The Faery Tale Adventure: A personal history
The Faery Tale Adventure was a computer game that I created for the Amiga in 1987. It was moderately popular for it’s day, and was ported to a number of platforms, including MS-DOS and the Sega Genesis.
I decided to write this account because, much to my surprise, there is still interest in the game — I occasionally get fan email or inquiries as to whether there will ever be a sequel. And so I thought it might be interesting to tell the story of how the game came to be, and what happened afterwards.
I think the best place to start would be the day I met Jim Steinert, who would go on to become the founder of MicroIllusions.
It was 1985, a few days after I had been let go from my job at DataSoft. I had worked on a number of programs for the Radio Shack Color Computer, but the company was going into bankruptcy and had laid off the entire engineering staff.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next — I didn’t have a job lined up, I was living out of a sleeping bag in a corner of a friend’s house, and I didn’t have a long track record in the games industry or even a bachelor’s degree. (All of my programming knowledge had been learned in the Air Force, working at SAC headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska.)
However, my friends Ken Jordan and Jim Ratcliff (former DataSoft co-workers, and the ones in whose house I was staying) were very excited about the Amiga and we spent a lot of time brainstorming ideas for what we would do if we ever got a chance to lay our hands on one. Imagine what you could do with 32 colors!
One of the ways I spent my time was hanging around at KJ computers, the local computer store in Northridge, CA. The Amiga 1000 had just arrived and everyone was excited.
Jim Steinert, who ran the store, knew that I had worked for DataSoft, and came over to me. He said “Hey, we’ve been told that the Amiga can talk, but we can’t figure out how to make it work. Can you do it?”
“Let me see the manual.” I replied. It was pretty simple, really — the BASIC language interpreter had a “SPEAK” command which would take a line of text and process it through the Amiga’s built-in speech synthesizer. I spent about 30 minutes writing an interactive program that would accept input from the user and then speak it.
They were very impressed. “Tell you what.” said Jim. “If you can polish this up and turn it into a product, I’ll sell it and give you half the money.”
So I did. Jim named the product “Talk to Me” and sold it for 30 dollars a copy (each unit consisting of a plastic baggie with a floppy disk and some printed instructions). I think we sold only 20–30 copies but that was enough to whet Jim’s appetite.
Let me take a moment to describe Jim Steinert. Jim was a sandy-haired “valley dude” (seriously, that was how he talked), about 30 years old, whose father owned an auto wrecking yard. Jim had a lot of dreams about making it big, but not a lot of experience in running a complex business.
Jim also fancied himself a “wheeler and dealer”, someone who could, through clever tricks, avoid doing all those things that businesses have to put up with. During the years I worked with him, he boasted to me how it was easier to drag things out and settle in court rather than to pay bills on time.
I should mention that at this point in my life, just about every employer that I had worked with had engaged in practices that I thought were shady, and Jim was far from the worst; I was uncomfortable with all this, but I was too young and insecure at the time to say anything about it.
In any case, Jim wanted a new program that he could sell. He showed me an educational program on the C-64 called “Cave of the Word Wizard”, in which a boy is lost in a maze-like series of caverns and has to answer various spelling challenges (using sampled audio to speak the word to be spelled) in order to proceed. “I want something just like that.” he said.
Well, I didn’t want to make an exact copy of someone else’s game idea, but I said I could come up with something similar. Instead of a cave, I set the game in the corridors of a crashed space ship, and I would add math and other types of quizzes as well as spelling.
Instead of a wizard, the challenger would be the ship’s computer, and I wanted a choice of protagonists — a boy, a girl, a robot and an alien.
I called this game “Discovery”. This was a reference to the educational nature of the game, but also paid homage to the space ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I asked Jim for an advance of a couple of thousand dollars so that I could get a place to stay — I ended up renting a room from the mother of someone I knew from LASFS (Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society). The most vivid thing I remember about this place was the swarms of june bugs, and having to gently shoo the ochre-colored insects off of my Amiga keyboard when I wanted to type.
Discovery was written in 4 months, using the Manx C compiler, with a few time-critical functions written in 68000 assembly language.
I had a basic knowledge of figure drawing and cartooning— at one point I wanted to be a comic book artist, and I had books on animation techniques. I’d also done some freelance work as a mural and sign painter before joining the Air Force and becoming a programmer. This experience came in very handy, as I was able to do the background art and character animation myself in Deluxe Paint, which had just been released. (Although the source code has long since been lost, I do have the original DPaint art files around somewhere.)
For the music, I wrote a very rudimentary music editor which I called “Musica”. This let you place notes on a piano-roll style grid with the mouse, and you could construct sounds using drawbars (similar to a Hammond organ, which I was very familiar with), and modify the dynamics of the notes using ADSR (Attack/Decay/Sustain/Release) envelopes.
Jim hired a graphic artist to do the packaging. Unfortunately, the guy he hired wasn’t very good at spelling — there were several glaring spelling errors on the front and back covers of the package! This was rather embarrassing for a game that is supposed to be about spelling things correctly. Also unfortunately, no one showed me the package until it had already been printed, so it was too late.
