The Secret History of Mac Gaming

By Richard Moss

The untold story of a creative, innovative, fiercely-independent gaming scene that was serially ignored by the outside world

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."

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