Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to 1990 Mac strategy title Spaceward Ho! co-designer and producer and Delta Tao Software co-founder and president Joe Williams.
Williams began his life with computers in the late 1970s, when a Byte Shop – the first franchise of personal computer retailers, originally founded in 1975 by Paul Terrell – opened in his home town of Tempe, Arizona. Conveniently, Williams notes, it was located just “down the street”.
“After school I used to bicycle there and play with the computers, mostly playing Star Trek, Hunt the Wumpus and the like, but also diddling around in BASIC,” he says. “The guys there were cool, and let me hang out for hours and hours. Maybe seeing a little kid on the computers made them less intimidating to the customers and helped sales. Or maybe they just were geeks who recognized one of their own.”
“The big seller at the Byte Shop was the [1975 microcomputer] IMSAI 8080,” he continues. “But I remember the day the first Apple II came [in 1977]. It was amazing. It played Breakout right out of the box -- in color. Unbelievable. It changed everything -- it was cute and plastic and friendly. Everything before that was, in comparison, a mechanical monstrosity.”
Williams later moved north to Alaska around the turn of the decade, where he attended Delta Junction high school. “The school computer was an Ohio Scientific 2P,” he recalls. “It had a whopping 2K of RAM, but amazingly we could persuade it to play decent games,” he muses. “Later they got a couple of TRS-80s, and finally moved up to the Apple II, with its incredible floppy drive. Finally we could save our programs! I got the janitor to let me into the school every morning at 5:30 so I could work on the computers for a couple of hours before class started. In retrospect, it was pretty cool of everybody to allow that.”
“I was a poor kid, and my family could never afford a computer, but somehow one was always available to me,” he says. “Awesome.”
Genes And Hold-Em
By 1983, Williams had moved back down south, to study at the California Institute of Technology. “Caltech, back in 1983, had a big old Data General mainframe for student use,” he explains. “It sucked.”
“I dreamed of owning [an Apple] Lisa, though I had never laid hands on one,” Williams continues. “My classmates would talk about future computers, when we'd use a light pen to interact instead of a keyboard. The 1984 Macintosh commercial gave me goosebumps. My roommate, Robert Shoemaker, bought a 128K Mac the day they came out, and between him, me, and Timmer [Delta Tao Vice President Tim Cotter], that thing was pretty much under 24/7 use.”
“Of course,” he adds. “There was no programming of Macintosh as such in the beginning -- you had to use Lisa Pascal to write Mac code. Eventually I got a part-time job writing gene-sequencing software for the biology department, using a 512K Mac with a 5 megabyte serial drive. Woohoo!”
Around the same time, Williams also entered he field of professional poker, which he notes “was far more profitable than game development”, though he suggests that might say more about his “lack of business savvy” than his “poker prowess”.
“I had a group of classmates who all went on to play professionally,” he notes. “Including Huck Seed, who won the World Series No-Limit Hold-em main event in 1996 [a prize worth US$1,000,000]. I used to take money from him - though he had the courage to deal with the big-stakes games, while I stayed relatively small. Playing [poker] games for a living was great fun, but it felt unproductive. Is relieving dumb people of their money really a benefit to society?”
From Paint To The Path
Williams left the world of poker, eventually gaining employment as a contract programmer for Apple in the late 1980s along with Cotter, where the two quickly became interested in creating their own product. “I was lamenting how much a paint program cost – the cheapest was [Supermac Technology’s revolutionary colour program] PixelPaint at $499,” says Williams. “I asked Timmer how long it would take him to whip up a cheesy little paint program. He said, "About two weeks’.”
According to Williams, Cotter presented him with “a good prototype” of Color MacCheese just two weeks later. “We tried to get other companies to sell it,” he recalls. “But they all wanted to charge $500 bucks, because it was supposed to compete with PixelPaint. The whole concept of that pissed us off, so we started Delta Tao to sell it cheap. We took it to MacWorld expo, selling our floppies in hand-painted boxes - we couldn't afford box printing - and we sold about 800 units at $49 each in four days.”
“We had the cheesiest booth at the show, and we had a blast,” He adds. “With that money, we started the company -- though we always wanted to do games.”
Williams and Cotter’s original plan was to “change the world” – a goal befitting of their company name, which Williams explains means “the change in the path”, though he admits that Delta Tao’s “early business plan was all over the map”.
Planned software from around that time included Answer MacSheen which would “turn your Mac into an answering machine with brains” as well as a finance program that Williams describes as “half-game, half educational and useful -- you could enter
all your financial data, and it would make predictions about your wealth for 100 years into the future”. He estimates that there were “a half-dozen other harebrained ideas” in the works, “none of which even made a serious prototype”.
