Bruce Webster and Wayne Holder for FTL Games
Apple II machine in Apple (UCSD) Pascal and assembly in March 1984. Ported to the Atari ST with some additions circa 1985.
Way ahead of its time in terms of gameplay and interface, SunDog was the first of many amazing releases from FTL.
When you ask people to rank the best video games ever, you find they fall into two groups. For those who's first computer experience was post-C64, the games tend to be one of a handful of recent releases, maybe dating back as far as Civ or Doom. Yet when you ask an "old timer" the list tends to be rather different indeed, including games like MULE, Necromancer or Eastern Front. I've always had another game on my list, SunDog.
I originally started writing this article in 1995. After posting on the 'net asking around for players, I managed to collect all sorts of great stories and wrote a pretty good article on the game. It was later lost when I was laid off from my job and the admins ham–handed all of my mail into the trash by mistake. C'est la vie.
Luckily I was able to get in touch with one of the authors, Bruce Webster. What's odd is that in this case I wasn't looking for SunDog items, but for the author of a great book called Pitfalls of Object Oriented Programming. Bruce happened to be the author of both! Sadly an OS reinstall then deleted all of my mail. A nasty pattern appears to be developing...
Well, third time lucky!
Wayne and I knew each other from high school; we both went to Grossmont High School in eastern San Diego county and graduated the same year, 1971. He and I were part of a larger social group, the intellectual fringe.
Some years after high school, Wayne bought a small house in San Diego itself, which became known as "Wayne's Oasis" or simply "The Oasis". It also became the new gathering spot for the old gang, though I spent most this time living away from San Diego. When I moved back in mid-1981, I began attending the regular Wednesday night meetings at the Oasis for all of us techno-geeks (which is what most of us had become), where we would discuss various technical issues for a few hours, then go hit the best game arcades.
Wayne at that time had a full-time job and also had his own one-man firm, Oasis Systems. He started out making BRX-10 control interfaces and software for Radio Shack TRS-80 computers, but found it wasn't cost effective. So he built a set of software tools to do spell checking, anagrams, and other such operations, designed to be used under CP/M . The product was called "The WORD". In November of 1981, BYTE Magazine ran a comparative review of spell checkers and picked his as the best; it was also the cheapest. Wayne's orders took off, and Wayne was able to quit his day job and focus on Oasis System full time with the help of his significant other (and later wife), Nancy Jones (another 1971 GHS graduate).
[Bruce also contributed a hyphenation routine to one of the major revisions to The WORD. The new product, The WORD Plus, was a big hit.]
Wayne knew I had a strong background in gaming. I had written columns for both The Space Gamer and Computer Gaming World and owned a large number of SF/F board and role playing games.
I had gotten him involved when some investors had approached me earlier in 1981, while I was still living in Houston, about funding a turn-based, play-by-phone computer game (I had described the possibility of such a game in a column in The Space Gamer); Wayne had far more practical experience with S-100 systems and the like.
That fell through -the people never came up with any money- but after The WORD Plus was such a success, Wayne approached me in mid-1982 about joining Oasis Systems and heading up a gaming division. I agreed, resigned from my job, and joined Oasis Systems. The game division, of course, was FTL Games.
[Note the interesting parallels with the creation of Automated Simulations.]
FTL's first project was a computer version of a board game called Star Smuggler, a single player adventure game. In Star Smuggler you take on the role of Duke Springer, and follow a complex series of instructions (which handle issues like movement and combat) in search of fame and fortune. Unfortunately the parent company, Heritage, went out of business before the rights to the computer version were arranged. The project had to be shelved.
Looking to move on, they started work on SunDog. Bruce and Wayne designed the game together, and Bruce did most of the coding for the Apple II.
I was the co-designer, architect, and principal coder (80-90%) of the Apple II version of SD:FL. The Atari ST port was done by three other programmers, but they used/adapted significant chunks of my code (while making lots of nifty improvements).
Version 1.0 was released at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco in March of 1984. While showing it off at the show a number of bugs turned up, and a few weeks later these were nixed in a 1.1 release.
