Bob Bates interview 1

Bob Bates interview

Ingmar: I’d like to get to the games now that you designed for Legend. Let’s start with TIMEQUEST. Please share some anecdotes about the creation of that game.

Bob: TIMEQUEST (always with capital letters, of course), was the first game I designed after leaving Infocom. I wanted to use it to prove that there was still a market for the “pure” adventure game, one whose mainspring was intricate but scrupulously fair puzzles.

I have always been fascinated by major turning points in history – especially those which have mysteries surrounding them. How did Cortez land in Mexico with 500 men and 16 horses and conquer the Aztec nation of over a half-million people? Why did Hitler stop the advance on Dunkirk and allow the British to evacuate over 330,000 men? In 452, Attila the Hun was advancing on Rome, having laid waste to most of Northern Italy. Pope Leo the Great rode out to meet him, alone, and the two of them went into a tent. Hours later when they emerged, Attila rode away! Why? What went on in that tent?

TIMEQUEST, in the guise of a science fiction game where the bad guy is trying to destroy history, allowed me to play with ten of those mysteries.

I never meant for the game to be especially hard, but early testing revealed that people found it very difficult. Originally, I just set up the Interkron (the time travel machine) and turned the player loose. Soon I realized I had to provide more bread crumbs and I ended up leading the player a considerable distance into the game – or so I thought – but it still probably wasn’t far enough.

What I wanted for the game was for it to be a set of perfectly interlocking puzzles that all interacted seamlessly with each other. To solve each of the mysteries, the player had to travel to lots of different places, and my favorite puzzles were the ones where the player had to do something in an early year, and return to the same location in a later year to reap the benefits of his earlier action.

I enjoyed the research. I enjoyed the historical accuracy of the game. (Interesting side note:  At the time TIMEQUEST was being developed, our distributor was Microprose. I used to visit their headquarters outside of Baltimore and occasionally see the games they had in development. One of them was a history-oriented game, but it wasn’t at all historically accurate, and I didn’t think it would ever go anywhere. I asked the designer what it was going to be called. Sid Meier said he was going to call it “Civilization.” You may have heard of it.)

It took a long time in development before the theme of the game actually emerged. Most of my games have an underlying theme, although it’s often so subtle that it’s easily missed. For this game, it emerged with the development of a location I called the academy, and the instructor(s) who taught there. At the very end of the game, the final puzzle is a nice Heinlein-inspired figure 8, where the player meets himself coming and going and the importance of the academy to history is revealed.

TIMEQUEST was started at the same time as Steve Meretzky’s Spellcasting 101. Originally, we planned to release both of them at the same time, in the fall of 1990. I forget now why we delayed my game into 1991. Steve’s was probably further along. As you might imagine, there are cross-references between the games, probably the most blatant of which is that my villain’s name – Zeke S. Vettenmyer – is an anagram of Steven E. Meretzky.

The most vivid memory I have of making the game is that my son, Alex, was born on the twenty-first of May in 1990, while the game was still in development. My wife had to stay in the hospital for several days afterward and so I would go down to stay there with the two of them. They both slept a lot, and I remember sitting on the floor with my laptop on my knees, coding puzzles, and being very, very happy.

Ingmar: What’s your background in sci-fi that inspired you to create the game?

Bob: The science fiction authors that I love are the early masters – Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, and Bradbury. When you combine that with a love of the classic mystery writers like Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, etc., you get a game like TIMEQUEST.

There actually wasn’t much science fiction to it, other than the basic premise of time travel. The player doesn’t actually go to any cities in the future, the entire adventure is played out in the past.

There is one strong nod to Heinlein, however. The final puzzle in the game, where the player sees himself coming and going, was strongly influenced by Heinlein’s short stories “By His Bootstraps” and “All You Zombies.”

Ingmar: Let’s get to Eric the Unready now. Please share your memories of developing the game.

Bob: Eric the Unready was the only game whose inspiration came to me “in a flash.” I remember I was on vacation, walking along a beach in South Carolina, when suddenly the fully-formed idea of a bumbling knight as the hero of an adventure game popped into my head. He was named just as quickly. I’ve always thought the name of the early English king “Ethelred the Unready” was funny, even though our modern rendering of his name is inaccurate. He was actually called “The Unreedy”, which means “ill-advised.”

One of the hardest parts of getting the game off the ground was convincing other people in the company that I had enough of a fantasy background to write a fantasy game. I had never read as much fantasy as sci-fi, and so I had a lot of catching up to do. In particular, I am a traitor to my generation in that I was never in love with Tolkien and found his books a bit of a slog to get through. (Even now, I feel the urge to duck as I imagine the brickbats being thrown my way as I admit this). Nevertheless, I plowed ahead and became a casual fan of the genre.

Developing the game itself was a delight, certainly one of the highlights of my career in terms of enjoying my work. By this time, under Duane’s tutelage, I was proficient enough in C to be doing the writing, the designing, and the coding of the game logic. I’ve never had more fun. And of course, the game itself was light and not at all serious. There are over a thousand jokes in there. It’s the only adventure game that I worked on where, if there was a conflict between adhering to strict design principles and the opportunity to make the player laugh, I opted for the laugh every time.

My most vivid memory of the game was its final week of development, during which we worked pretty much around the clock for the entire week, capped off by flying to the West Coast with the Gold Masters, on my birthday.

Ingmar: Eric was a 180-degree turn from the hard sci-fi from TIMEQUEST. Why comedy this time?

Bob: I have always written comedy, going all the way back to college where I wrote a weekly humor column for the school newspaper. When I graduated, my very first business idea was to publish a humor magazine that would be distributed to the several colleges in the DC area. That idea never got off the drawing board, but when I look at The Onion today, I think about an opportunity missed.

Obviously I was a huge fan of Steve Meretzky’s work, and I loved Douglas Adams, Monty Python, and Terry Pratchett. So the thought of doing a comic fantasy game seemed very natural to me.

(I have copies of some of those old columns lying around, by the way. I just took a look at them. They’re not very good.)

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Ingmar Böke
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