Archive for April, 1994

The Back Door To Hollywood

Monday, April 4th, 1994

(This column first appeared in the April 4, 1994 issue of PC Graphics Report)

On one of my recent trips to the Bay Area from my home on the east coast, I decided to swing through L.A. to check out the new NewMedia ’94 conference – the Interface Group’s latest tradeshow/conference attempt to cover an emerging and blurry market.

The topics covered in the various sessions ranged from discussions of the latest digital video compression technologies and the current state of set-top technology, to the creation of video games using comic book characters and Hollywood actors and why it is good to use the actor’s, writer’s, and director’s guilds in producing “NewMedia” titles. Intellectual property issues were also covered in a couple of sessions, as was the production process of creating an interactive educational program based on an IMAX movie.

The 100 or so exhibits were just as diverse, with the typical profusion of CD-ROM software distributors, interactive games companies, CD-ROM creation and duplication houses, video capture and video-in-a-window hardware manufacturers, and free magazines. Less typical, but nonetheless present, were the half-dozen publishers of “adult interactive” materials, Buick (yes, the car company), Prodify, a laser pointer distributor, and a credit card company.

What this all seems to point to is a lack of real focus on the part of the Interface Group, and what both exhibitors and session coordinators were somewhat unsure as to what “NewMedia” really means. I suppose you could consider this a boon as well, because it provided interesting (and sometimes unexpected) diversity in both exhibit and session material – something you generally don’t see at more narrow conferences.

One theme that was dominant, however, was that almost everything that was computer related (except the Buick and the laser pointers) was also oriented towards the entertainment side of multimedia.

Business uses of “New Media” were not prominent by any stretch of the imagination. This was apparently not obvious to some people, because when I cornered the Intel speaker (“Indeo is everywhere”) after the digital video compression panel and asked him what Intel’s feeling was about the likelihood of the convergence of both set-top and desk-top compression standards, he proceeded to try and explain why set-top compression standards weren’t important and didn’t have any impact on the business users of PCs. It took me a while to get him to understand that it was my impression that the consumer multimedia and compression market was a heck of a lot larger than the business market, and that was what I wanted a comparison drawn with. He seemed relieved when someone else interrupted the conversation, and after that I never really got an answer from him. In all fairness, he was probably right about the pure business users, who I imagine might be teleconferencers and who would need a symmetric CoDec mechanism to allow for the real-time compression/decompression teleconferencing requires. MPEG, the compression standard of choice for set-tops, doesn’t currently have affordable real-time compression, yet.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about whatever “NewMedia” is, is that it hints about an almost inevitable merger of Hollywood and multimedia. Sure, we’ve already got Star Trek screen savers, movie clips and sound bites, but that’s just a real small tip of the iceberg. The day in which multimedia title performers may get the same sort of acclaim and billing as motion picture performers isn’t that far off. As a matter of fact, some well-known actors are starting to play a part in multi-media. Dennis Miller of Saturday Night Live fame has a couple of comedy titles out (one called, appropriately enough, “It’s Geek to me”), while Kirk Cameron (teenage heartthrob) plays a part in a new Crystal Dynamics game title for 3DO, and, sisters Nancy and Ann Wilson (better known as the rock group Heart) have a new CD-ROM title as well, which chronicles the history of the band, offering interview clips, a photo album, and numerous tracks of Heart hits (it’s called “Heart: 20 Years of Rock & Roll”, published by Compton’s New Media (there’s that term again)).

This last item really struck home with me, because I got to attend a press conference at NewMedia ’94 announcing the new Heart CD-ROM. The press conference coincidentally featured Heart, live. They played a set of 5 songs for a “vast” audience of less than 200. Made it seem downright private and personal, and imminent. Next to me were editors from BYTE and CADENCE, as well as one from Film & Audio magazine; a Hollywood director and even a guy who works on film crews. Certainly not the typical blend of people one usually gets to meet at the typical boring computer press conference. As I left, I was handed the new CD-ROM title, autographed by the Wilson sisters, along with a copy of their latest audio CD.

Will autographed copies of new CD-ROM titles start becoming the norm? And, imagine the audience the release of something like “Batman 7 – Catwoman Returns – The CD-ROM” would command, starring Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Do we start having Premiere night for CD-ROM titles? Do the production costs for CD-ROM titles start matching those of feature movies? Will multimedia actors start earning royalties?

