The untold story of a creative, innovative, fiercely-independent gaming scene that was serially ignored by the outside world
The Macintosh changed videogames. It seldom gets credit for this, but it did. It — and its tight-knit community — challenged games to be more than child's play and quick reflexes. It showed how to make human computer interaction friendly, inviting, and intuitive.
Mac gaming led to much that is now taken for granted by PC gamers, including mouse-driven input, multi-window interfaces, and even online play. The Mac birthed two of the biggest franchises in videogame history, Myst and Halo, and it hosted numerous "firsts" for the medium. It allowed anyone to create games and playful software with ease using programs like World Builder, HyperCard, and SuperCard. It also gave small developers a home for their wares in the increasingly hostile games market of the 90s and early 2000s, before the iPhone and the rise of digital distribution services such as Steam enabled "indie" development to return to the broader industry.
Mac gaming welcomed strange ideas and encouraged experimentation. It fostered passionate and creative communities who inspired and challenged developers to do better and to follow the Mac mantra "think different".
The Secret History of Mac Gaming is the story of those communities and the game developers who survived and thrived in an ecosystem that was serially ignored by the outside world. It's a book about people who made games and people who played them — people who, on both counts, followed their hearts first and market trends second. How in spite of everything they had going against them, the people who carried the torch for Mac gaming in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s showed how clever, quirky, and downright wonderful videogames could be.
The work draws on archive materials as well as 60+ new interviews with key figures from Mac gaming's past, including:
Craig Fryar, who is co-authoring several chapters (former Mac game evangelist, Spectre co-creator) Robyn and Rand Miller (Cyan Worlds) Patrick Buckland (Crystal Quest) John Calhoun (Glider) Andrew Welch (Ambrosia) Ben Spees (Harry the Handsome Executive, Ferazel's Wand) Matt Burch (Escape Velocity) Ian and Colin Lynch Smith (Freeverse) Steven Tze (Freeverse) Mark Stephen Pierce (Dark Castle) Jonathan Gay (Dark Castle, Airborne, went on to design what later became Adobe Flash) Bill Appleton (World Builder, Creepy Castle, others) Steve Capps (Alice/Through the Looking Glass, Amazing, co-created The Finder) Charlie Jackson (Silicon Beach Software) Peter Cohen (Tikkabik/MacGaming.com, editor at Macworld 1999-2009) Trey Smith (GraphSim) Dave Marsh (Shadowgate, Uninvited) Joe Williams (Delta Tao) Brian Greenstone (Pangea) Craig Erickson (Déjà Vu/MacVenture system) Rick Holzgrafe (Scarab of Ra, Solitaire Till Dawn) Chris De Salvo (MacPlay, Apple GameSprockets) Ray Dunakin (Ray's Maze, Another Fine Mess, A Mess O' Trouble) Cliff Johnson (Fool's Errand, 3 In Three, At the Carnival) Glenda Adams (Westlake Interactive, Aspyr) Rebecca Heineman (Interplay/MacPlay, Logicware) Eric Klein (former Mac game evangelist, Bungie) Marc Vose (MacSports/gamedb) Yoot Saito (SimTower) Alex Seropian (Bungie) and many more
The book will be a 304 page hardback, printed on 120 gsm fine art paper, with a bookmark, head and tail bands, and a four colour jacket printed on clear plastic stock. It will include lots of colour photographs, screenshots from games, packaging, advertising and other ephemera.
Computer games were big with Apple employees, too. "The early Apple staff, starting with Woz [Steve Wozniak], loved playing and creating games," Hertzfeld recalls. "Many of the Apple engineers spent a fair percentage of their time playing the latest hot game [on the Apple II computer]."
Games were also a fun and effective way to test the Mac's work-in-progress graphical user interface, with its mouse input and desktop metaphors that stood in stark opposition to the text-only command-line interfaces on the IBM PC, Apple II, Commodore 64, and other personal computers at the time.
"One of the earliest Mac demo programs I wrote was a version of Breakout, the classic Atari/Apple II game," says Hertzfeld. He wrote his homage in April 1981 on an early Mac prototype. "We hardly had any software running on the Mac and [I] thought that it would be nice to have a mouse-based game," he explains. It seemed a fitting gesture, given the game's history, to have it help in some small way to shape the future of computing (again).
