Dragon’s Keep, Al Lowe’s first game

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. Full of early adopters, fledgling programmers, 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 wouldn’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 day 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-foot booth at the convention. Using the opportunity to showcase and market its educational entertainment software, with the hope of selling enough copies to cover 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 acquiring his own computer, an Apple II Plus, initially to write software that could help make his job easier but he 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 as an educational platform combining arcade fun with simple learning principles.
Sunnyside Soft’s first title, Dragon’s Keep was conceived in the summer of 1982, on the side while still being fully employed in the school system. It was programmed by Al in Applesoft Basic with Mike helping with the graphics and with both wives contributing ideas for the game.

The idea for the game was to sharpen children’s thinking and reading comprehension by combining basic skill exercises all while having fun. Targeted at second graders and up, the text parser typically required for input was changed to a menu of multiple choices. By using only the Spacebar and Enter the world could be explored and decisions made.
The graphics were done in Penguin Software‘s The Graphics Magician, a utility for drawing images and playing them back from user-developed programs. The vector graphics-like approach was essentially the same Ken Williams had employed with the earlier Hi-Res Adventure games but The Graphics Magician’s dedicated tools allowed for much easier creation and employed faster drawing and fill routines. Many games of the early 8-bit era used the tool as it was free to use as long as products created with it were credited in-game with the text Graphics created with The Graphics Magician by Penguin Software.
The constellation was reused in the next title, Bop-a-Bet an educational computer game, teaching children 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.

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. With plans of entering the home educational software market, Ken predicted the titles would fit right in and ended up offering to buy the rights to the games. 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 under the Sunnyside Soft name, but the chance to have one of the biggest publishers behind their products was an opportunity not to be missed and the Lowes and MacChesneys agreed to partner up with Ken and Roberta.

With the titles sold to Sierra, Sunnyside Soft was abandoned and Al would soon be leaving his secure professional career behind, becoming a fully-fledged game designer with Sierra and building a lifelong friendship with the Williamses.

During 1983, Dragon’s Keep, Bop-a-Bet, and Troll’s Tale were all released for the Apple II by Sierra On-Line under its short-lived Hi-Res Learning name, as part of its effort to get a foot into the educational market.

Al Lowe’s first game, Dragon’s Keep was re-released by Sierra On-Line for the Apple II in 1983.
Sierra included a beautiful map of the gameworld and a set of colorful stickers, each representing one of the 16 animals that needed to be rescued from the dragon. As you progressed through the game, the stickers could be placed on the map accordingly to the animal’s location.
The added map would contribute to children’s map-reading and navigation skills

A magic dragon is holding 16 animals captive in and around its magic house.
By exploring the small gameworld you must find each animal and set it free

In 1984 Dragon’s Keep was re-released for the Apple II alongside ports for the Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, and IBM PC/PCjr.

In 1984 Dragon’s Keep was re-released for the Apple II.
Here the stickers have been placed on the map and ticked off – Seems one is missing

Dragon’s Keep was ported to the Commodore 64 by Al Lowe and released in 1984.
This version was part of the inventory of Bellevue Elementary School’s Media Center.
Here with the paper map laminated for protection

The Commodore 64 version was also released in the Rainbow Clamshell in 1984

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 its 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, thanks to Al’s educational adventures.
Al’s 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 WallsPolice Quest series.
In 1987, Al got his own adventure game series with 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 beloved game designers but it all started back in 1982 with Dragon’s Keep.

Sources: Al Lowe, Steven Levy: Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Ken Williams: Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings, InfoWorld, Wikipedia, The ScreenSavers

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