Cliff Johnson spent ten years developing a sequel to what is now a 25-year-old game. “I released it nine years late and one day early,” he tells me over the phone a week after finally pushing The Fool and his Money out to the world.
It’s an appropriate title, given the journey. Johnson originally thought the game would take him just one year to make—that he’d have it out before Christmas 2003. “The first game, The Fool's Errand—which included learning to program—took two years,” he explains. “3 in Three took about three years, so I thought, ‘I know what I'm doing—it'll only take me one year.’ HA HA HA HA—yeah!”
He took preorders on his website, paid through PayPal, and then proceeded to burn through both these and his savings as delays beget more delays and the project ballooned out of control. It became a running gag; he had a Compendium of True Believers for people who stood by their preorder and waited patiently for an eventual release. One of them offered the perfect summation: “Take your time, but hurry up.”
“I am so delighted that I can say the game is finished,” Johnson chuckles. The Fool and his Money was a labor of love—a sequel to the award-winning cult-favorite 1987 Macintosh “meta-puzzle” The Fool’s Errand, which was later ported to Amiga, DOS, and Atari ST. “I’m glad [that] at the beginning I did not know the game would take me ten years,” Johnson confesses. “In some ways thinking it would be out every six months was my psychological way of dealing with oh my god oh my god oh my god.”
“The best delusion is self-delusion,” he concludes. Foolish self-delusion is a recurring theme for Johnson, who made his first game without a clue as to its audience or appeal.
A Fool’s Errand
Cliff Johnson originally authored The Fool’s Errand as a book in 1981. Inspired by Masquerade, a treasure hunt book by Kit Williams, and the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, he wrote a 21-page story and drew up an 81-piece map that was distributed randomly across 14 pages. Readers had to assemble the map and find the 13 treasures from clues in the story.
He hoped it would be solvable in a single afternoon, but only three of the dozens who were gifted this (unpublished) book managed to decipher it (spelling out “Merry Christmas” in the process). The idea was shelved.
In 1983, Johnson collaborated with his friend Allen Pinero—a programmer—on an Apple II text adventure called Labyrinth of Crete. “Being a visual kind of guy, working on a text adventure was not as satisfying as I’d hoped,” he admitted in a 2003 GamesTM interview.
Johnson bought a “fat” Mac—the second-generation Macintosh model—in late 1984. “Some idiot bought me a copy of Microsoft BASIC,” he recalls. Taken by the sight of numbers scrolling down the screen after he input a single line of code, Johnson soon decided to make a game of his own. He dusted off The Fool’s Errand and set about adapting the puzzle book into a game.
“The only games I’d played at that point were for the Atari 2600, which is really not the same thing at all,” he says. “I did a lot of familiar paper and pencil puzzles, but also I got really fascinated with programming—so I made a couple of [interactive] puzzles. I started realizing that you could make a puzzle on a computer that you really couldn’t make on paper and pencil.”
He experimented with puzzle designs that would be tedious with paper and pencil, adapting familiar puzzle types and creating new ones. “It was a grand experiment. I didn’t really know—it was like a crazy hobby [where] I just did whatever I felt looked like fun. And it turns out it worked out.”
The Fool’s Errand took two years and $50,000 in credit card debt (that’s around $100,000 in 2012 terms) to complete. The protracted development included converting a multitude of individual Microsoft BASIC files into a single ZBasic application that could be sold—a task made even more painful for his limited coding skills. He spent the rest of the time creating puzzles and finding ways to squeeze as much as possible into a 400K floppy disk.
Johnson used clever tricks to establish a unique visual style. He grabbed silhouettes for characters, drawing on inspiration from film school and the 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and made backgrounds by digitizing images of crumpled cloth. To keep space down, he made transitions between puzzles and story out of incremental patterns and geometric animations—these could be done on the fly, with no storage use.
People fell in love with the style, and obsessed over the puzzles. Attendees at Macworld Expo the following year walked up to Johnson and shouted, “I hate you!” This love-hate relationship with his fans continues to this day, where it’s almost a point of honor for him to hear those words. It means that somebody has lost hours to the puzzles, failing exams or depriving themselves of sleep, and then finally figured out the simple trick behind their design. They’ve won, and now that they see through the tricks they hate him for so effectively deceiving them.
The Fool’s Errand was the first of its kind—a “meta-puzzle” game. Johnson didn’t coin the phrase. “People who wrote reviews told me what I’d invented,” he says. “I didn’t realize exactly why The Fool’s Errand worked until I read about it.”
It combined story with puzzles in such a way that each piece contributed to a larger problem. You used hints from the story to help complete puzzles, which themselves formed the pieces to the meta puzzle—which then concluded the story. Every part relied on every other part to make sense. There was no divide between the story and gameplay—they fed off each other.
After sluggish initial sales, The Fool’s Errand met a strong and devoted audience thanks to critical acclaim in MacUser, Macworld, and GAMES magazines. Electronic Arts took over distribution, and the game reached bestseller status. High piracy rates meant that the hint book sold better than the actual game, but Johnson’s debut effort was a hit.
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