Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Closing the Books on Crystalware

Crystalware was not the sort of company to let trademarks deter them, whether incorporating the Enterprise in their logo or marketing an unlicensed game called Imperial Walker.
           
A year ago, I'd never heard of Crystalware. Then, someone rediscovered their catalogue and uploaded all of its games to MobyGames and my year became in large part about the company. But let's face it: none of its games are really RPGs. They have some RPG "elements" in some of the inventory selections and random approach to combat, but there isn't a single one in which the character grows intrinsically from his experiences except for The Forgotten Island (1981), and that was a basic "power" statistic whose rapid growth made the game fundamentally too easy.
       
Most of Crystalware's games instead occupy a strange subgenre that we might call "iconographic adventure." Most adventure games are either all-text (Zork) or made up of graphically-composed scenes. Sometimes, the scenes offer a kind-of first-person perspective (Countdown, Timequest), and other times they feature the character in a kind of side-view perspective that I've taken to calling "studio view" (King's Quest, Leisure Suit Larry). I'm sure there are adventure games with axonometric perspectives, although none come to mind. But something about a top-down iconographic interface screams "RPG!" even though there's no reason adventure games couldn't feature the same perspective. That's really what Crystalware games are. They involve finding inventory items to solve puzzles and often escape a situation. Only a couple offer character attributes and none offer character development.
      
I've been gamely trying them anyway, but the last few have been giving me trouble, and I'm not going to continue wasting a bunch of effort for titles that aren't RPGs in the first place. I'm going to reject or "NP" the rest and suggest that MobyGames, which also cites character development as the primary mechanism for RPGs, remove the RPG designation although keep "RPG elements" under its gameplay elements.
          
Crystalware's catalog in late 1981.
         
As we've seen, Crystalware was a remarkably high-quantity (if not high-quality) company for its brief 1980-1982 existence. Within those three years, they developed and published the following titles, not all of which are even on MobyGames:
           
  • The House of Usher (1980)--also the name of the pop artist's inevitable reality show--is a Gothic adventure based on the Poe story of the same name. I reviewed it in June 2019.
  • Labyrinth of the Minotaur (1980): Set on Crete. I haven't been able to find much about the game, but it's attested in their 1982 catalogue.
  • Sumer 4000 BC (1980): A text simulator in which you're the King of Sumeria, trying to manage resources and make your empire survive another year.
  • Galactic Quest (1980): A space combat and trading simulator.
  • World War III (1980): A strategic wargame for two players, one fighting for Iran, the other Iraq.
  • Beneath the Pyramids (1980): An adventure game in which you explore some weird combination of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid at Giza for an artifact. I reviewed it in June 2019.
  • Waterloo II (1981): A two-player wargame in the Napoleonic Era.
  • CompuGolf (1981): A golf simulation.
  • Imperial Walker (1981): An unlicensed action game in which an imperial walker commander tries to shoot down rebel craft. (I think it really says something about the company that they conceived of such a game and made the imperial the protagonist.)
  • Laser Wars (1981): An action game in which you defend a city from alien attackers.
  • The Sands of Mars (1981): An adventure game in the style of Oregon Trail, in which you assemble a crew, purchase supplies, and try to make it to Mars and back. This one was categorized as an RPG. I tried to play it but couldn't get past a takeoff procedure that required the Apple II paddles. (Multiple sites say that AppleWin emulates paddles, but I'll be damned if I can figure out how.) The manual doesn't make it sound like it has RPG elements. It suggests that there are multiple phases of the game, each involving a different interface and style of gameplay.
                
As far as I can get in The Sands of Mars.
           
  • Forgotten Island (1981): An adventure game where you escape an island. It was renamed Escape from Vulcan's Island when re-issued by Epyx. I reviewed it in October 2019.
  • Oregon Trail (1981): Some version of the classic.
  • Quest for Power (1981): An adventure game in which you try to prove your right to inherit Camelot from King Arthur. It was re-issued by Epyx as King Arthur's Heir. I reviewed it in March 2020.
  • Protector (1981): An arcade game in which you fly a ship through caverns.
  • Fantasyland 2041 (1981): An epic multi-disk adventure game based on Fantasy Island. I reviewed it in October 2019.
  • The Bermuda Experience (1982): An adventure game in which you have to navigate a ship around the Atlantic Ocean in several time periods. It is also known as Bermuda Triangle.
  • Treasure Island (1982): An adventure game in which you explore the Caribbean for map pieces.
  • The Crypt (1982): An adventure in which you must survive the night in a cemetery. This was also designated an RPG by MobyGames, and I tried to play it but ran into a bug where neither you nor an enemy ever dies in combat. Instead, the game happily takes you into the negative hit points as you pound away at each other round after round. Thus, the first combat you get stuck in ends the game. It otherwise had the same characteristics as other titles that I reviewed that weren't really RPGs. It was re-released by Epyx as Crypt of the Undead.
            
Combat among crypts in The Crypt (1982).
       
