Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Mummy's Curse

Nearly a quarter of a century ago I wrote Scarab of Ra. Scarab was my first Macintosh game program. It was written for the Macintosh Plus, a machine with a very small black and white screen. In it, you become a "lowly undergraduate student in archaeology", and you are exploring the unknown and hazardous interior of the newly-discovered Great Pyramid of Ra.

Scarab of Ra was fairly advanced for its time. It offered a 3D adventurer's-eye view of the pyramid's interior, complete with some cheesy graphics tricks to make it harder to see details of items in the dim distance. It wasn't animated or realtime, but it kind of felt like it: every time you pressed a key to take a step, a little time would pass and certain hazards including cobras, monkeys, lions, and the horrible Mummy would change position to sneak up on you. The Great Pyramid was laid out as a series of mazes, each one larger as you got deeper in the Pyramid. In every game the mazes and the arrangement of traps and treasures was different.

I released it as shareware, which made it the very first product of Semicolon Software. This was all back before even the World Wide Web (man, that makes me feel old), so Scarab's distribution relied upon the kindness of strangers. People would upload it to their phone-in bulletin boards for others to find and download; they would give copies to their friends (Scarab's copyright notice explicitly allowed this), and Macintosh User Groups would put it on floppy disks along with other sharable programs to hand out to members at their monthly meetings.

This made for slow distribution and a fairly small audience, especially since there were not many Mac users at all back then. I charged $10 for it and left it to people's honesty to pay me if they liked it. I probably sold a total of a few hundred copies. That was nice, back then: it was just a hobby for me, and the proceeds from Scarab helped pay for new development software and Mac peripherals.

About three years after introducing Scarab I launched the first release of Solitaire Till Dawn. At first that too sold only slowly. But at about that time the Web appeared I coincidentally gave STD a major facelift, and its sales really took off. As a result, I continued to concentrate my efforts on Solitaire Till Dawn and never got around to updating Scarab. As chronicled elsewhere, changes in Apple's choice of CPUs and operating systems, coupled with the abandonment of the development software I'd used, left Scarab unable to run on modern Macs. It became "abandonware".

So you may imagine my surprise when, a few years ago, I began to run into evidence that Scarab of Ra is regarded in some circles as a "classic of Macintosh shareware" and that many people are nostalgically longing for its return. I do get the occasional email asking about it, but that's a trickle compared to the flood I regularly get about STD. But Scarab is featured prominently on web sites about classic Mac OS software, and a few months ago I discovered that it has a Facebook page of its own with several hundred "likes". Today I dropped in there (a vanity visit, I admit it) and discovered a link to another Facebook page which was an even bigger surprise.

The Revive Scarab of RA page documents a project to recreate Scarab of Ra. They are writing all-new code in Javascript so that you will someday be able to play Scarab of Ra in your Web browser. This also means that you will be able to play Scarab on any platform: Mac, Windows, Linux. That's pretty cool!

You might wonder how I feel about this: somebody else "ripping off" my product without so much as a how-d'you-do. I'll admit it makes me feel just a little bit itchy; but I'm going to rise above that and wish this guy and his collaborators all success. For one thing, it's not illegal to clone somebody else's product, so long as you don't violate copyright by stealing or copying the original product's code, graphics, or text. The code is no problem since they're writing theirs from scratch. They have not gotten as far as adding test or images yet, but the page's author has made it plain that he understands the copyright law and intends to provide new images and text, and produce something with an updated look and feel.

And I have to admit: in the past, a few people have asked me for permission to create new versions of Scarab. I've told all of them that I have no objection so long as they honor my copyright. This fellow (I don't know his name, it's not on the Facebook page) may well have been one of them. And even if he wasn't, I have no reason not to give him the same answer.

So more power to him! If he brings it off, it will be quite a tour de force—and I will be very stoked.

I even clicked "Like" on the Facebook page!