At this point, Jim decided that rather than selling this product through KJ computers — which was a retail store — he would split off a separate software publishing company which he called MicroIllusions.
Initially, it was just him as CEO, and his girlfriend Sherry who did all the accounting. I wasn’t an employee — all of the programmers would be contractors and earn a royalty, so that Jim could avoid things like payroll tax. (My take for Discovery was 3% of gross I think.) The contracts I signed handed over all intellectual property to MicroIllusions — however, the contracts were so badly written as to be essentially unenforceable (as I later learned).
(Years later I bought the rights back, but that’s another long story.)
Discovery did fairly well, although because it was an educational game it didn’t have a big sales spike at the beginning. Jim informed me that educational games tend to be ‘evergreen’, that is they aren’t hits but they sell for a long time.
Jim wanted me to start on another game, and gave me free reign to do whatever I wanted. I took a few weeks off to work on non-programming projects while I thought about what I wanted to do. I spent this time creating the “Dream Knight” costume, a black, vacuum-formed suit of fantasy armor:
To create the molds, my roommate at the time, Greg Hemsath, made a plaster body-cast of me, which I then started sculpting into the shape you see in the photo, using bondo and lots of sandpaper. The plastic was ABS, and I built a vacuum-forming machine from an old shop-vac and oven heating elements.
So what kind of game did I want to make? I had two basic ideas: the first was something that came out of my brainstorm sessions with Ken and Jim: the idea of using fairy tales, rather than High Fantasy (such as Tolkien) or Swords and Sorcery (like Conan) as the informing genre of the game.
This meant that fairy tale tropes such as talking animals and rustic characters would be a significant part of the game. It also meant that the character attributes would be “spiritual”: rather than having strength, intelligence, dexterity, and other Dungeons & Dragons-style attributes, the main attributes would be “bravery”, “luck” and “kindness”.
To go along with the fairy tale theme there would be a narration track — a region below the main play field which showed a parchment scroll depicting the player’s deeds and challenges. “Julian was getting hungry!”.
The second idea was that the game world would be huge, open, and contiguous — instead of loading each map in chunks whenever you crossed a map boundary (like Ultima), I would load pieces of the map in the background as you walked. Thus, the game would never have to pause while waiting for the terrain to be loaded from disk.
However, I knew that I would not be able to draw a world that huge. So I came up with the idea of ‘meta-tiles’ or ‘super-tiles’. You see, most games in that era used ‘tiled’ artwork — that is, the background consists of square, 2-dimensional bitmaps which could be re-used many times within a single scene. I hit on the idea of creating ‘super-tiles’ which were made up of smaller tiles. Each tile was 16 x 32 pixels, and each super-tile was 16 x 8 tiles, for a total of 256 x 256 pixels. This allowed me to create vast amounts of terrain with only modest amounts of memory — the final overland map was roughly 100 screens wide and 150 screens tall.
Unfortunately, as many people have noted over the years, the problem with this approach is that the terrain is very repetitive. I was aware of this at the time, and I sought to overcome this by creating variety — special tiles representing towns or dungeons, different regions with different terrain types (swamps, deserts, forests and so on). However, there is only so much variety that a single person can create, especially when you consider that the entire project took only 7 months.
You might also notice from the screenshot that everything is tilted. I had taken a drafting class in high school, and learned about “oblique perspective”, which was a way to represent three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane. I wanted to avoid the situation seen in early games like Zelda or Gauntlet where everything was rectangular and blocky, but in hindsight my solution was not very successful. Later, I would come up with the idea of isometric, diamond-shaped tiles (another influence from my drafting class), but a lot of other game developers also came up with the idea at around the same time.
Loading the data in the background was a challenge, and I could not figure how how to get the Amiga filesystem layer (AmigaDOS) to load data without pausing the program. So instead, I cheated: instead of writing out the terrain as files on disk, I wrote them directly to the floppy tracks as raw data blocks. I could then use the low-level floppy device driver to load the data in the background while the game was running.
This meant that when you put the Faery Tale disk into the computer and listed the files on it, all you would see was a few files needed to ‘bootstrap’ the game — most of the game content was hidden from view.
During this period I also created some additional development tools. I already had Musica which I had created for Discovery. To this was added Anima (my character animation editor) and Tiled (the tile/map editor). These were essentially specialized bit-mapped paint programs, with a full suite of drawing tools (lines, dots, circles, rectangles, flood-fill) plus special key commands to flip between animation frames or place tiles and super-tiles on the map.
One other decision I had to make was: what to call it? A lot of my friends were into fantasy artwork depicting fairies such as the work of Brian Froud. And I knew that the word “fairy” has many archaic spellings: fairy, faerie, faery, and so on. I basically picked one at random. If I were to make the choice today, I probably would pick “faerie”.
Another thing I wanted for Faery Tale Adventure was that the box would contain not only fantasy artwork, but an actual photo shoot of people in costume. I wanted to give the player the sense that not only could this game transport them into another world — but that somewhere in the real world, there were people living lifestyles that were as exciting as their dreams.
