Computer Chronicles Revisited 99 — Shanghai, Tower of Myraglen, Earl Weaver Baseball, and Ferrari Formula One

Even in the late 1980s, two of the biggest names in third-party game development were Electronic Arts and Activision. As of this writing in July 2023, EA has a market valuation of around $38 billion. Meanwhile, Activision Blizzard, the successor to the original Activision, Inc., is in the final stages of a $75 billion acquisition by Microsoft. Of course, neither EA nor Activision were worth anywhere near that much at the time of this next Computer Chronicles episode from December 1987.

Indeed, at this point in history, EA was the larger and more successful company. But the computer games industry was also much, much smaller. EA, which had not yet gone public on the stock market, had leapfrogged Activision and Broderbund to become the number-one publisher in entertainment software, reporting $27 million in net sales and $5.2 million in profit for the 1987 fiscal year. (For the 2022 fiscal year, EA’s net sales were over $7.5 billion.) In September 1987, Wendy Woods reported that EA now had 150 employees versus just 91 a year earlier. (Today that number is around 13,000.) And the company had the top-selling titles on three different platforms: Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer on the IBM PC, Legacy of the Ancients on the Commodore 64, and Earl Weaver Baseball on the Amiga.

Two of those three programs would be featured over the next two Chronicles episodes, which comprised an hour-long look at computer games, the first time the show had revisited the subject since January 1985. To begin this first part, Stewart Cheifet showed Gary Kildall a regular chess board. Cheifet noted that chess was an ancient game. But then he displayed a small handheld computer that could beat a human player in chess. Hey then opened up the computer to show just how compact the electronics inside were. (The coin cell battery was bigger than the microchip!)

Cheifet continued that some people might consider talking about game software “frivolous.” But from a programmer’s point of view, the challenges of writing a game were much the same as for writing business software. Kildall said there were a lot of similarities but also a lot of differences. In the case of business software, the coding was often very file-intensive. And in the case of game software, it was often real-time because the player expected an instant response. For that reason, games were often written in assembly language and time-critical sections had to be examined very carefully. But the newer machines with faster processors and high-resolution graphics gave us a whole new level of fun, educational games.

Bad Customer Service Experience Led to Text Adventure Game

Wendy Woods presented her first segment, which featured an interview with science fiction and computer game author Douglas Adams. Woods said that Adams, best known for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a novel later turned into a successful text adventure game, had discovered a new way to “startle, befuddle, and astonish” his fans with his latest game called Bureaucracy. It was based on Adams’ own experience trying to get his bank to acknowledge a change of address. Adams said that when the bank finally responded, they wrote a very apologetic letter saying it wouldn’t happen again–but that letter was sent to the old address. This provided Adams with the basic premise of Bureaucracy. The object of the game was to get your bank to acknowledge your change of address card. And you “go through hell” in order to achieve that objective.

Woods said the inevitable outcome of Bureaucracy also reflected the exotic bureaucratic horrors faced by Adams while on a photography expedition to Madagascar. Adams then goes off on what I would consider a mildly racist diatribe that I won’t recap. But suffice to say, Bureaucracy involved putting the player through a similar ordeal in a fictional country.

Introducing Mah-jongg to Western Computer Users

Moving on, Brodie Lockard and Lucy Bradshaw joined Cheifet and Kildall in the studio, Lockard was a computer programmer with Stanford University. Bradshaw was a developer with Activision. Lockard developed a game for Activision called Shanghai. (Lockard is a paraplegic, so Bradshaw was there to assist with the demonstration.)

Kildall asked Lockard how he came up with the concept for Shanghai. Lockard explained that he’d written the game several years ago on a mainframe. He’d hoped to port it to a microcomputer but was disappointed with the graphics resolution on earlier machines. But when the Macintosh came out, he finally saw an opportunity. So Shanghai was initially ported to the Mac.

