one of the nodes is colored to represent the protagonist/point of view character about whom the story is told. Link colors could also represent relationship types, with the red link (for instance) representing a relationship between enemies.

So it might be possible to reuse the same motif shape as both the prerequisite and result states, with only a change in the coloration of a line. (On this blog, the difference between red and grey lines may be less obvious than we’d want them to be on the actual hypothesized tool.) The author might select, drag, and drop a motif into the prerequisite area, but then also further constrain the situation by clicking on a node (to make it the protagonist) or a line (to toggle its state through states such as “love / hate / neutral”).

If we selected a different node to emphasize, we could shift the point-of-view character from the insider in a tight social group to an outsider of that same group:

We could imagine several different sub-palettes, presenting motifs for different group sizes and configurations. Groups in which every member is connected to every other would be cliques, and there might be a palette pertaining to clique membership. In this palette, we could imagine a palette that covers total-connectedness, a clique with an outlying person, and a condition of solitude, which could be used to condition stories about joining or leaving a group:

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 12.36.32 AM

We might also say that the clique size is actually flexible (despite the appearance in the diagram that it has exactly six numbers), and this might be represented by a numeric specification.

And we might also choose to slightly expand the range of states available for node characters:

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 12.48.33 AM

 

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 11.47.11 PMThe motifs would allow us to go beyond readily named structures (like love triangle) to identify situations of greater complexity — such as the idea of a character who is the only connection point between multiple sub-communities, for instance.

To be clear, this is not describing any narrative mechanic that fundamentally couldn’t already be generated using logic programming languages: you could use Prolog to specify narrative beats that can only be triggered if there exists some character X who has two other lover characters Y and Z. But expressing these ideas in code tends to be off-putting to non-technical authors, and often conceal bugs that aren’t obvious at first glance. Thinking in terms of graph transitions also gives us a way to work out whether some narrative sequences produce a dead end, or whether forward momentum is always possible.

In addition, encouraging the author to think in terms of social state transitions puts an emphasis on kinds of change that tend to feel dramatically meaningful: a character dies, moves, makes friends or enemies, gains a family or loses one, and so on.

Implementing a tool like this is left as an exercise to the reader.

Additional References:


Tagged: dagstuhl, vaporware

November 22, 2017

Choice of Games

Broadway: 1849 — Fight your way to box office glory in old New York!

by Rachel E. Towers at November 22, 2017 06:41 PM


We’re proud to announce that Broadway: 1849, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 25% off until November 29th!

Fight your way to box office glory, while fending off the gangs of New York! Manage a theatre in a game of high-stakes business, dangerous romance, and risky alliances set in the rough-and-tumble world of 19th century New York. You’ll brave riots, fires, and political spies as you take on a city of jealous rivals, brilliant artists, and stalwart politicians.

Broadway: 1849 is a 150,000-word interactive historical adventure novel by Robert Davis. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Will you succeed by your smart business sense or enlist the city’s gangs to push your competition out of business? Can you manage the diva personalities of your actors? What about a ghost haunting your theatre’s stage?

Are you a flashy producer playing to please the crowd with circus acts? Do you try to earn the respect of the city’s leaders with fine art? Can you wrangle the press into writing the best reviews?

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, or asexual.
• Compete with rivals to stage the biggest shows and gain the largest audience!
• Choose a cast from the city’s brightest talent.
• Investigate the hidden secrets of your theatre.
• Rush to defuse a deadly bomb, or let it explode and plunge the city into chaos.
• Nurture young talent or feed your own ambition for the spotlight.
• Rub shoulders with the city’s most notorious criminals, or bring their misdeeds to light.
• Help a deserving friend escape the clutches of an unscrupulous businessman.
• Join forces with a criminal gang or side with the mayor’s push for order.

When forced to choose you’ll decide whether to fight for peace or let the city burn.

We hope you enjoy playing Broadway: 1849. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. Don’t forget: our initial download rate determines our ranking on the App Store. The more times you download in the first week, the better our games will rank.

Gamefic

Redstone Postmortem

November 22, 2017 12:41 PM

Redstone finished 33rd in this year's IFComp. All things considered, I'm happy with the outcome. There were a lot of amazing entries this year, and there are plenty of ways that Redstone (and Gamefic itself) could be improved. Read more

November 21, 2017

The People's Republic of IF

December meetup

by zarf at November 21, 2017 11:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for December will be Tuesday, December 12, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

November 20, 2017

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Robert Davis, “Broadway: 1849”

by Mary Duffy at November 20, 2017 06:41 PM

Manage a theatre in a game of high-stakes business, dangerous romance, and risky alliances set in the rough-and-tumble world of 19th century New York. Broadway: 1849 is a 150,000 word interactive historical adventure novel by Robert Davis, and Choice of Games’ latest release. You’ll brave riots, fires, and political spies as you take on a city of jealous rivals, brilliant artists, and stalwart politicians. When forced to choose you’ll decide whether to fight for peace or let the city burn. I sat down with author Robert Davis, to talk about the game.

