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Codex Interview RPG Codex Retrospective Interview: Richard Seaborne on Escape from Hell, Myraglen, and Prophecy

Crooked Bee

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Tags: Activision; Electronic Arts; Escape from Hell; Prophecy: The Fall of Trinadon; Retrospective Interview; Richard Seaborne; Tower of Myraglen

This month, January 2015, marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most unique titles in CRPG history, Electronic Arts' 1990 Escape from Hell, designed by Richard L. Seaborne. Imagine something like Wasteland -- a party-, skill-based top-down RPG -- that has you band together with famous historical and literary figures, from Genghis Khan to Hamlet, and explore, literally, the circles of Hell. Along the way, you fight the likes of Al Capone and Satan, learn new skills from Thucydides and Wyatt Earp, among many others, and solve your own and the denizens' problems, which Hell has in spades, with one overarching goal: escaping back to the real world.

As far as CRPG settings go, there has hardly been a more unorthodox one. And the character portraits were fantastic, too.

To celebrate the game's anniversary, we've interviewed Richard Seaborne, who currently works at Microsoft, about Escape from Hell along with two other RPGs he worked on, Tower of Myraglen (1987) for the Apple ][GS and Prophecy: The Fall of Trinadon (1989) for the PC. Here's an excerpt:

Prophecy’s spell system was especially interesting. You could memorize up to 10 spells, and also increase their effects, etc. (including making the area of effect larger), by adding the proper prefix to the spell name. What made you go for a system like that?

Prophecy’s spell system was fun to make. I think people really enjoy controlling things where their decisions and actions materially change things in the games they play. And they delight in seeing their creations come to life or even blow up in surprising failure. The magic is that their actions had consequence, and they can get better. I wanted the player to feel like an alchemist that could craft their own magic spells according to consistent rules for any situation, seeing magic as a science they could control once learned.

I imagined players would really like having the ability to “program” their own spells through a spell language that included a prefix power amplifier, effect inverter, and foundational spell function. Spells included implicit properties (fire, ice, poison, harm, heal, etc.) and targeting (individual, missile, area of effect/AOE, etc.). A heal spell could be reversed with an inverter to make the spell harm, and a harm spell could be reversed to heal. Spells had a sense of physics too, so if you cast an AOE spell in too small of a space the blast would ricochet off walls and keep expanding through corridors until its “volume” filled its effect area. Adding the most powerful modifiers to an AOE spell could fill most of the screen with a powerful blast, which might be bad for the player if they were in the path of destruction.

How did Electronic Arts end up publishing Escape from Hell? Were they involved in the process of development, and did they influence the final product in any way?

I had always admired Electronic Arts (EA) for their game quality and innovation, and so pitched the concept of Escape from Hell to them not long after Prophecy had shipped. I learned quite a bit about formal planning and ideation while working with EA. I spent nearly six months of the total 12-month development cycle in pre-production, developing engine technology and tools that would ultimately be the foundation of the game and refining the concept with some of EA’s leaders including Trip Hawkins, Bing Gordon, and Dave Albert. It was during this process that Escape changed from a serious traditional RPG to the contemporary grim comedy RPG.

Perhaps the biggest influence that EA had on Escape from Hell was the business pragmatism of Cost of Goods (COGs) and Return on Investment (ROI). They made the decision to reduce the number of discs the game shipped on in half because retailers demanded the game be available on both 5¼” and 3½” discs. It was an unfortunate time in the industry where many computers had just one disc drive size, and so EA had to ship on both disc sizes. To keep costs down, they required Escape to get a lot smaller so the same COGs would cover both disc types.

You can imagine how that went down in terms of the game’s vision and scope – a lot less character and monster art, 9 circles of Hell collapsed to 3 planes of Hell, time & dimensional shift opportunity reduction, and a lot of loose end tying up with these changes. EA offered a Technical Director to help with compression algorithms to fit as much as possible on the discs and a professional writer to brainstorm and help the narrative be as cohesive as possible within the revised scope.

Escape from Hell was released in January 1990, so that January 2015 marks its 25th anniversary. I'm very interested in the way you feel about the game now. Let me put it this way: what is your first thought whenever the game's name comes up? Retrospectively, are you fully satisfied with what kind of game Escape from Hell turned out to be?

