Wednesday 10 October 2012

Interviews: The past and future of Sword of Fargoal with Jeff McCord.

As you have notice, this is another part of a series of articles I'm dedicating to Sword of Fargoal. As well as I consider this game a landmark in the CRPGs history and I was equally surprised to see that Jeff McCord, the programmer of the original version, is still involved in the development of his original creation on all new systems (like iOS). I managed to contact Jeff straight away to investigate more about the genesis of the original version and new Sword of Fargoal 2 .

Everything started from Gammaquest II which was developed, if I’m not wrong, only on PET Commodore. What are your memories about it?

It was a great time in my life. Because the PET computers were new to the whole school, we high school kids were learning at the same time as the math teacher, Mr. Silar, who I believe was impressed on what we kids were able to figure out.

Remember, this is the time of new fads, like Asteroid in the malls, the first Star Wars, and there was even a student from Hungary who brought over a Rubik’s Cube back before it had really hit in the United States. I remember, in addition to ‘decoding’ these new computers, we had collectively figured out how to solve the Rubik’s Cube back before there were even solutions published. In retrospect we accomplished some challenging tasks!

Our teacher had obviously developed some trust in us, because he began letting some of us stay late after school with keys to the Computer Lab. It was there that I first started programming (in BASIC), and had gotten a working version of Gammaquest II going. What was fun for me was that other kids were starting to like to actually play the game. They were throwing out suggestions, like, “Hey, what about if you make an ‘invisibility’ spell?!” So then I would think, “…hmmm… Well maybe if I made the monsters not ‘see’ you, they would walk around randomly when you had cast the spell.” And it worked. Friends liked it!

Sword of Fargoal is definitely a landmark of the rogue-like/CRPGs history. I was wondering, back in the day, from where did you get inspiration to create SOF. Many of other CRPG programmers, back in the day, claimed to be inspired by board games or pen and paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. Had you any similar influence? 

Of course, that’s not far from the truth for me also. I had played the text-based game, “Adventure” (or Colossal Caves Adventure to some) on the old TTY terminals hooked to the mainframe at the University of Kentucky, where my dad was a Math Professor, and then Computer Science Professor and Natural Language Programming researcher. I remember I got pretty good at Adventure, and because the terminals were so slow (communicating with the mainframe using a phone receiver pressed into rubber suction cup MODEM coupler), I would get about 100-200 lines ahead as the game would print out the steps in the game on the 2.5’ wide dot matrix terminal printers. No screens, mind you; just printouts. And then it would finally catch up and I would get back to the last place I’d made a mistake in the game, until I had solved the whole mystery. That game really taught me the power of story, humour, and mystery in a game.

Our D&D game led directly to the quest that is now known as “Sword of Fargoal.” I’ve told the story before, but in brief we’d played a game (in which I was the Dungeon Master) over the course of two summers during high school. It was that game that gave me the idea of the Sword — which had formerly protected the “Great Forrest Lands” — being captured through trickery by Umla, the powerful Wizard, who build a magical dungeon to bury it deep within. The game developed a reputation over its 30+ years as a cult favourite as being extremely hard to find the Sword and actually make it back up and out of the dungeon alive!

Regarding “influences,” I’d say that, like D&D itself, I was most-heavily influenced by reading Tolkien as a kid. Probably most if not all early CRPGs owe a lot to those great books!

Sword of Fargoal is notorious as being very difficult to win. Do you think that high level of difficulty is a plus for a CRPG?  

Yes, I got ahead of myself and partially answered that in the previous train-of-thought. I’ve always liked the game having that sort of reputation. We have tried to continue that mystique all the way through the ‘modern’ versions of the game. Paul Pridham, my business partner (who had played the game as a kid — he’s about 10 years my junior), really *got* what Fargoal is all about. He is the real genius behind the iOS versions of the game. Paul (based in Ontario) and his coding friend Elias Pschernig (in Austria) had done a tribute remake in around 2003, and Paul reached out to me to show what they’d created. Because the material (story, idea, and visuals) we still my original copyright, and I own the Trademark to “Sword of Fargoal,” Paul, Elias and I teamed up and brought an “authorized” Shareware version over to my website.