Broadway: 1849 releases this Wednesday, November 22nd.

Tell us what inspired you to write about the theatre in the 1840s. This is your background, right?

Yes, I am a nineteenth-century theatre historian and the simple answer is that I love the period. By our standards, New York at the time would have been quite bizarre, almost like the old west. While it had its business centers like Wall Street, and grand hotels and the like, this was also a city that still had pirates sailing up the river. Gangs prowled the streets, and they almost always went to the theatre, where they could expect to spend a night watching two or three plays, eating, drinking, and throwing stuff at the actors or other people in the audience.

There are so many amazing stories from this time. Take, for example, Ned Buntline (real name: E.Z.C. Judson), one of the main characters in the game. He was a sailor, soldier, and writer. A few years before the game starts, he was involved in an affair where he was shot in a courtroom, after which he jumped out the window, got caught and hung. He escaped, and came to New York, where he wrote bestseller novels, got involved in politics, and was eventually put in prison. Later, after the game, he surfaces writing dime novels and plays featuring Buffalo Bill Cody, whose career he more or less launched. I wanted to make sure that stories like his were told. Or, more like: who doesn’t want to go up against that kind of guy?

What kind of world is Broadway set it? It seems like you’ve done a nice job of melding history with modern sensibilities as well as a little of the supernatural.

The 1840s was also probably the decade when New York had the wildest nightlife. Ever. There was food, dancing, gambling of all sorts, and sex alongside art exhibitions, classical music, and moral lectures. You’d find brothels right next to police stations and churches.

This was a time where the audience was very active. The lights in the auditorium weren’t lowered, so everyone could see everyone, and a night at the theatre could have been a raucous affair, even for the educated elite who only wanted to hear some good Shakespeare. We have stories where audiences did things like go on stage to make sure the climactic duel in Richard III was a “fair fight.” There’s even one time where some people smuggled in a sheep carcass to throw at an actor they didn’t like. I actually didn’t put those in the game because I thought they wouldn’t be believable!

I tried to stay as close to history as I could while telling a good story. Almost every character, place, or incident in Broadway is from history or melodrama and dime novels. Your main goal is to produce successful plays, but I wanted to immerse you in the world of the time, so there are incidents and character arcs that I think show what kind of rough-and-tumble world this period was.

As for the supernatural, the first thing you find once you start spending time in theatres is that they all have their ghosts…

What did you find challenging about the process of writing the game?

The way all of the branches and variables can come together is a vast puzzle. The game is so twisty at times and making sure it all fit had me tearing out my hair and drinking extra coffee at times. That said, what I love about ChoiceScript is that storytelling challenges are coding challenges. Anytime that I wanted to handle the plot differently, or introduce a new way to do something, I had to figure out the way to script, which would end up totally changing how I would tell the story. That was (and is) a fascinating, deeply rewarding part of the process.

Are you a fan of interactive fiction in general? 

Yes! I love it, but I am actually pretty bad at playing IF. A couple of summers ago, I was taking our cat on walks in the backyard and I had nothing to do, so I played a lot of games. Choice of Broadsides was my gateway drug. Then Meg Jayanth’s 80 Days blew my mind. The way it deals with history and narrative is still an inspiration. I also love anything by Porpentine, Ryan North, and Abigail Corfman.

Can you tell the readers why it’s spelled “theatre”?

Now you’ve asked a question that I’m really passionate about! Today, we generally consider “theatre” to be the European spelling and “theater” to be the American version, but that is actually propaganda! There is actually a lot of scholarship on this (and a colleague of mine is currently writing an article about it), but long story short: some writers and dictionary-makers in the nineteenth century wanted to change a lot of words so that American English would be different than English in Great Britain. At the time of the game, “theatre” would by far have been the main way people spelled the craft, the building, and everything inside it.

What are you working on next for us?

Right now I’m working on an outline for a story that I think can be fairly described as Anglo-Saxon history meets the X-Files. Plus Vikings. You’ll be a chronicler who travels around England investigating mysteries that lead you right into a high-stakes conflict between the English, Northmen, and Faeries. It’s really about answering “what is the point of history?” but there will also be elves, ghosts, and maybe the chance to wield Excalibur.

Short Answer, Bernard-Pivot Style

Favorite word?
Absquatulate.

Favorite flower?
Sunflower.

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt.
Ship’s captain or archivist.

Profession you’d never want to attempt?
Anything where you have to talk on the phone.