Version 2.0 was released six months later in October of 1984. This was an expanded version of the game that took advantage of a 64kB runtime (as opposed to 48) and as a result it swapped less to disk, had better game play, and added some new features. It also mentioned versions for the Mac and a new sequel for the Apple II in the opening screens.
Now at the high point of what appears to be a wonderful future in the game industry, Bruce calls it quits...
By the time version 2.0 was done, I was burned out with software development. I resigned a week later, and -in spite of attractive offers from some other game design firms- was not able to work as a software engineer for nearly four years.
Bruce had also been working on another game called Blows Against the Empire, the multi-player BBS game mentioned earlier. The backstory for the game didn't go to waste, the plan was to lead the SunDog into some of the events and situations of BAtE via a sequel called SunDog: Old Scores to Settle. The goal of OStS would be to find out what really happened to your late uncle Brock, and the focus would be on interactions with non-player characters.
And it didn't end there, the same story was used for the basis for a third planned sequel, SunDog: Blows Against the Empire - although it existed only in planning. In BAtE you would be "dragged into empire-level issues and conflicts". Both of these sequels died when Bruce left the industry.
But the original game itself soldiered on. By this time FTL had grown, and three new programmers -Doug Bell, Andy Jaros, and Mike Newton- successfully ported it to the Atari ST. Here on the ST the game would become the hit it deserved, being the best selling product of any kind on the ST for all of 1986. It's success set FTL on it's path to glory.
Their next work was Oids, released in 1987 on the ST. It was later ported to the Mac and released in 1990, where it garnered a 5-mouse rating (the highest) from MacWorld magazine. It was a good game, but you needed a certain something to like it - and I didn't.
And then came DungeonMaster. In the description below I talk about how groundbreaking SunDog was, and how it's use of interface was superb. Well if you had three years and a more powerful platform, you could top that, right? They did. DungeonMaster should be in the dictionary under "wow".
While I was still at FTL, Wayne and I had talked about doing a fantasy role playing game, which we had tentatively called Alchemy, but talk was all that we had done. After the SunDog port to the ST, Wayne and the team -Mike Newton, Andy Jaros, and Doug Bell- wrote what I believe was one of the most successful computer games of its era, and certainly one of the most honored ever: DungeonMaster.
As time went on, Wayne became less interested in the spell check world and phased that business out, focusing entirely on games. Mike and Andy eventually left, but Wayne and Doug continued with FTL Games until just a year to two ago, and they even co-authored a book, Java Game Programming for Dummies.
DM was released in 1987 on the ST, and again it became the number one seller - but this time the number one product of all time! I remember being an ST user at the time (but in B&W, so I couldn't play it) and it was used as main lever in the endless platform flame-fests - "oh yeah, well we've got DungeonMaster!" Of course it was then ported to over a dozen different platforms, in six languages. One of these was the Amiga, where it again became the best selling product of all time. It won practically every award for gaming, and had to be forcibly removed from Computer Gaming World's top-10 list after remaining in the #1 spot for a year.
This was followed up in '93 by Dungeonmaster II - The Legend of Skullkeep and again became the #1 seller, but the release was only in Japan. It wasn't until two years later that Interplay finally got around to a US release, and they didn't seem to get it right. While it did well, it wasn't the hit the earlier versions had been.
Adventure and Trading
Pilot the SunDog around the "local group" of stars, fulfilling your uncle's last contract. After that, she's yours to keep. Trade for cash and then use the profits to buy upgrades to the ship in the various starports you visit.
The lead-in story tells of your rescue from a life in the glass mines by a formerly unknown uncle, Brock Dor-Ceed, who recently -and mysteriously- died. In his will he left you his ship, the SunDog. Along with the ship comes its last contract, deliveries to a religious colony on the planet of Jondd. Your mission is to pick up goods for the colony to help it grow, and periodically also ship in the members of the colony, in the form of "cryogens" (people in cold sleep, thus the name of the game) from various planets.