Several prominent stars have been funding multimedia title development companies… Who knows where that will lead. It certainly will lend a whole new flavor to industry shows, with PC veterans hobnobbing with Hollywood illuminati. PC Multimedia and Hollywood are definitely on a collision course. No question about it.

The only question is: Which is more likely to be permanently and irrevocably changed by the other?

Return to Zork

Friday, April 1st, 1994

(This column was written in April of 1994 for Electronic Entertainment magazine, but never got published because the editor who had asked for it left the publication.)

Get Zorked!

In my youth, I spent an amazing amount of time playing computer games, both in the arcade that was next to the computer store I worked at part time, as well as on my trusty TRS-80 and Apple II computers. As time went on, I got around to writing some action video games myself (you can probably find my Fleet Sweep game for CGA equipped PCs in the shareware archives at your local computer store, but don’t rush out to get it – it’s a bit dated).

While I enjoyed playing them, video games generally left me feeling rather empty – a lot of repetitive action, and usually not much of a sense of accomplishment once you cleared a level. Perhaps I’ve been jaded, because what really entranced me were “Adventure” games, in particular text versions of these type of games. I recently had chance to play some of the more new-fangled versions of these adventure games, including Return to Zork, by Activision, which combines action video sequences, digitized speech, and a  graphical user interface to provide a whole new way of interpreting and interacting with an adventure game. Now, before you start turning the page because you don’t want to  read about yet another gushing Return to Zork review, I should tell you that I wasn’t that thrilled with what I saw, and explaining why is going to require delving into a rough history of adventure games.

How Adventure Games Came To Be…
In the heydays of mainframes, graphics weren’t to be had on your local terminal – only text was available, and that was even slow to show on your screen (or even worse, your printer terminal). Obviously, programmers needed some form of entertainment, and adventure games resulted.

An adventure game is oriented around a key element, namely the “goal”. The goal can consist of something you’re trying to achieve (such as a number of points) or solve (such as a mystery or murder). Getting to the goal requires moving from place to place, and taking certain actions. Each place is described in flowing text as you enter it. You need to be read such descriptions carefully because they contain information about various objects that may be located in that place, as well as details about all the different exits from the place (necessary to get from one place to another). Items found or observed in one place may be used in another place to solve some puzzle (i.e. a hatpin from the closet of the mansion may open a locked door in the dungeon).

Navigating around a text adventure game was simple enough – you just entered two word commands, such as GET HATPIN, GO NORTH, UNLOCK DOOR, LOOK NOTE, etc. And since adventure games needed only to display and accept text, they were perfect for the computing environments of a couple of decades ago. Probably the first such game, called “Adventure” (hence the name of the genre), featured secret passwords, a treasure stealing pirate, axe throwing dwarves, a magic beanstalk, and even a giant. Next came the original Zork, and its claim to fame was more complexity and depth, a little randomness (a combat sequence with a troll that could actually result in your death – or at least the death of your adventuring character), and MDL, a new input parser that expanded the commands from two word sequences into complex phrases (i.e. PICK UP THE AXE, THEN THROW IT AT THE TROLL). Of course, simpler two commands still worked for the less keyboard happy. I used to “break” into DEC’s computers just to play this game.

With the appearance of the first commercial PCs (the TRS-80 and Apple II computers), other text adventure games hit the market from a variety of sources. Among the most popular were the Scott Adams adventure series and a series from a 12-year old kid who published under the Mad Hatter Software label (this was before floppy disks became popular and all these were shipped on cassette tapes!). Microsoft then got into the market with the original Adventure, and Infocom brought out Zork, both for these early PCs.

On the Apple II, in particular, Sierra On-Line produced a number of graphically oriented adventure games where text was combined with pictures for each location, but commands still needed to be entered via text commands.

As the IBM PC came into existence and near immediate popularity, these games moved onto that platform as well. Infocom followed up with Zork II and Zork III, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (styled after the popular book), Enchanter, Planetfall, and over two dozen other adventure style games before slowly fading quietly into the scenery before being purchased by Activision in 1987. The closest Infocom got to a graphics adventure was Zork 0, which made the text look a little prettier and incorporated several pictures and interactive, graphical thinking games.