When I’d gotten wind of Apple planning to release a phone, I pushed for us doing an iPhone version. We worked on it for over a year, and got it into the iTunes store in late 2009, about a year-and-a-half after the store launched. Anyway, Paul took over as Game Lead, doing 90% of the coding and nearly all of the pixel art. He even developed a SID sound simulator that helps us create all those wonderful ‘retro’ sounds that sound like the old C64 days. I concentrated on certain outside Producing and Marketing duties, brining in much of the art, animation, and music talent that we’ve used in the game, as well as some of the interface work. And Elias helped out in both areas — coding and interface work.
But Paul really kept true to the original look-and-feel of the game, managing to dial in what I believe is an almost perfect balance between old-school, permadeath, challenging original gameplay, and modern coding techniques, subtle but significant updates to the graphics, etc. In fact, most people don’t really realize this but we are actually rendering the walls of the dungeon in 3D. It’s just that we’ve kept the effect very subtle to give the game that real top-down traditional feel.

As far as difficulty goes, we’ve addressed modern user expectations and embraced newcomers by allowing for a “Squire” level, “Hero” level, and “Legend” level of play. Squire still lets you die, but you are transported back to the last temple you had visited — even if it is several levels above you — and then you have to brave your way down to where you died to find all your stuff (spells and belongings). Hero level is in the middle, and does have permadeath, and Legend is intended to really challenge you — more like the original game. Paul has made it so the dungeon levels are all darker and more ominous, and you can’t even see the monsters around corners. They lurk in shadows until, faintly, they come into view when they are in line-of-sight. It is a really cool effect!

How was the press and gamers reaction and when the Sword of Fargoal game was published by Epyx? 

That’s going waaaay back. I think it must have been really good. I began hearing buzz about the game being liked, and I had been able to live in the Bay Area on my royalties alone for about two years as a young 19-year-old kid. Later, I even met a family in a tiny town in Northern Wales while I was cycling through down out of the moors one foggy day. They had two sons, and the 16-year old had been a huge fan along with his friends, playing a pirated copy of the game halfway ’round the world! Back in those days there wasn’t as much in terms of accounting, and press (that I was aware of) and certainly not Social Media. So based on just anecdotal evidence and my royalties at the time, there were probably a couple hundred copies sold, and probably at least 10x that in terms of pirating. But it had some staying power, and in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the C64 craze was coming back into vogue, I started seeing a couple of mentions of the game; a couple of blog and book interview requests (about the ‘history’ of computer games — yike!) and even a fan site or two. It was then I realized that there was a modern place for the game.

How was amazed to see that you managed to convert and refresh Sword of Fargoal on iOs, Mac and PC. What prompted you to port SOF on all these new platforms?

Each version has really been an ‘organic’ experience in many ways. I’ve sort of felt my way through each stage — with the wisdom and help of Paul knowing how to make it look great and work well. We’ve managed to build all the previous versions of Sword of Fargoal using a grass-roots approach. The challenge with that is that it has often meant that we’ve had to compromise a little in what we can add into the game, because our resources are very limited in our tiny Indie Dev company (Fargoal, LLC). Paul is really it in terms of solid and committed coding on the game. My coding days stopped in about 1983 when I was working on a game for the newly-formed “Electronic Arts” (now EA). In fact, I was one of the first three or four “Artists” at EA at that time when Trip Hawkins had recently formed the company. That game — a space trading and competition game — was never completed. But I want to make it someday as well!

We’ve responded to what our fans have wanted. So far we’ve concentrates most-heavily on iOS, plus we have a Mac version, and a little-known Intel AppUp version that runs on PCs (of the current version). Ironically, Chillingo, who published our iPad/Universal version of “Sword of Fargoal” was bought by EA, so technically EA publishes one version of our game — and they don’t even know that I was there at their very beginning! (it is almost all new people, and many times bigger, as you might guess…

What’s the future for Sword of Fargoal? I have noticed that you have set a Kickstarter Campaign to support the development of Sword of Fargoal 2. 

