Scott Adams has been working with computers since the late 60s, and was introduced to Crowther and Woods’ Colossal Cave Adventure in the late 70s. Following this, he began working on a similar game, despite the fact that Colossal Caves ran on a mainframe and used 300K of memory, to a 16K Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I. This game was Adventureland, the first text adventure on a personal computer, and is widely regarded to be the first commercially released text adventure.
Adams went on to set up Adventure International, which released the fourteen games in the Scott Adams Adventure series, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and three games in the Questprobe series, the first Marvel Comics licensed videogames. Additionally, the company opened a UK subsidiary named AdventureSoft UK and released games from other developers, including the Mysterious Adventures, and Fighting Fantasy series.
At its peak in 1983 to 1984, the company employed around 50 people, but went bankrupt in 1985 – a fact that Adams attributes to an industry downturn. He has continued to work as a programmer in a non-gaming field, though released Return to Pirates Island 2 in August of 2000. He is currently working on a new title based on the Old Testament of the Bible - The Inheritance: SAGA Bible Adventure #1.
GameSetWatch contacted Adams via email to talk about Adventure International, working with Marvel, and his continuing enthusiasm for videogames. (Click through to read the full interview.)
What's your background with computers?
I started working with computer in high school back in the late 60s. The state of Florida decided to try an experiment and put one mainframe terminal in a chosen high school. It was North Miami Senior High and it was the math department that got the terminal. When I found out about it I purchased a programming manual from the University of Miami and proceeded to start teaching myself to program.
This worked out well as I was originally scheduled to go into medicine but
found I loved computers. I have been a professional programmer ever since.
When did you first encounter Colossal Cave Adventure?
I was working at Stromberg Carlson in Lake Mary Florida when the IT department got a copy of Colossal Caves for the DEC mainframe. I spent a week coming in before work and staying late to play it. This was around 1977/78 or so.
Other pieces I've read that either interview or quote you seem to suggest that you considered Adventure to be a genre all to itself at the time.
Actually it would really be Interactive Fiction that is the true genre. There is still quite a following in these type games today.
Have you seen any of the current IF development systems?
I saw a printout for INFORM once. Looked like it used up and entire pine tree! I did not actually read it though. Just saw the printout.
What inspired you to attempt to write Adventureland?
I had a TRS-80 model I at the time and wanted to write a game that would utilize Basic Strings. I had mostly worked in assembler and FORTRAN up to this time and to have a language that incorporated text was a novel idea. After playing Colossal Caves I decided I wanted to do something similar for the little home computer.
What problems did you run into trying to create a game for a 16k TRS-80 in a style that you'd previously only seen running on a mainframe using 300K of space?
Obviously I wasn't going to get Colossal Caves to fit in such a tiny memory. My first order of business was to design my own adventure language and then write a compiler and interpreter for it. Then I was able to actually start writing my game. I never saw the source code for Colossal Caves so my solution was totally unique.
How long did Adventureland take to write, all up?
About a month for the first version that was playable.
How long before you began on your second game?
Was about 2 months later I think.
The commercial sale of Adventureland all began with a small advertisement. Where was the ad printed?
It's been a long time, I think it may have been in Softside magazine but I am not sure.
From there, how did you go about starting Adventure International?
Well the first game was really the start of the company. My first real order though was from a fellow by the name of Manual Garcia who was the manager of a Radio Shack in the Chicago area. He ordered 50 tapes. I tried to sell them to him at retail and he had to explain wholesale pricing to me! Needless to say it took awhile to create those 50 tapes one by one on my TRS-80!
What motivated you to begin selling the game?
I always enjoyed small entrepreneurial enterprises. When I was a kid I had lemonade stands, joke stands and a slot car racing business.
Was it a steep learning curve to go from not knowing about wholesale prices to being heavily involved in the financial side of a business?
Not really, as the business grew I learned as I went.
How did the release of Infocom's Zork change the way that you looked at your business?
By the time Infocom came along we had been in business for some time. They were targeting the new disk drive machines like Commodore 64 while we where still supporting the cassette based units.
So you never really felt in competition with them?
Sure there was competition as we both were selling similar type games. They had bigger bankroll though and were doing things like using a DEC mainframe as their development machine. I was still using the end user computers as the development environment!