Cheifet asked for a demonstration of Shanghai, in this case on an Apple IIgs (see below). Lockard explained that Shanghai was based on traditional mah-jongg tiles. The game consisted of a pile of 144 tiles arranged in a pyramid-like formation known as a dragon. The object of the game was to find matching tiles that were free, meaning they could slide off to the left or the right of the pile. Cheifet noted that some of the tiles were hidden underneath other tiles, so they weren’t immediately visible to the player. Lockard said that was correct. He added that the arrangement of the tiles was randomized for each game.

A screen from “Shanghai” on an Apple IIgs emulator showing mah-jongg tiles stacked at the beginning of a game.

Bradshaw demonstrated Shanghai throughout Lockard’s explanation. Cheifet asked her to explain what she was doing. Bradshaw said she was looking for matching tile-pairs and clicking them to remove them from the board. You could either click both tiles and select a “remove” button that appeared on the screen, or simply double-click the second tile in the pair. The player could also select a menu option to pull up additional information on the mah-jongg tiles and the rules. There was also a “help” option that allowed an inexperienced player to “cheat” by showing possible moves.

Cheifet asked Lockard if he’d ever considered making a full version of mah-jongg for the computer as opposed to just this solitaire version. Lockard said he had, but that would be quite a bit more complicated as the full game required four players and there were annual changes to the international playing rules. Meanwhile, Bradshaw finished her demonstration game, which pulled up an image of a dragon as a reward screen.

Kildall said that Shanghai had a reputation for being relaxing rather than competitive. Why was that? Lockard said the game was very easy to learn and it was pleasing to look at the tiles. There wasn’t any fast action or timing, although you could have the program time your game. Kildall asked what language Shanghai was written in. Lockard said it was written in C.

Cheifet asked Lockard if he was working on any other computer games. Lockard said he was just finishing up a game called Solitaire Royale, a collection of single-player card games. He was also writing that program for the Macintosh, but an IBM PC port would be available.

Apple IIgs Game Emphasized Stereo Sound Effects

Richard L. Seaborne and Jeff A. Lefferts joined Cheifet and Kildall for the next segment. Seaborne and Lefferts developed an Apple IIgs game, Tower of Myraglen, for PBI Software, Inc. Seaborne was the developer and programmer, while Lefferts designed the graphics.

Kildall opened by noting that Myraglen used a special sound board. How was the sound actually stored in the IIgs? Seaborne said the sound was stored in digitized data. They took an audio source, such as a tape or stereo playback, and effectively recorded that into the computer’s RAM through the board.

Kildall then asked about the game itself. Seaborne said that in Myraglen, the player was in the role of a “knight of justice” who entered the titular tower to prove they were good, justified, intelligent, and strong. (I just want to point out that Seaborne was a teenager at the time of this episode.) The goal was to battle various monsters and work through the tower in order to obtain a medallion.

Cheifet asked for a demonstration of Myraglen (see below), and specifically how the game used sound. Seaborne said that sound effects were used to accompany most common player actions. For instance, if a player closed a door there was a slamming sound. Each individual monster in the game also had their own roar or scream. He then showed an example in the game, entering a room with several monsters, battling them, and ultimately dying. Lefferts added that each of the sounds heard had been digitized through a tape player.

A screen from “The Tower of Myraglen” running on an Apple IIgs emulator. The bottom of the screen displays game text: “The dark foreboding passage to the north seems to beckon for your presnce.” The top of the screen is divided into two halves. The left half displays an overhead view of the game map with sprites representing the player and a monster fighting in a dungeon. The right half displays the player’s total remaining hit points.

Next, Cheifet asked for an explanation on how sounds were re-used within the game. Seaborne said that sound data could be used over and over again. For instance, you could play sounds back at a faster rate so they were interpreted differently by the player. So you could speed up the sound of a monster’s roar to indicate a smaller creature with a higher-pitched voice. Or a ghost’s moan could be sped up to create a rat’s squeak.