Of course the task isn't easy. For one thing, you have no idea where the colony is, and your first job is to find it. Another problem is that the SunDog is in need of repair, and you're broke. In fact, the game starts with you standing in the ship, which is landed at the spaceport in the Jondd capitol city of Drahew.
Yes, that's right, standing there. This is where SunDog is unlike any game I've ever played, it moves -cleanly- from walking around cities, to blasting your way through space.
What made SunDog work was the first example I've seen of what UI people would today call a scalable interface. SunDog used a series of expanding or contracting pseudo-3D (like the original SimCity) maps which would zoom in or out to show you details on where you were at the time - they called it "Zoomaction". Walking about the streets was about mid-level in terms of zoom level.
The Apple II had a two-button joystick. You used the left button as the 'action' button (pick stuff up, click on menus, follow [move to] the cursor) and the right button as the 'exit' button (to get out of lockers, repair bays, etc.). If you were just wandering around on foot (in the ship, in a city, in a shop) and clicked the right button, your personal display would come up. This would show you what you were carrying, would let you check the time and your location, and would let you save your game to disk and/or exit the game altogether.
- Bruce Webster
The Atari version was largely similar, but used the mouse's two buttons for actions instead of a joystick.
When the game starts you can see a large empty portion at the top of screen, the spaceport, and you can see the SunDog parked there. Clicking on the map would make you - represented by a small white dot or stick figure depending on the zoom level - walk to that point.
First you exit the ship by walking into the airlock and clicking, then there you are standing outside the ship. The city awaits!
When you walked up to the door of a building, a new view of the interior of the building would zoom in on top of the street view. Here you could walk about the interior, and when you walked out the door again the zoomed in map would disappear, leaving you standing in the street just outside the door.
The ship had a number of "hot spots" for running it. Flying and fighting took place from the pilot's chair noted above.
Around the chair were closets for storage, typically you filled one with food, personal weapons and medical supplies, and the other with spare parts for the ship. There was nothing special about them, you just tended to use them that way because that's how they were when you started the game.
At some levels of the display you could interact with objects in the game by dragging icons representing them from one place to another, from a closet to your pocket for instance. Often this would happen on its own, walking up to a closet would also display your "personal display" allowing you to drag things from the closet into your pockets or to wear items.
Walking into the engineering bays displayed a schematic of various systems of the ship using a row of four colored icons. Your ship had a number of systems, warp and sublight engines, guns for fighting, shield generators, scanners and "pilotage" (control systems).
Here again the interface "just worked" incredibly well. When the game started several of these parts were broken, as you could easily see by looking at the 'burnt out' icon. You could drag these out of their place in the parts schematic and replace them with new parts from your pockets.
Each system in the ship was made out of four parts, starting with a 'Control Node' (a computer interface) and then three other parts. You go to the shop, buy the parts, put them in your pockets, then walk back to the ship and take them out of your pockets and put them in place. For a quickly fix you could replace any part except a control node with a multipurpose "shunt", but the system in question would then be less effective. Shunts also had a really bad habit of breaking down in combat, typically when you needed all of your systems working at their best.
At the middle rear was the entrance to the cargo area, which was actually a truck (the "pod") you drove up onto the back of the ship. You could sit at the chair in the truck and then go driving about the cities.
The game was essentially an adventure game with 12 separate missions based around a single goal. The first was to find Banville, somewhere in the outbacks of Jondd. The first thing to do was to go grab some money, and then pop down to the local pub and stock up on food. And don't drink too much beer while you're there, you might pass out and get robbed.
Thus fortified for the long trip you jump in the truck and start heading out of town. After driving some distance out of the city, the display would zoom out to show you a beautifully rendered topographical map of the planet, and you drive around hoping to bump into Banville. The location seemed to be the same every time I went looking, but other players have told me that it moved around.
Of course a road trip was tiring, and this was modeled in the game. You had a number of characteristics as a player, stamina, luck, strength etc. During the game your health was tracked with four little thermometer bars in the corner showing your hunger (nourish), rest, vigor and health. You could stock up with food at a bar, the best items seemed to be the burgers. The trip was a long one and more than once I starved to death before finding the town. When (if) you find the town the first mission was over.
