I met Scott Adams through my Dad when I was growing up in Orlando. I’d played text adventure games like Zork and Colossal Cave, but through Scott’s Adventure International games I discovered a whole new universe of possibilities with graphical adventures. He recently took the time to answer some of my questions about life as one of the early indie devs.
Q: I grew up playing games like Adventureland and Savage Island, during the era when personal computers just started showing up in people’s homes. What engaged your imagination as a kid in Florida?
A: Our dad built us a space capsule. It was 4-by-4 wood framed metal shed with a metal roof and metal sides. It was just outside the back door. But it was ours. We imagined everything from outer space adventures, camping, time travel, etc. You do know most little kids love the boxes more than the presents sometimes; well, this was our big box. We also were allowed free reign of our neighborhood. Well, within two blocks either way. It was a new subdivision that had the original house that sat on 10+ acres and it was deserted now. Instant adventures. It was a haunted house, a treasure maze, and a castle. There was also a giant river with mega fish in it. All right, it was a drainage canal with guppies. We also had an entire forest and jungle area to be Tarzan and Robin Hood in. (Well, maybe it was a small empty lot with trees. I read a lot and had lots of imagination enough for me, my brothers and friends. We went on the most marvelous adventures within that two-block area that any kid could ever wish for. When the weather didn’t allow outside play, I was either reading or playing board games. I loved Monopoly, Risk, Stratego, the Wizard of Oz, Mousetrap, Parcheesi. Later, as a teen, I built a slot-car setup in our garage and rented it out for the neighbor kids to play.
Q: How did you come around to the idea of designing adventure games?
A: In the late 1970s, I worked at Stromberg Carlson in Florida as a programmer. They had a copy of Colossal Caves on the mainframe. I came in early every day for a week and played the game through outside of business hours. I totally enjoyed. I had just recently gotten my first appliance computer a TRS-80 Model 1 with Level 2 BASIC and 16k of memory. I was learning BASIC and have always found the easiest way to learn a new language was to write a game. I was intrigued with the idea of strings. Assembler, Fortran, and COBOL did not really support these. I wanted to do a game using strings and thought adventure-style game would be a way to go. Mentioning it to friends at work, they said there was no way to fit a mainframe game like Colossal Caves in a tiny toy computer. I was not deterred. I developed my game by writing my own adventure language as a database and then having an interpreter that would read the language to control the game play. I developed both the game and the language as I went.
Q: Explain some limitations you faced in those early adventure games and how you overcame them.
A: The machine I was working on was on only 16k. This email I am writing today will probably be bigger. I had to give enough of a vocabulary to let the player try numerous things and to be able to react to as many of them as possible. The TRS-80 shipped with only upper-case font. I also had to do all my program saves to a slow cassette recorder tape and I made sure I made numerous backups as well. I also did not have a very good printer at the time and the screen of the TRS-80 was relatively small compared to what is in use today in modern PCs.
Q: What do you think of the expansiveness of the video game industry now that so many tools are available to developers?
A: It is wonderful to see. The more tools available, the easier the life of the developer. I had to invent many of the tools I used and that also took a lot of time.
Q: How did you envision the games industry evolving when you helped launch it as a young designer? Is it anything like you imagined?
A: I had no clue where it was going, but I was glad to see others liked to use computers to play games. In the early days of the nascent home computer market, games were considered an infantile use of the resource!
Q: What was your favorite game design project and why?
A: I would say it was when I turned a multimillion dollar radar station into a video game. I worked on the Air Force Eastern Test range at a radar site on Antigua Island. I did a number of programming projects for the company that earned me some major accolades. I had permission to use the mainframe after hours and what I did was get a version of Star Trek game running on the teletype. It was turn-based strategy game and very slow to make moves due to the TTY-33 being so slow. I got the idea to use the radar tracking screens for the game. I actually got it working and was able to play the game on them!
Q: Which game proved to be the greatest struggle for you and why?
A: In the mid 80s I had the license to the entire Marvel Universe for use in making computer games. Commodore Computer convinced me they could do a better job marketing the entire game catalog. Allowing them to do that was a big mistake and trying to keep Adventure International alive after that was my biggest struggle. Sadly, I failed.
Q: What’s your proudest achievement as a game designer?
A: It is hard to pick. Here are some that stand out to me.
1. I had the first Sphere computer kit that was ever ordered and invented a graphic video card for it (it was text only) and then I built tank war controllers for two players that allowed them to use both hands to steer their tanks. I then wrote a top-down tank war game.
2. I believe I created the world’s first 16-bit home computer game. (see the sidebar on my website)
3. I created a full graphic adventure game into a home computer cartridge. This was the game Return To Pirates Island for the TI 99/4. To get the graphics to work, I developed a graphic palette that allowed the game artist to draw the picture by reusing pieces. It was then cel-shaded.
4. Creating my Adventure game-writing system.
5. Creating a top-down video game for the Atari 400/800 written entirely in FORTH. It was a firefighting game called SAFIRE that I never released and all evidence of it is now long gone.
Q: What’s your greatest regret as a game designer?
A: Having to close Adventure International.
Q: Are you playing many games these days? If so, what’s gotten your attention?
A: I have a Guild Wars 2 account and enjoy that a lot. Though I am currently trying to use most of my game-playing time to work on a project.
Q: You’re traveling around the country in an RV? What’s up with that?
A: I was invited to speak at the Christian Game Developers Conference this year (www.cgdc.org) after already planning a two week vacation to Florida to visit family. My wife and I decided to turn it into a full month long 7,000+ trek around the country instead. I finally got to see Carlsbad Caverns, Yellowstone National Park among numerous other sights! I highly recommend the CGDC to any game developers out there. It was an amazing experience.
Q: Are you working on new games? If so, can you tell me anything about them? If not, what’s keeping you busy (besides traveling)?
A: I am in the process of getting my Adventure game engine wrapped with Unity. This will then allow me to reach more platforms beyond the PC. I am also in possible negotiations to help with another franchise project. It’s too early to talk about this though and may not pan out to anything.
Q: Why should a young indie designer bother trying in a market that’s now inundated?
A: If you never try you guaranteed never to succeed. But if you try you never know what may happen down the road. Do what you love and love what you do!
Q: What’s a good reason for doing anything but game design?
A: Without being flippant that is a very good question. Ultimately to me, what is the most important is the discovering of the gifts that God has given you and then making sure you are using them for the purpose He set out for your life. If you don’t do that then it is all meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
Wes Platt is the lead writer/designer for Prologue Games. Their first game, an episodic narrative adventure called Knee Deep, launched its final act on Steam in March. Before that, he was a professional journalist for the St. Petersburg Times and Durham’s Herald-Sun. He designed collaborative real-time adventures at OtherSpace, Chiaroscuro, and Necromundus for players at jointhesaga.com. He also worked as a design lead on Fallen Earth, a post-apocalyptic MMORPG, from 2006-2010. He's on Twitter at @DougPiranha. Reach via email at [email protected]