Table of Contents
Covid suspended all of our cruising plans. Instead, I used the time stuck at home to write a book about Roberta’s and my former life as videogame pioneers. The book became a bestseller and the pandemic just kept going, so Roberta and I decided to pass the time by making a videogame.
Our first game, over forty years ago, was something that Roberta and I popped out working nights and weekends over a 90-day period. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite so simple these days. I fooled myself into thinking it was, but we’ve now been working on the game seven days a week, for a year! The game is like the monster that ate our lives. We’re loving making the game and it looks and plays amazing, but I would admit that it has turned out to be a much bigger project than we first thought. Our team has grown to twenty-six full-time people, and we still have several months to go!
THIS SEASON: THE BLOG WILL BE DIFFERENT
You may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging. I am normally someone who suffers from diarrhea of the keyboard. I touch a keyboard and words start bursting from me uncontrollably. I’ll start writing with an intention to write one paragraph and twenty pages later I think, “Oops!”
However, I notice that this year, I cannot write. The keys on my keyboard resist all efforts to press them. I’ve finally figured out why I’m having trouble writing: I don’t know if I want to write about boating or computers! The target audiences are completely different, yet I live in both worlds. Theoretically, I could split to two different blogs, but that seems complicated. I have a much simpler solution. Trying to split my mailing is more bureaucracy than I have time for.
Here’s what I’m going to do.
I’m going to put section headings on various sections of my blog entries. If a section heading seems to be about boating and you don’t love boats, skip that section. If the section heading is about videogames, and you don’t love games, skip that section. If you have nothing better to do, read it all.
SO. WITH ALL THAT IN MIND, HERE’S A JOKE FOR COMPUTER NERDS
A QA engineer walks into a bar. Orders a beer. Orders 0 beers. Orders 99999999999 beers. Orders a lizard. Orders -1 beers. Orders a ueicbksjdhd.
First real customer walks in and asks where the bathroom is. The bar bursts into flames, killing everyone.
AND AN ALLEGEDLY TRUE STORY ONLY BOATERS WILL GET
I was walking up the dock a couple days ago when I saw the harbormaster (marina boss). He was chuckling and told me this story.
He said a nice lady had come into the office raving about how impressed she was with the marina. She went on to say that her only nitpick was that the ramp leading to the docks was overly steep. He asked where she was from. “Iowa,” she said. He thought about it and responded, “OK. Apologies. Give me six hours and return. I’ll have it fixed.”
STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND
Roberta and I sometimes describe ourselves as having Rip Van Winkle’d our way into developing this videogame. When it comes to games, or game development, we feel like we went to sleep in 1997 and just woke up last year. We’re constantly asked to contrast the world of today to the world that we left behind.
First, a bit of background…
During the years that passed, neither of us played a game, visited a computer store, or read any game-related press. We bought a home in Mexico, and a boat, and spent the last couple of decades enjoying an early retirement. When we sold our company, Sierra On-Line, in 1996, I was only forty-two years old. Roberta and I married as teenagers. I dropped out of college to go to a nine-month programming trade school and was in the right place at the right time when computers were just taking off. We were in our early twenties when we started Sierra and then ran it for eighteen years.
When Sierra was sold, Roberta and I gave up all ownership of Sierra’s brands, games, characters, art, software, everything. We also had a long-term non-compete that kept us completely out of the game industry. By the time the non-compete ran out, we had spent years getting into the boating lifestyle.
My guess is that most of you reading this think of boating much differently than Roberta and I do. You may be imagining us hopping into a boat and driving a few miles to where we can throw out a pole and catch some fish. That’s not the kind of boating we do.
