Bob Bates interview
With so many adventure game legends coming out of the woodwork in recent years, longtime genre fans may be wondering, “What about Bob?” I’m speaking, of course, about Bob Bates, originally of Infocom before becoming the co-founder of Legend Entertainment. One of the industry’s most influential early pioneers, Bates is the mastermind behind such titles as Sherlock! Riddle of the Crown Jewels, Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur, TIMEQUEST and John Saul’s Blackstone Chronicles. And while adventure fans haven’t heard much from Bob in many years, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down a prolific career both at Zynga and as an independent consultant that includes such far-ranging titles as Spider-Man 3, Sacred 2, Cursed Mountain and even a corporate sexual harassment training game. He’s also been a highly sought-after guest lecturer, and even written a number of successful books on game design.
But text-heavy, story-driven adventures remain Bob’s primary claim to fame, and he’s long overdue for a return to his particular area of expertise. So good news!! We are pleased to break the exclusive announcement that a new Bob Bates text adventure is on the way! It’s called Bodgers, a “comic fantasy that uses spells set in modern-day New York City.” (Update: Since time of writing, the game has been re-christened Thaumistry: In Charm's Way.) That’s about all we can say for now, as a Kickstarter is planned for late January, and we don’t want to steal any of the campaign’s thunder ahead of time. Rest assured, however, when that times comes we’ll have an in-depth look at the game ready and waiting.
In light of this welcome news, what better time for a chat with the man himself? And so, with a little help from passionate Bates fan and fellow developer Agustín Cordes, I conducted an interview with Bob that actually spread out over the course of many months as the big day approached. In the first of two articles (the second still to come, focusing primarily on Thaumistry), we take a detailed look back at his illustrious career, from its humble beginnings as a tour guide in Washington DC to the acclaimed videogame writer and designer he is today. Enjoy!
Ingmar Böke: Hello Bob, it’s my pleasure to welcome another industry legend to Adventure Gamers. We’re eager to talk about your illustrious career as a designer, but let’s begin by going farther back than that. What was your background before you got into the game industry?
Bob Bates: There are only two jobs I’ve ever wanted in my life. The first was to be a teacher. I was convinced until my sophomore year of college that I would become a teacher, probably of high school seniors, because that’s when people seem to “wake up” and start to become themselves.
But in college, I decided that I wanted to be a writer, and that has been my ambition ever since, and what still drives me today.
Unfortunately, the school I was attending (Georgetown University) didn’t have a single writing class. They had lots of literature courses, but nothing that would teach you to write. So I had a choice: transfer to a different school, or stay at Georgetown and find ways to actively learn and practice the craft. I chose the latter. I became Sports Editor of one of the two college papers, then Managing Editor, then a Contributing Editor and humor columnist for the other paper, and finally Editor in Chief of the yearbook.
Bob Bates, circa 2001
After college I was faced with a similar challenge: I had to earn a living, but I wanted to write – which is a profession that notoriously doesn’t pay people enough to live on. So I chose an unusual job, that of a tour guide in Washington DC, near where I grew up. The way this job was structured, I would be with a tourist group 24 hours a day for several days in a row, staying with them in the hotel and guiding them through all their activities in the city. But then I would have several days off between groups, where I could (theoretically) devote all my time to writing. That sort of happened, but I found that I couldn’t actually spend an entire day writing. For whatever reason, my writing sessions are much shorter than a full day.
Over time, I became involved in the management of that tour company, and I eventually started my own company. We were quite successful and by some measures became the largest group tour company in Washington DC.
But during those years, I wasn’t writing, or at least not much. I told my wife that when I turned 30, no matter what, I would get out of the tour business and come back to writing. This came to pass. Within 3 weeks of my 30th birthday, I sold the company (to someone who made only the first payment, and none thereafter!) and started to write a book. I had enough money to live on for two years, and I believed (at the time) that anyone who couldn’t write a novel in two years was just not working hard enough.
[Insert Fate laughing here.]
Two years later, I had half a novel. I got in touch with a literary agent who actually was interested in the book and said he could get me a $20,000 advance for it. He asked how long it would take to finish. I estimated another two years and did the quick math that said that $5,000/year wasn’t enough to make a living. I now know that this offer was actually a strong statement of faith in the book, but I didn’t realize it at the time. If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have taken that offer.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I had to start looking around for a job where I could write, but also get paid enough to eat.
While I was working on the book, my father (a computer expert from the time the machines filled entire rooms) gave me one of his old computers to use as a word-processor – quite a new thing in those days, when all my previous writing had been done on a beloved IBM Correcting Selectric II with its amazing trackball. This computer was a TRS80 (with dual 5.25” floppies!), and on it was a game called Zork.
