Feb 17, 2019
I wrote this for Emilie Reed's Lost Histories Jam, which asked participants to explore a subject they felt was overlooked in game history. The rules for the jam specified drawing from firsthand experience, which was a major reason why I picked this topic. I don't think I would have naturally otherwise, but as I thought it over I realized that it does connect to issues I think are relevant to games today, as you'll see.
Update 3-6-21: In the time since this was published Ambrosia fully went the way of the dodo; in fact, their website shut down only a few months afterwards. The Internet Archive has some of their page backed up but I worry that a lot of the mods they hosted and old newsletters and things might be lost to the public Web for the time being—maybe a fan archive will coalesce. On the bright side, their games are available on Macintosh Garden if you're curious to play them.
Ambrosia Software, Inc. was one of the heaviest players in the world of '90s Macintosh shareware. If you played games at all on a '90s Mac, the odds are good that you knew who they were. However, they gradually faded from view over the course of the OS X era, and always had a much more obscure Windows presence, so I've written this in the hopes that knowledge of them and what they represented can make it to a wider audience than '90s Mac users. Their story opens a window on an interesting landscape—one in which there was a distinction made between shareware and commercial as opposed to AAA and indie, and in which modding and player-created content was prioritized.
Although I refer to them in the past tense, they've never officially gone out of business, but I get the impression they're no longer really active. Their website is still up at the time of this writing, albeit with a now-invalid SSL certificate.
In the Mac game scene of the '90s, almost everyone was a hobbyist, because the Mac was a niche platform and developing for Windows was more profitable. Popular games like Burning Rubber or Glider were written by single individuals, presumably with little expectation of making a large profit (both of those game's authors now give them away free, as you can see). Ambrosia stood out as an actual professional company, with a handful of full-time employees, and their games had a certain level of glitz as a result that set them apart.
However, they still had an unabashedly "shareware" aesthetic—many of their classic arcade clones are loud and irreverent, with a silly collage approach to sound effects, cute prerendered 3D sprites, and minimalistic UIs. Even their most ambitious titles have a rough, handmade quality. What their professionalism got them was particularly tight and inventive mechanics and an unusually large amount of media and content as shareware games went.
Still, there are some interesting parellels to be drawn between their output and that of more full-throatedly corporate organizations. In particular, they frequently employed a strategy of taking a well-liked game and cloning it, tightening up the mechanics, adding extra features, and giving it their own distinctive aesthetic flair. This prompts a comparison to Blizzard, who achieved mass-market success with a similar strategy. Although this may be a reliable way to build an audience, it's hard to imagine an Ambrosia-scale studio carving out a strong presence in the MOBA, MMO, or battle royale sorts of spaces of today where those dynamics are still common.
However, I think it's fair to say that they had a different set of motivations in making gussied-up clones than Blizzard. Back in the '80s, when there was a number of different popular platforms with their own OS lineages and hardware architectures, it was common for someone making a game to take a well-liked game on one platform and make their own version of it on another platform. This was less in the spirit of cribbing someone else's work than it was an effort to do a good turn to the user community of the destination platform, who might be pining for the original game. A contemporary version of this situation still exists in the Linux world, where there are hobbyist-made open-source versions of many classics from other platforms (you can take a gander at the games available on Debian for some examples).
The Macintosh was one of the available platforms during that period in the '80s, and this cloning tendency persisted in the game community there well into the '90s, when Macs were the only surviving alternatives to IBM-PC-type computers after Commodore's departure. Often, Ambrosia was releasing into an existing field of clones for a given game, and their goal was seemingly to make the "definitive", most-fun clone out of those available.
Speaking personally, I'd say they succeeded in getting their games treated this way. If you wanted a Mac version of something like Galaxian or Centipede in the mid-'90s, and weren't worried about perfectly emulating the original arcade game, theirs was generally the top choice, especially since you could just download their games off the Internet and play them for free. If I came across a Mac in the wild at the time, I was surprised if it didn't have a copy of Maelstrom or Swoop or the like on it, even in offices.