Roberta is an Adventure game designer, with the emphasis on the word Adventure. Whereas I think a perfect day is to be sitting in front of a computer screen, Roberta is happiest when we’re doing something extraordinary. She’s the one who pushed us into taking our little boat across the Atlantic in 2004, and then across the Bering Sea in 2009. We’ve been featured on the covers of many boating magazines and, as part of preparing for our voyages, I had to learn a wide range of new skills. I’m now certified as a marine electrician. I am a licensed ship captain in the US and in Europe. I’ve studied marine navigation, HVAC systems, fuel systems, etc. If the boat stops running a thousand miles from shore and you can’t fix it, you can have a really bad day. When we left Alaska headed for Japan, I was absolutely convinced we’d never return. Roberta, of course, thought it was just another of our many Adventures. Boating hasn’t just been a hobby for us in the post-Sierra years, it has been our life — and still is!
When the pandemic hit, and world cruising was no longer an option, I decided to fill the time by writing a book about Sierra. To my enormous surprise, the book was a hit! We had forgotten the game industry, but it hadn’t forgotten us. It never occurred to me that the pandemic would last as long as it did, but neither Roberta nor I can sit still for long, so I decided one day to write a game. At the beginning of the project I just saw it as a time filler, but then Roberta got involved, and it quickly became a very serious project with serious ambitions — and has since grown to a team of twenty-six full time developers, not including Roberta and I.
How have games changed?
We’ve been too busy building this project to spend much time playing games. But we did do some research. We looked at several games, most of which were in the Adventure category. Roberta has a long string of hits that were Adventure games, and it was her idea to remake Colossal Cave. We wanted to know what we would need to be competitive.
I expected to be blown away by what we would see but discovered the Adventure category hadn’t really moved much beyond where we left it all those years ago. The graphics and sound had evolved, but I thought actual game play had taken a step backwards. I saw a lot of games where it felt like most of the time was spent in long dialog decision trees. Game play seemed to mostly consist of clicking your way through a long dialog, only to be stuck watching long cut scenes (animated sequences) which were pretty, but had no interaction.
In addition to looking at PC-based games we also checked out VR games. I can’t say I saw many, and some I looked at were quite good. We spent some time with Myst on the Quest 2. I was impressed with how they handled movement, and how great the graphics looked.
Overall, and to our surprise, we felt right at home. Games had evolved, but nothing we saw scared us. Roberta and I had long discussions about if we really thought we could build a game that would be worth playing. The fact is that we aren’t building a game to make money. We hope the game will be a success, but that’s not what matters to us. We’re not trying to build a big company or even break back into the games business. We have two goals for this game: We want to build a game that players like, and we want to pay proper tribute to Will Crowther and Don Woods, creators of the historic game that started it all — and Colossal Cave is the game that was responsible for our great lives. It has lived for fifty years, and we like the idea of giving it another fifty years through reinventing it for a new generation.
Now that I’ve admitted we surveyed the competition I’ll point out that we largely ignored all that we saw. In the Sierra days our strategy was always to go our own direction. I used to say that “Leaders lead, and followers follow.” Sierra succeeded because we were willing to venture out on the edge and do things our own way. Over the past year there have been some debates between Roberta and others, both within our own team, and with the hardware companies we’re working with. She has her own vision of what makes a game fun, how the game should be played, and how the interface should work. On more than one occasion she has had someone say, “But that is not how everyone else does it.” Roberta isn’t always right, but her games have sold millions of copies. We’re doing some things that will surprise players. If you want status quo, that’s not us.
Even in regards to our boating, Roberta and I always like to be different. Do you see our boat in the photo above? Hint: It’s the Glacier Blue boat (which also looks green to me).
How has building games changed?
Whereas the games may feel familiar, the process for building them has changed completely.
The barriers to entry have largely been removed. Sierra used a game engine for our products that we evolved over many years. It was proprietary and allowed us to do things competitors couldn’t. In today’s world, there are proprietary game engines at some companies, but there are freely available game engines that anyone can use – FREE! And, the engines are amazing. There is a market in game assets. Need a dragon? You can probably find a hundred to download for under $50 within minutes of starting to google. Need a door? A tree? An airplane? No problem. Need music? Sound effects? Once again. No problem. All of the tools an aspiring game developer could want are easily and inexpensively found.