  • Zardon (1982): An action game where you fly a ship, blow up enemy ships. This one was re-released by Avalon Hill after Crystalware folded.
  • The Haunted Palace (1982): An adventure game with RPG elements in which you try to solve a mystery. You can choose among characters who have RPG-like attributes but they never grow. It was re-released as The Nightmare by Epyx.
  • Clonus (1982): An adventure game in which you navigate the future as a clone with cyborg parts. A near-immediate Clonus II seems to be a re-release of the original rather than a true sequel.
           
They also released two compilations of simple games like Hangman and Tic-Tac-Toe for kids, a diet planner, a yoga instruction program, a garden simulator, and a program to help cat owners diagnose illnesses in their pets.

Almost all of the company's games were written for the Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and TRS-80. The company principals, John and Patty Bell, contracted a team of programmers who sometimes wrote original games, sometimes spent their time porting games created by others. About half of them were created by the Bells themselves. Almost all the adventure games hinted at a deeper mystery beneath the surface of the game and offered a cash prize to whoever was the first to solve it.
           
By 1981, the company was putting out a quarterly newsletter.
          
With each game costing $39.95 and up, Crystalware must have been doing well even if they only sold modest amounts. But that's nothing compared to the company's plans. A company newsletter from late 1981 [helpfully scanned and provided to me by commenter Dungy] shows that future offerings would include Glamis Castle, a three-dimensional adventure game in which you could explore the famous Scottish landmark, an RPG based on Lord of the Rings called Wizard and Orcs, and an epic hub-and-module adventure called Galactic Expedition. Each module would sell for $29.95 and contain the ability to explore a different planet or moon.
    
Oh, but that isn't nearly all. The company was planning to release a series of home-schooling programs based on the "Crystal Theory of Alternative Education" (CTAE). They were working with Universal Pictures to provide realistic computer program "props" for an upcoming film called The Genius (it seems to have never been filmed, although the associated producer, David Sosna, is a real person). They were working on the first "videodisk fantasy" for the PR-7820-2 Videodisc Player from Discovision. They were starting a "lonely hearts club."
     
Best of all, Crystal Films was being born! They had a named producer, script supervisor, costume designer, and key grip on their masthead. They had three productions in the works: Haunted (a horror film), Fantasyland (based on the game), and Sarah, about the life of the eccentric Sarah Winchester, who built that sprawling monstrosity of a house in San Jose.
           
Apparently, Haunted was to be filmed in an actual haunted house, not just a set that they made appear haunted. I guess that's one way to save on special effects.
                     
The newsletter, in short, feels like it was dictated by someone in the middle of a manic episode, and what happened to Crystalware next suggests that it all came crashing back to Earth. I haven't been able to find an official, comprehensive account of the company's last days, but we can piece it together from evidence. First, I have an anecdotal report from a reader who owned a computer store in the area at the time, saying that Crystalware's finances were essentially a giant house of cards and someone was destined to lose. To clarify, I don't think the Bells were deliberately scamming anyone. One programmer I spoke to, Henry Ruddle, said that the company always paid him well and on time. Another, Mike Potter, has posted online that Bell fired him when he questioned his royalties, but did pay him and also gave him back the rights to one of the games he'd developed. The issue is more that they seem to have been leveraged beyond a sustainable debt. 
          
We know that in 1982, Bell sold the rights to his games to Epyx, which re-published them, often under different names, with absurdly elaborate manuals. We see the company changing addresses several times in 1982 and finally abandoning "Crystalware" altogether and publishing the last few games under the name "U.F.O. Software." As we'll soon see, John Bell also seems to have (at least for a time) changed his own name.
         
Towards the end of its life, Crystalware briefly became U.F.O. Software.
            
John Bell is an enigmatic figure (although not as enigmatic as Patty, about whom I've been able to find nothing). He claims to have worked for Lockheed in 1966, which is hard to reconcile with the best candidate I can find, who was born in 1948. Even that candidate has used both "A" and "F" as his middle initial. Crystalware used several addresses in Morgan Hill and San Martin (both south along the 101 from San Jose) during its existence. I think the Bells first owned a computer store, Crystal Computers, in Sunnyvale or Gilroy, before they decided to get into software development and publishing. 
       
I corresponded earlier this month with Henry Ruddle, a programmer who did most of the TRS-80 adaptations of the game. I had hoped he would confirm my suspicions that Bell was something of a lunatic, but the best he would offer is that he was "charismatic, loud, and very eccentric." 
          
John was very creative and could not stop thinking . . . or talking. [He] would tell wild stories about getting high on amphetamines or cocaine and staying up for three days cleaning his bathroom with a toothbrush . . . He often talked about his wild ambitions [like] a plan to create a virtual reality booth with 360 degree views projected on the walls using "laser cameras."
     
Of Patty, Ruddle remembers that she was polite and very quiet, heavily into New Age philosophy and astrology.
          
