DALLAS -- John Romero threw a party for
the 20th anniversary of the Apple II -- and a
game-designer nostalgia-fest broke out. Perhaps
it's not surprising that the focus of the banter last
weekend was more play than the little computer
that could in the education market.
party-cum-reunion was, after all, hosted by
Romero, founder of ION Storm and co-creator
of "Doom," the most popular computer game of
And the guest list -- though Steve
Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer,
was the biggest name -- read like a who's who
of game design from two decades ago, when
many of them used the venerable Apple II to
work on their play creations.
Held in Ion Storm's striking office complex,
located on the 54th floor of one of Dallas' most luxurious
skyscrapers, the reunion was a chance for past rivals to
catch up with each other. Where else could you see Joel
Berez, founder of Infocom, talking with Ron Gilbert, creator
of "Maniac Mansion," "Monkey Island" and other influential
graphic adventure games?
The muses of Broderbund
Not all of the guests were former rivals, however.
Three guests in particular, Dan Gorlin, Jordan Mechner and
Doug Smith, created hugely influential games for
Broderbund Software, one of the first giants in computer
Though none of them ever became famous outside of
interactive entertainment circles, a lot of people know their
work. Mechner, who is currently marketing a screenplay
based on the computer game "Last Express" -- a game he
co-created and published through Broderbund, is best
known for "Prince of Persia," a fast-moving, side-scrolling
adventure in which players help a banished prince leap,
climb and fight his way through a Persian palace.
|What were your favorite Mac games? Would you have given up your last copy of 'Lode Runner' to be at this party with Woz and the gang? Add your comments to this story below.
"The thrilling thing for me" about computer games, says
Mechner, "was that it was a medium that you could use to
create a product yourself from start to finish and actually
have a shot at publishing it and having people see it.
"Before computer games came along I was into comic
books. My dream as a kid was to write and direct feature
films, but there is only so much you can do with your Super
8 camera. With an Apple II, you could do something
yourself that was as good as what the pros were doing.
That was an incredible thrill."
Mechner is still involved in the game business. Not only
did he work with Broderbund on "Last Express," Red Orb
Entertainment -- Broderbund's gaming arm -- has hired
him as a consultant on a new 3-D version of "Prince of
Like Mechner, Smith is still
involved in the computer game industry,
though he has drifted away from
Broderbund. A resident of Seattle,
Smith, the creator of "Lode Runner,"
now works as a producer in Electronic
Arts' Seattle office.
'Lode Runner' nostalgia
At the party, Smith took the
opportunity to reminisce with his old
boss, Doug Carlston, founder of Broderbund. Obviously
still friends, Smith and Carlston sparred playfully over
certain points when it came to the history of "Lode Runner."
"I went with Broderbund because the few games that I
had were Broderbund products," says Smith.
"And it was a huge hit," adds Carlston.
"If I remember right, I think you guys quoted me that
you were going to sell 10,000 units and that we should all
"We tried to set expectations at a level we could
achieve," says Carlston.
If you include the Nintendo versions, more than 2.5
million copies of "Lode Runner" were sold.
Of Broderbund's major hit makers, Dan Gorlin, the
man who created "Choplifter," is the furthest removed from
the game industry. He recently worked with Grolier
Interactive on a game called "Bonsai Bug" and with
Microprose on a 3D version of "Choplifter" that was
Gorlin and three other people from the "Choplifter"
team started their own company after Microprose killed the
project. "We're a start-up. I'm the most experienced, most
well-known wannabe in the industry," says Gorlin, who
epitomized the you-can-win-the-lottery-too vision of game
creators. Legend has it that he created "Choplifter" in his
home and sold it to Broderbund for $1 million.
"That's a gross simplification," says Gorlin, who now
devotes much of his time to playing drums for a traditional
African dance troupe. "I did this version with just a
helicopter that sank into this pinkish ground and sent it to
Broderbund. They saw potential and flew me up and did
quite a bit of nurturing. They spent several months
Like most people at the party, Gorlin says the
computer game industry has changed enormously over the
years. "I feel the game industry is nothing like it was before.
It may as well be a different industry."
"I find it difficult to fit in. I think of myself as an artistic
free spirit. The first thing that hit me was that you had to call
yourself something, and none of the things you can call
yourself had anything to do with what I do. There's really
no place for somebody who wants to have technical and
creative control of a project."
Other free spirits
While Broderbund played a pivotal and sometimes
dominant role in the early game market, several other
companies also had hits.
During the early days, when game art sometimes
seemed more like primitive cave drawings than computer
graphics, one company abandoned game graphics entirely.
Infocom, the company that developed a huge following with
such hits as "Zork" and "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy"
published text adventures.
"Our first 35 games were all
text," says Berez. "The last year that
I was there, we began to do
graphics. Up until 1987, the
company was text only. I left in
|'With an Apple II, you could do something
yourself that was as good as what the pros were doing. That was an incredible thrill.'|
-- Game developer Jordan Mechner
Activision, which bought out
Infocom in the late '80s, has recently
released two updated,
graphics-intensive versions of "Zork"
-Infocom's biggest hit.
