What started out as a retro chat environment became a full scale iPad game catalog without the AppStore that recieved an official Cease and Desist by Activision and finally become an authorized game portal with a bright future. Sarien.net is an adventure on its own, so it’s about time I put things in perspective.

Ten years ago

In 2001 I joined Q42, and we created a fun chat application called Quek that used html and javascript to allow chatting on top of other sites. Being a fan of Sierra adventure games, it got me thinking: we could combine the multiplayer technique with layered sprite-like images of Space Quest and have you walking around the original game scenes with other players.

This first version was called Good Old Adventures. Even though it was well received by fans of the genre, players complained about the fact that there was “nothing to do”. The look and feel of it all raised the expectations of actually playing the real games.

I had a hunch it was possible to build its successor that allowed the actual games to be played, though there were many technical issues I needed to overcome. Around 2006 I started to rewrite some of the back-end code that extracted the actual game resources to png files, but due to lack of time I didn’t start fiddling with interpreting the orginal game logic in javascript until two years later.

From Good Old Adventures to Sarien.net

 For that I used a simple scene: a hallway of Space Quest’s Arcada spaceship, with elevators situated at the top and bottom floor, doors sliding open and a flashing alarm attached to the ceiling. I had managed to convert the script for that room to parsable javascript, created stubs for all methods it would call and I started implementing its method calls one by one.

As the hours passed, I started piecing together more and more of the game’s interpreter and commands. This scene from Space Quest was starting to come together. The alarm flashed, the elevator doors functioned, and all of a sudden something cool happened: a sarien guard walked in the room and shot Roger Wilco. I had just completed some more code and was testing it, and it seemed that more logic was actually working, and to my surprise the mechanisms were working better than expected and the game abrubtly ended because of the sudden death of my avatar.

I was amazed, and excited of the assurance that this was actually going to work. This code I was writing was going to allow people to play these games in the browser, in multiplayer.

It wasn’t until 2009 that I was finally able to pick up coding again, and the entire engine was starting to piece together smoothly. In April of that year, sarien.net went live and there was much rejoicing. The interpreter was (and still is) full of bugs and glitches that makes the games tough to complete, but it offered a quick retro gameplay experience with other people without having to install anything. It was both a tech demo and a tribute to these old games.

A morality challenge

Each game that I added required specific testing and tweaking, as different scenarios of scripting showed bugs in my interpreter. So as time went by, the catalog increased to include more games, and more bugs were found and fixed. I also started to be more aware of the fact that offering these games like this, online and for free, would be illegal, so I was faced with two options:

  1. Request authorization
  2. See how things go: it’s a problem when it’s a problem

At this stage, I was in touch with quite a few of the original game designers, developers and musicians, and the overall advice was to go for the latter option. It made sense to me; when prompted by a request for official authorization, Activision has no other choice than to protect their intellectual property and not grant authorization, regardless of sarien’s potential, as little as that may have been.

Those were the arguments for me to continue without official authorization while being prepared for an official Cease and Desist letter and willing to face and accept it whenever it came. To make a clear statement, I decided not to include Google ads, nor accept any of the (many) ad offers from casino sites and others. I wanted sarien to remain non-commercial and as pure as it could be in the gray area of intellectual property ownership.

Many players came by, and the only compaints I received (and still do) were about lack of sound and bugs in the game engine.  Almost a year had gone by without a word from Activision, and I had a lot of new plans for the site, and coded quite a bit of it during my daily train trips back and forth to Q42. I had user accounts ready to be deployed, with unlockable avatars that could be used across the different games, a visual redesign and much more. The combination of nostalgic games, web technology and a social multiplayer experiment kept me excited to take sarien to the next level.

And then I got an iPad

 I was very skeptical at first, regarding it as nothing more than an oversized iPod Touch. But the device stole my heart, and with the added possibilities of mobile Safari on this “magical” device, on top of the multiplayer nostalgic web experience, it inspired me to try and get the most out of it. I was faced with a new challenge: that of making these games a blast to play on this tablet of mine.

It may seem like a simple conversion: adjust the screen size, show some buttons, rotate to save and that’s it. Well, appearances can be deceiving, as I was faced with a lot of issues. One being the button interaction; presenting a full screen virtual keyboard would be a major distraction of playing these games on an iPad, but presenting a button GUI that derived its commands from Sierra’s internal word-parsing system and dictionary was quite a challenge. And the final result still left people trying to find the right button, similar to all those years ago when we were trying to type in the correct sentence (“administer field sobriety test”, anyone?).

But that wasn’t all; Police Quest has the entire map of Lytton that you could cruise as a cop, and doing so with the cursors is pretty okay, but touching the iPad’s glass plate for directions has you crashing within a second. So, games needed to be tweaked for their specific gameplay in order to offer a fun experience on the iPad. Then, on to savegames; I really liked how other games such as Monkey Island offered “rotate to save”. So, I built that, and used the original scores (like “17 out of 233”) to present you with a percentage of the game’s completion, alongside with a background still of the scene that you saved the game at.