The possibilities were immediately obvious to me. Here was a business that didn’t have the high barrier-to-entry of the New York literary scene, where a writer of modest talent could make a living creating the kind of games that he loved to play.
I started a business with a friend, Dave Wilt, whom I had met through singing, and in 1986 we created the company called Challenge. The idea was that if you thought Infocom games were hard, just wait until you played a Challenge game! Little did we know that this was exactly when Infocom was deciding (correctly) that its games were too hard.
The story goes on from there. But that’s the story of what I did before I got involved in the games industry.
Ingmar: How did your fascination with games start?
Bob: I come from a family of eight children, and games have always been a part of our lives. They still are – whenever the family gets together, you can be sure we’ll be playing games within minutes. My parents – both mathematicians – were avid bridge players. My father taught us chess and several of us became much better-than-average chess players. (We knew those things back then, because Chess Life magazine would publish national rankings every month).
So I grew up with games of all sorts – Poker, Chess, Bridge, Whist, Cribbage, Hearts, and of course board games of every stripe.
Looking back, I suspect this might have been a survival strategy on the part of my parents. If you have eight unruly kids, how do you corral them into one spot so you can have some peace and quiet? Have them play games!
Ingmar: Please tell us how you got involved with Infocom and what your early memories of that company are.
Bob: When I started Challenge, it was to compete with Infocom. But one of the first things my partner said was, “Why build a game engine from scratch if you can license one? Who has a good adventure game engine?” Well the answer, of course, was Infocom, but I told him it was unlikely that they’d want to license the engine to a potential competitor. He said to call them anyway, and so with my heart in my mouth, I did.
Infocom’s answer was that they might be interested in licensing the engine, but that the cost would be $1 Million. That was well beyond anything we could consider, but I went back to them and said, “What if we did a 10-game deal with you, with a license fee of $100,000 per game?” They said they would think about it.
As it happened, this was soon after Infocom had been bought by Activision (called Mediagenic at the time), and the CEO of that company, Jim Levy, was planning to connect on a flight through Dulles Airport, near where I live outside of Washington DC. I booked a conference room at the airport and we met on a Friday afternoon.
When I walked in he asked, “Why should we license our engine to you?” I answered by saying, “I don’t have access to your sales records, but here are the Infocom games that I think have been successful, and here and the ones that I think have not, and here are the reasons why.” We had a good conversation, and the following Monday I got a phone call from Infocom saying, “Let’s forget about the licensing deal, how would you like to develop games directly for us?”
So that’s how I became Infocom’s first developer who wasn’t located in their Cambridge office.
Ingmar: Can you give us an overview of the Infocom games you did and share memories that come to mind from the development of each game?
Bob: The first game I wrote for Infocom was Sherlock! The Riddle of the Crown Jewels.
Infocom’s games were built on a DEC-20 mainframe, using a proprietary language called ZIL. So the first thing we had to do was to rent time on a local DEC-20, and the second was to learn ZIL. My partner, Dave Wilt, had ties to a hi-tech consulting firm called American Management Systems, and he set up the mainframe arrangements. Learning ZIL was more problematic. As I’ve said, I was a writer with no programming experience. So we approached a local programming-services-for-hire firm called Paragon Systems. We set up a consulting agreement to get near full-time access to two of their employees, Mark Poesch and Duane Beck. Those two, together with Frederick Wilt (Dave’s brother) were the three who did the game programming for Sherlock. (By the way, Paragon Systems was owned by a young guy named Mike Verdu, who dropped out of college to run his company. You’ll be seeing his name again!)
I remember traveling up to Infocom’s “new” office in Cambridge Park and sitting with Stu Galley as he patiently taught us the fundamentals of ZIL. I remember the poster in his office: “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” Between Stu and Chris Reeve, we managed to learn enough to start coding. Duane and Mark did the heavy lifting, and along the way Duane started to teach me to code as well. By the end of Sherlock’s development, I was very warily dipping my toe in the programming waters.
As for the game itself, I have trouble remembering details, other than the design lessons I learned “on the job.” Years later, and sometimes still, people ask me questions about the puzzles in my games, and inevitably I have to go back and start the game up to figure out how to answer their questions. I do have a pretty bad memory, but I claim a special exemption for remembering details of old games. My excuse is that when you’re designing a game, there are dozens of avenues you explore as you’re creating the puzzles, and it’s easy to forget which of several possible solutions you actually implemented! Usually the way I find out is to play the game, get to the puzzle, and then say, “Hmmm, how would I solve this.” That mostly works, as it turns out that I tend to think like myself. Needless to say, however, I am often surprised along the way as I try out various odd inputs and discover responses that I wrote and forgot 30 years ago.