That said, I started this game with a vision of building it myself using primarily downloaded assets. That strategy did kind-of work. Fairly quickly I had a playable game. The problem was that it looked and played like a one-person effort using downloaded assets! The quality just wasn’t there. Perhaps if I’d chosen a simpler game? There are an unlimited number of games that can be built by a single developer downloading graphics and sound from the internet, but unfortunately, the game Roberta and I signed up to make wasn’t one of them.
Although, we thought it was when we started. How hard could it be to remake a text game? we thought. Well, after signing on twenty-six developers, and now with a year under our belts, and several more months still ahead, we are starting to know the answer to that question. With 20/20 hindsight we should have chosen a simpler project, but, oh well. It’s easier to microwave a burrito than to make a gourmet dinner. You get what you cook, and we are making one heck of a feast.
Once it became obvious that Roberta and I couldn’t build the game alone, I had to assemble a team. It was the height of the pandemic, and no one was going to the office anywhere. I remember saying, “What’s Zoom?” And here it is a year later, and I work with a geographically dispersed team daily. Sentences like, “Is today’s meeting on Slack, Teams, or Google Meet?” suddenly seem intelligible.
I also remember fearing that there would be a culture gap between Roberta and I and the rest of the team, most of which are “millennials.” Roberta and I are not that old, but neither do we consider ourselves part of the millennial generation. Bridging that gap has been a non-issue. There have been a few discussions where we weren’t up on the latest slang — and our musical tastes don’t always align.
Overall, it’s a good thing for the project that the team is mostly being built by young people who have the experience with today’s games, that Roberta and I are missing. They are learning from us, and we are learning from them, and the result is bigger and better than either of us could have done alone!
Everyone on the team senses that this project is a lot more than “just a game.” We all know we are building something special.
Entertainment is timeless. The technology has changed. The market is bigger. But the need to entertain hasn’t changed one bit. Roberta describes how she feels as, “It’s like riding a bicycle.” It really doesn’t feel like we ever stopped building games.
WORKING AT HOME
In my last blog entry I mentioned that Roberta and I are building a game, working with a team that is scattered across the world.
It is this “work from home” capability that allowed us to quickly assemble a team. Roberta’s and my primary objection to ever working again was that we never wanted to be locked down to living in “just one place.” We have spent the last month living on a boat and yet work every day.
This is my office on the boat, complete with: Two computers, three keyboards, a dog bed, VR headset, Keurig coffee machine, webcam, printer, microphone, picture of Roberta, iPad, and diet coke!
Within days of me saying how “work at home” was a key part of our game’s success, Elon Musk announced that he’d terminate any employee who wouldn’t come to the office. Elon’s perhaps a bit eccentric, but he’s not stupid.
Roberta and I have a condo in downtown Seattle where Amazon, Zillow, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Expedia and many others have offices. Over the past two years, with all of the tech workers working from home, downtown Seattle has been a ghost town. Many restaurants have failed, and many more are struggling.
I had a meeting at Amazon’s headquarters a few weeks ago. I’ve visited Amazon’s offices several times over the years and they’ve always been buzzing with activity. The contrast was staggering. I was wandering past eerily empty offices. A few years back Roberta and I took our boat to the Aleutian island Adak, which had once held a fairly large city with supermarkets, McDonalds, etc. In 1997 the military base there was closed and everyone suddenly left, leaving behind their empty homes, cars, tvs, everything. Roberta and I walked through a city of homes that looked like everything had been mysteriously vaporized in place. Amazon’s office had that same feeling.
As you might imagine, employees feel differently about working at home than employers. An article in the Seattle Times newspaper recently mentioned that 80% of employees prefer working from at home, and 80% of management believe the company would be more effective if employees return to work.
