The Further Text Adventures of Scott Adams

The man who invented the interactive fiction genre talks about its past and future.

A while back I published an interview with gaming pioneer Walter Bright, which happened due to an accidental meeting in the Hacker News discussion of a different article about TRS-80 game development I wrote. It turns out not to be the only happy accident resulting from that article. After publishing it, I had sent a note to the TRS-80 fansite I used for the article to thank them for their work, and ended up accidentally sending mail to Scott Adams, whose address was linked to the site.

He sent me back something polite, saying he was not in charge of the TRS-80 site, he was Scott Adams, the “Adventure Guy”. After that reply I felt foolish — Because I immediately realized I had mistakenly emailed the creator of Adventureland, widely regarded as the first text adventure game ever sold for microcomputers. Scott’s company, Adventure International, produced this and many other text adventure games through the 1980s, pioneering the genre of Interactive Fiction.

I apologized for my dumb mistake. A day later, I realized I had missed a golden chance to interview one of computing’s early game pioneers. I sent him something again, expecting no reply, but was pleasantly surprised when he not only replied back, but graciously agreed to talk with me about the old days of game development, and what he’s been up to lately. Here’s how that went down.

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MNM: Scott, great to meet you finally, thanks for taking the time to chat with The Mad Ned Memo today! I am very interested in hearing about your current projects, but I thought we would maybe first spend a few minutes to talk about the early programming days. I know you had in the 1970s played the mainframe game Colossal Cave, and were inspired to build something similar for the microcomputer world. Was TRS-80 the first machine you decided to write a similar game for?

Scott: I had been working on computers for a long time before that. Before I had the TRS-80 (which we called an “appliance computer”, because you could buy it off-the-shelf) I had a kit computer called Sphere, a machine with a fascinating history, but not well known. It came out about the same time as the MITS Altair but was far better. Before that, my brother built a homebrew 16-bit computer, my other brother built a “TV Typewriter” for it, and I wrote perhaps the world’s first 16-bit game for it.

MNM: That would be the mid-70s, a 16-bit machine then was way ahead of its time. I had read about you and your brothers building hardware and software together. You had quite a technical focus in the family. Your parents doing?

Scott: They were definitely science-minded. My father was always pushing us, to take honors classes and so on, and my mother was always making sure we had what we needed. She got me enrolled for early admission at the University of Miami, I was going to skip my senior year and go into pre-Med. But I didn’t want to go, I wanted to finish my senior year. It’s one of the few times I ever won an argument with her.

I stayed in high school, and that changed everything for me. The state of Florida had an experiment they did. They put a computer terminal in one of the high schools to see what would happen. It was my school they picked, and I was able to use it to dial into the university mainframe using an acoustic modem. The first thing I wanted to do was to write games. I wrote a tic-tac-toe program for it that let you play against the computer.

MNM: I remember standing in line at the Boston Science Museum in the 1970s to play tic-tac-toe on their Honeywell mainframe. I think it’s interesting how the bar was low for what was considered an amazing game back then, and it made it possible for even a new programmer to make something that could ‘wow’ other people. Today the bar is a lot higher to impress game players — but of course the tools available to write games are amazing compared to the old days. Do you think that is a fair trade, for say a new programmer today who wants to create a game that other people like to play?

Scott: Having the right tool for the right job always makes the job go easier. But it doesn’t matter how many people like your game as long as you like your game, and are getting satisfaction from it. As long as you can be creative and make something the way you want it to go, it’s a win.

MNM: I agree. I always got a lot of satisfaction out of writing games, or even parts of them, even though they didn’t get played by a lot of people. Our history is similar there, but diverges when we start talking about what happened with Adventureland. That game was played by many. I used to have it for my VIC-20, and I recently found the original version again on one of the interactive fiction archives. Can I show you my attempt to play it?

Scott: Sure.

MNM: I died in like 11 turns with zero points. Does that break some sort of record?

Scott: Well, you did get out of the forest quickly, and that’s a plus!

