Okay, I’m not gonna lie, I’m pretty excited about this.
When I was a kid I used to play a game on my friend’s computer. I remembered it was kinda a platformer but in a spaceship with a slight Metroid vibe. Your character was a spaceman or robot or something. We used to call it “Discovery” but I couldn’t remember if that was its real name or something we made up.
I was never able to find a shred of information about it on the internet and every now and then I’d remember about it and try to Google it, to no avail. I even asked about it and described it on the old forum in a thread dedicated to identifying games but nobody could help me there either.
Anyway I had my birthday recently so my family were over tonight for dinner. For some reason my brother and I got talking about old stuff (Animorphs, Diadem, and some other weird stuff) then he brings up this game again, but he remembers something else (that you had to answer quiz questions to proceed through doors).
I decided to try Googling it for what must be the bajillionth time, but this time I type “80s game space ship discovery quiz” and start scrolling through Google image search. Then I see this picture…
So I hold it up to show my brother saying “That’s it right?” and we both start yelling and freakin out cos we have both tried searching for it so many times. The picture leads me to this page in which the creator details some of his work…
In any case, Jim wanted a new program that he could sell. He showed me an educational program on the C-64 called “Cave of the Word Wizard”, in which a boy is lost in a maze-like series of caverns and has to answer various spelling challenges (using sampled audio to speak the word to be spelled) in order to proceed. “I want something just like that.” he said.
Well, I didn’t want to make an exact copy of someone else’s game idea, but I said I could come up with something similar. Instead of a cave, I set the game in the corridors of a crashed space ship, and I would add math and other types of quizzes as well as spelling.
Instead of a wizard, the challenger would be the ship’s computer, and I wanted a choice of protagonists — a boy, a girl, a robot and an alien.
I called this game “Discovery”. This was a reference to the educational nature of the game, but also paid homage to the space ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey .
I asked Jim for an advance of a couple of thousand dollars so that I could get a place to stay — I ended up renting a room from the mother of someone I knew from LASFS (Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society). The most vivid thing I remember about this place was the swarms of june bugs, and having to gently shoo the ochre-colored insects off of my Amiga keyboard when I wanted to type.
Discovery was written in 4 months, using the Manx C compiler, with a few time-critical functions written in 68000 assembly language.
I had a basic knowledge of figure drawing and cartooning— at one point I wanted to be a comic book artist, and I had books on animation techniques. I’d also done some freelance work as a mural and sign painter before joining the Air Force and becoming a programmer. This experience came in very handy, as I was able to do the background art and character animation myself in Deluxe Paint, which had just been released. (Although the source code has long since been lost, I do have the original DPaint art files around somewhere.)
For the music, I wrote a very rudimentary music editor which I called “Musica”. This let you place notes on a piano-roll style grid with the mouse, and you could construct sounds using drawbars (similar to a Hammond organ, which I was very familiar with), and modify the dynamics of the notes using ADSR (Attack/Decay/Sustain/Release) envelopes.
Jim hired a graphic artist to do the packaging. Unfortunately, the guy he hired wasn’t very good at spelling — there were several glaring spelling errors on the front and back covers of the package! This was rather embarrassing for a game that is supposed to be about spelling things correctly. Also unfortunately, no one showed me the package until it had already been printed, so it was too late.
At this point, Jim decided that rather than selling this product through KJ computers — which was a retail store — he would split off a separate software publishing company which he called MicroIllusions.
Initially, it was just him as CEO, and his girlfriend Sherry who did all the accounting. I wasn’t an employee — all of the programmers would be contractors and earn a royalty, so that Jim could avoid things like payroll tax. (My take for Discovery was 3% of gross I think.) The contracts I signed handed over all intellectual property to MicroIllusions — however, the contracts were so badly written as to be essentially unenforceable (as I later learned).
(Years later I bought the rights back, but that’s another long story.)
Discovery did fairly well, although because it was an educational game it didn’t have a big sales spike at the beginning. Jim informed me that educational games tend to be ‘evergreen’, that is they aren’t hits but they sell for a long time.
Now that I knew it existed and was indeed called Discovery, I could do a bit more prying, though it’s still kinda difficult to Google.
I did find someone playing it on Amiga on YouTube though:
So there’s my 20+ year mystery solved. Just thought I’d share.