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The inheritance of Scott Adams

The computer gaming pioneer is back with the text game “The Inheritance.”

The inheritance of Scott Adams

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POSTED March 5, 2013 11:00 a.m.

By day, Scott Adams is a senior programmer for AVISTA in Platteville, where he has worked since the late 1980s.

On his off hours, Scott Adams is one of the pioneers of computer gaming, dating back to when computers had entire kilobytes of memory and when the Internet was known only to the Defense Department and a few computer geeks.

Adams didn’t realize he was considered a gaming pioneer until the advent of the Internet and email, when he started getting emails about the impact of his early work.

Adams is back in gaming with the release of “The Inheritance,” which he describes as “interactive fiction,” or “a text adventure game with sound effects. So it’s a reading and thinking game. You’re put into an environment; you tell me what to do.

“If you play the game for a half-hour — set the timer — and if you can get up and not think about it, it’s not for you. The game is going to continue to make you think about what you want to do next.”

In the early days of computers that were smaller than room size, in the 1970s, Adams decided to create his own computer games because “I liked playing them, and there weren’t any games to play.” Adams started by creating a game for the computer his brother put together.

Adams was the first purchaser of the Sphere kit computer. He was also the primary student user of his high school’s computer. “I’d be there waiting for the janitors to show up, and I was allowed to stay as late as I wanted and lock up when I left,” he said.

While staying at an Air Force base, Adams figured out how to reprogram the computer at its radar station to create a game based on the “Star Trek” TV series.

“I enjoyed gaming, and I enjoyed the interfacing of people and gaming,” he said.

Adams then started a company, Adventure International, to create games for the low-memory personal computers of the day, including the Radio Shack TRS-80, the first two models of the Apple computer, the Atari and Commodore computers, as well as some Texas Instruments calculators. Many of the games are available at www.msadams.com/downloads.htm.

Adventure International allowed Adams to meet the giants of science fiction, including authors Harlan Ellison (whose birthday party he got to attend), Diane Duane, “Star Trek” actor George Takei, and Isaac Asimov.

One day after Ellison’s birthday party, Asimov and Adams were at the same computer gaming convention in New York City. Adams watched Asimov walk four steps into the convention hall, stop and wait for someone to recognize him, “and the mob descends, and he’s in seventh heaven. I learned so much about human nature that day, and that greatness puts its pants on one leg at a time.”

Adventure International had more than $3 million in annual sales and 20 employees at its height. The height lasted into the mid-1980s.

“There was a big giant downturn in the computer industry,” said Adams. “A lot of big players came in, and the market got diluted, and my company didn’t have deep pockets. That was the end of the company, and I just didn’t have any desire to get into it after seven or eight years of running your own company.”

Finding full-time employment proved difficult because would-be employers considered someone who had started and run his own company to be overqualified for programming positions.

“We had a prayer that night, and literally after the prayer was over the phone rang,” he said.

The caller was John Mathias, formerly the head of the games department for Commodore International. Adams had written two games based on the Incredible Hulk and Spiderman comic characters, as well as a game based on the Buckaroo Banzai character. Mathias then was a professor at UW–Platteville who was in the process of starting a company with Platteville’s Jim Schneller and Cindy Tang.

“‘I need your help. I’ve started a company in Wisconsin,’” Mathias told Adams, who replied, “Great! Where’s Wisconsin?”

Adams began working for Insight Industries by assisting Rockwell International in Cedar Rapids. Insight became AVISTA, and AVISTA became Esterline.

“Basically I’ve been here for 25 years working for Insight,” said Adams. “It was nice to go to work for someone else and not having sleepless nights.”

But as Internet access and email began to spread, Adams discovered the extent of his game fans.

“Over the years, I collected thousands of emails,” he said. “‘I played your game, it changed my life,’ was probably about 80 percent of them. It turned out a lot of people liked to play as a family and groups.

“I saw the company failure as an indictment that what I was doing was not worthwhile. Once the Internet started and emails started coming in, I thought I needed to rethink this.”

One email told of a family whose mother was dying. Toward the end of her life, she asked her children to play Adams’ games as they used to when she was healthy.

“A lot of my international players were playing games to learn English,” he said.

Some emailers got this Scott Adams confused with another Scott Adams, the creator of the “Dilbert” cartoons. “We exchanged fan mail,” said Platteville’s Adams.

Adams created a game in 2000, “a smaller game, it was about half the size of this. I wanted to resurrect my skill set, see what I could do.”

Adams started working on “The Inheritance” on Christmas Day 2003. “I’m 60, so I’m looking at what am I going to be doing 10 years from now,” he said. “I started working on it and worked at it and shelved it.”

Five years ago, Adams was a guest speaker at the Midwest Gaming Classic outside Milwaukee, and got to meet some of his fans personally. He returned in 2012, bringing a prototype version of “The Inheritance,” asking attendees what they thought as they played the game.

“The feedback I got told me it’s probably time to finish it; there are people who really want to play this type of game,” he said. “It’s a very family-friendly, Christian-oriented game — critical thinking, something positive.

“This is one of the many design features: You can’t lose. This is like reading a novel and being able to write it as you go along.”

Adams said the premise of “The Inheritance” is “You’re attempting to locate your inheritance from your deceased relative. … It takes a lot of thinking to play it; it takes a lot more to write it.”

The game was released Feb. 14. It is available at Kathie’s Gifts and Uniques in downtown Platteville.

Unlike most computer games, there are few graphics and sound effects. “I wasn’t interested in that market — they wanted bells and whistles,” he said. “But I kept hearing from people who wanted text games … people who like to puzzle things out. I’ve had people who don’t like games like it.

“It’s got to connect with the consumer base, and that’s what the old games did, and that’s what I’m hoping.”

Unlike the 1980s, Adams said, “I’m trying to run an employeeless company this time. I’m trying to avoid the heartache and the headache of having employees.”

One of Adams’ sons did the photography for the game box. One daughter is doing production work; another daughter is doing public relations and sales. A retired weather.com meteorologist plays the weatherman. The butler is voiced by Platteville High School senior David Ababio, the Adamses’ godson.

Adams calls “The Inheritance” “Bible adventure number one … I plan to pick up where this leaves off. God led me do this.”

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