Cheifet noted there were a lot of adventure-fantasy computer games on the market. What really distinguished Myraglen? Seaborne said other games had taken one of two approaches: Either take an existing game and make it better, or do something entirely new. Seaborne said Myraglen took all of the advantages from the good games on the market and put them into one game. (Again, folks, he was a teenager.)

Cheifet asked about the memory demands of Myraglen given all the digitized sound. Seaborne said the game itself worked on an Apple IIgs with 512KB of RAM. Lefferts said the add-on stereo sound card ran about $60. You didn’t need the card to run the game, of course, but it enabled the player to experience the stereo sound effects. Seaborne added that additional system memory also allowed you to access more sounds. On lower-memory computers, some sound effects were shortened or removed.

EA Customer Service Dealt With Eaten Disks, Irate Parents

Wendy Woods presented her second remote segment, which featured the customer support department at Electronic Arts in San Mateo. Over some B-roll of an EA employee named Michael, Woods explained that he was one of 15 customer support people manning the phones at EA. Their job was to answer any questions about the firm’s 64 game titles across a range of 7 different computers. How did they do that?

Paulette Doudell, EA’s customer support manager, told Woods that all of the customer reps had booted up each of the game titles at some point in their career. And since EA did its own in-house testing before every product shipped, Doudell said there were eight experts on staff that had spent 40 to 80 hours with the game and developed a testing plan. So within the first five weeks of shipping, they knew every potential question that might come up during the life of the product. And just in case human memory failed, Woods said, the customer reps had extensive libraries of game clues and technical solutions at their fingertips.

Woods said that among the strangest calls EA received was the one about the dog that ate the Starflight disk. It was replaced free of charge. And then there was the distraught father whose kid ran up a $300 phone bill trying to solve The Bard’s Tale. Doudell said they actually received calls from numerous parents who wanted to know who EA was. But luckily, the kids usually managed to solve the game before the phone bill caught up to them. And surprisingly, Woods said that most of the 500 calls that EA logged each week came from adults rather than children.

Electronic Arts Focused on Sports Simulations

Eddie Dombrower and Rich Hilleman joined Cheifet and Kildall for the final segment. Dombrower was president of Mirage Graphics, which developed the game Earl Weaver Baseball (EWB) for Electronic Arts. Hilleman was an associate producer at EA who worked on the game Ferrari Formula One.

Kildall asked Dombrower how EWB difered from previous computer baseball games. Dombrower said the fundamental difference was that both EWB and Formula One used physical models of the real world. So all of the action was happening in this “real world,” and the screen graphics were updated to let the player know what was going on. Kildall asked for an example. Dombrower said in the real world, a baseball fell at 32 feet per second squared. So when the player hit a home run in EWB, the software calculated the trajectory and velocity accounting for that physical constraint.

Cheifet noted the game was named for Earl Weaver, a famous real-life Major League Baseball manager. Did Weaver actually play a role in developing the game? Dombrower said that Weaver played a very large role. Weaver met with Dombrower about five times and they spent a lot of time talking strategies, such as offensive and defensive plays and roster selection. Weaver also play-tested the game during development and gave feedback.

Kildall asked for a demonstration of EWB running on an Amiga 1000. Dombrower pulled up a sample game in-progress. It was the bottom of the eighth inning in a game between two fictional teams composed of National League all-stars from 1961 to 1975 and American League all-stars from 1900 to 1930. “Earl Weaver” (the computer) managed the NL while Dombrower managed the AL. Babe Ruth was at-bat for the AL. Tris Speaker, the tying run, was on third base. Dombrower said that Speaker wasn’t rated as a fast runner, so he used the interface to replace Speaker with another player. You could pull up a screen with the new player’s statistics. Dombrower noted there were over 40 statistical categories for each player in the game.