The most vivid lessons that I learned from Sherlock were to always watch people play your game, and never to make things too difficult for the player at the beginning.
The first of these I learned when proudly showing my father-in-law (a non-gamer, as pretty much everyone was back then) an alpha version of the game. The opening text had him standing in front of the door to 221B Baker Street with a doorbell conveniently in view. What could be simpler than >Ring Doorbell. Instead he typed everything BUT that. Inputs like “Where is Sherlock Holmes?” and “Why can’t I open the door?” The Lesson: People don’t necessarily come to your games knowing the conventions of your genre. This lesson is especially valuable these days in the development of casual games.
The second lesson I learned was to ease the player into the game. In Sherlock, the most difficult puzzle in the game is one of the very first puzzles you have to solve. (Is it necessary to post a Spoiler Alert for a game that came out two decades ago? Yes? OK: SPOILER ALERT)
In the game there was a faithful recreation of the layout of Westminster Abbey, and especially the statues and memorials that are still in the building to this day. The player had to figure out that he needed to take a rubbing of the inscription on one of the statues. Not only did he have to find the materials to make the rubbing, but he had to figure out which statue was the right one. And oh yes, when he made the rubbing, the page was blank – it turns out the information was transferred to the paper with invisible ink. So he had to find a heat source to reveal the writing. Thankfully, there was a chapel nearby where a lot of votive candles had been lit, which was a sufficient heat source. So now the player has done everything he needs to, but the paper is STILL blank. The final step? >Turn paper over.
Never since have I put so difficult a puzzle at the beginning of a game.
The second game I wrote for Infocom was Arthur, The Quest for Excalibur. This was the first game I did that had graphics. (And believe it or not, the game won the MacWorld 1989 Graphic Adventure of the Year award!)
I remember the added complexity and limitations of creating scenes and puzzles when the player had an actual image to look at. Everything that the artist happened to throw into a scene became an object that the player might try to interact with, so suddenly I found myself dealing with much more work than I had intended. On the positive, however, was that the artists brought real life to the places I had created, and the artists’ versions were always so much more interesting than what I had imagined.
I don’t remember much about the game itself, other than how cool it was that the player could change himself into different animals (a la The Once and Future King), and how much fun it was to design puzzles that the player could only solve when he was in the form of an owl or a badger or whatever.
Ingmar: How did things come to an end for the company?
Bob: This is really well-documented, so I won’t go into it much here. Suffice it to say that Infocom was actually founded to be a business software development company, and they used the profits from their games to fund development of a relational database program called “Cornerstone” (not so affectionately known as “Millstone” among the game-makers in the company).
As the popularity of text adventures declined, and the company kept plowing more money into Cornerstone, eventually the money ran out. Infocom’s parent closed the doors in May of 1989.
By that time, Mike Verdu had sold his company to a large defense contractor called ASC. Mike was a director there, and he talked the owners into backing a new company. We originally called ourselves GameWorks, but it turned out that Borland had an obscure product with that name, so we went with our second favorite: Legend Entertainment. My wife, Peggy Oriani, designed the shield as our company logo. She became our marketing director and we were off to the races.
Ingmar: When people remember the golden era of adventure games, they usually come up with two companies right away: Sierra and LucasArts. Does that bother you? After all, you paved the way for a lot of things that followed later and a lot of people don’t even seem to know that anymore.
Bob: I think I disagree with your premise. I believe that when people remember the golden era of adventure games, they certainly put Infocom right at the top. This is especially true if you say “text adventure,” and I think people would be hard-pressed to name even one other text adventure game company other than Infocom.
Certainly when you mention the golden era of graphic adventure games, Sierra and LucasArts are the first two on the list, and deservedly so. Even though the later Infocom games did include graphics, none of our games approached the level of delight to be found in, say, Monkey Island. Regrettably, I believe the same is true for our Legend Entertainment games. We were competing head-to-head with Sierra and LucasArts, and while I think we made great games, I don’t think there was any question that the other two companies were kings of the category.
Ingmar: You’re certainly right that many who go back far enough do remember Infocom fondly. In your mind, what makes Infocom so special even after all these years?
Bob: I think the answer is that there is still power in the open-ended worlds that parser-driven adventure games created. Players felt that they could type anything and have a decent chance that the implementers might have a special message waiting for them.
I know that my biggest joy in writing the games for Infocom, and later for Legend, was the sense that I had a one-to-one relationship with the person playing the game. As a player, you might be faced with a particular situation and come up with an input that is so off-the-wall that you think you’re the only person in the world who would ever type that. If the game comes right back to you with a non-default response that shows the author anticipated the input, that is magic.
