When Paolo Vece, an expert of IF history and a friend of mine, posted a message on it.comp.giochi.avventure-testuali saying that Rob Steggles, on rec.arts.int-fiction, was talking about IF and the way to make money with IF, I jumped on my chair. Rob Steggles! Rob Steggles did not forget text adventures, Rob Steggles is back! And when a legend is back, iyou must hurry up and write an e-mail to ask for an interview. I did it. And it was a pleasure to remember Magnetic Scrolls with with the author of The Pawn, Guild of Thieves Fish! and Corruption. A man that made history of IF. Now, with his brilliant style,he talks about his games, about the rival number one, Infocom, and about a case of industrial espionage that never existed.
Hi Rob, what a pleasure…
First of all, I know it’s a bit cheesy, but I really would like to say thank you to all those out there that bought and played the Magnetic Scrolls games. I was 18 when I wrote The Pawn, nearly 20 years ago, and I find the continued level of interest – the fan sites, discussion and the development of Magnetic – simply amazing.
Please, introduce yourself to our readers…
Like Magnetic Scrolls, I was born in London and stayed there for a while. I now live in Paris, France, happily married with three young kids.
You worked at Magnetic Scrolls in the Golden Age of adventure games. How long you worked there? How did you find the job?
I worked with the group there for about two and a half years all told, but I had known Ken Gordon and Hugh Steers all the way through school, so in reality it was much longer. My time there was split into three parts: I wrote The Pawn in my first summer vacation from university, Guild of Thieves in the second vacation and, on leaving University went back to work there for what turned out to be about 18 months, during which I wrote Corruption and helped out with other projects, notably Fish!
Magnetic Scrolls was the main rival of Infocom. Infocom was famous for the "hawaiian" atmosphere, with people happy to work there. What about Magnetic Scrolls offices? How long did you work a day? Can you tell us some nice story happened there? Did you feel the pressing of Infocom's games?
Well, for a start we were nowhere near the size of Infocom in terms of either people that worked there, game output or any monetary measure. Consequently, we were smaller scale and had smaller offices. The first office was in Eltham, south east London, that I believe has now been flattened to make way for a supermarket. Then we moved to a slightly bigger place in Borough High Street – quite a grotty area but packed with literary ghosts (Chaucer, Dickens) at every turn.
The office was quite a relaxed place to be in pre-Murdoch days (he being Anita’s pet bulldog) and hours were very flexible. I think I still have a picture somewhere of a bout of inflatable dinosaur juggling that was a craze for a while.
I also use to love the way we had to hide the backups from the cleaning lady as she diligently dusted every 5¼” floppy disk she found.
How many people were working at Magnetic Scrolls? Can you tell us how much you and others earned?
There was a core group of perhaps eight salaried employees at its height. I only know what I earned and without giving exact figures, I think it’s fair to say it wasn’t enough to get rich on. In addition to the full timers there were also a number of artists and other folks that did freelance work. I suppose you ought not to ignore the fact that there was a considerable marketing, beta testing and distribution effort at Rainbird too.
Which "system" did you use to design games?
The “system” was devised by Hugh Steers and Ken Gordon and was written in a subset of 68000 machine code. They called the code ELTHAM– Extra Low Tech Highly Ambiguous Metacode. Data for the games was entered (by the writer) on a glorified text editor called FRED23 junior – much like you’d do with TADS or INFORM now, defining each object, room, NPC and its properties.
You are the author of The Pawn, one of the most nice and important games ever: I know that a friend of yours met Anita Sinclair and they decided to call you: so you wrote the scenario and the story on A1 sheets. Why do they called you as a writer? Were you satisfied with the result?
The project of writing adventure games had been started by Ken and Hugh who had written the parser and the framework for the games. Ken had teamed up with Anita Sinclair to form the company officially (as Technical Director and Managing Director respectively) and Hugh was effectively employed as the ace-programmer type and resident genius. They then asked me to write a scenario for them as I’d been game-master for lots of D&D adventures: a classic case of a hobby turning into a job.
We all had specialties of course: myself obviously with the scenario and writing, Ken and Hugh on programming and Anita was really responsible for bringing the whole thing together, for being our face out to the world, dealing with Rainbird and journalists and money. Having said that, with such a small team, everyone mucked in together, eg Ken and Hugh were very active in helping design the game, plot and puzzles.
To write The Pawn, we brainstormed everything onto A1 sheets of paper and then I took the best bits and constructed the game. A lot of stuff went into the bin and everyone had ideas that ended up in the game. When I came back later, I found that they had added all the graphics by Geoff Quilley; that really lifted the game onto the ST and Amiga and really caught the public’s eye. At the same time, the ELTHAM code was being emulated on an ever increasing number of platforms to increase the availability.
Why did you decide to call it The Pawn?
Another friend Tony Lambert invented the name. He said he liked the way it conveyed the fact that the player was being manipulated a lot during the game. We agreed.
And what about Guild of Thieves? Did you write it in… just one night in a pub, right?