Their games were just nagware at the time, meaning that they came fully-featured; unregistered copies simply had an annoying notice reminding you to register that you had to leave open for a number of seconds before playing. This changed with Escape Velocity, which had a pirate named after the founder's pet parrot who would hunt down and destroy the ships of unregistered players after a while. Along with this switch to "crippled" demos came greater scale and ambition in their games, moving from relatively simple action and action-puzzle titles to adventure games, CRPGs, full-length shmups and the like. I imagine this was due to the strong reputation they had built up in their first few years, which allowed them to branch out, and be more aggressive in their pursuit of cash.
Heres a list of their games from 1994–2002 that are based on other games, which is most of them, along with the games they were riffing on. None of the links made in this chart are official; Ambrosia never openly stated the game they were working from, presumably for copyright and licensing reasons. For a few games, the connection I drew is a "best fit" and there are a handful of other similar titles that probably played an inspirational role. In most cases, though, the connection is unambiguous.
|Maelstrom, 1994||Asteroids, 1979, arcade|
|Chiral, 1994||Atomino, 1990, Amiga|
|Apeiron, 1995||Centipede, 1981, arcade|
|Swoop, 1995||Galaxian, 1979, arcade|
|Barrack, 1996||JezzBall, 1992, Windows|
|Bubble Trouble, 1996||Pengo, 1982, arcade|
|Escape Velocity, 1996||Starflight, 1986, IBM PC|
|Mars Rising, 1998||Raiden, 1990, arcade|
|Slithereens, 1998||Serpentine, 1982, Apple II|
|Cythera, 1999||Ultima VII, 1994, DOS|
|pop-pop, 2002||Arkanoid, 1986, arcade|
Escape Velocity spawned two sequels, EV Override, 1998, and EV Nova, 2002, that hew closely to the mechanics of the original but have unique universes and storylines. Similarly, Mars Rising got a sequel in Deimos Rising, 2001.
Ferazel's Wand, 1999, is in the Metroidvania vein but doesn't seem to me to be obviously based on any particular earlier game in that genre.
They also released a game called Harry the Handsome Executive in 1997 that I'm not sure has any particular precedent. It's a top-down action-puzzle-adventure game with a lot of writing and a bespoke physics system. You scoot and glide around in a swivel chair.
How closely they hewed to the games they were inspired by varied widely. Most of their early games closely retain the mechanics of their inspirations, but "dress them up", adding more powerups, a nicer control scheme, fresh graphics and sound, and so on, similar to Arkanaoid's approach to Breakout. Their later games go further afield; for instance, pop-pop is a 1v1 multiplayer game with characters and netplay, and although Cythera roughly retains Ultima VII's look and mechanics it has a Hellenistic setting and an original story. The Escape Velocity series has a lot in common with Starflight, but plays quite differently—combat happens in main play instead of a special mode, there's no planetary surface exploration or mining, most planets are inhabited, etc., making the focus almost exclusively on exploration and story.
Going into the Aughts, they began to focus more on publishing other people's games than developing their own. They also worked on porting their most popular '90s titles to OS X and their most popular OS X games to Windows. I lost track of them sometime around the mid-Aughts, when the demands of an intensive high school cut into the time I might've spent playing games before; I think the last game they released that I played at length was Uplink. As it happens, their game-making activities dropped off not long after—they released a handful of iPhone and iPad games and then stopped, with Hypnoblocks as their last game release in 2011. While they were still around in the 2010s, they focused on supporting their utility software; apparently, Snapz Pro, a screen recorder, was their best seller out of anything they ever made, at least as of 2002.
For all of their "Classic"-era Mac OS games and a handful of their OS X ones, Ambrosia hosted (technically, still hosts) user-made mods and supplemental files on their website. The mods would change the graphics or sounds, add extra levels, or even make new games using the original as a base, while the supplemental files might be things like music files ripped from the games or user-written walkthroughs. Ambrosia was happy to facilitate this kind of activity even beyond hosting the files, releasing their own in-house level editors and writing detailed technical documentation for modders in some cases (see this document for EV Nova for example).
