Keen Dreams

Keen Dreams

Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons was a massive success for Ideas from the Deep, a development team formed by programmers John Carmack, John Romero, and Tom Hall. With a clear hit on their hands, the team sought to break away from their company, Softdisk, and strike out on their own. Their boss and owner of Softdisk, Al Vekovius, confronted the team on their plans – particularly after he learned they had used company resources to develop the three games. They would work on the game after hours, even going as far as taking the computers to Mr. Carmack’s house on weekends. Mr. Vekovius proposed a joint venture between the Ideas from the Deep team and Softdisk, which ultimately fell apart when the other employees threatened to quit in protest. After three weeks of negotiation, the team agreed to produce a series of games once every two months for Gamer’s Edge, Softdisk’s subscription service. Ideas from the Deep, having renamed themselves id Software after one of the Freudian components of the psyche, then proceeded to use these games as prototypes for their own releases.

In spring of 1991, Mr. Carmack and his team began work on another Commander Keen game. Initially, they did not want to make another installment for Softdisk, but eventually decided that doing so would let them fulfill their obligations, and hopefully improve another set of games for publisher Apogee in the process. For this installment, id Software crafted a brand-new engine rife with new features, including the ability to have the background scroll at a different speed from the foreground and support for sound cards. As a result of these changes, it was decided that this game would be a standalone effort as opposed to a true sequel. Even with other members of the team working on another project at the same time, this game, entitled Keen Dreams, was finished in less than a month following the engine’s creation. Despite the previous three installments having been bestsellers, Keen Dreams did not receive much attention from publications at the time, and thus fell into relative obscurity. Now considered a “lost episode” of sorts, how does Keen Dreams fare in the grand scheme of things?

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Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons – Episode One: Marooned on Mars

In 1981, a company named Softdisk was founded in Shreveport, Louisiana. Some time later, they hired an alumnus from the University of Missouri named John Carmack. Despite not leaving the college with a degree, Mr. Carmack was an exceptional programmer – particularly in the field of the rising new medium of video games. He was initially hired to work on Softdisk G-S, an Apple IIGS publication. There, he met another programmer by the name of John Romero. With the help of Michael Abrash’s Power Graphics Programming, Mr. Carmack developed an engine capable rendering graphics capable of smoothly scrolling in any direction. This was practically unheard of at the time; IBM computers available for commercial use were not able to replicate such a feat.

With an engine capable of scrolling graphics to hand, it was only natural for Mr. Carmack and his colleagues to use it to create a game. Coworker Tom Hall encouraged Mr. Carmack to demonstrate the engine by recreating the first stage of Nintendo’s landmark platformer, Super Mario Bros. 3, which had been released internationally in 1990. Mr. Carmack and Mr. Hall were then able to do just that in a single night using a character the former had created for a previous game he called Dangerous Dave. The game, cheekily titled Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement, was then shown to Mr. Romero, who realized the implications of being able to bring the success Nintendo had enjoyed to personal computers.

PC gaming survived the 1983 North American crash by virtue of being a niche market and therefore largely unaffected by whatever problems had plagued the mainstream. The team’s manager, Jay Wilbur, was impressed with their work and recommended that they contact Nintendo themselves in the hopes of being able to create an authorized port of Super Mario Bros. 3 for PC platforms. This team of programmers, now going by the name Ideas from the Deep, spent the next three days working on the demo for the hypothetical port. Although Nintendo praised the efforts of this budding team, they ultimately turned down the offer, wishing the Mario series to remain exclusive to their own consoles.

Undeterred, the Ideas from the Deep team convened to come up with a completely original idea. Mr. Hall suggested giving the game a science-fiction theme, which prompted Mr. Carmack to envision a child prodigy saving the world. The protagonist’s name would be Commander Keen. It was after Mr. Carmack read the premise in an overdramatic voice that the group knew they had a winning idea on their hands.

The first three games in this new series, Marooned on Mars, The Earth Explodes, and Keen Must Die!, formed a trilogy called Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons. They were all released simultaneously in December of 1990. The Ideas from the Deep team distributed their game using the shareware model pioneered by their publisher, the Garland, Texas-based Apogee Software. Specifically, the episodes could be obtained individually for fifteen dollars apiece or in a single lump sum for all three at the cost of thirty dollars – all via mail orders. This way, buyers could choose between paying an amount smaller than the price of a full game for one episode or a comparatively cheaper sum for all three. This distribution method proved to be a success for Apogee, as their sales levels had jumped from $7,000 per month to $30,000 by Christmas of 1990. Speaking retrospectively, it was speculated that this trilogy of games moved at least 50,000 copies. As a trilogy of games that afforded PC users an experience many of them otherwise had no access to, could they be said to possess the same timelessness of their primary influence?

