Games of yore take over the party at Apple II reunion

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.
Written by Steven Kent, Contributor
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.

The cocktail party-cum-reunion was, after all, hosted by Romero, founder of ION Storm and co-creator of "Doom," the most popular computer game of all time. 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 games.

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 Persia."

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 be happy."

"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 canceled.

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 encouraging me."

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 1988."

'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 the same."

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 adventure games."

He believes, however, that the world may be returning to a point when it can accept text-based games.

'Post-post-literacy era'
"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 graphics.

"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 it."

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 years."

Two recluses
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 party.

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 place.

"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' rags-to-riches story.

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 market materialized.

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 people."

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 kids."

"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."

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