Good Old Games
Donate to Codex
Putting the 'role' back in role-playing games since 2002.
Odds are, something you like very much sucks. Why? Because this is the RPG Codex
News Content Gallery People Games Companies  
Forums About Donate RSS Contact Us!  

The Digital Antiquarian on Wasteland

Visit our sponsors! (or click here and disable ads)

The Digital Antiquarian on Wasteland

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Fri 26 February 2016, 20:22:28

Tags: Alan Pavlish; Brian Fargo; Interplay; Ken St. Andre; Michael A. Stackpole; The Digital Antiquarian; Wasteland

After telling the story of Wasteland's tabletop roots in last week's post, today Jimmy Maher of the Digital Antiquarian blog has published his article about the game itself. You might not realize just how groundbreaking Wasteland was until you read it. A designer-centric RPG in an age where game development was dominated by tech-obsessed programmers, utilizing the talents of a distributed team of tabletop roleplaying authors like Ken St. Andre and Mike Stackpole and map designers like Liz Danforth and Dan Carver, with star programmer Alan Pavlish putting it all together. But did you know it was originally going to be something very different?

Early in the new year, Stackpole and St. Andre visited Interplay’s California offices for a week to get the process of making Wasteland rolling. St. Andre arrived with a plot already dreamed up. Drawing heavily from the recent ultra-violent action flick Red Dawn, it posited a world where mutually-assured destruction hadn’t proved so mutual after all: the Soviet Union had won the war, and was now occupying the United States. The player would control a group of American freedom fighters skulking around the farmlands of Iowa, trying to build a resistance network. St. Andre and Stackpole spent a month or more after their visit to California drawing maps of cornfields and trying to find ways to make an awful lot of farmers seem different from one another. (Some of this work can be seen in the Agricultural Center in the finished Wasteland.) But finally the pair had to accept the painful truth: the game they were designing was boring. “I said it will be the dullest game you ever saw,” remembers St. Andre, “because the Russians would be there in strength, and your characters start weak and can’t do anything but skulk and hide and slowly, slowly build up.”

St. Andre suggested moving the setting to the desert of the American Southwest, an area with which he, being born and raised in Arizona, was all too familiar. The region also had a certain thematic resonance, being intimately connected with the history of the atomic bomb. The player’s party might even visit Las Vegas, where folks had once sat on their balconies andwatched the mushroom clouds bloom. St. Andre suggested nixing the Soviets as well, replacing them with “ravening monsters stalking through a radioactive wasteland, a few tattered humans struggling to survive against an overwhelming threat.” It meant chucking a fair amount of work, but Fargo agreed that it sounded too good to pass up. They might as well all get used to these sorts of false starts. Little would go smoothly or according to plan on this project.

After that first week at Interplay, St. Andre and Stackpole worked from home strictly in a design role, coming up with the plans for the game that were then left to Pavlish in California to implement in code — still an unusual way of working in the mid-1980s, when even many of the great designers, like Dan Bunten4 and Sid Meier, tended to also be great programmers. But St. Andre and Stackpole used their computers — a Commodore 64 in the case of the former, a battered old Osborne luggable in that of the latter — to do nothing more complex than run a word processor. Bundle after bundle of paper was shipped from Arizona to California, in the form of both computer printouts and reams of hand-drawn maps. St. Andre and Stackpole worked, in other words, largely the same way they would have had Wasteland been planned as a new tabletop adventure module.

[...] The relationship between these two veteran tabletop designers and Pavlish, the man responsible for actually implementing all of their schemes, wasn’t always smooth. “We’d write up a map with all the things on it and then Alan would say, ‘I can’t do that,'” says St. Andre. There would then follow some fraught discussions, doubtless made still more fraught by amateur programmer St. Andre’s habit of declaring that he could easily implement what was being asked in BASIC on his Commodore 64. (Stackpole: “It’s like a duffer coming up to Arnold Palmer at an average golf course and saying, ‘What do you mean you can’t make that 20-foot putt? I can make a 20-foot putt on a miniature golf course.'”) One extended battle was over the question of grenades and other “area-effect” weapons: St. Andre and Stackpole wanted them, Pavlish said they were just too difficult to code and unnecessary anyway. Unsung hero Joe Ybarra solved that one by quietly lobbying Fargo to make sure they went in.

One aspect of Wasteland that really demonstrates St. Andre and Stackpole’s determination to divorce the design from the technology is the general absence of the usual numbers that programmers favor — i.e., the powers of two that fit so neatly into the limited memories of the Apple II and Commodore 64. Pavlish instinctively wanted to make the two types of pistols capable of holding 16 or 32 bullets. But St. Andre and Stackpole insisted that they hold 7 or 18, just like their real-world inspirations. As demonstrated by the 1024-square maps, the two did occasionally let Pavlish get away with the numbers he favored, but they mostly stuck to their guns (ha!). “It’s going to be inelegant in terms of space,” admits Stackpole, “but that’s reality.”

Logic like this drove Pavlish crazy, striving as he was to stuff an unprecedentedly complex world into an absurdly tiny space. Small wonder that there were occasional blowups. Slowly he learned to give every idea that came from the designers his very best try, and the designers learned to accept that not everything was possible. With that tacit agreement in place, the relationship improved. In the latter stages of the project, St. Andre and Stackpole came to understand the technology well enough to start providing their design specifications in code rather than text. “Then we could put in the multiple saving throws, the skill and attribute checks,” says St. Andre. “Everything we do in a [Tunnels & Trolls] solitaire dungeon suddenly pops up in the last few maps we did for Wasteland because Mike and I were doing the actual coding.”
The article's second half describes Wasteland's gameplay and mechanics, the troubled circumstances of its release (EA forced Interplay to release it simultaneously with The Bard's Tale III, a major factor behind Brian Fargo's decision to go into publishing) and its legacy. The Antiquarian, for his part, considers the game to be a marvel of design and programming, but he doesn't actually like it, citing its juvenile writing, cumbersome user interface and poor combat as the reasons why it strikes him as "more historically important than a timeless classic, more interesting than playable". Judging by the article's last paragraph, his next post is going to be about the third classic RPG of 1988, SSI's Pool of Radiance. I wonder what he'll think of that one.

There are 9 comments on The Digital Antiquarian on Wasteland

Gallery
Site hosted by Sorcerer's Place Link us!
Codex definition, a book manuscript.
eXTReMe Tracker
rpgcodex.net RSS Feed
This page was created in 0.0586140155792 seconds