“I've got a football coaching game I'm still looking for someone to write...” he muses.
The one product that did actually make it out of this time was an idea for a space strategy game that Williams had come up with code-named Frontier MacSpace. “I'd actually had a meeting with Kelly Flock back in 1987 trying to sell him on letting me make it for Activision,” he says. “But they didn’t bite.”
“I don't blame 'em,” he admits. “All I had were pages of screens and designs for the user interface, without even a decent prototype.”
Fortunately, within two years - with Delta Tao doing well off the back of Color MacCheese – Williams was able to start work on producing the game that would eventually become Spaceward Ho!.
“John Evans, a Stanford grad we hired to write a cute little control panel called Polly MacBeep, introduced us to Peter Commons, and we hired him to [program] Spaceward Ho!,” explains Williams. “While I had a lot of the design from the beginning, it was totally collaborative, and the design changed a lot as we were developing it. It turned out my early designs were way more complicated than fun dictated. We eventually stripped out almost everything, leaving a clean and fast game.”
“I don't want it to sound like it was all mine and Peter just did what I said -- it wasn't like that. But I have always felt like it was my baby, despite Peter writing all the code. I always give myself credit as both designer and producer,” Williams adds. “But he's the one that gets royalties.”
Spaceward Ho!, or “The Ho”, as it’s known to its fans, was an advancement in the 4X (explore, expand, exploit and exterminate) genre, primarily due to its simplicity. “The game is designed to constantly present interesting decisions, and you never get bogged down in micromanagement, even when you're running the whole galaxy,” Williams explains. “The game plays at the same pace whether you control one star or a hundred. You can pick up the game and play it competently in 5 minutes -- but after 15 years of play I still find the game challenging and intriguing. Not many games can say that.”
“It did prove that we could make games,” he notes of the buzz surrounding the game’s launch. “There was far more money in the graphics software in those days, but our heart was in the games. We spent all our time playing Spaceward Ho!, but most of our money came from business-oriented software, like WonderPrint.”
Spaceward Ho! went on to enter the Macworld Game Hall of Fame in 1997, though Williams comments that he is “most proud of it making Next Generation Magazine's Top 100 Games of All Time” where it came in at number 52. Williams adds that his sense of pride comes from the fact that “it was in there with games of all platforms, from Defender to Super Mario 64”.
Over the past 16 years, the game has gone through 5 updates, which Williams notes always retain the same sense of collaboration as the first iteration. “Every time we do a new version, we sit down for a couple of days and hash through both of our wish lists, and figure out ways to make the game better without messing it up.”
“I'd say we sold about 100,000 units over all the versions -- but less than 2,000 units of version 5, though it's still selling nicely,” Williams estimates. “We sold a lot more units of the earlier versions -- and at higher prices. Mostly that was because it was possible for little companies to get good distribution back then, but it also something to do with there not being much competition, especially in the Macintosh arena.”
“To be fair,” he adds. “The graphics and sounds were much more impressive back in 1992 than they are today, too. They haven't changed significantly, but they were awesome for their day. We crammed a lot of beauty into those 800K floppies, so our production values were as good as any game on the market.”
Soon after that, Delta Tao purchased the rights to Mark Pierce’s mid ‘80s Mac platform series, Dark Castle and Return to Dark Castle. “Aldus [who merged with Adobe in 1994] had purchased Silicon Beach, which originally made Dark Castle, but they bought it for SuperPaint, not games,” says Williams. “So we swapped them some of our technology from Zeus, our high-end paint program, for the rights to Dark Castle.”
“We actually recently gave the rights to Dark Castle back to Mark Pierce,” notes Williams. “Dark Castle was his baby, and he wanted to put it on cell phones with his new company, SuperHappyFunFun. Far be it from me to keep someone from his game. We basically retained Mac rights. I believe his version has already sold far more units than we ever sold on the Mac.”
Later in the decade, Delta Tao began work in earnest on what would be the first MMORPG for Mac. “We wanted to play it,” explains Williams of the decision to develop Clan Lord. “I'd always wanted a networked bash-em-up game, and we had prototypes laying around for years and years before the Internet finally got good enough for us to publish. It was called N.A.G. for a long time (Network Arcade Game) and evolved into N.O.D. (Network of Doom). We eventually released at around the same time as the original Ultima Online [in late 1997].”
The game was voted one of the top ten Mac games of all time by GAMES Magazine in 2001, which Williams notes was “great for Clan Lord, but I remember that I was annoyed at being snubbed for Spaceward Ho!”. Popularity of the game has naturally decreased since its release, but Delta Tao still provides a fortnightly update for the thousands of players who remain involved, with the v466 update scheduled for November 1st.