Musical theatre or straight plays?
I like almost anything, as long as it’s old!

November 19, 2017

Adventure Blog

November 17, 2017

Web Interactive Fiction

Mikayla’s Phone

by David Cornelson at November 17, 2017 07:41 PM

So this “work” was conceived, written, and designed by my sixteen year old daughter Angeline. I implemented the user interface.

Angie had a ton of poetry and notes from middle school, a lot of which is pretty typical teenage angst. Some of it is more than that. A little over a year ago, I recognized that the anxiety was more than the usual teenage stuff and offered to introduce her to a therapist. She agreed and has been going regularly since. She’ll tell you it has immensely improved her life and as her father I can say it has immensely improved her disposition. She will always have anxiety (and depression) issues, but she’s building coping mechanisms, understanding triggers, and learning that she’s a pretty amazing person regardless.

She came to me in spring and said she wanted to learn how to make a video game. I asked what kind and she told me about her writing and the basic idea of a lost phone of a seemingly dead teenage girl. I told her she needed to outline everything first. She did that. I showed her Twine and explained how to put everything into a tree of choices. She did that. I did try to adapt Twine to a mobile phone look and feel, but I felt I’d need to learn way too much about Twine. So I just used basic html and jquery.

As we were putting this together, we looked at ways to put it in front of people. We thought about submitting it to SubQ, but I suggested the IFComp and after thinking about it, she agreed it was the best way to go.

We completed the game (it has quite a few rough edges) with 6 minutes to spare.

When I hit the Upload button, you could see the relief in her eyes, almost as if a weight of the past had been lifted. She really had a bad time in middle school. She could finally (mostly) let it go.

We were not expecting anything from the voters, but the reviews we’ve read are accurate and appreciated. We both laughed out loud at “wads of morose poetry” in one review. She read it and said, “He’s not wrong.”

There’s no doubt we could have cleaned up the interactivity quite a bit, possibly added some humor, and made it more of a game. But that was not the goal. It was meant to relay what it’s like, from a real person’s perspective, to be in middle school, to be a young girl, and suffer from anxiety and probably have some spectrum social issues.

Maybe someone will “play” it and realize they’re not alone and that seeking and investing in therapy is a real solution with tangible benefits.

The Digital Antiquarian

A Net Before the Web, Part 4: The Rogue, the Yuppie, and the Soldier

by Jimmy Maher at November 17, 2017 05:41 PM

Bill von Meister’s rude expulsion from The Source didn’t mark the end of his schemes to invent the world’s online future. In 1981, with his erstwhile partner Jack Taub’s $1 million settlement check burning a hole in his pocket, he launched into a plan as visionary as anything he had ever come up with. Almost two decades before Napster would rock the music industry by providing listeners with a convenient application for finding and downloading music online for free, almost a quarter of a century before Apple would legitimize digital music delivery via the iTunes Store, von Meister proposed to create The Home Music Store.

Courtesy of the singing Osmond family, he had secured the use of a satellite-transmitting station near Salt Lake City, Utah. He wanted to use the station to send music to cable-television operators all over the country, who would then send it on to their customers. If they paid a fee, said customers would be allowed to use the cassette recorders that had become so ubiquitous in recent years to make a permanent copy for themselves — a sort of “pay-per-listen” system similar to the pay-per-view systems cable television was already using for big-name boxing matches and other live sporting events.

Von Meister won the tentative support of no less a pillar of the music industry than Warner Bros., and the scheme seemed destined to move forward. But the music industry is, as anyone who has studied its uniformly antagonistic responses to new technologies over the years will attest, an inherently conservative, even reactionary institution. When news of the plan leaked into Billboard magazine, Warner Bros. heard from record stores and record pressing plants alike that The Home Music Store would ruin them. The brick-and-mortar stores promised Warner Bros. a boycott if they continued with the plan. It just wasn’t worth it, the latter decided, especially not when the pivotal figure had as checkered a reputation as Bill von Meister. So, he was duly summoned to a Manhattan high rise to be given the bad news.

Warner Bros. did, however, mention a potential consolation prize. They happened to own Atari, currently the hottest company in consumer electronics. Could von Meister make his delivery system work for Atari VCS games instead of music? If he could prove that he could, they should all talk again. He walked out of the high rise incensed at what he saw as Warner Bros.’s betrayal of his music scheme, but excited about this new bauble they had dangled before him. Such was the life of Bill von Meister.

He formed yet another in his long line of startups in Vienna, Virginia, calling it Control Video Corporation. (Perhaps not inadvertently, the name echoed that of Control Data Corporation, a long-established maker of supercomputers that was making a push into the consumer marketplace at just that time via a big investment in The Source.) Then, with the help of a handful of hand-picked confidantes, he set about refining his new plan to offer downloadable Atari VCS games. The service was to be known as GameLine.

