Back, more than 20 years ago, there was an interlude in the succession of jobs that somehow became my career, where I had to take some time out and work retail. Again.
It was the early 90s and the Cold War was over. My classes in the Soviet studies program were turned into a few semesters of obscure trivia. (Details of the organization of GOSPLAN anybody?) And one of the first results of the so-called “peace dividend” was a recession in Valley. Before there was Fairchild Semiconductor to rebel against or the high tech boom that renamed the Santa Clara Valley from “The Valley of Heart’s Delight” to “Silicon Valley,” it was aerospace defense contractors who provided the economic power to build the houses and strip malls over the orchards of my grandparents. It was the influx of companies like Lockheed that took the cheap farm land of the valley and turned a pack of sleepy little farm towns into a carpet of tract houses. A hundred suburbs in search of a city as they say.
Anyway, I was out of work not because of the recession but because my previous company lost a lawsuit that caused to boss to call us all into the production area to tell us to clear out our desks and go home. We were all laid off.
The recession came into play in finding a new job. With the idea that any job was better than no job, I applied, and got a position, at a local computer retailer called ComputerWare, which specialized in Macintosh computers.
Okay, I swear I will actually get to the game itself, but there is a stage to be set for this. There will be pictures and links to videos, all after some more background text.
Now where was I?
Ah, yes, ComputerWare. As far as career interludes go, it was a pretty good deal.
Okay, the pay was bad. The hours were… well… retail, which meant being there evenings and weekends. And it was retail. The general public was allowed to wander in the door, and if you have ever had to work with the general public, then you know what I mean.
But on the flip side, it was a time of Macintosh enthusiasm. I was a fan of the Mac, and ran a Macintosh BBS out of my home (which is what got me the job pretty quickly, I was somebody who knew about modems when modems were suddenly becoming a big thing), and ComputerWare was a focus of this enthusiasm. It was a time more akin to the hobbiest days of the 80s than the Apple Store chic of today. Famous people would show up.
I didn’t work at the Palo Alto store where Apple luminaries like Guy Kawasaki, or musicians like Todd Rundgren would drop by regularly. But we got our fair share of notables down in the Sunnyvale store. I met some members of the Grateful Dead (Mac heads!), while Steve Wozniak used to show up with his kids during the generally very quiet Sunday shift and drop a thousand dollars or more on software he would pull off the shelf with abandon. He was especially interested in the CD-ROM software and would buy out the one copy (or the demo copy) of anything he did not already have.
Not that famous people were there all the time. And frankly, the enthusiasts were more important and often more fun. We had a pile of regulars who would show up all the time to see and talk about what was new. On Saturday morning the local Mac user group, A32 (for “Apple 32-bit users”), would adjourn from their weekly meeting and show up at our store to just be Mac geeks among the flock.
And there was so much new stuff showing up that we all take for granted these days. Apple was about to launch the PowerBook laptop computers which would basically define what a laptop computer looks like through to today. QuickTime was about to bring easy video capture and playback to the masses (killing off another company I used to work for). Video cards and displays were unlike anything you could get elsewhere, and Adobe was already selling Photoshop 2.0 for the Mac.
And then there were CD-ROMs, which interested Steve Wozniak so much.
This was back in the infancy of CD-ROM drives.
At that point in time, computers did not come with an optical drive. That was a standard feature a good four years down the road. Your computer came with a 1.44MB floppy drive, which was how you loaded software onto the machine (unless you were a real odd ball and called BBSes and downloaded software!) and a hard drive of a capacity somewhere between 20MB and 120MB.
CD-ROM drives were external peripherals, and they were expensive.
At ComputerWare we carried two in stock. The first was the Apple model, A SCSI device that ran close to $500 in price. The other was an off-brand that I can no longer recall… Plexor? Plextor? Something like that. That one came in just under $400.
This was 1991. Those were expensive devices. They were 1x speed, so reading data was slower that you can possibly imagine. And writing data? Forget about it!
I think I need to emphasize the speed. In the age of broadband, the speed of a 1x CD-ROM drive seems ludicrously slow, at 150K/sec. That was the standard created for music CDs. At that rate, copying a 44 minute album to your hard drive would take… 44 minutes. And, of course, you couldn’t copy it to your hard drive because it was probably too small in any case. CDs could be 650MB in size, and your hard drive, as I mentioned above, likely only had a capacity in the 20-120MB range.
And that 150K/sec number was an “everything goes right” throughput number. A music CD is generally optimized so that the data can read with a minimum of seek time. Random data, like an image of somebody’s hard drive or an Apple developers CD could take what seems like ages just to display, much less load. At the time the Mac world was still using SCSI-1 for hard drives, which is very slow compared to today’s interfaces, like SATA. And 1x CD-ROM drives seemed positively glacial compared to SCSI-1.
“Freaking slow” does not begin to cover the topic.
