Industry veteran Bob Bates, most recently Chief Creative Officer at Zynga (the company behind FarmVille) recently announced his intention to return to his game development roots in the form of a Kickstarter that will put the finishing touches to his pet project, Thaumistry: In Charms Way, a game he has been working on sporadically for the last decade. The unique selling point? Thaumistry is a text adventure, that Bates hopes, will rival the quality of the games he helped design for Infocom, and his own company, Legend Entertainment in the late 1980s and early 1990s
At the time of writing, Thaumistry has reached the lower funding target of $25,000 that will enable Bates to take a few months off from his consulting career to complete a PC version of the game. Stretch goal targets have already been announced, which include Steam Trading Cards, compatibility conversions to Android and iOS so the game can be played on tablets and mobile phones, and a musical soundtrack.
The latest chapter in a long career that has seen him take on every industry role there is, Bates first entered the games industry in 1986, as a way of satisfying his urge to become a novelist following an earlier career as a tour guide operator. He contacted Infocom, securing the right to produce text adventures under their label. Over the next three years, he developed two well received titles; Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels and Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, before Infocom was shuttered by owners Activision in 1989.
Encouraged by his experiences at Infocom, Bates quickly decided that he wanted to continue making games, forming Legend Entertainment with Mike Verdu, and a number of other young developers. Believing that text adventures had greater depth because, unlike point and click and 3D games, there was a sense that players could try anything, the fledgling company persisted with the genre, producing seven games between 1990 and 1993.
A close knit team, Legend initially developed and published their games entirely in house – they wrote the code, duplicated the disks, wrote and printed the manuals, designed the cover art, shrink-wrapped the games for shipment, and even provided their own customer support. By doing this, Legend were able to keep costs down whilst focusing on what mattered to them; creating immersive games with great stories, and building a good relationship with their customer base.
By 1993, the year that Trilobyte released CD-ROM killer app The 7th Guest, a 3D mystery which sold over two million copies, Legend were the only company still producing commercial text adventure games. Even Activision, had abandoned the format, producing a 3D adventure, Return to Zork in the same year. Given this graphical advance – Bill Gates famously heralded The 7th Guest “the new standard in interactive entertainment” – it’s surprising to learn that the winner of Computer Gaming World’s Adventure Game of the Year 1993 (and several other prestigious awards) was Legend’s Eric the Unready, which shipped on a single CD, of which only 30mb was utilised.
Even Legend had to change focus however, firstly to point and click adventures in the style of Sierra Online and LucasArts, and then when sales of those began to decline in the late 1990s, first person shooters, “With the advent of…graphic-intensive games like Myst and 7th Guest,” Bates lamented in a recent interview to coincide with the Kickstarter launch, “the industry started on a graphics binge from which it still suffers. Games started to cost more and more to make. Soon you couldn’t create a competitive game for under $1 Million, and the break-evens started to go to 100,000 units, to 250,000 units and more.”
Though Legend’s approach to game designed remained largely the same regardless of genre – they also dabbled in RPGs and strategy – their earlier experience making text adventures had taught them to value the narrative elements of video games. The experience of developing FPS games was therefore a learning curve for Bates, in terms of what gamers value in a product. “I’d like to believe that story is the most important part of a game, but it’s really not,” he admitted at the 2014 Nasscom Game Developer Conference. “The most important part is the gameplay, also the graphics, whether it plays smoothly, if there are no bugs, and it’s a long way down the list before you get to storytelling as the most important thing.”
Thaumistry will almost certainly not be a commercial hit, but its existence makes an important statement. The video games industry is now largely a “hits only” business, with only a few companies able to afford the risk of making the expansive games that many fans crave, and only free-to-play and directly distributed games make it possible for smaller games to make a mainstream comeback. The irony being that while AAA titles sell in huge numbers, a relatively small number of gamers ever complete them. In 2015, Steam reported that only 6.4% of players who had bought role-playing adventure Pillars of Eternity had completed it, only 15% finished Alien Isolation, and only 15% of Destiny players have completed a raid.