Was the competition part of what inspired you to push the technology forward, going from a two word parser to full sentences, or was this something that you had intended to work on from the start?
I was always trying new things. Ever adventure game I wrote would add at least one new thing that I had not done in a previous version. So the eventual translation to full sentence was a given.
What about the move from text based to graphical adventures? Was this simply to try and keep up with the marketplace?
Pictures were a fun challenge that I had to try. Plus it gave a better demo than the plain text games. In reality the text games are far more deep, as folks paint a better picture in their mind then what the computer can show.
Were the graphics your work?
I hired artists.
You said back in the 80s that you wrote your games as text only, was this an effort to secure a larger piece of the gaming market?
Well originally there were no graphical computers! Text was really the only option on the limited machines that first came out.
How many games were produced by Adventure International?
There was a total of 14 in the Scott Adams Adventure series, and 4 in the licensed series - Buckaroo Banzai, Spiderman, Hulk and The Fantastic Four.
Were the Marvel Questprobe games originally released as text-only games?
No Questprobe was always graphics with the underlying text. Note all my adventures could be played with the graphics off if wanted. The game never depended on them.
So there were three games in the series - Spider-Man, The Hulk, and The Fantastic Four (Human Torch and The Thing)?
Correct. There was supposed be a full series of a dozen games, but the company went out of business before this was completed.
Oh, so you'd licensed further characters from Marvel?
I had rights to use their entire character set.
What was it like to work with Marvel, back in those days?
It was a great privilege to work with the Marvel writers and artists. Jim Shooter was the editor in chief at the time and I really looked up to him. In fact since he was soooo taallll EVERYONE looked up to him!
How did you begin working with Marvel?
Joe Calamari who was vice president of Marvel at the time contacted us. He was real big about trying to get the characters licensed in different areas and thought we would be the best fit for home computer games.
How did you go about writing the games? Did you work with anyone at the company to get the characters right?
This was just before the first Marvel Universe series came out. It outlined ever character ever done by Marvel in a set of comic books. They gave me a pre-release copy of the set and I sat down and read the whole thing. Also while I was doing this series I had them subscribe me to every comic book they were making and every month I read the entire stack!
Why was the second Fantastic Four game never released, despite having a release date?
The game was never written. Only the one with the first two characters.
What led to the bankruptcy of Adventure International?
There was a tremendous downturn in the industry at the time. You might remember the $1,000 TI99/4a selling for $50. AI did not have deep enough pockets to survive.
Following that, what happened with the copyrights of the games you'd developed?
The licensed characters reverted back to the licensee such as Marvel and Paramount etc. Eventually my original games came back to me.
What have you developed since then? I know there's been Return to Pirate's Island 2, but were there any in between?
Nope that was it.
What can you tell me about your newest project, The Inheritance: SAGA Bible Adventure #1?
I have the prologue done and have not worked much on it in the last few years. Just in the last month have I picked it up again.
As someone who was working with stories in games at their purest level, do you think the focus on storytelling has shifted for the worse?
Well I have to say that the story lines in Oblivion are totally outstanding. To me the absolute best role play/adventure game out there right now is Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. It was the first game to get me always from EverQuest 2 in a long time!
How did you feel about the popularity of the adventure genre in the 90s, and its current demise – or hiatus, hopefully?
I don't play adventure type games myself currently. Other games tend to hold my interest more.
Are you playing mostly MMOs, or is there something else holding your interest too?
It is varied. By far most of my gaming time is in EverQuest 2 but currently I am also playing the following games:
Oblivion (Xbox 360)
King Kong (Xbox 360)
Halo 1 and 2 (Xbox)
Titan Quest (PC)
Sims 2 (Nintendo DS)
Animal Crossing (DS)
Lord of the Rings: 7th Age (GBA on the DS)
Metroid Prime Pinball (DS)
It’s interesting that you’re such a fan of MMOs, considering your comments from the mid 80s:
"Fantastic Four Part I will be a two player adventure - either two people can play, or one person can play, playing both roles. I can see down the road to a time when fifty players will be playing one adventure."
Guess my estimate was a bit low!
Do these games feel like what you had envisioned back when you said that? Is this what attracts you to them?
In many cases they do, but in general MOGs are more about character advancement then story telling. There are some great stories in the MOGS but in general that is not what is attracting people.