Bonus: The Rise & Fall of Ambrosia Software, '90s Mac Legends - PAX Aus 2019 talk
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For Mac gamers in the 90s, the people of Ambrosia Software were rockstars. Heroes. And with brilliant games like Maelstrom, Escape Velocity, Harry the Handsome Executive, Apeiron, and more, plus a company newsletter that spoke directly to the fans, they could do no wrong. In light of Ambrosia's recent closure (finally!), Secret History of Mac Gaming author Richard Moss recounts the studio's high and lowpoints and tells the stories behind its best games.
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There'll be no regular episode of The Life & Times of Video Games this week because I'm off on my honeymoon. But to tide you by until I'm back, I thought you might enjoy listening to my talk from PAX Australia 2019 about the lesser-known of the indie game publishing giants from before the time of Braid and Steam and all that other stuff we've had over the past 15 years.
The talk was called The Rise & Fall of Ambrosia Software, '90s Mac Legends, and you can find accompanying slides at https://tinyurl.com/paxausambrosiatalk as well as my full script on the accompanying blog post at lifeandtimes.games. So please, enjoy, and I'll see you in a couple of weeks.
[note that this won't correspond exactly to the audio, as it was my written script rather than what I actually said If you're looking at the slides, "[NEXT]" means go to the next slide.]]
Hello everyone. My name is Richard Moss, and today I'm going to talk to you about a company that's pretty near and dear to my heart, not only as someone who grew up playing some of their games — [NEXT] but also as the author of a book called The Secret History of Mac Gaming, which covers their history, along with lots of other games and game developers from the 1980s and 90s Mac gaming scene. [NEXT]
If you were a Mac gamer in the late 90s, chances are pretty high that you would have had at least one game in your collection that came from Ambrosia Software. [NEXT] They were heroes among the Macintosh faithful, one of only a few companies that made its games exclusive to the Mac. And arguably the best among them in terms of the quality of its output.
Games like [NEXT] Maelstrom, [NEXT] Escape Velocity, [NEXT] Ferazel's Wand, [NEXT] Apeiron, and [NEXT] Bubble Trouble were hallmarks of quality, even if most of them were essentially just jazzed-up versions of classic 80s games. And they had top-drawer offbeat gaming options, too, with titles like [NEXT] Avara, a kinda abstract-looking arena-style first-person shooter, and [NEXT] Harry the Handsome Executive, where you guide a middle management executive through an office electronics apocalypse while scooting around in a swivel chair.
For about 15 years or so, from 1993 to around 2008 or so, the Ambrosia Software name was inseparable from quality Macintosh games. But then it faded rapidly into the background, for reasons I'll get to later, and finally the company closed its doors at the end of last year.
So in recognition of Ambrosia's achievements, which have slipped a bit under the radar outside of the old-school Mac faithful, I wanted to give you a tour through the company's rise and fall.
There's not enough time to cover everything, but I'll try to get to all the key stuff and you'll hopefully come away with a good sense of a) why Ambrosia Software matters to the history of computer games and b) what made Ambrosia special to the Macintosh flock.
I've got some interview clips, a bit of gameplay footage, some photos and old documents to help us along the way. I wanted to set up an emulator as well but just ran out of time unfortunately. And hopefully there'll be plenty of time at the end for questions and stories from you in the audience.
But before we go into rise and fall of Ambrosia, let's do some quick background. First, on Ambrosia founder Andrew Welch. Then second on the Mac gaming scene in the early 90s.
[NEXT] So, Andrew Welch. His dad owned a marketing company, and it was through that business that young Andrew planted the seed for what would become Ambrosia. When he was something like 12 or 13 years old, he found the company's library of books and documents on typography. He thought it was cool, so he learnt how to design his own typefaces on his Macintosh. Then, starting from age 14 or so, he sold them on America OnLine.
But most people doing this sold their fonts without any documentation at all, so there was no way to know after the fact who made it, how to pay for it, who to contact for support, and so on. So Andrew taught himself how to code a utility program that could wrap his fonts in a simple document reader thing.
He enjoyed coding so much that he kept doing it, and made various other utilities for his relatives. Then he went off to college to study photojournalism and in his spare time he created [NEXT] his first game, a Wheel of Fortune clone called Wacky Wheel.