There's a long period of silence after the collapse of the company, but in the late 1990s, Bell, now using the name "J. B. Michaels," started promising an upcoming game called Clonus 2049 A.D. It never materialized, but you can read about it--sort-of--on the Crystalware Defense and Nanotechnology Facebook page, where an "actress from Hollywood" has recorded the incomprehensible opening text. Yes, John Bell is still using the Crystalware name. His various LinkedIn profiles give him as the CEO of Crystalware, CrystalwareVR, Crystalware Defense and Nanotechnology, or just "CDN." The address is listed in Charleston, West Virginia. On the various pages associated with Bell and these companies, we learn that James Cameron's The Terminator was plagiarized from the original Clonus, that Bell had a heart attack in 2018, and that he's working on a virtual reality game called World of Twine.
     
I haven't rated any of Crystalware's games very high, and I was actively angry by the time I got to Quest for Power, but in retrospect I have to give the company credit for originality and a certain amount of sincerity. Most of Crystalware's titles show no dependence on any previous game or series. Instead of generic high-fantasy settings, they went with unique, specific settings based on history or literature. Adding a "mystery" and cash prize to each title (even if I never really understood what they were going for) was an interesting touch, and letters to their newsletter (if authentic) suggest that they did pay. The thorough documentation that each game received, the manuals full of backstories and lore and quotes, the newsletter with so many promises, all suggest that the company was mostly unaware that it was a sausage factory. This was in the "dark age," after all. Wizardry and Ultima were released in 1981 but hadn't really made an impact yet. From the testimonies above, it's easy to see John Bell as an Ed Woodish character, willing to wrap and print anything, in love with the process of creation that eclipsed his own abilities as a creator. But I suppose there are days when I'll take that over auteurs so obsessed with quality that you end up waiting a decade between titles. Every genre needs its pulp.

99 comments:

  1. It seems that Imperial Walker is the first Star Wars game that let you play as the imperial more than a decade before TIE Fighter. Cool discovery.

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    1. I definitely played an Apple II game at a friend's house in the late 80s where one player was the X-Wing and the other was a TIE Fighter. It was a two-player dog-fighting game, as I recall, but this was about 30 years ago. No doubt my memory of this is not 100% accurate.

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    2. You may be thinking of The Warp Factor, an Apple game of spaceship to spaceship combat that let you fly a TIE fighter (among 9 other kinds of ships).
      It is from 1980, so it just predates Imperial Walker for honor of the first (Though there could very well be something else even earlier than these two).

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    3. The game I'm thinking of looks a lot more like Bill Budge's version of Space War. It had a section of the death star in the bottom corner, with a moving target that the players could shoot at.

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    4. Even as a kid I felt that the Imperials were the "good guys" or at least victims of a story not fully told. I doubt I was a fascist at the age of 8, so it's a curious thing as to how my mind got there.

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  2. Original games usually aren't met with the enthusiasm that they deserve. Typically people look at them and don't like them because they aren't like other games they know already. Games journalists are particularly prone to this folly. If they can't put it into a category, it gets a sarcastic review and is discarded, where it may or may not acquire a cult following.

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    1. One thing I often discover when looking into the origins of things, and this goes for video games as much as anything, is that whenever something claims to be the first there's usually someone who did it before them. The touted "firsts" are rarely that, they're just the first ones who did it in a way that actually caught on successfully.

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    2. Or sometimes they genuinely believe they're the first, but someone else did the exact same thing 10 years ago and everyone forgot.

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    3. Speaking as an artist that specializes in the novel and weird, I'd say that 'originality' as the lay person thinks of it tends to be overvalued in the popular imagination vs other aspects of craftsmanship. What I mean is that (a) 'originality' is rarely truly original, (b) execution of an idea is more important than the idea itself, and (c) how well original and familiar elements are blended is often more crucial to an impactful final design/product/artistic work. The proportion to shoot for one hears floated about in the entertainment industry is 30% original, 70% familiar.

      It's a natural principle of how the brain works, I think. It's the reason for the radio (or spotify playlist) pipeline for introducing new music. How often does on love a song they've been listening to on the radio for months, then buy the album and initially recoil at the unfamiliar tunes? Cult followings are often indicative that an 'original' idea was onto something not yet broadly recognized by the market, but soon to be exploited more fully. If, as with these Crystalware titles, they were just forgotten rather than prized by a cult following, it may be indicative that whatever 'original' or at least unfamiliar ideas they had to offer weren't executed all that well.

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    4. Originality isn't that hard - Sam Kinison for example. The problem is that originality really only appeals to people high in the trait of Openness. People who aren't high in Openness prefer the same thing again and again. They eat the same food every week on the same night, go to the Chuck E. Cheese every year on Junior's birthday, and for the cinema they prefer Cringey Cookie Cutter part XIX: the Copying.

      The real difficulty with originality is getting people to buy. I used to cringe at the formulaic entertainment crap put out by Los Angeles...but turns out you people love it. And then someone does something new and "ugh, it wasn't like things I already know! It was terrible!"

      It was bad enough in earlier eras. But now they've employed psychologists and scientists to literally create a formula. I've heard there's a book that tells you how to make a movie, down to every minute of runtime, and movies that follow the book become hits. It's like a 1950s dystopian science fiction short story.

