Gold Rush!, pure gold from brothers MacNeill

Up through the ’80s Sierra On-Line had solidified itself as the number-one go-to company for graphic adventure games. The company’s various and very successful titles had become the pinnacle in the ever-growing and popular genre. While the company was initially built upon its early Hi-Res Adventure series of games, it was a relationship with mighty IBM that would help the company overcome the wakes of the North American Video game crash of 1983, with a product that would herald not only the adventure game genre but Sierra On-Line as well. Roberta WilliamsKing’s Quest became a milestone in gaming and the tools developed soon were put to use in all of the company’s upcoming adventure games. By 1988 the offerings from Sierra had expanded to multiple new installments in the King’s Quest series along with the beginning of new franchises by other developers.

Brothers Doug and Ken MacNeill had both been involved in the development of the original King’s Quest back in 1983-84 and since then various other projects, latest, the third installment in the King’s Quest series released in 1986. With New teams forming with Al Lowe venturing into the world of lounge lizards and Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy crafting a rather unlucky space janitor, the brothers were left without a project. Ken Williams, co-founder of Sierra offered them an opportunity to do their own game. While they had an idea for a larger game they chose to do a small and quick adventure game first, based on their shared interest in the California Gold Rush, tapping into the story of the difficult but hopeful life on the American frontier when more than ten percent of the American population, in just six short years, migrated to the goldfields of California in the mid-19th century. Fast forward hundred-some years and the brothers themselves crossed the country. Born in New York, both eventually ended up in the heart of California gold country joining a modern gold rush in technology in the forest of Oakhurst, in the shadow of the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite National Park.

Living in a motorhome in the parking lot of the custom-built and now-iconic red cedar building that was Sierra On-Line’s headquarters, far away from their families, the brothers initially got their operation settled in a warehouse the company owned up on Highway 49. In cold and dust, using Sierra’s proven but now aging Adventure Game Interpreter, AGI, development framework Ken started the big task of tying the design together in programming while Doug tackled the artwork. During production, the two-man operation moved to a new and better office but getting the game finished all while living away from family and dealing with company politics took its toll. The brothers had been blissfully unaware of the mammoth task required, small and quick proved to be an understatement of dimensions.

After nearly two years of hard work, pushing the AGI framework and themselves to the absolute limit, Gold Rush! was finally completed.
The game had been in production alongside the company’s flagship title King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella which was being developed in both AGI and in the first iteration of Sierra’s new development framework, the Sierra Creative Interpreter, SCI, allowing for higher-resolution EGA graphics and Soundcard support. Gold Rush! was technically already dated when released in late 1988, three months after King’s Quest IV, nonetheless the vivid and extremely well-done low-res graphics and animations still looked better than most titles of the time.

Brothers Doug and Ken MacNeill’s Gold Rush! was published by Sierra On-Line in 1988, after nearly two years of hard work.
While being developed on the IBM/PC, the AGI framework allowed for cross-platform support and it was released for most major platforms of the time

Gold Rush! was received with positive reviews, noted for its mix of historical accuracy with Sierra’s traditional adventure gameplay. It went on to sell more than 100.000 copies, many to educational institutions but with the technological advancements soon heralding 256-color VGA, high fidelity sound, and point’n’click interface, sales were dwindling and Sierra eventually decided to pull it from its catalog.

Gold Rush! tells the grand adventure of Brooklyn newspaper editor Jerrod Wilson, who quits his job and decides to head west to find his missing brother and strike it rich during the California gold rush of 1848-49.
Gold Rush! was visually and story-wise well-researched and provided a fun and educational experience.
The game offered three of the most common routes taken to California, all vastly different, providing great replay value

In the following years, the MacNeill’s started tinkering with the idea of acquiring the right to Gold Rush! to try and sell it themselves. While Ken Williams was a savvy businessman, making money where ever possible, he didn’t think that the now antiquated game was going to bring any more money to his table and handed over the right including all of the source code, game assets, and artwork. Williams’ only condition, make it clear that Gold Rush! was no longer a product to be associated with his company.
Any mention of Sierra in the game was removed and the text and graphics were reworked. Gold Rush! now brushed up was published as California Gold Rush! by the brother’s company The Software Farm in 2000. Two versions were being offered, an economy version distributed in an envelope and a collector’s edition in a beautiful handmade wooden box.
Both versions included the same content, two 3.5″ floppies. A poster-sized map of the period showing all three routes to California. A User’s Guide with detailed playing instructions, and historical background along with helpful suggestions for playing each section of the game and not least information to help you plan your own vacation to Gold Country.

The Collector’s Edition from The Software Farm, handmade by Doug MacNeill in the vein of the many wooden boxes his ancestors kept and used to store items that were special to them.
The Collector’s Edition was only sold for a limited time

Sources: The Software Farm, Al Lowe, Wikipedia, The Sierra Adventure by Shawn Mills

2 thoughts on “Gold Rush!, pure gold from brothers MacNeill

  1. Hi there. I really enjoyed this article. I remember loving Gold Rush when it first came out. I regret not picking up the collector’s wooden box when they re-released it. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for it on eBay.

    I have a question though…you mentioned that “While they had an idea for a larger game they chose to do a small and quick adventure game first,” do you know what that idea for a larger game was? Did they ever make it?

    Thank you very much!

    1. Hi Len, thanks a lot.
      Yeah, that wooden box is pretty cool and fits extremely well within the theme of the game. I think the brothers wanted to do a game playing out in the roaring ’20s which unfortunately never materialized. Following the back-breaking work of getting Gold Rush! complete and released, the brothers stopped contracting with Sierra and returned home to their families.

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