Would-be videogame downloaders would have to purchase, for about $60, a “Master Module” which plugged into the Atari VCS’s cartridge slot. It contained 8 K of volatile memory and a 1600-baud modem. After paying an additional $15 signup fee, customers would be able to download games using the Master Module for $1 apiece. At that price, the subscriber would actually be renting the games for a single session rather than purchasing them; only one game at a time could live in the Master Module’s memory, from whence it could be played only five to ten times before its lease expired. Thus the same subscriber might wind up downloading a game she really liked many times over. For the benefit of skeptical parents, von Meister noted pointedly that playing videogames in the home using his system should be far cheaper than dumping quarters into a standup-arcade machine. He even promised parental controls, allowing parents to set a cap on their children’s weekly usage.

As it happened, Warner Bros., the company that had guided von Meister’s thinking in this direction in the first place, never did come back to the table, nixing any hopes he might have had to make GameLine an official Atari add-on. In compensation, though, lots of venture capitalists who probably ought to have known better by now fell to his sheer passion and charisma — and to the fact that anything to do with videogames was so white-hot among their ranks in the early 1980s.

Bill von Meister hawks Gameline.

GameLine made its public bow in typically flamboyant von Meister fashion. For the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in January of 1983, he bought an enormous hot-air balloon, which he flew above the Las Vegas Strip with “GAMELINE” written on it in proud capitals. He invited selected show attendees to his suite at the Tropicana Hotel, where there awaited a chorus line of dancing showgirls and a drawing for a one-ounce bar of gold. “It was a lot of schmaltz,” admitted Control Video’s head salesman of the time, but it served the purpose. Everyone thought GameLine a smashing idea. Control Video surfed out of Vegas on a wave of good press, with pre-orders for 150,000 Master Modules from several major retailers. And yet the really significant result of that week in Vegas would only slowly reveal itself over the course of years.

That January of 1983, Steve Case was a 24-year-old marketing manager for Pizza Hut. His older brother, Daniel Case III, worked for Hambrecht & Quist, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm that had invested majorly in Control Video. Forced by his own job to live in Wichita, Kansas, a place he loathed, Steve Case came to Vegas simply to enjoy the nightlife and to ride his brother’s coattails into places where ordinary members of the public weren’t invited. Among these was Control Video’s private suite at the Tropicana. He was immediately taken with GameLine and with the whirling dervish of charisma that was Bill von Meister, doubly so given that he had recently subscribed to The Source, von Meister’s earlier creation. (“When I finally logged in and found myself linked to people all over the country from this sorry little apartment, it was just exhilarating.”) Desperate to get out of Pizza Hut, where his job as a “marketing manager” largely entailed traveling to pizza shops all over the country and scoring their output on five criteria — the only thing he liked about these trips was that they got him out of Wichita — he asked his big brother for yet another favor.

Shortly after Winter CES, Daniel Case III called Bill von Meister, pointedly touting the merits of his little brother, who would very much like a contract to work with Control Video as a marketing consultant. With millions in actual and potential investments on the line from Hambrecht & Quist, von Meister had little choice but to hire this unknown kid whom he had apparently met but couldn’t actually remember at all.

Steve Case in 1986.

Indeed, a certain unmemorability had been the curse of Steve Case’s life to date, especially given the shadow cast by his hugely successful older brother. Nothing on his blandly handsome all-American face gave memory any hooks to hang itself on, and nothing of much notability ever seemed to emerge from his mouth either. The product of an affluent family and a privileged upbringing, his record as an undergraduate at Williams College had been undistinguished enough that he hadn’t been accepted by any of the MBA programs to which he had applied, leading him to enter the workforce as a low-level marketing functionary with the dry-goods giant Proctor & Gamble. There he’d been assigned to something called Abound, a moist towelette for the hair and scalp; “Towelette, you bet!” had been his best attempt at a tagline. When Abound flopped, he’d wound up at Pizza Hut as a glorified pizza taster.

If you’d told anyone in or around Control Video that one among their ranks was destined to become one of the most prominent online moguls of the 1990s, then asked them exactly who they thought that person was, it seems safe to say that Steve Case wouldn’t have topped anyone’s list. Von Meister took to calling him “Lower Case”; his big brother, whom von Meister judged to be far more critical to Control Video’s success, was of course “Upper Case.” Michael Schrage, the Washington Post‘s technology reporter, would later describe him as “the least quotable human at the company.” If a time traveler from the year 2000 had indeed told him that “Steve Case was chairman of AOL Time Warner,” Schrage would later muse, “you would have to hospitalize me for internal hemorrhaging. Silly beyond belief — Steve Case??”