"It only took a day or two to write initially," Hertzfeld recalls. "After I had it going, [Apple Mac team colleague] Bud Tribble suggested that I spice it up by having the bricks fall when they were hit by the ball instead of disappearing, and you'd have to dodge them as they fell since you'd lose your ball if they hit your paddle.
"I also made a nice explosion when a falling brick hit the paddle. It was fun to play, but was written in a low-level, stand-alone fashion and not maintained as the system software evolved.”
Other Mac team members also made games to test hardware and software features. In 1984, after the first Mac came out, programmer Gene Tyacke developed a version of Greg Thompson and Dave Colley's (among many others') primitive first-person shooter Maze War to test the in-development AppleTalk networking feature that allowed multiple Macs to share files and send messages to each other across a cable connected to the printer port. Bus'd Out was later leaked out unfinished, but not before Burt Sloane, a programmer in a different Mac department, independently created a version of his own that eventually became Maze Wars+, one of the first commercially-available network games. (See Chapter 15 for more on Maze Wars+ and the Mac’s role in the growth of network games.)
Games were more than a fun testing ground for software development on the Mac. An early business plan called for a minimum of two “Macintosh quality” games that would be “unlike the world has ever seen” because “it further endears the office user to his Mac, titillates the college user, and provides a reason for office types to carry their Macs home to their family.”
One of those "Macintosh quality" games was being developed by Bill Budge, who had just found huge success on the Apple II with Pinball Construction Kit — a game in which players could craft their own virtual pinball tables and then play them. Budge was given an early Macintosh, well before its official release. He recalls that the original Mac "had a pretty fast CPU combined with a relatively small screen. That made it possible to paint the screen fast enough to do good 3D animation." To that end, Budge was making a flight simulator. "I actually got a demo working that approached a runway for landing and had an impressive frame rate for the time."
It never came to anything. "I abandoned the project because the display was only black and white, so grey scales had to be simulated by dithering or patterning, which didn't look that great," he says. "And because it would have been a lot of work to import the geographical database and I lost interest."
The creator of the other launch-ready Macintosh-quality game followed through, however, and that game came from within the company. Everybody at Apple played Steve Capps' computer game. Alice combined the careful strategy of the ancient game of kings with the speed and immediacy of quarter-guzzling modern arcades. It was an Alice in Wonderland-themed reimagining of chess wherein Alice herself stood in for the white pieces. She faced down the red queen's army on the other side of the board, and the player could click on the board to tell her where to go. If the square clicked on was a legal chess move for the type of piece Alice was acting as, she'd hop there. If an enemy piece occupied that space, it would disappear. The end goal was to clear the board of all enemy pieces.
Unlike chess, Alice moved at break-neck speed. Enemy pieces hopped about without waiting even a second for the player to complete his move. The pieces themselves combined the basic appearance of traditional chess pieces with the illustrative style of Sir John Tenniel, who had illustrated the original Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass books. They were drawn in black and white, as was the faux-3D chessboard that floated on a black background.
Capps' Alice had the Macintosh and Lisa software teams captivated. One person in particular took to Alice like glue. Joanna Hoffman, the Mac's first marketing person, was indisputably the best player. But she found the game too easy and pressured Capps to make it tougher. He tweaked parameters and added features, including a special mode where the board became invisible. He did whatever was necessary to keep his friends from getting bored of his game, and those changes all stuck for the final release.
"The problem was that I was designing it for people who were expert Alice users," he explains, "so for the person that first picked it up it was actually frustratingly, shittily hard. To the point that I blew it." More than anything, Alice was brutally difficult because it assumed its player had already mastered the art of pointing and clicking.
Most people who bought a Macintosh had never used a mouse before, nor had many even tried to operate a computer. They had to learn from scratch even things that are as fundamental as moving a mouse cursor and clicking to select a file or reposition a text prompt, or double clicking to open something, or any manner of other actions computer users take for granted today.
