I’m currently working as Design Director at Zojoi, a small game company in central Virginia with my best friend Dave Marsh. We are re-imagining Shadowgate for long-time fans and new adventure game players and - after working on it for nearly two years - we will be releasing the game next month. The fine folks at Gamasutra were kind enough to let me talk about what we’re doing. This first article revolves around the history of the game, an overview of the platforms and challenges we faced.
Fire up the Tardis, get me my scarf and let’s go back to the ‘80s!
When the Macintosh 128k was revealed by Apple in 1984, a few of our friends were already developing an adventure title named Deja Vu: A Nightmare Comes True at a company called ICOM Simulations. Up to this point, the Chicago-suburban company had concentrated on creating games and doing ports for the Apple II (as well as some utilities) but saw that the new windowing system on the Mac presented a ton of opportunities. Led by founder Tod Zipnick, the goal was to create an adventure engine that took advantage of this new OS. This led to utilizing a game perspective that other game developer contemporaries were not using - first person graphics.
Great 1-bit graphic work by artist Mark Waterman
The command system that the programmers employed was nothing new - after all, games like Zork and other MUDS (Multi-User Dungeons) had been employing them for years. However, the way that the game would display them and allow you to visually see things was new. On top of that, it was a darn good story with awesome art. By the way, one fun thing about Deja Vu that you might not know is that the gun shop (where you purchase a gun) was intentionally locked on Sunday. So if you were playing the game on Sunday and hadn’t gotten the gun, you were screwed until Monday (of course, if you adjusted your Mac clock, you’d be fine :) )
In 1985, Dave Marsh and I were working on the design and art for Shadowgate in our homes prior to being hired full-time at ICOM. Before I get into how we went about creating the content for the games, I thought I would give you a list of the platforms the MacVentures were released on…
Mac (B/W), Apple II, PC (CGA, EGA, SVGA), Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, Commodore 64, NES, GBC)
- Deja Vu: A Nightmare Comes True
- The Uninvited
- Deja Vu II: Lost in Las Vegas
Finished but were not released
- Beyond Shadowgate
- The Awakening (19th century London horror)
Started but never finished because they were awful
- Helios (apocalyptic asteroid adventure)
- Gossip (newspaper columnist! Ugh.)
Compression and Bit Depth: Oh how we hated thee
With the exception of a few Mac versions, and the SVGA and Nintendo ports, Dave and I spent years and years porting the artwork for all our games to every platform that we could. While each platform presented its own challenge and, in many cases, utilized different paint tools, there were two constants that we were never free of: compression and color bit depth. Although all the MacVentures were subject to these constraints, we’re gonna focus on Shadowgate as this is the title we are currently resurrecting. Fair warning: in some cases, this was 30 years ago so if I mess up on some term or two here or mis-remember things, please be kind. They say memory is one of the first things to go.
Firstly, ICOM was a small company. The goal was to ship the games on as few floppies as possible (ie. one). For those who don’t know or may not remember, in those days a floppy only allowed storage of 512k or (if you splurged) 1.2 MB. Later they were 720k or 1.44 MB (dual sided). Compared to today’s standards, that is truly draconian.
So, in order for us to make this work, we had limitations:
- No music (except for credits of course)
- Scant sound effects
- Utilize patterns as much as possible
Now, numbers 1 and 2 are pretty self-explanatory (although I think we could have done more with music). But #3 was the limitation that really gave us fits at times. For Shadowgate, we had something like 50 or 60 rooms and needed to get them on a single floppy. Compression was the key and it really hasn’t changed all that much over the years. The basic rule of thumb we were given by the programmers was this - “You can add a bit of detail here and there but most of the time, please use the patterns that MacPaint (or later Deluxe Paint) gives you.” They said it was “dithering” (a way of creating color depth) but really, it was using patterns. The key was that similar pixels/patterns would compress better. Better compression = more space = more rooms. So, that’s what we did - we used patterns… a lot. A LOT of patterns.
Hey, look at those patterns (we did for yeaarrrrs)
As the platforms changed, so too did the need for custom paint apps that actually made stamps based upon freeform drawing. This was an interesting way of creating art. We would suck in the original b/w art and then run a program which would create 4x8 pixel stamps out of the artwork. The goal was to re-use as many of these stamps as possible because that saved on space. If a stamp was similar to another one, then you used the common one and would alter the art accordingly. Almost like putting together a puzzle at times but far less fun. Of course, this “skill” would come in handy when making sprites for side-scrollers but that’s a different story.
So, it was a juggling act between making a room (or creature) look interesting and making sure it would be small enough (both in resolution and file size) to fit on the medium at the time. Let’s talk Color Bit Depth now.
As you know, the original Mac 128k was in black and white. In some ways, making the art for Shadowgate in 1-bit mode was pretty straightforward. We had learned from artist Mark Waterman that you could make something look pretty cool with just two “colors” - just like we were drawing in pen and ink. Using MacPaint, we created some pretty neat illustrations. Here is one from Shadowgate:
The Grand Hall from Shadowgate for the Mac
CGA (Color Graphics Adapter) for the PC. Just typing it depresses me. Don’t get me wrong. We were glad that we were porting Shadowgate to other formats but the idea of working in four colors (THESE four colors) was enough to make me stand on a chair with rope in hand. The problem was the palette. Since we were making art in 320x200 mode, we had black, white, cyan and magenta to work with. Seriously, you try and make someone look alive in those colors. BTW, I *think* we used PC Paint for these graphics.
Shadowgate in CGA mode. Now let us never speak of it again.
We were finally given 16 colors to work with when we were asked to do the EGA (Enhanced Graphics Adapter) mode for PC’s. I seem to remember you could choose 16 colors out of a possible 64. We still needed to dither the graphics but were happy to be able to create our own palette. Again, I think it was PC Paint.
Deja Vu Screenshot in EGA mode
5-bit Depth and beyond
This was like Nirvana. Someone had come in and given us Christmas presents in July. We had just gotten ahold of a few Commodore Amigas and a wonderful program called Deluxe Paint. We now had the ability to create artwork in 32 colors. Much to the programmers chagrin, we created far less patterns and did a lot more random dithering. I think that we still shipped this game on one disk. Anyway, we used Deluxe Paint for both the Amiga and Atari ST versions. Why didn’t we use Degas - Atari’s paint program? Because we had Deluxe Paint :)
The Amiga and Atari ST title screen
What about SVGA - 256 colors? At this point, Dave and I were overwhelmed with the amount of work (I didn’t even mention the Commodore 64 stuff!) and hired an external artist to create this 8-bit artwork.
Windows: SVGA mode
The fan favorite: NES (and GBC)
While Dave and I didn’t do the artwork for the NES and GBC ports, we were intimately involved in working with KEMCO to ensure that the game UI worked well and the text and design was true to the original. To be perfectly honest, when KEMCO approached ICOM, few of us (myself included) didn’t think it would work very well with a controller. KEMCO was insistent though and showed us an early build. English translations aside, we were pleasantly surprised and went on to create the first three games with them before the NES gave in to the SNES. Of course, later we worked with them to do GBC ports and have always maintained a great relationship.
Other than the unique controls in the game, the NES stood out for another reason. It was the first MacVenture port that featured a soundtrack - and a memorable one at that! Hiroyuki Masuno did a fabulous job and many NES fans still email us, saying this was their favorite composition.
NES and GBC screenshots
In 2012, we started Zojoi, reacquired the rights to the MacVentures, and Kickstarted Shadowgate. However, this one wouldn’t be just another port. We would have new puzzles along with familiar locations and game situations. Our next blog will talk about why we brought it back and the challenges we faced in making it.