[NEXT] [show it in action]
This was kind of par for the course with small Mac games at the time. There were lots of people putting out crappy little games as freeware or shareware, but even the rare good ones weren't really making anything more than pizza and beer money.
[NEXT] Or literally beer.
Quick definition of shareware: [NEXT] it's software that you give away, free, but you ask that if someone likes it they pay you a registration fee — which, depending on the exact implementation, might get that person customer support or free updates or maybe just remove the nag screen from the boot-up process.
[NEXT] This is a pretty typical shareware notice, taken from an early DOS game.
Over on the PC side, shareware had already taken off. [NEXT] Apogee Software and Epic MegaGames were making a fortune working with independent developers and selling their games in a clever twist of the standard shareware model called The Apogee Model. Instead of giving away the whole thing for free and requesting that people pay if they like it, Apogee and Epic's games were [NEXT] episodic — episode one distributed freely over the internet and BBSs and through mail-order floppy disks, and all subsequent episodes available to order for a set fee.
I'm actually writing a book about this stuff, so if you're curious to learn more ask me about it later.
And id Software were just starting to make their name at this point as well. [NEXT] Wolfenstein 3D dropped in 92, then [NEXT] Doom in 93, both published as shareware on PC through Apogee.
So the time was ripe for shareware to step up and hit the big time on the Mac side, too. The Mac was at the peak of its [NEXT] pre-iMac popularity. College kids across the United States had Macs set up in their dorm rooms, while creative professionals all around the world had taken up the Mac mantle and were keen for more time-wasters to get them through the lulls in their output.
But there weren't many games coming out — the porting industry, which took PC games and put them on Mac, was still in its infancy after struggling with the [NEXT] peculiarities of adapting games for the Mac's multi-window mouse and menu-driven interface. Truly cross-platform commercial computer games that had concurrent Mac and PC releases were still rare (though there were a few special ones like [NEXT] SimCity 2000), and Mac-first development had gone into a bit of a lull (for a variety of reasons) at the end of the 1980s — from which it had yet to fully recover.
So there was lots of room for a great new Mac-native game to stand out.
And, crucially for our story here, someone was wrong on the Internet. I'll let you hear this bit straight from Andrew: [NEXT]
AW: I think it was the summer after maybe my freshman year of college that someone had said — I think it was called the Mac IIci or something like that. It was one of the colour Macs that came out. And someone had said something about the fact that while it was too slow to do decent animation on — and by that point in time I had actually taught myself for Assembly language, as well. So I set out to prove this guy wrong, because it's always fun to try to prove someone on the Internet that they're wrong.
*laughs* So, yeah, so that's how I started writing — and I really wasn't sure what I was going to do yet — but I started writing some kind of animation stuff. I grew up going to a lot of the arcades where we played games like Asteroids and Centipede and that type of thing where after school I would get dropped off there and play. So I decided to make an Asteroids-based game.
He asked a couple of friends to help him out with the graphics, and got together with a few of his college buddies and a microphone to make a bunch of silly noises and record stuff off the TV for sound effects.
They pulled liberally from pop culture, drawing tiny clips and references (without permission) from all over the place, kind of like the wall of sound that early hip-hop and remix culture had.[NEXT]
He called the game Maelstrom and put it online as shareware, published under the name Ambrosia Software — a name he pulled from Greek mythology. You could play it and share it freely, but it'd nag you to send in a cheque to register every time you booted the game. And a lot of people did. [NEXT]
everyday we would go to the mailbox and there'd be letters from all over the world. I just had a blast. I thought it was really really cool that I could do something just sitting in my room in upstate New York, which was where I was at the time. And I got these contacts from all over the world. I thought that was really really cool, and it was at a time where people were just starting to get connected online.
Like now it's no big deal — you can go on Twitter, Facebook, anywhere, and you can contact people from anywhere, any walk of life, pretty much anywhere that they have an Internet connection. But back then I thought it was kind of special and kind of cool. I really enjoyed that part of it more than anything else.