Banville started small, the main buildings were a pub and a commodities exchange. Driving the truck into the later brought up a tickertape where you could buy and sell items as they scrolled past. In Banville they basically wanted to buy, buy, buy, these were items they needed for the town to grow. So off you went to other cities, even on other planets, to find what they wanted for sale in other exchanges. Once you returned all the items listed that mission would be over and a new set of items would appear.
After the return drive to Drahew, it's time to go parts hunting for the ship. When the game starts there's a number of broken parts that you had to replace before she would fly, let alone fly safely and be able to fight its way out of a bad situation. So you pull out the bad parts (using the alcoves mentioned earlier) and make a list of what you'll need. Then you pop off to the local parts store (trial and error to find it) and buy the replacements. Once they are fitted back into the ship, fuel her up and off you go!
Here too SunDog manages to impress. When you sit at the control station and order a takeoff, the view out the screen shows the liftoff, the planet fading away below, and the sky gradually fading to black. Not a bad effect for the time.
There were two planets in the "home" system, Jondd and Heavy, but Heavy wasn't really worth visiting. So it's off to the other systems. Warp travel was affected by local mass, so it was important to get away from planets and stars before starting a trip. This idea of mass effects was likely introduced as a way to force you to fly in normal space for some time (where the fun is!) but it seemed natural anyway. A nice bit of interface coding placed a circle of points around the ship where the jump was completely safe, you could select one of them to fly to by clicking on it as it it were another object (like a planet).
Once reaching a safe point you could call up the warp display and select a destination system from a map, charge up your warp engines, and then off you went. Since charging up your engines took some time and fuel, one common trick was to select your destination while sitting on the ground, charge up your engines, and then top off your tanks again. That way if you were attacked on the way out you could warp out if need be and still had plenty of fuel to burn on you weapons. I always though this was a bit of a cheat, even though I used it all the time!
The first place to fly to was Woremed, a lawless system where you could buy "replacement parts" (wink wink, nudge, nudge) for your ship. But because it was lawless you were constantly getting mugged in the streets (where a high luck or charisma rating helped a lot) and jumped by pirates if you had anything in your holds. After landing, a quick run in the truck to a nearby bar was in order, where you picked up weapons and shields for the streets, scanners, cloakers, gun upgrades, targeting upgrades etc. for the ship.
Here again the detail of the game was amazing. You could walk into the bar and see the people moving about, with the bartender walking around behind the bar.
If you walked up to the bar you'd get served (in order, I guess bars are fairer there) and asked what you wanted. Typically this was a row of icons, beer, hamburgers etc., but there was also another item "info".
Select this and the bartender would ask you what you were looking to do, buy or sell. If you selected "buy" a list of icons would appear, the things that the bartender knew were for offer in the bar. When you selected an item the bartender would ask you to sit at a booth and wait.
So you did, and he went about serving the other customers. But eventually one of the people he talked to at the bar would come over, sit down, and start bartering with you for the item in question! Whenever I saw this in action I would giggle.
I forget some of the details, but I remember being able to walk into bars / stores, ask to buy something, and click after the last item listed. Sometimes there was a hidden item there.
- Mike Newhall
By the time you outfitted the ship and took off again, you didn't care about the pirates, which were now fodder for your auto-slewed concentrated cannon that laughed at their cloaking devices. Heh!
Buying all these goodies cost a lot of cash, so it was also important to make money during the game, here's where basic trading became important. The game includes a complete stock system, so as you'd expect the plan was to fly these items from exchanges that were selling to those that were buying, and make coin on the way. Well, at least that was the plan...
Perhaps my single proudest moment was when I had a SunDog player explain to me how he had figured out how to make money without risking pirates. He wouldn't buy any cargo. Instead, he would buy ship's components on worlds with high tech levels (where they were available) and sell them on worlds with low tech levels (where they weren't). He would fill up the various lockers with these parts and said he could clear CR 50,000 in a single trip.
