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 Rick Saada, one-man developer of 1989 rogue-like Castle of the Winds.
Exploring Colossal Caves
Saada began working with computers in Ohio in the late 1970s, on the TRS-80s and Apple IIs that various friends owned. “I didn't have one at home,” he laments, “although my dad had several early PCs in his research lab.”
Amongst these computers was a PDP-11 using the RT-11 operating system, which just happened to be able to run a copy of Crowther & Woods’ Colossal Cave Adventure. “That sucked me in,” says Saada. “I still remember the wonder of finding the volcano view for the first time and reading the screen of text that displayed when you got there.”
Inspired by the game, Saada began programming in BASIC soon after, on one of the research lab’s computers. Before long, he had finished his very first game – a text adventure named Iron Mountain. “Since it only ran on that one machine, only one or two of my friends ever got to play it,” laughs Saada. “I still have the printouts around somewhere, if the thermal paper hasn't degraded completely!”
Saada began his undergraduate degree at Princeton in the early ‘80s, and it was there in 1983 that he discovered ASCII dungeon-crawler Rogue. “My computer studies classes used an old Vax 11/750 that was regularly brought to its knees by people running Rogue instead of the compiler,” he grins. “I enjoyed the random generation of the levels, the fact that you got different loot each game. Once you'd finished a text adventure it had no real replay value, but one with random levels you can play over and over.”
After completing his degree a few years later, Saada applied to MIT, Caltech, Berkley, and Stanford for his graduate degree, though notes that he thought it best to also apply for a job as a backup plan. Having had friends apply successfully for Microsoft, he decided to try the same thing, and found himself on a plane to Seattle for an interview with the company soon after: in the middle of January, when, he notes, the weather in New Jersey was miserable. “Of course Seattle is normally pretty bad then too, but they had a freak warm spell and it was high 50s and sunny,” he says. “No one mentioned this was unusual. I drove down to Mt. Rainier the day after my interviews with spectacular snow covered mountains all around, thinking ‘I could live here’. So when I got rejected by every school I applied to I wasn't horribly disappointed. That was 1986, and Microsoft went public right about then.”
“I've been tempted to write thank you notes to all those schools,” Saada adds, “but have never quite gotten around to it.”
Flying Through Microsoft
Despite his interest in game development, Saada notes that he didn’t see it as a serious career option at the time, though he admits he did give a “passing thought” to applying for work on Microsoft Flight Simulator before arriving at the company – “not realising that Microsoft didn't write it, they just published it”.
“It still seemed more of a hobby than a career,” he muses.
Nonetheless, he is quick to note that the company “in the early days” was a “really fun place” to work. “Small teams, lots of innovation, fun atmosphere, crazy hours,” he recalls. “I think only the last of those is left now.”
Saada was set to work on DOS Word, though he began to feel that the Windows operating system, which was at version 2.0 at the time, was where the future of the company lay. “I could see the Windows Word and Excel teams were the future leaders in applications, and the new projects like Access were all targeting Windows,” he says. “I needed to learn the Windows application programming interface if I wanted to get off of DOS applications, so I started playing around in my spare time.”
One of the more effective ways he could think of to learn “the ins and outs” of the platform was to write a game, so he started work on a program inspired by his love of Rogue, Noah Morgan’s Larn, the Laurence Brothers’ Omega and Nethack. As well as the fact that a rogue-like gave him a chance to learn the graphical elements of the Windows API, the choice of genre also gave Saada a chance to put his Dungeons & Dragons fandom to good use. The wizard and warrior epics of his high school life weren’t the only influences on the game’s story, though, he notes.
“I'd read a lot of mythology over the years, and Norse was one that, at the time, hadn't been beaten to death. I used names from the sagas for the characters, and looked up the names of the giant kings. I doubt many people cared that it used real figures from the stories, but I felt better about it!”
“I'm slightly embarrassed about the storyline, actually,” he admits. “My only real excuse is that the orphan-with-a-secret-past shtick hadn't been overdone as badly 20 years ago as it has now. Loki stealing things and causing mischief, the giants scheming against the Aesir: those are classic Norse themes. I just tweaked them to fit my game. My friend Ben Goetter had a knack for narrative, so he ended up doing the final draft on most of the story and combat text.”
Choosing the name Castle of the Winds, Saada worked on the game in his spare time over the period of a few years – though he began working more seriously in the lead-up to the release of Windows 3.0.
“16 colors!” he exclaims. “Woohoo! Maybe even 256! And more memory, too! Of course, Castle runs on a 1MB 286 machine, which is considered low end for a phone these days.”
As a solo developer, Saada felt that he needed feedback on the title, and felt that the easiest way to get this was simply to put the game up on the corporate network at Microsoft every time a new feature was added to the title. “An ever growing group of fans would pull it down and pound on it,” he explains. “I made a lot of friends that way, some of whom I'm still good friends with today. In fact, Paul Canniff at Flying Lab Software did a lot of the town artwork for me.”