One of the coolest things about Maelstrom was that you could modify it. [NEXT] You could swap out its graphics and sounds for something else, to re-skin it to look like Star Trek or old-school Asteroids or something totally different. To layer on even more pop culture references. [NEXT] And lots of people did this, for years after its release — right up until a few months ago you could even download most of these user-made skins and mods directly from Ambrosia's website.
Maelstrom was such a success that Andrew found himself at a crossroads. He could keep going down the photojournalism path, or he could double down on his shareware business and do Ambrosia Software full time.
On the advice of one of Maelstrom's customers, [NEXT] a famous photographer for National Geographic, he chose the latter. He and his college roommate incorporated the company in 1993, and they soon managed to convince some merchant services company to give them an account so they could [NEXT] take credit card payments — which seems like nothing now, but was a huge deal back then, before we even had a World Wide Web, when accepting online payments seemed risky.
Come 1994 Ambrosia Software was ready to expand its operations. Maelstrom had earned enough money and acclaim that Andrew had the foundation he needed to hire office space and operate as a shareware publisher like Apogee and Epic.
He put out a puzzle game he'd made called [NEXT] Chiral [kye-ral] as well as a Galaga clone [NEXT] called Swoop that had been developed by a guy he found online, David Wareing, along with David's wife Sheryn — they're from Adelaide, by the way. Both games were a modest success — nothing at all on the order of Maelstrom's profits, but enough to keep things moving along.
And while this was going on, Ambrosia started to engage more with the Mac community. Andrew had always been active on Usenet and AOL, but now they took on more of an official presence. Mainly through an [NEXT] electronic newsletter called The Ambrosia Times.
I guess this was me deciding to do a blog before there were blogs. I just thought — I had seen some company newsletters that some companies were doing. I thought it might be a cool idea to do it. We felt like we were part of the community, so we didn't have any problem being open about — talking about — stuff that was going on. And honestly we found it kind of fun to share what we were doing there. Some months it became a chore to put together but I still think it was kind of a cool idea from the point of view of connecting with the people that liked our games or utilities or whatever it was.
[NEXT]I had a lot of fun reading through all the issues when I was writing my book, and they clearly had lots of fun at Ambrosia making them too. It was beautifully naive stuff, full of cringeworthy photos that they'd taken with an Apple QuickTake camera and silly stories of office life and the same kind of humour and 90s edginess and remix culture that they'd put in their games.
We were part of the first generation that there is a permanent record of all the stupid shit that we did. *laughs* Which is kind of scary, and had we known how permanent that record was going to be maybe we would not have done that.
[NEXT]Andrew was never afraid to voice his opinion, either. Ambrosia was fiercely independent and fiercely devoted to two ideas: 1) that Windows sucks [NEXT] and 2) that the internet was the future, which extended to — as I said before — an electronic-only newsletter and digital-only games and software distribution. [NEXT]
They were almost intolerably smug about it, like the Mac dude from the I'm A Mac, I'm a PC [NEXT] ads a few years back. And Andrew Welch wrote more than a few editorials in the newsletter that laid this message down hard.
The fans ate it all up, though, because being a Mac user in the 90s was so hard that you almost had to have that zealous belief in its total superiority to put up with the fact that Windows was marching towards a 99% share of the computer market. And I think also because it kind of inadvertently fit with Ambrosia's games, which were often loud and brash and in-your-face.
Speaking of their games, we left off before with their second in-house title,[NEXT] Chiral, and their first external game,[NEXT] Swoop. After that, their rate of output ramped way up. They had a bunch more arcade mashups over the next several years —[NEXT] Barrack was similar to arcade hit Qix and the Windows game JezzBall, but way louder and more obnoxious.
[NEXT]Apeiron was like Centipede, [NEXT] Bubble Trouble took its cue from Pengo, [NEXT] Slithereens was an elaborate Snake-slash-Nibbler-like game, and David Wareing's two [NEXT] Rising games were kind of like the Xevious vertically-scrolling shoot-'em-up.
