GRAEME KIDD talks to Adventure guru SCOTT ADAMS
Adventure programs, first written on company-owned mainframes, are nearly a quarter of a century old. Originally written in the sixties for the amusement of the computer wizards who ran commercial data processing installations, adventures such as Colossal Caves and Adventure were run late at night, when all was quiet and the operators wanted something to amuse themselves with. These programs occupied megabytes of storage memory, offered no graphics and could only be played by computer staff when time on the system could be spared.
Scott Adams — who lightheartedly describes himself as a ‘grandfather’ in the microcomputer industry (he is, after all in his thirties) — is regarded as one of the founding fathers of micro adventuring. Scott Adams wrote the first adventure for a micro, and founded Adventure International: the oldest company selling adventure programs retail. Around half a million Scott Adams programs have been sold to date worldwide and he is currently working on a series of adventures based on Marvel’s comic characters. Hulk and Spiderman, his two latest adventures for the Spectrum, are the first two in the Questprobe series, which will expand at the rate of 3 or 4 programs a year and run to over a dozen titles. Both have been CRASH Smashes, and so when we heard that The Man was in the country, we had to go for an interview.
Scott Adams started programming in the late sixties at High School in America. ‘In those days there was no such thing as a micro, and you were lucky to see a mainframe terminal,’ he explains. ‘Our school, as an experiment got a mainframe terminal for students’ use and it became my terminal. I was one of the original hackers.’
This early interest in computing developed into a profession after taking a degree course in System programming, and soon Mr Adams was captivated by Colossal Caves and Adventure. ‘I saw the games on a mainframe, and I was fascinated. I owned a Tandy Model I and thought ‘let’s see if I can write an Adventure type game on the TRS80’. I didn’t listen to the people who said it would be impossible to get a program which existed on megabytes of storage into a 16K machine.
‘I didn’t try and take the existing program and put it into 16K, but sat down and wrote an adventure language of my own for the machine — an interpreter — and proceeded from there to write an adventure in that language. As a system programmer I know how to write tools. The first tool was the adventure language, the second was the interpreter to understand language and the third tool allowed me to develop a database for the interpreter to understand.
‘I wrote four or five different systems first, not an adventure. That was my original adventure-writing language which has been the basis of my programs until recently. We’ve now developed SAGA plus, which stands for Scott Adams Graphics Adventures Plus. It’s a full sentence and graphics interpreter designed to run on machines as small as 48K or as large as 400 megabytes. SAGA is an open ended language which is designed to take advantage of new machines as they come out — we are ready for the next two or three generations of machines.’
Which rather prompted the question as to how Scott Adams saw adventures developing as hardware becomes cheaper and more sophisticated: ‘Adventures will themselves get even more complex and sophisticated. For instance, the next adventure in the Questprobe series, Fantastic Four Part I will be a two player adventure — either two people can play, or one person can play, playing both roles. I can see down the road to a time when fifty players will be playing one adventure.’
The Fantastic Four Parts I and II will be the fourth and fifth adventures in the Questprobe series, with Part I introducing the Torch and The Thing (a Hulk type character) and Part II bringing on the other two characters. Both adventures will be written entirely in SAGA Plus and Scott Adams is confident that the Spectrum versions will have all the features of the disc-based programs written for the larger micros, such as the Apple. Hulk was written in his original adventure interpreter, while Spiderman was written in the original language and upgraded using some SAGA Plus features for tape-based micros. Expect to see Fantastic Four Part I around June this year.
How do Hulk and Spiderman fit in to the scheme of his adventure? ‘I wrote Hulk as a beginner’s adventure deliberately. I put a lot in there aimed at people who had not played adventures before. Because of that I lost some of the complexity that I would have like to have had — which I was able to put back with Spiderman. I would have liked to have written Hulk to be for the experienced Adventurer, or medium experienced, but it wasn’t fair... a lot of people would have been buying Hulk who had never bought an adventure before, because they like Hulk as Hulk.
‘What I had to do was put enough stuff in Hulk so that an experienced adventurer couldn’t sit down, play it for half an hour and be done, but also enough breadth so that a complete adventuring novice could sit down and play it without getting hopelessly frustrated.
‘Spiderman I felt, as the second one out, gave me more leeway, and I was able to make a more complex adventure without as much handholding as I did on Hulk.’
“I wouldn’t listen to people who said it would be impossible to get a program which existed on megabytes of storage into a 16K machine.”
The ‘arcade adventure’ concept is catching on fast, with a number of software houses bringing out arcade action adventure games, including the Wally series from Mikro-Gen and the soon-to-be-launched Chuckie Egg II. How does the founding father of micro adventuring view this development? ‘They’re Twitch Games,’ he grinned, ‘arcade games. An adventure game is one where you use your mind; if you can type, you can play an adventure. If you require anything other than that, you’ve got a twitch game — an arcade game — where your skill of movement is more important than your thinking. Adventure International sells lots of Twitch games, but we don’t call them adventures. These arcade adventures are getting more sophisticated — but they’re still arcade games. People who love adventures won’t play an arcade action game, it’s not the same. But for somebody who likes both, they’re a nice meeting... a nice melting.’
