Shanghai

 

From: "Lucky That Way - Stories of Seizing the Moment" by Brad Fregger, cop. 1998
(ISBN: 1-887472-56-8)

 

This is how I met Brodie Lockard, and ended up producing one of the most successful software programs in the world. At the time I was a software producer for Activision, actually Director of Entertainment Software. On a sunny day in July, 1985, I got a call from Carathea Coleman,VP of Personal for a non-competitive software company. We liked each other and often shared tips on good people.

"Brad, you need to meet this young programmer who works over at Stanford University. I talked with him, and was very impressed. I'd use him myself, if I could get him away from Stanford, but there's slim hope of that."

She knew that I often worked with creative programmers who had "day jobs," something she wasn't able to do.

"If your recommending him, I'll give him a call. Thanks for the tip."

I called Brodie at work immediately, and made arrangements to have breakfast with him the next morning.

"We'll have to choose a restaurant that can handle my wheelchair." Brodie said.

"How about Stickney's at Town & Country Center in Palo Alto?"

"I've eaten there. That's perfect."

"Eight O'clock to early for you?" I asked.

"I can be there."

"See you tomorrow morning then."

I hung up the phone and promptly forgot about it. I mean it...I forgot the appointment entirely.

I almost always kept my appointments. But this time I forgot, and wasn't reminded of it until that afternoon when I got a call from Brodie.

"Brad, did I get the wrong day? I was at Stickney's this morning until nine...you never showed."

There was a long phase as I digested this. Did I really forget that appointment? You bet I had, I was very embarrassed.

"Brodie, what can I say? I forgot. I don't know why, but I forgot. I'm sorry."

"It was a great inconvenience. It isn't easy for me to get out that early. I don't like to do it for nothing."

He wasn't going to let me off of the hook easily, and I didn't blame him.

"I'm very embarrassed, and honestly sorry. Is there something I could do to make up for it?"

Silence on the other end of the line.

"Could I come and see you right now. Drop what I'm doing and come right over. Will that work for you?"

Pause

Finally, he said, "I guess that would work. How soon can you be here?"

"You're at Stanford University...I can be there in 20 minutes."

"Make it half an hour. I'll meet you in front of the Meyer library. Do you know where that is?"

"Sure do! See you in half an hour."

I hung up the phone, and was on my way.

I was there first and had a short wait before Brodie arrived, thank God. Finally we met, and I was able to make things right in a few minutes. I liked Brodie from the beginning, and we had a wonderful conversation for about an hour, talking mostly about learning (educational) software, and a few other things. But, it didn't look like we were going to be able to work together, at least not in the near future.

At the end of the conversation, I told him, "If you ever have an idea for an entertainment program, please give me a call first. I'd love to take a look at it, and maybe even publish it for you."

"I'll remember, thanks for the offer."

About six months later, December 17th, Brodie called.

"Brad, this is Brodie Lockard. Do you remember me?"

"How could I forget one of the few people I actually stood up. I still fell guilty about that whenever I think of it. What's up?"

"I've got a software program I want to show you. It's an entertainment program."

My first thought was, Oh no. Not another program, programmed at home in somebody's spare time. I had seen hundreds of these, and none so far that I wanted to take to market. In addition, I was very busy getting a record number of programs ready for the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the most important dealer show in our industry. Then I remembered my comment to Brodie, "...give me a call first. I'd love to take a look at it...." I was stuck, I was going to have to look at his program.

"The only free time I have until the middle of January is Christmas Eve morning. Is that going to be OK with you?"

"That's fine with me. How about 10:30?" he responded.

"That'll work fine. See you then...and don't worry, I won't forget this time."

On Christmas Eve morning I drove over to his house and was warmly received by Brodie and his mother, Dorothy.

"Do you know what these tiles are?" he asked me.

He was pointing to a stack of ivory tiles that were piled up in an unusual way.

"They're Mahjong tiles." I answered.

Mahjong tiles are about the same size and shape as Dominoes. They are most often made of ivory, and have very beautiful designs cut into and/or painted on them. They are used to play a four-player game called Mahjong, which is like a "rummy" card game. This game is very popular in the far east, and has also been popular here in America.

"What are they stacked up like that for?" I asked.

"That's the opening stack for an ancient solitaire game called The Turtle," Brodie said. "It was invented in China a couple of hundred years ago."

As he was speaking, I was imagining the original Chinese inventor, after having been stood up by his three opponents, looking for a way to play a solitaire game with the beautiful Mahjong tiles and ending up developing a game that came down through the ages. I wondered if he had any idea how long his game would last.

"The objective of the game is to remove all of the tiles from the stack, leaving an empty board," Brodie said. "You must remove the tiles according to a couple of simple rules. It's great fun, but setting up the stack each time you want to play can be a real hassle."

I nodded my head.