Actually one afternoon, and a pub was involved, but not at the same time as the writing. What I wrote in that afternoon were four A4 sheets of paper that constituted a sort of walkthrough of the whole thing from start to finish. The only bit that changed significantly in the final version was, if I remember correctly, the addition of the Bank of Kerovnia section. I was told the A4 sheets were pinned to the wall throughout the whole development effort.
You are also author of Corruption, an under-estimated game, I think, since the ideas and the puzzles were innovative. What can you tell us about this game?
After The Pawn and Guild I thought it was now time to branch out into a different genre and I settled on the idea of a thriller set in the City of London. Ken and Anita liked the idea, so Hugh and I locked ourselves away for nine months or so, talking to very few people except Alan Hunnisett and Tristran Humphries (the artists), and hacked away until Corruption was finished. Hugh contributed greatly to this project in his brilliant way, adapting the parser to meet all the contortions I was asking of it and adding in puzzles and story line. It was satisfying to write a different kind of game and I was very happy that it won so many awards. Towards the end of the time on the game, Michael Bywater (a real writer!) helped us with the packaging and feelies. Michael was a great help – a few conversations with him about writing was as good as an education for me.
Please tell us something also about Fish!, one of the most appreciated (and original) games ever.
Fish! was great fun. John Molloy, Pete Kemp and Phil South had written the game and it had been agreed to turn it into a Magnetic Scrolls title. I worked with the three of them for three months or so to add in a few fishy puns, change a few things here and there, tweak and adjust. With Richard Huddy, Bob Cole and Paul Findley on the team too, it didn’t feel like work.
It's true that Anita Sinclair asked to turn clichés upside down and that she did not want descriptions that started with "You are in…"?
Well, we all wanted to turn the clichés upside down and all contributed to that effort. That’s how we ended up with the useless maze, the dotted red line across the end of the adventure, and a bunch of other stuff. Room descriptions that started with “You find yourself…” were frowned upon, if not actually forbidden. I think Ken Gordon was actually the main driving force behind this – he could spot a cliché a mile away and already had it in his crosshairs (to use a cliché) long before the rest of us had seen it.
Did Infocom ever try to "steal" authors or ideas from Magnetic Scrolls? No industrial espionage?
Absolutely not. No question. Infocom hosted us at their offices when we were in Cambridge and we hosted them at ours when they were in London. We always had a good time with them and it was as far from competitive behaviour as you could get, almost as if we were all working for the same company. I guess that’s because we all realized we weren’t fighting each other for customers – anyone that was into adventure games would buy games from both of us.
Also, it’s sometimes difficult for people to understand that the ideas are not the difficult bit; the difficult bit is getting the game done, finished, complete and on the shelves. So the fact that Dave Lebling gave us a tour of Shogun and Plundered Hearts long before it came out was just to show us how neat it was; there was absolutely no question that we would or could use this information. It’s also cool to talk to other folks that are doing similar things to you: there weren’t many around at that time.
When and why Magnetic Scrolls closed? It's true that the "problem" has been Wonderland?
Well, Wonderland was the last game Magnetic Scrolls produced so something must have gone wrong around that time, huh? And Wonderland did involve a relatively huge increase in development effort and cost (due to Magnetic Windows) at a time the market took a downturn, so to my mind it must have been a contributory factor in the demise. Given this, I am actually very impressed that they got the game released.
However, I was not even an employee at the time, so this is all just supposition. For the definitive answer to why Scraggy Necked Moles never released another game, you’d need to ask Ken Gordon or Anita Sinclair (or maybe even Tony Rainbird).
You said you had "a storming row" with Anita: can you tell us more?
Let’s just say that with the benefit of being older and (I hope) slightly wiser, I find that now I’m rather embarrassed when forced to recall the incident. It wasn’t normal behaviour and I’m sure Anita and Ken would like to have done things differently too. We all make mistakes.
Where did you go then?
I got a ‘proper’ job and now describe myself as a product manager for high-tech products (medical software, accounting software, IP networks, consulting services, web hosting). The last company I worked for went bust a few months ago so I now wear one of those t-shirts that says “I’m not unemployed, I’m a consultant”.
Are you in contact, now, with some Magnetic Scrolls' colleagues?
Occasionally. I last spoke to John Molloy and Hugh Steers who are both doing fine.
What about modern IF? Do you play the games? Which games do you like more?
I have just started playing some of the games on the IF archive. I tend to "skim" them by which I mean I’m looking for things like interesting writing styles, text length and complexity, NPC techniques, scenarios that have been done, etc rather than actually playing the games from start to finish. I was always more interested in creating the game then playing it. I also have three young kids so finding time to play a game from start to finish is nigh-on impossible.
Do you think, like many people say, that a lot of games of today are better than many games of the Golden Age?
Current games may well be “better” in a lot of ways than those in the 80s, but there were several contextual things that added to the enjoyment back then. I think IF satisfies some human desire for discovery – a desire to find new stuff. “Gotta get past the puzzle to get the next picture” was a familiar feeling when playing a Maggot Rolls game.