Slowly, though, this gawky kid that had been foisted on him began to win von Meister’s grudging respect. Still a non-presence in meetings, Case started turning in written reports demonstrating a vision that dovetailed nicely with von Meister’s own, including a strong Machiavellian streak. “Erect barriers to entry (lock up category),” he wrote in one. “Concentrate on the perceptions of the product, not the realities of the product,” he wrote in another. Most of all, he pushed the idea that GameLine could eventually deliver far more than videogames into American homes. The long-term goal should be to “turn your game console into a home computer.” He proposed email, news, and online banking as possible applications; much the same applications, in other words, that were already being tried out on services like CompuServe and The Source. In fact, his ideas hewed very close to von Meister’s original 1979 vision of The Source, since watered down somewhat by various realities, as the “information utility of the future.” The difference was that GameLine’s technology would allow Control Video a measure of — appropriately enough, in light of their name — control over every aspect of the subscriber’s experience.

So, over the course of the spring of 1983 Control Video began to talk about GameLine in a new way. Von Meister, coming full circle back to those heady days of 1979, took to saying that it would “turn today’s video jock into tomorrow’s information genius.” Never a man of small dreams, his plans for GameLine seemed to grow with every telling.

In effect, we are turning those dedicated game units into multi-purpose communications terminals and bringing the benefits of sophisticated computers within the reach of the average household. A videogame console can now be a real teaching machine.

Several videogame manufacturers have announced their intentions to develop add-on equipment which will turn game units into small computers. Our system leaps ahead of those add-ons to tie VCS and compatible units into a national telecommunications network fed by the power of a large central computer’s database.

In keeping with Case’s exhortation to concentrate on perceptions rather than realities — certainly not advice von Meister needed to be given twice — plenty of reasons to wonder how all of this would work in the real world were swept under the carpet. Delivering VCS games via GameLine made a measure of sense in that the Master Module’s internal modem was merely a delivery mechanism for code which then resided locally on the console; estimates were that any extant game, thanks not least to the extreme limitation imposed on a game’s potential size by the architecture of the VCS itself, could be downloaded within one minute. But other forms of information couldn’t, as an executive with potential competitor The Source put it, “be quantified into units as games can.” For that matter, how on earth would you enter text on a “computer” equipped only with a joystick? Control Video’s plan to have the user select letters one by one from an onscreen list certainly didn’t sound like much fun. Trying to build an online service around the Atari VCS felt rather like trying to start a transcontinental airline flying Sopwith Camels.

Other difficult realities dogged even the part of the plan that did sound relatively feasible, the downloadable Atari VCS games. While von Meister had inked deals with an impressive-sounding nine VCS game publishers, conspicuously absent from the list were the two biggest publishers of all, Atari’s own software division and Activision, with the former adopting a wait-and-see attitude, the latter flatly rejecting having anything to do with GameLine under any circumstances. Von Meister tried to persuade reluctant publishers by offering up the idea of GameLine as a sort of try-before-you-buy service that could actually lead to increased sales of their physical cartridges, but his audience was plainly skeptical of the notion. It seemed that Activision in particular, whose games were widely regarded as the best you could buy for the Atari VCS and therefore sold at a premium, thought that their brand could only be diminished by the association. Von Meister hired programmers to create thinly veiled clones of some of the hit games that were unavailable to him, but in doing so he was entering some legally dangerous waters.

Still, all of those issues might conceivably have been overcome; the buzz that would have followed a successful GameLine launch might have convinced even Activision to come around. It was rather the launch date of July 1983 that truly killed any chance Gameline might have had. This was the summer of the Great Videogame Crash, when cracks that had been spreading through the foundation of the House Atari Built for at least a year suddenly brought the whole edifice down around everyone’s heads. Almost overnight, videogames went from being the hottest trend in business to an anathema. Control Video couldn’t have picked a worse instant for GameLine’s launch if they had tried.

Launch they did, though, trying to make the best of a bad situation. Whatever else you could say about the whole enterprise, the technology that brought it off was a virtuoso hacking feat. It was largely the work of a longtime von Meister compatriot named Mark Seriff, who had previously designed much of the original incarnation of The Source. The video below gives a rare glimpse of his GameLine work in action. Note that Control Video had a policy of offering unlimited free downloads on a subscriber’s birthday, one of a number of canny loyalty-building touches that might have turned the service into a success despite it all if the timing had been a bit better.