Their big hit of this period was a space game called Escape Velocity, [NEXT] which has a fun origin story — so I'll just quickly share it with you. It started as yet another Asteroids clone, written in creator Matt Burch's free time, because he was way ahead of his electrical engineering classmates at college, but pretty quickly he started to expand it into a sandbox game — go anywhere, be anything, whether it's a space pirate or a trader or mercenary or government agent or whatever, with inspiration from [NEXT] old model rocketry catalogues, [NEXT] Star Wars and Star Trek, and the [NEXT] Doc Smith adventure novels. And a very important, very [NEXT] famous game from 1984 called Elite.
Which he'd never actually played. He owned a copy, but he'd lost the game's [NEXT] Lenslok copy protection device before he even got the chance to play it once, and the store wouldn't let him take it back. So how did it influence him, if he'd never played it? Let's find out.
So I was stuck with a copy of Elite, but the thing I did have was the manual. And this was back in the days when manuals were, well, physical manuals, and they were very detailed. They often had a story. If you look up the manual to Elite, not only does it have a detailed backstory of the universe but also has a maybe 3,000 word short story in it about a fictional space pilot who is travelling space lanes and fighting pirates and all this. I read that so many times at age 10 or something. It was right in that zone where it was a very impressionable time. And I thought, wow what a great videogame this must be, if I ever got to play it.
[NEXT] Escape Velocity captured Elite's pioneering, playful spirit, and it really resonated with Mac gamers. But its success probably owes as much to its moddability as to its core design. Like Maelstrom, it encouraged players to change it — but because it's a much more elaborate game than Maelstrom, these modifications could also be much more elaborate. You could overhaul it completely.
As a result, EV plugin sharing and authoring became almost as popular as the game itself. Most plugins would only be small — they'd add some new ship upgrade or change a couple of behaviours or something — but some were much more ambitious. Modders call them total conversion mods — they replace the graphics, story, everything, really only using the original game as an engine.
Peter Cartwright's EV Override [NEXT] total conversion mod was so impressive that Ambrosia wanted to publish it as a paid update, with code upgrades to the engine from Matt Burch. And then, again, later on, EV Override got a total conversion mod with an elaborate new story [NEXT] by a group of Tasmanian university students that would also get published as a separate game with new engine enhancements supplied once more by Matt Burch. That was called EV Nova. [NEXT]
Plugins and community involvement had become integral to Ambrosia Software's identity. Their arcade mashups didn't get many player-made addons, as these had no plugin architecture, but they had another open-ended space game called [NEXT] Ares, an abstract first-person shooter called [NEXT] Avara, a couple of RPGs — [NEXT] Cythera and Pillars of Garendall [NEXT] — and my favourite Ambrosia game, Harry the Handsome Executive, [NEXT] all of which got dozens of player-made levels and modifications.
And I want to talk briefly about Harry in a moment, because it's a fantastically creative game that I think exemplified the approach Ambrosia took as a publisher. I once asked Andrew Welch about why their catalogue was so eclectic, and I remember he explained that they never really thought about branding.
If an independent developer sent in a demo that seemed cool, they'd sign them and then put some resources into making sure it met the Ambrosia standard — which I think we could loosely define as a level of polish and shine that made a game barely distinguishable from a full-price commercial title, despite being a mere 20 or 30 bucks shareware.
Sometimes hitting that polish was harder than hoped, like with Cythera — which was just overflowing with funny bugs like infinite inventory [NEXT] if you carried all your stuff in a series of corpses, which were weightless and so tripped up the weight carrying limit. (And if you made the corpse at the end of the chain carry the one at the beginning the game would crash.)
Ambrosia's PR guy of the time Jason Whong came up with a creative way to turn these bugs and the delays they caused in the publishing schedule into positive buzz and free publicity. He also wanted to make sure Ambrosia would fork out the money to have a booth at Macworld Expo 2000, so he wrote [NEXT] in The Ambrosia Times that he'd eat actual bugs at the event if any Ambrosia products that year shipped with a bug. [NEXT]
Which of course they did, but it was all in good fun, except for...well, let's hear Jason say this:
We did it at I'm pretty sure it was the 3Dfx booth. It was a big stage. There were probably hundreds of people watching. And there was I think 400 mealworms, four deaths-head cockroaches, four Madagascan hissing cockroaches, one tarantula, and one scorpion. The mealworms were kind of in a salad. They had dressing on them. There was — the cockroaches I think were on pizza. They weren't very good at all. The tarantula — okay, so the story with tarantulas is that if you're cooking them you're supposed to cook them over an open flame so that you can singe the hairs off of them. And this tarantula was cooked in an oven, so it still had hair on it. And I bit into the back of it — and I don't remember so much about what it tasted like because it was seasoned or something. But the hair stuck in my gums for the rest of the day.