I remember with fondness the very late nights when I would be coding at 3:00 in the morning and saying to myself, “Someone is going to be playing this game at 3:00 in the morning, and they’re going to be feeling just as tired and halfway crazy as I feel right now. What are they going to type, and how can I reward them for it?”
That kind of one-to-one relationship between the player and author has passed from our game-making, and we are all the poorer for it.
Ingmar: When you and Mike Verdu founded Legend Entertaiment, what was the philosophy behind the company and how much was Legend still related to Infocom?
Bob: Legend was a very definite break from Infocom. At the beginning, we were petrified that Infocom would claim that we had stolen their parser. We went so far as to formally “black box” our game engine – which is to say that I wrote up a new design for the Legend parser and farmed its development out to a company that had had no contact whatsoever with Infocom. This, even though Duane Beck and Mark Poesch were fully capable of developing our parser themselves. We didn’t want to run the risk that Infocom could claim we had stolen their code.
That said, there were certainly some spiritual ties between Legend and Infocom. Most obvious was that we were doing parser-driven adventure games (albeit with graphics), and that our first several games were written by ex-Infocom authors (Steve Meretzky and myself).
Our philosophy was that we believed there was still a market for adventure games, as evidenced by the continuing success of Sierra and LucasArts. We felt that our games had greater depth because the point-and-click games were already losing the magic of the open-ended-ness that I mentioned earlier – the sense that the player could try anything.
Ingmar: How do you remember the mood at the company in the early days?
Bob: Legend was a company made up of very young people. I was the oldest at 35, and the next oldest was my partner Mike Verdu at age 24. Everyone else was younger still!
So we were young and enthusiastic and ready to work our butts off, which we did. We were delighted with our early successes, but always disappointed that we never were able to unseat Sierra or LucasArts.
Nevertheless, it was an adventure, and we all shared the feeling that we were creating something special with our games. Also, you have to remember that we were a publisher as well as a developer. That meant that we were responsible not only for writing the code and creating the master disk, but also everything that came afterwards – getting the disks duplicated, getting labels onto the disks, writing and printing the manuals, contracting for the box cover art, getting all the finished elements into the boxes, and even shrink-wrapping the boxes. We did it all with just a few people and a fulfillment house. We delivered pallets of thousands of finished boxes to our distributor, who then shipped them off to the retail stores where our games were sold.
So we were creating not just games, but a company. We did our own customer support, we read the comments on the warranty cards that players returned to us. We had real relationships with our customers. In hindsight, as the game industry has become larger, more hits-driven, and ever more impersonal, 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.
I should also note that after we shut down, virtually all of our people have gone on to stellar careers in the games industry.
Ingmar: Legend developed a versatile engine for its catalogue of adventures. How much were you involved in its creation? Like many other companies, you had to adapt to the new industry-changing paradigms like the popularization of the mouse and CD-ROM. What was the impact on the engine and the design of your games?
Bob: The lion’s share of the credit for our game engine goes to Mark Poesch and Duane Beck. As I mentioned earlier, I wrote the specs for our original parser and that was built out-of-house. But the parser ended up being only a small part of the overall engine, and Mark and Duane were the guys who built the majority of it. Michael Lindner also played a strong role, especially with regard to music integration.
Legend's multifaceted interface on display in Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls
My role was to be one of the many voices concerned with the “look and feel” of the games. We wanted them to be parser-driven, but we also needed to respond to the rising use of the mouse. We decided that we would have several modes – an all-text mode for people who didn’t care about the pictures, a horizontally split-screen mode with graphics on the top half and typed input and game responses on the bottom half, for people who wanted to see the pictures but still wanted to type, and then a menu-driven mode for people who only wanted to click.
The key to creating this third mode was when I realized that once a verb had been selected from the left hand column, the list of verbs could go away to be replaced by a list of prepositions. That allowed us to have a fully clickable three token parser for inputs like >Hit ball with bat. I was pretty proud of that one.
Other than that, my engine work was mostly confined to working with Duane to continually refine the “smarts” of the engine to make it better at disambiguating player inputs. We hated messages like “Which ball do you mean, the red one or the blue one?” and developed quite sophisticated ways to figure out what players were trying to do. We also did a lot of work with the pronouns like “it” and “her” for example, to make interacting with the game more natural and to reduce typing.
Later, when we went to the inverse parser that we used starting with Companions of Xanth, I think Michael Lindner was responsible for most of the thinking that went into that interface.