There is certainly more room for companies in the Legend mould, who can strike a balance between producing casual games that provide quick entertainment, and AAA games that cost millions, provide expansive environments, but then fail to live up to their own hype. With half of the people who enter the games industry every year have left within five years, citing disillusionment with long development cycles, cookie cutter projects that never see the light of day, and the alienation they feel from making contributions to huge games that are so minute that they cannot feel artistically satisfied. “In hindsight, as the game industry has become larger…and ever more impersonal,” Bates has admitted “I realize I should have taken more joy from working with that small group of talented people who took so much pride in our games and in our company.”
Though it never tried to be at the forefront of the technological race, one wonders whether ultimately, the Legend approach might have been more sustainable, and more fulfilling. Even if text adventures are an extreme example of developmental simplicity, Bob Bates is to be applauded for having once again bringing a little scale and perspective to what can now be an impersonal industry.
Long live Legend!
Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls (1990)
The Spellcasting series, written by Infocom veteran Steve Meretzky, is a wonderfully funny trilogy of games that has been characterised as Harry Potter for adults. In the first game, Ernie Eaglebeak is a nerdy highs school graduate who escapes a bad relationship with his stepfather Joey Rottenwood after he is accepted at Sorcerer University, a prestigious university of magic. Escaping Rottenwood’s custody, Eaglebeak enrols, learning magic, whist attempting to save his ancient advisor Otto Tickingclock, who is kidnapped by a mysterious foe, along with the Sorcerer’s Appliance, a powerful magical device that almost certainly shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. A promised forth entry to the series, in which Eaglebeek would have graduated, was never completed, but there are still three worthy titles to play though, ending with the obligatory Spring Break setting of Spellcasting 301: Spring Break.
Eric the Unready (1993)
The tale of a young man who wants to be a knight so badly that he turns up to his first battle with a “How to Joust” manual, Eric the Unready is indeed hilarious. Inexplicable winning against an ominous opponent, Eric earns the respect of the Knight’s Guild, in spite of his incompetence. Chosen to rescue Lorealle, the daughter of the King Fudd the Bewildered, who is being held captive by the wicked Morgana the Black, Eric is sent to collect the five magical items that are required to access the castle where Lorealle is being held captive. Full of pop culture references, including an extended riff on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Eric the Unready continually places the player in bizarre situations that require intuitive solutions – a memorable occasion involves you performing a ritual dressed up as a chicken.
Superhero League of Hoboken (1994)
Set in post-apocalyptic New Jersey, this Steve Meretzky title is a hybrid roleplaying game. You play Crimson Tape, the newly appointed head of the Superhero League of Hoboken, a grouping of local superheroes which has fallen on hard times. Your super power: to create organisational charts out of thin air, an ability which serves no purpose whatsoever. Joining you on your missions are a host of characters, including Iron Tummy, who can eat any amount of spicy food without developing indigestion, the Tropical Oil Man, who defeats enemies by giving them high cholesterol, and Princess Glovebox, who can perfectly fold maps. As an RPG, it is far from perfect, but yet again, Legend prove their penchant for humour. The old RPG trope of random encounters is very evident here, with the twist that your fighting McMutants – mutated hamburger mascots – and killer wardrobes.
Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon (1997)
One of the most underrated video games of the 1990s, Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon is a near perfect adaptation of Spider Robinson’s eponymous sci-fi novels, which were hugely popular in the early 1990s. Focusing on a bar in Long Island, whose patrons include aliens, vampires, and other assorted misfits, the game sees you join a number of the regulars on a series of adventures which take you from the Amazon rainforest to outer space. Designed by Josh Mandel, who had previously designed Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist and Space Quest VI: The Spinal Frontier for Sierra Online, Callahan’s is a further example of the lengths Legend went to create a literary experience. Witty and heart-warming, but also thought provoking, you’ll find yourself wishing that you too could drop by Callahan’s Bar for a few beers on Riddle Night.
Wheel of Time (1999)
It’s still relatively rare to see a game released where the main playable character is a woman, and in 1999 it was even rarer. This adaptation of Robert Jordan’s long running Wheel of Time series was well reviewed on release, but was unfortunately buried by Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament. A uniquely complex FPS with strategy and adventure elements, Wheel of Time casts you as Elayna, who uses spell runes – both offensive and defensive – to fight her way through a well-crafted story, which is told through animated cut scenes. Whilst some fans were disappointed that Legend converted to FPS games with this title, it is an absorbing fantasy adventure which puts most modern FPS games to shame for their wafer thin plots.