Yes. We have already spend over a year working on “Sword of Fargoal 2,” and it is in amazing shape already! Paul spent 12 hour days — sometimes longer — seven days a week for all that time, so you can imagine how much thought and coding has gone into the newest version of the game. It truly is “rebuilt from the ground up,” as we have been saying. That has brought us to 80% completion. Much of the background structure is ready, with new item management, Character Classes (male and female of four classes: Fighter, Ranger, Magic User, and Thief), a huge passel of armour, weapons, and equipment, new spells, potions, flasks, wands, rings, amulets, treasures, traps, NPC types, monsters, etc. have already been added. Plus Paul has rebuild all of the dungeon generation routines so that they are very varied, and can be HUGE or tiny, with all different sorts of room sizes and types, puzzles, mazes, chambers, holes, pits, abysses? (if abyss can be pluralized), textures — even water! (and all that that entails).

Suffice it to say that people will want us to finish this game!

So why Kickstarter? Well frankly, this game was SO BIG that we didn’t realize how much it would take out of us. We’ve tried the grass roots approach with this one, and despite the advanced level we’ve made it to, we still have a ton of finishing work to do for that last 20%. And the only way we can see clear to accomplish that is to bring in some much-needed help — and what that takes is money. We’ve needed for a long time to be able to hire an additional pixel artist (Paul has done it all so far). Plus, so coding support, additional art from Charlie Canfield, our outside artist and animator, and music from the award-winning Daniel Pemberton and others. So we are really counting on this Kickstarter campaign funding, to be honest. We’d like to say we can complete the game even if it does not meet its base goal by this coming Saturday afternoon (3:01 pm PST), but it will really continue to set us back to the point that Fargoal 2 will definitely have to be worked on off and on over the course of about another year.

We’ve recently hit a big funding milestone: Over the weekend we made it to $25,000, which is half of our $50,000 funding goal. For those who are not familiar with Kickstarter, if we don’t make it over the finish line fully-funded we get $ZERO — because they require full funding before they will actually authorize the Amazon Payments of each of the individual pledges we’ve received. It is a tough system, but we think it mostly works. That way Kickstarter is able to insure that most projects get completed as planned (though they are often late, according to research). We have scheduled for delivery of “Sword of Fargoal 2” for May 2013 to all of our pledgers. Since it will give us those resources to hire the much-needed help, we feel like we have a reasonable goal we can deliver upon. We also have designed the campaign and the rewards around a lot of fan interaction. We will be releasing a private Beta to those who have supported us at the levels that offer that perk. And we’ve already been getting a lot of fantastic fan support, encouragement, and ideas that have helped us with the campaign so far.

If your readers are interested in supporting us, they can visit our Kickstarter page, read more about the game, watch the video, and see some of the fantastic rewards we have to offer.

Included among them are our secret “Project X” that we’ve been working on — which was recently discovered by to be “Sword of Fargoal: The Board Game”! You can also read more about the board game and see concept drawings at our Kickstarter page as well.

Plus, we are offering all sorts of cool swag: Fargoal posters, T-shirts (the designs are up!, Art Print, mini- Sword of Fargoal letter opener, ten (10) actual (original) Commodore 64 systems, and even the real Sword of Fargoal itself at the $10,000 level (includes my presenting it in-person at your convention or event).

The short-link to the Sword of Fargoal 2 Kickstarter is:

Do you follow the activities of the contemporary retro scene? 

I do follow the retro scene — at least peripherally — when I am not designing games. I have another successful game company called Trouble Brothers, LLC ( in which my other business partner and I design original Board Games for iPad and other devices. And Paul has his company Madgarden ( Notably, Paul has created several other very cool ‘retro’ games, including his critics’ favourite game, “Saucelifter.” Plus, he is working on the much-anticipated and soon-to-be-released co-production with RocketCat Games called “Punch Quest” (game trailer here:

I’ve also loved that the retro scene has seen a rebirth in a general sense. We saw it coming way back in 2008 (or earlier), and we’ve seen it grow by leaps and bounds over the past two or three years in particular (think “Minecraft” and many more).

