|Commonwealth Software was established in 1983 by Adam West, Dan Schnake, and Dale King. Adam West explains: "Commonwealth Software began when Dan Schnake and I were in high school. Like many in the early 80's, we were taken by computer games. Dan with his C64 and me with my Apple II+. I was working through some notes about creating a computer version of Dungeons and Dragons combined with some Infocom-like mechanics. Dan and I talked it over, he had some really good ideas on how to improve things and well, off we went. We didn't really have a company back then, but that's how things started. The name "Commonwealth" came off a billboard sign in Bloomington, Indiana when Dan and I were driving to Indiana University.|
Influences were all the computer games of that day. In my memory, Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure was the first game I saw on the Apple that made me see what was possible. Infocom brought meaning to computer games. They were (and remain) amazing feats.
Much of the influence was from D&D directly. I'm talking about the first hardback Dungeon Master's guide with that appendix that had tables on how to make your own dungeon by rolling dice. My inspiration was to make a game that even the programmer could play. That meant random dungeons. And I filled spiral notebooks with details on how this could be done. "
The company released two games. The first was Bronze Dragon: Conquest of Infinity, which was followed by Dragon Side II: The Twisted Speare. Work was begun on an additional module for Bronze Dragon, which was never released: "The first module that came with the game, Seekers of the Storm, was imagined as a three part series. We spec'd out the second one called the Burning Storm which expanded on the Wizard's Circle and a few new key figures, but never got it off the ground. It really was pretty cool in concept."
Adam West adds: "Dale King and I did the programming. Dale without doubt was better at this than me and did some essential work in the compiler. He got deep into how the Apple computer parsed programs and together, we came up with the trick that made BD what it was: parsing up a text file and executing a short program snip at runtime. That opened up the game possibilities like nothing I've seen since.
Dan was all about the text. He wrote zillions of lines and got pretty sick of figuring out how to describe rooms and monsters in just a few dozen characters. But he was really good at it.
We programmed (yes!) in Applesoft Basic. Well, in the end, it was a modified version because we did some things that you couldn't normally do in Applesoft. Yes, there were bits of assembly language as I recall. Development took probably 4 years start to shrink wrap. That's about how long it takes for us to develop any game we make even though the technology has change dramatically in the last 20 years.
For a while we considered converting to C64 since Dan was keen on that platform. But it never happened.
We paid for and packaged each game ourselves. We ran off... oh, I don't know... a few hundred at a time. We got some good deals with a local printer for the packaging (which changed probably 3-4 times over the run of the game). It started off as a folder and worked it's way up to a tri-fold package. Pretty nice in the last incarnation. And we shrinkwrapped them at a local game store that also sold several dozen copies for us.
I think we sold somewhere around 700-800 copies of Bronze Dragon at $34.95 per copy. I think we sold around 200-300 copies of DS II. But strangely enough, we never made more than a few hundred dollars profit. We were just young college guys by this time and didn't have a lick of business sense. Still, it felt good."
Much of the games were sold directly through advertising in Computer Gaming World magazine: "In my memory, CGW was THE computer magazine of that day. I subscribed to it and remember seeing these little ads in the mag. So I just called them and found out how much charged. After selling a few locally, we bought an ad. They were really, really great to work with. They treated us like royalty and always called to ask how things were going, could they help us in any way, would we buy a larger ad this month.... it was a wonderful run.
Then they did a first review of it - I don't remember being told it was happening, it just did. And when I read it, I was pretty disappointed. It wasn't a good review, it was kinda dismissive of what we'd accomplished. Sure, by that point (this would have been 1987 or 88), there were many much better games than ours. Ultima 3 was out, Wizardry 3 or 4 was out. I can see their point, but still, not a very good review."
But one day, Scorpia called us directly. I mean - right to my house! Dale and I were there and I can't remember if I actually talked with Scorpia, but Dale did and gave out a lot of hints on how to finish things. Apparently, Scorpia was stuck in the Seekers of the Storm module and a few of the random dungeons. This was when Dragon Side II was out, so Scorpia was going to review that *and* Bronze Dragon in one shot. We were thrilled. That review was terrific and very, very complimentary. Scorpia got it. I still have a copy of that magazine.
Something else that was interesting: I did have some talks with folks at Origin at the time. I can't remember names anymore, but they were clearly watching what we were doing. I also recall talking on the phone to them at least once and one of their designers (it wasn't Richard Garriot). We eventually traded games. They gave us a free copy of Ultima 3 and we gave them a free copy of BD. Very friendly really. They were being nice and maybe doing some market research or something. It showed how much they were thinking about making games back then.
I just remember one day working on BD's list of monsters, slogging through text files like crazy and thinking: is this worth it? God show me a sign because I'm about to give all this up! And (ring) Scorpia calls and (pop) a letter comes in from Origin. No kidding - it was the same day! I've never looked back after that. It's clearly worth it!".
Today, Adam and Dan still develop and publish games as Crosscut Games. When asked if this was still a hobby and how the computer gaming world had changed, Adam had the following to say: "Still a hobby. I love it, though. I'll likely be making games forever. It'll be great being in the old folk's home and working on my next game.
As for how things have changed, that's pretty clear. The tools of today are amazing. So coding and graphics - anybody can do it if they set their mind to it. But the time and talent needed to make a game - I think that's pretty much the same. Ideas haven't gotten any easier. Originality isn't any easier. And it still flat out takes time to create content.
The other big thing: the internet. Two impacts here. Marketing is infinitely cheaper. It's not easy for a newbie to find their market, but there are avenues. It's good and bad because back in the 80's, you advertise in CGW and you've reached your audience. Now - what web page do you go to? Will you reach the same people? Will you reach your market? But if you reach them, it's dirty cheap to deliver the product electronically. Pennies. It would cost me $10-$12 bucks per unit in the early 80's. You'd have to sell to retailers at $15-$17. So you'd make maybe $4-$5 per unit. Today, you can set a price point of $19.95 and make $12-$15 per unit.
The other thing the internet has done is make it easier to collaborate. I can find an artist, musician, people to market and sell, web magazine editors, even folks to convert your game - all with a few key strokes. Not to mention the interaction with customers! You can almost speak directly with them every instant of the day, every day. Good and bad, but over all, very good.
Everything has changed, but making a game in the end is still very tough. It still takes sweat and tenacity - pure determination - to get a game started and seen to completion."
Bronze Dragon and Dragon Side II were graciously released as freeware a few years ago.