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    5. Raw originiality is very very easy, just use randomness! You're very likely to get something not seen before. The tougher part is finding something original that also works, which isn't easy because there are so many more ways to be bad than good.

      Harland, I may have read that screenwriting book, or at least one like it. "Save the Cat!" It was actually really interesting and changed how I think about movies when I watch them. You don't have to agree with the book's goals to appreciate how well it outlines the common beats that most successful films take.

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    6. "I used to cringe at the formulaic entertainment crap put out by Los Angeles...but turns out you people love it."

      Some people love nothing more than to roam the internet arguing for their own superiority.

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    7. That analysis sounds like pseudoscience that makes Sigmund Fraud look like a bastion of intellectual rigor. Doing some cursory research into the concept does nothing to disabuse me of this notion.

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    8. Sigh. Everyone loves to bash Sigmund Freud, don't they? Freud is completely misunderstood, but it makes people feel good to hold themselves above him, so I don't see it stopping. Freud's genius wasn't that he had all the right answers. No. What he had were all the right questions. That he answered them in a way that with the benefit of a century of hindsight we can see was not as correct as we can do today? Pretty much irrelevant. He inspired a lot of very smart people to say, "Huh, weird. Something's not right here...but here's what I think." And that is what we call science.

      Is Plato an idiot because he thought planets rotated in perfect circles about the Earth? Or was he an incredibly important progenitor, asking good questions which were answered definitively by later generations? Just look at the maps that they made of the world - laughably inaccurate. And all of them have Greece at the center, which we know is not exactly a bastion of intellectual rigor.

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    9. "but it makes people feel good to hold themselves above him, so I don't see it stopping."

      Kind of like "us people" and our Los Angeles cookie-cutter crap, huh?

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    10. Sigmund Fraud MADE UP most of the "data" he used to back up his theories, and what little wasn't fabricated was based on an extremely tiny not-representative dataset. He wasn't like Plato or Aristotle, making a best-guess from what little data he could discern. He was a con man who just happened to tap into a few new ideas, and the only people who "misunderstand" him are those that don't bash him at every turn.

      But it feels good to hold themselves above other people, and he gives a means to do that, so I don't see it stopping.

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    11. Holy moly Harland, your Stereotyping-trait is definitely the highest I've ever seen.

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    12. Being able to type with both hands can be a useful trait.

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    13. What's strange about Harland's post is that the qualities he attributes to "people who aren't high in Openness" are things I associate above all with people on the spectrum. Yes, they're present in a lot of people who strongly identify with mainstream culture as well, but favoring routines and antipathy to novelty are literally diagnostic criteria for ASD.

      Perhaps it's worth imagining a more compassionate explanation for why people want comforting, familiar forms of experience: because many people find the baseline experience of life itself to be overwhelming; or, because there seems to be a genetic, or at least biological, basis to a lot of this stuff that makes our responses largely involuntary -- such that one person's novel experience is another's existential threat.

      I agree with Harland about Freud, though. Much as with Marx, when someone starts going on in polemical terms about how utterly horrible Freud was, I assume they either haven't actually read his work, or perceive his outlook as an obstacle to their political goals, or (in the case of Freud) perhaps belong to the same organization as Messrs. Cruise and Travolta. His work was far from perfect and certainly isn't beyond criticism, and the models he created to make sense of the human psyche may be flawed -- but as Harland says, he asked the right questions, and had the bravery to try to solve problems for which no one had any good answers.

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    14. Plenty of prominent psychologists have condemned Freud, with one arguing (with extremely sound arguments) that Freud's work set the science of psychology (a field in which Freud was an early student, NOT the originator) by a minimum of 50 years.

      Dismissing any critic as "politically based, uneducated, or a cultist" is intellectually dishonest an a truly fundamental scale.

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    15. I'm not "dismissing any critic", Gnoman. I'm dismissing one whose previous posts were practically foaming at the mouth. Reading them was the equivalent of attending a party where one guest goes off on a weird, unasked-for political rant. "Sigmund Fraud"? Save it for Facebook, man.

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    16. Calling a proven fraud a fraud is not foaming at the mouth. It is speaking simple truth.

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    17. As a general rule, I feel pretty comfortable dismissing anyone -- even people with whom I completely agree -- who opts to buttress their argument by changing a person's name to a slur. (Twice: I would've given you the benefit of the doubt had it been a one-off "typo".)

      Maybe I'll miss out on some pearls of wisdom that way. And maybe the static on the radio will arrange itself into the most beautiful piece of music ever heard, if only I were listening! Such are the decisions we make, if we value our signal-to-noise ratio.

      COVID-19 has made stressed-out shut-ins of us all, and maybe you're worn thin right now: after all, who isn't? But it's still possible to talk about subjects, even controversial ones, without adopting modes of argumentation that reflect the worst elements in our world. And changing a person's name to a slur, giving them a disparaging nickname, etc. -- those are things a certain public figure does routinely. Is he really an example you want to emulate?

