Scott Adams

interviewed by Steve Gould


Issue 10

Jul/Aug 84

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Readers who had a copy of issue 1 of PAGE 6 will recall that we promised an interview with Scott Adams when he visited the U.K. The visit was a long time coming but when he paid a very brief visit earlier this year Birmingham User Group were able to steal a couple of hours of Scott's time and STEVE GOULD conducted the following interview.

Steve: When did you first get interested in computers?

Scott: I was in the 3rd grade, about 9 years old, and we took a field trip in Florida. I was living in Miami at the time and we went down to Miami University and got to see the computer there. There was this great glass wall and behind it smocked technicians with white coats and a big computer with the tapes spinning and lights flashing, right out of a science-fiction movie! We were told we couldn't go in there but I was determined to get in somehow. I think that is where I can trace my interest back to but I actually got hands on experience in High School. Back in the 60's computers were something that the average person rarely got to use. Our school was part of an experimental program for the State, they wanted to see if a computer terminal was something students could use. We got a terminal for the school and that's when I really started getting in to it.

Your first encounter with Adventure was the Colossal Caves?

Yes, the classic Colossal Caves.

How much of an influence did that have on you?

I was, at the time, working as a programmer for Stromberg Carlson which was on telephone switching. I was definitely into computers at that point. As a matter of fact whenever I went to work for a company, I had the criteria that I would work for them only as long as I had use of the computer after hours to do what I wanted. Basically what I wanted was to play and write games! I always enjoyed that on computers, fascinating. At the time I was working for Stromberg, I actually had a home computer. This was the first company that I had been with that I did not need the use of the computer because I actually had one at home to play with. When I was there I was introduced to Adventure on the mainframe and I thought it was really something. I wished I could take it home to my friends or show it to them but they were not allowed into the company so I said 'Okay I am going to write an Adventure-type game for the micro-computer'. Everybody laughed and said 'It's impossible, those things are only toys, you could never get an adventure game on one.' Fortunately I didn't listen and it took off from there. 

That was Adventureland I presume?

That was Adventureland. It was in 1978, about 6 years ago. Before that I had a little Company trying to make a few dollars on the side by selling a few games for the computer but I didn't really have anything interesting, so that fell by the wayside. A little later when I wrote Adventureland and showed it to some friends they thought it was really neat and wanted to buy a copy, so I said okay and it started from there. It grew and grew and today we are a multi-million dollar firm and still growing.

Do you prefer writing Adventures most?

Yes, I enjoy Adventures but I also enjoy arcade games. I remember when Asteroids and Pac-Man were introduced I thought here are two winners that are going to take off and indeed they did. My first game on a micro of any substance was in fact an arcade game. It was a tank war game and I actually built the computer myself. The game was like the old Tank War game except mine was in hi-res graphics instead of poor arcade graphics. I built my own controllers and designed my own graphics board. I was interested in the hardware to see how the machine worked but I was much more interested in programming and once the appliance machines came out, the fixed machines, programming was the way I wanted to go and I haven't regretted it since.

How long did it take you to write Adventureland? On the introduction it states it took over a year to complete.

I started it in the summer of '78 and had a working version that was somewhat playable within a week. The rest of the time was taken in fine tuning
and designing the system that I still use today to write adventures but the basic idea took about a week to get something up and to see where I was going. It was a lot of work from there because there were no guide paths to follow. The only Adventure that even existed at that time was Colossal Caves so I was virtually in virgin territory and exploring.

On the back of the packages it has got average completion time 1 month. How do you work that time out?

That's more a feel than anything else. We've had people who can play an Adventure in a day, who sit there and crank away at it, and we have had others who have had over a year of playing and are still really stuck and need help, so we feel a month is probably an average time.

The majority of Atari users in this country have only a 16K machine. Has the thought ever crossed your mind of doing some kind of conversion to 16K?

That's a possibility. I started the project a couple of times but ran into difficulty getting it compressed down far enough and then other projects would come along and it would sort of get shelved. The SAGA market with the disks took up a lot of time getting that developed so the 16K version got shelved. With the new HULK Adventure we are looking very seriously at trying to have a 16K version.

The first adventure most people come across is Escape From Traam because it is in 16K which is a pity as it is perhaps one of the most difficult I've ever encountered. It puts a lot of people off when they get stuck after only a couple of moves.

Yes (laughs). Hopefully we can get the interpreter and database to fit in 16K and bring new life to the earlier Adventures. The early ones in my series are designed for the beginner. At the time they were written they were all that was available and the only players were beginning Adventurers, so they are designed specifically for someone who has never played an Adventure.

When you wrote Savage Island 1 & 2, did you intend to make them the most difficult?

Yes, I thought 'Okay I have been nice up to now, now it's time to get even! Let's see what I can really do' and I did indeed deliberately try to make them the hardest ones to date in the series. Adventure 13 is now out and I am not sure in my own mind if it is more difficult than Savage Island 1 & 2, it's at least as difficult. I wanted to have in the series a couple of very good beginner adventures, some moderate ones and then some real humdingers!

What's the title of the new one?

The Sorceror of Claymorgue Castle. It's a fantasy type adventure. You are an apprentice by the name of Beanwick. You have been asked by your master to recover the 13 power stars an evil sorceror has stolen away. He couldn't control them and they destroyed him. You are armed with a few small spells and told don't worry you'll find some more spells when you get there. Just bring back those power stars... and you're off!