After completing his player swap, Dombrower switched to the main game action screen. This showed an overhead view of the baseball diamond. Cheifet asked if this represented a specific stadium. Dombrower said it was the Polo Grounds (the former New York Giants baseball stadium). But you could choose from a wide range of real and fictional ballparks. The player could also design their own ballpark. This was made possible by the use of real physics models in the game.

Continuing the demo, Dombrower showed a play selection menu. The game then presented a split screen with the overhead diamond view on the left and a third-person perspective from behind the batter on the right (see below). Sandy Koufax, the NL pitcher, pitched to Babe Ruth, and struck him out to end the eighth inning. Cheifet pointed out this was a “one-pitch” mode for EWB. Dombrower said this allowed a player to complete a game more quickly, but there was also a mode that let you experience every single pitch, which could take up to three hours. Dombrower also showed the game’s slow-motion “instant replay” feature and how the manager might come out to “argue” a call with the umpire.

A screen from “Earl Weaver Baseball” running in an MS-DOS emulator. The screen is divided into two halves. The left half shows an overhead view of a baseball diamond with a scoreboard at the top. The right half shows a third-person view of a batter facing a pitcher. The statistics for the pitcher and the batter are displayed in a separate text box.

Cheifet clarified that the simulation dictated the outcome of these plays. Dombrower said yes, the player’s statistics, ratings, wind conditions, field type, and the distances of the fences all affected the outcome of each individual play and game. Everything was also “rolled up” in a random number generator so the outcomes would be different every time.

Cheifet added that EWB featured a lot of digitized sounds. What role did those play in the game? Dombrower said the goal was to make the game feel as much like a television experience as possible. Sounds were a major part of that. Teri Mason, one of the programmers on EWB, integrated the crowd sound effects and the umpire–those were digitized samples–with the voice of an announcer, which was synthesized by the Amiga.

Turning to Hilleman, Cheifet asked about the development of Ferrari Formula One (FF1). Hilleman said the game was designed to be a grand prix simulation as opposed to a racing game. So the development team spent a great deal of time learning about the Ferrari F186, the car developed for the 1986 Formula One season, as well as the individual tracks and drivers from the circuit that year. So the game included a lot of the engineering necessary to set up cars to run on those different tracks.

Cheifet asked for a demonstration of FF1. Hilleman pulled up a screen representing the paddock, or the main garage areas of a racetrack. This functioned as a point-and-click main menu. The screen showed the current race track and weather conditions. The player could select the number of laps for the race. There were other options for the garage, transportation (to change tracks), race control (to go to the actual race), and the pits.

Hilleman selected the pits option, which pulled up a screen showing a F186 car preparing for a race. There was a built-in “computer crew chief” who could automate the setup process for the player. Hilleman then showed an automated demonstration of the actual race (see below), which was in first-person perspective. If the player wished to drive the car manually, they did so using the mouse, with the right button functioning as the accelerator and the left button as the brake.

A screenshot from the demonstration of “Ferrari Formula One” on “Computer Chronicles.” The screen shows a first-person view of a driver in the middle of a race. On the top left is a box with the lap number, the player’s current race position, and the time of the current lap.

Cheifet noted the car included rear-view mirrors that actually displayed what was behind the player. Hilleman added the dashboard was also copied from the F186. (It should be noted the framerate on this game was comically low, maybe 10 FPS at best.) Hilleman noted FF1 was different than most games in that the goal wasn’t to win a single race but rather compete over an entire season. So if you crashed your car during a race, for instance, it could knock you out from anywhere between one day to the entire simulated season.

Kildall asked if there was some degree of randomness to the game to guarantee a different ride each time. Hilleman said that Rick Koenig, who designed FF1 and its physics model, did some data analysis on real-world drivers and discovered the “factor of error” they had, so that was built into each of the computer opponents.