And there was not a lot you could do with CD-ROM drives. There were a few titles out there, and they were all very expensive. They were expensive because volume was low. Somebody dumped an encyclopedia onto a CD, because the one thing CD-ROMs did well was hold a lot of data, coming it at 650MB. This was at a time when a raw 1GB hard drive was between a brick and a cinder block in size, about as quiet as an electric razor, and was priced over the $2,000 mark. But the encyclopedia wasn’t very good by all accounts. There were the Apple developer CDs. Those were fun, if slow. And you could play your music CDs on your drive, if you so desired.
It was a classic situation of young technology having neither matured enough nor having found its niche.
And yet, in this environment… insane cost, low utility, miserable performance… I could guarantee we would sell at least one, often two, of our CD-ROM drives every weekend. All I had to do was get a hold of the one Mac on the sales floor that had a drive and insert the store copy of Spaceship Warlock, and it would sing its sirens tune. (An annoying tune that my boss would tell me to turn the hell down.) It would sell the hardware for me.
Looking at this game today, you might wonder how this was possible.
The graphics weren’t bad, but low quality by today’s standards. There wasn’t much of a game to the whole thing. The dialog was just bad. And worst of all it cost, in 1991, $95 and required a $400 piece of hardware just to play it.
But at the time, in the context of 1991, it was something amazing. The game promised a lot.
And it delivered on all of the promises. Granted, some of them, like the pogo space shuttle, were pretty much just cut scenes. Then again, cut scenes of this quality were a new thing.
“Cut Scenes” actually describes a lot of Spaceship Warlock.
The cover even described it as an “Interactive Movie,” though we didn’t have an “Interactive Movie” section, so it got stuck with the games.
It was almost all atmosphere with very little game.
But the atmosphere was just right. You started in a dark city that you could explore. You could not range that far and wide, but there were establishments to enter and little things to do outside of the story line. This theme was kept up for most of the environments, which is part of what made it engaging.
And then there was the style, which gave a serious Blade Runner vibe in the city (thanks in part to the hover vehicles that took off just like those in the movie) that sucked people into the game.
So it was almost any given Saturday at ComputerWare, Sunnyvale, some well paid male tech worker in his 30s to 50s would be ensnared. For the married ones, I could practically hear the thought process going on in their head, which went something like this:
Must have this game!
Game plus drive is $500. Wife will kill me! Cannot rationalize this purchase.
Wait, CD-ROM encyclopedia. Encyclopedia plus drive is $500, but it is an advanced educational tool for the child / children. This I can justify!
Game is then just a small indulgence for me. I win!
Single men were less complex.
Must have this game! I am single and well paid! I win!
So once they had to give up their seat at the game, they would sidle up to me, inquire about the encyclopedia and other educational software (the Living Book CD-ROM version of Just Grandma and Me became a required add-on for anybody with small kids when it came out), and then have me pull a copy of the CD and a drive to purchase.
And then, in that tone of voice men sometimes use when asking for condoms or alcohol at stores where they are kept behind the counter, they would say, “Oh, and do you have a copy of Spaceship Warlock?”
Of course I did. I wouldn’t bother loading up the store copy on one of the demo machines if we didn’t, as NOT having a copy would pooch any sale.
I was at this job for less than a year, November to July as I recall, and I must have personally handled 20 such sales on Saturdays at the store. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but this was a very expensive luxury item, essentially a $500 game.
And what did people get for their $500?
I still have the CD-ROM. The pictures in this post are scans of my beat up copy of the game… (I was single and not well paid, but I got it anyway. The employee discount brought the price down, but it was still expensive. I think I literally paid more into ComputerWare than I earned while working there.)
But I have no way of actually playing it. Somebody else figured it out though, and while it wasn’t perfect (The animations do not always render correctly. This is especially noticeable when flying cars take off in the city.) it does give a sense of the game. There is, of course, the intro:
If the CD was left running in the drive, it would play the intro music score over and over, which would drive my boss crazy. I had to keep the speakers low until the key demographic was in the store.
And then there is game play itself.
The play through it fairly direct, going straight for the key points of interest without much exploration. Still, it gives a sense of what the game was like.
And if you really want to see the rest, there are videos covering the game through to the end.
That was what passed for cutting edge in 1991.
Color! Stereo sound! Engaging environments!
The creators of the game later got into a lawsuit over who deserved royalties after the game became a success.
Mike Saenz also did the Virtual Valerie series… I am sure porn would have sold even more CD-ROM players, but this was a family environment… along with a graphic novel made up of rendered 3D images called Donna Matrix… which was also porn. He certainly had the internet figured out in advance.
And then… and then the march of technology carried on. I have seen Blu-Ray discs with menu systems more complex than Spaceship Warlock, and games… well… the level of depth and detail available has long since surpassed this game. Today it is a dinosaur, an oddity, a throw back to what is now ancient history in video games.
But it isn’t very often that I have felt as captured and immersed in a game as I was back in 1991.