And you're at a show. You're talking to people. And you're feeling these hairs scratching the inside of your teeth every time you talk. It gets kind of distressing. *laughs*
[NEXT] So, quick sidebar about Harry the Handsome Executive, because I don't think it's as well-known as it should be. Harry was made by a couple of high schoolers, Ben Spees and Josh Rothman. Ben did the design and programming while Josh — who went on to write for the New Yorker magazine — did most of the writing.
Ben had dreamed of having a game published by Ambrosia. He was one of those fans I talked about earlier who just idolised them. And in his last year of high school he asked Josh to help him pull it off.
Josh suggested either a handsome executive called Harry who's stuck in a swivel chair [NEXT] for the entire game, or a forklift driver called Phil who's stuck in a forklift for the entire game, and Ben decided to go with the former. And then, having never worked in an office, they proceeded to base their world on a bunch of Dilbert comics. Here's Ben speaking about that:
We were able to fool people into thinking we knew all about the tribulations of the modern workplace. But we were just teenagers.
And of course Dilbert was based on reality, and when I did get into offices it was very much what I was expecting.
[NEXT]So basically you had on office full of cubicles where nobody ever gets much work done because they're busy sending memos and throwing darts at the wall and eating donuts and so on. And you, as a middle manager named Harry, were tasked with single-handedly staving off a robot proletariat uprising — which is to say you had to use your staple gun and swivel chair to fight back against the sentient office equipment, which has had enough of being mistreated.
Now, speaking of office life, Ambrosia was a bit of an odd to place to work, as I suppose many game studios are. At the company's peak, Andrew Welch would show up at a nightclub and buy everyone there a drink on the company card, and he'd drive around in a black Hummer SUV that apparently smelled like a boat.
Office life was a mix of practical jokes, nice perks like a monthly massage from a professional masseuse, PC and Windows bashing, and trying not to be driven insane by a [NEXT] parrot called Hector D. Byrd, who despite the name was actually a female bird.
It was probably one of the worst decisions of my life because parrots are messy, and they're loud.
Hector had learnt how to mimic the sound their fax machine makes when it's out of paper, as well as of the door opening and closing and a bunch of other sounds, and once she bit a lady who was nice to her. [NEXT] Plus Hector loved to swear when visitors came into the office. So it's no surprise that Hector took a starring role as a villain in the Ambrosia Times newsletter.
it wasn't anything that we planned, we just kind of thought it was funny — but just decided to take that adversarial relationship and foster it a little bit. But it definitely was from a real basis — I mean, that bird aged me.
I also heard that on at least one occasion Hector's old feathers got jammed up in the expensive Silicon Graphics computer in the server room, where they hosted their website.
Most of the game development was done externally, but Ambrosia had a few coders in-house for their productivity and utility software, along with a customer support rep, a marketing and PR rep, and a couple of others — with total staff number generally hovering around the high single or low double digits.
Which posed a bit of a problem. By the early 2000s, most commercial games were made by development teams two or three times their company size. Sometimes considerably more. At budgets in the high six or low seven figures. And while Ambrosia wasn't a commercial publisher, they'd built their reputation on being commercial calibre. And Andrew Welch was uneasy about the idea of scaling up, especially when they could survive as they were just fine off their utility products alone. Here's how he explained it:
what it took to actually produce a game was getting more and more like movie budget-ish *laughs* in terms of the production that needed to be done to produce the games. And to some extent I regret not pursuing that further, but at the time I was looking at it from the point of view that we're a small shop and to do what is expected these days in terms of a high production value 3D game, takes a ton of money. And there is also a ton of risk involved where if you're a big gaming company like EA or whatever, if one or two titles don't work out then that's fine. It's not a big deal.