With regard to CD-ROMs, they were probably the biggest contributor to the death of adventure games. I think it cost us about $125,000 to create Spellcasting 101. You could sell 30,000 copies of a game like that and make a handsome profit. With the advent of CD-ROMs and graphic-intensive games like Myst and 7th Guest, 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.
One of the biggest problems with the game industry today is that AAA games are outrageously expensive to make. Artists comprise between 2/3 and 3/4 of a game developer’s staff. The result is the “hits-only” business we see today, where games now cost as much to make as movies, and so few companies can afford to risk making them that innovation is stifled. That trend still continues with the release of ever-more-powerful consoles, and it’s only the rise of free-to-play and directly distributed games that make it possible for “smaller” games to potentially make a come-back.
Ingmar: I’d like to get to the games now that you designed for Legend. Let’s start with TIMEQUEST. Please share some anecdotes about the creation of that game.
Bob: TIMEQUEST (always with capital letters, of course), was the first game I designed after leaving Infocom. I wanted to use it to prove that there was still a market for the “pure” adventure game, one whose mainspring was intricate but scrupulously fair puzzles.
I have always been fascinated by major turning points in history – especially those which have mysteries surrounding them. How did Cortez land in Mexico with 500 men and 16 horses and conquer the Aztec nation of over a half-million people? Why did Hitler stop the advance on Dunkirk and allow the British to evacuate over 330,000 men? In 452, Attila the Hun was advancing on Rome, having laid waste to most of Northern Italy. Pope Leo the Great rode out to meet him, alone, and the two of them went into a tent. Hours later when they emerged, Attila rode away! Why? What went on in that tent?
TIMEQUEST, in the guise of a science fiction game where the bad guy is trying to destroy history, allowed me to play with ten of those mysteries.
I never meant for the game to be especially hard, but early testing revealed that people found it very difficult. Originally, I just set up the Interkron (the time travel machine) and turned the player loose. Soon I realized I had to provide more bread crumbs and I ended up leading the player a considerable distance into the game – or so I thought – but it still probably wasn’t far enough.
What I wanted for the game was for it to be a set of perfectly interlocking puzzles that all interacted seamlessly with each other. To solve each of the mysteries, the player had to travel to lots of different places, and my favorite puzzles were the ones where the player had to do something in an early year, and return to the same location in a later year to reap the benefits of his earlier action.
I enjoyed the research. I enjoyed the historical accuracy of the game. (Interesting side note: At the time TIMEQUEST was being developed, our distributor was Microprose. I used to visit their headquarters outside of Baltimore and occasionally see the games they had in development. One of them was a history-oriented game, but it wasn’t at all historically accurate, and I didn’t think it would ever go anywhere. I asked the designer what it was going to be called. Sid Meier said he was going to call it “Civilization.” You may have heard of it.)
It took a long time in development before the theme of the game actually emerged. Most of my games have an underlying theme, although it’s often so subtle that it’s easily missed. For this game, it emerged with the development of a location I called the academy, and the instructor(s) who taught there. At the very end of the game, the final puzzle is a nice Heinlein-inspired figure 8, where the player meets himself coming and going and the importance of the academy to history is revealed.
TIMEQUEST was started at the same time as Steve Meretzky’s Spellcasting 101. Originally, we planned to release both of them at the same time, in the fall of 1990. I forget now why we delayed my game into 1991. Steve’s was probably further along. As you might imagine, there are cross-references between the games, probably the most blatant of which is that my villain’s name – Zeke S. Vettenmyer – is an anagram of Steven E. Meretzky.
The most vivid memory I have of making the game is that my son, Alex, was born on the twenty-first of May in 1990, while the game was still in development. My wife had to stay in the hospital for several days afterward and so I would go down to stay there with the two of them. They both slept a lot, and I remember sitting on the floor with my laptop on my knees, coding puzzles, and being very, very happy.
Ingmar: What’s your background in sci-fi that inspired you to create the game?
Bob: The science fiction authors that I love are the early masters – Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, and Bradbury. When you combine that with a love of the classic mystery writers like Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, etc., you get a game like TIMEQUEST.
There actually wasn’t much science fiction to it, other than the basic premise of time travel. The player doesn’t actually go to any cities in the future, the entire adventure is played out in the past.
There is one strong nod to Heinlein, however. The final puzzle in the game, where the player sees himself coming and going, was strongly influenced by Heinlein’s short stories “By His Bootstraps” and “All You Zombies.”
Ingmar: Let’s get to Eric the Unready now. Please share your memories of developing the game.
