A retro-spective on Outpost

I’ve been hanging out at my folks’ place for a little while and the other day, amidst welding machines, hammers older than me, and dog biscuits, I found my old copy of Outpost, still in its original box. Outpost was an old Sierra game from 1994 (or thereabouts). It’s interesting to see how the artifact of a game (the box, the manual, the storage media) has changed so much.

In case you haven’t played it, the game was basically SimCity, in space, with some fancy graphics and a very strong interest in astroscience. The lead designer once worked for NASA, and they milk that cred for all its worth. I remember it being okay, but there were some weird bugs and you couldn’t seem to do some things you were supposed to be able to do. I don’t think I’d recommend trying to find it for nostalgia’s sake.

First up, the box. It’s about 8″ by 10″ and about an inch high. The outside has seen better days, but the cardboard is still sticking together. Apologies for the dodgy phone camera work. Blame coffee.

The front of the Outpost box

On the back there are only 3 images from the game, and only one of them is an actual gameplay screenshot. To be fair, the other two were pretty neat pre-rendered 3D images, well before the days when 3D was easy to do.

The blurbs on the back are the same as always. It was interesting to research what happened to the three magazines listed for their review blurbs:

  • Electronic Games might be cited incorrectly, given it didn’t seem to exist in the 90s, and was probably supposed to be Electronic Gaming Monthly.
  • Computer Game Review was bought up by Ziff-Davis, who owned the competing gaming magazine Computer Gaming World.
  • Computer Gaming World was cited twice (sneakily  interspersed with the CGR blurb). Amazingly you can read a lot of the old CGW issues. Unfortunately you can only see the cover of the issue that reviewed Outpost. In the circle of life, after eating up its competition, CGW eventually evolved into a Games for Windows Live magazine, which was discontinued in 2006. The magazine world is a vicious one.

The bit that gets me is this picture:

Man, Windows 3.1 or higher… (I assume that really only meant 3.11 and Windows for Workgroups) It was “cross-platform” to MS-DOS 5.0 for those old DOS stalwarts. You needed to be able to display in the then-rare Super VGA (which in modern terms I think equates to 1024 x 768, and 8-bit colour). You needed a 386 running at least 25MHz, 4 Megabytes of RAM and 15 Megabytes of hard drive space. For “premium performance” you needed 486 or faster, and a whopping 8 Mb of RAM. So in practice my current Android phone is orders of magnitude beyond the recommended specs for this game. And my phone is smaller than the pile of 1.44″ floppy disks used to store the game.

Heck, it’s even smaller than the manual. The manual is 88 pages long. The first two pages of that is the table of contents! The next three are the game designer explaining the gist of the game and giving you an idea on how to play a simulation/strategy game. We then have the plot (2 pages), where to find the installation instructions (another page, not including the separate pages in the box actually detailing the instructions), how to play (including a large spreadsheet of cargo details, outlines of the windows in the game, how to use windowed controls, how to use the mouse)… My favourite was the page of “Late Breaking Outpost News” which tells you that you can do multiple turns at once (with the handy F5 key), and also move faster around the map by holding down shift. Wow.

I’m not going to go through all of the manual, but compared to the one, maybe two pages of instructions that might come with a game these days if you’re lucky, it’s amazing how much effort they put into their paper documentation. The last quarter of the manual is credits, tech support, piracy announcements, a glossary and a bibliography of books and NASA research reports you might want to read if you’re interested in space exploration. Name the last game you played that gave you a glossary.

In the rest of the box was 7 extra pieces of paper giving you exclusive offers on Sierra’s magazine, warranty cards and – get this – a page of text explaining that for more information, read README.TXT, OUTHINT.TXT and TUTORIAL.TXT on the disks. Back in those days, they expected you to read. I know I read all those materials, at least twice. Nowadays, I click through Mass Effect because of too much talky-talky, not enough shooty-shooty.

In preparation for this post, I read around on the Internet a little about Outpost. To me, it was an early addition to a very, very long line of games I’ve played in my life and had little impact. About the only things I remember about it were the 3D pre-rendered graphics, some weird recycling mechanic, and the fact that the floppy disks were numbered 1-7, although disk 4 never actually existed. With the benefit of hindsight, you can see the shenanigans pulled by the makers. They previewed the game to reviewers, promising amazing features they were going to put in the game, but never did (nowadays this is called the “Molyneux Gambit“). They talked up artificial intelligence, making it sound like a massive part of the game and allowing you to interact with a real AI, when in actuality it was just part of the tech tree that made Robominers slightly more useful. The hype for the game was tremendous, and it got some of the best review scores of its time, but upon release, gamers revolted when they found a fairly lacklustre game that was missing features that are promised and explained in the manual. It’s good to see that dodgy developer behaviour is not an exclusively modern thing.

I think it’s instructive to look at some of the old games and give yourself a better appreciation for the history. Advancement in the games industry has been phenomenal. No other media has seen this rate of growth in such a short time, and the social effects that come from it are equally interesting. Back in those days, I’d rarely get a new game, so opening the box was a magical thing. I’d read over all the documentation and set up the key assignment sheet in the right spot near my computer. If it was a bad game, then that’s a shame because you were stuck with it. Nowadays people just throw in the disc (assuming they use an archaic thing as physical media) and away they go, perhaps browsing the Internet later for cheats, a useful wiki or forums to discuss the game. Design in games has become so much cleaner, but our tastes have become cleaner too. If people get frustrated or bored, they might return a game within a few days or a week, or just throw it on the pile and grab the next game. I have more unplayed games on my Steam account than I played in my early teens.

It’s at this point where I give my old Outpost box a nostalgic smile, then close it up and hide it on a shelf at the top of my closet. I’ll click publish, then grab my phone, collapse on a couch, check my email and play a little Grand Prix Story.