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    18. Freud's "theories" are routinely used to support transphobia, and his association with psychotherapy is one of the largest reasons that there is so much stigma toward seeking mental treatment. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard "I ain't going to pay good money to listen to some quack telling me I want to sleep with my mother", I could afford a Senator or two. That stigma causes thousands -tens of thousands- of deaths every year.

      This means that Freud has more blood on his hands than most dictators. That more than earns him a disparaging nickname or two.

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    19. Yeah, mocking in that way tends to obstruct discussion.

      Freud wasn’t much of a scientist in today’s sense of the word, but he destigmatised mental illness and popularised talk therapy

      His specific ideas aren’t particularly useful, but the impacts of his attempts to codify the previously uncodified kickstarted our society’s concern with understanding mental health.

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    20. Even if I accept your claims, Gnoman -- which I don't: any form of psychotherapy was always going to be dismissed by the pathologically macho as, essentially, coddling for fragile wimps -- I know people for whom psychoanalysis was a life-changing experience that liberated them from pain and hurt they'd been carrying all their lives. They view Freud's methodology (and its descendants) as a lifesaver, bringing insight into something that could otherwise have destroyed their lives. And since these are some of the smartest, most generous, kindest, and most accomplished people I've ever known, I'm inclined to give their opinion a good deal of credence.

      At minimum, it makes claims like "the only people who "misunderstand" [Freud] are those that don't bash him at every turn" seem unnecessarily polemical, to put it politely. And even if I agreed with you, anyone who expects anyone to "bash [someone] at every turn" is displaying a failure to understand that your priorities are your own, and no one else's: I don't have to do a damned thing "at every turn", on your account or anyone else's, and in any event "bashing" is what propagandists and street toughs do. If your worldview can't allow for and respect multiple, nuanced perspectives, on this or any topic, I'm unlikely to share it.

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    21. You misunderstand. I do not disparage psychoanalys as a discipline. It is, as you say, immensely valuable. Modern psychoanalysis does not, however, have much in common with Freud's work. Freud did not invent the concept depsite his very strong association with it, and those who have developed it into a laudable discipline have done so by chucking virtually all of Freud's array of complexes directly in the bin where they belong.

      It is the dominant position in pop-psychology Freud holds that draws my ire. A huge number of people will never seek psychiatric health, because they believe (incorrectly) that the practice still draws on myths like castration anxiety and the Oedipus Complex. This failure to seek help has cost innumerable lives over the years.

      As for the exact phrase you object to, that was a rash reaction to your own claim that anybody who does not worship Freud must be somehow deluded.

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    22. I didn't think you were disparaging psychoanalysis as a discipline. The claim I reject is that some collective failure to seek help, or stigmatization of psychotherapy, is attributable to Freud -- a claim that seems unverifiable (how on earth would you prove it?) and, more to the point, hard to believe when there are so many stronger forces at work.

      Given that shell shock victims were once routinely shot for cowardice -- and, in some places, no doubt still are -- you'll understand why I find it hard to believe that a significant body count attaches to Freud. Our culture -- like almost every culture -- stigmatizes weakness to such a degree, any effect from "Tell me about your muzzah" jokes and outdated impressions of therapy is negligible at best.

      In any event nothing in Harland's post was especially Freudian, so it seemed more like you were ripe for an excuse to vent about Freud and chose a fairly flimsy pretext for it.

      To say I claimed that "anybody who does not worship Freud must be somehow deluded" is an outright lie, and unworthy of you. I sure as hell don't "worship Freud", and made it abundantly clear that there were things to criticize about his work.

      But Freud also gets one hell of a lot of ignorant criticism from people who have never read a word he wrote -- again, like Marx, who gets made out to be the Antichrist by people who wouldn't know Das Kapital from Das Boot.

      If you're not in that category, I would offer the advice that writing things like "Sigmund Fraud" is a tactic so strongly associated with the ignorant and opinionated -- e.g. Facebook ranters and forwarders of easily Snopes-able claims, not to mention more than one world leader -- that you'd do better to drop it from your playbook.

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    23. And -- wait a minute -- you wrote that Freud "was a con man...and the only people who "misunderstand" him are those that don't bash him at every turn" five hours before I ever posted.

      How on earth can that be a "rash reaction" to a post I hadn't yet made? I ain't Harland.

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    24. You're correct, and I'm sorry. It was a rash reaction to Harland's "small minds" comment, not you.

      Part of the reason for my reaction is that I've been involved in a lot of discussions involving bad studies lately.

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    25. Thank you for your gracious apology, which I appreciate a great deal! I hope this discussion hasn't made either of our days worse than they needed to be. Stay safe and healthy in these tough times.

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    26. this was an unexpected road on a forum of a crpgblog

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    27. One of the many ways that art leads us to interpret and re-interpret other things, I guess, even when the links to the original art are rather tenuous.

