Bob Bates

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 12 February 2001. Last updated on 23 December 2007.
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Bob Bates
Bob Bates is a prolific game designer and the cofounder of Legend Entertainment.

About the author

Bob Bates has just finished the manuscript for his book "Game Design: A Practical Guide to the Art and Business of Creating Games" for Prima Publishing. The book starts with the basics of good game design and covers everything from putting together a development team, to getting your project funded, to a behind-the-scenes look at how games are sold at retail. It will be on store shelves in April.

To any game enthusiast fond of the golden era of interactive fiction, Bob Bates is a celebrity who needs no introduction. Bates is a renowned game designer and the cofounder of Legend Entertainment. His backgrounds as a freelance writer and novelist as well as his keen sense as a businessman make him a unique personality in the gaming industry. He is a vocal advocate for the adventure genre and actively supports the adventure gaming community through interviews and speaking engagements. We are privileged to have this exclusive interview with Bates. In the interview, Bates speaks of his past work with Infocom, his founding of Legend Entertainment, and his insights in adventure gaming of past, present, and future.

How and when did you start your career in the computer gaming industry? Was Infocom your first gaming "gig"?

In the early 1980's I set out to write a novel. I was fairly happy with it, but it was taking a long time. Partway through, my dad gave me his old TRS-80 computer, and with it a copy of a game called Zork. I had always played games of one kind or another, but this is the first time I had seen a computer game. Right away, I liked the idea of marrying writing to game-playing, which is what text-adventures are all about.

I started a company called Challenge to do this. I was the writer, my partner was the technician. One of the first things he said was, "Instead of writing one game, we should build an engine to write several. Better yet, instead of building an engine, we should license somebody else's engine. Who's got one?" Well, of course the premier text adventure engine was Infocom's ZIL system. I called them up, and after several very interesting weeks, they asked if I would write games for them. I quickly agreed to do just that.

What game titles did you develop for Infocom, especially games series with sequels? What roles (designer, writer, programmer) did you play in the development of these titles?

What I agreed to do for Infocom was start a series called "The Immortal Legends." The idea was to take well-known characters in cool settings and write new games set in those fictional worlds. The two games I wrote in this series were "Sherlock! The Riddle of the Crown Jewels" and "Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur." The third was always meant to be a Robin Hood game, but when the opportunity came up to do a game based on James Cameron's "The Abyss" Infocom asked me to do that instead. That's the game I was working on at the time the company shut down.

For the Sherlock and Arthur game, I was the designer and writer. The programming was done by Duane Beck and Mark Poesch, who both still work for Legend Entertainment. By the end of the Arthur game, I was doing some of the puzzle programming, but Duane and Mark did the bulk of the work.

What were your fondest memories working for/with Infocom?

The best part of Infocom was its people. They were an incredibly bright, literate, and funny group of people. My fondest memories are the times I went up to Boston for meetings there, and particularly when I got to participate in their infamous "imps lunches." (A tradition that survives today at Legend with our weekly "developers lunch.") When you walked into the imps lounge, you knew you were in a special place. You often hear the phrase "hotbed of creativity" — this is the first time I actually saw one.

What is your philosophy in designing puzzles for adventure games? In other words, what makes a great puzzle and what makes a poor one?

I've written extensively about this, and to answer the question completely would take much more time than is available in an interview. The basics, though, are that a puzzle must be fair, it should be natural to its environment, the information needed to solve it should be available in the game, and when the player finally learns the answer, if he didn't figure it out for himself, he should slap himself on the forehead and say, "Of course!!!" rather than wanting to shoot the designer.

What were the obstacles you faced when you co-founded Legend in 1989?

The biggest obstacle was going to a group of investors and saying, "See this company that just went under? We want to make games just like them!" Naturally, we had to tell somewhat of a different story, but basically we were saying that we thought there was still life in the adventure genre, but that it needed more than just text. Luckily, our backers agreed and here we are.

What games did you develop under the Legend label, especially games series with sequels?

The games I personally designed at Legend were TIMEQUEST, Eric The Unready, Quandaries (An ethics training game for the US Department of Justice), and John Saul's Blackstone Chronicles. I also wrote a small piece of the first Gateway game.

Other than the Gateway game, none of those were series. Each stands alone (although the Blackstone game was linked to a contemporaneous book series that John Saul was writing.)

I've also made small design contributions to several of Legend's other games, but all of them truly belong to the authors who are credited for them.

Where do you draw your inspirations when designing or writing adventure games?

It depends on which part of the game you're talking about. The overall idea of most games tends to be influenced by commercial concerns. "What can I do that will sell a ton?" Once the basic concept is in place, then inspiration comes from totally immersing myself in that topic, and trying to find something of personal interest in it. With Blackstone, for example, I read old first-person accounts written by people who had been in insane asylums. I was captivated by their voices, and that became a major goal for me — to let other people hear those voices. Also, I have always been struck by the thin line between what is considered sane and insane. Most of us have thought from time to time that we might veer close to insanity, and I wanted to show the dire consequences that come from crossing that thin line. In other words, I wanted the terror in that game to come not from someone popping out and saying "Boo!" but from a deeper empathy for the inmates, and the dread sense that "This could happen to me." To bring this back around to the question, all this was inspired by the research, well after the original topic had been settled on for purely commercial reasons.

Of all the games you designed or wrote, which is your most favorite one (no ties ;> )? Why?

Eric The Unready is my favorite, because I had so damn much fun writing it. I remember clearly being up in the middle of the night for many nights in a row, cackling to myself over the oddball responses I built into oddball inputs. My goal was to always reward the player for being creative. The odder his input, the more I wanted to reward him. I couldn't do that in my other games, because comedy wasn't the focus. In Eric, I could have as much fun as I wanted to, and I did.