Bob: Eric the Unready was the only game whose inspiration came to me “in a flash.” I remember I was on vacation, walking along a beach in South Carolina, when suddenly the fully-formed idea of a bumbling knight as the hero of an adventure game popped into my head. He was named just as quickly. I’ve always thought the name of the early English king “Ethelred the Unready” was funny, even though our modern rendering of his name is inaccurate. He was actually called “The Unreedy”, which means “ill-advised.”
One of the hardest parts of getting the game off the ground was convincing other people in the company that I had enough of a fantasy background to write a fantasy game. I had never read as much fantasy as sci-fi, and so I had a lot of catching up to do. In particular, I am a traitor to my generation in that I was never in love with Tolkien and found his books a bit of a slog to get through. (Even now, I feel the urge to duck as I imagine the brickbats being thrown my way as I admit this). Nevertheless, I plowed ahead and became a casual fan of the genre.
Developing the game itself was a delight, certainly one of the highlights of my career in terms of enjoying my work. By this time, under Duane’s tutelage, I was proficient enough in C to be doing the writing, the designing, and the coding of the game logic. I’ve never had more fun. And of course, the game itself was light and not at all serious. There are over a thousand jokes in there. It’s the only adventure game that I worked on where, if there was a conflict between adhering to strict design principles and the opportunity to make the player laugh, I opted for the laugh every time.
My most vivid memory of the game was its final week of development, during which we worked pretty much around the clock for the entire week, capped off by flying to the West Coast with the Gold Masters, on my birthday.
Ingmar: Eric was a 180-degree turn from the hard sci-fi from TIMEQUEST. Why comedy this time?
Bob: I have always written comedy, going all the way back to college where I wrote a weekly humor column for the school newspaper. When I graduated, my very first business idea was to publish a humor magazine that would be distributed to the several colleges in the DC area. That idea never got off the drawing board, but when I look at The Onion today, I think about an opportunity missed.
Obviously I was a huge fan of Steve Meretzky’s work, and I loved Douglas Adams, Monty Python, and Terry Pratchett. So the thought of doing a comic fantasy game seemed very natural to me.
(I have copies of some of those old columns lying around, by the way. I just took a look at them. They’re not very good.)
Ingmar: And once more a question about your development memories: this time about John Saul’s Blackstone Chronicles. Yet another genre and a much more jarring experience. Why horror?
Bob: By the mid-1980s, Legend received an investment from Random House, and the main group we interacted with there were the people at Del Rey books. We made a conscious effort to start working with their authors, and that is what led to our developing a game with Terry Brooks (Shannara), and with John Saul (John Saul’s Blackstone Chronicles).
Blackstone was a fascinating project because I was writing the game at the same time that John was writing the book series. Stephen King had just come out with The Green Mile, which was one of the first modern attempts at a serial novel, with an installment coming out each month. The plan was the same for Blackstone.
One of the first problems to solve was one of “turf.” We each needed to be free to create within this world, yet we couldn’t afford to step on each other’s toes. We decided that John’s book would come first (chronologically speaking), and my game would take place later in time, and largely deal with the ghosts of the characters that appeared in the book (not surprisingly, given John’s modus operandi, most of his characters ended up dead. [grin])
Once that was settled, I had to face the problems of writing a game that could actually scare people. I didn’t want the game to have the form of being frightening, where the players would go, “Oh, a ghost. I know that’s something my character would probably be afraid of.” Instead, I wanted to reach through the computer screen and grab the player by the throat and really frighten them.
I went about this in a few different ways. The first was to do extensive research on the truly frightening “cures” that were still being used in the 1950s to treat mental illness. These include lobotomies performed by going through the eye socket to cut out brain tissues; injecting people with malaria (the resulting fever was supposed to kill the disease-causing agents in the brain); ice baths that would allegedly help the patient understand where his body ended and his environment began; jet streams of water directed at naked patients (same theory as ice baths); inducing insulin comas, thought to “re-wire” the brain; inducing epileptic seizures, under the mistaken theory that seizures and schizophrenia could not exist together; and of course Electro-Convulsive Therapy.
The next step was to remove our psychological distance from these past horrors by presenting them in the voices of the patients as they were undergoing the treatments. I used diaries and contemporaneous accounts to make this as accurate as I could, and our voice actors brought these dead characters very much to life so the player heard their ghostly voices as he moved around the now-abandoned asylum.
Finally, I made sure that the player knew that the line between being inside and outside was very thin. Then (and in some cases still now), a person could be involuntarily committed to an asylum, and once inside, he or she would lose all their rights. It was actually a common practice for families to commit pregnant teenage girls to the asylum.
When you put all this together, Blackstone became truly terrifying. People realized as they played it that this could still happen to them. The game still pops up on lists as one of the scariest games of all time.