There's really no huge problem because you will have a game somewhere that will do really well. But for us I was somewhat concerned about that we would spend a ton of money trying to produce a really awesome 3D whatever and if for whatever reason it didn't go over well, we were done. So a lot of it just had to do with what it would take to produce a game that would actually sell.
And this is around the time where big-name bands were starting to be signed on to do the soundtracks for various games and where the 3D engines were really kind of defining the games that were coming out. And I guess I kind of looked at that and in some sense kind of chickened out, from the point of view that I was really concerned that we could just spend a ton of money just trying to produce something and have it not end up working out. And then we're just done.
They didn't get out of games right away. After EV Nova they had over a [NEXT] dozen games — here's five of them. Some were small original titles by tiny external teams, including a nifty shoot-'em-up called SketchFighter 4000 Alpha, which as you can see had a super cool hand-drawn aesthetic, and the first game by the guys who made Unity Engine, GooBall. And some Mac ports of PC indie games — notably a few of Prison Architect developer Introversion's early games and Derek Yu's pre-Spelunky project Aquaria.
[NEXT] And there was a Magic The Gathering-esque card game based on EV Nova, which looks like this.
But they never again scaled the heights of Maelstrom, Apeiron, and the EV series. And after Macs moved to [NEXT] Intel processors in 2006 they did little other than update some titles to work natively on newer machines.
Ambrosia's productivity utilities [NEXT] took centre stage for a few years, as a new generation of Mac gamers came along who'd never really known life with Mac-only game development, and gradually Ambrosia faded into the collective memory.
When I interviewed Andrew Welch for my book a few years ago, he insisted that Ambrosia was still very much alive. [NEXT] And that he himself continued to use the company's utility software on a daily basis. But they'd had no full-time staff since 2013, when all but a couple of people were laid off after years of reduced engagement with the business from Andrew — or at least that seems to be the case from what I've been able to piece together so far, with plenty more people still to talk to; I certainly didn't hear that from him. And at that point, in 2016, they'd no new releases in years except for minor maintenance updates to the Snapz Pro screen recording tool. [NEXT]
Then those stopped, too. As did the registration key system that gave people their code when they bought something from Ambrosia, and the once-thriving [NEXT] forums that a few diehards had still been active in. And finally, late last year, Ambrosia's last remaining employee, the part-time money man Bernard Cockhern, who had dutifully sent out quarterly royalty statements to the creators of Ambrosia's many celebrated games — [NEXT] he emailed them to say that he was done. Ambrosia was officially shutting down its operations.
And so they went out not with a bang, nor even so much as a whimper, but rather a quiet fade out into the sunset.
Which I think is an interesting contrast for a company that in its heyday was loud and bashful and proud, declaring to anyone who'll listen that shareware is the wave of the future, that digital distribution is destined to dominate, and that you might as well go all-in on it now — because the signs were already there that retail, that expensive, slow monster that it was, would sooner or later collapse under its own inadequacies.
In retrospect, Ambrosia's smug, uncompromising dedication to both the Mac and to digital distribution may have been as much of a fault as a virtue. It helped them stand out, to be the big fish in a tiny pond, but it limited their audience. It left them off the radar of most media folks, as almost all of them ignored shareware, and they despite their popularity Apple ignored them too.
Most importantly, though, this was in a period, right before the first iMac hit in 98 and for a while afterwards, where not only was retail distribution still by far the dominant method for buying software and games, but also where speculation was rife that Apple would go out of business. [NEXT] So it was almost an act of insanity to be a digital-only, Mac-only software and games publisher.
And Andrew sees it too:
It's one of those things where I all along felt very strongly about the idea of selling a digital product online. I really thought that was the way that things should be done. As it turns out I was right, okay, but I was wrong for the time. Because at the time not enough people were online and there were still software stores that you could walk into, and there were boxes on the shelves where you could buy this stuff. I mean, there still are today, but I just never really wanted to make that leap to go into the commercial publishing part of it.
In part because I had some really horrible experiences with publishers back when I was younger, and in part also because I just really thought that the type of thing that we were doing really should be sold online. In retrospect it was probably a mistake. It was probably one of those things where if the company really really wanted to do well we probably should have done that but just. But just philosophically I didn't want to. *laughs* I think I got a little bit too stubborn on that count. We probably should have done something with it.