Demise of Mattel Electronics Helped Fuel Rise of EA Sports

One day in 1971, a student at Pomona College in Claremont, California, named Don Daglow walked down the the hallway of his dorm when he heard what he later described as “clackety-clack” noises coming from a storage room. He walked into the room and found a makeshift computer lab with two terminals connected to Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-10 mainframe. Daglow, a playwrighting major, had no prior computer experience. But the student on-duty invited him to come in and learn more.

Daglow quickly took to his new hobby as a computer programmer. He’d spend the next nine years working on a baseball simulation game for the PDP-10. (Daglow kept his computer access through graduate school and a stint as a part-time instructor at Pomona.) Developing computer games wasn’t the most promising career path in the late 1970s, however, so Daglow ended up taking a job as a public school teacher after finally leaving Pomona.

But a subsequent promotion into school administration left Daglow frustrated. He was driving home from work one day when he heard an ad on the radio for Mattel Electronics. Mattel was then in the process of marketing the IntelliVision, a home video game console, and the company needed to build a programming staff to develop game cartridges. Daglow called the number in the ad and got himself hired as a game designer. He then quickly advanced to become director of game development for the IntelliVision.

One of Daglow’s first programming hires was Eddie Dombrower. You may recall that Dombrower previously appeared on Computer Chronicles in March 1987. In that episode, he demonstrated a dance notation program that he’d written for the Apple II. Dombrower was an accomplished ballet dancer who had helped pioneer the use of computer software in choreography.

Dombrower was also a former high school baseball player and, like his new boss Daglow, still a big fan of the game. So Daglow put Dombrower to work on a new baseball game for the IntelliVision, which would be released in 1983 as World Series Major League Baseball. As Daglow later explained in an interview with Bethesda Softworks co-founder Christopher Weaver, Dombrower’s combined background in dance and programming made him uniquely qualified in helping to produce a more accurate baseball simulation, particularly with respect to depicting the actual movement of the players:

I thought, “I need a different kind of engineer. Here is a guy [Dombrower] who loves baseball, clearly is a really solid programmer, and he understands the movement of the human body the way we are going to have to understand it if we are going to make these blocky figures turn into something you believe are baseball players.” And so, the old thing, when you find the perfect person to work with. We brought him in, trained him on the IntelliVision, and his ideas of how the game could work did work. It was the first use of camera angles in video games with this idea of being able to switch the camera angle and do the insets and imitate television coverage. But without Eddie’s understanding of the human form and his engineering ability, it would have been a lovely theory, but we never could have made it look as good as it needed to look.

Unlike other commercially available baseball games of the time, Daglow built an actual statistical simulation for World Series Major League Baseball, which no doubt borrowed from the years he’d spent developing his original baseball game on the PDP-10. The finished game had a Major League Baseball license, but due to a last-minute snafu Daglow couldn’t use the names of real players, just their statistics. So many of the in-game player names were based on those of the development team.

Unfortunately, by the time the game came out, Mattel Electronics had started to collapse along with the rest of the North American home video game console market. As the ship started to sink, Daglow secured a lifeboat from former Chronicles guest Trip Hawkins, who was just launching Electronic Arts. Daglow became one of EA’s first producers, a new concept in game development that Hawkins modeled on the record industry. (Hawkins’ counterpart at Activision, James Levy, implemented a similar producer system around the same time.)

In the early, pre-IPO days of EA, individual producers had substantial leeway in selecting projects. As I discussed in an earlier post, one of Daglow’s pet projects at EA was Thomas M. Disch’s Amnesia, which was the only purely text adventure game the company ever released in this period. Daglow was a fan of Disch, a mercurial science fiction authort, and picked up Amnesia after the original publisher dropped the project. That game ended up not being a major success for EA for reasons I discussed in my prior post.

Daglow also brought Dombrower into the EA fold to develop a new baseball game, which in many respects built upon the work they’d already done with World Series Major League Baseball. According to Daglow, he designed the underlying baseball simulation while Dombrower handled the programming. (This was, strictly speaking, against company policy, as EA forbade their producers from engaging in actual game development.) Daglow ended up leaving EA for Broderbund before the finished product–Earl Weaver Baseball–finally shipped, however, so he was only given a “special thanks” credit in the manual.