Ingmar: You have worked on pretty much every story genre: historical adventure, mystery, sci-fi, comedy, horror… was it a conscious decision to explore all these genres, or was it coincidence? If you had to revisit one genre for an adventure, which would it be?
Bob: It was definitely not a conscious decision or plan. There are lots of things that are interesting to me, and mostly I just did whatever seemed like it could come next.
When (not if) I come back to do another adventure game, it’s most likely to be a comedy.
Ingmar: Please talk about the last days of Legend now. What developments led to that stage from your point of view and how did you feel about all of this back in the day?
Bob: Adventure games as a commercial genre started to die in the 1990s, mostly strangled by rising costs of graphical production (but also by a “poisoning of the well” created by bad puzzles in some games). As that happened, we started to look around for other genres. As I have mentioned, most of the people in the company were still very young, and many were avid (and accomplished) players of First Person Shooters. One of those guys, Glen Dahlgren (co-designer of Gateway II and sole designer of Death Gate) got in touch with Tim Sweeney, who lived not too far away and who was in the early stages of working on what would eventually become the Unreal Engine. Glen impressed Tim with his vision, we acquired the license to do a game in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time world, and Glen went on to assemble a very talented team to build the game.
At about the same time, Random House decided to exit the game space, leaving us looking for another investment partner. We ended up being acquired by GT Interactive, which was then acquired by Infogrames, which later changed its name to Atari.
So Mike Verdu and I had become executives of this international company, and I think I can speak for him when I say that neither of us was wild about it. Mike decided to leave and since then he has moved from strength to strength, leading the Command & Conquer and Battle for Middle Earth teams for Electronic Arts (where he eventually was GM of the LA studio), then moving to Zynga to be Senior Vice-President and eventually co-President of games, then starting his own company called TapZen, and most recently joining Kabam as their President of Studios and CCO.
I stayed on at Legend and ran the studio through the release of Unreal2 and lastly Unreal2 XMP. In our final year, we kept pitching games to Atari, but couldn’t find anything that matched their shifting corporate strategies and they finally shut us down in January of 2004. Most of our people immediately found jobs across the industry (many of them taking a step up in the process!) but I decided to take a different path and become an independent designer, writer and producer, which is what I still do today.
Ingmar: In late 2010 you joined Zynga and stayed until 2014. In what ways did that experience differ from your previous jobs?
Bob: It was actually very similar to my role as a consultant. As the Chief Creative Officer for External Studios, I worked with teams in different cities to help them develop their games. I traveled a lot because the company had studios in Boston, New York, Hunt Valley, Austin, Dallas, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Seattle. So I was still based out of my house, and I was still working with different teams to fulfil their vision.
It was a time of great promise for social games, and we had a great group of designers including Mark Turmell (NBA Jam), Chris Trottier (The Sims), Brian Reynolds (Civilization), Bruce Shelley (Age of Empires), the Bettner brothers (Words With Friends), Paul Neurath (Ultima Underworld), Bill Jackson (Halo Wars), Christy Marx (Conquests of Camelot), Frank Lantz (Pac-Manhattan), Brian Tinsman (Magic: Shards of Alara), and Cara Ely (Dream Day Games), not to mention Mike Verdu himself.
We got some great games out of that group, some of which were very successful, and some of which were not. But it was very exciting to work with them, especially at a time when we were all trying to figure out what this new thing called social gaming was all about.
I did get the opportunity to “go deep” on the development of three games at Zynga. The first was FrontierVille, which was very successful and a lot of fun. The second was Empires and Allies for which I commuted weekly to Los Angeles for six months. It, too, was very successful, becoming the #2 game on Facebook. The third was Mafia Wars 2, which was a flaming disaster and was shut down within three months of being launched!
I also designed two completely original games for Zynga, neither of which ever saw the light of day. Such is the life of a game designer.
Ingmar: Please give us an overview of games you worked on as an indie developer/consultant.
Bob: One of the great things about being independent is the wide range of games you get to work on. The projects I worked on during this period couldn’t be any more dissimilar from each other, as you will see!
- (Untitled) Sexual Harassment Training Course: In the middle years at Legend, I wrote one of the first-ever “serious” games – an Ethics Training game for the United States Department of Justice. I built on that experience to create a game about Sexual Harassment for a company called HCCS. The hardest part about developing that game was to present situations where harassment could be present and identifiable, without the scenarios being offensive themselves. And it probably goes without saying that including humor in a game on this topic is quite difficult!