MNM: To be fair, waking the dragon was a bad idea (who knew?) But the game ended there, and it even appears I went to Hell for it. Pretty Harsh.

Scott: Unfortunately it was. I did not give a lot of wiggle room for mistakes, although it was possible to get out of Limbo with a different choice, so it was not necessarily the end.

MNM: I have read some recent discussions about adventure game design and the trend towards avoiding the creation of deep paths that are dead ends. Has this kind of thinking informed your more recent game designs?

Scott: Yes, lessons learned. If you play Adventureland XL, you never have to start over. There is nothing you can do to prevent you from winning the game.

MNM: This is your 40th-anniversary reissue of the game. So is it a complete rewrite of Adventureland, or does it retain some of the original content?

Scott: It has all the content of the original, plus an additional new set of content. So if you want to have a better Adventureland experience, I would definitely recommend the XL version over the original.

MNM: Yeah I think the original probably only really interests retro-nerds like me, who enjoy seeing what was possible, given the severe limitations imposed by those early machines like the TRS-80. I remember it was tough to deal with things like article correctness for plurality (eg: “You can see a trees here”); something pretty trivial to deal with now, but expensive when you didn’t have a lot of memory to work with.

Scott: I actually had a fix for that even back then, but it isn’t in the version on the interactive fiction site I guess. The language I developed for creating these games handled that situation though.

MNM: So when you wrote Adventureland, was the idea to create a home product out of a mainframe text adventure game from the start, or did you write it first, and then decide to sell it?

Scott: With the TRS-80, I was interested in writing a game in BASIC because it supported strings. Whenever I learn a new programming language, I always want to write a game in it to learn it. So I thought about what game would use words and strings, and I saw Colossal Cave on the mainframe. I played it for a week, I was hooked, and I said, I want to do something like that. The business came later.

MNM: What always got in the way of selling games back then for me was the logistics of it all. I heard you had a Radio Shack in Florida order 25 copies of Adventureland in an early sale. We are talking cassette tape here. Did you have some special setup to produce them?

Scott: No I just recorded them one by one on my cassette recorder, I think it took all weekend.

MNM: After that, it got ported to many platforms. I played it on my VIC-20 which could not have been an easy port, it only had a 22 character screen width.

Scott: Commodore asked me to port to their platform and I told them no way, because it didn’t have enough memory. They said “What if it were a cartridge?”, and I said, there’s an idea. I think the cartridges we used were 12K which is a lot more than the 5K or so you had to work with in RAM.

MNM: It got ported to just about every home system then. Was there a “dream” machine to port to, and/or a “nightmare” port?

Scott: The TRS-80 was a great place to start, since it was really a text-only machine, the graphic system was very limited, so text-based games there were well received. The biggest problem I had with machines was their I/O systems. The Atari was an amazing system, but the peripherals, because of FCC requirements, were horrible. They literally had an audio bus to write to the disk drive, so it was extremely slow, but they didn’t want to get into trouble with RF interference.

MNM: Do you still own any of these machines?

Scott: The only machine I currently own is the TI-99/4. The main reason I kept this one is that it runs the game “Return to Pirates Island 2” that TI had me write specifically for them. It is a text adventure with graphics, and I think maybe one of the only cartridges that had graphics in a text adventure.

MNM: Fast forwarding a bit, there was a long span of time between Adventure International shutting its doors in 1986, and the start of your new company Clopas LLC, in 2016. What’s it like starting a new company after 25 years?

Scott: It’s totally different the second time around. Different challenges, and rewards. I believe the reason I am doing it this time is because God wanted me to, not because of financial rewards. I think God wants me to use this gift in this area towards His glory, and something for him is going to come out of it. And I’m OK with that.

MNM: I had lost track of you and your work over those 25 years, and I only recently learned for instance that you were a devout Christian, and that the idea for Clopas came up at the Christian Game Developer Conference (CGDC). In truth, I did not even know CGDC existed either. What would you say is the reason we need a separate venue for Christian gamers such as the CGDC, apart from say the mainstream game development world?