For those who want a really deep dive on the topic, here’s a very interesting research report by Microsoft on the topic:
Personally, I’m torn on this topic. Our game would not be possible had I not been able to assemble a team quickly, and without regard to where they live. I also believe our team is stronger, in that I was able to seek the best talent the world had to offer, not limiting my selection to developers living in Seattle. That said, if I were still running Sierra, would I allow the team to work from home? I don’t know. There are both pros, and cons.
A QUICK CATCHUP FOR OUR BOATING READERS – WHERE WE ARE, WHERE WE’VE BEEN, WHERE WE’RE GOING
Roberta and I have been on the boat for a month. That said, I haven’t started the engines. We’re on the west coast within a few miles of the Canadian border. We will fire up the engines next week and start venturing north towards Alaska.
Roberta and I have a new home under construction nearby and want to monitor our construction. We had thought the home would be closer to complete at this time, but construction has taken longer than we thought. We’re also knee deep in building a game. Roberta and I are on the boat, but mostly she sits at her computer and I sit at mine.
We had hoped we’d be cruising somewhere new and exciting now, but .. oh well. No problem. There are plenty of great places in the Pacific NW to keep us busy, and last year we were unable to cross into Canada due to the closed border. We don’t want to be away from the construction for too long, so there’s no chance we’ll make it to Alaska. All I know for now is that we’ll head north until we decide to turn around.
I am a warm water cruiser. I watch an endless stream of boating blogs with people cruising places with warm clear water and white sand beaches. There’s nothing wrong with cruising the west coast of Canada and I’m sure we’ll find many great places to anchor, but it’s not the kind of boating that really gets me excited. We’re starting to talk about taking the boat to Mexico this winter for a few months of cruising the Sea of Cortez. We lived near Cabo San Lucas for nearly twenty years but have never cruised north of La Paz. There’s no decision yet, but it’s looking likely.
Last season was a mess. Our boat was new and built during the pandemic. Work in Malaysia where the boat was being built was stopped for months at a time. I was in regular contact with the team building the boat and we had to rush the boat to the United States just as the factory was being closed again.
Despite the challenges of building a boat during the pandemic, the boat was nearly perfect. We only had a few problems, but unfortunately, they were the kind of problems that can wreck a season.
Our generators were a problem. Grand Banks had never installed Northern Lights generators on a GB60. I insisted on the Northern Lights generators because I like their reliability. Many boaters only run a generator a couple hours a day, but I run ours non-stop when onboard, for weeks at a time. The Northern Lights generators turned out to be pickier about the external raw water strainers than Grand Banks expected, and several haul-outs were required to solve the issue.
The generator issues were annoying but not season killers. The bigger issue wound up being a lack of air conditioning. Who would have thought that air conditioning would be an issue in the Pacific Northwest? Normally, it wouldn’t be, but last year was insanely warm. Seattle saw temperatures as warm as 108 degrees! Roberta and I tried to tough it out, but ultimately gave up and parked the boat until temperatures would drop or the mechanics could fix the air conditioning. As it turned out we needed parts and getting them became a challenge.
The border with Canada was closed by the pandemic. We were sitting on the border waiting for the border to open so we could go cruising, like many boats. It did open, but not until the season was effectively over.
And, as if the pandemic, mechanical problems, a heat wave and a closed border weren’t enough to wreck a season, our cherished pup Toundra, who had traveled the world by our side, suddenly developed heart issues. We spent the much of the season rushing her to emergency vet appointments, but nothing helped, and we lost her. We were in a funk that we still haven’t fully recovered from.
The weather did ultimately cool, and we did cruise again, but only briefly and without enthusiasm.
STARLINK – A GAMECHANGER FOR BOATERS!
I cannot begin to tell you all that I have gone through to get internet around the world. When I think back on our time cruising worldwide, I mostly remember the challenges of getting our pups into various countries, and the days of battling in each country to obtain a local sim card for internet.