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Colossal Cave Adventure

The Second World War brought about one of the most significant advancements in technology in recorded history. Decades after the conflict ended, the world’s superpowers began working with advanced machines capable of expediently conducting calculations. These machines were eventually named computers. In the 1960s, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a branch within the United States Department of Defense invented a packet-switching network. Named the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), it was the first network to implement the TCP/IP protocol suite. Government agencies would use this internetworking process to quickly share important information in a secure manner.

One of the programmers who helped develop ARPANET was Will Crowther. In his spare time, he and his wife Pat would frequently go spelunking. Mr. Crowther had previously helped create vector map surveys of the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky for the Cave Research Foundation. He was also a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, a tabletop role-playing game that launched its first edition in 1974. These good times weren’t to last, for he ended up divorcing his wife in 1975. Striving to find some way to connect with his daughters following the separation, Mr. Crowther had an idea. Combining his fondness for cave exploration with his programming expertize, he decided to create a computerized simulation of his travels.

Development of this project began in 1975 and took a year to complete. It consisted of nearly 700 lines of FORTRAN code with another 700 written for BBN’s PDP-10 timesharing computer. The result was considered the first known instance of interactive fiction. The executable file for this program was called ADVENT, but the opening screen provided its more famous name: Colossal Cave Adventure. One person who discovered Mr. Crowther’s work was Don Woods – a recent graduate from Stanford University. Mr. Woods added his own ideas to the code, including a scoring system and high fantasy elements – the latter of which was inspired by his fondness of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Unlike Mr. Crowther’s original version, the source code of Mr. Woods’s was widely distributed. What started off as a way for a man to connect with his daughters became ground zero for a type of entertainment the public later dubbed adventure games. As computers became more commonplace in the average household, Colossal Cave Adventure became a great success. Even those with limited programming knowledge could enjoy playing this game, and its impact on the medium cannot be denied. In an era before people regularly used the term “video game”, how does Colossal Cave Adventure hold up?

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King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride

Despite not selling as many copies as its direct predecessor, King’s Quest VI was yet another success for Sierra’s flagship franchise upon its 1992 release. While King’s Quest V was a major step up from its own direct predecessor in terms of presentation and gameplay, King’s Quest VI ironed out a majority of its flaws. The untrained office employees were replaced by professional voice actors. Combined with more user-friendly design choices and sensible puzzle solutions, there was little question King’s Quest VI managed to be the pinnacle of the franchise as soon as it debuted. Even if making a sequel was the logical thing to do, series creator Roberta Williams had her work cut out for her.

During this time, Disney’s success after having fully recovered from a nearly fatal slump in the 1980s effected what is believed to be the studio’s renaissance. The film most commonly cited for starting this era was The Little Mermaid in 1989. This triumph was then followed up by Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and Aladdin in 1992. All three of these films are beloved classics by anyone versed in the medium – and even those who aren’t. Realizing just how much life these films breathed into the medium, the Sierra staff sought to capture that energy and transplant it into the next King’s Quest installment.

With the rising popularity of the CD-ROM format, Ms. Williams had begun drafting ideas for a game featuring heavy amounts of full-motion video footage. Its name was to be Phantasmagoria. As a result of her busy schedule, she helmed the development of King’s Quest VII alongside two other new directors: Lorelei Shannon and Andy Hoyos. Even so, Ms. Williams was enthusiastic about the project, often bouncing ideas off of Ms. Shannon. It was to the point where they were sad when the planning process came to an end, for Ms. Shannon believed they could have devised new ideas for the next two years.

In order to make as good of an impression as possible, Sierra’s co-founder, Ken Williams, had the idea to contact an up-and-coming animation studio known as Pixar. They had made a favorable impression on animation enthusiasts with their collection of short films, and were in the process of creating their theatrical debut: Toy Story. To Mr. Williams’s surprise, he received a call from Pixar founder Steve Jobs almost immediately after proposing a possible collaboration. Unfortunately for Sierra, the plan fell through when it became clear the Pixar team was far too busy to entertain making a short film for them. To bring their vision of an interactive cartoon into reality, Sierra contracted four animation houses: Animation Magic Inc., Dungeon Ink & Paint, LA West Film Production, and Animotion.