Apple had conducted user tests prior to the release of the Macintosh to see how people fared in setting it up and learning to operate the system without any guidance. Capps recalls one tester who got his running without a hitch but held the mouse such that the cord ran out the bottom instead of the top and his palm rested over the button.
"The guy had never touched a mouse before," Capps says. "He's sitting there and he moves it to the right and the cursor moves to the left. And he moves the mouse up and the cursor moves down. So it's essentially backwards. Thinking of Alice in Wonderland, he's fallen through the looking glass, and he teaches himself to use it in the half an hour there."
Asked afterwards what he thought of the Mac, the man said, "You know, I didn't understand why it was backwards like that. But I got used to it, so I think you guys got a great product there."
Return of the Obra Dinn + an upcoming PAX Australia talk
Friday, 19 October 2018
Just a quick update this time to let you know about a talk I'm giving next week and a cool new game inspired by the Mac games of old.
PAX Australia talk
First, the talk: I'll be sharing a selection of stories and insights from the golden age of Mac gaming at PAX Australia on Sunday October 28 at 12pm. Details here. If you saw my keynote at /dev/world/2018 in August, expect something in a…
My next book: introducing Shareware Heroes: Independent Games at the Dawn of the Internet
Wednesday, 29 August 2018
Exciting news! We've just launched the Unbound project for my next book, Shareware Heroes: Independent Games at the Dawn of the Internet. Here's a link to the campaign page, which has the pitch video, an excerpt from the first chapter, and a summary: https://unbound.com/books/shareware-heroes/
The short version is that it's about how the shareware marketing and business model subverted…
Upcoming talk (June 26 in Melbourne) & livestream (June 27 on Twitch.tv w/Robyn Miller)
Friday, 15 June 2018
Just wanted to let everyone know about a couple of events related to the book happening next week.
First, I'm giving a talk at the next iMug meeting in the Melbourne CBD. (iMug is short for Internet Macintosh User Group; it's apparently one of a few Mac user groups that are still active in Australia.)
Entry is free and all are welcome, so if you're a local or you're in town that evening…
I'm doing a 1980s Mac games livestream soon
Wednesday, 11 April 2018
I wanted to do this to celebrate the main trade launch last month but didn't have time, so instead I'm doing a livestream to coincide with the April 15 Australian release date for my book. It's going to be focused on games from the 1980s. I'll be talking about some of my personal favourites from the era and showing off a few gems that I didn't discover until I started researching the book, as well…
Official public launch March 22; here's how you can help
Wednesday, 14 March 2018
It's now time for us to enter the next phase: public launch. On March 22, The Secret History of Mac Gaming trade hardbacks will be officially available in the UK and online. This is how they look on the outside:
You've probably noticed the lack of blue page edges. The other differences are a lower-quality paper stock and binding, and also a slightly yellower cover. Oh, and the Macintosh screen…
Rocket Jump and other games history books on Unbound
Friday, 23 February 2018
(For any people just now discovering this book, the special backer-only hardback edition is sold out BUT the trade hardback edition is not. You can pre-order that on Amazon UK and elsewhere ahead of its official March 22 release. The differences between the two are few: the trade edition drops the blue page edges, uses lower-quality paper stock and binding, and has a subtly-different finish on the…
Researching Mac gaming history part 2: Usenet
Wednesday, 6 September 2017
(Skip to the end if you just want the latest updates on the book.)
I distinctly remember the moment it hit me, a year or so into researching this book, just how much of the history I'm trying to research and share happened before the modern Web existed. It was a frightening moment, like crap — how can I fill all these missing data points in? The Internet Archive is an incredible resource (and I…
The manuscript's nearly done, plus a list of interviews
Wednesday, 19 October 2016
I've been meaning to send out an update all month, but only just now found a spare moment to do it. Here's where we're at:
That final writing sprint I talked about last time has turned into an exhausting middle-distance run. We're not at the finish line yet, but we're close. I have 75,000 words done, or 80-85% of my portion of the book (Craig gets about 10k for his chapters). I am on track to be…
Progress report: entering the final writing sprint
Monday, 12 September 2016
I thought it was about time I posted an update to let you know how everything's going.