"I've programmed the game so it can be played on the Macintosh. In this way the computer builds the stack each time, and the player doesn't have to."

I waited a minute while he brought the game up on his Macintosh. The first thing I noticed was his graphics. "It's really pretty," I told him.

"That's why I choose the Macintosh. It really does nice graphics doesn't it?"

"Beautiful! But, I suspect you're the one who did the graphics."

When I saw The Turtle being played on the computer, it appealed to me immediately. The game was simple, but wonderful, a compelling challenge, that people would probably want to play again and again. I said as much to Brodie.

"I agree," he responded. "You know, I first programmed The Turtle for an on-line service where people have to pay every time they play. More people play it, 'again and again,' than any other game on the system."

"I'm not surprised. But, it helps to know that."

Now I was beginning to try and figure out how we would justify selling this simple product for a retail price of $50, the minimum price that we could sell Macintosh software for at that time. But first I was going to have to see how good a game it really was, the marketing strategy was moot if the game wasn't fun...fun for a lot of people.

"Brodie," I asked, "do you mind if I take a copy of this with me? I'd like to play it myself, as well as have a few other people play it. Then I'll be in a better position to judge the potential, and to begin to discuss publishing it for you."

"I don't know...(pause)...I don't want to lose control. I've worked on this for a long time, I wouldn't like it if something happened and the code got out."

"It's hard to proceed without taking a good look. I can guarantee that I will take personal responsibility for your program. That I will know where every copy is, and that I will get every copy back if we're not able to make a deal."

Brodie looked over at his mom, I saw her shrug her shoulders. I imagined the conversation had went something like, "

What do you think?

I don't know. It's your decision.

I waited while he thought it over.

"You'll take personal responsibility?" he asked.

"I guarantee it."

"OK, I'll give you a copy."

The first person I showed it to was Kathie. She really didn't like computer games and I thought she'd be a good test. If she showed any interest at all, well, it would be worth further exploration. Kathie saw the program for the first time Thursday night, December 26th, in our kitchen (I'd set up the Macintosh on our kitchen table). I showed her basically how it worked and then left to watch television and do some reading.

About 11 o'clock I told her I was going to bed. She said she'd be right there. I woke up during the night and noticed the Kathie wasn't in bed. I looked at the clock and saw that it was 5 o'clock in the morning.

I hollered out, "Kathie, are you here?"

From the kitchen, "Yes."

"Is everything alright?"

"Yes."

"Are you coming to bed?"

And she gave me, for the first time ever, an answer that would be heard millions of times around the world as the years passed and more and more people played Shanghai,

"I'll be there in a minute, I just want to play one more game."

I began to think we might have something here.

The next morning I took the program into work and talked to an associate of mine, Sam Nelson,

"This is a new program I'm thinking about licensing, would you mind taking it home for the weekend. Maybe you could find some time to take a look at it."

"No problem, we're not doing anything else."

"This one is real confidential. Don't show it to anyone...except Paula...I gave my personal guarantee."

"Gotcha." Sam responded.

On Monday morning, he came into my office and asked, "Can I borrow your Macintosh?"

"What's wrong with yours?"

"Paula wouldn't let me bring it to work, she wanted to play The Turtle. We didn't do anything all weekend but play that game!"

Now, I really began to think that we might have something.

The next person I gave it to was the Engineering Manager in our department. He got the program at about 9am, and a Noon he came into my office threw the disk down on my desk and said, "Don't let me have this back until after work, I've wasted the whole morning!"

I guess he didn't see play-testing as part of his job and, I knew I had something. 

Believe it or not it was nine months before it was ready to ship. While the heart of the program was there, we needed to add enough features to justify the $50 price tag. And, it's often the "additional features" that makes the difference between a good public domain program and a commercial one. And, we had to negotiate a contract with Brodie.

The contract negotiation turned out to be much tougher than I expected, or it should have been. And, it was all my fault. I tended to side with the developer when it came to contracts, and I wanted Brodie to get everything I thought he deserved for bringing this wonderful program to the world, so I negotiated with the company the best deal that we had ever done with an outside developer. And then I went to see Brodie so he could be impressed by what I had accomplished on his behalf, and sign this wonderful contract.

What I had forgotten was that, to Brodie, I was the publisher. And, he wasn't very happy with the concept of accepting the "first offer." What a mess, I had already pushed the company to the limit, and now our developer was saying it wasn't enough. Ultimately, Ken Coleman (my boss) got involved and was able to make some considerations that made Brodie happy, but I had learned my lesson, and never again did I leave myself in a position from which I couldn't move.