For this purpose I hired my friend (and notable science fiction writer) William Rotsler to do the shoot. We got Terry Karney, a friend of Greg’s from Renaissance Faire, to play Kevin — he dyed his normally sandy hair red for the shoot. For the location, we spent an afternoon driving around upper Beverly Hills looking at all the ridiculously pretentious homes, until we found one place that was a pastiche of about 5 different medieval castle architectural styles. We knocked on their door and asked them if we could take pictures on their property, and they said we could — but we had to be “careful of the emus”.
I used the Dream Knight costume in the shoot, and then added a version of the same character into the game, mainly as a justification for having him in the photos.
The cover art for the box (depicting a dragon) was done by my friend Ed Kline, who also was a science-fiction prop maker whose ray-guns and other works have appeared on numerous movies and television shows. Ed also did work for other MicroIllusions games, and helped me out on some later projects. I should also say that of all the artists and creative people I have met in my life, Ed is the most “alien” — and he would consider that a compliment.
As I was putting the last touches on Faery Tale Adventure, Jim was busy expanding MicroIllusions at break-neck pace. This was a growth period in the games industry, where just about any fool could, with a little bit of luck, create a successful game company.
(For those of you who have watched the series Halt and Catch Fire, it was very much like that. Each of the four seasons of the show depicts a different era of the personal computer industry, and I recognize each of them from my own personal experience. I was there — not a central figure by any means, but I lived on that bleeding edge.)
Jim was finding all kinds of talent — people like Reichart Von Wolfshield (the creator of Firepower) and Robert McNally (Ebonstar and many more), to name just a few. At the same time, however, his penchant for “clever tricks” was alienating the very talent he was trying to attract. The relationship between Reichart and Jim ended very badly — I was called in to give a deposition in the resulting lawsuit several years later.
Jim launched over a dozen development projects, many of which deserve a Medium post of their own. Many of them, like Romantic Encounters at the Dome or Star Travel, I can barely remember.
He hired my old friend Joe Pearce who I had met playing Champions when I lived in San Diego. Jim had wanted Joe to create a dungeon-crawling epic named Land of Legends. Unfortunately despite the fact that Joe was a very disciplined and talented coder, Jim’s vision was simply too grandiose for anyone to accomplish, and the project was cancelled several years later.
Jim moved MicroIllusions down the street to the upper floor of a two-story office building in Granada Hills (the bottom floor was a real-estate company). As part of the rental deal, he gained access to a 3-bedroom residential home next door, so I moved in there, along with Allison Hershey (my girlfriend at the time), Greg Hemsath and his wife Bonnie. All four of us were doing part-time contact work for MicroIllusions — Greg worked out one of the garages doing disk copying, packaging and shrink-wrapping.
All four of us were active science fiction fans, attending all of the local conventions, and both Allison and I had exhibited our works at convention art shows. I was also a relatively minor celebrity as a result of the costumes I had created, and was often invited to be on panels at conventions. As a result, we knew many talented science fiction and fantasy artists who were curious about doing artwork on a computer.
Thus was born the idea of “Amiga art parties”: We would borrow a half a dozen Amiga computers from the MicroIllusions office and set them up on folding tables at our house and hold a big potluck for all our artist friends. We would tutor anyone who wanted to sit down in front of a machine, and we also had computer animation veterans such as Brad Schenk showing off their latest work.
Quite a few of these artists went on to work on game projects for MicroIllusions, and some of them had long and successful careers in the computer game industry (although some never made the transition from 2D to 3D asset creation).
In the mean time, in the first year after publication of Faery Tale Adventure, I made $50k in royalties — which may not seem like a lot today, but was more money than I had ever made in my life. I was ready to plunge into my next project — Music-X.
(Read the story of Music-X here.)
The apex of MicroIllusions came several years later, which was the Hanna-Barbera deal — a licensing agreement allowing them to develop computer games based on The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Scooby-Doo and Johnny Quest. Most of these projects never got very far — The Flintstones demo was so painfully slow that Ken Jordan remarked “Videogame or slideshow? You decide!” Robert McNally and his brother Michael (who is now a director at Facebook) did a wonderful adaptation of The Jetsons, but Hanna-Barbera cancelled the licensing deal before it had time to generate much revenue. I don’t know exactly what happened, but lots of lawyers were involved.
Years later I learned that just about every single royalty statement that I got from MicroIllusions contained arithmetic errors — a few of which were in my favor.
The last time I saw Jim, he was working in his father’s wrecking yard, and the assets of MicroIllusions had been sold off to another party.
One final note: I’ve mentioned the names of many people in this article, and I want to stress how pivotal each of these people were — I’ve left out many parts of the story for the sake of brevity, but everyone I’ve named deserves “legendary” status.
Part two of this history covers the sequel, Faery Tale 2: The Halls of the Dead.
Part three tries to answer the question of whether there will be any more Faery Tale sequels.