The Secret History of Mac Gaming needs you
I don’t often recommend Kickstarters or other crowdfunded projects, but this time it’s different.
Richard Moss, who’s written for Eurogamer, Ars Technica, Polygon, and others, is working on a book that aims to retrace the history of Mac gaming.
You probably don’t know this, but a long time ago, the Mac played a key role in gaming history and development. Bungie was originally a Mac developer, and some of the most iconic games ever made were first developed on Mac (SimCity and Myst are two easy examples).
There are so many fascinating stories that were never told, and this book aims to change that. Plus, Richard is a terrific writer who has done amazing pieces such as The History of city-building games or The Life of a porting house. Trust me, he knows what he’s doing.
The project still needs more backers, and I hope our community can help with that (I backed it the first week).
An interview with Richard Moss
If you want to know more about the project, Richard himself was kind enough to answer a few questions for us:
First of all, why the history of Mac gaming? What made you take an interest in it?
Richard: I grew up playing Mac games, starting with the likes of Dark Castle, Glider, Hang-Man, and At The Carnival, then onto Spelunx and Maelstrom and Spectre and F/A-18 Hornet, and loads of others. All the Maxis games, too — SimCity, SimAnt, SimEarth, and so on.
Writing a history of Mac gaming was the natural way to connect that personal history — the experiences that got me into videogames — with my professional interests, which are the stories behind games, science, and technology. I’ve written a lot of games and tech history over the past five years working as a freelance writer/journalist, but I’ve noticed that aside from Myst, and occasionally Marathon, the great Mac games of the 80s and 90s tend to get completely ignored in these discussions.
I knew from experience that games like Dark Castle, Glider, The Fool’s Errand, and Déjà Vu — just to name a few — are significant on a technical and design level in games history. So I went looking for more information about them, and I started to talk to these people who made cool Mac games. It all sort of ballooned from there.
What do you intend to achieve with this project?
Richard: First and foremost, I want to show how much creativity and by-the-seat-of-the-pants innovation goes into game development. It’s incredible what people can achieve with limited tools or time, and I think the passion and talent that game creators have isn’t celebrated enough.
I also want to put classic Mac gaming on the map. Games history traditionally follows a simple, linear narrative: Spacewar and Space Invaders begot the arcade, then Pong begot the Atari 2600, which led to boom years for games. Then it all came tumbling down in 1983. Then Nintendo brought the games business back to life, and 30 years of evolutionary improvements in consoles and handheld systems followed. Oh, and along the way there was Doom and SimCity and Half-Life on PC. And Blizzard’s games.
The reality is much messier. The games market crash is largely a myth. Videogames have thrived continuously since their inception, on hundreds of platforms. Gradually computer systems like the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum are getting recognised for their importance, but Mac gaming is left out in the cold. I hope to show that it shouldn’t be. It is important. The Mac did have a vibrant, creative games scene. And it produced great things.
Why is the history of Mac gaming a story worth telling?
Richard: It’s basically the history of the professional indie games scene between the bedroom coding era in the early to mid 1980s and the post-Braid indie gaming renaissance. Without big publisher support, the indies thrived. And they had some brilliant ideas. Take Harry the Handsome Executive. It’s a game about a mid-ranked corporate executive who fights off the Robot People’s Proletariat Liberation Front (sentient office machines hell-bent on revolution) while scooting around in a swivel chair and armed only with a staple gun. Or The Fool’s Errand, a meta-puzzle game (a puzzle of puzzles, essentially) that’s as exceptional as it is unique, with storytelling and treasure hunting perfectly integrated with the puzzles.
The book is a case study in doing more with less. Mac game developers had limited publisher support, so many became their own publishers. They rolled their own online payment systems at a time when this was unheard of. They banded together and supported each other. And Mac gamers followed suit. They created their own publications, in lieu of Mac coverage from existing games magazines and websites. And they formed tight-knit communities. Bungie and Ambrosia in particular had legendary communities back in the 90s.
I should also note that this story is worth telling because it really is significant in the grand scheme of games history. The Macintosh interface — windows, pull-down menus, mouse input, icons, etc — had a big influence on computer game design. Early Mac games such as Déjà Vu, Balance of Power, The Manhole, Dark Castle, Enchanted Scepters, SimCity (yes, its final version was designed on a Mac), and The Colony explored how to use these elements effectively, usually in homage to drawing/painting program MacPaint, and those in turn set genre conventions. I’d argue that the Mac really set the wheels in motion for the later shift in PC gaming from joysticks to mouse and keyboard.
You are probably interviewing lots of people and hearing great stories. Could you share an example?
Richard: I’ll give you two:
1) When they were developing Spaceship Warlock, Mike Saenz and Joe Sparks lived on opposite coasts of America. There was no Internet at this time, and the game was too big and ambitious to share floppies. It ended up being released on CD-ROM — one of the very earliest CD-ROM games (Cyan’s The Manhole was first). But CD burners cost tens of thousands of dollars. So they sent a hard drive back and forth across the country. Like a physical, actual hard drive.
2) When Silicon Beach Software flew Mark Stephen Pierce in to talk about doing a game together, they pitched him something very different to Dark Castle (I have the details in the book). In a sudden bout of inspiration he said no, this is what we’re doing. Then he proceeded to sketch out the concept and rough design of Dark Castle, right in front of them. He told me “that was one of the more creative days in my life.”
Richard: This book is a tough pitch to a traditional publisher, and even if I did get them on board they’d publish the book in text-only form — no pictures or anything fancy. I shopped it around a few smaller publishers, but none felt like they could take it on. But one of them referred me to Unbound, which is letting me get this book done more or less the way I want.
Now we get to have a beautiful design by Darren Wall of Read-Only Memory, with photos, screenshots, design docs, fan letters, and other imagery throughout the book. It’s going to be a wonderful object to hold and read through, true to the spirit of the original Mac and the best games and software made for the system. I couldn’t have anything close to this without crowdfunding.
What do you think has driven so many people, including influencers such as John Siracusa or John Gruber, to share and support your project?
Richard: I think that for those of us who used a Mac back in the 80s and 90s there’s a shared fondness of this magical world of weird little indie games and offbeat commercial titles that marked the Mac of the era. And while we all love it, we know that it doesn’t get talked about much. Most of these stories have never been published. I think that’s where most of it’s coming from — a mix of nostalgia and curiosity about the stories behind the Mac gaming scene.
There’s also an element of curiosity from outsiders. People who didn’t have a Mac, but they’re interested in games history. This is something they know nothing — or very little — about. Now they feel like they have a chance to see behind the curtain and discover what those few of us who had Macs got to experience. The Mac was kind of off in its own silo a lot of the time, apart from everything else. There weren’t many crossover hits. For games history enthusiasts, this book fills in that gap in their knowledge. A gap some of them didn’t even realize they had until they saw my pitch.
And that’s it. These stories alone should make you want to check the project out. You can find it over here.