Unlike Amnesia, Earl Weaver Baseball was an unqualified success for EA. The company sold 50,000 units–the threshold for a silver award from the Software Publishers Association at the time–in less than a year. Domrbower and his company, Mirage Graphics, would go on to develop a sequel, Earl Weaver Baseball II, which EA published in 1991. Many years later, in 2009, Dombrower released EWB Baseball, which he dubbed a “spiritual successor” to the original game as a port for the iPhone.

As for the other EA game featured in this episode, Ferrari Formula One, that also had Don Daglow’s fingerprints. FF1 was developed by Rick Koenig, who previously worked for Daglow at Mattel Electronics. Koenig developed a racing game for the IntelliVision called Motorcross. His first project for EA was the 1987 Commodore 64 game Racing Destruction Set, which Daglow produced. Koenig then developed Ferrari Formula One as a follow-up.

Shanghai a Commercial Success for Struggling Activision

Brodie Lockard attended Stanford University where he earned a degree in mathematical science. He attended school on a combined academic-athletic scholarship and, with respect to the latter, was a member of the gymnastics team. While practicing a routine dismount from a trampoline in December 1979, Lockard’s “head went one way, the whole weight of his body the other,” as he landed in foam-filled pit, according to a 1988 report in the Arizona Daily Star. The fall permanently paralyzed Lockard below the neck.

Lockard had taken several computer programming classes prior to his accident. As he spent nine months recovering in the hospital, he obtained access to a terminal connected to the Control Data Corporation’s PLATO system, which he used to developed Shanghai . As Lockard could no longer type with his hands, he used a special mouthstick and headset that enabled him to program the entire game in C. After returning to Stanford and completing his master’s degree in computer science in 1984, Lockard ported Shanghai to the original Macintosh, which had the graphical resolution necessary to display the mah-jongg tiles.

According to video game historian Alexander Smith, Lockard came to the attention of Brad Fregger, a former corporate trainer for Atari, Inc., and Activision who had transitioned to a producer’s role with the latter. Fregger called Lockard to arrange a breakfast meeting to discuss Lockard’s programming work. But Fregger forgot about the meeting. Feeling guilty, he called to reschedule and the two met at the home of Lockard’s parents. It was at that meeting when Fregger learned about Lockard’s accident and quadriplegia.

Lockard’s academic programming work at Stanford didn’t exactly meet Activision’s commercial needs. But Fregger promised Lockard Activision would publish any game he might come up with in the future. Six months later, Lockard contacted Fregger and told him he had something. The two met again on Christmas Eve. Lockard showed him Shanghai.

While Freeger was initially unsure this was the kind of game that would sell, he felt obligated enough to Lockard to honor his prior commitment. As it turned out, Freeger’s wife and mother both played the Shanghai prototype and loved it. Freeger saw a similar reaction among his Activision colleagues. The company published the finished game in 1986 and it proved to be a hit. Lockard told the Arizona Daily Star that Activision had sold over 100,000 copies of Shanghai on multiple platforms by the the end of 1987. By 1991, that figure rose to over 500,000.

Activision certainly needed the success. At the beginning of 1987, the company’s board fired founding CEO James Levy and settled a shareholder class action for $5 million. Activision had been losing money for four years at this point, reporting a $3.9 million quarterly loss in February 1988. Much of that loss was attributed to Levy’s decision to have Activision acquire Infocom the previous year. Infocom was a Massachusetts-based publisher of text adventure games including the Douglas Adams Bureaucracy game featured in this episode.