I had a great time doing this, and this iPad version got even more attention than anything so far. At this time, I could distinguish three categories of interest in the sarien project:

  1. Nostalgic adventure games, a genre that gained a lot of interest these past years thanks to (among others) the brilliant work of reknowned companies such as Telltale and LucasArts, in combination with lighter game publishing methods such as Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare and last but indeed not least, the App Store;
  2. People with a technical interest in the possibilities of HTML5. The sheer fact that web technologies allowed the creation of full blown games (as opposed to the more common puzzle genre) seemed to be a shocker to folks all around the globe, given the emails I’ve received since;
  3. The iPad versions of these games offered not only a combination of the abovementioned categories, but also showed that the App Store could be bypassed as a requirement for releasing a game.

I didn’t expect category 3 to have this big an impact. Sarien already received a lot of media coverage on all of the above, but it really became a showcase of what HTML5 could to on the iPad without the need for an App Store. And the funny thing is, the sarien technology can do a lot more than just showing these blocky pixelated graphics. In fact, I had to do a lot of coding specifically to achieve the pixelated retro look. Since modern day browsers use fancy image filtering techniques to upscale low resolution images, I had to export and work with Sierra images tweaked to be as high resolution and blocky as I could achieve on the iPad. But the engine itself could handle lush graphics and more than just adventure games.

Cease and Desist

As the story got picked up by Wired, TouchArcade, IntoMobile, TUAW and Engadget, sarien.net finally reached Activision’s lawyers. The Cease and Desist letter that I received earlier this week was of course no surprise. Or in fact, it was in terms of how long it had taken them. And in a weird way, the Cease and Desist letter came as kind of a relief.

A relief?

Yes. In a way, running Sarien like this - and I’m referring to its legal status - has always been a thorn in my eye. A sort of necessary evil. So, the Cease and Desist would finally put that to rest, officially, and give me time to move on.

I acted upon it and requested for any possibilities in continuation of Sarien.net in a different form. The next day I received a kind reply from Activision’s law firm, and I actually do mean “kind”, as I found the original C&D letter to be quite a friendly letter of which I understood and agreed to everything therein. This new letter I received contained a proposal.

Official authorization

 Activision proposed to officially authorize Sarien.net to publish the first game of any series in its multiplayer HTML5 form. As it may generate interest in also playing the games’ successors, Sarien.net will provide a link to Steam and other services that offer the full game collections. To me that sounds beyond “fair enough”, and very reasonable. Also, as Activision may (or may not) choose to provide official releases of these games through the AppStore, they requested that all iPad versions of the games be removed.

Now even though it is based upon the same HTML5 technology I also find this request understandable, as I would probably have done the same if I were Activision. Then again, if I co-owned Activision instead of Q42, there might’ve been a World of Space Quest and worldwide free beers on Fridays, but right now this really is a huge step forward and allows games like Space Quest, Police Quest and King’s Quest to be played by many people during work hours - err, I mean, in a browser.

One thing that struck me as a surprise was the fact that Leisure Suit Larry was not mentioned in the C&D letter. It is probably the most reknowned game of the Sierra catalog, and the only one to have had new games in the series being published on new platforms such as the Xbox 360 - not to much success though, but that’s not the point. The point is: why didn’t Activision mention Leisure Suit Larry in the first place? The answer is simple: they seem to have sold it to (presumably)CodeMasters. So, I was told that, officially, Activision has no say in what Sarien should do with publishing Leisure Suit Larry in HTML5 form. I do not however want to take any hostile action towards Activision - or any game publisher for that matter - so I have explicitly requested confirmation on whether Activision is okay with an iPad version of Leisure Suit Larry, though I would also need an official go from its rightful IP owner, CodeMasters.

As I do not know to whom I should direct this question, here goes:

Dear Codemasters,
How about Sarien publishing an HTML5 + iPad compatible version of Leisure Suit Larry 1 on the web, provided a link to its collection on steam? Sounds like a cunning plan? Please get back to me on that.
- Martin

I look forward to a response, so keep your fingers crossed with me that Leisure Suit Larry will in fact be playable on the site :)

So, what’s next?
What does the future bring? Well, I have several plans for Sarien but first I’ll restore it to what is was and provide the games as agreed upon with Activision. A redesign is scheduled, and new functionality will be added that I blogged about before.

The release of the iPad version of sarien.net happened to coincide with Apple’s decision to start collecting subscription fees for App Store distributed apps such as national newspapers. It resulted in us here at Q42 pitching for some very exciting projects that “cut out the middle man” (Apple) for some well-known Dutch newspaper publishers.

So I see a lot of cool things happening to Sarien.net, my company and myself in the future. Stuff that involves HTML5, Apple, retro games and publishing.

2011 will be a great year. And I’ll also become father of a fourth little Kool guy or girl. Yay!
Thanks for reading.

And in case you’d like to contact me, send me a mail at martin [AT] q42 [DOT] nl or follow me on twitter.

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