A Look Back at Commander Keen

10 years ago, a group of programmers and artists working at Softdisk created a piece of software that laid the foundation for just about every popular computer game today.  Working for a company that didn't want to make use of the program that they created, these guys instead turned to shareware pioneer Scott Miller to publish their first game.  The company is id Software, and the game is Commander Keen!

Keen 1 Title ScreenOn December 14, 1990, a landmark computer game was released.  Episode 1 of Commander Keen came out this day in 1990, and forever changed PC computing.  Commander Keen was id Software's first big game, and along with the original Duke Nukem (released in 91), Apogee Software was recognized as the place to go to for hot, shareware games.  Keen (like every other Apogee title) was released under the (at the time) unheard of concept of giving away part of your game for free.  The entire first episode of Keen was released to the world as shareware.  The idea was that you got a good sense of what it looks like and feels like, and if you liked it, you paid for it - and obtained the remaining parts of the game.

Commander Keen - a landmark game.  This article tells the story of Commander Keen - how it was made, what the people behind it felt, and some things you may never have known before about the game.  So put on your football helmet, grab your pogo stick, and help fight off Mortimer McMire by becoming Commander Keen - Defender of the Universe!!


The Early Days

Tom Hall - Galactic Studmuffin!In September of 1987, Tom Hall (this picture is legendary) moved from Wisconsin to Shreveport to take a job programming games at Softdisk.  Tom's games back then were for Softdisk's monthly subscriptions which included such awesome titles as "Duck Boop".  In March of 1989, John Romero joined Softdisk and made Tom's acquaintance.  John started working on programs for Softdisk's IBM PC line.  

Romero's games soon attracted the attention of a free-lance programmer in Kansas City, John Carmack, who had been working in a pizza parlor and programming on the side.  Carmack's programs impressed Softdisk enough that he too made the trek to Shreveport to work for Softdisk.  The two Johns started working together, and it wasn't long before Tom started sneaking in at night to work with them because Softdisk management would not allow them to collaborate openly.

Then, the first breakthrough.  John Carmack devised a smooth, scrolling routine similar to that used for the background of Nintendo games but never before possible on the PC.  When Tom Hall saw the scrolling in action, his first thoughts were to pull a prank on Romero.  In the course of one night, Hall and Carmack reproduced the first level of Super Mario 3, pixel by pixel, replacing Mario with a character of their own named Dangerous Dave.  They finished the work around 5AM, calling it "Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement".  Tom & John put the disk on Romero's desk, and left to get some sleep.  John Romero arrived at Softdisk that day, booted up the game, and did not stop to take a breath until three hours later.  More than a prank, Romero saw the staggering commercial potential of Carmack's design.

Super Mario Brothers Demo for NintendoThere was also at Softdisk a project manager named Jay Wilbur.  Romero approached Jay with a new Super Mario demo.  Allured by the same visions of limitless wealth, Jay approached Nintendo.  It is rumored that id's Mario demo (shown here) made it to the highest levels of Nintendo, but this has never actually been confirmed over the years.  However, Nintendo declined the idea deciding that Mario wasn't for the PC, it was a console only title.  In the end, the Softdisk guys decided to pursue the game on their own - in secret, of course, as they weren't supposed to be working together in the first place at Softdisk.  Why?  Who knows now?  

Tom Hall remembers... "Softdisk didn't want to use the smooth scrolling trick Carmack had discovered (since it didn't also work in CGA), so we thought, well, if they don't want it, we could do something ourselves...  So we thought, hey, we'll make our own game. We needed a topic. I asked if they cared what topic - sci-fi, fantasy, whatever. I think Carmack mentioned a kid that saves the galaxy or something. I went off and fifteen minutes later, came back with the paragraph that you see in Keen 1. I read it in a Walter Winchell voice (he's a nasal 40s radio/newsreel announcer). Carmack clapped after I was finished, and we were off and running."

The paragraph of text that Tom refers to is the text that appears at the beginning of Keen 1:

Billy Blaze, eight year-old genius, working diligently in his backyard clubhouse has created an interstellar starship from old soup cans, rubber cement and plastic tubing. While his folks are out on the town and the babysitter has fallen asleep, Billy travels into his backyard workshop, dons his brother's football helmet, and transforms into...

COMMANDER KEEN--defender of Earth!

In his ship, the Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket, Keen dispenses galactic justice with an iron hand!