Does this mean that you are an adventure purist — will you play shoot ’em ups? ‘Some of my favourite games are a mixture of the two, Wizardry for instance, is a mixture of the two which I find extremely fascinating. There you have arcade type battle scenes but there’s no joystick, no real-time action, you just use words to interact. As soon as you put a joystick in, where reflexes are important, you no longer have an adventure game.’
What about graphics — the original adventures were text-only, and some adventurers feel that graphics detract from the game, and indeed take up valuable memory which could be better used; others feel that graphics add a great deal to their enjoyment of adventures. ‘I’m on both sides. I write all my adventures as text-only, to be played as text-only. As I’m writing an adventure I say ‘It’d be nice if we had graphics here to give a special effect,’ and I put hooks on the game.
‘Then graphics are added on for those machines that will support them; one thing I insist on is that all my versions support the Graphics OFF switch for people who don’t want the pictures. My adventures can all be played text-only because you don’t lose anything... there are no hints or clues in the picture which do not appear in the text. The graphics are purely illustrations, that’s all they’re designed to be.
‘I like playing graphic adventures myself, but I think a good text adventure doesn’t need graphics — but they’re nice to have. Think of the difference between comic books and novels: in a comic book, the pictures are an intrinsic part of the text. My adventures are not comic books — I’m writing illustrated novels if you like. The pictures are nice, and they help break up the monotony but you can clip them out and not lose a thing.’
A large number of commercially produced adventure programs are now being written using utilities such as The Quill. What do you think about such utilities? ‘Well, I’ve not sat down and looked at The Quill, but in general I’ve seen a number of these packages and it’s clear that it’s hard to make an adventure writing system that allows the average person to take off and write an adventure, because by definition a good adventure has to be fairly well packed into the machine. To pack code that well you have to have intimate knowledge of what you’re doing. They do give people a taste of what it is like to write an adventure though.’
So how do you set out to write an adventure?
‘The first thing I decide is ‘what’s the theme’ — obviously with the Marvel adventures that’s fairly simple; then I decide whether I want a treasure hunt or a mission. If it’s a mission — what is my mission? If it’s a treasure hunt then it’s usually easier to write, you don’t have to be as serial in what you’re doing. Then I start putting in locations and start thinking of the problems that I’d like the player to overcome and some of the ways I’d like to see him solve it.
‘Some of the more wicked things I’ve done is put in a problem that might have seven or eight different solutions, but when you get to the end only one solution was allowed. It’s a matter of balancing. Sorcerer of Claymore Castle was unique in that respect. You’re casting spells and you can use spells for a lot of different things — for example one spell might open any door; the trick is to find the right door to open with it.
‘Another thing an adventure should have is the ability to give the player some sort of clue so that technically, if the player is clever enough to figure it out, it’s possible to play an adventure without dying or losing points from the very beginning to the end. If you’re really clever enough, all the clues should be there from the start — that’s hard to write. To my mind, that makes a better adventure. In other words it’s not a case of ‘if he opens that door a brick’s going to fall on his head and kill him’ — that would be unfair of me. There should be a way of letting the player know ahead of time, of giving him a chance — there might be a glass panel above the door for instance, and if he’s smart enough to look first through the panel, then he’ll see the brick up there. If he just goes charging in and gets killed, well that’s his fault!’
Is it really a game between you and the adventurer? ‘I’m trying to give the player all the clues he needs to solve the problems, but I’m also trying to do it in such a way that I’m going to — not confuse him, but send him off on the wrong path deliberately, and give him a red herring. I want to put the correct clues there, but I want to make it interesting enough so that the player doesn’t solve it the right way the first time.’
So what does the man who has turned from a self confessed computer junky into, arguably, the world’s leading adventure writer, do to relax? ‘I keep salt water fish — from octopus to trigger fish, and I have seven or eight tanks in my home in Florida. It takes a great deal of care to keep salt water fish alive and prospering. It’s the first hobby I’ve had for ten years that has nothing to do with computers. It started when I walked into a salt water fish shop and just seeing it all there. They had a great tank of invertebrae and there was an octopus in there — I was just fascinated. So I started looking at what it takes to keep an octopus alive. So far I’ve done very well — my original octopus is still thriving. I find it profoundly relaxing — the animals themselves are just gorgeous. In the beginning I just sat for hours looking at the tank with the water bubbling.’
How do his wife and children cope with him spending hours glued to a computer, writing adventures? ‘My wife is the Corporate Vice President of the company, and she handles most of the business — she enjoys the fish too so we have close interests and it all works out very nicely. I have two daughters and a son, the eldest is six so they’re not ready for my adventures yet, but my eldest daughter plays alphabet games on the computer already, so I have hopes....’
And there we had to leave it. Mr Adams had promised to do some shopping in Birmingham city centre that afternoon, and as a good father couldn’t let his daughter down.