Despite the fact that most of these animators had limited experience in computer gaming, the development cycle proceeded fairly smoothly. The project eventually saw its completion in November of 1994 under the name King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride. Being the seventh installment of a long-running franchise, King’s Quest VII had no problems finding an audience, selling 3.8 million copies within the next eighteen months. However, while fans and critics alike were enthusiastic about the series’ previous entries, the seventh left them divided. Some disliked the Disney-inspired presentation while others had nothing but praise for it. Although many games to follow the franchise’s pinnacle gain a new lease on life with the power of hindsight, King’s Quest VII remains a divisive entry to this very day. Was it even possible for Sierra to successfully follow up a game as beloved as King’s Quest VI?

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King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

Jane Jensen, the youngest of seven children, always had a fondness for computers. Attending Anderson University in Indiana, she received a BA in computer science, a quickly budding field at the time. Shortly thereafter, she found herself working for Hewlett-Packard as a systems programmer. She then felt inspired to enter the gaming industry after playing a classic adventure title called King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella. As fate would have it, her passion for computers and creative writing, led to her finding a job at Sierra OnLine where she wrote the scenarios for Police Quest III: The Kindred and EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus. Both games were successes for the prolific company, but she was about to receive a task of even greater and personal importance.

In the year 1990, company co-founder Roberta Williams placed the finishing touches on King’s Quest V. This fifth installment in the company’s flagship series became the single greatest-selling game in the franchise. The following year, Ms. Williams, impressed with Ms. Jensen’s work, had an interesting proposal for the then-newcomer. She had already begun preliminary work on the newest King’s Quest game, having conceived a rough outline for the plot. The two of them then began working alongside each other, brainstorming new design ideas in the process. Their goal was to retain the familiar tone of the series had established in previous installments while giving the game an identity of its own. Furthermore, Ms. Williams wanted players to connect with the game on an emotional level, deciding to fulfill this objective by penning a central love story between two characters.

With King’s Quest V having been a significant technical leap from its predecessor, Ms. Williams sought to set her sights even higher for its sequel. Co-director Bill Skirvin along with the artists began work on storyboards and character designs. One artist in particular, John Shroades, had sketched the eighty backgrounds that would end up in the final product. Taking advantage of the recent advent of motion capture technology, the team ended up transcribing the movement of live-action actors for the potential player decisions and subsequent character animations – of which there were over 2,000. Similarly, the game would feature over 6,000 lines of written messages. Handling this task was Ms. Jensen, who scripted the game, defining for programmers how it should respond to a given action.

Development of this game was completed by September of 1992. In an interview for The New York Times, Ms. Williams estimated the game’s budget was around $700,000 USD. The crew, led by her, Mr. Skirvin, and Ms. Jensen, consisted of twenty people and the project took fourteen months to complete. Although it was scheduled for a release in September of 1992, Sierra delayed it until the thirteenth of October. Entitled King’s Quest IV: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, the fruit of their labor was originally released on nine floppy disks for DOS and Macintosh. It was rereleased upon an emerging format – the CD-ROM – in 1993 for DOS and Microsoft’s newest operating system, Windows. Taking advantage of this new format, the team added a voiceover for every single line of dialogue and included a ballad named “Girl in the Tower”, which was composed by Mark Seibert. Sierra sent a CD containing the song to local radio stations and included a pamphlet listing them along with every copy of the game. In the pamphlet, they suggested fans request the song to be played. The owners of said radio stations were not impressed; they legally threatened Sierra as a result of the myriad requests with which they were bombarded. This prompted a bemused Ken Williams to label the stations the real criminals for ignoring their customers – “something [he believed] no business should ever do”.

Although King’s Quest VI didn’t sell as many copies as the series’ fifth installment, it ended up being the single best-received game in the series. Every single one of its five predecessors was similarly well-received, yet King’s Quest VI seemed to possess something they lacked: staying power. When parsing the first five installments in the series from a modern perspective, one is likely to conclude they don’t hold up so well. They were all, to some extent, trailblazers, yet any contemporary review will invariably include phrases such as “fair for its time” or “aged horribly”. This isn’t true of King’s Quest VI – even now, you can find it on lists compiling the greatest PC games ever made. Is this the installment that allowed the series to finally escape the genre’s early trappings and deliver an experience worthy of being called an all-time classic?

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King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!

On the eve of the release of King’s Quest IV, series creator Roberta Williams had many reservations – many of which were shared by her company, Sierra. Their flagship series’ fourth installment was to cast a female character in the lead role in an era when the medium had a predominately male fanbase. Princesses were expected to get captured so they could be saved by the noble hero; giving one an adventure of her own was simply unheard of. On top of that, Sierra had just finished developing their new game engine: the Sierra’s Creative Interpreter. Having been specifically designed for 16-bit little-endian computers, they feared many longtime fans lacked the resources to play it. They could not have anticipated King’s Quest IV to sell 100,000 copies within two weeks of its launch. Many journalists had nothing but praise for the new female lead – a sentiment shared by fans of the series.