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    28. It turned out to be the same story as always: someone is thinking of something, can't get it off his mind, becomes obsessed with it, and begins grinding his axe and bringing up the topic in completely unrelated discussion threads. It's a kind of derangement syndrome all too common today.

      Perhaps I shouldn't have responded, but I get triggered when people bash science. Asking questions that make people feel uncomfortable is the foundation of Western culture and persecuting those who ask them is deplorable.

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    29. Nobody was bashing science. Just bashing your attempt to use dubious science to justify your holier-than-thou "I am the God-Emperor of entertainment and there must be something wrong with anyone who does not agree with my objectively correct opinion" attitude.

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    30. Imagine a dystopian future where the entertainment industry creates entertainment that people love. Oh, the humanity!
      Harland, no offense, actually much offense, uber much offense but you are easily the most annoying commenter I have ever come across in any comment section ever. You constantly tell us what other people’s motivations are. Why people like and dislike things when you should stick to your own motivations and reasons for liking or disliking things. Maybe I’m way off base and the masses love your comments. My taste in comments is just more refined I guess.

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    31. Mesron's Lackey? Guess you haven't heard.

      We're Chet's lackeys. His flaming lackeys in fact.

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    32. @Mesron's Lackey: Isn't that the setting for Infinite Jest?

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    33. Good grief. Pointless arguments like the above have ruined almost every corner of the Internet. It's great to see them on crpg addict as well..

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  3. $40? That's like $100 in today's money!

    I wonder how many people felt it was money well spent.

    Good read, Chet.

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    1. It was, as Chet mentioned, the Dark Ages. Wizardry was a new title. Home gaming that wasn't attempts to copy arcade games (Atari, etc) was either novel computer titles like Crystalware's or inherited from the mainframe games of the 70s largely limited to university campuses. It was a time when a map editor for Raid of Bungeling Bay could be twisted and warped and become SimCity. A wild era.

      I legit appreciate the level of detective work done on these early devs that've disappeared into history. I grew up in a C64 household and the C64 scene was similarly undocumented, particularly in the early years. Plus this was still the era where the hit of the year could be something slapped together by a bored grad student. The future was wiiiiide open.

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    2. Hell, Galactic Expedition's price tag of $149.95, plus S&H I assume, is the equivalent of dropping $470 in 2020.

      I won't even spend $60 on games today, but I'm spoiled by the constant stream of sales spewing out of Steam and GoG's storefronts.

      From what I remember "AAA" games were always $55 - $60, at least where I've lived. I had a $59.95 receipt for World of Xeen and another $54.95 for Lords of the Realm and Master of Magic.

      Nowadays I won't spend more than $40 and that's if the game is a known quality. Why spend more? That $60 game will probably be at least 33% off next month and 50% at Steam's next seasonal sale event.

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    3. I remember games in Germany in the early 90s costing 70-80 German Marks. When the Euro was introduced, it became 50-60 euros, which AAA titles are still at.

      Back in the 90s and 00s I used to pirate, cause that's what all the kids did (sharing floppies and CDs with each other and making copies, then in the late 00s torrenting). Nowadays I buy my games, but usually wait for sales. The last games I bought at release were Disco Elysium and Mount and Blade 2, and those had indie game prices of 40 instead of 60 bucks at release. Haven't felt the desire to buy an AAA title on release in over a decade.

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    4. Most top-quality PC games were about $50 back in the early 80s. Yeah, that's like $150 today. 1st rate new PC games have remained at about that level for 40 years despite inflation. Your gaming dollar goes a LOT further than it used to 40 years ago.

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    5. "Nowadays I won't spend more than $40 and that's if the game is a known quality. Why spend more? That $60 game will probably be at least 33% off next month and 50% at Steam's next seasonal sale event."

      I, too, love to find a good deal on old games. It almost always works out if you're patient enough. But I can remember a moment, probably around 2000, when I looked at the Warcraft I and II battle chest for $20, and thought to myself, "Ah, that'll be cheaper in a year or two."

      Boy, I could not have been more wrong about that particular game. Having set my price point, I refused to buy it until I found it for less ... about four months ago. Blizzard knows they've got the world in a firm grasp, and won't undersell themselves.

      But usually, yes, great deals come to those who wait. Even big ones like Skyrim or Dragon Age will hit $5 if you wait long enough.

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  4. I was going to make a comment about how Crystalware seemed like a company similar to something like Head Games, where they're a value label that pumped put a bunch of not particularly great games to make a quick buck. Then I saw that these games were very much not budget game priced, and the owner was one of those types to have a ton of ideas, just not ones that tended to be feasable or good. Very weird company overall

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    1. Sometimes the non-feasible or good ideas end up making for the most *interesting* products. Not necessarily fun, but interesting.

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    2. @Jarl, I'd go with you that far. In 'the ludic medium' though, a lack of fun isn't exactly a trivial omission. More like, "huh, this triangular wheel sure is interesting! What the hell were they thinking?"

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    3. Well, yeah. I am fascinated by weird off-beat games and like playing them for the experience, but most of them aren't exactly fun. Still, you can learn from their unique ideas and use them as inspiration for something better.