Sierra On-Line went off to produce the ever popular (and growing) King’s Quest series. On the Mac, Leisure Suit Larry captivated game players and raised some controversy as the first popular adult oriented adventure game. Each one of these games provided hours (or even days and weeks) of enjoyment to people who liked solving complex puzzles. It may be obvious that adventure games never made it big in the arcades (or in home entertainment systems, for that matter) because of their inherent complexity (and therefore the length of time they take to play). Dragon’s Lair, the world’s first Laser Disc game, was probably the closest thing to an arcade adventure game we’ll ever see. This meant that while action games got lots of exposure among non-computer users, adventures suffered from lack of recognition in the open market.

Today, PC adventure games have made a comeback, thanks to newer versions (i.e. new plots and puzzles) of King’s Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, and Return to Zork. The adventures are getting more complex as well, but not in plot as much as in the human interface to such games. Return to Zork probably sets the new standard adventure games will need to compete with, and as a standalone entertainment product, is an amazing and impressive piece of work. But, even though Return to Zork offers a significant challenge and numerous brain teasers, it lacks some of the benefits I perceive text adventures as having.

The Hidden Benefits Of Text Adventures
Text Adventures vs. Graphical Adventures – it’s a comparison that evokes the quietly dying argument of what’s better for a person: Reading a book or watching the book cast as a television movie?

As I see it, text adventures provide skills valuable in today’s computer oriented world, skills which you may not even realize you are honing, but skill which will help you in everyday life.

Among the most important skills taught is typing, not necessarily traditional touch-typing, mind you, but typing nonetheless, and accurately, at that! After all, the game isn’t going to understand what GRT KNIFW means. Typing is a must in Western society today, with keyboards being the primary input mechanism for computers. And, spelling skills improve as well.

Reading skills are also enhanced, as you need to comprehend what’s being described and be able retain it for later use. It’s also a great way to expand your vocabulary. For example, do you know what a “rebus” is? Zork recently forced me to use my dictionary to look up “rebus” (if you don’t know its meaning, I’d suggest looking it up – you’ll be surprised to discover that you already know what a rebus is).

Providing canned graphical images instead of place descriptions is something that I find really limits the imagination. This is where the argument of Reading vs. TV comes into play most strongly. With images in your face, your imagination takes a back seat. However, when reading a description, you’ll get to use and expand your imagination to picture what the place looks like – something even the best artist is not going to be able to match exactly. Without imagination, and imagination building tools, we’ll all ultimately become mindless automatons, accepting what’s put in front of us, and never attempting to seek beyond that.

Text adventures (and the same actually does still hold true for many graphically oriented adventures) help build mapping skills. After all, there’s generally a limit to what objects you can carry in your personal inventory, which means you may have to leave certain objects where you found them, only to have to try to locate them again later once you realize you need them. How are you going to find them without either a map or at least very good direction skills?

Finally, in general, I’ve found that text adventures require more thought than graphical adventures. For example, in Return to Zork, when you select an object to manipulate, you are given a list of options of things you can do with that object. In text adventures, there are no such artificial boundaries. You have build your intuitive skills to determine how certain objects may be used, by experimenting with the objects, the written language, and your imagination. All this leads to more thought.

I’m not trying to knock graphical adventures here, but I think that in all our excitement to embrace the latest graphical and aural technologies, we’re forgetting some important roots, and the educational (or “skill-building”, to be more ’90s) value of those roots. Text adventures are excellent challenging, educational, and entertaining games for your whole family to play with, individually or by applying team effort.

Dig out those old disks, search the shareware archives, and give some text adventures a try. For the best of that genre though, Activision has taken all the old Infocom adventures, and repackaged them in two volumes, aptly named The Lost Treasures Of Infocom, I & II. Volume I offers 20 adventures, and Volume II offers 11 adventures (14 on the CD-ROM), priced at $49.95 and $29.95 for diskette versions, respectively. And, for some reason I can’t fathom, $10 more each for the CD-ROM versions. I rate these two collections of adventures an impressive, earth-shaking 7.5 on the Richter Scale.