When I first heard about Starlink it sounded too good to be true, so I assumed it was just marketing hype and paid it little attention. That said, I wasn’t taking any chances, just in case there was something really there. I signed up for a beta a couple years ago, and when I heard nothing, I signed up again. When I heard they had started taking orders I immediately set up an account and sent a deposit, but once again I heard nothing.
Finally, I found a backdoor method to obtain a unit and decided to try it. Wow!!!!! I set it up in minutes and immediately had awesome and inexpensive unlimited internet.
I had been overly eager to get started and put the dish on the bow of the boat. Being the Pacific Northwest, it was cloudy, raining, freezing cold and windy at the time. It didn’t seem to matter to Starlink. The internet worked just fine. An hour after I set it up, while I was bragging about it to Roberta, a strong gust of wind pitched the dish into the water, which I should probably mention is salt water.
Roberta looked at me with that frustrated look she sometimes adopts and said, “You just had to be in a hurry, and now look what you’ve done.” She was right of course, but after waiting so long for this incredible life-changing phenomena, how could I have done anything different other than to immediately place it on the bow of the boat? It’s not like I had a choice.
I sheepishly fished the dish from the water, held it upside down while gallons of water seemed to pour out from inside it, then hosed it down with fresh water, and brought it inside the boat to dry. When the rain stopped I put it back on the bow, this time with a brick to keep it in place, and it still works!
I’ve now been using it for a month and have fallen in love with it.
Starlink offers a $25/month optional plan that allows you to use it outside your home locale. Hopefully this includes working on the west coast of Canada as we’ll cross the border in a few days. I have an expensive VSAT dish on the boat which will probably remain unused this season. This is a particularly important year for us to have good internet. Our game will be released later this year and we have a lot of press-related stuff we need to do. Without good internet connectivity we’d be stuck home.
Roberta and I are what I’ll call dog-centric. We took our boat to 27 countries, visiting all of them along with our pups. If anyone has ever tried to cross an international border with a pet, you know that it isn’t easy. But we’ve done it! There are places in the world we’d like to go that are off-limits to us, simply because we can’t take our pups (Australia, New Zealand, etc). And there are places we’ve gotten our pups into that were incredibly challenging (like Japan).
Given that we will be mostly staying close to home this season we decided to get a new pup, Pixie! She’s a six month old female Klee Kai who weighs only 9 pounds and probably won’t grow beyond 11 or 12 pounds. We’ve only had her for about a month, and this has been her first introduction to boating.
So, with that background, my sad tale begins. This story is horrific enough that I’ll spoil the ending before it begins, to save you some of the grief we experienced. The story has a happy ending.
On Friday, about 7 in the evening, I was sitting in the main salon of the boat when Roberta came in from the bedroom and I noticed that Pixie, who normally follows Roberta, wasn’t with her. “Where’s Pixie?”, I asked. Back came the reply, “Isn’t she with you? Maybe she’s in the master cabin?” We started looking for her, and our boat isn’t so big that there are a lot of places to hide. Within minutes we realized that Pixie had disappeared!
As you can imagine we were freaking out. The dog’s potty place (some faux grass in a tray) is outside in the back of the boat. I hadn’t been outside since the morning, other than a quick trip to grab a diet coke from our cockpit refrigerator. Roberta had been out with the dogs (Pixie and our other Pup Keely) a couple times.
We monitor the dogs VERY closely when they are outside the boat. We never leave them outside unattended. Pixie couldn’t have just vanished, except that obviously, she had. Somehow, she must have snuck outside while one of us had the door briefly open.
We quickly walked around the outside of the boat. No Pixie! Where was she? It was time to panic. The boat was sitting at the dock, in our marina, but the boat floats a couple feet off the dock. The weather in Washington State has been very cold, highs in the 50s most days, and the water is cold enough that if Pixie fell into the water she wouldn’t last long. The dock sits far enough above the water that there is no way a puppy would be able to climb out of the water. We guessed that she had been gone for an hour or so, so if she hadn’t successfully jumped to the dock, we knew we’d never see her again.
