Adventure, Redux

I run an RSS reader (QuiteRSS, for the curious) and have Eric S. Raymond’s blog as one of my feeds. Today’s update proved intellectually interesting, which may seem odd considering the subject today is a program designed for hours of wasted time, e.g., having lots of fun. More specifically, it has to do with a text-based game written in the 70s, but famous for having spawned a whole gaming genre, as well as being still eminently playable; not a bad legacy, given that most games have a play-ability lifetime of maybe 5 years.

In his blog post, ESR talks about the porting of the code, and how Will Crowther (the original programmer), and Don Woods (later enhanced the game) had to use the primitive programming tools available to them at the time, as well as the hardware. Needless to say, they pulled it off admirably. However, I want to talk about the cultural impact this game has had, and the personal motivation for Crowther to write the game in the first place.

I’ve heard much mention of this game, but never has anyone mentioned the story behind the game. Being a curious sort of fellow, I Googled Crowther. The Wikipedia article that came up was most illuminating.

Seems that Mr. Crowther was going through some difficult times, in the middle of a divorce from his first wife, and along with her, being an avid caver as well as a fan of the Dungeons and Dragons board game, decided to write a game that his daughters, whom he missed terribly, would have something to play to pass the time. Needless to say, the game was a hit, for more than just his daughters.

Being a talented programmer, he used all his formidable skills into making a game that would encompass his adventures in caving. Other people, not surprisingly, given the realistic aspect of the game, were drawn into it as well, and it has made for a number of other games based on Adventure, most notably Zork.

Not very many things endure for a long time; it’s worth noting that Adventure is not much younger than another entity known for its extraordinarily long lifetime (and in its current incarnations, doesn’t seem to become extinct anytime soon). I, of course, am referring to Unix. IMO, what these two have in common that contributed to their longevity was their ability to appeal to a wide variety of people; in other words, it met them where they were, and they saw value in it and invested time, talent, energy, enthusiasm, and yes, even some money, to improving them (or just customizing it to their tastes).

That’s why moddable games are so popular; game designers who are smart realize that for all of the talent they possess, they might not have the breadth of imagination that their fan base have, some of whom are artists and programmers. Games that can be customized and personalized will endure for a much longer period of time than those that are sealed; that is, the game is the vision of the designers, and is likely to remain so. Such games will have a limited appeal and then be forgotten. Such a waste, really, to invest such effort into a game, to be forgotten after such a short time.

It’s worth noting other OSs and games that fall into roughly the same category.

On the operating system side, not many OSs have a long lifetime; certainly not as long as Unix’s. However, their innovative features and ability to appeal to so many people are a factor in their popularity. Notable examples are AmigaOS and BeOS. Efforts are being made to keep these old OSs relevant.

OS/2 is a curious beast. Born out of a collaboration in the 80s between IBM and Microsoft, it never caught on with the masses because of its difficulty of installation and usage. However, it’s never quite died out either. Other companies are updating incarnations of OS/2 to make sure this super-stable OS doesn’t die out.

On the games side, all of id Software’s games, ones written by one John Carmack, are meant to be modded. Only time will tell, but as of present, only Quake I seems to have retained popularity. The other games are moddable, but for one reason or another, don’t have widespread appeal.

Let this be a lesson to all of us. When creating something valuable, make sure it appeals to a long-lasting virtue, and not merely to temporal events. Such efforts are doomed, and any venture worth someone’s talents deserves recognition, at least, if not a bit of popularity.