      Anything that's different and weird gets me interested.

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  5. Good decision, I think. This write up was way more interesting than the reviews of all remaining Crystalware non-RPGs would have been.

    ReplyDelete
  6. What a fascinating piece of history! I'm often floored with some of the details you dig up .

    Out of curiosity, how long did you research a piece like this?

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    Replies
    1. It's tough to say. I started writing the article back when I was playing Fantasyland in October. The problem is getting a critical mass of sources. I have no particular journalism training, but I understand the importance of triangulating certain facts and perspectives, so even if I have a lot to say, I never want to hit "Publish" until I feel like I've reached that critical mass.

      I'm still not 100% comfortable with this, but I tried several times to reach John Bell, as well as other Crystalware programmers of the era, with no success. When I finally got Henry Ruddle's information, I decided that was enough to "go" on. Research, interviews, and writing probably took me about 12 hours total.

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  7. I'm glad someone else found Crystalware as strange and interesting as I did. When I first learned about this company while adding them to Mobygames, I was fascinated by the weirdness of their games, and spent far more than is sensible acquiring that newsletter. I've now learned something about the weirdness of the company, too. Thanks!

    And yeah, this was far more interesting than reviewing another one of Crystalware's games.

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    1. Thanks again for providing that resource. I just realized that I didn't even give you parenthetical credit for it in the article, so I just went and made an edit.

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    2. Any chance one of you gents could upload these newsletter scans to the Internet Archive? Seems a bit of weird early computer game history well worth preserving!

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    3. I always like looking into specialized newsletters. You get a glimpse in time, what it was like in the middle of something for the people who were involved in it.

      It's a lost art, newsletters and magazines. Everyone says the internet is better, but I think there was something to be said for collecting thoughts, organizing them, and publishing them monthly or quarterly.

      Delete
    4. There is also the issue of permanence with print media. Web pages can be edited or removed easily; once something has been published and distributed, it is (almost) impossible to make it completely disappear.

      Delete
  8. PetrusOctavianusApril 8, 2020 at 6:02 AM

    Interesting piece of CRPG archaeology.

    This John Bell sounds like the kind of maverick we could use more of nowadays. But I guess there isn't much room for mavericks today when gaming has become a st(r)eamlined multi billion dollar business operating on the no-risk principle.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. The kind of "maverick" that makes average-at-best games, charges a boatload, and promises a bunch of stuff they patently can't deliver? Sounds like your typical upstart indie, except the average price point has gotten much more reasonable.

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    2. PetrusOctavianusApril 8, 2020 at 8:23 AM

      I'm reminded more of Mel Croucher and Automata, early ZX Spectrum pioneers. People with a certain flair, but not nec'ly business acumen. When I see pictures of indie and mobile phone game developers today I'm reminded more of well groomed kids fresh out of business school.

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    3. I don't know about 'well groomed kids fresh out of business school'. In those indie dev circles, I see a lot more in the way of burnt-out corporate techies.

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    4. I have to disagree with this! I'd argue it's perhaps easier than ever for a single person or a small team to build their own game and release it worldwide - and there's plenty of stories of those games becoming major hits, such as Stardew Valley, Undertale, or Untitled Goose Game.

      And if you add in crowdfunding, it's also even easier for a game in a niche genre to get the funding it maybe wouldn't have gotten from a traditional publisher - there's several isometric CRPGs that were funded via Kickstarter in the last few years, for instance.

      All in all, if you're a maverick with some weird ideas and the drive to see it through, I think you're at least as likely to be successful now as you ever would have been - and with the rise of digital platforms etc its easier than ever to get your ideas out in front of your potential audience.

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    5. @Alex, that sounds more like a description of beloved '90s devs on Kickstarter than your typical indie. Not to mention a certain citizen that's the greater promiser of things they'll never deliver.

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    6. You may be right. I don't follow the modern gaming scene much anyway, but whenever I see some local developers presented in the papers and learn about the games they make I can't help being a bit disappointed/disgusted.

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    7. Anyone got a list of those isometric CRPGs?

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    8. @Harland, here you go: Shadowrun trilogy, Pillars of Eternity 1&2, Divinity: Original Sin 1&2, Wasteland 2, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Expeditions: Viking, Lords of Xulima, Stygian: Rise of Old Ones. Plus there were non-kickstarted Underrail and Age of Decadence.

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    9. Didn't Spiderweb Software some Kickstarters?

      On YouTube there is a cool video from last year's GDC with Jeff Vogel where he is retelling the company story

      I think it's this:
      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=stxVBJem3Rs

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    10. I've been waiting for an opportunity to link that video, it's a great talk and Spiderweb seems to be a favorite among commenters. I highly recommend it even if you've never played a Spiderweb Software game.