Disappointed. Disheartened. Proud. It’s a bit mixed as you can tell.

Escape shipped and had its place in history. I firmly believe it would have been better if it hadn’t had its media budget cut in half, forcing it to miss out on all Nine Circles of Hell, signature art for key characters, more demons, monsters, & gear, and more map & script variances according to player actions, party members, and Trident time control. On the other hand, I am proud to have contributed to the early era of CRPG’s, influencing a lot of features, design tenants, and concepts in many games over these twenty-five years.​

Read the full interview for many more details about Richard's games, as well as things like team sizes, D&D modules, nudity warning labels, IBM PC vs Apple ][GS, and Trip Hawkins' and other senior EA people's involvement with Escape.
 
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Looks fun, sad about the media cut.

Btw, Jugashvili, how do you explain this?

49-01escape128.png
 

Durante

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This is honestly one of the best interviews I ever read on a gaming site. I love how it covers both a lot of in-depth questions about these old games as well as the more recent managerial role of the interviewee, and it also offers some neat nuggets about EA and the computer game business in the early days. And it actually does so in detail.
 

Raapys

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Great interview, interesting guy. Amazes me how much some people get done before they even finish high school.
 
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Best interview I've read in a long time. Hats off to all involved, especially Mr. Seaborne; he clearly still has a lot of passion for games.

Is Tower of Myraglen any fun?
 
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mondblut

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Whoa. How did I miss this one? The game, I mean.
 

Kos_Koa

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Very nice interview. A pleasure to read.


Spells had a sense of physics too, so if you cast an AOE spell in too small of a space the blast would ricochet off walls and keep expanding through corridors until its “volume” filled its effect area. Adding the most powerful modifiers to an AOE spell could fill most of the screen with a powerful blast, which might be bad for the player if they were in the path of destruction.
I miss how many older games had aspects like this that just made sense.


The Tridents were another vehicle for the player to change things up, controlling combat difficulty and encounter outcomes by cleverly manipulating the “world” and technology levels. The Trident concept to re-shape the world and time frame was something I would’ve loved to have done more with, but became difficult to employ effectively within the reduced three planes of Hell (instead of the envisioned nine circles).
Can anyone who has played the game elaborate on this? I'm curious what it means exactly.


One of the story tenets I’ve always looked at is to establish a backstory that is understandable, predictable, and resonates with some basic values… and then pull the rug out from under it so the player wants to right the wrong and set things back to the way they were.

The first level of Escape from Hell can be pretty overwhelming as an open-world RPG with a lot of things to do, places to go, gear to get, and NPC’s to acquire. The hope was that giving structure to the player’s first experience in Hell would help them adapt to the game and build expectations on how the game would proceed, anticipating the game would likely be a traditional gear up, complete quests, and kill the boss experience. The idea that Lucifer could just wipe out an entire city at a whim shattered the sense of security and predictability; the world was not “safe” or stable. Discovering there are underground movements opposing Lucifer was both ironic and tried to give the sense that maybe Lucifer was also not quite so all-seeing or all-powerful either. Finding out that some NPC’s would not adventure with others, or had opinions on things you did and places you went was intended to make the world feel alive.

So, was there a plan? Yes, sort of… mostly the vision was to setup a baseline, shatter it, put a new baseline, reset it, and so on. After all, that’s what Hell is…
This guy was meant to make computer games.


In the end, games, movies, TV, books, comics, etc., are fiction meant to entertain, inspire, and evoke emotions. Maybe they just pass the time, or maybe they teach us something. But they are fiction. I feel for those people who were offended; Escape was never intended to offend anyone or make any political statements. Escape sought to be fun and entertaining, in an absurd context. Nothing more than that.
:bravo:
 

MRY

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From reading the article, I immediately thought, "Wow, sounds like a dream game and a work of genius." Sounded like a crackpot premise taken seriously, with the dark but subtle humor and clever writing. By contrast, the screens in the first entry in Crooked Bee's Let's Play were almost enough to get me to lose interest, despite her clever writing.