But the timing was just far, far too atrocious to be overcome; GameLine never had a chance. By a few months after the launch, it had managed to attract no more than 5000 subscribers, and new signups had fallen to just one or two per day — hardly enough to justify the complicated telecommunications infrastructure into which Control Video had had to invest heavily just to get the service started. In October, they slashed their predicted sales of 250,000 Master Modules by the end of 1983 to 100,000, and it was hard to imagine how they hoped to make even that figure when they had more boxes coming back from retailers than they were shipping out.

The venture capitalists, who had invested some $9 million in Control Video to date, were, to say the least, growing concerned. Von Meister may have been beset by market circumstances that were out of his control, but that didn’t keep them from pointing fingers. They noted wryly that the most profitable single transaction he had managed to date had been to resell the hot-air balloon he had flown over Vegas for $15,000, three times what he had paid for it. The jokes practically wrote themselves: von Meister may not be much good at selling videogames, but he sure can sell hot air. Now, he was telling them he needed another $3 million to execute the pivot from provider of videogames to general-purpose information service well before they had originally planned to make it. It was the only chance they had, he claimed. The venture capitalists couldn’t really disagree, but they did decide to attach some strings to this latest capital injection. Bill von Meister, they decided, needed some adult supervision. Luckily, one of them had an old army buddy who he thought would be just the man for the job.

After graduating from West Point, Jim Kimsey had served two tours of duty in Vietnam as an airborne ranger. Upon returning to civilian life, he became a wealthy man by opening a chain of bars across the Washington Beltway. Like von Meister, he lived fast — one acquaintance remembers him as a “skirt-chasing, hell-raising restaurant owner” — but West Point had instilled a sense of responsibility in his professional life which his peer manifestly lacked. More than anything else, he hated excuses. “If you are a platoon leader, and one of your men dies, there is no excuse,” he once said. “If you are a CEO, and thousands of your employees are laid off, there is no excuse.” His friend picked him for the task of saving Control Video not least because he regarded the very idea of any company with which he was associated going bankrupt as such a personal affront. He knew nothing about computer technology, and didn’t much care to learn, but he knew a lot about whipping any organization, whether a platoon or a corporation, into disciplined fighting trim. Which is not to say that he accepted the role of taskmaster at Control Video with any relish; he took the office next to von Meister’s strictly as a favor to his investor friend, announcing loudly that he was only there for as long as it took to right the ship. He would actually remain for twelve years.

Von Meister couldn’t have been happy about this intrusion on his authority, but if he wanted the venture capitalists’ money he would have to accept Jim Kimsey, just as he had earlier accepted Steve Case. Speaking of whom: one of the first decisions von Meister and Kimsey made together was to elevate Case from his part-time consultant’s gig to that of a full-time marketer. “What do you think about Steve?” von Meister had asked Kimsey. “He seems bright, he won’t cost you much,” the latter had replied. But once again there was an ulterior motive as well: Daniel Case III would be extra committed and extra patient with them all if Control Video became his little brother’s permanent employer.

Von Meister, Kimsey, and Case did their level best to make a success of the pivot from games to information. After all, those 15 million or so Ataris that remained in American homes post-Crash ought to be ripe for re-purposing now. Already in September of 1983, StockLine had gone up alongside GameLine, allowing subscribers to track prices on the New York Stock Exchange, the money markets, currency exchanges, and metal exchanges, and even to store a permanent personal portfolio of up to ten stocks, thanks to a few hundred bytes of non-volatile memory a forward-looking Control Video had quietly stashed away inside the Master Module. Control Video claimed that SportsLine was coming soon with all the latest scores and up-to-the-minute Vegas odds, and that MailLine, featuring email and a real-time chat system like CompuServe’s CB Simulator, would follow thereafter. “We’re not in trouble,” insisted von Meister (like a politician telling people he isn’t a crook, the very fact that he was being forced to make such an insistence was of course proof of the opposite in the minds of his interlocutors from the business press). “But we have changed our emphasis. We had always wanted to add a BankLine and SportsLine and StockLine to the original GameLine, but there was always the question of whether the adults in the family would want to access that kind of information from their kids’ games system.” Out of that concern, which was still very valid, Control Video planned to develop a Master Module for home computers.

But doing so was going to take time which they might not have. After a dismal Christmas, they had racked up $10 million in debt to go along with the $12 million in venture capital they had burned through. It was a glum group of investors who assembled one gray January morning to go over the state of the company. “Goddamn,” said Kimsey after an accountant had run through the painful litany, “we could have sold more of these things selling them off the back of a pickup truck on U.S. 1!” Another person in the room noted that “you’d have thought kids would have shoplifted more than that.” Kimsey sensed that the investors were looking more and more to him alone, swashbuckling war hero that he was, to rescue them from this mess of their own creation. Well, then, he’d do what he could.