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    11. @Marc - he did but for Queen's Wish, which is top-down a̶n̶d̶ ̶u̶g̶l̶y̶ ̶a̶s̶ ̶s̶i̶n̶, and the Geneforge remake, so it doesn't quite count :)

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    12. @Marc I should have mentioned Spiderweb Software, Vogel's one of the main people I was thinking of in terms of "mavericks making it work without multi billion dollar businesses" :)

      Delete
  9. Yes, axonometric perspective in pure adventure (as opposed to action-adventure) is rare but certainly not unheard of. Sanitarium and Stasis are two of most well known examples.

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    1. There's also something with a title like "shadow of dracula" (but that's not it) that is fairly highly regarded with some "rpg stuff" tacked on, but when playing it becomes quickly clear that it's a straightforward adventure with optional meh-combat. I'm sure someone else here has the right name, maybe it's even on chet's list?

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    2. Veil of Darkness, probably. Same company also made Dusk of the Gods (Chet already played it) and The Summoning (still on the upcoming list).

      Delete
    3. Even something like the Worlds of Ultima games would probably fall into this category.

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    4. Elsinore, an indie adventure that's sort of 'Hamlet' meets 'Groundhog Day', would be a recent example.

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    5. @JarlFrank - that's the one, indeed!

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  10. The Sumer of 4000BC is one of Bryan Adams' lesser-known hits.

    I'll get my coat.

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  11. This was a smart way of encapsulating Crystalware's, uh, wares and giving the developer its due without suffering through another one of its games for a separate review. Certainly seemed like an interesting bunch, and I can think of several examples even today of game companies with an impulsive, and possibly delusional, force of personality like John Bell in the lead (a certain purveyor of post-apocalyptic action-RPGs comes to mind).

    Definitely curious about what will take up all those newly-unoccupied slots on the Upcoming list. Sticking to whichever's earliest, or will you bounce around that '82-'92 decade a bit?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've already been through the decade a couple of times, so what's still on the list is scraping the bottom of the barrel a bit. There's a high probability that any title I pick will be unfindable, unplayable, not an RPG, or something I don't have the patience for right now. So I figured I'd just leave it flexible rather than announce specific titles.

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    2. Loriciel's Sapiens confirmed :)

      Delete
  12. I would have left out that drug use quote. It could be nasty to have something like that googleable about you and we don't know if that is true or not, or maybe it was just said joking.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe I'm just naive, but I don't know that anyone's really going to suffer a huge reputational hit from a story like "a guy who worked with John four decades ago said that he occasionally told stories about doing drugs" posted on a CRPG blog.

      Delete
    2. I weighed that possibility but ultimately went with Ian's opinion. However, if John Bell himself asked me to take it down, I probably would.

      Delete
  13. When in Applewin, click on the configuration button and for controller select mouse, and that "Should" allow you to emulate a paddle controller

    ReplyDelete
  14. But something about a top-down iconographic interface screens "RPG!" [...].

    "screens" should be "screams" or not?

    ReplyDelete
  15. I'm going to pretend I didn't see this post and slowly back away...

    ...eh, just kidding. Based on what I've seen, I'd count them as action-adventures, so I can pass them off to the Action-Adventure Addict whenever they appear. (I do like Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider, etc. but I'd say they really do fall in their own genre.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll probably take a look at some of them on my blog when the time comes. It's not like my list of games to play isn't stupidly enormous already.

      Delete
    2. ...yeah, I know the feeling.

      Delete
  16. "Sumer 4000 BC (1980): A text simulator in which you're the King of Sumeria, trying to manage resources and make your empire survive another year."

    This sounds like one of the many, many remakes/ripoffs of The Sumerian Game/Hamurabi, the Colossal Cave Adventure of management games:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamurabi_(video_game)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's exactly what it is. It's a relatively good port, but nothing special.

      Delete
  17. Off Topic //

    Interested if you would play Zelda: A Link to the Past?

    Keep up the good work

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    Replies
    1. As much as I'd like to see that considering it's one of my favorite games in general, the Addict already said that Zelda 1 didn't fall under the rules and was basically a one off. As is, if Zelda 1 isn't an RPG, none of the others besides Zelda 2 would count as one for the blog. Besides, if he ever made another exception for a Zelda game, I'd rather it be Breath of the Wild as that's the one that feels the most like an RPG

      Delete
  18. Gnoman, I think you need to get off your high horse, re-read Harland's originl post and calm down. Talk about getting way too upset. The way you're ranting, one would think you'd personally been attacked by him.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, always defend the trolls. No one has a right to get upset when people attack them or post stupid crap. They just need to put up with everything anyone else does. LOL!

      Delete
    2. Are you guys starting a fight about starting fights?

      That’s SO meta!

      Delete
  19. I'm fascinated by these computer games with deeper mysteries that lead to real life prizes. It seems there were a lot of them back in the day; I'd really like to see a breakdown of how exactly you were meant to solve them, and who ended up winning.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The digital antiquarian had a nice duo of articles about these kinds of things:
      https://www.filfre.net/2016/05/kit-williamss-golden-hare-part-1-the-contest/
      https://www.filfre.net/2016/05/kit-williamss-golden-hare-part-2-the-aftermath/

      Delete

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