- Panzer Elite Action: This was the first of the games I worked on for the great Slovenian developer, Zootfly. I’m still not sure why they brought in an adventure game designer to work on a tank action game! The part I liked the most about that project (other than working with the guys on the team) was creating three tank commanders – German, Russian, and American – who all had different versions of the same first name, and who all had honorable reasons for fighting.
- Spider-Man 3: This was a bit of a rescue mission. The team at Vicarious Visions, a division of Activision, were working with an unmovable deadline – they had to release the game on the same day as the movie. This was their first console game, and they had created a good engine, but they were behind in mission design. So for four months I commuted to Albany New York, coming home only on weekends, and worked with the level designers, artists, and programmers to get the game out on time. The crunch was worth it, however, as the game went on to become a #1 bestseller, to be dislodged from the top of the charts only by a new Command & Conquer game, which was under the direction of Mike Verdu. Not bad for a couple of old Legend guys!
- Project Raven: The CIA runs a University that has all kinds of courses to train intelligence officers. One of the classes is to teach Critical Thinking. I designed a game for them that exposed analysts to some of the basic errors that lead to faulty conclusions. Not surprisingly, this was a fascinating project.
- Sacred 2: Another great team to work with: Ascaron, the creators of the original Sacred. The challenge here was to write a prequel to an enormously popular game, and also to give the player two different paths he could legitimately take. I remember having a hard time writing the “Shadow” path and getting help from Hans-Arno Wegner and Peter Luber, who told me I just wasn’t evil enough!
- Cursed Mountain: This was probably the strangest of the projects during this period. It was a horror/mountain-climbing game for the Wii, but with motion-detected combat using the Wii remote, and the enemies were spirits from Buddhist mythology!
- Ride to Hell (unreleased version): Another fun game to work on. This was a motorcycle gang game set in the American West in the 1960s. I had a great time working on the dialog, and I joked with the developers that they only brought me in because I was old enough to remember the slang from the period so they could save money on research! Unfortunately, the game was put into mothballs, and when it re-emerged several years later, none of the work I had done on it survived.
Since I left Zynga there are some new projects in the works, but of course I can’t talk about any of those until they come out.
Ingmar: What it is like to develop serious games for the US government?
Bob: The hardest part of working on any serious game is the design phase, when you need to ask three questions: What does the player need to learn? How will the game know when he has learned it? And who else needs to know that he has learned it?
Most serious games are content to deal with the first two questions, but when your client is the US government, you also must deal with the third. It is not enough for the player to have learned something; the government wants proof that the training has been effective. This problem of proof is called “assessment,” and you have to build into the game a way to demonstrate the player has learned what he needs to.
Apart from that, the other hard part is finding a way to make the game entertaining when the client is notoriously averse to humor. It’s possible, but very hard.
Ingmar: You are a sought-after speaker at industry events, a guest lecturer at universities, former chairman of the International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA), and have written highly acclaimed works on game design and the industry. How important is it for you to share your wealth of knowledge and experience, and what is your hope when it comes to the reception of your audience?
Bob: One of the biggest problems that nobody talks about in game development is that the cycles are so long that it’s difficult for any one person to work on enough games to hone their craft. In most other creative fields, people can iterate quickly – in the space of one year an artist can make hundreds of drawings and paintings, an author can create dozens of stories, a composer can create whole albums of songs. But a game designer might work on one game for three or four years, and even then it might not come out!
We are also handicapped by the geographically distributed nature of game development. Many other creative disciplines have thriving communities of artists who live and work near each other. I often think about London in Shakespeare’s day, when a talented group of playwrights knew each other, went to each other’s plays, and helped each other out. A line or a joke or a bit of business that someone suggested in the tavern one night could be performed for an audience the very next day, and then kept or discarded based on how it was received.
By contrast, we game designers are geographically isolated. We have no equivalent of Shakespeare’s London where we can work side by side. Some cities are fortunate enough to have multiple studios, but that is the exception, rather than the rule.
Faced with these difficulties, it is important for us to do everything we can to learn from each other and advance our craft. We can form virtual communities, which are no substitute for the real thing, but which at least let us talk to each other. We can give talks, write books, and go to conferences. It’s hard for one person, sitting in a room, alone, to be great. Each of us needs all the help we can get!
Ingmar: Thanks a lot for doing this interview, Bob. We appreciate it and wish you all the best for the future. Any last words to the loyal Infocom and Legend fans out there?
Bob: You’re very welcome! I appreciate the opportunity to revisit the early days and to get the names of so many people onto the record.
For the Infocom and Legend fans out there, we can take heart in the recent re-birth of the adventure genre, and I especially look forward to seeing Ron Gilbert’s Thimbleweed Park game.
And as for me, the day will definitely come when I return with a new game of my own. The only question is… when?