Describe your working relationship and collaboration with Mike Verdu. Of all people you have collaborated with outside Legend, who gained your highest respect? Why?

Mike is great. I mentioned before that Mark Poesch and Duane Beck did the programming on my Infocom games. They did that as employees of a programming-for-services firm that I had contracted with. Their boss? Mike Verdu. So for the past 15 years or so, Mark, Duane, Mike and I have all been making games together.

When we started Legend, Mike and I split the CEO duties between us, and have managed things the same way ever since. In the early days, he handled most of the "internal" issues (finance, personnel, etc), and I handled most of the "external" issues (marketing, PR, etc). But unbeknownst to me, he was also very interested in game design. After our first few games, which were designed by me and Steve Meretzky, he got together with a few other employees and started a project specifically designed to "grow" them as game designers. The project was Frederik Pohl's Gateway, and not only was it commercially successful, it succeeded in creating more internal designers at Legend. Michael Lindner went from Gateway to design Companions of Xanth as a solo project. Glen Dahlgren went from Gateway I to co-design Gateway II, and then do Death Gate and Wheel of Time as the sole designer. And Mike co-designed Gateway II with Glen, and then did Mission Critical on his own (Byte Magazine's Game of the Year!), and is now the lead designer on Unreal2.

So that idea - Mike's idea - really worked. I tend to be more visible than Mike (in part, because of that early division of labor that had me focusing on "outside" relationships), but he, far more than me, is the glue that holds Legend together. I am hopeful that as Unreal2 starts to get more publicity, he'll start to get more credit for being the great designer that he is.

In terms of collaborating with people outside of Legend, the clear winner is Steve Meretzky. Here is one of the great comedic writers of our time, who you'd expect to be totally off the wall and hard to pin down to mundane things like schedule and deadlines, and it turns out he's one of the most methodical and professional guys you'd ever want to know. Yet at the same time, he is completely zany and always fun to talk with. I'm happy to call him a friend. Scott Evans and Bret Berry (both ex of Mindscape) also get really high marks from me. Of course there are others, like Richard Booroojian, Stu Galley, and Jon Palace, but it's hard to remember everyone. Looking at that list, it occurs to me that not only is every one of those guys good at his job, they also all have really high ethical standards. Go figure.

What was the greatest change you saw with Legend since it was founded?

The biggest change came from our re-focus out of the adventure game niche into action gaming, and with it the growing size of the teams. It has re-oriented our company completely. Swarms of artists, level designers, and game programmers collaborate on each game, rather than the 1 designer and 1 or 2 programmers that used to put out an adventure game.

The adventure genre and its gaming market have undergone dramatic changes over the past few years. Do you consider these changes a paradigm shift in the gaming industry? In retrospect, when did you first notice the decline in the interest of the genre? What do you think have been the driving forces behind the decline?

Well, Infocom going under was a pretty good sign of the decline of the genre! As I said, we started Legend in the face of that decline, hoping it would be part of a cyclical trend, and that the addition of graphics and sound would bring back the audience we had lost to other genres. But the fact is that the genre never did recover. Although our sales actually went up from year to year, other genres grew faster than adventure games, and when the costs started to climb (with the addition of even *more* graphics) the games no longer made economic sense.

There are many reasons behind the decline. At the beginning, there was a high correlation between people who owned computers and people who played puzzle games. There had to be — it was a puzzle just to get your computer to work in the first place. This was the "games written by geeks, for geeks" phase. As computers and consoles have become easier to use, different people are buying them, and those people like different kinds of games. My partner, Mike, also has a compelling theory that the kinds of experiences - specifically storytelling - that used to be available only in adventure games are now available in almost every genre. In addition, I believe that something happened that I wrote about long ago - that the well was "poisoned" by bad adventure games and impossible-to-solve puzzle designs. To some extent, I think we drove part of our market away when our puzzles weren't fair and didn't make sense.

So I think it's a combination of factors. I think elements of adventure gaming do survive in other genres, and in some cases I think designers are making the same mistakes (lack-of-fairness, die-and-try-again) that were made before. I doubt that the "pure" adventure game will make a comeback, but if it does I'll be the first guy standing in line asking to be allowed to design one.

Do you believe the adventure genre itself is dying, that is, will adventure survive without infusion from other genres, such as action or role-playing?

As I mention above, I think the genre is indeed gone. However, these things can go in cycles (witness the state of the RPG before Diablo came along.) So if some brilliant guy comes up with a new twist that puts the genre back on the map, then I think it could have another healthy run.

How do you see the adventure gaming business evolving over the next five years?

I think that most adventure game designers will work in the "action-adventure" category, which is the closest thing we have to the original adventure games. I think we'll continue to see a smearing of the line between genres, and in particular, I see storytelling spreading to *all* of the genres.

Over the past years, you have been credited with design, interpreter / development system, playtesting, producer, writing / dialog / story, programming, documentation, project leader, and quality assurance. What role(s) do you see yourself in today in the gaming business?

I have only one real talent, and that is designing games. Everything else is stuff I do to provide help where it's needed. I anticipate that this will not change. I'd much rather be a game designer than a producer, or studio head, or any of the many other hats I wear. I will continue to write games for as long as they let me, and in the meantime, I'll do whatever other jobs it takes to keep me in that position.

What are your current projects (ie. sneak peaks)? Are there any adventure sequels currently in the works?

Sorry, no sneak peeks. The only title Legend is working on that has officially been announced is Unreal2. Mike and his team are chugging away at that, and that's all I can say for now.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do this interview. It's nice to know there are still people out there playing the kind of games I love best.

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