We, Activision, had decided that the game was good enough to move to other systems, so my next job was to find the people to do these other versions. The program looked so simple, was really simple. But, the programmers that I found, time after time, had problems duplicating Brodie's work on other computers. I had to fire the first entire group, when after three months they still didn't have something playable on the screen. This was when I first discovered that scientific and business application programmers often don't have the skills necessary to program entertainment products at the level our customers expect. Most "high level" programmers assume that games are easy to do but, it turns out, leading edge games are an extremely difficult programming challenge, one that only the top five percent of programmers are up to.

Finally I got most of the programming started, and now I had to begin thinking about the marketing plan. I wasn't responsible for the final plan, but it was my responsibility to get the marketing department up to speed, and excited. The first problem I had here was the marketing people tried to write the plan without playing the product, they wanted me to tell them what they needed to know. I put my foot down, and refused to talk to anyone who hadn't played the program for at least half an hour. Well I didn't do the bosses any favor, within a short time we had a whole department addicted, and lots of other work wasn't getting done.

As you can imagine, I had strong feelings about the program, and that included feelings about what it should be called. I was in favor of "Addiction." I thought that, since it was essentially an adult program the name Addition wouldn't hurt it. But, the industry had just finished another round of bashing by those people who were afraid we were losing a whole generation to the "addiction of computer games," and the company was concerned with that title. Ultimately the marketing team came up with the name Shanghai, and I learned why they are in marketing and I'm in product development. The name Shanghai was perfect. It spoke of being "captured" and it had an oriental flavor, just like the game.

To my credit they did say, in the advertising materials, that Shanghai "was addicting" and that phrase did end up giving the product a lot of good free publicity. It worked just like I thought, since the game was seen as essentially an adult product, the term did not end up being threatening, and, reviewers said things like, "Activision calls Shanghai addicting... I doubted I would find any program addicting... I was wrong. I haven't gotten any work done for three weeks, since receiving my copy of the program. You have got to buy and try Shanghai from Activision."

Within that first year, 1986/87, Shanghai won almost every entertainment award, and ultimately became one of the most played computer games in the world, selling over ten million copies in all of it's variations. I was happy, Brodie was happy, and our judgment as to the kind of computer program that people of all ages would enjoy was affirmed. Additionally, when people talk about the lack of computer entertainment that women enjoy they most often start out the sentence with, "With the exception of Shanghai..."Oh yes, there are three "the rest of the stories" involved with Shanghai.

First, I told you that Brodie needed a wheel chair to get around. What I didn't say was that he was originally a gymnast at Stanford University, who had an accident on the trampoline and broke his neck. Brodie, in addition to being an excellent programmer, one who has brought a wonderful program to millions around the world, is also a quadriplegic. He can only move his head, and even needs help breathing. But this doesn't stop him from working a full-time job, and from programming wonderful entertainment programs "in his spare time."

Shanghai was originally done by Brodie as a therapeutic exercise right after he had his accident. His commitment, courage, and ability to live with the facts of his life, has been a continual inspiration to me. I have had the privilege of being able to work with him many times over the years, in addition to Shanghai, he programmed Solitaire Royale on the Macintosh for us, and provided some exceptional graphics for Ishido. Brodie has been a good friend and associate, I thank God for the day I met him.

Second "rest of the story." I told you that I had problems getting the right people to program Shanghai for other computers. Well, the Macintosh version had been out almost three months before the IBM version was done. On the day that the "ship decision" was made, I received in the mail, unsolicited, an IBM version programmed by a Sophomore at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Michael Sandige. I put the disk into my computer and up came a version of Shanghai that, in many ways, was better than the one I had just decided to ship.

The letter said, "I saw the Macintosh version in the software store I work in, and I liked it so much, I took a month and put this IBM version together. My friends thought it was good enough for me to show to you, and that you might be interested in marketing it."

One month, and I had spent the first 3 months just trying to find someone with the skill needed to move it to the IBM. Well, after our lawyers wrote Michael a letter stating very clearly that his version should not be distributed to anyone in anyway, I decided to stay in touch with this young man who seemed to be so talented as a programmer. That association has been extremely rewarding also... but, that's another story.

Finally, Michael wasn't the only programmer to program his own version of this great game, it has been copied and distributed by the biggest software manufacturer in the world, Microsoft; they called their version Taipei. Others have tried to copy it, but Activision, has had good success in maintaining their copyright, so most of these versions are now off of the market.

Brodie's game, distributed by Activision, and a version by Publishing International called The Dragon (authorized by Activision and only sold in Japan) are the only ones that use the original rules. Microsoft changed the rules somewhat, to get by the copyright, and Activision was afraid to fight such a big company. While this is borderline legal, in my opinion it is completely immoral, and I believe that Microsoft should be held morally accountable. It is my hope that, if you own Taipei, or any version of Shanghai not authorized by Brodie Lockard or Activision, that you will throw it away and buy yourself a "morally correct" version at your local computer software store.

THE END

Copyright Brad Fregger 

 

 


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