Retronauts Micro 70, plus the inside story of Oregon Trail

A fascinating excerpt from Break Out, a new book on Apple II's gaming history, and a chat with its author.

First things first: Our latest Retronauts Micro episode has arrived. All's right with the earth.

Micro episode 70 works as a sort of companion piece to our Apple II deep-dive from earlier this year. In fact, I referenced today's topic in that episode: David Craddock's book Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution. David has written quite a few books through the years, as well as editing magazines. I was fortunate enough to look at an advance copy of Break Out last year and found myself absolutely amazed by the quality and depth of interviews David pulled together for it. It's packed with meaty, first-person accounts of the formative days of gaming and it's absolutely a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in the medium's history… which, one assumes, would include someone reading the Retronauts site. 

This episode, then, consists of a conversation about the book with David: What inspired him to write it, the challenges he faced in reaching out to so many designers nearing retirement age, and the most interesting anecdotes and experiences of the process. You may notice that today is not Sept. 28 or 29, as the episode says. We were going to post this episode alongside the book's launch… but then the publisher pushed up the release by about 18 days without warning. So this is running a wee bit early. I promise the information is still good despite arriving early.

And, once you've listened to the episode, please enjoy part two of this double-feature: An excerpt from my favorite chapter in the book.

Episode description: Jeremy speaks to game and computer historian David Craddock about his new book of Apple II game developer interviews, "Break Out," including David's most interesting experiences meeting the people who created video game history.

MP3, 22.5 MB | 46:49

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Break Out: An Excerpt

The following excerpt comes from Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution by David L. Craddock, available now in hardcover from Schiffer Publishing. In this chapter, roommates and student-teachers Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger work around their teaching schedules and brainstorm game design for the first version of The Oregon Trail—a text-only "edutainment" game designed for Rawitsch's history students.

Charting the Trail

Their tight schedule pushed more than coaxed the friends into a routine. “I drew up flowcharts and started coding on paper over the weekend,” Heinemann says. 

“On the weekends, they used to borrow the teletype,” Rawitsch recalls. “They brought it back to our apartment and set it up in the kitchen where we were close to the phone. We were able to call into the computer from the apartment.” 

On Monday after Bryant Junior High’s final bell, Dillenberger and Heinemann crammed into the janitor’s closet and got to work on The Oregon Trail. “Monday after school, I gave the code to Paul to type in while I continued to code and adjust flowcharts,” Heinemann continues. “Ideas were still coming and being incorporated into the game.” 

“We could only stay at school for so long,” Dillenberger adds. “Also, we were teaching our classes, so we had to do this when we weren’t teaching or prepping lessons.” 

The three friends played to their strengths. Rawitsch and Heinemann spent Monday and Tuesday evening brainstorming design ideas; Heinemann wrote most of the code, then asked Dillenberger to look over what he’d written while he pushed ahead. At rst, Rawitsch played the role of historical consultant, pitching design ideas and giving input on how history should influence in-game events. As he picked up BASIC, he wrote lines of code here and there. “We had to give Rawitsch our school’s login information so that he could access the program at his school,” Dillenberger says. 

“The technology of the day was that you had telephone lines connected to the computer,” Rawitsch con rms. Bryant’s teletype connected to a Hewlett-Packard 2000 mainframe located in the district office of the Minneapolis school district. “If somebody was in a school building, they could pick up a phone, call the computer’s telephone number, and then take the handset for the phone and insert it into a [modem] that was connected to a teletype. So the user interface was very clunky.” 

Setting The Oregon Trail’s beginning and ending parameters was simple enough. Players started in Independence, Missouri, where they received a small stipend to purchase a covered wagon, oxen, food and water, and bullets for hunting. Their goal was to follow the trail, overcoming robbers, disease, and other impediments, and pull into Willamette Valley in Oregon with at least one settler. 

Setting out from Missouri and arriving in Oregon were bookends. Whatever historical scenarios and tidbits Rawitsch could think up to t between them, Heinemann and Dillenberger were con dent they could plug in. Nevertheless, the sky was not the limit. Since teletypes used paper rather than screens to display information, The Oregon Trail was limited to text output and the occasional primitive noise. 

“The only sound we could program was the sound of a bell that went ‘ding,’” Dillenberger explains. “However, we could program consequences for student decisions. If a student responds one way, then A happens; if a student responds another way, then B happens. Also, by using probabilities, for the same student response, sometimes something would happen and sometimes it would not happen.” 