With this success, the series had a future after gaining a powerful rival in the form of LucasArts. It was therefore only natural for Sierra to keep up the momentum by developing a sequel. After the significant technological leap from King’s Quest III, the programmers were in the process of refining their newest engine. The second version of the SCI engine, SCI1, was to feature 256 colors. Ms. Williams once again found herself in the director’s chair for the game that was to showcase the engine’s new capabilities.

As was the case with King’s Quest IV, Sierra sought to make the game as accessible as they could. The original version would be released on a floppy disk while owners of top-end computers could utilize a format gaining popularity for its superior storage capabilities: the CD-ROM. Furthermore, it was during this time that PC game developers began taking note of the rapidly growing console market. Thanks to the successful launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the North American console market had recovered from its devastating 1983 crash, and it was soon outpacing the PC in terms of popularity. While PC gaming required a degree of expertise most people simply did not possess at the time, anyone could place a cartridge into NES and commence playing. By the end of the decade, anything released on the NES was guaranteed a significant return on investment for the developers. As a result, Sierra collaborated with the prolific, Tokyo-based developer Konami to create and release a port for the NES.

This installment, King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!, was released in November of 1990. Sierra spared no expense making King’s Quest V, giving Ms. Williams and her team a budget of one-million dollars. The company’s gambit paid off, for the game, like its predecessor, was a commercial success, moving 500,000 copies over the next few years. For a significant length of time, it had been the best-selling PC game of all time until 1995 when Cyan, Inc.’s Myst surpassed it. Many magazines praised it for its exemplary VGA graphics and sound card utilization with critics considering it the single greatest installment in the series thus far. Was King’s Quest V able ensure the popular series had a leg to stand on in the new decade?

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King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella

Like the two installments before it, King’s Quest III was a great commercial and critical success upon its release. Fans were initially confused as to what its protagonist, Gywdion, had anything to do with the adventures of King Graham. After a few months passed, they answered the questions for themselves, and began seeing King’s Quest III as the best game in the series thus far. Whether or not a sequel would be made was never a question, for Roberta Williams and her team dropped many hints throughout their game that King’s Quest IV lurked just around the corner.

Though the visuals had improved in subtle ways since the inception of Sierra’s Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI) engine, it was beginning to show its age. In 1987, LucasArts released Maniac Mansion. This unique take on the adventure game genre ended up being a grand success in its own right, impressing critics with its cast of characters and smart humor. Among those who praised it was acclaimed science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card. In the face of this fierce, new competitor, Sierra needed to step up their game to remain relevant. This led to the creation of the AGI engine’s successor, SCI. Interchangeably referred to as both the Script Code Interpreter and Sierra’s Creative Interpreter, this new engine was designed by programmer Jeff Stephenson

With the outdated engine ready to be replaced, there was no better game Sierra could have chosen to than the latest installment of their flagship King’s Quest series. However, as the engine was designed specifically for 16-bit little-endian computers, they realized longtime fans may not have the specifications required to run a game made with the SCI engine. On top of that, the engine had not yet been proven commercially. Therefore, Ms. Williams and her team opted to develop two versions of the game concurrently: one would be built using the AGI engine and the other upon the SCI engine. The former was intended as a fallback in the event the latter didn’t sell. Fortunately for Sierra, the series’ fourth installment, entitled King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella, ended up moving 100,000 copies within two weeks of its debut in August of 1988. Even better, the SCI version comprised a majority of those sales, eliminating the need for its AGI counterpart, which was discontinued mere months after its release. The commercial success of King’s Quest IV proved beyond any shadow of a doubt the sheer popularity of the series. Was the new SCI engine what the series needed to evolve?

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Jumper Two

Fledging independent game developer Matt Thorson made his first significant mark on the medium in February of 2004 with Jumper. Though not quite his debut effort, it was the first one he felt worth mentioning in retrospect. This minimalization of the platforming games he grew up with was highly praised in the independent circuit. Shortly after the release of Jumper, he teamed up with another Game Maker-user who went by the name Dex. The game that resulted from their collaboration, Dim, drew a lot of inspiration from Jumper while also giving its protagonist the ability to hop between dimensions in a manner reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. This game also found an audience and would be referenced in later editions of the Jumper level editor. As Mr. Thorson gained more experience programming, he used what he learned to fine tune the physics in Jumper and create a sequel. This game, simply entitled Jumper Two, was released in June of 2004 – a mere four months after the release of the original. Being his third game in the span of a year, what does Jumper Two bring to the table?

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