Stone Age Multimedia: Homeword
Posted by Trixter on July 20, 2010
My software collecting hobby was at its peak about 9 years ago, and at that time I became fascinated by the audio cassettes that came with early computer games. I’m not talking about computer games that were delivered on cassettes, like C64/Vic-20/Atari 8-bit/etc. computer systems, but actual recorded audio on a cassette to be listened to in a stereo’s cassette deck or boom box. Before CDROMs, before soundcards, the only way to get high-quality audio into a game was to physically place an audio cassette into the package. As to why companies would want to do this, here’s a breakdown of the kind of audio you could typically find included in this fashion:
- Title music (20%)
- Introduction or backstory (30%)
- Tutorial (35%)
- Game elements or clues (15%)
Title music was sometimes serious, sometimes silly, and usually done pro bono by either the programmers themselves or friends wanting to break into the business. Introductions to the game and tutorials were much more common, especially for more complicated games like simulations. Game elements was arguably the best use of included audio cassettes, as it provided the designers a way to provide more depth to the game. For example, In The President Is Missing, the audio provides several clues as to where the President might be held, but you have to listen carefully to terrorist radio transmissions and decode some morse code. Corruption has arguably the coolest use of cassette audio — the cassette in the game package represents the actual audio cassette that you search for and find in the game world, and listening to it provides insight into how you were framed. For both games, the cassettes are required listening not only to get the most enjoyment out of both games, but also to finish them! (Corruption even included a coupon to send in if you didn’t have a way to play cassette tapes, although I don’t recall what the coupon was for — probably a transcript of what was on the tape.)
So, 9 years ago: Back when I was still writing feature articles for MobyGames, one article idea I had was to shed light on this mostly forgotten aspect of computer gaming history. I was going to do this by writing up a small segment per game on what audio was included and why, and then provide snippets of audio to illustrate what it was like. But the more I listened to the tapes and wrote, the more I felt that little snippets of audio weren’t going to be good enough — there was some real historical gems in these things, like Chuck Yeager talking about what it was like to be a test pilot, or how early home computer programs needed to hold the hands of new users every step of the way, or how much craft went into a title song (with lyrics!) composed specifically for a game. Small snippets of audio just weren’t going to cut it. But I couldn’t just blatantly reference an entire dump of the cassette either, because I was worried about copyright infringement. So while I wrote up the entire article, I never published it.
Flash-forward to 2010, and I’m not so worried about copyright infringement any more. In the last nine years, we’ve seen some great advancements in how game companies treat their older IP — they either respect it and turn it into new-old properties (like Sam & Max or Monkey Island episodes), or they have built goodwill amongst their fan base by either giving away entire libraries (such as the entire Vectrex game library) or changing their minds and allowing fanfic productions to be distributed. Even Apple, notoriously stingy about protecting their marks and IP, cleared the release of some significantly historical code today (the original QuickDraw and MacPaint).
So I’ve decided to publish the article after all, but as regular installments here in my blog. I’ve re-read the Fair Use clause of US copyright policy (title 17, chapter 1, paragraph 107 is the relevant part) and I believe my use of these works fall squarely into educational non-profit usage, nor harm the present or future profitability of these works as the companies that produced them are long gone (and, sadly, some of the people involved in creating them are gone too). I view these installments as a historical exercise, but as always, if any corporate lawyer disagrees with me, I’ll be happy to take the articles down.
What follows is the original intro I wrote for the article, as well as our first featured included audio cassette: Homeword.
(One note before we begin: If the audio cassettes sound like they have a lot of hiss in them, that’s because they do. With only a few exceptions, I did not attempt noise reduction. Most of these tapes were not produced with any sort of Dolby noise reduction, and so there is a lot of wideband hiss in the audio and attempting to filter it out completely mangles parts of the audio signal you want to keep, like hihats, rimshots, and subtle high-end stuff.)
1983: You’re Sierra On-Line, and you’ve written a word processor that anybody can use, thanks to the clever use of graphics to visualize concepts — paper for files, filing cabinets for folders/directories, etc. There’s only one problem: It’s the dawn of the personal computing industry, and true novices don’t know how to operate the computer they just purchased. How can you wow them with the simplicity of your program when your users can’t even boot it?