Game's splash screen gives the title as "Richard & Alan's[*] Escape from Hell," and the image is an overpaint (seemingly) of a scene from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. [* The game's creators are Richard Seaborne and Alan Murphy.] The next images are of an unfunny vaguely Ultima-ish exchange with blah graphics in which your (Richard's) girlfriend gets sent to hell because of a note left on Alan's door. The dialogue doesn't really seem to make any sense. (E.g., "What did it say?" she asks. "It said ..... I think," you reply. The bed shakes an mysteriously Alison vanishes!! "Cute trick," you say aloud. "Did you and Alan think this up by yourselves?" (punctuation as in original).) Then you get a call from the Divine Phone Company telling you that Alison was sent to hell when you read the note. (Why is God's phone company calling to tell you this?) Then you say, "You must be joking," and then repeat the magic word (which apparently is denoted "....."), then you go to hell, too. Then it goes to a map screen where you're standing next to a phone booth (never mind that you were on the phone in your own apartment), just like the one in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Righteous! Then there's a joke about how you need to carry out your quest because you paid good money for this game.

This is the classic kind of game that when described at a high level makes me teary eyed at the wonders of old that have passed from our world, and when examined up close makes me kind of glad for corporate risk aversion. Though, I doubt today's suits would let you pull something like a Stalin character with 16 points in Stealing and no other useful traits. Zing!
 

Arulan

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Keep up the great interviews and I'll have to start thinking of RPGCodex as a real gaming journalism site, and not the PR kind. :salute:

Escape from Hell has a number of fairly unique features. One of those is using special tridents, scattered across Hell, to shape the environment by altering the surrounding landscape and time frame. The idea of shaping the gameworld to your advantage or disadvantage remains, I believe, fairly underexplored even today. Was this feature implemented as fully as you had initially envisaged it?

Escape from Hell was an open-world design with the player being able to explore as much or as little as desired to finish the game, offering opportunity to go back and replay with different party combinations, gear, and quest choices to see what might happen differently.

The Tridents were another vehicle for the player to change things up, controlling combat difficulty and encounter outcomes by cleverly manipulating the “world” and technology levels. The Trident concept to re-shape the world and time frame was something I would’ve loved to have done more with, but became difficult to employ effectively within the reduced three planes of Hell (instead of the envisioned nine circles).

The Tridents sound very intriguing. They were obviously cut down, but I'm almost eager to play through the game just to find out.
 
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Consistent with what a lot of developers have said about the influence of Trip Hawkins during that time. Superb businessman, great handle on the hardware and distribution side of things, and the worst possible thing that could have happened to crpgs at that time. Wiithout him, games woul have had to become more expensive, reducing consumption and output for a while, probably smaller budgets, but once the hardware resettled they could have emerged with their creative ambitions intact.

Trip was ruthless, brilliant, and every one of EAs competitors was forced to imitate theist ruthlessness, get bought out or fold, and I don't know that the industry ever really recovered. Maybe it was inevitable, after all,companies getting eaten by others that can reduce their costs and improve their distribution is part of the normal creative destruction of capitalism. But I look at how the other 'big money' entertainment industries have done so much better at retaining a place for heartfelt creativity alongside the money projects, and I can't help but think that Trip's time at EA, through to the present, will be remembered as gamings equivalent of the dark point of the Hollywood studio system before the 70s film directors rebelled and destroyed the cabal.
 

BLOBERT

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BROS AWESOME THIRF IS THE SHIT I COME TO THERIS FUCKHOLE FOR
 

Crooked Bee

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Is Tower of Myraglen any fun?

It's... very weird, writing-wise. The dungeon design is pretty interesting, but the gameplay itself is perhaps too simplistic at this point.
 

Crooked Bee

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Codex 2013 Codex 2014 PC RPG Website of the Year, 2015 Codex 2016 - The Age of Grimoire MCA Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 BattleTech Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire
This seems to be a good place to say that the CPRG book still needs an Escape from Hell review... :M

Wasn't I going to do that? I think I was.
 

agris

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Great interview Bee. Escape from Hell looks really interesting, I can't believe I had never heard of it before.
 

Cleveland Mark Blakemore

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… most interesting RPG ever created. The artwork and writing was truly inspired. I got a bit scared the first time I played it. There was an eerie feeling in it that people nowadays think is evoked by bloom and real-time shadows. This was just a feeling the game created.
 

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