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Scott Adams

This interview is part of a series conducted by Shaun McClure for his forthcoming book on adventure games.

To fans of classic adventure gaming, Scott Adams probably doesn't need any introduction.

Scott Adams, 2017
(private photo)

When and where did you first see Colossal Caves, and what impact did it have on you at the time?

In 1978 I was working at Stromberg Carlson in Lake Mary Florida. I worked on developing the DCO (digital central office) We worked using a DEC mainframe and terminals for all the engineers. I heard that there was a game on the machine called Colossal Caves and got the information to run it. I came in early mornings and stayed late after work to play it. It took me a week to get the full 350 point score. The game was 300 points plus an additional ending that was tacked on for another 50 points. At this time I had my first appliance computer (ie. a computer I had not built myself) It was a TRS-80 model 1 and 16K bytes of memory. It had level 2 basic by Microsoft. I had been playing around with learning BASIC. The language had something I hadn't seen before in other computer languages. This was strings it had the ability to programmatically play with English characters and words. I was intrigued by this and wanted to write a game that used strings. After playing Colossal Caves I knew what type of game I wanted to do. Something like Colossal Caves but for the TRS-80. When I told friends at work about this they laughed. They said my little toy computer did not have enough processing power or memory to do anything like this. I figured I could make it work. I developed my adventure language to solve that problem. I would use part of memory for the interpreter for the language and the rest for the game database that was compiled for the language. So I simultaneously developed the language, the compiler for the language and the interpreter to run the language. My first game was Adventureland. Loosely based on the concept of CC where one was trying to find treasures and score points.

You are famous for being the first person to bring text (and later, illustrated), based "adventure games" to home computers. What made you take the plunge and set up Adventure International? What were you doing prior to this?

I think I was gifted by God to be able to write games that would uplift.. For my classic series I have gotten a lot of emails over the years on how my games were such a positive influence on so many players' lives.
I was always interested in computer gaming. I once turned a Space Defense Command tracking station in a Star Trek game after the normal tracking duties of the day was over. The game took advantage of the radar tracking screens and the Xerox Sigma 5 computer mainframe. I also did the world's first 16 bit computer game (see sidebar on my webpage). As well as winning the first "What do I use my Sphere Computer for" contest with a tank war game. So once I had my adventure game I started selling it locally at computer hobby club meets and then mail order via ads in Softside magazine. I called my company Adventure International as it sounded good. I didn't realize at the time I would eventually end up with sister companies in Japan and UK and sales around the world. The international part actually came true.

Scott's spin on Dracula
was highly effective.

Adventureland was a ground breaking game, and introduced text adventures to the world outside of mainframe computers. It is regarded as a classic game now, and created the adventure game genre on home computers, but how was it received initially? Did you have problems persuading people to play a game that was text only? How did it sell in the beginning?

The game was an instant hit. The TRS80 had limited graphics and this played well to the type of people buying these computers then. They were smart, and inquisitive. The puzzles of the game appealed to them instantly.

When did you decide to begin releasing games for the ZX Spectrum? And how did you go about getting distribution in the UK?

I had a sister company in the UK called AI UK that was under separate management. They licensed the games from me and provided the local conversions to the UK machines. Brian Howarth was trained by me in the TRS-80 on my engine and he then converted the engine for the other platforms. I would send over new databases and they would release the new games as I did them for all platforms.

Later on, the Questprobe games used characters from Marvel Comics. This was a bit of a departure from the usual games, which were mostly set in your own imagined worlds. How did the collaboration come about, and what did you think of the games compared to your other titles?