Jimmy Maher of The Digital Antiquarian authored an exhaustive history of Bureaucracy in 2015. To briefly summarize, the game took nearly two years to develop. This was largely due to Adams’ own laziness as a writer. Infocom originally signed a six-game deal to convert Adams’ wildly popular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels into a series of text adventure games. The first–and what would beo only–game was a major hit, reaching 250,000 copies sold by February 1987. But Adams showed little interest in working on the sequels, instead dragooning Infocom into developing a game based on the petty inconvenience of his bank not properly handling a change of address form.

Bureaucracy sold about 30,000 copies, according to Maher. This was actually a decent showing by Infocom text adventure game standards, although it was only about one-tenth the sales of the Hitchhiker’s Guide game. And Infocom never got its sequels to that game. I won’t go into the history of Infocom at this time, but suffice to say that Bruce Davis, Jim Levy’s successor as Activision’s CEO, shut the subsidiary down in 1989.

PBI Software Turned “Pirates” into Third-Party Apple Developers

The final company featured in this episode, PBI Software, was something of a mystery to me at first. I wasn’t even sure how this company came to the attention of the Computer Chronicles staff. Then I looked at map and discovered that PBI’s offices were only about a mile away from the College of San Mateo, where Chronicles taped at the time. Indeed, PBI, Electronic Arts, and Activision were all located in roughly the same neighborhood, as you can see from this map below.

A map of San Mateo, California, with pins indicating (a), the College of San Mateo, (b) PBI Software, (c) Electronic Arts, and (d) Activision.

PBI Software was the creation of William Low, whom I had a chance to interview in researching this post. Low recalled to me that PBI came out of his association with a number of early computer hackers and software “pirates,” including yet another former Chronicles guest, John Draper. Low had been talking to one of his hacker associates, known as “Mr. Crackman,” about attending an upcoming National Computer Conference. (Based on the timeline and available news reports, I think this was the May 1983 National Computer Conference in Anaheim, California.) Mr. Crackman gave Low a number of technical questions to ask the Apple staff attending the conference. But when Low actually started talking to the engineers at the Apple booth, they quickly recognized these were questions that “only a pirate would ask.”

Still, rather than dismiss Low, the Apple representatives asked if he knew any programmers. Low did. This led to a follow-up meeting where Apple asked Low if he’d be interested in developing a graphics package for their new Apple II office suite, AppleWorks. The Apple officials felt that business graphics (i.e., charts) were necessary to compete with the upstart spreadsheet Lotus 1-2-3. Low asked, “Well if it’s such a good idea, why don’t you guys do it?” The Apple folks replied, “We’re after million-dollar ideas, not $100,000 ones.” Low said he was happy to make $100,000, so he hired a teenage programmer and put him up in a hotel to create the graphics add-on, which Low published under the name GraphWorks.

Thereafter, PBI Software became a trusted third-party developer of hardware and software products for Apple. (Low established a second company, MDIdeas, Inc., to handle the hardware side.) Most of PBI’s products focused on utility software, such as the first backup program for the Macintosh. The company’s first published game was Peter Merrill’s Strategic Conquest, which was featured in the second part of this Computer Chronicles look at gaming.

Tower of Myraglen, the game demonstrated in this episode, came out of MDIdeas’ release of the SuperSonic sound card for the Apple IIgs. (The IIgs had a dedicated sound chip but could not produce sound in stereo without an add-on card.) In a 2015 interview with RPG Codex, Richard Seaborne said that Myraglen started out as a a Dungeons & Dragons module he wrote as a teenager. He’d actually submitted the module to TSR Hobbies, Inc., the publisher of D&D, but they rejected it. He also tried getting some early computer games for the Apple II published, again without success.

While still in high school, Seaborne worked a summer job to earn the money to buy the Apple IIgs. He then “translated” his Myraglen D&D module into a IIgs game. He asked a high school friend, Jeff Lefferts, to create the art. Seaborne then decided to try and sell his half-finished game to Electronic Arts. He lived a couple hours away from EA’s offices in San Mateo, so he got in his car and planned to just show up at EA and hoped that his prototype would impress them enough to buy it.