Despite their limitations, the trio found plenty of ways to keep the game stimulating. Gameplay proceeds over turns. At the beginning of a turn, the game prints out a menu of options. Players type in their choice, which is wired to the mainframe, and the mainframe sends back a verdict based on various factors and probabilities. A fresh menu appears, and the process repeats. 

To keep students on their toes, Rawitsch researched the hazards that real settlers had faced on the journey west, and Heinemann and Rawitsch converted them into events that occurred based on odds. During each turn, the game evaluates conditions such as the health of each party member, their supplies, wagon load, and their location on the trail. Rattlesnakes inhabit wild, overgrown regions. Fatigue sets in when players push the party too long and hard, motivating them to fluctuate between quicker and leisurely paces. Party members whose ailments go untreated, or who do not receive proper time to rest, could attract diseases like measles, typhoid, or cholera, and die along the journey. “You could play the game ten times and not get bitten by and snake, but suddenly some new danger hit you,” Heinemann says. 

“You have to think of what a student might type into the computer in order to test it,” Dillenberger chimes in. “Rawitsch needed to be constantly consulted to make sure the content was accurate. A lot of the program was based on the probabilities that certain events would happen on a particular segment of the journey. It was a real team effort.” 

One of the most compelling actions players can take is hunting game. “The food you could buy in Independence, Missouri, where you start from, was only going to last for a week or so, so you had to hunt,” Rawitsch says. Hunting unfolds over a series text prompts. At the start of a hunt, the game explains that players must wait until they got confirmation that wild game—squirrels, rabbits, prairie dogs, and larger prey like wolves and buffalo—have been spotted, and then type BANG to score a hit.

Rawitsch and his friends implemented twists to keep hunting from growing stale. “The computer was set up to rst check if you had spelled the word correctly, because you could only [hit targets and get food] if you spelled it correctly; and second, the computer had a clock in it that would keep track of how fast you typed that word in.” 

The Oregon Trail was not all fun and gunplay. According to Rawitsch’s research into the western movement, roughly fty percent of settlers died out on the trail. “I think kids needed to realize that that was part of the reality of being a pioneer.” 

Unlike the wave of action games that would dominate arcades over the next decade, settlers in The Oregon Trail did not explode or fizzle out while a playful dirge signaled their demise. “We thought it would be fun for kids to answer questions regarding what should happen now that they have ‘died,’” Dillenberger says. “I remember writing those questions, like where should they be buried; what should be on their tombstone; who should we notify; and so forth.” 

Yet death was not a total downer. Years later, when Apple II computers and copies of The Oregon Trail became fixtures in classrooms, students would get a kick out of naming party members after friends, teachers, family members, and pets. Sending a wagon of reviled teachers to their demise by intentionally botching a fording elicited good-natured laughs. 

“The first time I played it, I died in Wyoming,” remembers Heinemann, chuckling over the memory of his entire party expiring after just a few minutes of play. “When Paul and I were debugging it, we were laughing our heads off when things went badly for us. I have to think long and hard why it was amusing, but I think we were surprised by the realism in this little computer game.” 

By Wednesday afternoon, the game had advanced enough for them to take it through a full cycle, and Heinemann had squished most of the bugs. Most. “There were two complex mathematical equations to determine the probability of riders attacking, and getting cold weather, that were a challenge, also.” 

Oregon Trail’s most persistent bug affected the ending of the game. Players who made it to Oregon earned a score based on how many party members survived the trip, how many supplies they had left, and how long they took to reach their destination. For some reason, Heinemann couldn’t get the game to properly calculate the player’s date of arrival. “The arrival date algorithm gave me ftts. By that Friday, it was still printing out things like You arrived on October 0.” 

On Thursday evening, the Bryant High janitor’s closet where Heinemann and Dillenberger worked had gone from neat and orderly to littered with wads of punch paper and printouts covered in handwriting to denote bugs and possible fixes. Heinemann occupied one of the folding chairs, or sat on the floor so he could spread out papers to more easily follow the program’s ow. Despite being surrounded by clutter and up to their elbows in hard-to-root-out bugs, the friends didn’t feel stressed. “Periodically, I had Dillenberger try it out to see if it was working,” Heinemann remembers. “I didn’t realize it would become the phenomenon that it did, but I knew right away kids would be playing this all around the Twin Cities because it was the best thing out there.” 