I was delighted, because I had not consciously designed that into the game. It was a consequence of the 'real world' rules we had set up, and someone had found a way to use them that we hadn't anticipated.
- Bruce Webster
Flying high tech items to low tech systems was a good way to rake in the cash needed for that new auto-slew you just bought. As a result of the big profits on these items, combined with the avoidance of pirates, the commodities side basically faded from the game except when you needed to ship supplies into Banville. A few tweaks with the pricing would have brought the commodities engine back into the game.
You could even get paid for blowing away pirates, although the cost in needed repairs was often too high to make it worthwhile.
And so the game progresses. You load up the needed goods and cryogens, and return them to Banville, battling pirates and thieves all the while. At later levels the game changes subtly, people stop mugging you as much (I suppose you have a rep by then), and retrieving the needed cargo becomes increasingly difficult for a variety of reasons. The last mission requires the ship to be outfitted with a new engine enhancement which was difficult to find, and then drive around a heavily cratered planet attempting to find the city.
If there was something I didn't like about the game it was related to fighting. When fighting on the ground (shooting your way out of being mugged for instance) I found it very hard to get the gun ready to fire, it was a several step process and by the time I was ready I was typically lying on the ground bleeding.
A similar problem happened when fighting pirates, after the fight you had a very brief time in which to tractor-in the contents of their hold, but again it was a multi-step process that I never managed to complete before the ship was space dust. It's possible this was an interface problem, perhaps they never had any cargo in the first place but the program hadn't grayed out the button yet - you get to the screen and see it 'unlight' as it draws the screen.
Another thing I didn't like is that the only place where you saw truly neutral characters was inside buildings, I think it would have been nice to see the cities teaming with cars and people all over the place, not just beggars and muggers, but shoppers and businesspeople on their way to work too.
On a final note, SunDog is the holder of the world's coolest easter egg. One player wrote me and noted that in level 6 a person walked up to him on the street and asked to talk, and the player decided it was pretty safe and let them approach. "Hi" the dot says, "I'm Mike Newton, and I designed some of the modules for this game. I'll bet you 10000 credits you don't make it to the next level." Cool. Bruce later told me a similar easter egg was also in the original Apple II version, but apparently didn't work properly. In that version it was supposed to give you the money right there.
I've talked to a lot of former players when writing this game, and every one will happily tell you it's the best game ever written. I was also surprised when I went looking on Deja for people talking about it, whenever it comes up in a discussion invariably a bunch of people jump into the thread with "oh yeah, that game was great!" or "how do I get it running under emulation, I can't wait to play it again!".
It's been voted to a huge number of "top 10 greatest games" lists on the 'net and was given a PC Gamer's award as one of the best 15 games in history. The author continues to get e-mail about the game now, over 15 years after it was released, and it generates at least one e-mail with a new tip or trick to me every month.
SunDog was so far ahead of its time it's hard to believe it came out in '84. Simply put it's one of the best games ever written, joining other superb efforts from FTL like DungeonMaster.
I never finished SunDog, so my review above is less than perfect. Still I hope it captures the flavor of this unique game well enough to inspire the new game authors out there to do better than yet another Wing Commander.
The SunDog Project is Bruce Webster's own page dedicated to the game.
The SunDog Information Page is Ian Hadfield’s great page for the game. It's got maps, pictures, an FAQ, and the complete manual turned into HTML form.
Sundog: Frozen Legacy is a simple page containing pictures of both the high level planet maps and individual maps of all of the cities. The link to his homepage is broken though.
Tim Brooks wrote the SunDog Page page many moons ago, but then lost the password so he couldn't update the site. The page didn't say who had written it, but he recently found this page and dropped me a mail. Since then he's started another page with more info, here.
Heritage/Dwarfstar Games is a small page with some descriptions on the various Drawfstar games, including Star Smuggler.
Bruce Webster first and foremost. Thank you for bringing us all SunDog, and all your help with this article.
Dave Webster (no relation!) for a number of helpful hints.