Brass Lantern
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History of Interactive Fiction: Scott Adams

by Stephen Granade

The early years of adventure gaming coincided with the first years of commercial computer games. Those years were filled with the turbulent change and unbridled growth that often come with the rise of a new form of entertainment. Nearly anyone with the technical know-how to write a game could begin selling it. Time and time again a group of people would write an adventure game that would become popular, leading them to create a company which would then go on to enjoy years of growth.

The game industry is no longer like that. In this era of million-dollar game budgets, complex 3D rendering, and expensive advertising, the garage hobbyist has a harder time breaking into the field. These days fewer successful companies start with two or three people writing a game which catches on. It takes too much money now to write a game, and selling your game nearly requires that you convince a publisher to market your game for you.

Still, the stories of adventure companies of yesteryear give us glimpses into why modern games are like they are. Unfortunately, those stories are not always told. People may have fond memories of playing games from Topologika, Level 9, or Adventure International, but as the years go by those memories get hazier, and new game players have no idea what any of those companies did.

Scott Adams

No, this Scott Adams is not the Scott Adams who draws the Dilbert comic strip. This Scott Adams is the man who wrote Adventureland and Pirate Adventure, and who created the company Adventure International.

Scott began writing adventure games in 1978, shortly after he bought a TRS-80 Model I with Level 2 BASIC. He wanted to write a game for his new home computer. At work had been playing Colossal Cave on a DEC mainframe, so he planned to write a text adventure of his own.

He faced opposition in the form of his TRS-80's limitations. The Model I had a whopping 16k of memory and a tape drive. Though disk drives were available, they were rare, and tended to be grounded so poorly that you received a shock when you touched them.

You could fit an adventure into such a space -- Frank Dacosta's 1982 book "Writing Basic Adventure Programs For the TRS-80" covers the kinds of contortions required to do so -- but doing so was difficult. To maximize the amount of code he could reuse, Scott did what many early adventure game writers did and created an interpreter, a virtual machine to read the game data and play the game. His first game, Adventureland, was patterned loosely after Colossal Cave. Its parser accepted two-word verb-noun sentences, like GET CROWN or SWIM.

Word of his game spread. Scott placed an ad in Softside magazine and began selling tape copies of Adventureland for $14.95. The response was gratifying. A Radio Shack manager in Chicago by the name of Manuel Garcia ordered 50 copies from Scott. Scott made each copy by hand, labelled the tapes, and mailed them to Manuel. Manuel, however, was surprised and a little annoyed that Adventureland consisted of just a cassette tape without packaging or manual. In response, Scott formed Adventure International.

Adventure International enjoyed early success. Programmers were hired to port Scott's interpreter to different computers, with the result that you could play his games on the Apple ][, Commodore 64, TI-99 4A, and other home computers of the day. Scott's next adventure, Pirate Adventure, sold well. Adventure International got a boost when, in the December 1980 issue of Byte magazine, Scott published an article explaining some of the details of how he wrote Pirate Adventure.

After a while, Adventure International began selling games other than adventures and that were written by people other than Scott. The first non-adventure game AI published was Galactic Empire, by a young man named Doug Carlson. Some years later Doug, with his brother Gary and a loan from his aunt, went on to found a publishing company by the name of Brøderbund.

AI produced a number of popular adventures, including The Count and Sorceror of Claymorgue Castle. In 1982 AI repackaged the early classic adventures in a format they called SAGA: Scott Adams Graphic Adventures. Computers had gotten more powerful, and AI took advantage of that fact to introduce graphics and a more complex parser.

AI also began creating tie-in games. The head of marketing, Richard Richmond, began approaching companies about making adventure games for their products. One result of this was The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, based on the movie of the same name. To the dismay of AI the movie did poorly, as did the game.

However, AI was able to sign a deal with Marvel Comics to make a series of adventure games based on their comic book characters. It was one of the biggest years for AI. They had $3 million in sales, and at CES, the yearly meeting for computer game makers, the deal was announced, with someone in a Hulk suit representing Marvel at the show.

Times were about to change, and quickly. Twelve Marvel Questprobe games were planned, so Scott got to work. One of the early ones, the Fantastic Four adventure in which you had to control both the Human Torch and the Thing to win, became Scott's favorite game, but their sales were not enough to offset the costs AI was incurring. To make matters worse, the first shakedown of the home computer market occurred. AI had been depending on the money from TI and Commodore licenses, but TI dumped its 99 4A supply, selling them for $50 each, and Commodore ended up having to pay AI and Marvel a forfeiture on the licenses due to poor sales. In 1985, partway through production of Questprobe #4 featuring the X-Men, AI filed for bankruptcy. As Scott put it, "The worst was when we had to close the doors. Bankruptcy is a very painful process."

Fans of Scott Adams adventures have refused to let the games be forgotten, though. A group of people reverse-engineered Scott's interpreter, releasing the ScottFree interpreter for people who owned old copies of the games but wanted to play them on more modern computers.

Scott has released his early adventure games as shareware, asking people to register "if you feel like it." If you're interested in trying out some of these games, they are still available. You'll need both an interpreter and the game files.

These days Scott spends his time playing computer games instead of writing them, though he did write Return to Pirate's Island 2 in late 2000. And he still has fond memories of the heady days of Adventure International.

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