I've been chipping away at writing, researching, and last-minute interviews for the past month or so. Just had a few days holiday in Uluru late last week, and now have entered a two-week sprint to try to finish the manuscript. At the moment I have four chapters finished, two of which will be overhauled…
Stretch goal: bonus chapter
Monday, 8 August 2016
Thank you everybody once again for your help getting us this far. It's amazing to me that we're at 118% funded.
I hope I can call on your support now with our stretch goal. I've thought things over and discussed it with Unbound, and we've decided that if the campaign reaches 150% funded we will add an extra chapter to the book.
I have two possible candidates for this bonus chapter, and if we…
New reward levels...and WE MADE IT!
Thursday, 21 July 2016
We have a new reward available — an art print by John Calhoun. Specifically, it's a line drawing he did as the basis for the Glider Pro title screen. Here's what he had to say about it:
"At that time, I would draw the artwork with pencil and paper (in this case a large 16” x 20” or so art pad). Then I would ink it in, then scan it B&W. This is the scan. Using the Studio-8 paint program I would…
Make or break time: we need a big push
Monday, 18 July 2016
Hey folks. Sorry it's been a while since the last update. I've had my head down working on the book — trying to get through the last of the interviews and to write more of the thing.
I'm sure many of you will be pleased to know that I've added another early Bungie person (Doug Zartman) to the ranks of developers interviewed. Hoping to add a couple more before I write that chapter, but I think there…
Mark your calendar: Escape Velocity livestream with Matt Burch June 23rd 8pm Pacific
Friday, 17 June 2016
I'll be playing Ambrosia Software classic Escape Velocity with its creator Matt Burch live on Twitch.tv next week, on Thursday the 23rd of June at 8pm Pacific. That's 11pm for US east coasters, 1pm Friday here in Melbourne, and 4am in the UK (sorry). If you can't make it, you'll be able to watch a replay afterwards. But if you can then you'll be able to ask questions in the chat for us to answer …
Progress Report: Writing, interviewing, and 45% funded after 50 of 90 days
Thursday, 16 June 2016
I've been sick this week, which has unfortunately slowed our momentum, but we're still looking good at 45% after 50 days (into a 90-day campaign). Hopefully we can get this moving again next week and push past the halfway-funded mark.
I wanted to take a moment to update you all on my progress with the actual book as well. I have three chapters that are finished and basically ready to go. I recently…
Audio documentary on how brothers Rand and Robyn Miller built The Manhole
Friday, 27 May 2016
Hey folks, got a couple of things I've made related to the book.
First, please listen to and share my storytelling/documentary-style podcast story on the brothers Rand and Robyn Miller — who went on to create Myst. The story is about The Manhole, and more generally how they started making games, and it draws on portions of the interviews I conducted with those two for the book. I think you'll all…
28% funded in one-sixth of the campaign; now to push for 35% in our third week
Thursday, 12 May 2016
One-sixth of the way into the campaign, we're 28% funded. This is fantastic, and I want to thank you all for your support so far (it's really meant a lot to me!), but things are starting to slow down. So please continue bugging people to pledge.
Let's aim to hit 35% by this time next week.
For those of you who don't follow me on Twitter, I shared a new tidbit that came from a recent interview…
Art print preview & early press coverage
Monday, 2 May 2016
Thank you everybody for your support so far. As I write this we're a little shy of 21% funded at six days in, so it's off to a fantastic start.
I have a low-resolution version of Steve Tze's art print to share with you. I hope this'll entice a few of you to repledge/increase your pledge (I'm not actually sure how that process works, so check with Unbound support if you need help). You may share…
Welcome! Allow me to briefly introduce myself
Wednesday, 27 April 2016
Day one done and we've already reached 4% of the funding goal. That's a good start, but we have a long way to go — probably a little more than another 500 pledges. I want to offer my thanks to all of you for diving in right at the beginning; I know these early stages are the most important, but also the hardest to gather support. So I appreciate it very much.
Please keep sharing the campaign on…
These people are helping to fund The Secret History of Mac Gaming.