In May of 1984, Control Video suddenly recalled all of the Master Modules that were still on store shelves. Far from an ending, everyone hoped this event would mark a new beginning. Von Meister’s silvery tongue had seemingly come through for them, winning them a tentative deal with Bell South, a regional telephone service. The plan was now to reboot and re-brand GameLine, which would henceforward be known as InterLink. They would rent the Master Module for the Atari VCS for $10 per month instead of selling it. More importantly, a new $5 million investment from Bell South would let them start in earnest on a Master Module for home computers.

Like GameLine before it, the InterLink service would only be accessible via Control Video’s own add-on hardware. The first focus would still be games, only now they would be games for the home computers that were in the eyes of the pundits and much of the public the natural, more long-lived successors to the console fad. Von Meister called Interlink “MTV for software”: just as music fans used the music-video channel to decide which albums to buy, InterLink would let computer owners try software before they bought it. (A less strained analogy might have been made with good old radio, but von Meister apparently wanted to show he was down with the latest pop-culture trends.) The service would be tested out initially in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. “We’re expecting the tests will prove that there’s a broad market for this kind of service,” said von Meister. If that was indeed the case, InterLink would hopefully go nationwide in early 1985. The participation of Bell South, noted Michael Schrage dryly in the Washington Post, “gave the troubled venture some badly needed legitimacy.”

As late as September of 1984, InterLink was still ostensibly on track, although the plan to make new Master Modules for all of the various models of popular home computers had been reluctantly abandoned as impractical; the service would now function using any standard modem. On October 3, Control Video claimed that the first trials would start by the end of the month.

Alas, the trials would never actually begin. At the behest of influential newspaper moguls like Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, who were nervous about the burgeoning era of online information exchange, Congress had recently enacted a law which made it illegal for telephone companies like Bell South to become “information providers,” as opposed to mere conduits for information. Someone — quite possibly a potential competitor like CompuServe or The Source — alerted the Federal Communications Commission to the plans for InterLink, and the FCC secured a court ruling that it should not be allowed to go forward. Six years before, the same entity had foiled a von Meister scheme to use the FM radio band to transmit private data. Now, the government bureaucrats had done it to him again.

Control Video was left high and dry, with no product, no viable plans for a product, no partners, and virtually no money. They did, however, have millions in debt and tens of thousands of useless Atari VCS Master Modules. They thought about selling the latter for salvage to raise some cash, but learned that delivering them to the recycling center would cost more than they’d get paid. So, Control Video chucked the Master Modules in dumpsters to be hauled away with the trash. Any reasonable person who had witnessed that scene play out, pregnant with symbolism as it was, would have shut out the lights and called it a day. Indeed, Bill von Meister, who had already spent more time with Control Video than with most of his startups, was now muttering about doing just that.

His colleagues, though, weren’t all in agreement. Jim Kimsey was a reasonable man in most respects, but he was also an inordinately stubborn one, determined not to allow a bankruptcy to stain his reputation. And young Steve Case, frantic not to be banished back to the life of a Wichita pizza taster, was equally determined to carry on with what could be his only shot at the big time. Bad as things were at Control Video, he personally was already moving up, to heights he could never have dreamed of reaching before middle age at Pizza Hut. While neither von Meister nor Kimsey necessarily saw him as an absolutely vital cog in their machine, he retained the advantage of being cheap. As Kimsey let go of the more expensive people above him, he rose through the ranks, finally winding up as head of marketing by the simple virtue of being the only marketer left standing.

With von Meister already half checked-out mentally and most of the rest of the staff gone, Kimsey the tough old soldier and Case the preppy young yuppie began to form an unlikely bond. Their relationship was a source of constant wonder to their colleagues; it was hard to imagine two men more different in terms of background, personality, or working style. Case, who was a bit of a prude at heart, would cringe and visibly blush when Kimsey would roar into the office on a Monday morning with his war stories from the singles bars; Kimsey took to calling that reaction Case’s “Elmer Fudd” look, and took great pleasure in trying to provoke it. But underneath, despite or perhaps because of all the ribbing, a real affection was evolving. “We found ourselves sort of in a foxhole because we both had aligned ourselves more closely with this company that was kind of going nowhere fast,” Case remembers. They found that they completed one another, and Case’s role at Control Video began to extend well beyond that of a typical marketing manager. Detail-oriented to the core, he put in long hours crunching the numbers and writing the reports that are essential to a smoothly functioning business, while Kimsey, who preferred not to bother with details if he could avoid it, went white-water rafting down the Colorado River or took a bicycle tour through the south of France. “He lived, ate, and breathed this shit,” an admiring Kimsey later remembered of his younger charge. The gregarious former soldier, meanwhile, taught Case, this young man who had always seemed so profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin, a bit about how to handle the back-slapping, social side of business, where the really important relationships are forged on golf courses and in bars as often as they are in executive boardrooms.