We were contacted by Joe Calamari (vice president) of Marvel. They wanted to license into the computer home market and they asked around. He said multiple people mentioned they should contact Adventure International. I worked closely with the Marvel editor and artists (for graphic version). I also got a subscription to every Marvel title being published and read them all while I was creating the games. I also got a prerelease version of a title called "Marvel Universe" - this documented all the characters in the Marvel Universe. It was sort of a Wikipedia for each character. Remember this was all done before the internet. It was tremendous fun working with Marvel. I did The Hulk first and they asked why I was doing that since they felt Spidey was a more popular title. I said because I wanted to get Spiderman right and needed to work up to doing him. I did 3 titles (was scheduled to do 12) but AI closed before that. I was working on the 4th when we closed down. I came up with the name Questprobe for the series and the main protagonist "chief examiner" I also did the outline for the comic books which they then created from my script. I also asked Chief Examiner character likeness to reflect me. The artists asked for a photo of me and I got back a response. Yea he looks the part enough we can do this. HA!

The Spider-man game
Image (c) Wikipedia

During the mid-1980's text parsers were getting more sophisticated - but to me, these didn't improve games, and may have hindered some of the stories, as it made text input a little bit more open-ended. What are your own thoughts on this?

I did create a fuller sentence parser when I did the last 2 Marvel titles, Spidey and Fantastic Four. I think full sentence parser help the player better express what they want to do but it does make more work for the game designer.

What would you say is your favorite game that you have ever worked on, and why?

Each game I did I tried to do something different than the previous, so my favorite of my classic series was Fantastic Four where the puzzles required you to control 2 different marvel characters as you played in different locations. My current favorite is The Inheritance.

Yes, you released a new game called "The Inheritance" in 2013. Can you tell us about the story behind the game, and what it is about?

I started writing The Inheritance in 2001 and released the first version in 2013. I believe I was called by God to do this game. He has helped me over many stumbling blocks in this game and also constantly given me fantastic inspiration on how to proceed. But belief in God or religion is not required to play and enjoy the game. It is the story of someone who has received an incredible inheritance from a relative but must first prove they are worthy of it. It is the largest of any adventure game I have ever written with one of the most knotty complex puzzles I have ever done. It contains a multi-part built in help system and also has sound effects. It uses a full sentence parser that always sentences such as: Pick up the alarm clock from the dresser and examine it.
The game does require the player to read Bible verses and understand them to solve some of the puzzles. There is a complete King James Bible available within the game. There is no particular doctrine pushed and I have had atheists tell me they enjoy the game and appreciated learning more about the bible. It just encourages people to open and read the Bible, even as only an ancient historical document. People may have preconceived ideas of what the Bible says - this helps them find out for themselves just a little of what it contains.
I released the game for the Windows PC market only. Due to when I started writing it the core system is written in Visual Basic 6. I have it available for download, retail package and a special limited gold version that also includes a previous smaller game I did, Return to Pirate's Island 2. I am currently in the process of redoing The Inheritance for more modern platforms and polishing it for better player experience. I have rewritten it in C# and I am using the Unity development package to write once and run many. (I.e. conversions to other platforms are much faster).
It will be available for Windows, Mac, iOS (phones and tablets), and Android (phones and tablets) . I am hoping to have a more modern translation of the Bible in the game as well. The help system is getting a special front end that will allow push button access to all aspects of it. I am planning to make the game accessible to all levels of players and I am putting a new feature in that allows the player to either get the full solution to a puzzle in game or to be able to turn on and off puzzles at will. If they want to come back to some of those puzzles later in many cases they can. This way anyone can play through to do the parts the enjoy such as the shooting gallery (yes the game has a shooting gallery in it!), the Bible puzzles, or skip one the most complex puzzles I have ever written which I call "The Hedge Maze".
Previous buyers of the original version will get a free download of the new game for the platform of their choice. Because of the new release, I have only few limited gold and retail packages left. These will not be refilled when they run out. The new version will be released at first only as a download.

Do you have plans to create any more games?

Yes I do. The Inheritance is planned as a intro to a further series, there are hooks at the end to continue it. I am also in discussion with a company to be doing a text adventure for a licensed book series they have. I cannot talk in more detail at the moment about this.

- Shaun McClure, 2018