1988: You’re Rainbird, and you’re set to publish another one of the highly-regarded Magnetic Scrolls interactive fiction games. This time, it’s a tale of double-crosses as you get framed by the corporation you work for, where you have to unravel your life and their tricks to win. It’s a good adventure, but it’s missing something that would help immerse the player deeper into the mystery. If only there was a way to demonstrate how you were framed…
Pardon the pun, but it sounds like some audio would do the trick quite nicely. A read-aloud tutorial that eases new computer owners into word processing would help Sierra’s case, and the evidence that was used to frame the main character would be a great addition to Rainbird’s game. But what can you do? As a publisher, you can’t just jam disks and disks of digitized sound into the package; the cost would eat at your bottom line. And most computers in the 1980s didn’t have built-in sound devices to play digitized sound anyway, let alone hard drives to store it all.
The solution, for a select few companies, was audio cassettes. I’m not talking about data cassettes that early 8-bit computer programs used to come on, but real cassettes that you can pop into your home or car stereo and listen to. They were relatively cheap, easy to mass-produce, and held at least 30 minutes of stereo sound to fill with what you needed. While cassette players will eventually go the way of the dinosaur in the new millenium, they were as essential a component of a stereo system then as CD players are today. (CD players were considered a luxury in the 1980s.)
The use of audio cassettes in early software (not just games) was diverse: Some held instructions or tutorials, others held enhanced title music, and still others were essential portions of the adventure game you were trying to play — audio cues/clues, if you will. We take multimedia for granted today; there are no game titles released without music and speech that expect to make a buck on store shelves. But opening a software package in the 1980s and finding a cassette — well, that was a real treat. In most cases, it was justified and honestly enhanced the end-user’s enjoyment of the product.
In this feature, we’ll take a look at some of the included audio cassettes that came with early software titles (not all of which were games), examine how they made the software experience more enjoyable for the end-user, and — this is the best part — provide full-length low-bitrate versions of the cassettes so that you can hear what they sounded like.
Just before we begin, we’d like to thank a couple of people:
- Jason Artman contributed a recording of the Sierra Lounge. Jason has contributed to MobyGames before in a big way: he was the first person to write a feature article for MobyGames.
- C.E. Forman lent me a copy of The President Is Missing (thanks Chris!). You can visit his excellent Ye Olde Infocomme Shoppe if you want to see how a true software collector works his hobby.
- Tony Van, who went above and beyond the call of duty to contribute four rare audio clips with descriptions to the project.
We’ll start our journey into the world of low-tech audio with Homeword, a word processor. Wait, don’t leave! Yes, it’s a word processor, but it was put out by Sierra On-Line, once one of the most prolific game companies in the first two decades of computer gaming.
Homeword (Sierra, 1983)
Homeword isn’t a game, but it was produced by Sierra On-Line in the early 80’s, so we thought we’d cover it as a historical exercise.
Homeword was marketed as a word processor for the entire family. Using graphical icons like pieces of paper, a printer, and a filing cabinet, Homeword’s goal was to make word processing easy for someone who had never used a word processor. Only one problem: In those days, it was very common for someone to have purchased a computer without any prior computer experience whatsoever. Users would rely on the software not only to help them perform specific tasks, but also to teach them how to operate the computer in the first place. There wasn’t a common operating platform for consumers like there is today; back then, every program had a different interface. (The philosophy back then was to make program interfaces standard across platforms, which is substantially different than today’s model of making all program interfaces standard across the same operating system.)
Sierra helped solved this problem with a helpful tutorial included in the Homeword package that walked you through the word processor’s various functions. It did so from the absolute beginning: “Hold your diskette with your thumb on the label, label side up. Insert your Homeword diskette into the disk drive, close the drive door, and power on your computer.” The resulting cassette is a mostly a tutorial on working Homeword, but also a small primer on the basics of computing, floppy disks and other basic computer concepts.
High points: Calm, friendly narrator; long pauses while the user attempts what was just suggested; cute early-1980s synthesizer music intro.
Low points: Included pauses weren’t consistent — some were very long for short tasks, other were a bit short for longer tasks.
Audio: Homeword (IBM PC)
Bonus: Homeword (Apple II)
Trivia: Sierra wasn’t the only game company to test non-gaming markets; early software companies often shifted product lines around. Tom Snyder Productions, which we’ll cover later, did the same thing (although the successful business they’re in today is educational software and television production, not entertainment titles). Broderbund came out with several applications for the home, including the popular Bank Street Writer. Even Infocom attempted to go into the business market, but with disastrous results — the effort involved in getting the Cornerstone database product to market contributed greatly to the demise of the company.