Have you actually had anybody try it out? Yes, quite a few.

What's the reaction? They enjoy it, and get a few surprises!

Where do you draw most of your inspiration from?

I get asked that so frequently and like most writers my only response is that it just comes, you can't say where it comes from but it's there. I am an avid reader. I've got a very large science-fiction library and the inspiration comes purely from the imagination. Basically I picture myself in the Adventure. I put myself in the situation and say okay turn the corner and I see what? And that is what I write.

Have you any favourite authors?

Dozens, they are hard to peg. The big name ones from Heinlein and Asimov down to Star Trek because that was good strong science fiction as opposed to something like Buck Rogers. Surprisingly I have not gotten into Doctor Who. I have watched it a few times in the States and have never understood where the popularity comes from but I don't spend a lot of time getting involved with the characters and it's harder that way.

What has been the general reaction to the SAGA's?

I think it has been pretty good. We are in the process of doing the graphics once more getting even tighter and better quality. For the Atari version the new SAGA's will have absolutely no flicker. That has been the biggest complaint, the problem with the flicker. Our new pictures I think are absolutely phenomenal. On the Atari it fills both sides of the disk to get the system to run and that's about 180K.

Most adventures that feature hi-res pictures are very limited in colour.

I wish you could see the graphics with the new system. I think they are phenomenal. I am very pleased with it. We are working with full production artists now that do the actual drawing and entry into the computer and the results are tremendous. They really are.

Do you intend to bring all the Adventures out as SAGAs eventually, including the new one?

Yes. As a matter of fact, the new one will be out before the rest as it's already out on the Apple and we are in the process of putting the pictures on the Atari.

Which have you found is the most popular Adventure?

Sales wise it would have to be Adventureland because it is the one most people start with. In terms of what people like, I don't know. I have my own personal favourites. I like The Count, I feel it's complex enough. I enjoyed writing it and there's enough that can go on....

There's a time limit in that isn't there?

Yes, things have to occur on different days and that makes life more interesting. I, of course, like Savage Island because that was a bit of an epic on my part when I was writing it. Ghost Town is one of the treasure hunts that I feel came off well, there are just limitless possibilities in the way things happen. Normally though as I am writing them, the one I am working on is my favourite. At this time that would be The Hulk.

Will that be Adventure 14?

No, there is already an Adventure 14. The thing is it was written exclusively for the Texas Instruments and they got the exclusive rights to it for a limited period which is just now running out and then we will be bringing it out on the other machines. Adventure 14 is called Return to Pirate's Island. I've always had people play Pirate's Island - it's one that I recommend as good for beginners, you can get through it fairly quickly - who comment that it was a lot of fun but I got though it real easy, so I wrote a sequel called Return To Pirate's Island. So now you get another crack at it. I don't think they will be complaining it's too easy!

Which of the 14 did you find the most difficult to conceive?

Strange Odyssey - no 6. To this day I am not happy with it. I felt that I didn't finish it, I needed to put more in but I couldn't think what else to put in so I said 'This is it', but I am not happy with it.

What are your opinions of the disk based Adventures that accept multiple word input?

They are excellent, there is no question about it. 

Have you any intention of bringing one out?

Intention, yes. Hopefully it will come to fruition.

The days of the two word input seem to be becoming numbered.

Not necessarily. If you sit there and play one of the large text adventures like Zork, you'll find that 95% of the time you are only using two words. It's a novelty putting in full sentences but you are not really using them.

Traam uses that to a certain extent. 

Yes, but how often do you really use it?

We have Other Ventures 2, 3 and 4. What and where is Other Venture 1?

That was classic Adventure - the Colossal Caves. We never did get it transferred over to the Atari. It was on the Apple at the time and began to lose popularity and we basically discontinued it.

I understand you are converting all the Adventures to the Spectrum and BBC Which of all the conversions have you found the hardest to do?

Probably the original TRS-80 conversion to the Apple which was going from the Z80 over to the 6502. The 6502's philosophy of programming is so totally different from the Z80.

What do you think the effect of the laser disk games like Dragon's Lair will be on the home, if any?

Until they can bring the cost of the systems down, I don't see a major effect. The cost of a disk player is so large that the average user may not care to spend it when he can get a video tape player on which can also record movies for later. The video disk is not a first choice.

Would you like to see Adventures going that way?

Eventually, sure. Unfortunately, until they can break the price barrier, I don't see it happening.

What do you think the future of Adventure International will be?

That's a wide open question. Myself I am going to be doing a lot of work with the new Marvel licence. I have been President and C.O. of the Company now for its entire life span and in the last couple of years I haven't had as much time for programming as I would like. If things work out well in the future I hope to bring in someone to assist me more with the business so I can spend more time programming. I have got a large number of projects that I have started or would like to start that are now sitting on the shelf, so there are a lot of possibilities in that direction. This Marvel licence is going to be fairly interesting because it's a long term licence, something that Marvel has never done before.

What does that entail?

We have the rights to the Marvel characters like Iron Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four, X-Men. We have in fact got the exclusive rights to the entire Marvel Universe of characters to use in Adventure games. Normally a licence would be for one or two years. Our licence is for 10 years and we plan to do a lot with it. Look out for a lot more from Adventure International in the future.