Amongst the more interesting and notable features built into the game was the ability for players to save and restore their game at any time – something that hadn’t been seen in the genre at that point. “With Rogue you could save, you just couldn't restore it more than once, as it deleted the save game when you loaded it,” explains Saada. “I actually learned a bit about the file system trying to figure out how to make copies and restore them. As I recall, they had a clever scheme on the Vax where they could get the sector number they were saving to, and use that to encrypt the save file. If you made a copy and it didn't go back in the same disk sector it would fail to load.”
“That was a little too hardcore for me,” he continues. “I wanted people to feel free to experiment with different approaches and not be forced to replay ten hours of game to get back to the same place if they failed. Sure, it was something that could be abused, but I've always been of the opinion that you should play games in a way that is fun for you. If you want to play iron man and toss your character when you die, the game doesn't stop you. But I think the fact that it doesn't force you to gave it wider appeal.”
Around the turn of the decade, Saada finished Castle of the Winds, and began to think about the release of the game. He had been planning to use the shareware model, he notes, though was inspired what he refers to as the “sequelware” model, where a shareware game would be quickly followed by a commercial sequel – used at the time by id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D. Saada briefly thought about releasing the game himself, but reconsidered when approached by Epic MegaGames founder Tim Sweeney.
“When Tim Sweeney approached me about letting Epic Megagames do the distribution I took a long look at whether I though I'd be better off on my own or with them,” he recalls. “I quickly decided I was likely to get a lot more registrations with them pushing the game than I would on my own. More than enough to make up for the cut they'd take. As it turns out I was right.”
The game proved enormously successful upon its release, generating an estimated 13,500 registrations, and selling a good deal more than that with the two episodes of its retail release: Castle of the Winds: Lifthransir's Bane, and Castle of the Winds: A Question of Vengeance.
“They did a great job getting it uploaded everywhere, and even did a retail box deal that got Castle into Walmart!” Saada enthuses. “I still have a box of each episode on the shelf behind me.”
Saada continued to work at Microsoft, however, before retiring from the company in the mid ‘90s with repetitive strain injury. He took a number of years off work, focusing on raising his family, but was called back to programming when two of his friends, both of whom he had previously worked with at Microsoft, ran into trouble with a game they were trying to develop.
“Flying Lab Software was started by Rusty Williams and Paul Canniff, two close friends of mine from Microsoft,” he explains. “They'd been working on getting the game that would become Rails Across America off the ground for a short while when their lead programmer quit. I was looking for a project to work on as a break from childcare - my daughter was old enough that my wife didn't need me there full time, and getting back into writing games looked like a fun way to get out of the house. I started helping out part time there, working with the two of them and with Joe Ludwig who came on shortly thereafter as development lead.”
“Games that were currently on the market were many generations more advanced,” he adds. “Why not toss it out there for people to have fun with, as a thanks for all the support I got over the years?”
The game still has an appeal for gamers though, he comments, revealing that he gets “fan mail about once a week from someone who's rediscovered the game and wants to share how much fun they're having”. He puts this down to the simple fact that “it’s a fun game”.
“It's easy to learn, it has different levels of difficulty to make it approachable to different ages, and it replays well,” Saada reflects. “My 10 year old daughter just beat the game last month for the first time on her own, and is very proud of herself. A lot of people have fond memories of the game.”
Flying, Rails, Seas
Rails Across America shipped in 2001 to solid reviews, at which point Flying Lab began work on their next project – an adaptation of the Delta Green tabletop role-playing game. However, the project failed to attract a publisher.
“We gave serious thought to closing our doors,” recalls Saada. “Instead, I came on as a partner and we began planning a project we could self publish if necessary. An online game seemed ideal for that, given that our user base would have the broadband needed to download a game, and after much discussion about milieu we settled on pirates.”
The idea would eventually develop into Pirates of the Burning Sea, an MMO set in the Caribbean in 1720 that combines ship combat with the ability for players to explore sea and land areas. “It's been several years of steady work and growth,” says Saada, “and at this point we've got over 50 people pushing towards a June release.”
At this point, Saada is not only of the owners of the company, but also a first line internal tool developer, which he suggests “works out to my paying Joe to tell me what to do”, though he adds that he is more than happy in that position. “I enjoy programming; tinkering with code and watching things come to life. And I like the immediate gratification of writing tools that get put into use the next day. I wrote the tools that our content team is using to produce all the missions in the game, the designers are using for loot creation and balancing, and a myriad of small tools to help the art pipeline. It's my job to make everyone else's job easier.”
“I'm not so interested in – or talented at - the management and administration parts of running a company, so I keep out of that as much as possible,” he continues. “We've got some great people in those positions, and I stay out of their way.”
“Mostly it's a heap o' fun! The team we've assembled is a blast to work with - although sometimes it's a blast of Nerf darts - and they're talented at what they do. Rarely a day goes by when I don't see something cool show up in the game that I didn't expect. It's looking better all the time, and is a kick to play. Everyone seems to enjoy their jobs, and want to be there making it all happen. Which I suppose is a good thing as there's a lot of work involved in getting a game out the door, and we're hitting the home stretch for Pirates of the Burning Sea!”