“It was pretty exciting,” Rawitsch says. “We all had an extraordinary experience being a part of the early days of computers being used in schools. And we didn’t realize at the time that we were creating something that was going to be unlike anything that anyone had ever seen.” 

Litmus Test 

Less than two weeks later on Friday, December 3, 1971, Rawitsch wheeled Jordan Junior High’s single teletype into his history classroom. The cacophony of shouts, laughter, and conversation faded, replaced by the low drone of wheels rolling across the floor and stunned silence from students. None of them knew what to make of the device. It looked like a typewriter: keyboard at the front, giant roll of paper set into place in the carriage up top. 

Rawitsch wheeled the teletype into position and explained how they would be spending their class period. They were going to play a game he had invented called The Oregon Trail. The kids approached cautiously, eyeing the terminal as if it were the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Within minutes, the virtual wagon was loaded, and the group of settlers had struck out on the trail. Rawitsch watched from the sidelines. “I think all three of us believed in the teaching model that you’re there to be a helper, a guide, not somebody who knows everything and tells you what to do, and the student must accept that as the truth and get a chance to discover things.” 

Discover things they did, and in rapid succession. Rawitsch instituted a rotation, calling kids up in groups of four or ve so everyone got a turn at the teletype. Near the end of the period, he had to pry them away from the machine. Organizing an all-hands discussion, he asked them what they thought of the game and what they had learned. Their response floored him: they talked and shouted over each other—nothing new there—but out of eagerness to contribute to the discussion. 

His shock deepened when he, Heinemann, and Dillenberger convened back at the apartment after work and talked over the day’s events. Once a program was stored on a mainframe, any terminal connected to that mainframe could access its program; Heinemann and Dillenberger had wasted little time in setting up The Oregon Trail for their classes. The reaction at their school astounded them. “Heinemann and Dillenberger reported to me that after the last bell rang, the kids who’d had a chance to see the game in action came to the room where the teletype was, and that a line would form down the hall of kids waiting to get their turn,” Rawitsch says. “It seemed pretty clear to us that we had hit on something.” 

“We thought that kids would like it, but we didn’t realize how much they would like it,” Dillenberger says. “It certainly made us feel good to see kids lining up to play the game. Heinemann and I let our students play the game as well.” 

Over the next two weeks, The Oregon Trail spread faster than a case of measles. Teachers caught wind of the computer game stored on the school district’s mainframe and incorporated it into their classrooms. A few changes had to be made. For instance, students picked up on the fact that the best typists bagged the most food. “Typing BANG proved to be too easy,” Heinemann says. “They would get their fingers on those four letters and tell a friend ‘Okay, I’m ready.’” His solution was to have the game randomly select a gun-sounding word for students to type: BANG, or WHAM, or POW. Students would not know what they were expected to type until the command appeared on the teletype’s paper. “I have a printout from 1976 with my handwriting implementing that change.” 

Other gaffes were more humorous than aggravating. “The cleverest ‘hack’ I remember involved buying supplies at a fort,” Dillenberger says. When players choose to go shopping, the game prints a menu of supplies and prices. Players type in how much they want to spend, and the game adjusts their balance using the formula Balance – Purchase = New Balance. Students quickly discovered they could type in a negative amount and trick the game into converting expenses into gains. Per the rules of mathematics, two minus signs adjacent to one another results in addition: 2 – (-10), for example, becomes 2 + 10. “The x was simple: we had the computer check to see if what the student typed in was a positive number. If not, they were told to type in a positive amount,” Dillenberger says. 

Near the end of December, the student-teaching terms of Rawitsch, Dillenberger, and Heinemann drew to a close. The Oregon Trail’s popularity, and existence, almost ended with it. As his last act as a student teacher, Rawitsch printed off a copy of the game’s source code, and deleted it from the computer. “Even today, it seems kind of ludicrous that we didn’t somehow feel that it was critical to keep the code on the computer, and lobbied to the school district to maintain it,” he admits. “We took it o the computer because we were from college, and they were of the Minneapolis public school, so it didn’t seem right to leave our stuff on their computer.” 

Heinemann and Dillenberger didn’t shed a tear when they learned of The Oregon Trail’s semi- demise. According to Heinemann’s recollection, “I was more interested in getting those last two trimesters done and getting a job to worry about what was going to happen to our game. I think we were thinking fame, not money, at that point.”