"Perhaps I'm biased, but I think the original text
adventures had a feel that has never been duplicated by the
graphics products," says Berez. "One of the things we were
always concerned about is that actually seeing things on the
screen would be a let-down. Your imagination is always
better than the reality of what we could put on the screen."
"I think Activision has done a fairly good job of
capturing the product, given the technology, but it's still not
Berez decries what he refers to as the recent decline in
adventure games. "These days the most popular games
seem to involve running around and shooting monsters.
That's OK, but I don't like the idea that it is replacing
He believes, however, that the world may be returning
to a point when it can accept text-based games.
"It's been suggested that we are now in the
post-post-literacy era. For a while people gave up writing
letters and didn't want to type. They wanted visual imagery
and voice mail.
"Now, with the rise and popularity of e-mail and the
Internet, people are getting used to typing again. That could
mean that they would accept text adventures. Text
adventures did not die out because they weren't fun, they
died because new people coming into the market wouldn't
accept games without graphics."
Some of the people at the party, however, see the
industry's future tied to improvements in game graphics.
Mark Turmell, who distinguished himself by creating an
Apple II game called "Sneakers" when he was 16 years
old, has emerged as one of America's most popular arcade
game designers by merging fast game play with wild
"I'm so excited about this business," says Turmell, who
has created such arcade hits as "NBA Jam," "Wrestlemania
the Arcade Game" and "Smash TV." "We're going to see
incredible leaps in technology every couple of years for the
foreseeable future - at least 10 years. Games are going to
become as realistic as your own vision."
"NFL Blitz," one of Turmell's latest projects, has done
so well in arcades that he has spent the last year developing
a four-player version.
On a more somber note, Bill Budge, one of the
inaugural game creators at Electronic Arts, took a moment
to remember programmer Jim Nitchals and game designer
Dani Bunton ("Mule" and "Seven Cities"), two industry
legends who passed away this year.
"Those were young people," says Budge. "To have
them die was a really big shock. I had Jim Nitchals come
over to my house several times. I wrote some games using
his tools. I always felt like he was a good friend."
"Nobody's games were more popular than Dani's,"
Budge says of Bunton, who like himself, was a founding
member of Electronic Arts' elite group of game designers.
"A lot of people will tell you that they keep their Atari 800
running because they want to play 'Mule.' All the people
who play 'Mule' pulled it out and played it when they heard
Budge, who is best known for "Pinball Construction
Set," a game that lets players make virtual pinball tables, has
been out of the industry for years. "I did some work at
Apple for a few years, and I windsurfed in Hawaii for a few
As one of the most successful game designers of all
time, Romero enjoys a certain amount of respect within the
computer industry. Hence, people who might normally
ignore similar invitations came to Dallas to attend Romero's
One of the people Romero was able to attract was
Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer and
designer of the Apple and Apple II computers.
Wozniak was deservedly the belle of the ball at the
Apple II reunion. Though he made no attempt to attract
attention to himself, Wozniak's presence added a feeling of
significance to the party. He spent most of the evening in a
distant corner, surrounded by star-struck fans, answering
their questions and discussing old times.
"When we started, the industry was made of all sorts of
little people who had the idea that they could come out and
start their own companies and start selling some products.
The big corporations weren't moving into this territory and
the big venture capital wasn't moving into this category."
"We were so successful that nowadays, when you
come out with something technological, instantly there are
huge companies and a bunch of venture money and
everybody jumping on it like it's going to be a big thing
involving sales in the millions.
"There was a brief period of time, a little window if you
will, where a lot of little startups could happen and they
were one little kid in a garage. It happened all over the
"Apple is a good example. We even outgrew that era
before it outgrew itself," says Wozniak, who is the
archetype of the Silicon Valley 'kid in a garage'
Wozniak was a product of the Homebrew Club, a
group of early computer enthusiasts who designed and built
their own computers long before the personal computer
Asked if the pioneering people of the Homebrew Club
were more talented than the computer users of today,
Wozniak says that today's users are different than the users
of the '70s. "The Homebrew Club people were inspired by
a chance to be individuals, to be on their own, and help
make a world were we can be the master. They wanted to
make a world in which the little guy can beat the big guy by
having a good powerful tool, and all of a sudden how much
money you had wasn't going to matter as much."
"I do not think that the technical ability, design ability,
marketing ability were well represented by that group of
After years of being a computer industry leader,
Wozniak has now focused his attention on working with
schools to advance high-tech education. I went into the
schools and started teaching kids, and over time my classes
increased in size and scope. I started teaching more than
one class at a time, and I had advanced kids and lower level
"I started training teachers and offering them computers
to use. Then I got involved in planning the school district,
wiring a single school and eventually all the other schools,
and I provided it all."