During the late 80s home computing generally was new, fantasy and science fiction were starting to get much wider readership, and role playing games were big news. And there was a media element too that catered to this market. All of these new ideas and technology combined in a new form called IF and the player could get his or her ‘novelty’ hit in one neat blue box. IF was definitely a thing to do if you were into new technology along with playing D&D and reading science-fiction.
Now of course, IF is not new technology and the contextual factors – home computing, fantasy/sci-fi, media and RPGs – are also increasingly being thought of as more mainstream artistic endeavours, i.e. not ‘new’. Therefore the audience that did exist, the audience that still loves to discover new technology, has moved elsewhere to fulfill this need. And, importantly, I do not think it can ever come back.
The remaining IF writers and players now concern themselves generally (and he that generalizes, generally lies – Betrand Russell) with more artistic forms of IF, tighter plots, better writing, more challenging scenarios for both player and implementer. The process is still about writing games that discover new areas, but those areas are increasingly areas of artistic new ground rather than technological new ground. And it’s starting some way behind the traditional mainstream artistic endeavours, so there is ground to make up.
And which language (Inform, Tads, Hugo etc.) do you think is the best to write games? Which one would you use? Did you wrote IF in the last years?
I haven’t been involved in a finished, complete game since my work on Fish! though I’ve found that over the years I’m always still seeing things in terms of IF and games. In short, I enjoy writing the games so, with my enforced period of unemployment, I’ve started teaching myself TADS and am trying to write a small game, just to satisfy myself that I can still do it.
You said that, maybe, today it is possible to gain with IF? How? Do you think it is possible to write IF and gain money without special FX and graphics? What are you doing to win this battle?
Well it seems clear to me that the previous audience for IF (in the 80s) has moved away to other areas, as I said above. And the current, existing audience for IF is too small to generate a living for anyone. So a new audience is required and I have an idea where it might be.
If IF is to re-emerge as a commercial success again, I think it has to find its place amongst other forms of mainstream ‘cerebral’ entertainment and compete with the likes of crosswords, visiting art galleries, the history channel, books, newspapers, the evening news and so on. Its differentiator is obviously the element of interactivity. My own marketing plans have a well defined niche amongst these groups but I don’t want to give anything else away here.
If the small game that I’m writing turns out OK then I may well go ahead with a commercial venture. We’ll see. It may never happen, but it might be fun to try.
Please, tell us three rules to write a good game.
I’ll set aside the obvious stuff about making sure you check spelling and go for some guidelines rather than rules, if I may.
1. “Write good postcards.”
When you’re on holiday, you write postcards home to friends, family and colleagues. You are severely restricted in the amount of text you can write. This is very much like writing text for IF, in my view. Do people remember your postcards? If not, take a creative writing class.
2. “The bin is your friend”.
I find that one of the best things I can do when I think I’ve finished say, a room description, but I’m not entirely happy with it is to delete it. Then start again. The second version contains the bits that you remember, ie the best bits. This method is counter-intuitive but works.
3. “A sense of humour is the best aphrodisiac”.
I love laughing. I crave the unexpected one-liner that catches me off guard and makes me spit tea through my nose. Unfortunately this does not happen often enough, either in real life or in IF; in-jokes, ‘funny’ names and text that tries too hard to be amusing are no substitute. Please please please, make sure that all jokes in your game have actually been laughed at by a real human being other than yourself. And I don’t mean that polite laugh that your mother uses either.
And… which one is the best game ever written? And why?
As I said, I don’t really play many of the games, except by way of research, and I have a short attention span when I do play them. Consequently, I don’t feel I’m a very qualified judge here.
If you were to twist my arm I’d say The Count by Scott Adams, simply because it held my attention right to the end, and I still remember it twenty years on.
And the best Infocom title? And why?
I liked Dave Lebling’s Suspect because it introduced a new genre to IF and showed me how I could set about turning Corruption into something manageable. I liked the idea of the Sherlock Holmes game too.
And the lousiest game ever?
Anything that makes you type QUIT because you’re bored. I get bored very quickly, so that means for me that a lot of games are lousy. I need to get hooked straight away. Actually, I need to get hooked before I even start the game up, from the description on the archive or from a review. So, if a game gets to the stage where I have to type QUIT then it’s probably already done quite well.
What about Scott Adams games? He said he gained 4 millions dollars with Adventure International… a lot of money!
It sounds a lot but I’m sure his take home salary would have been somewhat less ;-)
Just do some sanity checking of the numbers: let’s assume he was selling at $20 a copy that means he would have sold 200,000 copies of all his titles in a single year which I would say was entirely possible at that time for someone as prolific and well known as him. Though this would not have been true for very many years.
If you were selling games now and you wanted a living wage that would support your family etc, I’d say you need to sell between 5,000 and 8,000 games a year. This assumes you are working alone or with collaborators that are paid by the number of sales made (i.e. no up front advances).
And of course there is a big assumption that you can find that elusive paying audience.
Thank you very much, Rob.
And thank you for giving me the chance to wallow in nostalgia and ignore the real world for a brief moment. If anyone wants to get in touch with me to discuss commercial IF, offer their help in any commercial project, or has questions about Magnetic Scrolls, I can usually be found lurking on rec.arts.int-fiction, or at email@example.com.