Meanwhile, a series of peculiar fan letters had been arriving at Softdisk, praising John Romero's games.  At first, seeming to represent the ravings of a wide number of Softdisk fans, Romero eventually determined that all the letters came from the same address in Garland, TX.  Discovering the fraud, Romero fired off a threatening letter, and in this manner made contact with id's first benefactor.  Scott Miller, anonymous author of the many letters, was a founder of Apogee Software, a pioneer in the shareware approach to marketing computer games.  Miller told Romero that he loved the Softdisk games and wanted to lure them into the shareware market.  Romero sent Miller a game called Catacombs, which whetted Miller's appetite.  But once he got a glimpse of the Super Mario demo for the PC that Carmack & Romero had done, he offered to put up some money to finance their first real game.  Hall, Romero, & Carmack asked for $2,000 to get their game off the ground.  Miller had $5,000 in his bank account - he promptly sent them a check for 2/5 of that.

For three months, the trio programmed for Softdisk during the day, and slaved away on "Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons" in every free moment.  However, they needed some more folks to help complete the game, so they set out to recruit some new blood.  They had long admired the artistry of an intern at Softdisk, Adrian Carmack (no relation).  They invited Adrian to join them and finished Commander Keen with significant improvements to the look of the final levels.

Adrian Carmack remembers his initial involvement in Commander Keen:

"Hmm...well as I recall I drew and animated one of the characters. I don't recall the name off hand. I think he was some sort of a Ninja type of character. I created some teleport windows, a few awful illustrations, etc. Ugh..bad memories. I had just started creating computer art, so it was definitely not some of my better work. Plus I wasn't a cartoonist. I had quite a learning curve on the Keen series. My work on the later Keens was much improved."


Keen is Released

The initial team was now complete.  

Keen 1 Title ScreenWith this, Apogee released the first episode of Commander Keen on December 14, 1990.  Gamers who wanted the next two levels had to pay for them - and pay they did.  In January, the id guys got their first royalty check, for approximately $10,000.  The two Johns went to lunch with the owner of Softdisk, told him they were leaving, and also informed him that Adrian was coming with them.  They then returned to the office and informed Adrian that they had arranged for his resignation.  As the entire design team was leaving, Adrian thought it was wise to comply.  id Software was officially formed on Feb 1, 1991.  With the release of Commander Keen, id Software & Apogee had a huge hit on their hands - the two companies getting a lot of great press over the landmark title for the PC.  Joe Siegler remembers the relationship of the two companies....

"Because of the close relationship of the companies at this time, most people (mistakenly) assumed that Apogee was id, or Apogee "owned" id or something of this nature.  Far from it.  Apogee & id were always separate companies.  That error continued for a long time, especially after Wolfenstein 3D was released in the same manner.  During the early days of Doom's development, id was going to release Doom through Apogee as well.  This confusion even continued into id's Quake era, as we still occasionally get a customer asking "Hey, Quake is a 3D Realms game, right?"

Keen Dreams Title ScreenThe group still had obligations to Softdisk, which they worked to fulfill even as they established id.  Several other titles were produced for Softdisk during this time, in addition to concept work on further Commander Keen episodes.  During this time, one of the titles produced for Softdisk was called "Keen Dreams".  Keen Dreams is often referred by folks as the "lost episode" of Keen.  Some others (including myself) refer to it as "Keen 3.5".  The reason for this is that in terms of technology as well as the time that the game was produced, it falls in between the Vorticons series and the Galaxy series (Episodes 4-5).  Tom Hall remembers the Keen Dreams project..

"As part of leaving, we agreed to do games so the Gamer's Edge product could continue. At the time, I really didn't want to do a Keen for them, but we needed a ramp-up for the next Keen trilogy. I was eventually convinced. We were doing this game and some other game at the same time. It was kinda crazy. But doing all those different types of games (puzzle, shooter, platform, and so on) was incredible training. You'd have to work for a decade on normal-sized games to get that experience. We did it in a year."

1991 was a crazy year for id and Keen.  In January of 1991, they finished the final update to Keen Vorticons, and then worked on the aforementioned Softdisk titles.  The guys moved from Shreveport to Madison, Wisconsin in September of 1991 - got shocked at how cold it was (even though Tom was from there), yet still managed to work on games up there for six months (they moved back to Dallas on April 1, 92).  Anyway, it was during this time in Madison that work began on more Keen games...

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