People made use of these resources. Ambrosia's arcade-style games generally had a handful of mods available that changed the graphics and sounds and the like, but some of their later games had much more elaborate mods available. Their Escape Velocity series of space exploration games in particular had a very enthusiastic modding community, with hundreds of mods available for each game that added new planets, ships, missions and storylines, and even total conversion mods that replaced the entire universe. At the time, I loved this aspect of their game library, and once I felt like I had gotten my fill of one of their games I would always start applying mods to it or even making my own.
In this day and age, it might seem strange for a company as niche as Ambrosia to go to such lengths to facilitate modding, or for their fans to actually step up and do it. In the pre-OS-X Mac scene, though, the ability to edit levels or use user-made plugins were typical, expected features of even the smallest games. This was partially due to the design of Mac OS itself, which made modding many games very easy with little to no technical knowledge, even games the creators hadn't explicitly coded with modding in mind. Because of this, many Mac users who were into games got used to modding them, and Ambrosia was just playing to the culture by making it especially easy. At the time, I felt that it was a mark against a game if it didn't permit modding; as such, I felt Ambrosia's efforts in this regard weren't strange, but just another example of them going the extra mile. It goes to show how different of a cultural space it was compared to the indie world of today, where games are often hermetically-sealed executables and things like level editors or modding systems are rare outside of games built around them.
This is the picture that Andrew Welch, the founder and president of Ambrosia, included with his "President's Letter" column in the company's bimonthly Ambrosia Times newsletter for most of its run. In one of his first entries, dated September 1994, he describes his company as one of the "pioneers of the electronic frontier," inviting his readers to join with him and all the makers of shareware in "[ushering] in a new age of software distribution."
At the time, people perceived a yawning gulf between the worlds of shareware and "commercial" software, the kind sold in boxes at brick-and-mortar stores or through mail order (see the relevant appendix for more on this). Ambrosia was doggedly comitted to going against the pack as a shareware studio, even as some of their fans regularly encouraged them to "go commercial" on the basis that their games were too good to stay mired in the "unprofessional" swamp of shareware. They felt that they were blazing the path of the future by distributing their games over the Internet, allowing them to release them on their own terms and at lower prices than their "commercial" competitors.
If you were a shareware purist of a sort, though, you could say that Ambrosia compromised their principles over time. By switching from fully-featured "nagware" to giving out "crippled" demo versions of their software simply in pursuit of more cash, many of their early fans thought they'd betrayed the ideals that made them special. Eventually, they even sold their game Ferazel's Wand on CD, offering a demo version for download that had nothing else on it to unlock, in a contradiction of Welch's early manifesto. They were still just a company, and profit was their primary goal, whatever other principles they may or may not have been attached to.
Of course, they were right about Internet-based distribution being the way of the future. I imagine many of us would struggle to remember the last time we traveled to a computer store to buy a PC game in a box. Whether that's worth waxing revolutionary about I'm not so sure, since there are still huge disparities in access between large software companies and small-scale or individual makers, but we can give them credit for reading the signs on the wind.
One thing that really stands out to me, thinking about this, is just how different things were in the space of "small games" at that time and on that platform. I don't feel like I really came to appreciate it until I starting writing this, but as I reflected back on that period it really struck me: the cultural divisions were different, the economics were different, the political issues were different, the audience expectations were different, and on and on. If nothing else, I think that should be a reminder to all of us that none of the present dynamics will last forever—the hills that people passionately die on today will be the quaintly amusing relics of tomorrow.
I also admire us for having developed some sort of vague class consciousness today. It still feels tepid and underrealized at best in most corners of the game world, but clearly we've come so far since the '90s. I think the main thing that seems silly to me about Ambrosia's noble affect as a shareware developer is my sense that there's nothing really that radical about the specific mechanism through which you charge money for proprietary, for-profit games—as their story demonstrates, it all just ends up being business decisions in the end. I still think the world of games is way, way too blinkered by commercialism from top to bottom, but the fact that it's even possible for people to think such thoughts is a sign of our immense progress, perhaps.