But one funny phenomenon is that I am missing a big portion of “retro” history from my mind, to be honest. Almost like I was in cryo-sleep for about 20 years. Let me explain: After I had invented “Sword of Fargoal” and published it for C64 in 1983, I began transitioning to other things in my life, including going to NYU film school, becoming a graphic artist and Art Director, becoming a Photoshop expert (spoke at Macworld and the Photoshop conference), teaching at the Art Institute of Seattle, and even “moving houses” — I mean whole two and three-story Craftsman-style homes — and appearing in shows on HGTV and Discovery Channel with funny names like “Monster Moves” and “Haulin’ House.” (funny gig, buy I loved rescuing houses and moving them down the street or by barge, etc.). I got back into game design through conventional board game design at Front Porch Classics in the early to mid 2000s, and then of course all the stuff we are now talking about! But that whole period from around 1983/84 to 2003 is missing from my knowledge of game history — except what I’ve heard in pieces and parts since then. So many people who look to me as an expert at that genre of gaming find that I’ve got a very unique perspective, where I can sort of look at it from the outside.

I find that it helps me in unusual ways. For example, I am good at pushing for certain conventions within my games that might not be part of what “everyone else is doing.” For example, in Fargoal — though maybe a few people had done something similar — we pioneered the use of a movement system where you place your finger literally anywhere on the screen and then drift or nudge your finger in the direction you want to go. There is no ‘virtual D-pad’ — which many first-timers playing the game often ask us for — and we find that nine times out of ten once people get used to the initial shock of it, they actually end up really loving the movement in Fargoal. We also cut out much of the busywork of and RPG or “roguelike,” and there is very little you have to do to launch right into the dungeon and start exploring in “Sword of Fargoal.” In fact, there is no background legend, visiting a store in town, talking to a wise, grizzled Wizard before you embark, or reading about which princess you have to save from the dungeon. You are dropped right in, and you make your own story as you go! We employ the use of simple feedback lines at the top of the screen that tell you what is happening. So as you meet an Ogre, the line might say, “Attacked by a Fierce Ogre!” letting you know that it might not be an easy battle. We also put lots of humour into those lines — thanks in large-part to Paul’s warped but funny sense of humour.

As far as I know you're a videogame collector. Do you think that videogame collecting is merely a personal pleasure or it might become a relevant discipline with a proper methodology?

I can say that I am definitely a “game collector,” but, setting the record straight, I have over 200 traditional print games — both US “Golden” and “Silver” era games, and quite a few “Euro-style” games. To be honest, my video game collection itself is very small, and mostly consists of cool iOS indie games I might run across, plus some mainstream iOS games.

Paul really knows a ton more than I do about that missing block of time I was talking about earlier. I’ve heard him talking about Nethack, Zork, and many others, but really never knew of those when they came out, because I was busy pasting up magazines and going to movies at MoMA in New York during my NYU film days. Weird, huh?

Fantastic memories Jeff. I'm amazed to see that you have the same enthusiasm you had almost 20 years ago when you created the original Sword of Fargoal.  I really want to thank you for sharing all this with us. Do you any last word you would like to leave with us? 

The main thing that I would like to leave you with is how privileged I feel to be involved in this exciting industry. Even during the period I was away from Electronic games, I have always approach life in general as a fun game to navigate. I’ve continued to live and breathe games through my collecting, and I’ve really enjoyed inventing things and expressing new ideas through games. Part of while I like games so much is that I know they are interactive. There is always someone there on the other end, once the game is published, playing and enjoying the game (in most cases, I hope). It is this interactivity and feedback that I get from fans that reminds me of my high school days — the best days in terms of just coming up with things and friends saying that they enjoy them. Because of Social Media and forums and fan feedback through Twitter and Facebook we are able to experience what people like (or don’t like) about our games, and then make them better, or give people more of what they want. We hope that this Kickstarter campaign will do that very directly — and so far it appears to be (as long as we can make it to this finish line on Saturday).

Thanks very much for the opportunity for this interview.

Thanks to you Jeff.

Image Source: Mocagh

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