The weather was not good. The wind was blowing, and it was raining. I could also see that the tide was going out and there was a strong current heading out to deeper water.
We started searching the dock. It’s a large marina with space for 100s of boats. Roberta and I divided up to more rapidly search the whole marina. In our hearts we knew that Pixie had probably fallen into the water. We were sick. In addition to looking at the docks themselves we had to examine every floating bit of debris to verify Pixie wasn’t trapped in it, as well as looking under the floating docks to see if she might have been dragged underneath. Pixie is a distinctive dog. We stopped everyone walking the docks to ask if they had seen her. No one had.
Whenever I would see someone sitting inside their boat, I would rap on the hull to get their attention. “Have you seen a small dog walking the docks?”, I would ask. I knew the answer but had to ask. Roberta and I walked every dock over a couple hour period, talking to many people. I called animal rescue. I called the police. I spoke to the nearby hotel. We walked the parking lot looking under cars. We looked so forlorn that others joined the search. The marina staff organized their own search. Other boaters started their own search. I suspect that everyone knew it was hopeless, but we had to try.
We had left Keeley, our other dog, alone in the boat. When we returned to the boat around 10pm she was waiting just inside the door, as upset as we were. We have cameras around the boat. I went to my computer to review camera footage, hoping I would see Pixie leap to the dock safely, but fearing what I might see. At least if she got to the dock safely there would be cause for hope. For two hours, I watched every second of footage hoping to see some sign of her. The cameras don’t cover every square inch of the boat’s exterior, and she’s a small dog, so I wasn’t surprised I couldn’t see her. But I watched the same footage over and over and over again, hoping for even a shadow, or anything I missed. Plus, I knew I couldn’t stop. Stopping would mean defeat, and I couldn’t give up.
We bottomed out when I turned on the underwater lights, so that I could look deep under the boat for any sign of her. Roberta asked, quite seriously, if we should sell the boat. I said, “Maybe”. We had lost Toundra on this boat. And now Pixie. The gods were speaking, and we needed to listen.
Back in bed for a sleepless night, I heard the wind howling outside. Roberta, who had spent the evening crying, and still was crying, said, “You need to move the Starlink dish. It’s going to blow into the water.” I threw on my pants and without shirt and barefooted, I circled the boat slowly in one more fruitless effort to find Pixie. No luck. I used a bungy cord to anchor the Starlink dish to the windshield wiper and re-entered the boat.
From the bedroom Roberta shouted, “Did you find Pixie?” I shouted back “No.” Roberta shouted back, “She’s here.” Huh? What did Roberta say? I obviously misheard. Rushing to the Master Stateroom, there she was! Pixie was on the bed with Roberta. How was it possible? Roberta asked, “Do you see Pixie?” Of course, I did! She was right there in front of me being hugged by Roberta. “I thought I was seeing a ghost. Are you sure you see her?”, Roberta said. I was stunned. The impossible had happened. How? Roberta said she had gone into the bathroom and when she came out Pixie was sitting there on the bed looking at her.
We have no idea where Pixie had been. She was warm, so she had never been outside. All we can figure is that she had wedged herself into some impossibly tight place and had finally freed herself. Both of us searched the boat repeatedly looking for her. She never whimpered from wherever she had been. Keeley never indicated she knew. Or maybe it was a miracle? We’ll never know. We spent the rest of the night hugging little Pixie, who gave no indication that anything unusual had ever occurred.
We walked her everywhere on the docks the next day, where we were stopped repeatedly by other boaters. Several people told us they had lost sleep worried about Pixie. One boat captain said that he had been unable to sleep and had formed a middle-of-the-night search party to look for her. For days, we were unable to walk the docks without people stopping us to ask how we found her.
Boating is a lot of things, but boring is never one of them. At least this particular story had a happy ending.