If there’s one thing that goes together with late 70’s computer users, it’s TSR’s paper and dice game Dungeons and Dragons. Jim Connelley is dungeon master of a running D&D game in California, and one of the regular players is Jon Freeman, a neophyte to computer programming but well-versed in game design. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts with honours in English from Indiana University and a master’s degree in English from the University of California, he freelances as a writer. He has two books published under his name on the subject of games: The Complete Book of Wargames is published originally by Fireside in 1978, and later in 1980 by Simon & Schuster. The other is The Playboy Winner’s Guide to Board Games, released in 1979 by Playboy Press. This work appears to be a reissue of a book from 1975 titled A Player’s Guide to Table Games, from Stackpoole Books and credited to a “John Jackson”. Freeman is also a contributor to the hobbyist magazine GAMES. Having been interested in computer programming since being a math and physics major in college in the 60’s, Connelley picks up a newfangled Commodore PET computer after they come out in 1977. Looking to write-off the purchase, Connelley enlists Freeman’s help with designing Starfleet Orion, which Connelley programs in BASIC. When they release it in December of 1978, they have the first space-based tactical combat game for a microcomputer. In order to market the game, they form the first computer game publisher, Automated Simulations, operating out of Mountain View, CA. The game is followed by a sequel, Invasion Orion, also for the PET. Both games are a success and are eventually ported to other systems like the Apple II and TRS-80. An indication of the attitude the two founders have towards the type of games they want to produce is belied by the company tagline: Computer Games Thinkers Play.
With Freeman designing the games and Connelly as the main programmer, Automated Simulations really hits it big in 1979 with the first entry in its Dunjonquest series, Temple of Apshai. Heavily influenced by the two founder’s interest in D&D, the game is the first computer role-playing game (RPG), allowing character creation with six stats, divided into two sets: dexterity, strength, and constitution cover the physical aspect, with ego, intelligence, and intuition covering their mental state. Being a computer game, Apshai can do all the heavy lifting of probability calculations and weapons/armour modifications, leaving players to the fun of creating a character and getting on with the dungeon diving. After visiting the Innkeeper and rolling an alter ego, the player then stocks up on weapons, shield, and armour. An innovative aspect of play is the ability to haggle with the innkeeper, letting adventurers offer a slightly lower price for the equipment than the seller requests for it, in the hopes of saving a few coin on the deal. Once equipped, the player enters the Temple, populated by a variety of monsters, searching 200 rooms and catacombs for chests holding treasure. Featuring a sparse top-down display, the graphics are limited, with the rooms containing only a possible chest, guarding monster, and the bare walls. As the character is moved around the dungeon, the hallways open up to reveal new pathways and rooms, and players are directed to consult the 56-page manual, titled The Book of Lore, for immersive room descriptions and illustrations. Befitting the game’s close association with paper-and-dice RPGs, the manual also gives advice on how to convert your character from such a game to Dunjonquest, and how to take your experience and treasure back with you to the real world. To give players a sense of place in the Dunjonquest fantasy world, a short story titled The Adventures of Brian Hammerhand is also included.
Released after two months of intensive playtesting to get things balanced perfectly, Temple of Apshai goes on to win the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design’s Origin award for 1980’s Computer Game of the Year. Over 20,000 copies are sold of the game through 1981, for the Apple II, TRS-80 and the PET. In the wake of this success follows another entry in the Dunjonquest series, titled Hellfire Warrior. Featuring four new lower levels to Apshai, with over 200 rooms, ads for the game warn that beginners may not up for the challenge. Add-ons that require the original Temple of Apshai are eventually released: Lower Reaches of Apshai, Upper Reaches of Apshai and Temple of Ra. They are all adapted to every major game platform, including a C64 translation by Steve Bryson. The entire trilogy is re-released with improved graphics in 1985 in a package called The Temple of Apshai Trilogy. Other games produced in the early years of the company are Crush Crumble and Chomp, Star Warrior, Keys of Acheron, Datestones of Ryn, and Rescue at Rigel, among others.
When Automated Simulations attends the West Coast Computer Faire in 1980, Freeman meets his future wife and collaborator, Anne Westfall, who is in the neighbouring booth demoing a TRS-80 surveying program for Morton Technologies. He convinces her to join his company in the summer of that year, and in October the two leave Automated Simulations to form game development house Free Fall Associates. At their old digs, there is a shift of focus as new management adopts the title of one of the company’s game brands, Epyx, as the new company name. There is also a desire to develop more arcade-like action-oriented fare.
Jumping to Success
Largely self-taught programmer Randy Glover supplies just that kind of action in his first professionally released game Jumpman, a spectacular entry into the platform gaming genre published by Epyx in 1983. The player takes the role of the title character, running around a building in an attempt to defuse the bombs littered about. With three difficulty levels featuring 30 different screens each, the gameplay is fast and addictive, with some levels sporting almost diabolical design. The game is a success, selling around 40,000 units, and is followed by the sequel Jumpman Jr. that same year. But a rift has formed in the company, and chairman Connelley leaves along with the majority of the programming staff. Having investors in common, Epyx bolsters its personnel roster by merging with Starpath, called Arcadia until forced to change their name with Emerson’s release of their Arcadia 2001 game unit. Starpath is the inventor of 1982’s Supercharger for the Atari 2600, a device for greatly expanding the memory of the 2600 while playing games stored on cassette tapes, playable through any cassette player. Possibly the best-known game for the Supercharger is Escape From the Mindmaster, an early 3D first-person maze game by Dennis Caswell. Moving over from his position as vice president of marketing and corporate communications at Coleco, industry veteran Michael C. Katz is named the new president and CEO of Epyx. Connelley is named the chairman of the board, concentrating on research and development within the company.
Also in 1983 comes Pitstop, an amazing head-on racing game where steadily increasing damage to the player’s tires requires the occasional trip to the pits. There the program presents a realistic pit stop sequence, with the player controlling the pit crew, racing to change the car’s tires and gas up the tank without overflowing. It is followed by sequel Pitstop II in 1984, sporting a dramatic increase in graphics quality, almost perfectly emulating Atari’s Pole Position, but with an equally dramatic decrease in car control. The game features the first split-screen racing display, allowing two players to compete head-to-head.