On the other hand, I really admire the widespread modding and user-made content practices that existed then in the Mac space. Aside from the enabling specifics of that operating system, I think part of the reason those practices aren't as common now is because it's much easier to make your own games from scratch now than it was then, which is great. At the same time, sticking your hands in the innards of a game you love is a wonderful experience, especially for children, and it feels largely inaccessible now for most games without technical knowledge that children are unlikely to have. Most of the same popular engines that make it so easy to make games today also generate applications that are not at all amenable to modding by default, and I'd like for that to change.
Shareware is a distribution model for software that probably had its heyday in the '80s and '90s, first on BBSes and then the Web. The basic concept is that the author(s) of a program release a version of it not only free of cost, but also free to distribute, or "share". They may even permit others to charge money for this version; CDs chock-full of shareware were sold on the cheap at computer stores back in the '90s. However, this free version comes with a catch—it regularly prompts the user to pay, making it "nagware", or is missing features or content present in the full version of the program, making it "crippleware", or other such things.
In its heyday, large companies generally distributed their software on physical media and sold them in stores or through mail order. Hobbyists, moonlighters, very small studios, and the like generally didn't have access to these distributions networks and the large amount of cash required to distribute their software through them. Instead, they used the Internet, and hoped that by making their software shareware they could leave it to others to pass it around.
Most developers distributing their software in this manner didn't hope to make a lot of money from it. Some distributed their software as even more liberal "postcardware", asking that the user send a postcard to the developer if they liked the program, or "beerware", asking that the user buy the developer a beer if they ever met in person. Organizations like Ambrosia, making shareware full-time, were the exception rather than the rule.
Today, developers who might have made shareware in the '90s are more likely to distribute their games on a pay-what-you-want model or for $1–$5 on sites like itch.io and Gamejolt, and the production of free "demo" versions of games that cost money has become rare. In the shareware heyday, online software distribution hubs like Cnet or Tucows didn't really do e-commerce, so developers hoping to make any money from their software had to manage that themselves. Now, a lot of hobbyist developers don't even host their own webpages; everything is more centralized, automatic, and corporation-run, for better or worse. Also, sites like YouTube and Twitch have made it easier for people to get an idea of what a game is like without buying it. I think that's a poor substitute for getting to play a game yourself, but on the bright side it saves developers a lot of work.
Apple originally released its Macintosh line of computers in 1984 as easy-to-use models for the general public. The operating system written to go with them featured a graphical interface, designed to be used with a mouse as well as a keyboard, which was unusual at the time. This operating system was continuously updated through 1999, and then gradually replaced by Mac OS X, which first came out in 2001 and was radically different in both architecture and philosophy.
It didn't acquire the name Mac OS until 1996; before that, it was simply known as "System Software" or "System". I first used a Mac in the mid-90s, so I'm in the habit of calling it Mac OS.
It heavily emphasized graphical interaction, to the point of lacking a command-line interface. Many first- and third-party system components were handled through a feature called "extensions", by which code could be directly patched into the OS. These extensions could come into conflict with each other and cause all sorts of problems, even to the point of keeping the system from booting up. It also had problems with memory management—it was possible for programs to clobber data other programs had stored on the heap, and pointers could become stale due purely to underlying system activity if the programmer was not careful. All of these attributes contributed to a general atmosphere of technical inelegance, especially from a developer or IT perpsective, and resulted in a lot of instability from a user's standpoint.
I remember spending hours troubleshooting problems in the OS with thick reference tomes at hand, looking up obscure error codes, disabling extensions, restoring system components from install disks, and the like, after doing something as innocuous as installing a few commercial programs. More adventurous activities could cause even worse problems—I once embarked on a mission to completely reskin the operating system and ended up having to reinstall it fresh halfway through. It generally felt fragile; when OS X came around, Apple heavily emphasized its rock-solid UNIX-based stability to entice users to upgrade.