As Kimsey and Case developed their partnership, von Meister was increasingly left out in the cold. His final separation from this, his latest visionary but poorly executed venture, came in the first days of 1985. A group of the company’s many creditors was scheduled to come in that day to listen to Kimsey’s pleadings for patience. Given the nature of the visitors, it was essential that the few people still working for Control Video all convey the appropriate sense of austerity. (Not that they would need a lot of help with that: Kimsey had long since sold off all of the office cubicles for cash, cobbling together new dividers out of masking tape and old cardboard boxes.) But then von Meister unexpectedly chose that day to visit the office, roaring up in the shiny new BMW 735i he had just leased.

“How do you like my new car?” he asked as Kimsey and Case looked on aghast.

“We have a creditors meeting!” said Kimsey. “Are you crazy bringing that car? See that tree? They’ll hang you from it!”

“What are you getting all upset about?” asked a wounded von Meister. “Don’t these people understand I have a personal life?”

Kimsey told von Meister in no uncertain terms to get in his new car and go home. This incident signaled the end of von Meister’s association with what would become one of the greatest success stories of its era in American business. Unusually, he walked away from Control Video quietly, without any of the conflict and legal drama that usually marked his exits. Perhaps it had something to do with Jim Kimsey, with whom he had formed a real friendship despite the tensions that inevitably accompanied their assigned roles of dreamer and responsible adult. Even at the end, when he had become an active liability, Kimsey found it impossible to hate von Meister. “He was like a puppy you like a lot but you have to house-train,” he later remembered.

Indeed, underneath all of von Meister’s bravado and guile there always lurked a paradoxical innocence that made it difficult for many who had good reason to hate him to actually manage to do so. At some level, he had remained a child, always chasing after his latest shiny vision. One venture capitalist whom von Meister cost a bundle over the years described him as “like that cartoon character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. He wasn’t bad; he was just drawn that way.” That so many of his crazy schemes were in fact so visionary makes him one of the great hidden figures behind online life as we know it today. Others may have created the practical technology that allowed the Internet and the World Wide Web to arise and thrive, but Bill von Meister was second to none when it came to the vision thing: online communities, online news, online shopping, digital music delivery, digital software delivery, information as a service… you name it, von Meister was there ahead of almost everyone else. If the execution was usually weak, the core ideas were often prescient, their only drawback being that they were so often a bit too far ahead of their time.

Von Meister died in 1995 at age 53, leaving behind millions in personal debt. The official cause of death was melanoma, but his friends sensed that his body had simply had enough after a life spent burning the candle at both ends, driving race cars or racing yachts when he wasn’t founding companies, drinking and smoking and eating too much, over-indulging in everything in a seeming attempt to swallow whole everything life had to offer. He remained full of ideas until the last. His sister reported at the funeral that he had spent his final days kibitzing over the technological state of the hospital he was in: “When I get out of here alive, if I’m alive, I’m going to show how this hospital can do things better.”

His death was little remarked in the press, meriting no more than the briefest of obituaries in a handful of newspapers close to the Washington Beltway where he had spent the bulk of his career. The corporate star power at his funeral, however, belied his obscure status. Among the cast of former friends and colleagues were Steve Case and Jim Kimsey, now the darlings of Wall Street, who still stood at the helm of what Control Video had become: America Online, the business story of the year if not the decade, and a company which still bore the stamp of many of von Meister’s key insights. A very gracious Case stepped up to deliver a eulogy, saying that “without Bill von Meister there would have been no America Online.” Incredibly, even some of von Meister’s own children had no idea what Case was referring to. “He left behind a series of miserable SOBs who benefited from his ideas,” said another old colleague, rather less graciously. “And yet he was always looking forward to tomorrow’s sunshine in the middle of a monsoon.” But it was yet another who offered perhaps the most cogent eulogy: “He was the most human of human beings I ever knew, and his faults were never disguised.”

(Sources: the books On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks, Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner by Alec Klein, Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner by Nina Munk, and There Must be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle by Kara Swisher; InfoWorld of May 30 1983, July 4 1983, October 31 1983, January 9 1984, April 2 1984, and May 21 1984; Antic of July 1983; Washington Post of November 1 1983 and October 3 1984; the episode of the Computer Chronicles television series entitled “Online Databases, Part 1”; the blog post “The Story of a Pathological Entrepreneur” by John M. Willis.)


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These Heterogenous Tasks

Names in the Comp

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at November 17, 2017 02:41 AM

I keep meaning to do this every comp, and then leave it too late and get self-conscious about self-indulgent overreading. But, look, I think naming is really important in writing. Outside of poetry, there are few places where the choice of … Continue reading