More interestingly, the recent discontinuation of the game’s 68K build saw Delta Tao offering to “purchase a G3 iMac” for anyone affected “so they can continue”.
“Yep, it's serious,” explains Williams. “I figured the customers who were running on those ancient Macs had been paying us ten bucks a month for several years, and it would be only fair for us to give a little back We're just trying to have fun, and it's a lot easier to have fun if your customers don't think you're trying to rip them off.”
The Tao Of Game Design
In 2003, Williams was invited to teach game design for a year at the Multimedia Innovation Centre at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, something he gladly accepted. “We had just wrapped up Spaceward Ho! 5, so I had a lull in my schedule, and the opportunity to be a visiting professor in Hong Kong for a year just sounded too fun to pass up,” he says. “It was a free vacation in Hong Kong, for a year!”
“I taught game design, programming, creativity, and all sorts of stuff to graduate students,” he explains. “The students and other professors at the University were awesome, and I loved teaching. It did kill me to not be designing games, though, so I was glad to get back to my full-time gig as president of Delta Tao.”
“I've toyed with the idea of starting a game development school, though,” he adds. “I believe the best games are done by college age kids, and maybe a hands-on school would be a good way to do it. Of course, that's pretty much what Delta Tao has always been, albeit with only 1-2 students at a time.”
More so, the company seems to be about Williams’ own passions for games, and for the Mac platform. “I've loved everything we've shipped,” he says happily. “A lot of our guys said we should change the name of the company from ‘Delta Tao’, which nobody can spell or pronounce, to ‘Games Joe Likes’.”
“Our high-profile games in the gaming community are Spaceward Ho!, Strategic Conquest, Dark Castle, and Clan Lord, but most of our money comes from Eric's Ultimate Solitaire. I've always had this crazy method for making a profit; we spend less money than we make.”
The Great Equalizer
Despite the success the company has seen over the past 16 years, Williams is quick to admit that it was easier for a company like Delta Tao to exist back in the early 90s. “Back then, there were lots of little software stores, and they were happy to deal with chintzy little publishers who had a good piece of software that would sell,” he says. “Now it's all Wal-Mart and CompUSA, and you have to pay them for shelf space. Tough for a tiny company.”
“If it wasn't for digital distribution, we'd have no distribution at all. We refuse to pay the big box stores to carry our stuff. Thank the stars for the Internet -- it's the great equalizer. Heck, if we were willing to do any marketing at all, we'd probably even have sales,” he laughs.
Not that developing games primarily for Mac has made things easier for the company, Williams adds. “The Mac game market has been largely nonexistent since before Microsoft bought Bungie back in the day. Apple may make great computers, but if you want to play games, you buy a PC. And if you want to write games, only a fool would focus on Macintosh.”
“Yes,” he quips. “We are fools. It's safer to have a real job than to make games, but games are way more fun.”
“There's no sign that the Macintosh will ever improve as a game platform,” he says sadly. “Nobody has the money and incentive to do a proper Macintosh game except Apple itself. I've tried to persuade them to start a game studio -- I'd be happy to run it, and it would kick ass -- but they have so far seemed more interested in getting last year's top PC games ported.”
Williams admits that this attempted persuasion hasn’t seen him go all the way to the top “in the sense of sitting down with Jobs”, or anybody “who speaks with him” but notes that he has been talking to everyone at Apple he knows, “mostly mid-level engineers”.
“’Apple needs a game studio,’ I cry, and they all say, ‘yes, we've been telling them that for years’.”
“I'm also trying to get Apple to let us make iPod games, but I haven't figured out the right people to bribe yet,” he adds. “For starters, I'd do versions of Strategic Conquest and Eric's Ultimate Solitaire, which will both adapt well to the tiny 320x240 screen. Apple seems to be thinking of the iPod more like a phone than a Game Boy. Really, though, you need to think of the games in terms of the controller, which is very different from any other system.”
For now, though, Delta Tao are preparing to publish Dark Castle 3, which is being developed by Idaho part-time studio Z Sculpt. “I think we're about five years behind schedule on it, so I just hope we can ship, eventually,” muses Williams.
Also in the pipeline is a sixth iteration of Spaceward Ho! - while a date hasn’t been set, Williams hints that the game could see a Windows release too. “It's been traditional for us to do even-numbered versions for both Macintosh and Windows.”
Don’t expect to read about any future movements on any of the large gaming sites though, says Williams. “Every once in a while, we hire a marketing person,” he recalls. “They help the company, but they always drive me crazy and I end up firing them, or they quit in disgust because I resist pretty much all marketing – it feels like pimping out my games. We keep our games secret, so only the cool people can find them.”
“Yeah, I know it's bad business,” he admits. “But it's better for the soul.”