Scott: I’ve been to both the Game Developers Conference (GDC) and CGDC. GDC is primarily self-exultation, and trying to make money. That’s the basis of GDC - who’s the biggest and who’s the best, and how do we outshine our neighbors. CGDC was more about everyone coming together to help each other, with what they are doing. It’s just a totally different flavor.

MNM: So would you say there’s a difference in moral framework or bearing between the two?

Scott: Yes, certainly.

MNM: What then constitutes a “Christian” game? Is it one made by Christians, made for Christians, or is it about the moral standards the game abides by?

Scott: I don’t know what a “Christian Game” is. Were my classic games “Christian” games in content? No, they weren’t. Was God using them to uplift people? Yes, He was. So were they “Christian Games”? I don’t know. To me, any game God can use in His glory to uplift people and is a positive, to me I guess you could call that a “Christian Game”.

MNM: So at least some of my readers would not identify as Christian. I would think though many would be interested perhaps in a game considered “Uplifiting”, so long as it was not something really geared just for a Christian audience.

Scott: Yes. For instance, I wrote a game called “The Inheritance”. This is a game that introduces Bible ideas in the story, but is not necessarily a “Christian” game.

MNM: Well if the content is primarily Bible-based, some may debate the idea that it is not Christian in nature. But the question for me would be, would someone who does not identify as Christian enjoy playing that game?

Scott: I’ve had atheists for instance play the game, and tell me it was enjoyable, they liked the story and the puzzles. It was not a game that beat you over the head to convert to Christianity or something.

MNM: So it sounds then like the overall mission of Clopas is to provide games that as you say are “uplifting” and avoid glorification of violence and doing evil. These are kind of what used to be called “Family Values”; it was a term when I was younger I honestly can say was triggering for me as being a censorship issue. But after having kids and getting older, I see another side, of perhaps wanting some game content that you don’t have to worry about your kids consuming.

Scott: Clopas is not a Christian company writing Christian games, but we are a company of Christians, and we do believe everything we do should be uplifting, to God’s glory. So that’s the only rule, and it means our games need to be family-friendly. If a kid wants to say play one of our games with his Grandmother, there’s nothing problematic they would worry about.

MNM: You’ve got an interesting family-friendly thing going on now with creating hybrid graphics and text adventures based on licensed content from the Redwall series of books. This seems like a really rich world to explore.

Scott: Yes we have a few games there, and also we are aiming for a market for an underserved market, and that is “no graphics, no text” versions that are blind-compatible. You can play one of my games, Escape The Gloomer, on Alexa. Unfortunately though when you tell Alexa you want to play “Escape The Gloomer” it says “Oh, you want to groom your dog?” and it’s difficult to get Alexa to bring the game up.

MNM: Maybe Amazon could do something there to train it better.

Scott: I’ve worked directly with Amazon on it, but so far it’s still an issue.

MNM: Hope it gets straightened out, and I hope the no-text, no-graphics game series takes off for you, because it seems like a really good idea, and like you say, helps an underserved market.

I’ve got so much more to ask, but I think it might be a good time to wrap up. Let me ask you a question that maybe a younger interviewer might not ask you. You and I are old-timers in the computer industry, and being one I sometimes wonder, are we going to be writing code in “The Home”?

Scott: I have no idea. Programming is a creative mode, God gave us these gifts, and my creativity tends to come out when writing games. So if my mind is still active, I think I’ll be doing it. I’m not one to just sit there and watch TV for the rest of my life. I do like playing games too, but when I start playing games I begin to think I could be using time to write one instead, and that is usually a lot more fun.

MNM: Thanks so much Scott for taking the time to talk with me. I have on my “to-do” trying out Adventureland XL for one. I will try to not wake the dragon this time.

Scott: You can do whatever you want in that game. Just don’t give up and start over, keep moving forward!

MNM: Good advice for us all!

Explore Further

Next Time: Much has been said about the Agile development process, but not so much I guess to prevent an old Waterfall guy from going on about what happened when he was drafted into becoming a Certified Scrum Master. Making Agile work for you coming up in: Good Cragile: Crappy Agile That Works!

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