However, it came with a rather visionary set of utilities designed to foster creativity and experimentation in the OS's users. The most famous of these today is probably HyperCard, an accessible tool for building applications. Other significant applications include MacPaint, a raster graphics editor, and MacWrite, a WYSIWYG word processor. The one closest to my heart is probably ResEdit, which I write about below, although I also had a ton of fun with its speech synthesis engine and its automation-oriented scripting language AppleScript.
Perhaps the most wonderful thing about it to me was the atmosphere of freewheeling experimentation it had. The OS felt open to you; it was easy to break, but also easy to modify. Applications were also heavily customizable. It was a great place to poke around and get your hands dirty, and I learned a huge amount about working with computers that way (especially when I broke things). I still get butterflies in my stomach thinking about the thrill of possibility it gave me.
I think Mac OS X was a very closed, suspicious-of-the-user sort of OS by comparison. When it started to become less stable in the early-mid 2010s I switched to Arch Linux, through which I rediscovered the joy of exploration and user-driven change as an adult, and I've never missed macOS since.
ResEdit was a resource editor for Mac OS in the pre-OS-X era, developed by Apple and bundled along with the operating system as a developer tool. Its history is rather poorly documented, and would make a good research project in-and-of-itself. Wikipedia claims its first release was in the "mid-1980s", which might imply that it shipped along with the original System 1 OS, but there's no citation given. It played a central role in the thriving modding scene that existed around many Mac games.
The file systems Apple developed for "Classic" Mac OS, MFS and HFS, treated the concept of a fork in an unusual manner. A fork is a set of data that is not itself a file but rather is associated with a file in a filesystem. It may contain data integral to the file such as the text of a text file, metadata like the file's creation date, or "ancillary" data like graphics and dialog box text for an executable. Most filesystems that use forks have only one for each file, but MFS and HFS had two, the data fork and the resource fork.
The data fork contained data integral to a file, like the text of a text file or the bitmap of an image file. The resource fork contained "ancillary" data, like text for dialogue boxes, sounds, graphics, and the like. Many executables put nothing in their data fork and stored all of their media in their resource fork.
ResEdit provided an easy-to-use GUI for editing the contents of a file's resource fork. It included a simple bitmap editor for things like icons, a hex editor, tools for building menus and dialog boxes, a basic WYSIWYG text editor, and so on (see this reference manual for a deeper look). Anything in any file's resource fork was fair game, meaning that everything from small, casually made games to the system files of the OS itself could be easily modded with little technical expertise. Games could usually be reskinned without the developer needing to add any special systems for doing this, and some developers even structured the level data, dialog, and mechanical configuration of their games to make them amenable to editing with ResEdit. At best, ResEdit could be used to make total conversion mods.
For me, this was an amazing and exhilirating aspect of using Mac OS back in the '90s, and one that seems sadly antithetical now to Apple's contemporary "walled garden" mentality. I don't know of any widely-used file or operating system at the current time that builds easy user customization of software into its structure at such a basic level. Some of my earliest experiences "making games" were changing the graphics, sounds, and text on my favorite shareware games; for instance, I remember that my friend Gerry Salinas and I made a reskin of Burning Rubber called Magnifying Adventures in which you played as a giant flying magnifying glass, burning everything below you.
I really wish that a contemporary, accessible engine like Unity or Godot would come along that made it easy to store a game's graphics, sound, text, layout, physics settings, etc. in this sort of easily-accessible-and-modifiable manner. The developers of such an engine could also distribute a ResEdit-like tool that made it straightforward to change these things without technical knowledge, or even just arrange all this material on the filesystem in a standard and intuitive manner. I also think it would be wonderful if more games were open-source and had publicly-available project folders, on that note. All of these things would do a lot to get kids and novices into making games on their own terms, and would add a lot of interesting and unpredictable life to games that would otherwise be enlivened only by their original creators.