There was something in the air, those late autumn days in 1982 when the second Applefest of the year transpired at the Civic Center in the heart of San Francisco. The open-to-consumer show was a prime gathering for anything and everything Apple. Here software companies and hardware suppliers would meet and show off their products and share their visions with the public. The show was full of electronic noises, big self-made millionaires, and even bigger dreams. The personal computer revolution had taken off, it was a modern-day gold rush.
Ken and Roberta Williams, founders of now well-established On-Line Systems, arrived at their large booth situated directly next to the entrance and the packed endlessly looping escalators. Ken was arriving in a bad mood straight from a frustrating convention in Chicago, becoming a serious company demanded business trips and marketing meetings, a far cry from how it all started just a few years earlier.
The On-Line Systems booth was filled with its large portfolio of games, most playable on displays mounted so everybody passing by couldn’t miss it. The booth had a huge photo mural of a Yosemite National Park waterfall. Ken and a hesitant Roberta had earlier sold 20% of the company to venture capitalist Jackie Morby of TA Associates. Becoming a real corporation required a non-taken name and On-Line Systems was becoming Sierra-On-Line, with the famous Yosemite landmark, the Half Dome, as its logo.
Ken Williams was a big name in the software business, his skills and persona were liked and admired by many. When he went on the show floor he was met with smiles, conversations, and handshakes – one handshake that November in 1982 would come to leave a significant mark on gaming history.
Sunnyside Soft, a newcomer in the software business, had rented a small 10 by 10 feet booth at the convention. Using the opportunity to showcase and market its educational entertainment software, with the hope of selling enough copies to cover for the event.
The small two-family operation was conceived by Al Lowe and Mike MacChesney, together with wifes Margaret and Rae Lynn. The families lived in the same neighborhood in Fresno, California, and worked in local schools.
Al had been teaching music in public schools for well over a decade but had, when he came down with chickenpox and was stuck at home, experimented with a DEC timesharing terminal hooked up remotely to a PDP-11/70 minicomputer. His encounter led to him acquire his own computer, an Apple II Plus, initially to write software that could help make his job easier but soon experimented with games he and his 6-year-old son could enjoy.
With a background in education, Al and Mike decided to try and use the computer medium as an educational platform combining arcade fun with simple learning principles.
Sunnyside Soft and its first two titles were conceived in the summer and autumn of 1982, on the side while still being fully employed in the school system. The first title, an educational adventure game, Dragon’s Keep was programmed by Al in Applesoft Basic with Mike helping with the graphics and with both wives contributing with ideas for the game. The constellation was reused in the next title, Bop-a-Bet an educational computer game, which teaches kids letter recognition and alphabetization. A third game, Troll’s Tale, was under development as Sunnyside Soft went, with its two completed games, to the San Francisco Applefest.
Al Lowe’s second game Bop-A-Bet, an educational game to teach kids letter recognition and alphabetization. It was released by Sunnyside Soft for the Apple II in the early autumn of 1982. All but one of the 200 produced copies were sold. This being Al’s personal copy which he kept for almost 40 years before auctioning it off – and I was lucky enough to acquire it
Sunnyside Soft’s small but well-visited booth had a couple of Apple II computers installed for people coming by to try out Dragon’s Keep and Bop-A-Bet. When Ken and Roberta Williams toured the show floor they made their way by the booth and immediately became intrigued by how graphically similar the games looked to their own and very successful Hi-Res adventure games. They introduced themselves and ended up offering to buy the rights to the entire Sunnyside Soft product line, to market and publish through Sierra On-Line. With the plans of entering the home educational software market, Ken predicted the three titles would be a perfect fit.
Both Dragon’s Keep and Bop-A-Bet had been marketed in educational magazines and did sell for a few months, out of Al and Magaret’s home, but the chance to have one of the biggest publishers behind their products was an opportunity not to be missed. The two families agreed to partner up with Ken and Roberta.
For Al, this was an encounter that would end up changing the course of his life. He would soon be leaving his secure professional career behind, become a fully-fledged game designer, and on the side build a lifelong friendship with the Williamses.
While Bob-A-Pet only saw a re-release for the Apple II in 1983 under the Sierra On-Line Label, both Dragon’s Keep and Troll’s Tale were released for the Apple II, Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, and IBM/PC over the next two years – Troll’s Tale was being completed while Sunnyside Soft negotiated with Sierra On-Line and was only published by Ken and Roberta’s company.
After Sierra On-Line had acquired the rights to all three of Sunnyside Soft’s titles, Bop-A-Bet was re-released, in 1983 but only for the aging Apple II. The game never became a commercial success and is today considerably rare, this being the only boxed copy I have seen besides the one on display at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. This was Al’s personal copy he auctioned off in 2018
Bop-A-Bet, Unlike the other two Sunnyside Soft titles, were only released for the Apple II platform. The Sierra On-Line release was published in 1983 in the typical Sierra small box of the time. The game helped kids learn the letters and the alphabet in a Pac-Man like maze
While Sierra On-Line would struggle around the time of the North American Video Game crash in 1983, a partnership with IBM would make the company reinvent the adventure game genre and herald it into the mainstream with the hugely successful King’s Quest series. The Company would come to an agreement with The Walt Disney Company to develop educational games based on different Disney characters. Al’s background in music and experience with educational games made him a perfect fit to work on the new games.
His first projects, which would show off his numerous skills in almost every facet of game design, included Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood, Donald Duck’s Playground, Mickey’s Space Adventure, and The Black Cauldron, all based on Disney properties. Al moved on, when Sierra later lost the rights to the characters, to take the lead programming role on King’s Quest III: To Heir Is Human and the first installment in Jim Walls’ Police Quest series. During the development, Al pitched the idea of remaking the early text-only adventure game, Softporn Adventure (the only text game released by Sierra), using the same AGI framework Sierra’s newer and successful adventure games used.
In 1987, the pitch became Leisure Suit Larry, a huge commercial success story with numerous sequels and hundreds of thousands of sold copies. The series would solidify Al as one of the era’s best and most humorous game designers.
While the Applefest in San Francisco that November 1982 was a celebration of the rapidly growing computer business, the Apple community and its ecosystem also became a turning point, being the last significant Applefest. The Apple computer was no longer the dominant and most prominent, competition was fierce and products that earlier had been focused solely on the Apple II were now being released for numerous other platforms, most with better capabilities.
The cost, efforts, and time required to participate in smaller focused open-to-end users conventions, like Applefest, were high and resources were way better spent attending the big trade-only shows, like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) where the hero was not the hacker, but the man who wrote up sales, as Steven Levy in his excellent book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution would put it.
The business was moving from single developers or small independent companies, where friendships and business could co-exist, to real-world business, where company secrets, million-dollar investments, and takeovers would become everyday. Personal friendships turned into competitions, for the ones that managed to make it, that is.
One night during the Applefest, On-Line Systems hosted a dinner. After a night out in the town, Ken and Roberta returned to their hotel, only to learn that their wooden house on Mudge Ranch Road had burned down to the ground…
Sources: Al Lowe, Steven Levy: Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Ken Williams: Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings, InfoWorld, Wikipedia, The ScreenSavers