But along the way, Seaborne got lost and couldn’t find the EA offices. He ended at PBI instead. (He recognized the name from seeing their ads in computer magazines.) So he walked into PBI’s lobby, where he said he ran into William Low, who agreed to look at the game on the spot. According to Seaborne, Low agreed to publish Myraglen if he added features to take advantage of the SuperSonic card. Seaborne agreed and signed a contract that day. (When I asked Low about Myraglen’s origins, he could not recall the specifics but said he “pitched” Seaborne on the idea.)

Although Myraglen had its roots in role playing games, the finished product is billed as “an action adventure fantasy game.” While probably not a direct inspiration, it resembles and plays like a much-less polished version of The Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Low could not recall specific sales figures for Myraglen–he said PBI Software sold about 250,000 copies of all its programs combined–but he had planned to release at least one sequel.

That never happened. Seaborne and Lefferts did develop two other games for PBI–a shoot-em up called Sea Strike and a collection of casino games called Monte Carlo–but they left the company under what Low described to me as less-than-amicable circumstances. Indeed, Low told me that Seaborne and Lefferts walked into his office and told them they were quitting to start their own game development company. At the time, they were still working on Sea Strike and Monte Carlo. They told Low they wouldn’t complete those games unless he gave them a development system they could use at their new company. Low told me it was “extortion” but he agreed to their demands.

PBI Software only released seven games altogether. The company itself shut down in 1990. There was no bankruptcy or drama, Low told me. He simply never took the time to grow the company. He did enter talks with one group about a possible sale but that never materialized. And while he mentioned informal discussions with other potential buyers–including EA and Activision–at the end of the day he said he was in the business to “have fun” rather than worry about expansion.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and first aired during the week of December 16, 1987.
  • Paul Schindler’s software review for this episode was Smartcom II, $100 telecommunications package for the Macintosh published by Hayes Microcomputer.
  • Douglas Adams died in 2001 at the age of 49. His only other computer game after The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Bureaucracy was Starship Titanic, an adventure game for Windows PCs published in 1998.
  • Brodie Lockard enjoyed a long career as a freelance programmer and graphical user interface designer. In the 2010s he relocated to Hawaii, where he founded the local chapter of, an international climate change movement, and joined the board of Common Cause Hawaii.
  • Lucy Bradshaw left Activision for Electronic Arts in the mid-1990s. After EA acquired Maxis, Inc., Bradshaw took over as its senior vice president and general manager, where she oversaw development of the SimCity and The Sims franchises (as well as Spore). Bradshaw left EA in 2015.
  • After leaving PBI Software, Richard L. Seaborne created a pair of role playing games for the MS-DOS platform: Prophecy I: The Fall of Trinadon for Activision in 1989 and Escape from Hell for Electronic Arts in 1990. In 1992, he joined Tengen (Atari Games) where he oversaw development of a number of sports titles for consoles. He continued to work on the management side of games for the next two decades, including seven years at Electronic Arts and another six at Microsoft, before retiring in 2016.
  • Jeff A. Lefferts joined Electronic Arts in 1993, where he worked as a software engineer on a number of titles, mostly sports games, during the 1990s.
  • Paulette Doudell rose through the ranks of EA and by the early 2000s was the company’s vice president of worldwide studio operations.
  • Eddie Dombrower switched from Electronic Arts to Activision in 1992. Two years later he joined the Jim Henson Company as vice president of its interactive division. After leaving the Henson Company in 1998 he bounced around a number of tech companies, including stints at E*Trade and In 2017 he -cofounded Curve10, a digital products consulting company, where he has served as CEO since 2021.
  • Richard Hilleman was one of the original employees of Electronic Arts, joining the company at its founding in late 1982. He spent 33 years at EA, rising to the position of vice president and chief creative officer in 2008. He left EA in 2016 to join Amazon Game Studios, where he remained until 2020.